THE GREAT BIG BOOK OF BAOBAB
by David Clement-Davies
A QUESTION OF SIZE?
Actually, this is a very little book for such a very big tree. Big or small though, you might know me from another magical book, a famous children’s book called The Little Prince. Where my bulbous forms seem to bulge like mandrake roots, or giant stems of ginger from a distant cartoon asteroid, where our hero hails from: Asteroid 325.
In that strange little fable, written by a man called Antoine De Saint Exupery, what a name, and in a book that is one of the most translated in the world, adults have the irritating habit of mistaking one thing for another though; an elephant inside a snake for a hat, for instance, or telling you quite wrongly to grow up, or give up wonder.
I won’t gainsay that you could mistake me for many things though. Some think my bark looks like the leathery skin of an elephant, and some see strange, naked human shapes in my branches. While, in the story, that Little Prince saw me first as a rose, then a threat and one he kept having to dig up, lest it swamp his star.
The Upside Down tree some call us baobabs, the Calabash, and the Cream of Tartar tree too. Or the Moana tree, to the Twsana people of the land of Botswana. While I’ll let you into a little secret; the thing about me is I love telling stories.
Since I am one of the largest and oldest trees on earth too, although I don’t exactly have eyes, or ears, or a mouth, you would hardly believe the things I have seen and heard, in the long, strange history of your World. Which I can sometimes speak too, if you listen very closely, or try to imagine it all, as the warm winds rustle my tops.
From those high tops then, when the water comes, my great branches, that can sometimes look very spikey and unpleasant indeed, bloom with green leaves, for only about three months of the year. It makes me unambiguously deciduous! While the strange nature of my bark has been used for many things by the humans over the years; stripped away and taken for matting, for instance, or since it is so very leathery, woven into useful domestic objects.
In fact, the man who named me scientifically, Michel Adanson, called me one of the most useful trees in the World. For you can eat me too, or at least the creamy extract from the nuts and pods that I produce can be turned into something called Cream of Tartar. Indeed in 2009 I was put on some list of officially and safely edible products, which is nice to know, and now can even be turned into Smoothies and Cereal bars! I ask you.
But then my new Super Fruit has been used in Africa for tens of thousands of years, as a food, nutrient, commercial product and medicine. Richer in antioxidants than both the popular goji and acai berries, it is said to contain six times more vitamin C than oranges, twice as much calcium as milk, is richer in potassium than bananas and contains more magnesium than spinach. Baobab fruit is also rich in B vitamins and iron, and provides a good source of carbohydrates and dietary fibre. You see, I’m quite delicious too.
In The Little Prince though the hero thought, at least when I was little too, that I looked like a rose. Well, you must tell me yourself if you think my strange flowers looks like a rose. Although, as for our fruit, some think it even looks like a rat, and call us the Dead Rat Tree too.
But back to stories. First I will tell you a sad tale of one of my kin, a part of the voice of me, and partly why the humans are writing, drawing and making this odd little book. Indeed, although it isn’t fashionable any more, with Ebooks and the Internet, making it out of parts of me, or my cousins at least. On paper pulped from wood then, but into a real thing, with real pages, so you too can feel something of me. Go on, feel, and turn my pages too.
It all came out of a visit by a girl called Arabella, who loved painting, to draw several of me. So, back in 2014, she travelled to a place in Botswana called Planet Baobab on her own, where people can go and stay and marvel at us too. But then Arabella went further, to the edge of the Makadikadi Salt Pans, in the great Kalahari desert, where the San and Koi Bushmen once roamed free. To stay at a place called Jack’s Camp and to look at a famous tree called Chapman’s baobab. A truly magnificent giant and my dearest cousin.
Now over a hundred years ago James Chapman was a South African explorer and elephant hunter too, in an age that hardly knew better, although it might have done. A human who I met too, when he arrived with horses and cattle in Botswana, or the land about to be the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, back in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. July 10th 1852, in fact.
