In 1998, the Disney Corporation opened the Animal Kingdom Park in Florida. It is, in essence, a 500-acre zoo, containing 1,700 animals representing 250 species, from Abdim’s storks to African zebras. In the center of the park is a 145-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide sculpture of a baobab, representing the Tree of Life from the Disney film, The Lion King. Much larger than any known baobab, the sculpture is molded around a refitted oil platform. Its trunk is carved with 325 animals and contains a theater with 430 seats. Fixed to its branches are 103,000 leaves dyed five shades of green, made of kynar, a flexible fluoropolymer resin.
Eight species of living baobabs exist: six in the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar, one in Australia and one which grows in West, East and Southern Africa. Baobabs on the Arabian Peninsula are the result of human settlements. All baobabs are deciduous. Nude limbs, entangled as a root system, seem to search for moisture from the sky. Kalahari Bushmen believe the trees appear fully-grown, planted upside down by the gods, with the tree’s roots in the air. They also believe spirits inhabit the baobab’s large, waxy-white flowers, and if anyone has the audacity to pick one, they will be eaten by a lion.
Hollow baobabs have a long history of creative uses by humans. During World War II, a baobab in Namibia was fitted with a toilet. The toilet is still there, but the tree has grown around the door, which no longer opens. On the lower Zambezi River, the Kayila Lodge has an operational toilet tree, used more for photo opportunities than necessity. And on a private farm in Sunland, South Africa, an enormous baobab contains a wine cellar and bar, complete with draft beer, a dartboard, stools, and a wooden bench along the wall. This tree is possibly the oldest baobab in existence – it has been radiocarbon-dated to the end of the Stone Age, around six thousand years ago.
In Kasane, Botswana, a baobab was used as women’s prison in the early twentieth century. Incarceration with potential rat and reptile cellmates might make any criminal think twice. Although that baobab died in 1967, an offshoot now grows next to the remains of the jail. Throughout Africa, hollow baobabs have served various purposes – as hiding places during tribal warfare, as shops, storage shelters, barns, chapels, burial sites, post offices, even a bus stop.
Almost every part of the baobab is edible. Fresh leaves are eaten as spinach and condiments. The shoots from germinating seeds taste like asparagus. Bulbs from its roots make porridge. Fluid extracted from the bark of the baobab is used to dilute milk. The ash from a burnt tree is a good substitute for salt. Pulp and seeds of its fruit contain potassium acid tartrate as well as citric acid, an effective substitute for cream of tartar, and resulting in the Afrikaans name “Kremetartboom.” Early settlers also used fruit pulp in place of yeast and added baobab leaves to speed up the fermentation process in winemaking. The fruit pulp has the highest known concentration of Vitamin C. It makes a slightly acidic, but refreshing drink when mixed with water. Baobab seeds have the same protein value as domestic nuts and can also be roasted and ground into a substitute for coffee.
The baobab is often called “the Monkey-bread tree,” because baboons and monkeys eagerly consume its fruits. Nearly all four-legged browsers eat the baobab’s fallen leaves and flowers. The flowers open just before dark, produce copious amounts of nectar and last for only 24 hours. Their heavy, carrion-like scent attracts nocturnal insects and bats, such as Peter’s Epaulleted Fruit Bat. In times of drought, elephants strip the bark of the baobab and eat the spongy wood underneath, estimated to contain 40-70% water – classifying the baobab as the world’s largest succulent. An individual baobab can store up to 32,000 gallons of water and weigh 266,880 pounds – or one hundred and twenty-one tons. A bull elephant weighs up to 16,000 pounds or seven tons. If you stacked elephants one upon the other, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.
The name baobab derives from North African Arabic, bu-hibab, “fruit of many seeds.” Within life spans that reach six thousand years, the baobab nourishes countless species, takes in tons of carbon dioxide and releases equal amounts of oxygen. Used and re-used, a baobab cycles and recycles, measures seasons by dropping its leaves, measures centuries by the blur of life beneath its limbs, unaware of that strange human notion of time.
Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola, arrives in Botswana in May or June, fans out, and then stops when it bumps into a barrier of fault lines near Maun. Landlocked, the river penetrates deep into the Kalahari Desert before it dies in the sand. Not a single drop reaches the sea.
