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Great big baobabs

The Avenue of the Baobabs near Morondava has become one of Madagascar's signature images.
The Avenue of the Baobabs near Morondava has become one of Madagascar's signature images.

Ordinarily, I couldn't justify a one and a half hour flight, and another back ,in a rickety 17-seat prop job just to see some trees. But the Baobabs of Morondava are not your ordinary trees.

Giant baobab trees near the Madagascar town of Morondava
Bill Cain

In the Indian Ocean, on the little touristed west coast of Madagascar, is an area dotted with hundreds of some of the most unusual and exotic trees imaginable. They're called "roots of the sky" by the Malagasy people, as their unusual shape resembles that of otherwise normal trees; only upside down. Not only do they look weird, they're huge and they're ancient, some estimated to be between 2 and 4 thousand years old.

The largest single tree near the city proper is actually considered sacred by the Malagasy. It's a genuinely gigantic 100 feet tall, but its base is a whopping 46 feet in circumference. That means it would take 10 men, fingers touching tip to tip, to completely encircle the tree trunk.

That tree is just the largest one in the accessible environs of Morondava. The largest baobab in Madagascar is an all day journey to the south over terribly bumpy, dusty roads. A local guide is imperative for a two night camp stay as the tree is in the middle of nowhere, and the final hours are not on roads at all. To the ardent arborist, the trip may be worthwhile. The specimen's base circumference reportedly checks in at an unbelievably rotund 95 feet!

The distinction of the largest baobab tree in the world, however, goes to one in South Africa, which is so cavernous that a 60-person bar has actually been built inside of it.

Nearer Morondava is a stand of stately Grandidieri baobabs that has become one of the signature images of all of Madagascar. The Avenue of the Baobabs is a quarter mile section of dirt roadway lined on each side with the enormous sentinels. It's particularly picturesque at sunset when, each day, several carloads of sightseers congregate on the strip. Even better, though, as I learned one morning, are the sunrises when the entire stretch is deserted, save for the occasional local ox cart passing through.

Still more unusual twenty minutes away is the area's "twisted baobab" - a twin tree whose trunk has grown in a kind of spiral helix. Several are known to exist and some, to the south again, are said to have as many as seven intertwined trunks.

The baobabs of Morondava have only recently been recognized as a source of income by the impoverished local community. A school, which teaches young Morondavians the art of watercolor painting, was recently started by the Swiss government. Baobab prints done by the students are sold at periodic exhibits in town or can be purchased directly at the school, if scheduling permits. Even though I had taken dozens of photographs, I knew I could always find a use for several small baobab paintings and would be sorry if I squandered the opportunity. The price was right and, besides, Morondava was not a place I expected to get back to any time soon.