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Big Tree

2007.  Next time you look at a map of Limpopo Province, you’ll notice a lot of empty space with few place names.  There’s plenty of room to designate Big Tree without impinging on any other geographic place.  And with a name as declarative as Big Tree, how could one resist a visit?  And so, on a slow trip from Equus to Pafuri in the Northern Kruger, we headed that way.

Pass through Tshipise, your classic rural habitation that looks to the hasty traveller as nothing more than a garage.  It is that.  On dusty, dirt tracks, we passed the occasional family, goat, cow, and scruffy homestead.  Before long, we came to a T-junction.  Thank goodness, it was well-sign posted, though not to where we were heading, but rather where we coming from.  Large, new green Roads Department signs.  One said Tshipise, with its arrow pointing right.  The other sign, not ten metres to the left, said Tshipise, with its arrow pointing left.  We were laughing too hard to think of taking a photo but we were happy to abide by the old adage – we came to a fork in the road, and indeed we took it.

We turned right. More dust, small communities, children, cattle and goats.  Alongside our dirt track were all the signs of major road construction – heavy equipment, wide swaths of cleared land, signs, markers, but no workers. 

In about 30 minutes, Big Tree with its very own big signpost.  It was easy to scope out the situation – there was the towering tree inside a large fenced area, not 100 metres from the entrance gate where we parked.  The attendant came to the bakkie window and with a smile pointed to the ticket booth.  Out of the vehicle I go, up to the small structure adjacent to the gate, with its own door in the back for the ticket seller to exit inside the fence, and with its own window in the front for tourists to queue up to purchase tickets outside the fence.  Two, said I, to the lady behind the window, difficult to make out behind the dark glass.  14 rand 32 she said, including VAT.  R14.32 said I, incredulous that the entrance charge would be such an odd amount, including VAT.  I gave her R20 and as quick as you like she filled out the ticket/invoice, dutifully pressing the Big Tree Development Company stamp first on the ink pad, then on the ticket/invoice, and slid me the correct change of R 5.68. 

Clearly their training in the tourism industry emphasized the importance of having plenty of exact change ready for the visitor, as well as a legitimate and legible ticket/invoice  We remain mystified, however, by the odd amount of the entrance fee, including VAT.

As I hopped back in the bakkie and the attendant opened the gate, I asked how many visitors have been there recently.  When he said we were the first of the day, I asked about the previous day.  “Eh, no visitors yesterday.”

A young chap materialized inside the gate.  He had been sitting quietly on the ground to the side, clean white shirt, worn pants and barefoot.  Without much ado, he was hired as our guide, what a surprise.  He directed us on the circuitous route of about 200 metres, leading us to the parking area outside the tree’s own personal fence.

The Baobab tree is a very striking feature which distinguishes Limpopo Province from the rest of South Africa.  Large Baobabs in the province are some of the biggest in the world.  Big Tree is the country’s largest – fully 39 metres wide (or maybe 43 metres) and 22 metres high (or is it 24 metres).  It is an awesome sight, and provides much to ponder – time, age, and nature.  Our guide had other things on his mind, however.  With the aid of his practiced eye and our imagination, he pointed out how the gnarled and twisted bark and branches looked like an elephant here, a giraffe there, and on and on and on, probably 30 different pieces of natural art.  In addition, he directed us to climb up and over some branches, into the tree’s very own trunk, a cave large enough, we were informed, to accommodate 30 standing people.  Probably proven with some frequency and great fun by local children.

Big Tree is very, very old, perhaps even as old as 3000 years, as our guide told us.  How did he know, we enquired?  Expecting such a silly tourist question, he was ready with the answer.  With all the gravity he could muster, he replied “Science tells us.”

What to make of Limpopo tourism efforts, employing three people full time at a remote location, starting construction of a proper tar road to bring the masses of tourists to Big Tree?  Ambitious?  Yes.  Wise?  No.

We didn’t make it to Sagole Spa not far down the road.