As the river pushes south, it creates an oasis, a floodplain the size of Massachusetts, containing an ark-full of animals: the Okavango Delta, a flat maze of islands and water.
The river descends less than 200 feet in 300 miles. Bracketed by fault lines, sediments deposit elevation changes of less than seven feet. Islands that rise above the floodplains tend to be long and sinuous, following old channel routes, linking to other uplifted channels, and creating large dry fingers of land that will be outlined by next season’s floods. Water loving trees such as the Jackalberry, Mangosteen, Knobthorn and Sycamore Fig fringe these larger islands.
The Delta contains more than 50,000 islands; their landmass roughly equals that of water. Paths cross some of the islands; roads cross others; water surrounds the rest. All of the islands carry the mixed vegetation of the Kalahari sand plains. Approached by foot in this maze, every island looks like the next one and the next one and the next, especially during the low flood season, when boundaries between them evaporate with the water, when footpaths end in walls of thick bush, and roads take every opportunity to wander off in a new direction.
Sometimes you’ll wade to an island; sometimes the water is over your head. Near the southern end of the Delta, some of the islands are larger sandveldt tongues, extensive areas of the Kalahari that penetrate deep into the flood. In the Okavango’s vast delta of uncounted islands, a few inches here or a few inches there separate wet lagoons from dry land. If I turn one way, I’m lost in a maze of floodplain islands, now high and dry. Turn the other, and I’ve entered into a maze of Kalahari woodland. Until I’ve gone a few miles, it’s hard to tell the difference since the same vegetation covers both.
But when the sun sets, magic begins. The sky turns pink; water lilies fold into perfect imitations of floating candles; papyrus along shorelines become golden sentries; and the spell of water over a desert casts its memories into your dreams.
I turn my head toward the sun’s white-hot eye. Behind my closed eyelids burn a thousand childish sketches of red suns. I hear one of the regular camp staff scratching around my feet for crumbs: a Red-billed Francolin, who believes his territory includes the kitchen shelter and its surroundings. The color of his legs, feet and bill match, but they look more orange than red to me. He’s plump as a pillow, with a bright yellow circle around each eye – but woe to any other francolin who trespasses. The resulting chases are explosive, noisy, and continue until he’s satisfied the intruder is back in the bush where he belongs. Male francolins have spurs on their legs, and they don’t hesitate to use them in fights. When he’s this close I can see the tiny black claws at the end of his toes, and hear his soft chuckles when he finds another crumb.
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First, for those who are unfamiliar with black mambas, here’s a little background information:
Black mambas (Dendroaspis polytepsis) are the longest venomous snakes in Africa, measuring up to 14 ½ feet. Mambas are not black – they’re more olive or greenish gray, with a narrow, elongated head the shape of a coffin. It’s the inside of their mouths that are black – hence the name. Mambas are also extremely aggressive and may actively attack without provocation. I use the adverb “actively” with reason – a mamba can strike in all directions, even though a third of its body is raised above the ground, and it can chase you in that upright position at speeds up to 20 mph. If you are bitten, your death will occur within 20-60 minutes. An anti-venom for mamba bites exists, but it must be administered immediately, requiring 10-20 vials of solution. But if you are struck in the face or neck (quite likely, since the head of the mamba chasing you is 4 feet off the ground), you will die in ten minutes. That black mouth will be the last thing you see.
On that cheery note, on with the story:
In the Moremi Game Reserve, east of the Okavango Delta, is an elevated platform overlooking a large hippo pool in a bend of the Khwai River. Six of us, our guide OT (“just like Overtime!”) arrive in our Land Rover.
“What’s that?” I point.
It’s a large piece of stiff white paper taped with duct tape to a tree. We climb out, read it, and immediately start swiveling our heads, trying to look in all directions at once.
“Anyone want to go look?” OT laughs.
The toilet, roughly the size of those cartoon outhouses with the crescent moons carved in their doors, is a cinder block building with a tin roof. It’s about fifty feet from our Land Rover. The painted green door on the toilet is ajar.
