Olorgesailie: Where the world began

Saturday December 9 2017

992,000 year old fossilised bone of an extinct elephant at Olorgesailie. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

992,000 year old fossilised bone of an extinct elephant at Olorgesailie. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT 

We’re in the depths of the Great Rift Valley, driving on Magadi Road to Olorgesailie prehistoric site, 70 kilometres south of Nairobi. The landscape changes from the green of Ngong Hills to the dry scrub of the valley’s floor, edged by its walls and mountains. Our ancestors lived here millions of years ago.

One reason to flee for the day is that it’s November. “November is the peak month for the bird migration from the northern hemisphere to the southern,” says Jennifer Oduori, a protégée of naturalist Fleur Ng’weno.

Olorgesailie is the natural choice for our regular Sunday pot luck, started by Ng’weno more than four decades ago. Today is our chance to see the migrants flying in, taking advantage of the rising thermals to glide across the skies.

Our first stop is by the bridge past Mount Esakut. It has the sunbirds like Beautiful, Scarlet-chested and more flitting around the flower-filled shrubs along the dry riverbed. The Maasai boys herding their cattle watch the people holding binoculars – us – with interest while they herd their cattle further up the road.

EXTINCT VOLCANO

The colours of the land change from red earth to bleached white where an ancient lake once was. Termite mounds hold fort in a rapidly changing landscape of farms, fences and buildings.

And then mountain of the ancients towers the plains. It’s Olorgesailie, an extinct volcano that spewed molten rock from within its core more than three million years ago. We can see the evidence, in the form of lava rocks, littered on the ground.

“Dryland birds are amazingly colourful,” says Oduori. We’re watching a pair of Red-rumped swallows perched on a thorn tree. It’s a treat to see them so close because they rarely fly low.

An Eastern grey hornbill perches on a tree, and Von der Deckens hop around on the ground looking for seeds and grubs. The sun over Olorgesailie barely shows through the cloud-cover; the migrants can’t take advantage of the rising thermals in this weather. It’s rare for Olorgesailie to be cloudy.

EARLY HUMANS

In 1919 the famous Rift explorer John Walter Gregory came upon Olorgesailie. However, his was a study of the geology of the Rift Valley rather than an exposition of the early humanoid who had once lived there and left their tools behind as testimony of their existence.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that the famous Leakey duo – Louis and Mary – began excavation work here. They found much from the early humans who lived in the ‘Handaxe Era’. It was here that Homo erectus began one of the earliest known factories to chisel a stone tool to skin and slice their hunts, like the now-extinct species of elephant and hippo that lie in the prehistoric site.

We make a final stop at the in-situ museum that tells the story of Olorgesailie, and then settle for lunch with the Red and Yellow barbet in all its colours by our table. We also play host to the not-so-glamorous Social weavers, which are amazing builders of communal nests – they look like whole apartment blocks.

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