He was so astounded at Chapman’s baobab though, that he put it him a book too and said he was ‘lost in amazement, truly, at the stupendous grandeur of this mighty monarch of the forest’. Well, so he should be, though I for one am a Prince, not a Monarch, and sometimes I can feel little too. Now other travellers, explorers and hunters had visited us too, for many, many years, along something called The Pioneer way, and one was a very famous explorer called Dr Livingstone. This David Livingstone was a Scottish Missionary and much influenced by another book called The Bible and his unshakeable faith in God.
It was Livingstone who would help inspire the journeys of the men from across the seas in discovering the then unmapped interior of Africa, in his search for the source of the river Nile. Until they took him home to go into the earth in England. Indeed, since the world had not been named in the way it has now, or certainly not Africa, and its lands and countries were different then, the natural landmarks, rivers and trees were a vital part of his journey and everyone else’s too. Perhaps we should all find a way back to that landscape, if with different eyes.
Now as others had carved their initials on us, over the long centuries, since humans seem to like writing things down, or leaving their mark, often more’s the pity, so Dr Livingstone made a mark on Chapman’s side too, and on others of my kind that guided him in his travels, like Green’s baobab 10 kilometres North. That Pioneer Way was also called the Missionary Road, where we were often vital landmarks for travellers, even letterboxes. But since Dr Livingstone was a missionary too, he only carved a simple cross on the sides of me facing West, sometimes with a little circle.
Some say Livingstone was a good, kind man, but others a Colonialist. He certainly came with the territory of his time and the Big Game Hunters too who swarmed into Africa. Although what I know is that he could not believe how old I or my cousin was, even then.
A hundred years before a French explorer and naturalist, that man named Michel Adanson, had written of me, so giving me another, and what they call scientific name, Adansonia digitata. He had claimed I could live to 5000 years old. You see what size can do?
Perhaps because people believe too much the things they read in books though, or it is all they know at the time, Dr Livingstone was outraged by this claim, which seemed to challenge the very thing his favourite book was telling him. The Bible. A book that has also sold and been translated so many times it has probably been read more than any other in the World, even The Little Prince. A book Livingstone loved so much as an inner guide, that when he was travelling in 1875, he read it cover to cover, three times. But you see, if I was that old I would have sprouted at the time of the Pyramids, or even the Biblical flood. Quite a problem if you haven’t yet discovered Deep Time, and how long everything has really been around, as humans were beginning to in the Nineteenth century.
Still the travelling Doctor was impressed with Chapman’s and me, and measuring another tree, said it was 1400 hundred years old. That is very old indeed. The truth is yet to be told, as you will see, but I can assure you we have been around for a very long time.
Meanwhile in my story Arabella the painter left me and went back to her home in Cape Town. That’s in South Africa. Then, on January 7th 2016 the sadness came. The rains had not arrived, the earth was cracked and parched and then a Botswanan farmer living nearby, beyond his wooden corral, heard my cousin, Chapman’s baobab, groan and crack and split, and so the giant fell down. Can you believe it? His seven great trunks, that had made him a National Monument in Botswana, tore apart and the huge weight of his arms and mighty limbs crashed to earth. So that was the end of 5000, or 1500 or at the very least 1000 years of being. I bet the Little Prince didn’t want to uproot us then.
It seemed though that as he lay there, and just like people do after they have grown, he would just rot away and decay and die. So not only those strange human marks, but all his memories and the stories around him too might be lost for ever. Well, I think that a very bad thing, if we all pass away one day. Although I should warn you, like that sometimes threatening, all consuming presence of baobab trees in The Little Prince, my stories are not always happy, and some are very dark. So sometimes you might not think this a children’s book at all, nor a fable, but very adult indeed.
But in my story Arabella then met a friend called David, she had known from years before and who liked stories too, and while Arabella wanted to draw and make moulds of my bark, David sprouted a plan to record the marks people had left on us and tell many of our stories, real and legendat. So they came back to Botswana, back to Jack’s Camp and my cousin’s fallen body, his shallow roots exposed like a witch’s hair. But now Arabella came armed with pots of stuff called silicone and mixing agents too. So they started to make silicone moulds of my bark, and the marks made on me too, like Livingstone’s Cross, with the idea they might preserve something of me, and tell an even bigger story too.