Certainly I’m not tempted to look inside. After all, the second message (“Confirmed 30/5”) was written just three days before our arrival by someone a lot more curious than I am about deadly snakes. The mamba is most likely still in there. Who wants to reconfirm a reconfirmation? Mambas are territorial; they will always return to their lairs, although that’s usually in an abandoned termite mounds or a hollow tree, rarely, I’d bet extremely rarely, in a toilet. A mamba is diurnal, active both night and day. It could be sleeping in there. Or not.
In my opinion, I’m already standing way too close to that toilet. Trying to look both at the toilet and at everything else, I walk slowly backwards. Mambas don’t like sudden movements.
Besides, I firmly believe, even though I haven’t seen it, that this toilet is not a Western ceramic throne, but a mere hole in the cement. I’ve had enough experience with toilets-in-the-middle-of-nowhere to also believe that the area around the hole is likely none-too-clean. That bush over there looks a better. A few minutes later, after careful reconnoitering and quickly taking care of business, I can confirm that no mambas are lurking around it.
As I climb the steps to the viewing platform I look for mambas wrapped around posts. On the creaky platform I look for mamba’s hidden in corners, or nestled into the thatch of the roof. I look for mambas slithering across the branches of the trees that lean dangerously close to the rails. A rustling noise among the branches spikes my heart rate to a gazillion, but it calms when I see it’s only a Burchell’s glossy starling, squawking for handouts.
The view from the platform is wonderful. A massive cloud hangs over the hippo pool and puffs of other clouds reflect in the tranquil water. A dozen hippos rise and sink, burbling like submerged tubas. Tracks in the grass are hippo paths, where the hippos come out of the pool at night to feed, foraging as far as three miles for sweet young shoots.
At the bottom of the platform a dozen water monitors, some six-feet long, slither into positions that defend his or her portion of the bank, using the hippo paths as small highways. The smaller monitors end up with the worst spots, constantly harassed in slow-motion chases by the larger lizards. As I watch their typical reptile behavior, I think it’s lucky for us that the age of dinosaurs ended a long time ago.
On the far side of the river, specks in the distance, a huge herd of elephants splashes along the edge of a reed bed. After I check for mambas, I lean on the rail of the platform to steady my camera. I use the digital zoom to take a picture, already knowing it will be an extremely low-pixelated shot. The elephants are in constant motion, appearing and disappearing in the reeds, so the photo turns out fairly blurry, but at least I have proof that those specks were really elephants.
On the way down from the platform I look for mambas wrapped around support posts, coiled under steps, and hidden in the framework of the flooring. I scan for slithery movements in the brush and wait for someone else to climb in the Land Rover before I do. I doubt the mamba has exchanged one lair for another, but still, you never know . . .
The viewing platform has its own GPS coordinates. So if anyone wants to look at that mamba and reconfirm one more time that it’s really there, I can tell you exactly where to go!
Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot. Its scent swirls up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible olfactory organ.
A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved. Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree and pluck a single leaf from its crown. Imagine having a nose that could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles. You could steal with your nose, suck on it, or swat, poke and siphon with your nose. You could take a shower, scratch your back, or whistle with it. You could even arm wrestle with your nose.
The seven-foot septum that divides Jabu’s nostrils is made of muscle, not cartilage. It becomes cartilage where his trunk attaches to his skull above his eyes. Thick layers of skin and muscle protect his trunk. It’s impossible for him to break his boneless nose, even when he uses it like a battering ram.
He picks up a wizened palm nut.
I ask Sandi, “How many of the fruits can he hold in his trunk?”
“Would you like a photo of that?” She takes some of the fruit already on the ground and puts them one, by one in the tip of Jabu’s trunk. “Jabu, good boy, Jabu, one more.”
Three, it turns out, but carefully placed so he can still breathe.
“Good, my boy, goooood. Okay Jabu!” Sandi tells him, and he spits out the fruits Whoooof! all at once.
Then he picks them up and gently tosses them, one by one, back to her.
Old camera, old photograph. An evening drink. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
In the early morning light. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana.
Thembi twiddling a stick, about to grab it with the tip of her trunk.
In a lovely evening light. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
An old black and white photograph. Elephants and zebras, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana.