When we told friends we would be working in Kenya for three months one word sprang to everyone’s lips: safari. The reason is obvious–most tours of East Africa consist of an endless series of game-park excursions, with perhaps a day or two in Nairobi for souvenir shopping. Sadly, these animal-centric itineraries miss out on a unique cultural experience—learning firsthand about the evolution of homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man, in the Rift Valley area of Eastern Africa. With months, not weeks, to explore this fascinating country we were not about to make the same mistake.
Therefore, our first African adventure was not, as you might expect, to one of Kenya’s well-known game parks but, instead, to Olorgesailie, a Stone Age archeological dig excavated about 75 years ago by world-famous anthropologists Drs. Mary and Louis Leakey. The 50-acre site, which dates to 600,000 to 900,000 BCE, was recently declared a National Historic Park and includes in situ fire pits, animal bones, stone tools (especially hand axes), and hominid remains. Best of all, it is only 40 miles southwest of Nairobi on paved roads.
Ruth and I piled into our newly acquired rental car, a tired, 10-year-old Nissan with a ghastly two-tone brown and yellow paint job. Hoping the engine was in better shape than the balding tires and rusted body, we drove over the Ngong hills, sans road map, and down into the Rift Valley with its incomparable African scenery. Along the way we had our “welcome to Africa” moment—a lone giraffe, indifferent to our presence, standing by the side of the highway munching acacia leaves. To a local Kikuyu or Luo farmer that is probably as common a sight as a squirrel collecting acorns is to a Midwesterner, but to us it was worth an extended stop and at least a dozen photos.
We made it to the dig in three hours–one hour of driving and two-hours of drinking the in scenery and photographing wildlife. The park guide, a paleontology major from the University of Nairobi, was quite happy to see us as we were the first people to arrive in two days. He gave us a personalized tour (not surprising with so few visitors), carefully explaining the history of the dig and the artifacts at the site. We strolled along a wooden catwalk encircling a prehistoric living area with a cooking pit and the fossilized remains of an 800,000 year-old hominid dinner.
Following the tour the guide invited us to join him for lunch, but since there was no restaurant–brown bag only–we had to decline. He also invited us to spend the night at one of the park’s bandas, thatched-roof cabins rented out by the day, but again I had to say no as I needed to return to Nairobi and teach the following day. However, we did linger long enough to have a fascinating discussion about the many archaeological sites in Kenya that are woefully underutilized by tourists who come only to see lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants. When we departed after a truly fascinating day I saw the guide in my rear view mirror standing there wondering when the next batch of visitors might unexpectedly appear over the horizon.
We followed up our trip to Olorgesailie with a visit to the world-class Nairobi National Museum and its exhibit of Lucy, a 3 million year old hominid whose remains are among the most important artifacts in the world, and we attended a lecture on human evolution in East Africa by Dr. Richard Leaky, son of Mary and Louis. Our unplanned and unexpected enjoyment in learning about Rift Valley archeology was one of the highlights of our time in Kenya.
Many countries where you may work have a single feature for which it is justly world famous–the food of Paris, the art of Florence, the mountains of Nepal, the beaches of Fiji. However, when living and working there don’t become so narrowly focused on that lone attraction that you miss out on the full range of adventures a country can offer. One of the joys of a working vacation is that it affords you the time needed to visit and experience both the expected and the unexpected. While it certainly would be criminal to go to Kenya and not enjoy its spectacular wildlife in my opinion it would also be criminal to come to this country and not sample a few of its incomparable archeological wonders.