Those marks would be made into wax casts and then bronze sculptures, including Dr Livingstone’s little cross on Chapman’s baobab, before it vanished forever. But there are many other marks too, of the people, famous and unknown, who passed our trees in wonder, over the long centuries, that perhaps aren’t so long after all. Like whoever it was that carved the date 1771 on Green’s baobab to the North. Frederick Green was another South African hunter along the Pioneer Road and so there is written too – ‘Greens expedition 1858’.
This might seem a strange, eccentric exercise, leaving your mark, but it is not new. In 1779 Michel Adanson recorded, carved on the great baobab he saw on the Isle de Madelaines in Senegal, the names of some famous passing mariners, including Andre Thevet from 1555 and Henry the Navigator himself, from 1444, the Prince Explorer and ‘Father of Exploration’, but also of the terrible Atlantic Slave Trade, that bought and sold other humans alike cattle. Perhaps their journey to visit us and record those people too would grow as large as a baobab tree!
David and Arabella thought of an exhibition, of many paintings, of a documentary and of course of a book, this book, The Great Big Book of Baobab. How big should it be though and what should it say? You see, although my cousin had fallen down, there are many of me around the world, some of a slightly different genus, as scientists put it. Two native types live in Africa and the Arabian peninsula, six on the island of Madagascar alone, and one species in Australia. Where a cousin that had dried out and was hollow was even used as a prison cell once, in that land of Convicts. Could they really see us all then, see Madagascar too, or would they even want to? While perhaps they disagreed on quite what their book should be, or mean.
Arabella, you see, saw many things in us, of shape and feeling. Just as she was beginning paintings that tried to see the echoing shapes in all natural things. Perhaps the way we write things down too, like marks, or glyphs, or letters in the world. Or like the shapes in tree bark, sand, or the human marks on those trees, and elsewhere too. As if there might be a code hidden in the Universe itself! Well, if you want a code or a quest, perhaps you might work out by the end which Baobab tree I really am and where I live.
While David, although his stories told of a love of animals and nature, was very interested in history and science. He had told children’s stories as well though, just like Antoine de St Exupery, that were sometimes very adult, so would these be a meeting of those strange voices in The Little Prince?
Well, as they stood there together in the hot African sun, what they decided was this; that their book would try to do some good for us baobab trees, and perhaps for animals too, to share our wonder and pleasure with many. But that if part history, part scientific study, part fable and travelogue, working together, what The Great Big Little Book of Baobab should really be above all was a work of Art. But still the question of how to do it, in what after all they wanted to be a very little book? Nothing too pompous, nothing too demanding. Something beautiful, they hoped, that simply grows on you. OK, organic.
Since David had spent so long reading the books of other travellers too, and all those histories, and Arabella and David were moulding just fragments of their story, and of us trees too, there was only one way: to let me tell their story, and all our stories too, talking to my cousins around the planet as well, and telling how we met them on their strange travels.
But this isn’t only about travel, or history, or time. Perhaps it’s about that thing we’re all going through: Life and death. Perhaps a struggle with ‘God’ too, maybe, or meaning. But just as they say that the travel writer Freya Stark made a lot up, or at least let her imagination run wild, I must warn you that David is a children’s and fiction writer too, and so am I. So watch closely. You see, I think it’s just about how to tell the best story.
THE STORIES AND PEOPLE INSIDE US?
You know how people see things in things, that are apparently just not there? Like Jesus in a piece of toast, or the US President’s face in a great big rock. Although in the Little Prince’s story we know that strange, mysterious things are there, which, when you grow up, perhaps you just can’t see any more.
Well in baobabs you are very likely to see a lot of shapes and forms and stories too, even faces. Just like Arabella did when she first painted us. Perhaps that’s because thankfully she never grew up completely, like all the best people. Or because of the many legends, from many countries too, that surround us.
I mean, can you believe that in the Kafue National Park in the land of Zambia, there lives one of us called Kondanamwali, which means ‘the tree that eats maidens’? Now I don’t know if the story is true, but it goes something like this. Once upon a very long time ago a mighty and very powerful baobab stood in the great plains of Kafue, stood tall and proud, doing what trees do, just standing there growing, as the world and the wind and the clouds passed by, waiting. Perhaps some people are strong enough to do that in life too, unbending.
