Friday, September 5, 2014


When we first booked our trip, my husband talked with the tour company about adding a little detour to Olduvai Gorge, which wasn't on the itinerary. They said they thought they could work something out, and when the day came, our regular driver took us there on the way home from the Maasai village. It turned out the visitors' center was just a few miles off the main road.
We paid our fee . . .
. . . and noticed a typo.

Shouldn't it be Olduvai, not Oldupai?  We learned that the correct version is the latter, the Maasai word for a wild sisal plant that grows in the area. (Not a very glamorous name origin.) Way back, someone misspelled the name, and it wasn't until 2005 that the name was officially changed to OLDUPAI. (Nevertheless, even Wikipedia has it listed as "Olduvai," as do some of the displays in the museum itself.)

Near the entrance was the best display of weaver bird nests of our entire trip. Their neat, tidy forms seem to destine them to be sold as birdhouses in an Oriental Trading Company catalog or to sit politely on the shelf in a Pier 1 Imports store:
But I digress. Back to Oldupai Gorge. If you, like me before this trip, have no idea what the big deal is about this place, let me tell you. (No, it's not a mispronunciation of "Older Guy Gorge," but close--very close.) It is, according to Wikipedia, "one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world and has been instrumental in furthering the understanding of human evolution."

Paleo- what?  Isn't that some kind of diet?

Paleoanthropology: the study of the origin and the predecessors of the present human species, using fossils and other remains. Extensive excavation work in the Oldupai Gorge by Louis and Mary Leakey (at least I had heard of them) in the 1950s and 1960s led to many key early man discoveries.

There is a small museum on site that contains some of the discoveries from the digs:
The most important and most interesting display is this slab of rock covered in hominid footprints that are known as "the Laetoli prints":
This is not the actual slab of rock but a casting of the actual rock. The real "hominid trackway," as it is called, has been reburied at the original site and is closed to the general public but maintained by a local organization (e.g., bushes and trees whose roots might damage the slab are periodically removed, etc.).

Information next to the display states that this discovery was so important that "it is unlikely that any similar evidence will be found . . . ever again." The prints are "the earliest preserved direct evidence of our ancestors upon the earth's surface, some 3.6 million years ago. There is scarcely anything so evocative as the Laetoli trail, symbolizing humanity's long and wondrous journey. The footprints bear witness to a defining moment in the evolution of humankind and speak to us directly and without ambiguity across thousands of millenia."

Surprisingly eloquent writing for a tiny museum in Tanzania, don't you think?

Other displays offer information about the involvement of local Maasai tribes with the site. Among other things, they are "site guardians":
There are also provocative exhibits of actual skeletal parts of early hominids:
. . . along with some very interesting descriptions of the work of the Leakeys did in the Gorge, complete with photographs:
During the 1959 expedition, while in camp the Leakeys slept in their vehicle with their dogs to keep from being a lion's or leopard's midnight snack:
Louis Leakey was a pioneer in the study of early stone tools. He even made his own stone tools and used them to butcher and skin animals.
As a young man, Louis looked every bit the adventurer he was:
I have a lot of respect for all the American and European women I've read about who embraced Africa so fully. I especially like how they brought bits of their culture with them--china, a Victrola, a piano, their dogs.  Mary Leakey's pet Dalmatians, with their polka-dot coats, should be quite at home among the many weirdly patterned animals of Africa:
Pet monkeys and pet wildebeests? Sign my husband up for a few! (Too bad they would never make it through customs, Bob. Oh darn.)
As an English teacher, I love the compulsive editing on the display pictured above. I wonder what it said before it was corrected?

After all the tantalizing build up in the little museum, I expected Oldupai Gorge itself to be quite spectacular, something like the Grand Canyon, but it was a very unremarkable scene, even a bit on the drab side:
What made Louis Leakey so sure that he would find what he was looking for here?
He obviously knew something about the area that I don't:
Fifty-plus years after the important discoveries made by the Leakeys, Oldupai Gorge has yet to become a hot tourist site. It certainly isn't part of the average safari drive. In spite of its key place in paleoanthropology, the  museum is small and understated, and there really isn't much to look at in the gorge. However, local school groups, like the one below, are regular visitors. Isn't the color of their school uniforms beautiful? It was the intense blue of the African sky at mid-day.

We also saw this group of Maasai visitors. I'm guessing the father is the one on the left wearing the plaid robe and that the rest of the group comprise his wives and children.
Our drive back to the Serena Serengeti Lodge involved (surprise, surprise) just a little more game photography. This Maasai giraffe was eating the grass right next to the road.

He had a few more buddies in the background:
And off in the distance, we got our first really good look at some ostriches--two males and a female:
Make that three males:

Really, there is no better place on earth to encounter God's sense of humor than in Africa:
We drove back past the lake we'd seen from the viewpoint in the morning:
. . . through technicolor landscapes:
. . . airbrushed by some divine hand:
. . . and finally arrived at our new digs, the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge, situated on the rim of the crater, which gave us a wonderful view:
Photo by M. Lewin
Outdoor hallways 
View from our balcony, photo by Bob
Dinner, photo by Bob
 Next up: Ngorongoro Crater


  1. The best places to visit are the ones the rest of the tourism world haven't quite discovered yet.

    I love those blue school uniforms! The African love of color is so cool.

  2. Why did they put the foot print slab back where they found it? Wouldn't it be better preserved in a museum?

  3. Russ, I don't think they actually ever broke it away from its base. They created the casting of it in situ, fearing that removing it would damage it, something they did not want to risk. They have uncovered it again at least twice since 1979. They have discovered that burying it is a great way of preserving it.

  4. Interesting day for the tour, and you are right, I had no idea about the foot print slab. Good for Bob for bringing to light an unknown (to me, at least) part of history and the country. Like chrisjones, I love that blue in their uniforms, as it echoes the beautiful pictures you took along the way.

  5. So nice to read your report and see your great photos. I was there last August, and it brought back so many memories. Thanks for posting!