Once you could see the giant for miles, a proud sentinel and communal letter box standing on that Pioneer ‘Road’ into the African interior, a road taken by the likes of Dr Livingstone. Now, as we skirted the little farm edging the Kalahari, flowering after unusually heavy February rains, the skyline was strangely bereft. A metal sign marked this spot as a National Monument, while a ring of stones and a waist-high gate led us to a dying legend: Chapman’s Baobab.
The gigantic tree, one of the largest and oldest on Earth, got its name when South African explorer and elephant hunter James Chapman came here on 10 July 1852 with a hundred horses and cattle and recorded being ‘lost in amazement, truly, at the stupendous grandeur of this mighty monarch of the forest.’ Now the King was dead, beached like a greying whale, its strangling roots forming a sort of cave into the drying innards, its seven great trunks having split in three main sections, after the mighty baobab fell down last year.
That was on 7 January 2016, the same week an American descendant of Livingstone had visited and the day after the hottest day ever recorded in Botswana. A local farmer heard it cracking across the Kalahari with a mighty groan and crash, the effective end of a long and very remarkable piece of natural history. But it’s a human history too, not least in the story of Livingstone, that ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the blood river of Big Game Hunters that came this way.
Michel Adanson, the French naturalist who travelled to Senegal in the 1740s and gave the scientific name to the African baobab, Adansonia digitata, claimed baobabs could live to 5,000-years-old. On one baobab he recorded the signature of Henry the Navigator, the 15th century Portuguese prince and originator of the Age of Discovery (and the Atlantic slave trade) from 1444. The 5,000-year claim shocked Livingstone, perhaps because the God-centred doctor could not accept the challenge to the biblical time line, taking the tree’s sprouting back to the pyramids, maybe even the Great Flood. Although baobabs, with fibrous, shallow and water-guzzling roots, working like blotting paper, do not develop tree rings as such, Livingstone’s own calculation of another fallen tree, after measurements of the 100ft circumference, was 1,400 years. The government sign for Green’s Baobab, we saw in wonder the next day, flourishing ten kilometres north, claims (probably wrongly) a paltry 500 years and other estimates put Chapman’s at just 1,000.
Regardless of age, why did this giant of time and life suddenly give up the ghost last year? Our guide, Ruh, smiled at a San bushman who spoke of it like a person, the tree just ‘letting go of its spirit’. But he had also noted, in 2015, that one of the branches was bleeding gum. Last year a scientific survey team came up from the University of Botswana to study it, but it has yet to deliver a report. Perhaps the baobab simply reached a natural end. Perhaps, if the rains we saw this year had come earlier, it might have had more moisture to support its massive, spreading weight. Indeed, as we clambered over the greying corpse, shoots were sprouting from it. But it is unlikely, with its central root system torn up, that there can be any recovery or, as rumoured, that it might somehow be restored. Perhaps an un-invasive conservation centre might sprout beside it instead?
A local travel company, Uncharted Africa, is surprised it has not decayed more quickly, so is not sure that it is dead. It hopes that two of the three central sections will survive. One of its guides is trying to photograph it regularly from different angles, although follow ups over work done on a section of the ‘mail box interior’ with a Hungarian team of scientists has not born fruit. Meanwhile, to stop goats grazing on it, or elephants eating the bark, a little electric fence was put up, perhaps ineffectually, but a proper cattle fence may be put in too.
Will the fall of a national monument negatively affect tourism and local livelihoods (although the hunt for baobabs can be a rarefied, expensive sport)? If the King is dead though, true study can only help the conservation of its brothers and sisters such as Green’s or the impressive Baines’ Baobabs, a cluster some 80 kilometres further on from Chapman’s, named after the explorer, gold prospector and painter Thomas Baines.
I was here with a painter myself, Arabella Caccia, to add a peculiar element to any story of conservation, or at least some kind of preservation. Arabella had come to Botswana in 2014 to draw baobabs. Now we were armed with pots of silicone, to pluck art from catastrophe, and to get casts of some of the famous initials still scored into the barks, especially on the fallen Chapman’s. Among them are the marks Livingstone made on the west sides of the trees, tellingly for a man some consider a saint, just simple crosses. They will be turned into wax moulds, then bronze casts for a wider exhibition, and since the tree will eventually crumble away altogether, they are perhaps historic record. Graffiti to some, despoliation to others, certainly only a fleeting, colonial speck in the amazing lifespan of Chapman’s Baobab, but also a strange conjunction of astonishing natural and human history, one that should not be lost or forgotten.
Arabella Caccia and David Clement-Davies are planning an exhibition and book, and perhaps a wider conservation project around the baobabs and would be grateful of any backing and support. Please contact the author at [email protected].