Posted by: Sarah Lidsey | April 5, 2010

Pilgrimage of the Heart: Africa and The Tree of Life

One year, at the end of a glorious horse riding safari with friends in the Nyika Game Reserve in Northern Malawi, I spent a few days of rest and recuperation in Mozambique at Nkwichi Lodge on the shores of Lake Malawi.  As we flew out of Nyika that morning we were all emotional – it had been another amazing trip with David and Robyn Foot and their crew, and we had learnt while there that they were unlikely to have their license to operate riding safaris renewed due to internal politics.  It seemed doubtful that we would be returning to this magical, little visited place at the bottom end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, and so our goodbyes felt particularly final. 

My six travel companions and I were all silent as we took off, the plane banking as it flew East towards Mozambique.   We looked down over the vast plains that we had ridden over on that trip and others, picking out valleys we’d come to know, and even a small group of Elephants that we’d seen the day before, grazing in the ancient woodlands bordering a small stream.  This was a favorite place of ours and an oasis for game in a land where the pressure of people is growing at an expediential rate, one too intense for the land on which they live and the wild animals with whom they presently co-exist.  In a matter of minutes we were flying high and thinking forward to the prospect of a few days of pampering by one of Africa’s largest lakes. We were, indeed spoilt, but the experience for me was not one that I remember for the times reading or chatting over delicious meals on the shores of this huge sea-like lake, although it was that too, but because I encountered one of earth’s oldest beings there, along with so much that is quintessentially and endearingly African.

We landed on a small dirt airstrip close to the shore, its boundaries marked by the magnificent Mango and Baobab trees to each side.  As we climbed out of the Cesna planes, friendly faces greeted us and, taking our bags, walked us to a village right by the water.  It was the border town between Malawi and Mozambique, the place where we were to present our documents and go through Customs. There wasn’t a suit in sight, just a couple of relaxed porters and the usual mélange of excited small children and nonchalant dogs that customarily greet you in Africa wherever you are.  We were ushered into a friendly and typical African bar enclosed by thin waist-high walls made of boards, topped by metal security grills.  Inside, metal plaques hammered to the wall advertised local beers and foods and rhythmic African music played over a tinny radio.  It was built to one side of an enormous baobab tree into which was carved, The Joy Café.  That morning it was pretty quiet, just us and the bar lady who was still clearing up from the previous night, and two quite prosperous looking local gentlemen wearing long trousers and short-sleeved shirts, with a briefcase open on the table between them.  And then it dawned on me …this café was the Malawi customs office! We ordered cool drinks and settled down in the shade while the officers took out their official stamps and, after some time and with much gravitas, got down to business.  It was one of the most pleasant border control experiences that I have ever had.  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  Everything was ‘by the book’, but the execution was idiosyncratic and unique, reflecting the relaxed and friendly temperament of the Malawian people. 

Once we’d been stamped ‘Out’, we were escorted back across the sands to the shore of the lake where two small motor-boats awaited us.  Our bags were lifted onto the porter’s heads as they waded out into the shallow waters to load them and us for the next part of our trip. Once they’d got the ballast right we pushed off, and waved good-bye to Malawi. Mozambique was straight ahead of us, across this narrow portion of the Lake, about 40 minutes by water.  It was a picture perfect morning – cool gentle winds, hardly a ripple on the surface of the lake, and the temperature was still reasonable though heating up as the sun climbed in a clear blue sky, interrupted only by small puffy clouds which were banking up to the south. 

On first acquaintance Mozambique seemed familiar!  A small village with Baobabs and Mango trees, friendly porters, excited children and nonchalant scruffy looking dogs!  But this was a different kettle of fish entirely from the laidback atmosphere of Malawi.  The Mozambique officials were business-like, in a western sense, and impressively serious about their image. Firstly, though we had to disembark into the ankle-deep waters of the lake and walk up a short hill, under escort, to reach the customs office, an official building painted a vibrant sky blue. We were lucky – it wasn’t quite the lunch hour and though there were no smiles, no local beers to accompany the official business on hand, and the forms definitely were checked to be sure they tallied with the documents – the customs officers were friendly, efficient, and prepared to look us over immediately, which is not a given in Africa. They asked questions you’d expect and then they logged our names into a huge leather-bound ledger that really should have been reserved to record every birth in the village rather than the temporary passage of itinerate tourists. 