Then one day the tree fell in love with four beautiful maidens, with skin like polished ebony, and hair like curling vines. But the beautiful girls were growing too, as we all do, and so quite naturally they reached what humans call puberty and fell in love with four young men, whom they married. Kondanamwali was so hurt and angry and jealous though, as humans sometimes are too, that on the night of a terrible thunderstorm, as lightening flashed in giant orange forks against the hanging skies, the baobab opened its gigantic trunk, like a cloak or a cave, and took the maidens inside himself. So deep inside himself Kondanamwali took them that they seemed to become a part of his swaying trunks and rocking branches. So now, on wild and stormy nights in Africa you can sometimes hear the maidens crying, deep inside us.
Quite a story we baobabs can tell, you see, and there are legends of our making too, that would certainly disagree with Dr Livingstone and his Bible. For along the great river Zambezi, that Livingstone came to too, tribes there told the tale that we were so upright and so proud that the Gods, not One God of the Bible but many Gods, just as the Romans or Greeks had too, and many other ancient cultures even younger than us, grew so angry that they reached down from the heavens above and uprooted us all. Then they threw us back into the ground again, but upside-down. So our tops look like our roots, or even, if you are seeing things in things, human hands and fingers. That’s why we are not only called Upside Down Trees, but Finger Trees and indeed that scientific name Adansonia digitata, is from the Latin root for finger, Digit.
Is that why that Little Prince, on his distant asteroid in the other story, was so keen to uproot us too, like a little God himself? Even though when we were little we looked to him like a rose, a rose as rare and as beautiful as the woman who that the writer De Saint Exupery loved in real life. Her name was Consuelo.
“It is a question of discipline….When you’ve finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care. You must see to it that you pull up regularly all the baobabs, at the very first moment when they can be distinguished from the rose-bushes which they resemble so closely in their earliest youth…” The Little Prince.
Now some say that the baobabs in Exupery’s story are not real at all though, but simply a symbol or a metaphor and in truth this book is much a journey into symbols too. A symbol there though about things just becoming too big for Little Princes, or for Human beings, too hard to manage or understand, so that they swamp everything else. Like a baobab tree drinking and drinking water, so much that we inflate like blotting paper and even grow grotesque. Isn’t that what modern ‘shrinks’, that they call psychiatrists, call inflation, in the human brain and imagination?
Some even say that to a man who was exiled to America, like De Saint Exupery, he meant Baobabs to mean those evil Men of blood and Death in Germany at the time, the Nazis. Well, like seeing shapes in trees and other things, perhaps that’s the nature of stories and metaphors, they are always something slightly different to what they appear. Perhaps too he meant that when things start though, it can be very hard to know their future size or shape, or to tell Good from Bad.
There is another version of the legend of our uprooting though, told by the African Bushmen in places like the Kalahari. Although it is not correct anymore to call them that, but the San and Koi peoples, who have one of the oldest languages in the World. Although the truth is Bushman peoples have different tribes too, that can often not understand each other.
Anyway, their legend tells of how their God Thora took a dislike to one of us growing in his garden and so tore him up, or her, and threw the baobab over the wall of Paradise, to land the wrong way up down on Earth. You see how Paradise has always been associated with a garden, although in the Bible it is slightly different, perhaps a place of innocence itself. But certainly a garden that surely we should all be more careful of, although we all have to grow and live?
But whatever the version of our uprooting, that angry act of the jealous Gods made us unlucky too, to some. So evil spirits caused bad luck to anyone who picked our sweet white flowers, indeed it meant that a lion would kill them. But, between you and me, I think that story spread precisely because some people wanted our flowers, and sweet white milk, and our nuts too, all for themselves. Which is why others see us as lucky instead. Just as some think that if you drink water that our seeds have been soaked in you will be safe from attacks by crocodiles! Like the crocodile in The Little Prince, or was that a boa constrictor?
