Tanzania – Part 11: The Cradle of Mankind


Monolith at Oldupai Gorge

Running Log, 1/2/11 — Rest!

On the morning of the second day of 2011 I woke up from a deep slumber that had been untroubled by either real or imaginary lions. We had stayed the night at the Lake Ndutu tented camp, in spacious structures that seemed more like small apartments than tents. In addition to a double bed, each of the twelve tents at the campground included a bathroom (with toilet) and seperate shower (operated by releasing water from a bucket). After our previous night at Dik Dik, the accommodations at Lake Nduto felt quite aristocratic.

Ann was still fast asleep, so I dressed quietly and left the tent. The sun was just rising above the horizon and it was still quite chilly. Smoke from charcoal fires was in the air as I walked the hundred yards to the main tent and dining area where I found a chair and hunkered down with my Swahili book. My Swahili was definitely starting to improve, and I was starting to master a few simple expressions that I could laboriously use in complete sentences. I might have been this morning or the next that I earned the approval of Peter (our driver) by announcing “Mimi kulala kama jiwe” (I slept like a stone). For some reason the phrase “kama jiwe” seemed particularly amusing to him.

Lake of Dust

I should say a few words about Lake Ndutu itself. The guidebooks describe it as a shallow basin that is home to an extremely saline body of water that accumulates from nearby areas of slightly higher altitude. I don’t remember seeing anything that looked like a lake, and the whole area seemed extremely dry and dusty. I do remember a few muddy streams surrounded by low scrub forest and a network of twisting dirt roads. Driving on those roads raised prodigious clouds of dust that hung in the air long after we passed. (I know this because on more than one occasion we had to backtrack because we had taken a detour in search of wildlife, and drove through our own dust clouds 10-15 minutes after kicking them up). The entire landscape impressed me as both monotonous and hypnotic. I found it especilly hard to tell whether we were leaving or heading deeper into the forest.

After the others had gotten up and we had eaten breakfast, we packed up the Land Cruiser and set off on our day’s excursions. Our plan was to spend the morning on a game drive around the Lake Ndutu region, then head east to the famous archaeological site at Olduvai Gorge, and finally drive up into the Ngorongoro Highlands where we would stop at a campground and pitch our tents on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater.

(On this morning, I didn’t attempt a run. After 372 consecutive days of running at strange hours and in strange places, I had arrived at the long planned-for day off. So no claustrophobic circuits of the campground today.)

I don’t remember much of our morning game drive. I remember the dust, and I remember that we got a flat tire at one point (it was expertly fixed with no loss of life). Peter took a couple of pictures of a mother leopard and three leopard cubs that I think came from that morning. Mostly I remember the thickets of low trees and bush, and how all the colors blended together, making it hard to spot the animals.



Leopard (above) and cubs.

When we finally left the Ndutu region behind it was late morning. We emerged from the forest into open plains that seemed especially vast and empty. We were headed almost due East now, driving toward the Southern “Gate” of the Serengeti at Nabai Hill, a massive and unexpected hill rising up out of the flat grasslands. I no longer remember exactly where Peter took the picture of ostriches, below, but it shows the openness of that part of the journey, and a distant rock formation that might or might not be Nabai Hill.


There was a park station at Nabai Hill, which meant a stop where Rob had to present the permits that would enable us to continue on our way. During the short delay, we climbed up to one of the highest points on the hill and took in the impressive views of the plains in every direction.

Olduvai / Oldupai

In the early afternoon, we arrived at Olduvai Gorge, one of the most famous and important archaeological sites in the world.

In the 1930’s, Louis and Mary Leakey began archaeological excavations in the gorge that would continue for decades and would ultimately change our assumptions about the origins of mankind. The Leakeys discovered tools of different ages, some dating back 1.7 to 1.9 million years. At the time they began their work, there was no consensus about when and where humans had emerged. Many archaeologists were skeptical of the theory that the first humans had come from Africa. The Leakeys’ work provided extensive evidence that this seemingly barren area in the Rift Valley was “The Cradle of Mankind,” as it came to be known.

In truth, it was hard to imagine the dry ravine as a fertile land that could sustain life, an area where homo habilis had left footsteps in the volcanic ash. Standing on the edge of the gorge and looking out, there was nothing much to see. Perhaps down in the gorge where the excavation sites were it would be different, but that area was off-limits. Instead, we had to content ourselves with wandering through a small, rude museum that contained artifacts from the excavations, explanations of the work done there, and historical photos of archaeologists and various government officials in stiff poses.

Oddly, what sticks in my mind from our brief stop there, is that the name “Olduvai” is a mispronunciation of the local word “Oldupai” naming the sisal plant that grows in and around the gorge. The world knows the place as “Olduvai” but we were encouraged to begin using the correct pronunciation and spelling, and I will do so now.


Peter in front of Oldupai Gorge.

There was one other curious incident at Oldupai. While we were in the museum, the box lunches that our crew had prepared for us went missing. Every morning, Henry would pack simple but ample lunches consisting of crepes, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, muffins, chocolate bars, and juice boxes. Every day we would have these, and we would never be able to eat all the food. I think we were all a little embarrased at being given so much. In any event, at Oldupai, Rob had put the stack of white boxes containing lunches on benches that overlooked the gorge. When we came out of the museum, they were gone.

No big deal, we, the tourists, thought. We had snacks of crackers and trail mix in the Land Rover, and none of us would starve before dinner. But Rob was extremely upset, and began saying that he had to make this up to us by stopping somewhere else and getting lunch. The discussion became quite tense, as we tried to convince Rob that it was ok, and Rob continued to insist that it wasn’t ok, and that he needed to make this right. In the end, Ann’s brother Peter, Rob, and I held a council away from the others and negotiated. Peter and I were firm that we did not want to delay our trip, but we would gladly let Rob buy us all soft drinks at the museum, and we all agreed that we should ask Henry to prepare an early dinner at the campsite. Crisis averted, we left the Gorge and drove on towards the distant Highlands.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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