“They call them the gentle giants, you know”, I told Mrs J as we cruised along the road from Wadi Darbat towards Dhofar’s famed baobab forest.
“Gentle? Mrs J looked puzzled.
“Aren’t all trees gentle?”
Not really knowing what to reply, I ignored her.
“Just enjoy the views, will you?”
The views certainly were a treat for sore eyes. The seasonal summer monsoon had long finished and left everything fresh and green. The land had soaked and replenished and dusted itself off. Even on bad days the diversity with some 900 species of plants and trees, and an estimated 41 unique to Dhofar, made every botanist hop and skip with joy. Most of us remembered when we spotted our first frankincense tree or our first wild desert rose, so much happier and healthier than its less fortunate cousin in Muscat, restricted and constrained, living its life in too small pots on too hot patios.
How the baobab trees, the gentle giants, made it to Oman is still unclear. Of course, Dhofar’s proximity to mainland Africa made it perfectly possible that these trees, native to Africa, could have made their way here in the stomachs of migrating birds and started out as droppings. But perhaps it was more likely that the baobabs were brought here as seedlings and planted by early travellers from Africa. Regardless of how they got here, these impressive trees set down roots and were now towering over everything else in only two places in Oman.
We parked the little rented Yaris and started on one of the many narrow trails crisscrossing through the forest. There weren’t many leaves left on the trees and their almost bare branches helped to give the tree its unique shape. Enormous swollen trunks, storing water like all succulents and allowing the trees to survive in the aridest of places. And far up, a crown of sparse branches reaching out like thin, gnarled fingers. This look had given rise to many stories and legends about the weird-looking baobab tree. One such traditional story would have you believe that the baobab tree wasn’t always as gentle and humble as now. It would lord over all the other trees and plants with no consideration for what tried to grow underneath its giant crown. This behaviour became too much for the god, who to punish the self-serving baobab, pulled it out of the ground and forced its crown back down in the hole left by the roots. The tree now, therefore, stood on its head with its roots sticking up in the air, and so became known as ‘The Upside Down Tree’. Mrs J craned her neck and looked up. “Well, that would humble anyone”, she remarked, “imagine standing on your head with your feet in the air - and still manage to live to a tender age of a thousand years. That’s what I call adaptability”.
A couple of Dhofar’s cows trotted past us on the path, scouring the place for something to eat. The huge baobab trees, with trunks impossible for even the keenest tree hugger to get his arms around, and a crown touching the clouds (well...ok, maybe not quite) didn’t offer much for them to chew on. Or so we thought. Until we noticed a strange velvet, Mexican maracas shaped object on the ground. These were the baobab fruit. They had fallen from the trees and some cracked open exposing the seeds hidden inside. About a foot long, with a hard shell and covered in moss-green velvet, the cows munched them with delight. We picked up a couple of these strangely beautiful fruits, which did look like maracas and inspired Mrs J to play an imaginary tune and do a little cha-cha-cha there on the path. The cows weren’t impressed.
“I forgot to tell you, the baobab tree also has another name”, I interrupted her. “They call it ‘Dead Rat Tree’. When the fruits are ripening on the tree, they, with their velvet coat and all, look like a bunch of dead rats dangling from their tails”.
“Yikes!”, Mrs J threw her maracas on the ground.
Whatever names you used for these majestic trees, one couldn’t help feeling small and insignificant next to them. They had adapted, and in doing so, they had survived. We could surely learn from that if nothing else.