Friday, September 16 – On our way to Oldupai Gorge and the Serengeti…

An ancestor from the museum at Oldupai Gorge

Today we would be leaving Karatu to head for the Serengeti with a stop at Oldupai Gorge on the way. Leaving Karatu and getting on the road, though, isn’t always as simple as it seems for a number of reasons. First, I had received a message from Kitashu late last night that there was a child who had four seizures yesterday that needed to be seen if possibly before we departed town. I asked if the child was at home or an inpatient, and since the child was at home, asked them to come up before 8 am so we could see them quickly before we left. Imagining that we were actually going to be seeing an infant, it turned out to be an incredibly cute five-year-old boy who was probably the most normal and healthy child we’ve seen since being here. The episodes he was having, which were actually four in total with the last one being weeks ago, were not consistent with seizures at all, but rather syncopal episodes as they were very brief, were always occurring when he was active, and they had no post-ictal phase, meaning that he was right back up and his normal self immediately following the event with no confusion or lethargy. He also had no convulsive movements with the events.

Our young patient that was seen on Friday morning with recurrent syncope

Thankfully, he had an entirely normal examination, including his cardiac exam, and was a delightful, appropriate child for us. He would need further studies, though, that would include an EKG and an echocardiogram to exclude potentially life threatening causes of recurrent cardiac syncope in a child this young that included arrhythmias or a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the later which would cause episodes occurring during play or activity, which his mother had described as indeed the case. We ordered the appropriate studies that would be done in our absence and would follow up on the child after our return, but there was nothing urgent that needed to be immediately as far as intervention or treatment until we had more information.

Heading out from town
On the road to Oldupai Gorge…finally

Once the child had been seen by Cara and I, we walked back to the house where Vitalis had already arrived with the vehicle so we were ready to back up and depart. We would first have to stop at the bank to take care of our fees for the Serengeti. Both the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which we have to traverse to get to our final destination, and the Serengeti National Park, are heavily regulated areas that are protected like Fort Knox here in Tanzania for obvious reasons as they are by far the main sources of tourism for the country and, hence, and major part of their economy. Without these two regions, the hundreds of companies, thousands of vehicles, many thousands of jobs, and hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Tanzania each year to see them, would not exist. Unfortunately, the system to protect these two sites, which is onerous at best, is designed entirely for the enormous tourist industry that generates the vast majority of revenue and probably accounts for 99% of the travelers to these two incredible resources that are unlike anything else that exists on this planet. The travel that we do here is all private meaning that I arrange it and we drive a private vehicle (Turtle) with me guiding at all of the parks including into the crater, but then using a guide when we travel to the Serengeti given the great immensity of this park that includes the risk of easily getting lost or breaking down in a place they might not find you for many days. Walking away from a broken down vehicle here is not an option at all considering some of the wildlife here that would like nothing more than to meet a group of visitors walking along the road heading towards safety.

Viewing the Gorge where life started

We did have a quote in the system for the money that needed to be deposited into an escrow account at the bank for our entrance, camping fees, and vehicle in the Serengeti, while our transit through the NCA and our visit to Oldupai would need to be paid for at either the administrative offices of the NCA or at the gate. Paying for the Serengeti at the bank probably took nearly 30 minutes just to get everything into the system properly, but our visit to the NCA office was very frustrating. I had gone into the Crater last Sunday with no difficulty whatsoever, just giving them our vehicle number, the number of people in our party and my Visa card for payment. This morning, though, that didn’t seem to be quite enough. I first received a lecture for not having our vehicle registration card with us (it was actually back in Arusha and I had simply forgotten to ask for it. The agent was just having the hardest time understanding why I had this private vehicle and a driver and what we were planning to do. In the end, I showed him my Tanzania medical license, which was basically meaningless as far as any significant form of identification that one would use for this purpose. After an inordinate amount of time, though, with the rest of the group wandering around the shops nearby, he was finally ready to take my credit card, but alas, the system was now down and we were unable to complete the entire transaction meaning that we would have to stop at the Loduare Gate before entering the NCA to complete the payment.

Class with Professor Masaki

Arriving at the gate, I was shocked by the number of vehicles that were parked in the limited number of spots and the number of travelers who were milling about the area waiting for their guides to complete the process. In the office, there were dozens of drivers, both of the safari vehicles outside as well as the many trucks waiting to transit the Serengeti, standing mostly in lines, waiting their turn to take care of the necessary payments. Thankfully, Vitalis was able to explain that we only needed to finish our process of payment and what would have very likely taken me forever to have figured out how to do this, took only several minutes and we were quickly on our way through the gate and en route to Oldupai Gorge. We climbed the crater rim and made our way around, passing both the ascent road first and then the descent road we had used the prior Sunday, before finally descending to the Serengeti floor. The many giraffe who are unable to get into the crater due to the steepness of the walls all reside on these slopes and along the floor of these immense and endless plains that we’ll now be traversing.

Our first close up giraffe
The down wind crescent face of Shifting Sands

I have written so many times about Oldupai Gorge, but the importance of this area to our knowledge of how mankind came to be is completely unmatched. Oldupai is the native sisal plant that exists here and is a Maasai word that, in 1911 with the discovery of this region by a Danish researcher studying Tsetse flies, was accidentally misspelled when published in the western literature as Olduvai Gorge and it has stuck ever since. Though there have been efforts to convert it to the correct spelling over the years, they have unfortunately never taken and the site remains with its western misspelling that will most likely continue forever except for those few diehards like myself who insist upon keeping the correct name alive. I should also explain that I am clearly what most people would consider a nerd when it comes to the world of archeology, anthropology and exploration. Growing up, my heroes were Heinrich Schliemann (who discovered Troy), Lord Lytton (the author of The Last Days of Pompei), Richard Peary, Louis Leakey, Mary Leakey, and Jane Goodall among the many others whose exploits filled my days and thoughts rather than what most other teenagers were doing at the time such as listening to music. In addition to this, I was a space exploration nut and in the sixth grade, built a mockup of an Apollo capsule as a member of a team of fellow space nerds as part of a competition that ended up on the local news stations in Los Angeles.