Seeds. The name baobab comes from the Arabic word, buhibab, meaning ‘father of many seeds.’ No wonder other tales see us as lucky too. Along that great, grey greasy Limpopo river, which the writer Rudyard Kipling spoke of in his Just-So stories, that some now think bad, it is said, or was, that if a boy bathes in water where baobab bark has been soaked, he will grow to be a big, strong man. Just as it’s said that in kraals where Baobabs grow plentifully, woman will bear more children than usual. Now you may call that just a silly story, or a superstition. Yet in poorer places, where food or fruit is scarce, perhaps it is very real. Because if you eat better things and live in better ways you are more likely to flourish too.
Talking of a Baobab being a he or a she though, a father or mother, or a boy or girl, the truth is the way that we give birth is different to human beings. The key is our seeds being something called germinated, and so some of us can grow in the earth and become as big as we are. Though I know a fine old lady in Madagascar the humans call ‘The Grandmother’ she is so old. As for luck, or people not being able to see crocodiles, there are many stories associated with us baobabs and with animals, real or imagined. Because you humans have brains and imaginations, while your world always seems an impossible mixture of the two, they are still to come. But I will tell you just one now.
In Zambia then there is an old baobab I know that is said to be haunted by a giant and ghostly python. Now that great python lived in the baobab tree and was worshipped by all the people around, but one day a big white hunter arrived and shot it, and brought bad luck to them all. But so the ghostly snake returns and sometimes can be heard hissing in the deepest night inside the tree. Perhaps there was an elephant inside him too, except that to the Little Prince that was a Boa Constrictor, and not the hat it looked like to careless adults.
The White Man? Like Dr Livingstone, although it was said that David Livingstone got on far better with many of the Africans he met than he did with Europeans. But white, like David and Arabella too, and now with their own real and imagined journey. Well, in searching for baobab trees, and for Dr Livingstone and others, especially up along that Pioneer Road in Botswana, but elsewhere too, they would learn an extraordinary and often horrifying story of many things that happened, yet to be told too, although they weave throughout this little book.
Stories of slavery or how Livingstone recorded ‘that insatiable blood lust’ of the Colonial hunters, and that in one year traders dealt in 75 tonnes of Ivory, amounting to the deaths of 12, 000 elephants. Or how he wrote of two ‘Gentleman hunters’ shooting 73 Rhino, in just one season.
Nowadays in gentle Botswana and elsewhere Rhino are so rare and few, in fact, that they are protected by soldiers that follow them about. But although some Europeans hunt still, paying big money to do it, and in South Africa it is even legal to hunt and shoot captive lions, one of the reasons that Rhinos are still taken today grows not in the West now, but the East. In China and Asia, where there is still a belief in the Medical and Magical power of the Rhinoceroses’ horn.
But we baobabs, although we believe in magic, know it is not true, and just why you have to be careful of books and stories. Know that Rhino horn contains Keratin, exactly the same stuff that makes nails at the end of human digits and fingers. Perhaps we should all sell our fingernails instead then, rather than pulling triggers on guns!
Is it not as sad though, as sad as The Little Prince could sometimes grow himself, to think that those great beasts are still being slaughtered? Like those Elephants which, when the rains are scarce, come to us, to pull at our barks and squeeze out the sap inside us with their trunks. For we baobabs, in order to endure harsh and dry conditions, can store as much as 120,000 litres of water in our own trunk. Just as the San and Koi people pluck a special water tuber from the ground to drink its bitter milk, but put it back in the earth again: One of the most non-invasive cultures on Earth.
So why is it that both the Elephant and the San are under threat today? Or is the real problem simply the success of Man, of how many people are growing on little Earth too and how little space there is now, or will be in future?
Perhaps the reason Dr Livingstone’s journeys were so consumed by his readers back then though, were such a mighty adventure, was that the World all seemed so much more mysterious then, with so much still to be discovered. Sometimes nowadays it is hard not to feel that although we know everything, we can’t do anything about it all, and have come to the end of the World. Or is that a question of spirit?
“I know a planet inhabited by a red faced gentleman. He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star, He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all- He’s a mushroom!” The Little Prince.
