Expedition

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.

turkana safari 5

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Africa: Plank phobia

“The fear to step on a plank or a precarious tree trunk(s) contraption in order to board a floating device -a boat- and/or to cross a small river” (Bushsnob, 2014).

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

I did not know I suffered from this condition until I was in my fifties. It appeared without warning hence I could not resort to preventive psychiatry. Maybe it was the altitude in La Paz that did it. I do not know!

The first encounter with it took place in Bolivia so I ask your permission to digress yet again and to depart from the African bush to the Amazonian one where, in pursuit of these very large fish, we booked an “expedition” up the Amazon tributaries. Eventually I will give you the complete details but now I will only focus on my phobia.

Early in the morning, the boat came to collect us and we needed to climb on board, over the water. The plank in question was about two metres above the water and rather precariously bridging land and boat. The river was calm and I do not suffer from vertigo but, the moment I set my foot on the plank, I knew I was in trouble so, pretending to be a gentleman, I allowed the family to go first, the luggage to be loaded and all to be ready and then, in a final and desperate attempt not to “plank” I informed all present that I would go and pay the hotel bill. “Dad, what are you saying, we paid it already!” my daughter said. “Oh, yes, I forgot” I lied and then added; “I will check the room to see if we left anything”. “Dad, we all already did”, it was my son’s turn to talk. So, aware that there is a limit to lame excuses and for my love of fishing, I faced the music and “walked the plank”, eyes closed, having memorized the route beforehand as you do when you are a child walking through a dark room!

Faltering I just managed to get on board, tumbling over fishing gear, people and bags which were clutched desperately as my arrival literally rocked the boat! Once on board I felt perfectly normal -as usual- and did not dwell on the moment any longer. Thus we were heading for the Madidi National Park, an area immortalized by “Exploration Fawcett”, a great read.

The plan was to camp on the shores of the river Tuichi, after a few hours of arduous travel up the river towards the Andes. The navigation would not be a direct one as we all agreed to our guide’s suggestion of stopping to watch the macaws. “No trip to the Madidi is complete without seeing this natural wonder” he had said. These were the Red-and-green Macaw, Ara chloropterus, the largest of the macaws belonging to the Ara genus and only smaller than the Hyacinth Macaw, the largest macaw. We could not wait!

On arrival I was relieved that disembarking was “plank-free” and it involved a quick jump ashore. “Easy” I thought. We walked in the forest towards the red cliffs where the nests were. All was going well until a small river appeared. In these areas the infrastructure is not well developed so there was no bridge to cross but two tree trunks tied together that spanned the three metre breach. I crossed it with my eyes wide open this time. I was very relieved that I made it to the other end quite easily.

After walking another kilometre we arrived to the site of the nests, wich took the shape of holes in the cliffs where the macaws were seen perching either singly or in pairs, together with other smaller parrots. It was beautiful to observe and hear these large birds interacting, going in and out of their nests and flying back and forth continuously. These are predominantly bright red birds with iridescent green-blue wings and long tails in the same colours.  There were about 40-50 birds at the time and they were as entertaining as they were loud! After watching them for a while and taking a few pictures, it was time to return.

We walked back basking in the glow brought on by our experience when we came face to face with the trunk “bridge” again! The guide crossed first with the ease of one well used to the action. Then it was my turn and, again, I went for it without stopping to think as this had worked in the other direction. Regrettably, it did not this time…

The moment I set foot on the trunks I felt an almost imperceptible rotation of perhaps two or three centimetres, enough to throw me -the athletic bushsnob- off balance. By the time I completed the first step, my body angle was already unsustainably tilted and, although I tried to compensate with the following step, my balance was already gone. Now, while I am suspended in mid air, I will stop for a moment to describe the situation around me. The guide had already crossed, but my family was behind me so everybody was watching my act. They may have shouted in alarm or relief at my imminent demise, I will never know. I did not hear anything.

What I remember next is landing on my back about two and a half metres below on the reeds growing in the water. The dense vegetation clearly spared me from serious physical damage as it cushioned my fall before I hit the water with a mighty splash (I was about 90kg at the time). As usual in these cases, wounded pride was stronger than overall damage so I shook myself off and promptly climbed the steep bank at an appropriate place a few metres away (where I could have crossed the river with only wet feet!). I was totally soaked in muddy water, shaken, winded, and upset at my clumsiness but otherwise fine!

Maybe my family asked me how I was, I do not remember. What I do recall was the guide saying: “You fell really well. How did you manage to turn around in the air as you did?” I looked at him and he seemed serious! I do not recall what I replied or if I did but my self-esteem felt a bit restored. His remark was certainly better than the fit of giggling that took over my family and that continued for the rest of the trip whenever the incident was remembered!

After a few steps I recovered control over my senses and I remembered the camera in my shirt pocket. Muddy water dripped out of it and it became evident that no macaw pictures would illustrate any future publications (sorry!) and also that the rest of the expedition would only be remembered! So the picture of the boat I show here is from another trip in the Tuichi, later on, prior to my second camera’s desintegration under similar circumstances…

So it was that, wet and with my pride badly dented, I climbed back on the boat and we proceeded to have a great trip, despite my newly discovered syndrome. Thankfully it did not affect my fishing skills.

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions...

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions…