Friday, November 06, 2009

Serengeti – Ngorongoro

[Kyle]This day was billed as mostly travel day, retracing the long, dusty road that we drove in. We did a little side drive through an area that our guide said was the territory of a large pride of lions. We found a few elephants cutting through the grassland on their way between their preferred feeding spots in the trees. We also found a small herd of impala. Our guide thinks the lions must have shifted out of the area to follow larger herds.

More Animals on Safari

We got back on the main road. Within a few minutes, the fine, powdery dust was filling the vehicle. Our guide had us open all the windows in an attempt to clear it, but it just got worse. Then somebody noticed the back gate was ajar, being held shut by one of the spare tires. That fixed the problem, but now all of us and our luggage were the same color.

We pulled off the road and started going cross-country across the flat plain. At first, we thought Juma had seen something, but he just kept driving and driving. Then, out of nowhere came about a dozen Land Rovers parked around a cluster of buildings.

We had arrived at the Oldupai Gorge. Many people know this as Olduvai Gorge. This turns out to be incorrect. Olduvai was a mistranslation of the Masai word Oldupai (for sisal) that was their name for the gorge. We went through the small museum and were given a talk by a resident archaeologist. He gave us a brief history of archaeological work on the site and what has been found there.

Olduvai/Oldupai Gorge

He explained that the oldest hominid remains found anywhere else in the world have been dated at 1 million years ago. Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis remains at Oldupai have been dated at 1.75 million years. The famous hominid footprints of Austrolopethicus Aferensis as well as tools found in the area of the footprints at Oldupai have been dated at 3.6 million years. New studies using mitochondrial DNA confirms this timeline. What this means for us as humans is that, to the best of our knowledge. This is where we came from. This is the place we started being human. It is a sobering thing indeed to look down at layers of rock tens of meters thick and realize that way back when the bottom layer was the top layer, we were figuring out how to make tools and build fire and it all happened right here. Everything that has happened to us since all traces back to this place. It was moving to say the least.

After Oldupai, we stopped at a Masai village. We exchanged formalities with the Chief’s son (who, unfortunately had a name I could not pronounce or remember) and were invited in after a welcome dance featuring the impossibly high jumps. The village is set up in a ring. The first layer from outside is a tangle of big branches, meant to make it very difficult for anything to get through, like thick undergrowth. Inside that, were a ring of oblong mud huts with about the floor area of a one car garage and standing around six feet tall. Inside that was the cattle pen. The Masai are predominately pastoral people, although they do seem to have discovered the racket of village tours and souvenir sales.

Masai Village.. a little bit of performance involved but still interesting to see

The Chief’s son separated us into twos and threes and then assigned one of the villagers to show us their hut. Maryanne and I, being near the end of the line, were taken by the Chief’s son to his hut. It was nice. It was comfortable and functional. It’s only real drawback was that the lack of windows made it a bit dim. We didn’t see it with the central cooking fire lit, though. He was very open and friendly and spent some time with us in the hut answering our many questions. Afterward, we were shown outside to the cattle ring, which had been set up as a kind of bazaar. We managed to ‘escape’ with only a couple of bracelets, for which we had to haggle for our lives.

We were escorted out and shown to an outdoor classroom where children were doing a counting lesson. They had not been there when we pulled up.

The rest of the day was a steep, slow drive to yet another amazing lodge. This one is perched right on the steep rim of the Ngorongoro Crater far below.

Ngorongoro Crater Is the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera. 12km across and 2000 feet (600M) deep, it contains the world’s greatest collection of large animals. The crater is large enough to support several large populations of almost every African animal (except giraffe, since there are not enough of the right kind of trees), yet small enough that the entire thing can be seen at once. The steep rim and thick growth at the top effectively eliminates almost all movement of animals in and out of the crater. This makes everything nice and easy to find. Predator and prey spend their entire lives within sight of one another. The crater has several zones within. At the bottom, the floor consists of perfectly flat grassland interspersed with areas of wetland. Higher up the sides, forest gradually begin and increase in lushness until the very top, which is thick tropical forest.

Our room (as well as every other) has a solarium looking west into the crater with a stunning view of the scene below. I couldn’t believe we were in our room and actually looking out at the Ngorongoro Crater. For so long, this had been a place I had read about in National Geographic or seen on nature shows, now we were actually here, the sunset was fantastic!

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