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: 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.









Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday started a beautiful day so our plans to show our friends Pepe1, Rosa and Alex -newish in town- some of the lesser known areas around Carmelo was possible. The idea was to visit Conchillas, a small town about 40 km to the south-east that happened to be the birthplace of my wife! After that visit we would wander around looking for a nice place to have a picnic. I had such a spot in mind but I was not sure that it would be feasible as I had last been there about 10 years before.

Conchillas is a special small town of about 500 inhabitants. It is special because it was, unusually for Uruguay, started by the British in the 1880s as a supplier of sand and stone for the building of the new port in Buenos Aires. The latter is located at about 40 km across the River Plate. After studies by the English company C.H. Walker and Co. Ltd. that discovered the Conchillas’ sand and stone deposits, the company started to develop the area bringing their own employees. Long stone houses were built and the Evans family -owner of the shops- even minted a special currency for the Walker Company to pay its workers. This unique currency would be used by them to buy goods from the company’s stores but it was also accepted in the rest of Uruguay!

After WWII -in 1951- the company sold the entire town, including its dwellers!, to two Uruguayan businessmen that, eventually sold the houses to their occupants and the public areas to the municipality.

We had a chance to visit the town and its cemetery where we could see the various tombs of the earlier British dwellers, including that of Mr. Evans himself!

After this cultural exercise it was time for driving in the countryside to find a picnic spot. I had an idea that I needed to test so I aimed for the place by driving through a road that follows the oriental margin of the River Plate in a north-westerly direction. I was aiming for a small stream where I guessed would be a suitable area to spend the afternoon.

I knew the Las Limetas2 stream from the 60s when we visited it for the first time while in High School. We had come back in later years while on holiday in Uruguay but I had not been there for at least 10 years and I had not really gone beyond looking at the stream from the small low bridge.

A surprise awaited. A new high bridge had been built as the old had been destroyed by a flood. The land around the new bridge had been cleared leaving a flat space where a picnic could take place. While the chairs and table were organized, I decided to explore the stream.

I knew a small secret: the place is well known by yielding fossils and to find some was my objective. Although I had no difficulty in finding petrified sea shells, I intended to surprise our friends with some special surprise: Glyptodon remains.

Glyptodons were large armadillo-like mammals that lived in this area during the Pleistocene epoch3. They were large mammals with a round shell that could reach the size of a small car. Glyptodons were buried in the area and sometimes they became visible in the sediment that formed the river banks. Pieces from the skeletons would detach and they would be found in the stream bed and surrounding area.

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A complete Glyptodon. Credit: Lankester, E. Ray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Different fossilized remains can be found but only the carapace plaques known as osteoderms are unequivocally from Glyptodons to the uninitiated. So I rolled up my trousers and waded up and down the river while my friends thought I had gone crazy! After a while I realized that there were no osteoderms to be found. However I was encouraged to see fresh tracks of capybara and coypu at the sandy shores.

I was about to abandon my wet search when I spotted an odd looking stone that I picked up. It was a petrified bone that, although I do not know for sure, I believe to have come from a Glyptodon limb. Although it was not an osteoderm, I was relieved that I could impress my friends with the find as I could always make a good story.

Satisfied after my fossil-hunting as I had something to show for it, I re-joined our friends and proceeded to explain my “madness” to them and to show them my priceless discovery. Although I really made an effort to impress, my glory was short lived as everybody was enjoying the lovely sunshine and about to have lunch and hardly listened to my story. After a while I decided to stop pretending to be a fossil hunter and tossed the bone aside to join them in their conversation and food. We had a great (and fossil-less) day together.


2  The only meaning of “Limetas” I found was “a fat and short bottle with a long neck”.
3  It lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago.