My mother doesn’t like rhinos. She doesn’t actively dislike them; they just leave her cold. She’s indifferent to them. She loves wildlife just as much as the rest of my family, and will happily spend hours watching a pair of squirrels running around the stoep or haul herself out of bed in the middle of the night to watch the shifting shadow of an elephant crash its way past the house in the moonlight, but set her up in front of a prehistoric 2500kg behemoth with a pair of sharpened spikes at one end, and she will set about wondering what to cook for supper or trying to remember whether or not she turned off the lights in the bathroom that morning.
This might seem a little odd. But I get it. This is an African Fish Eagle.
It is an icon. It’s one of those magical creatures that has somehow managed to distil the essence of a place into its very being. Ask any lover of the African bush about the Fish Eagle and he will suddenly get a faraway look as he is transported to another place. He will close his eyes and picture the graceful dip of the eagle, talons extended, down to the water of a Lowveld river as the African sunset paints the world blazing red. He will hear the haunting call ring out in his mind, and he will suddenly withdraw from the conversation as he begins to plan his next trip down to the bush.
Not me. I actively dislike the buggers. They’re just too much. They overdo things. They are, for me, a little bit like one of those otherwise beautiful women who has made a parody of themselves by getting hair extensions, fake boobs, Botox, collagen lip implants and six inch nails in order to attract the sort of men who think buying Ferraris makes them the envy of their peers.
To be fair, it’s not the Fish Eagles’ fault. They just make things a little too easy for those wishing to capture the essence of wild Africa. For a start, there’s this.
Look at that! The photographer has somehow, with infinite patience and split-second timing, managed to capture that magic moment when the eagle stoops down to snatch a fish from the water. He’s even managed to get it in focus!
Or not. Fish Eagles are as much scavengers as they are fishers. That shot is not a rare trophy for an avid wildlife photographer. To get that shot, all you have to do is throw a dead fish into the water. Focus your camera on the dead fish, wait a moment or two, and you’ll get your shot. You and everyone else.
Then there’s this.
Nice, isn’t it? It’s also pretty easy to find. They do that all day. It’s very trying.
What this all means is that the Fish Eagle has become a cliché. An advertisers dream. Turn on the TV, and there they’ll be, swooping low over the water in slow motion to advertise whiskey, or throwing their heads back and letting out that evocative call in praise of life insurance companies and cheap weekend getaways.
Open a magazine, and there “that” shot will be, the heraldic eagle, powerful legs thrown forward, majestic wings swept back, talons mere millimetres from the surface of the water, all the better to show you how cool it would be to buy your plumbing supplies from ACME, or play a round of golf at a resort that has laid claim to the wilderness of a continent because it has a bird living there.
So why am I grumbling about Fish Eagles. Well, I’m feeling a little grumpy, for a start. I was up all night thinking about rock-salt and curry powder. As one does. But I’m also working my way up to writing about a tree. This tree.
It’s a Baobab. And it is very much in danger of falling prey to the fate of the Fish Eagle. It was created fully formed by an ancient god, so that his children might slap it onto T-shirts and magazine covers and paintings and adverts for camping equipment. It’s almost too much. It’s almost too evocative of the wild, open spaces of Africa.
Almost. The baobab manages to save itself, by being a very credible contender for the “Most Amazing Tree in the World” trophy.
Yup. In case you hadn’t cottoned on already, it’s time for another post about the ecosystem of the Lowveld. I’m writing about a tree again. And I don’t really know where to begin, because there is nothing about this tree that isn’t interesting. You could write a rather substantial book about Baobabs. And people have. I won’t. But I will have to split this post in two.
I suppose the best place to start is with this;
That’s the General Sherman Tree. It’s a giant Sequoia. And it’s the biggest tree in the world. It’s not the tallest, but it’s the most massive. Everything about it is just big. It’s nearly 84m tall, and has a diameter of nearly 8m. To stand at its base and look up at it must be a truly awe-inspiring experience.
