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So much to see at Olorgesailie

Friday August 29 2008


The colourful barbet exploded onto the scene like a burst of sunrise – orange, red, yellow and black, all brilliantly juxtaposed on one little bird.

It made for a vibrant mood among the group of bird watchers on the regular, third Sunday of the month potluck, this time at Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, only 60 kilometres south of Nairobi. The criteria for the August escape were “anywhere hot”.

But even before we got to Olorgesailie, the birds along the way were enough to stop us by the side of the road.

A pair of pale, chanting Eastern goshawks were perched on the ground close by the road. A Taita fiscal flew above and an Augur buzzard “stood” still mid air, watching the ground below for a potential prey.

Dainty dikdiks scampered across the road down the Rift Valley, enjoying a bout of cool respite in the otherwise hot and arid plains of Olorgesailie.

Today, the extinct volcanoes of Olorgesailie and Ol Esakut are all that remain of the prehistoric site. Still and silent, they weren’t always like that.


Between three and five millions years ago, the two mountains sent streams of molten fire into the air from deep within their bellies and then went silent.

But the rift was still going through a turbulent period and 1.2 million years ago, a huge basin formed between the two mountains where fresh water collected, forming a lake.

The story can be read from the paleo-soils, with the thick, white silt showing where the former lakebeds were.

The lake fluctuated in size due to rain and earth movements and eventually disappeared as the water drained out through a river created by a tilt of the land.

But the fine dust of the volcanic ash covered the remains of the past, storing the secrets in fossils going as far back as one million years ago.

Olorgesailie was not always a harsh, dry scape full of thorny bushes hungering for water.

When the lake was there, there were hippos and elephants, hyenas, bushpigs and a whole variety of animals and plants that are now extinct.

Instead of the thorntrees grew luscious papyrus and other leafy plants around the lake.

Then, in 1919, J.W. Gregory stumbled upon handaxes near Mt Olorgesailie and opened a fascinating chapter into the past.

The handaxes were made by humans who lived here between 500,000 and one million years ago. On site, these humans had also butchered an extinct species of elephant almost a million years ago.

Work began in earnest in 1943 when the legendary Leakeys, Mary and Louis, began excavating and found more handaxes.

Today, Olorgesailie is one of the best-known handaxe sites in Africa. By no means is the story complete because researchers are continuing with excavations, trying to piece together what has happened in the past.

Every new find is like opening a fascinating chapter of our origins.

Even as we took a stroll around the museum on site before the walk, we found Olorgesailie a very busy place.

Although the skies were overcast, by early afternoon it had become so hot that we called it a day because even the birds had taken shelter from the heat in the shade.

Olorgesailie’s landscape is awesome. Sitting on the verandah by a tiny water trough for the birds, we see plains full of thorn trees and scrub stretching to the walls of the rift.

With little energy to do anything, the best thing to do was watch birds from the cool of the verandah while having lunch.

That’s when the red-and-yellow barbet burst into sight on the shrub in front, followed by the blue-napped mousebird that is easy to distinguish because it wears a “bright red lipstick” and “sunglasses”.

In the stark light of the valley, glitzy sunbirds looked even more dazzling while the red slit on the otherwise drab cut-throat finch looked frighteningly like blood oozing from a cut.

The most popular bird at the prehistoric site is the social weaver, which builds “apartments” for nests.

Birders are very resourceful people. With only one little car between 30 people, a matatu was flagged down by the Nairobi Museum and a deal struck to transport the group to and fro.

It took a little coaxing to get the two men of matatu to walk with us through the prehistoric site where the hand stone tools are persevered “in-situ” and through the dry river bed full of sand and stone and hot, dry scrub searching for birds.

“How did you know of this place,” asked the driver. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. Lakini ni safi (but it is clean),” he added wishing he could bring his children here for a day out.

We think we may have a new member to join Nature Kenya – a matatu driver and his tout.

Fact File

Visit Olorgesailie. It’s fascinating, with a museum and handaxes and fossils of animals preserved on site. You can stay in the bandas or camp. Carry food and lots of drinking water.

Early morning and late afternoons are the best times to walk around and for the more energetic, a day’s hike up Mt Olorgesailie is a test of endurance.

Book through the National Museums of Kenya on telephone 020-3742131-64 or 3749227. For keen birders, log on to the Kenya Birdfinders website: Type in the location you want and you will have a bird list.