Growing up with German parents I spent my younger years immersed in the Brothers Grimm, adoring fairy tales and their shift from light to dark to light and back again; but being in apartheid South Africa meant that the breadth of my reading was often limited by the politics of the day.

Instead, I learnt and loved African folklore, taking ancient stories and beliefs from local peoples and intertwining them with my own. My love of a good tale well told never waned.

It’s no surprise then that, after moving to England and having started a family of my own, a secret treat was always listening in to my husband reading, at bedtime, to our boys. How they loved Treasure Island, begged for another chapter from Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and sat, goggle eyed through Where the Wild Things are.

The real favourite was Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’, that ever-changing, other worldly home to fascinating fauna and wondrous arboreal dwellers; that focus of adventure, that singular, unique, freak in nature; that tree like no other, that marvel, never to be completely understood, never failing or ceasing to amaze.

And now, in the teeming rain forests of Madagascar, I’m standing in front of it, realising that it’s real.

Everything here starts at extraordinary. The Baobabs astound with their height and girth, the forests, brim-full with wildlife and colour, where it’s nigh on impossible to take a step without seeing the freshly astounding; the air, whether it be night or day, jampacked with unfamiliar, startling sounds, the way the tightly packed trees cascade onto perfect beaches meeting turquoise sea rich with vibrant, busy and nigh-perfect reefs. Here is a place where breath is easily stolen.

But this is something different again. The tree in front of me, I am told by my excellent guide, has no name in science. It’s called ‘The Unknown Tree’; and it’s not that it’s unique to Madagascar that makes it fascinating. It’s not that it’s unique to this forest. It’s that it’s unique in any forest. It has no twin. There is only one. Anywhere.

No one knows why. The solitary French scientist who studies it, chosen by local elders, the only person allowed to touch it, can’t explain it. It doesn’t germinate. No one knows how it came to be; and no one knows why, every time this tree is studied, it appears to be a ‘different tree’, with different leaves, bearing different fruits. Just like in the book.

It’s no wonder that the locals revere it, regularly asking from it, praying for future bounty.

So, no Moonface, no Silky, no Slippery Slip; no Dame Washalot, no Angry Pixie. But who needs them? In some places, the magic of fairy tales is surpassed by that of reality. I am in an ‘enchanted wood’, where sorcery is everywhere, where impossible is every day and where the opaque alchemy of our natural world conjures nothing but treasure.

I will go home richer with fine stories to tell.

Thanks for reading

Illona Cross, Tanzania

Author: Illona Cross