Finding shelter in Namibia’s oldest baobab tree

If only trees could talk, they would have so many fascinating stories to tell. One such tree is the Ombalantu baobab tree that can be found in Outapi, Owamboland, in the far north of Namibia.

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree

This gentle giant, said to be the oldest baobab tree in Namibia (at least 800 years old, 28 metres tall and 26.5 metres in circumference), has witnessed so much history and provided shelter to many people – not only from the heat of the day but also from attacks during times of war.

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree
The Ombalantu baobab tree is at least 800 years old, 28 metres tall and 26.5 metres in circumference. (Photo by Rtevels.)

Tree of Life

During tribal wars in the 19th century, the headman of the Ombalantu people decided that a hole should be cut into the top of the tree and hollowed out so that women and children could hide inside, whenever the village was attacked. It is said that about 45 people could fit into that space. It literally saved lives – no wonder the tree is also known as the Tree of Life.

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree
My Namibian friends and I sitting in front of the entrance to the giant Ombalantu baobab tree.

But the tree also played many other roles in its lifetime. In 1940, a small entrance was carved into the tree trunk and the tree became Outapi’s first official post office, which was used by Owambo families to receive money and goods sent to them by their men, who worked in the cities.

Chapel, bar and prison

In later years, when South Africa occupied ‘South West Africa’ (as Namibia was known before it gained independence), the tree served as a chapel, bar and even a prison (when it was integrated into the South African Military base). The tree must have a serious identity crisis by now!

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree
So much tree around me!

However, on a much more serious note, the Ombalantu baobab tree also bore witness to a part of history that I, as a South African, don’t feel proud of.

South Africa Border War

The South African Border War, also referred to as the Namibian War of Independence, took place on the border of South West Africa and Angola, and the people who lived in this area suffered greatly. During my visit to Owamboland, I heard some truly heart-rending stories. I am also very aware, though, of South African men who fought in this war and returned home so traumatised by what they saw and experienced, that they simply cannot talk about it – ever! The many conflicts and troubles that led to war in this region are complex, something I can’t pretend to fully understand. What I do know, is that war is ugly and there are no victors –everyone suffers.

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree
Looking up inside the Ombalantu baobab tree.

Ombalantu healing from the inside out

Today, this huge baobab tree is a national monument and tourist attraction managed by the people of Outapi (also known as the Ombalantu people). The tree (just like the region) is slowly healing itself by growing back and closing up the space that once was hollowed out inside. According to the Owambo tour guide, the tree will not be cut again, as they are afraid it might die…

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree

The Ombalantu Baobab Tree Heritage Centre is a fascinating place to visit and includes a small craft shop and even a camping and picnic spot close by. Whereas the giant baobab tree could easily fit 45 people in the past, it can now hold ‘only’ 35 people.

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree
One of the small benches inside the tree.

Sanctuary

Stepping inside this incredible tree was like stepping inside a sanctuary. We fell silent and took it all in: two small benches, a cross and a simple altar with two old Bibles (one in Oshiwambo and one in Afrikaans). The temperature was lovely and cool, while the light, streaming in from the side entrance, revealed the tree’s wonderfully textured walls before disappearing into the darkness high above us.

Ombalantu, Namibia's oldest baobab tree

One of my friends paged through the Bible until her eyes fell on the following verse, which she read out loud to us:

“Vind jou vreugde in die Here, en Hy sal jou gee wat jou hart begeer.”
(Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.)
Psalm 37:4

For a brief moment, time stood still. It was just the four of us, one South African and three Namibians, standing inside a giant old baobab tree… and it was perfect.

 

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The Ombalantu baobab tree, said to be Namibia's oldest baobab tree and found in the far north, has provided shelter for many people over the years. Click the pin to read the post from www.GrooveisintheHeart.co.za

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18 thoughts on “Finding shelter in Namibia’s oldest baobab tree

  • May 24, 2017 at 12:30 am
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    800 years old!! That is amazing! Where I come from on the West Coast of the United States – we have old growth forests with towering Douglas Fir trees that are only babies in comparison at 100 years old! I love the history and tranformation that the tree has gone through. Thank you for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin

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    • May 24, 2017 at 7:42 pm
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      Nothing beats the beauty of majestic old trees! I’m sure those 100-year-old Douglas Fir trees already have some wonderful stories to tell.

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  • May 22, 2017 at 3:50 pm
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    What an incredible story, Birgit! I loved reading about a tree that has literally saved lives. We live near centuries-old oak trees and I often wonder about all the stories they could tell. Thanks so much for sharing this inspiring story on #FarawayFiles

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    • May 22, 2017 at 9:57 pm
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      Thanks, Clare. I enjoyed sharing some of this baobab tree’s ‘memories’… who knows what other stories it still could tell! PS: Those centuries-old oak trees near your home must be a wonderful sight to behold!

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  • May 21, 2017 at 6:11 pm
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    How incredible! 800 years – imagine what that tree has lived through, all those generations, all that history. Trees truly are magical, especially so when they’re such an important part of a people’s culture.

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    • May 22, 2017 at 11:26 am
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      Yes, indeed. That’s what I love about trees – they have so many stories to tell! If only they could talk… Thanks for the visit 🙂

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  • May 21, 2017 at 11:42 am
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    Thanks so much for sharing this experience and story with us Birgit. The baobab tree has such an interesting history and is beautiful in itself. I hope it survives for many more generations to come #FarawayFiles

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    • May 21, 2017 at 2:23 pm
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      Thanks, Katy! I too hope that the gentle giant will survive for many generations… and I’m already curious about all it will experience in the future 🙂

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  • May 20, 2017 at 7:30 am
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    Birgit this was incredibly moving. What a history that tree has seen and the uses that the people found for it so interesting. What a clever chief to save his women and children by creating a hollow inside. It must have been an emotional experience standing inside where so many had stood before you. I love that the tree is healing like the region.

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    • May 20, 2017 at 11:06 am
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      Thanks for your kind words, Irene. I was deeply moved by it all! And, yes, I found it so beautiful that, after witnessing so much, this tree is now also healing… along with the region.

      Reply
  • May 4, 2017 at 11:21 pm
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    oh this is such a beautiful post, and what a history, I love trees and the people and lives this tree will have saved takes my breath away, just beautiful thanks so much for linking up #mondayescapes x

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    • May 5, 2017 at 5:30 pm
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      Thanks for your lovely feedback, Sarah. It was a very special experience for me, especially because I love trees so much too.

      Reply
  • May 3, 2017 at 10:54 pm
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    What a very special and incredible experience that was and thanks so much for linking it up to #MondayEscapes. I do love Nambia so much and had a very special trip there.

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    • May 5, 2017 at 5:28 pm
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      Thanks! So glad you have also had a chance to visit this wonderful country…

      Reply
  • April 26, 2017 at 9:27 am
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    Thank you, Birgit. Intensely moving and overwhelmingly beautiful.

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    • April 26, 2017 at 9:37 am
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      It was a very special experience that made a deep impression on me, and I am so glad that I finally found the time to blog about it. Thanks for taking the time to read it. X

      Reply

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