cradle of mankind

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

Turkana safari Land Rovers jc and pr copy

Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

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Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

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Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

To the cradle of mankind – Background and preparations

Koobi Fora takes its name from a ridge located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people and within the Sibiloi National Park. In Gabbra, Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh [1].

The ridge contains mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments (clay, silt and sand stones) that have conserved fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominid species.

In 1967 Richard Leakey’s flight to the Omo region the pilot flew over lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm. Although he expected the Koobi Fora area to be volcanic rock, he spotted sediments and later, during another visit by land, he saw tools and fossils that led him to establish the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sand spit projecting into the lake near the ridge.

Lake_turkana Credit NASA

Lake turkana in Northern Kenya from a satellite. Credit: NASA.

In 1969 Leakey’s team found a cranium of Paranthropus boisei that created great enthusiasm. Three years later the skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470) was uncovered and after another three years a Homo erectus skull was found. (KNM ER 3733) and a second -intact- one in 1978 (KNM ER 3883). Leakey wrote a number of books on the subject of the evolution of man that made him world famous [2].

Leakey’s books were very popular at the time we were in Kenya and reading them was probably what hatched the idea of a safari to the area to see where the fossils had been found as an excuse to explore the area of lake Turkana, immortalized in the book “Journey to the Jade Sea” [3].

Lake Turkana, a brackish soda lake, is found in Northern Kenya where its 48 km of width, extends for 256 km from north to south in the border with Ethiopia. Volcanoes surround the green lake. Some like Nabiyotum Crater in Southern island are truly beautiful but there are several in the southern part of the lake where the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers enter it with fresh water.

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Some of the beautiful volcanic cones at the lake.

The lava flows surrounding the lake are often too hot to touch, the winds blow with gale force and the beautifully green lake was home to nomadic ethnic groups such as the Turkana and El Molo and it also offered -apparently- good fishing as well as a very large population of very large crocodiles!

We knew that the lake was rich in crocodiles (estimated at 22 thousand), fish, bird life and scenery, particularly its stark volcanic hills and still rather untouched by “civilization” so that Turkana fishermen did not need clothes! Count Teleki “discovered” it in 1888 describing it as with “beautiful water… clear as crystal…” but the name he chose, Lake Rudolf, is no longer in use.

The lake offered, therefore, a number of interesting challenges that we could not resist. Three factors influenced our decision, two were related to our friend Paul who, at the time was befriending Else, a lady working at the National Museums of Kenya and the visit of his brother from the UK. Through Else we got the green light to visit Koobi Fora so, the preparations for the trip could begin.

The third concerned to both Paul and I and it was the apparently amazing fishing that you could have in Lake Turkana as no one knew why Nile Perch there reached 90kg and over and the tiger fish fought so much!

We agreed that we would travel in tour two Land Rovers but when we estimated the amount of food, water and gear we would need, we despaired, as, although both cars had roof carriers, they would be too overloaded to withstand the expected rough journey. We were stuck!

However, Paul found a solution in the shape of a disused trailer that was at Muguga that he could use and that, importantly, it had the same tires than our cars. It was a long metal contraption looking (and being!) very heavy but it was our only option so we took it from the yard where old cars were kept for a sale that never took place, and towed to Paul’s house, our temporary centre of operations.

The journey would take several days and the planned itinerary would take us through Maralal, South Horr. Loyangalani, North Horr, Koobi Fora, Chalbi desert, Marsabit, Samburu and, finally, Nairobi

We were fortunate that Paul had a small gas fridge that would enable us to carry some perishable food for a few days although we added, apart from the normal cool boxes with normal ice packs, one with dry ice to be opened after a few days during the journey.

Mabel and Else developed the menus and food and they got involved in careful calculations so that we had enough eggs and bacon, cooking oil and fresh and preserved fruits as we were not sure of how much we could get on the way.

Luckily Mabel had by then accumulated good camping experience and we relied on her to do the planning. As time was very long and the area very hot, she decided to place our “last” fresh stuff in the dry ice cool box to be opened on day five. After these final supplies were over, it would be tinned food.

Apart from having the Land Rovers in the best condition possible according to their ages, Paul and I dealt with fuel and other car essentials as well as the necessary camping and fishing gear. We prepared our tents, sleeping gear, camping chairs and tables, making sure that all necessary bits and pieces were there, including mallets and spades as well as some charcoal for the areas where no firewood was obtainable.

The safari stuff mountain grew by the day and the inclusion of the fishing gear did not help. As this was considered as one of the highlights of the trip the rubber dinghy was added, together with engine and petrol. Aware that the lake harboured large fish such as Nile Perch and Tiger fish we took heavy fishing gear, hoping that it would be enough for the expected fish fights.

We also needed to carry sufficient water and fuel. Although we would be able to find both on the way, we settled for 80 litres of petrol. As far as water was concerned we only took 40 litres as the water of the lake was considered as mildly alkaline and drinkable in an emergency.

We took four spare wheels, as we could share them and we also collected what we thought was a rather comprehensive set of tools and a rather large assortment of essential spares that included everything we thought our cars might need during the estimated 3,200 km of the return journey, without counting local travel.

Security reports were essential before venturing into this area and we learnt that it was good at the time although the occasional incursions by bandits known as “Shiftas” could not be predicted. We decided that this was good enough and decided to risk it.

The final moment of truth came when Else got the permit to enter into the Koobi Fora area and use the accommodation that had been built there by Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya. We had then, like Julio Caesar, crossed the Rubicon and there was no way back!

However, there was one more step before we were ready to go. We knew, from the experience of other visitors, that we should expect very strong winds, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kulal, the mountain of the winds! We decided that we needed a barrier and we borrowed a rather large and heavy lorry tarpaulin that we intended to use as a wind barrier by tying it between the two cars.

So, the Friday before our departure we decided to have a “Windbreak setting up rehearsal and dinner party” that had more of a party than a rehersal for the setting up of the tarpaulin!

However, afterwards, we felt we could handle the voyage.

 

[1] See: https://www.museums.or.ke/koobi-fora/ consulted on 21/11/19. My addition: Commiphora, is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family,

[2] Origins (with Roger Lewin) (Dutton, 1977); People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin) (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978) and Making of Mankind (Penguin USA, 1981) among others.

[3] Hillaby, J. (1973), Journey to the Jade Sea. Academy Chicago Publishers. 206 p.