Baobabs are the giants of the African bushveld. They are nothing like as tall as the General Sherman Tree. They aren’t even as tall as most pine trees. They’re only about 25m tall. But they make up for their lack of height with their girth. The really big ones have diameters of over 15m. They are big, big trees. And while they will never compete with the giant sequoias, they are pretty awe inspiring too.
In fact, they might just have an ace up their sleeves in the awe-inspiring department. If you look at that picture of the General Sherman Tree, you’ll see that it’s in the middle of a forest. And while they talk about people not seeing the forest for the trees, the reverse must also be true. The General Sherman Tree is really, really big tree tucked away amongst a bunch of really big trees. This is how Baobabs usually grow.
There is not, as you can see, much other stuff around to prevent the baobabs from inspiring awe. They are giants in a land full of dwarves.
Their size is all the more remarkable when you consider that they are succulents. Yup. That 15m wide beast of a tree belongs to the same group as those little novelty pots you find on the counter at nurseries, filled with cactuses and stone-plants.
And that fact explains the first set of amazing things about the Baobab. It’s a sponge. A great big barrel of water in a dry and thirsty land. That is why it looks so comically swollen and misshapen. Unlike most trees, the trunk is not there to lift the leaves up to the heavens. The trunk is there to hold water.
While we’re on the whole issue of leaves, you will notice that in most of the pictures you see of baobabs, there aren’t any. This is partly because Baobabs just look cooler without leaves. They look like sculptures.
But that’s not the only reason. Leaves are a problem for plants in very dry places. They lose water. A lot of succulents have done away with leaves altogether, like the cactuses and a lot of the Euphorbias. The Baobabs haven’t gone quite so far. But they’re getting there. In some particularly dry areas they have leaves for less than 3 months a year.
Being an enormous sponge gives rise to some other interesting characteristics. If you’ve ever stood at the base of one, with a palm stretched out and pressed onto the smooth, cool bark, it won’t surprise you to hear that the original inhabitants of this land thought they were magic. But some of the magic was pretty specific.
One of the stories told about the Baobab was that it did not grow or die like ordinary trees. It simply appeared and disappeared. This is absolutely true.
Should you, on your next free weekend, pop round to the General Sherman Tree and chop it down (remember to warm up thoroughly before starting and keep yourself well hydrated) that will not be the end of it. An 85m long, 7m wide dead Sequoia is likely to stick around for a while. Not so the Baobab. Kill even the biggest of Baobabs, and all you will be left with is a spongy mass, that disappears into the environment within months, leaving no sign at all that a giant tree stood there for centuries. Or millennia. There are even reports of dead Baobabs spontaneously combusting, as if they could not bear to leave their mark on the environment for even a moment longer.
So that takes care of the spontaneous disappearance side of the equation. But what about the story of their spontaneous appearance. That’s not quite as true, but isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. The Baobab’s scientific name is the adansonia digitata. The digitata part of that name refers to the fact that the leaves of a baobab are usually made up of five leaflets, like human fingers.
This is a baby Baobab.
It doesn’t have leaves made up of five leaflets. And it’s not particularly succulent looking. In fact, even a well-trained botanist would be forgiven for thinking that it was an entirely different species.
Their sponginess gives rise to another interesting thing about Baobabs. Everyone agrees that Baobabs get very old indeed. But no-one knows quite how old. Estimates for the oldest ones vary between about a thousand years and about two thousand five hundred years. Which is quite a margin of error.
Once you’re done chopping down the General Sherman Tree, you can spend a happy few hours, or days, counting the growth rings on the trunk to see how old it was. You can even trace a bit of its history, spotting fires and droughts and years of plenty etched permanently into the body of the tree. You can’t do this with a sponge.
Baobabs do apparently have very faint growth rings, but they are almost invisible, and, in such a harsh climate, are no true reflection of the age of the tree. The only way to date a baobab seems to be carbon dating.
And that, good people, will have to be all for part one. I’ve barely even scratched the surface, so stay tuned for part two. In which I’ll tell you what happens if you scratch the surface of a Baobab. There’ll be elephants! Bats! Lemonade! The European Union! Smoothies! Medicine! I hope to see you there.