I am on my “Baobab mission” in the Venda area, Limpopo Province in South Africa. In Zwigodini village I rented a hut in a basic lodge. No sooner had I placed my belongings there and had set out on my first visit to see the Sagole Big Tree, as a mighty thunderstorm set off.
The first was followed by several others – it went on all night. A power failure after the first was the result. The felt temperature in the little cottage was about 60 degrees and I struggled through a very hot, sticky and humid night. Twice the air conditioning stuttered into life for a few seconds – just enough to give me hope – but then died off as quickly as it came and remained dead. Heavy rains splashed on the thatched roof. And to make it really special: a mosquito kept me wide awake. Nevertheless, it did not manage to catch me.
On My Way to the Largest Tree in Venda
Nothing stops me in the morning – I set off early to finally visit the biggest Baobab in the Venda area. The road is still wet from the rains. In the small sanctuary around the Big Tree conditions do not look any better than outside. At the entrance I am told to take the car up to the tree.
I doubt this advice but nevertheless rumble along on the narrow and sandy dirt road. I take the first deep puddle courageously and nearly get stuck halfway through it – that is all I needed! Before I risk the same fate in the second puddle coming up I park the car in the middle of the road. Nobody cares – there are no other visitors because it is much too early.
“Dressed” in Lush Green Today
The sky is still cloudy, the bushes around me still drop vigorously. I step off the path and onto the wet grass. Sagole Big Tree displays its leafy splendor. The colour of the leaves seems quite dark today, from afar the giant seems to emanate something ghastly. Very different compared to the last time I saw it during African winter months on a previous trip. At the time, the tree was completely bald. Not even fruit was left to dangle from the branches.
Much to the delight of photographers the ugly iron fence has disappeared. It has never really served to protect the tree anyway and could not stop vandalism. Whoever felt the need could walk up to the tree and leave his name imprinted on the trunk and branches or scratch senseless stuff with sharp objects into the vulnerable bark.
Normally baobabs can survive such treatment – but if the injuries are too deep, germs can penetrate and damage them permanently. The doodles are a visual impertinence anyway. Historians and archaeologists might nurture an interest in very old inscriptions – for example of explorers, adventurers and travelers like Livingstone, Green or Chapman. Today, there are much better ways to communicate and perpetuate oneself. A post on the Internet should serve the purpose…
Enchanting Blossoms with Dazzling Drops
I stare at the giant with awe. Nothing seems to have changed since I was here last. The tree stands powerful as ever. Overnight, new flowers have opened. They are still full of water drops and I cannot get enough. Such beauty! The Sagole Baobab is one of the greatest living “angiosperms”, that means one of the largest flowering plants worldwide.
Bees try their luck on the pistil inside the flower. Dr. Sarah Venter, a baobab ecologist, told me that at this time of day they have to be pollinated in order to grow fruit later. Baobabs open their flowers in the early evening and can be pollinated overnight for about 12 hours. The flowers I see still look fresh but are already slowly wilting. At noon, they fall from the tree and are eaten by goats and cattle. But until then, I have enough time to enjoy the sight.
Champion Tree with Mottled Spine Tails
The tree looks totally different with its leafy canopy compared to its appearance in the dry season. It seems so full of life now. In South Africa, the Sagole Big Tree is one of the “Champion Trees”. It is one of the largest and strongest of its kind and stands 22 meters high. It has a circumference of 33.72 meters and a crown measuring 41.7 meters.
It splits into several branches some way above the ground but at ground level it all seems to start out as one tree. Two of the branches are hollow inside. The larger one gives space to 10 people. This tree is inhabited not by people but Mottled Spine Tails. Across Africa they like to live in caves and niches of the baobabs in groups of about five to six.
The Sagole Big Tree houses at times up to 300 which is exceptional and the largest colony of these birds in Africa. Only two other locations in Kruger Park are known where those birds live in South Africa.
Sagole Big Tree – Honey Spending Methuselah
A carbon dating has shown that the Big Tree is 1200 years old. One might think that this is a good age for such a giant. However, for a tree of that size it is still very young – as Sarah tells me. The tree must have had extremely favorable circumstances, for example, lots of water, which allowed it to grow to its size faster than the trees around it. She assumes that other baobabs in the area are the same age – but were less lucky, because they are much smaller.
The bark of the tree is grey. On the touch it feels smooth and cool – not the best conditions for climbing it. Since Baobabs are small ecosystems, they usually accommodate bees as well. As does the specimen in front of me. People drive pegs into the stems to make climbing and harvesting wild honey easier for them.
I examine the interior of the larger stem. It houses bees as well. Being inside is difficult – due to the slightly aggressive African bees and the very unpleasant smell. The giant seems to be misused as an urinal. I return to fresh air quickly.
After circling the tree for several times and after hours of great enjoyment of this special place I reluctantly head back to my stuffy accommodation. I wonder whether I will ever see that lovely giant again…