In Africa everything takes time and patience, and though we had been dealt with surprisingly quickly, it was nearly noon, and we were out in the middle of the day with the heat and humidity rising as those seemingly innoxious puffy clouds materialized into an approaching storm.  We were all a little nervous at the thought of a boat ride in rough waters to our destination further along the coast.   And we were right to be concerned, it turned out to be a horrendous hour of heading into the wind and slapping into the waves.  By the time we got to our destination we were soaking wet, and slightly seasick but generally feeling lucky, even a little hysterical, as the motion of the motor-dinghies had been bouncing us all off our seats in a highly unstable and dangerous manner.  Later we learnt that we were lucky to have made it around the final point, and that these dangerously rocky coastal waters are a favorite haunt for the local crocodiles who glide by, looking for a bite to eat!

Weather apart, Nkwichi was idyllic – a small luxury retreat created and run as a collaborative venture between the local people and a family-run company. It is set amongst the rocks and trees that line the shores of the lake, and has as part of its mission the support of the village communities and the intention to educate any visitors to the local Mozambique ways of living, and to the history of the area.  Each cabin was built by craftsmen from neighboring villages out of timbers felled in the area, and the showers, all set outside and shielded from public view by natural rocky outcrops and coastal scrub, were open to the elements and to the local wildlife including large iguanas and a troop of mildly curious baboons.  You could see who had been round, and from whence they’d come, by checking for prints in the sand!  It was a real luxury to be there and to be so spoilt after two weeks of relative roughing-it in the bush. 

The history of the area is fascinating, not least because of its warring past and its lively reputation for trafficking the human spoils of those conflicts. The tribal people of Mozambique were notorious from the 18th century right through to the mid-20th century for trafficking in people – victorious warriors selling their captives from successful raids and skirmishes to other slave traders further up or down the lake, as well as to the Portuguese settlers.  A well worn path had been created by the age old movement of these captives from village to village, a path later used in the terror campaigns of the Civil War in the 1980s by the rebel Renamo and Frelimo forces. Today this same path is peaceful, and used again as the prime communal coastal highway. It is the size of an urban bicycle track winding through the undergrowth, rocky and uneven. As I walked along it exploring my surroundings, I met people going to and from their jobs or returning at dusk to their villages.  Each one sang out a greeting either in words or with a smile.

The Tree of Life

Just off this path was one of the wonders of this area – a massive Baobab tree that has been estimated to have been alive for around 3,000 years, this based on the circumference of its vast trunk which measures over 30m. Huge baobabs are the biggest living things in their environments.  Although many of the most impressive ones look massive and ancient, most are not as old as they look as they are formed from two or three trunks that merge into one as the tree ages. The one near Nkwichi is exceptional in its natural single-trunk girth.  There was no one place that you could stand and take in its incredible size, and creepers and other coastal bushes made any clear view impossible.  It is revered in the area, and a path off the trading track has been cut so that people can come and sit in its phenomenal presence.

The shores of Lake Malawi are rich in Baobab trees that stand like spiky sentinels around the lake.  These trees have legends told about them, and like the Oak of England, the Ash of the Norse, the Yew tree and the Olive, they were and, by some, still are considered to have mystical, magical properties. Today, many Africans protect it as one of their sacred trees, its form creating a visible link between heaven and earth.  In a land where water can be scarce, the Baobab is a reservoir that provides life-giving properties to all around.  A single tree can hold thousands of liters of water. Fibers from the bark can be turned into rope and cloth; fresh leaves are often eaten to boost the immune system; and its fruit, known locally as monkey bread, are rich with vitamin C and are a highly nutritious if acquired taste. For the wildlife in the vicinity, whether animal, reptile or bird, it is, indeed, a Tree of Life, providing shelter, food, and most importantly water where it collects in its hollows.  To top all this, it has beautiful, sweet- scented, white pendulous flowers which some legends say are inhabited by spirits. In a hot dry land, Baobabs are respected and considered to be objects of great good fortune.

Legends abound about how the Baobab got its strange form – Unlike most trees, its trunk is thick, and its branches quite short and stubby, like the roots of any other tree.  One myth tells that the god, Thor, took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden and promptly chucked it over the wall of paradise; it landed below on earth, upside down but still alive, and continued to grow. In another popular tale, the gods got so irritated by the vanity of the Baobab, as it tossed it branches, flicked its flowers and bragged to other creatures about its superlative beauty, that they uprooted it and upended it to teach it a lesson in humility.