Perhaps it was that spirit and that sense of freedom and adventure too that inspired David and Arabella on their own journey. On this journey. Mind you, whether Livingstone was a good man or not, he made friends with many of those rich white hunters and was supported by them too in his travels. In that age they call ‘The Scramble for Africa’, when European Nations raced for territory and trade routes and markets in Africa, and did the most terrible things. But then Dr Livingstone’s salary, as the Missionary he was also, was only £100 a year. Indeed, when his two loyal African attendants, Chuma and Susi, cut down a different tree to make a box and carried his dead body all the way back to England, to be buried in great Westminster Abbey in London, three of his pall bearers were hunters.
Nor is it such a simple story either. For all the attacks on Colonialism today, for instance, on Missionaries and Christianity too, England had abolished slavery in 1843. Although slaving, which had gone on among African tribes too, selling other human beings to work, was still underway. That appalled Dr Livingstone. Nor too were White Colonialists alone responsible for the animal slaughter. Elephant was certainly hunted at the time in Africa, and Elephant meat eaten too, and there were tribes that specifically hunted Hippopotamus.
Yet if Children’s stories like The Little Prince are very important, in reflecting but also changing the way we think, perhaps as Children then we naturally saw wild animals as a threat. For instance, in the classic cartoon book Tintin in The Congo, which would certainly be seen today as something called politically incorrect, there is a sequence where the brave and good reporter Tintin actually blows up a rhinoceros! I should tell you I love the Tintin books.
Perhaps though it is a question of what really seems to be eating up the world, a question of scale. The slaughter of so many animals by European hunters was achieved with technology too, of course, like the perfection of the Wesley Richards rifle. American President Theodore Roosevelt used one when hunting in Africa and perhaps the picture of the poor creature looks like Chapman’s fallen baobab.
But that is one story, if a big one, and there are many others to follow too. Ones far more ancient than the Nineteenth Century, or the sixty short years that the British Empire was so active in Africa. Stories more ancient even than 1771, or the visit of Henry The Navigator on the Isles De Madelaines. Stories somehow carved into or absorbed into baobabs, like bodies in Arabella’s picture. But to discover them, to unlock them from the bowels of us baobabs, to know how real or false they are too, perhaps first you have to learn how to really travel.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
“For the travelers the stars are guides. For others they are nothing but tiny lights. “ The Little Prince
I bet you think that trees don’t really travel. In fact that we are rather static and even boring things. So could never be what David was, in one incarnation anyhow, a travel writer. Well, perhaps I can persuade you to think again.
For a start, just look at those great lines of real palm trees in Botswana, stretching out like natural Telegraph poles, riding towards the beautiful horizon. They travelled and were planted, in straight lines, but quite naturally. Their seeds arrived here, you see, and were fertilised too, in migrating Elephants’ droppings, so they could grow and grow. Then there are us Baobabs. Scientists believe some of us travelled along the ancient slaving and camel train roots across Africa and into Arabia, to places like Wadi Hanni in Oman.
But if you travel, never forget your roots. Think then how far our roots travel under the soil, reaching out likes fingers, or nerve endings. Think of our Tap roots too, that send down a single shoot so deep into the darkest earth to bring up water. They think those roots eventually drop away when we’re grown, though no one is quite sure. Though if you still think trees don’t talk, or talk to each other, like I’m talking to you now, did you know that scientists now claim that trees have networks, a bit like human neural networks? So can not only communicate through their roots, but have kinds of children that they recognise and shield and nurture? Amazing.
But then wise trees believe that many things around the planet, good and bad, are really connected, or perhaps everything is. Like that flapping of a butterfly’s wing some say can start a storm around the World, in something called Chaos Theory (which is really about the bigger pattern, more than the Chaos), or the rise of temperatures in the atmosphere making the Ice Caps melt. Something call man-made Global Warming. So perhaps that strange story of that Little Prince isn’t so far-fetched at all. Think of that, giant Baobabs, right around the planet, looking on and listening, and talking and chattering too, for such a very long time.
As I am listening now to David and Arabella’s journeys in search of me. Since books are made of pages made of paper, the good ones anyway, and paper is made from trees, perhaps I can read too. Read bits of David Livingstone’s journals, for instance, or that other David, as he and Arabella search, like that third sparkling night in Botswana:
JACK’S CAMP – February 2017, Botswana
Oh the wonder of standing in the open shower and looking up at the stars. There it is, etched like a glittering kite across the black, the Constellation we can never see in the Western hemisphere, the Southern Cross. I saw it years ago, in Namibia, riding across the Namib desert to the Skeleton Coast.
