The Remarkable Baobab
|by Thomas Pakenham
W.W. Norton & Co.: 2004
hardback, 143 pp., $19.95
"These trees were the Methuselahs of the world," Pakenham says, "when history largely was passed by word of mouth. In Africa, when God made the world, he gave each of the animals a tree. The hyena was given the baobab but threw it down in disgust -- and the tree landed upside down. Hence it's extraordinary shape."
There are six species of baobab on the island of Madagascar, and only two other species found in Africa and Australia. Pakenham went in search of them all, and his photographs show a surreal wonderland of vegetation. Long, dangling seed pods contain a white pith that foams in water to make a tasty drink, he says, similar to sherbet. The numerous black seeds inside are roasted and eaten, as are the five-lobed foliage and the seasonal flowers. Rated as ordinary timber, the baobab is useless for its wood, because it is fibrous and spongy. The bark can be harvested like cork though, and is quickly regrown.
Pakenham's travels include all sorts of legends and tales. He is an interesting guide, and invites the reader along to investigate the history of these one thousand year old behemoths. Some, he tells us not to climb inside as they may be nesting sites for black mamba snakes, and several are home to colonies of bats, or have been burned out by natives trying to smoke out bees for their honey. The largest he measured had a girth of one hundred eleven feet. It's owner has opened a pub inside it.
And I must say the owner of the pub keeps a fine cellar," says Pakenham. "After my third glass of the best South African hock I began to see things in a rather different light. Would I like another glass? Of course. And I think I can now say after a very full examination, that the Duiwelskloof Giant (a difficult word to pronounce after four glasses) is co-champion baobab of South Africa.
If you cannot go there, this book is the next best thing to seeing live baobabs. The author credits each example with a personality, and says baobabs are clown trees, looking in their elephantine spread like they have fallen down laughing. Remarkable photos and engaging text. Enjoy.
. . . Barb Siddiqui