The Baobab tree is one of a number of extraordinary trees that are understood by wisdom keepers to be three-dimensional representations on earth of a greater, universal structure, one that is a pure emanation of Source.  As the Kabbalah tree of the Jewish faith, The Tree of Life exists in two forms; with its roots upwards and branches facing the earth, symbolic of its/our origins in a place of unity and infinite light from which the soul commences its journey down via the spiritual highways that are its branches, to be embodied in form, into life; and then as a rooted tree, branches reaching heavenwards, pointing to the path the initiate takes as he/she climbs back to reunification with all creation.  To most cultures, including the Ancient British and Hindu in the Northern Hemisphere and the Maori, San and Mayan cultures in the Southern Hemisphere, the Tree of Life exists as the visible expression of the entire force of creation, whether in form or not. From a Buddhist perspective, the tree is a physical (or Nirmanakaya) manifestation of a multi-dimensional mandala which would be simultaneously existing in higher levels of pure light and pure Being every bit as alive and active as the physical presence before us.   It is also a protector on the path, and in Norse tales a force of Universal power, the World Tree, whose form supports the whole universe.  Until recently there was no real understanding of this symbol as an important indicator of the sophisticated knowledge of ancient civilizations. Its existence was seen by the uninformed amongst us as a thing of legends only, not one that pointed to a real understanding of the process of creation.

A new interpretation of the significance of the mythic Tree of Life which points to how sophisticated the ancient cultures were in their knowledge of universal principles, is addressed by Carl Johann Calleman in his books on evolution, consciousness, and the Mayan Calendar. He puts forward a theory of evolution in which the movement and flow of a centrifugal tree-like structure, formed from the fundamental principles of sacred geometry, regulates the evolution of all creation from the microcosm of subatomic particles existent in all life forms – the centrioles in microtubules present in each cell of our bodies – right up through our galaxy into the macrocosm of infinite space.  Calleman writes that ‘to the ancient Maya, the Tree of Life, the Heart of Heaven, was the creator of everything’ (The Purposeful Universe, 2009, p. 15). He talks convincingly of how this force carries a natural order of being, and in its rhythms whole evolutionary movements are catalyzed, periods of time are created, and plants, animals and human life come into existence, evolve, and/or are extinguished.  He names this inter-universal structure the Cosmic World Tree, the central organizing principle of the universe.  He sees its core as the axis of the universe, and its spiraling form as bringing everything into or out of matter.  As such, the Baobab is a living emanation of this cosmic creation principle.

In the presence of a being as ancient as the Nkwichi Baobab, I understood how this African tree became the object of respect and even veneration.  I felt compelled in the few days I had there to trek down the well-worn village path to visit this giant.  It was an incredible and moving experience to sit with such an old being.  In the United States many people feel the same way about the giant redwood forests that have been growing on the West Coast, some for about 2200 years.  It just blows your mind!  Here I was in the presence of a tree that was alive when the first civilizations were being created across the Southern hemisphere. The ancient Andean pre-Incan civilization around Lake Titicaca, the Native Australian peoples, and the Egyptians pharaohs in the North, were all thriving when this tree first emerged from its seed pod. Human civilizations have been and gone, religions have formed and failed, but this tree, on the banks of this lake, at the tip of the Great Rift Valley – itself known as the Cradle of Civilization – is still here.  This Mozambique Baobab tree is a guardian of kingdoms that I no longer consciously remembered, but as I sat there, I felt pathways that I had forgotten existed open up like a giant electricity board whose lines reach out and interconnect over immense distances, like some vast unseen highway. I felt as if the greatest of libraries was before me and I opened and sat with it in humility as I was gifted by it with its wisdom and universal knowledge.  I felt privileged in those three days at Nkwichi Lodge to shared moments from this Baobab’s over one million days in embodied form.

We sailed away from Nkwichi on our fourth day in Mozambique.  As we rounded the crocodile-patrolled headland I looked back to try and see the Baobab beside the lake.  It was nearly invisible, shielded by younger trees and scrubby bushes that had grown up in its shadow, a sacred Being protected and hidden.  I was reminded again in that moment just how lucky we all are to be supported by incredible unsung wisdom-keepers whose mere existence all over this beautiful world help to hold all of us in Life. 


©2010 Sarah Lidsey.  All rights reserved.


  1. wow… such a wonderful post…
    outstanding balance of lines and words….
    Learnt a lot from you….
    thank you…

  2. It was fascinating reading about your trip. Some pictures to support the story could have been better.
    Lake malawi africa

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