Carbon dating has been used to estimate the Big Baobab’s age at ± 6000 years. To put this in perspective the tree is possibly older than the Giza Pyramids and was certainly here thousands of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. When the first leaves sprouted the Sahara Desert was still lush and green and our Iron Age ancestors were roaming the land.
Sunland’s Baobab is 22 meters high, and is some 47 meters in circumference. It is still (and is likely to remain so) "the record holder for the species", according to the SA Dendrological Society.
In 1993 the van Heerdens cleared out the hollow centre of the tree, removing masses of compost build up, to uncover the floor about a meter below ground level. In the process they found evidence of both Bushmen and Voortrekkers, attesting to the historical importance of the tree.
They squared off a natural vent in the trunk to make a door and installed a railway sleeper pub inside the trunk, complete with draft beer, seats and a music system. One party had 60 people inside the tree bar!. A wine cellar was installed in a second hollow, with a constant temperature of 22° C, ventilated by natural vents.
The tree blooms gloriously in spring. It is home to many bird species, including two pairs of owls.
There are eight species of Baobab, the African variety, six in Madagascar and one in Australia. The African variety, Adonsonia Digitata, is the largest and is found in 20 sub Saharan countries. It thrives in dry climes which have low to moderate seasonal rainfall.
In some parts of Africa entire forests of moderate sized Baobabs sprout from arid plains, but giants like the van Heerden’s tend to be solitary. This is because their peers have long since perished through flood (Baobabs cannot bear being waterlogged), drought, lightning strike or marauding elephants. All four, plus a disease called black fungus, ensure that only the hardiest survive to a ripe old age. As Hugh Glen, a government botanist, once said "the problem with the Baobab is that it doesn’t get handsome until it’s about 800 years old".
The Bushmen believed that the Baobab had offended God and, in revenge, God planted the tree upside down. Certainly, when winter comes, the Baobab resembles a mass of roots pointing towards the sky instead of being underground. The Baobab has been associated with many myths, mysteries and folklore. Even the flowers bloom at night. Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. When water is drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, this serves as protection from crocodiles and the drinker will be mighty.
The Baobab has a special role in Africa. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects; bush babies also spread the pollen; the pollen can be used as glue; the seeds are rich in protein, calcium, oil and phosphates - they can also be roasted and ground like coffee beans; young leaves have a high calcium content and can be used as spinach; the trunk is fibrous and can be woven into rope mats and paper; beer and tea can be made from the bark, but you need a strong constitution to drink either.
It was at one time believed that Baobabs were in danger of becoming extinct. This was before botanists realised that the small trees do not resemble the mature trees at all. Fortunately the Baobab is not threatened. But the large trees are not immune to man’s intrusion. A famous tree, the Nomsiang Baobab, named after the farm in which it stood, was close to the highway and thousands of visitors trampled the ground so hard that it became impervious to rainwater and the magnificent tree died. We can rest easier when custodians like the van Heerdens’ guard our trees.