On an unassuming farm in South Africa, an almost impossibly large tree casts a shadow across the grass. Its trunk is so vast that it seems to go on forever, splitting into two mighty branches that stretch into the sky above. But that’s not the only intriguing thing about this specimen. In fact, an amazing secret is hidden inside this epic tree. And that’s where the fun really starts.
Back in 1989, Doug and Heather van Heerden purchased some land in Modjadjiskloof, a small town in Limpopo province at the northernmost point of South Africa. They called it Sunland Farm and subsequently got to work planting palm trees and mangoes.
As they cleared and transformed the land, however, the van Heerdens found that they had a previous resident to consider. Indeed, a massive baobab tree – which today has a trunk the size of a small house – had put down roots in the area around two thousand years ago.
Baobab trees hold a unique place in African culture. In local folklore, their seeds are said to be imbued with magical powers, while their flowers are thought to house spirits. But those spirits can be vengeful, for anyone who plucks a baobab flower apparently risks being savaged by lions in retribution.
Curiously, baobabs change drastically in appearance as they age. So much so, in fact, that botanists once thought that the tree was facing extinction. Only later, then, did scientists realize that the young and old baobabs were actually the same species.
And the van Heerdens’ tree is a fantastic example of a grand old baobab. It stands at around 72 feet in height, while its circumference stretches to a staggering 154 feet. What’s more, according to experts it is the widest baobab tree in the world.
But although a recent study by Romania’s Babes-Bolyai University suggested that the Sunland baobab could date back to 6,000 years ago, there are doubts as to the accuracy of those results. Indeed, more conservative estimates put the age of the tree at around 1,700 years old.
Typically, baobabs begin to become hollow as they age. And in the Sunland baobab, this natural process has led to the formation of many secret nooks and crannies hidden within its sizable trunk.
So, in 1993, the van Heerdens had an idea. They cleared out all of the leaf litter that had built up inside the hollow tree and installed what must be one of the craziest – and most unique – bars ever built.
Utilizing a natural gap in the tree as a door, they fashioned a bar from an old railway sleeper car. They then added pumps to dispense draft beer and even a music system to keep patrons entertained.
Because of the natural space in the tree, the bar boasts 13-foot high ceilings. And with custom seating made from the railway car, as many as 15 people can comfortably sit and enjoy a drink together.
Of course, South Africa is far more renowned for its wine than it is for its beer, and the van Heerdens were sure not to overlook this fact. So, incredibly, they installed a functioning wine cellar in an adjoining cavern in the tree.
Cooled by natural vents, the cellar keeps wine at a constant temperature of 72°F. And in a country where summer temperatures regularly reach 86°F, this amazing feature keeps bottles pleasantly drinkable all year round.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s an idea that’s certainly paid off. Today, the Sunland baobab and its unique bar are famous across the globe. Indeed, as well as making an appearance on the front cover of the Wall Street Journal, the tree is often mentioned in lists of the world’s strangest and most unusual bars.
So for visitors to van Heerden’s mango farm, enjoying a drink in the gigantic tree is part of the pleasure of the trip. What’s more, the couple also host weddings and parties, and they claim to have squeezed in as many as 60 people inside the trunk once for an event.
So, in response to the baobab tree’s fame, the van Heerdens have expanded their business to cater for the visitors who flock to their farm. And now, a group of five tent-like chalets offer accommodation for up to 20 overnight guests, while activities such as quad biking and hiking are available. There’s even a honeymoon suite tucked away in a neighboring tree.
But the van Heerdens aren’t just cashing in on their record-breaking tree. On their website, they point out that the tree is a vital habitat for many animals. They also add that they are serious about protecting it for future generations.
But besides its ecological significance, the Sunland baobab also boasts a fascinating historical past. Yes, when the van Heerdens were clearing out the hollowed part of the tree to make room for their bar, they discovered that they weren’t the first humans to make use of its potential.
Indeed, they found evidence that both the region’s indigenous San people and 19th century Dutch pioneers had left their mark on the giant tree. This left the van Heerdens surer then ever that the Sunland baobab is a tree that needs to be protected at all costs.
Tellingly, the Sunland baobab’s website laments the loss of a similar tree, the Nomsiang baobab, which died when too many visitors trampled the ground around it and deprived its roots of water. So, with the van Heerdens as its guardians, hopefully the Sunland baobab will not suffer the same fate.