Years ago I visited Treetops camp, the site of a majestic baobab tree that stands in the heart of one of the oldest and largest of Zambia’s national parks, Kafue National Park. It still holds a special place in my heart. Sitting around a campfire, I learned the legend of the mighty tree, how it had been scorched by the flames of an unrequited love.
It takes 10 people with outstretched arms, hands linked end to end, to encircle the trunk of “the tree that eats maidens” — or Kondakamwale. The tree gets its name from an ancient fable: that it swallowed four young women out of jealousy for their affections toward a handsome sojourner. Legend has it that if you get close enough, you can still hear the maidens crying out to be set free.
I can’t think of too many places in the world where you’d be closer to nature than at Treetops.
Phil Bowen, a former camp manager
Kondakamwale is more than 1,500 years old, and it is the central feature of the Treetops nature camp. “The sheer scale of the tree is the first thing that hits you,” says former camp manager Phil Bowen. Treetops camp is a favorite destination for schoolchildren, researchers and backpackers alike, all eager to witness the massive baobab. For less than $50 per week, visitors can stay in one of the shared lodges, which are just yards away from the base of the tree.
Several hundreds of miles from any major city or town, Treetops feels untouched and pristine. The camp lies on the banks of the Lufupa River, which attracts an impressive array of wildlife to its shores. Elephants, lions, crocodiles, antelope, hyenas, numerous bird varieties and more roam freely in their natural habitat. “We once had a leopard walk right through one of our classrooms,” Bowen asserts gleefully. “I can’t think of too many places in the world where you’d be closer to nature than at Treetops.”
About 20 miles north of the camp, you will find the jaw-dropping Busanga Plains, with its serene panoramic views that stretch for miles into the horizon. This is where hippopotamuses frolic in cool mud as flamingos strut with their beaks held high like stuffy aristocrats.
When I visited Treetops, I felt a magisterial yet benevolent life force that seemed devoid of spite. I was captivated by the tree’s thick shimmering bark, smooth to the touch, and the branches rustling in the wind like distant voices from those who walked the Earth more than a thousand years ago.
Surely the long-held tale of a lover scorned was wrong, I thought. What if the storytellers caught the wrong end of the stick (pun intended) and the tree’s story was one of love and not jealousy? That the sounds we hear from Kondakamwale are not cries for help but rather the whispers of lovers? Call me a romantic, but I think I prefer that story.
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