But we got to Chapman’s baobab the day before yesterday, which I learnt fell down after the hottest day ever recorded in Botswana, failed completely in taking any rubbings, the tree being too rough and the wax wrong, but got a few silicon casts, although we couldn’t find Dr Livingstone’s cross. I dropped my sunglasses in the water between the fallen trunks looking for it and lost them. Then, on my insistence, yesterday we drove through pools of water, after the unusually heavy rains, our guide Ruh worried about getting through, and sloshed the last kilometre to Green’s baobab too, ten kilometres North. How beautiful it was, looming up out of the bush, especially after seeing Chapman’s mangled tangle of dead roots lying on their side.
The markings are far clearer and more interesting too – ‘1771’. ‘Green’s expedition 1853’. Livingstone’s larger cross on the western side again. Is that because of the European layout of a church, where the altar would be? As all religions reflected aspects of a belief in Sacred Geometry. The spreading canopy is somehow cathedral-like, and a yellow spoonbill was high in the branches, royally ignoring us.
Hmm. Quite a journey already. But perhaps I should tell you a little more about David and Arabella first. Of how they met, or met once more. If David was an author and a travel writer too, it wasn’t quite the type they do online nowadays. With Trip Advisor, blogs, and lots of people trying to sell you things. Or all the billions of words and images on the Internet, so many you wonder what gets really read.
In the days when David started travelling and writing, to places like the North West Frontier in Pakistan and the Hindu Kush, he was inspired by people, by individual voices and the likes of the writers Freya Stark, James-Jan Morris and Eric Newby. Not punters complaining about how many teabags there are in the room in your Bed and Breakfast. Then thy used to actually work on newspapers too, writing about real things, places and people, not trying to attract advertisers, or be heard in the noise. Well, those have all gone, or things called newspapers have lost much of their authority, fallen like Chapman’s baobab. Or perhaps I am being old fashioned.
But how David always wanted to go on some great adventures too, just like them. Like the likes of James Chapman, bristle bearded Thomas Baines and David Livingstone too. All very politically incorrect now, yet going on the most astonishing life journeys, that helped change the world, for good or bad.
It was bad for David that day 16 years before, in the Kalash valleys in Pakistan, with a tribe said to be descended from the armies of Alexander the Great, and where Kipling set a story called The Man Who Would be King. Or rather when David’s group walked out and drove up to The Mountain Inn hotel, in a village called Chitral. Perhaps they should have looked at the date, although it meant nothing to David, until the day after; September 11th, 2001. It’s infamous now, sadly.
A newspaper was lying on the reception desk, and the sweet young guy was grinning at America being giving one in the eye by the attackers. That famous picture of that plane going into the side of one of the Twin Towers in New York was just shocking, unbelievable, surreal. But was it then that the world changed, or is it always changing, in everyone’s life times? The only constant. Now the fall of my cousin Chapman’s baobab sixteen years later seems as big to David and Arabella.
So here he was, with Arabella and baobabs of all things. Us. Something certainly bigger than the both of them. Perhaps I should read you a little more of his journal then:
JACK’S CAMP – February 2017, Botswana
While we thought Livingstone’s cross had been lost in the fall, at lunch today another guide insisted Ruh was wrong, and it was there on Chapman’s Baobab, although you have to slosh through a pool to get to it. The problem is Arabella has run out of silicone! Disaster. She has an idea though, to make a kind of paste from bread and milk to try and get a mould, that we can take back to Cape Town so I told her to go and get it. So she’s setting off with Ruh before we leave. I’m too hot, so I think I’ll watch the Zebra and have a swim!
Despite the heat, or wondering if they would get that mould, David knew immediately we are truly amazing though, and there are things humans still don’t know about us too, like how old some of us really are. Perhaps they could find out, definitively. Just as this search for Livingstone too gripped David’s imagination. After all, that time an American journalist called Henry Morton Stanley met Dr Livingstone, the only white man for thousands of miles, and joked ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, is one of the most famous things ever said by an explorer. Iconic. Although, because stories are often not quite true, he may never have really said it at all and invented it later. While, although Livingstone is famous for searching for the source of the River Nile, actually he used it in part as an excuse to do his journeys and above all to ‘talk to Men of power’ about the thing that he hated most – the Slave Trade. You see stories, real and imagined, like our bark, can have many different layers to them.
But Livingstone’s own letters and journals are fascinating. In his journeys into Botswana in 1852 he used a series of metallic note books, but in 1871 when he met Stanley he had run out of paper and ink, so he wrote across an old copy of The Standard newspaper and improvised ink out of local berries:
“I may as well tell you some more of our wants… a trowel; large and small beads; a ladle and bullet mould; heifers if you can get them at any price; she goats; a musket if you have one to spare; vine cuttings; fruit stones for seed; pictures; the large vice mentioned.”
So where was this Great Big Book of Baobab already leading these modern explorers, if without a trowel, musket or even a she goat? Right along that Pioneer Road? To distant Madagascar? To Oz, with a wizard and Dorothy’s shoes? To the Arabian peninsula? Back to Ancient Egypt, perhaps, or in the footsteps of Henry the Navigator too? Up the steps of the Royal Geographical Society, or even of the British Museum itself? That’s exactly where, although not exactly in that order. Perhaps though, if none of us know exactly where we are going when we start, we should all set out in life to have adventures as big as us Baobab trees.
But recording stories around us, real and legendary, making their casts and drawings too, now seemed to them to be a journey in time, place and space, all at the same time. Perhaps it’s that Little Prince too. Not that David was especially fond of The Little Prince as a boy. It was too strange and rare, too threatening, perhaps. Perhaps far too adult. As for trees and stories, their adventure for David had first come in a great act of anthropomorphism, namely making other things seem human, and the writer JRR Tolkien’s Ents in a book called The Lord of The Rings. That was so exciting as a boy David read the huge novel straight through, three times. There trees talk, and walk too, not that we Baobabs really have tree rings as such, because our bark is too leathery..
But this strange journey had begun and although he feared the Internet is destroying the World, that was part of the reason for it all too. You see, David had been stuck up in a beautiful place called Cumbria at the time, rather isolated, but with his lovely rescue dog Rascal, who had adopted him in Greece. He had had a lot of trees that year and pretty much enough too. Then he had had a dream and dropped Arabella a note on Facebook, using the Internet.
They had been at University together, Edinburgh in Scotland, in times that seem as old as baobabs, and for a year they had shared a flat together. But David had not seen Arabella in 25 years. So, a sudden, lucky trip to Cape Town had come about and the first real adventure in ages. But then a second and so that trip to Botswana too, with those pots of silicone that leached into David’s rucksack, and David’s first encounter with we mighty trees, at that tourist camp called Planet Baobab, or ours with them. You see, sometimes I can’t tell now if I’m narrating the story, or they are.
As a cousin, just the other day, was telling me the next part of their journey, from Botswana to the island of Senegal. That would be followed by Madagascar, Australia and the Arabian peninsula too, perhaps even near the source of the Nile. But first another bit of that journal.
Cape Town, March 2017
Well the bread paste didn’t work! It fell apart immediately, so Arabella has asked Ruh to take the cast, but the silicone she ordered has been held up by customs in Botswana. They want some money. Back in the studio the other silicone moulds, including the very clear cross Livingstone left on Green’s Baobab, are lying all around the floor, looking odd. But Arabella has started drawing the trees again too. My thoughts are turning to the next stage though, if it’s to happen, and the journeys of a real father of exploration, Henry the Navigator, and the island of Senegal.
So that is how David and Arabella wrote to African Airways now and told them of this book and how, with a lot of asking, thy agreed to fly them there. To see the Baobab that Henry The Navigator himself visited six hundred years ago. You see, if you really try, very exciting things can happen in life. So one day, late in October….
NOW READ ON
Copyright 2017 David Clement-Davies. The moulds in this story are subject to Moral and actual Copyright.