A dehydrated lizard at Shifting Sands
A Maasai child at Shifting Sands

I continued my anthropology studies during my time in college, eventually ending up with more than enough credits for a minor in anthropology, studying exclusively physical anthropology and classical archaeology with courses on Mycenae, Pompei, and others. My work in physical anthropology led me to participate in a professional symposium in 1977 held at UC Davis, my university, that was taught by Richard Leakey (who recently passed away), Donald Johanson (who had the earlier monumental discovery of Lucy in 1974), and David Pilbeam, where I was privileged to sit in small study groups with these giants in the science who would absolutely inspire me. Had I not eventually become a doctor, I would have chosen to have been an archeologist in second. These passions continue to direct my life despite the fact that I have found other things that occupy most of my time.

Shifting Sands and the Maasai waiting for us back at the vehicle
Making purchases

When I first knew that I would be traveling to Tanzania and Oldupai Gorge, I immediately called one of my favorite professors, Dr. Henry McHenry, who taught physical anthropology at Davis and was one of the few teachers during my college years that I would identify as having stimulated the critical thinking required for these endeavors. Having studied with Dr. McHenry all those years ago, it was exciting to again speak with him and disclose my plans of traveling to this Mecca of human anthropology and ground zero of human evolution. During one of my very next trips, I stood on the wide open plains of Lake Eyasi at sunrise during a mobile clinic, in the same footsteps of oldest man, having just worked with the Hadza, the last hunter-gatherers of Tanzania, and realized not only just how lucky I was to have had this opportunity, but also how lucky I was to have had a family (and particular my mother) who had fostered and encouraged these interests that would eventually lead me this magical continent and the wonderful people of Tanzania. Given the significance of that moment and the culmination of so many events that led me there, I called my mother, who was now suffering the signs of early Alzheimer’s disease, just to hear her voice and let her know just how important she had been to me. Though I’m unsure that she fully understood where I was and why, she clearly understood what she meant to me.

Just after impact and pre-duct tape

I have now made sure that every group traveling to the Serengeti with me (or sometimes on their own) visit Oldupai Gorge and it has been a resounding success as they have all found it incredibly interesting and impactful. Sitting in the new amphitheater overlooking the gorge, listening to my good friend, Professor Masaki, who is one of the curators here at Oldupai, explain the history of the excavations and work that has been completed here before we go into the newly built and incredibly impressive museum is always a hit for the residents. I had intended that we would be at the gorge much earlier than we were, hoping to eat lunch later when entering the Serengeti, but given the amount of time it took for us to escape the gravitational force of Karatu and get on the road, it was now time for lunch and everyone was hungry, looking forward to eating what we had brought for our lunch – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, watermelon, sliced carrots and hardboiled eggs. Eating lunch overlooking the gorge was an added treat, though I’m sure everyone would have rather been well on our way to the Serengeti by now.

At the Naabi Hill gate

Once finished with our lunches, we were off to visit Shifting Sands, a very unique geologic site that is about 10 Km from the visitor center and is sacred to the Maasai of the NCA. Shifting Sands was formed several thousands of years ago by one of the eruptions of Ol Doinyo Lengai, an ancient, though still quite active volcano in the region that is also sacred to the Maasai and which means “Mountain of God.” It last erupted in 2008 and sits in the rift valley some 60 Km away from the current site of Shifting Sands. I say “current site” as the unique feature is that Shifting Sands is constantly moving westward by action of the wind and is a large black sand dune that is about 8 meters tall and 30 meters across and is crescent shaped on its prevailing edge. This dune is comprised of black sand with a very high iron content and is essentially magnetic, keeping all of the sand together as it slowly moves across the plain in a westward direction, traveling about 5 meters per year in a westward direction that is marked off with cement columns and the corresponding year for each marker.

Leaving from Shifting Sands, we struck a course on very small trails angling in the direction of the main road hoping to intersect it just at the boarder with the Serengeti National Park and then on to Naabi Hill where the entrance gate would be into the park. Saying that the main road is incredibly rocky would be a complete understatement and as safari vehicles pass by at relatively high speeds, there’s always the threat that a rock with fly up into the windshield with grave consequences and it’s really mere chance whether this will happen along the way. Well, it was poor Turtle’s lucky day today for as we were approaching Naabi Hill, a large rock from a passing vehicle decided to fly up into our windshield with an amazing bang such that we all thought the windshield was going to shatter into a million pieces at once. Instead, it decided to remain intact, but with cracks distributed throughout, though thankfully more so on the passenger side.

Windshields here are not safety glass like they are in the US, so that when one breaks here, they do not crumble into harmless marbles, but rather shatter into tiny shards of glass that fly into the car and over the seats. Somehow, no one was injured by any flying glass and other than finding a few tiny splinters of glass on some of the seats and the floor. I always travel with duct tape here and had luckily made sure that Cara brought it with her as she had used it to duct tape her torn pants earlier. After a heavy dose of taping, we were once again ready to roll, though we were unsure as to how well our taping job would hold up on the road. The roads are complete washboards and the vibration can be heavy at times so much so that it seemed quite likely that duct tape or not, our windshield wasn’t going to last the weekend, but we had no other choice than to proceed as there is no AAA or repair services here in the bush. We made it through the entrance gate and in short order were enjoying ourselves on a rather late game drive as we drove in the direction of our camp looking for whatever came our way.

The sunset tonight was miraculous, which, to be honest, does not take much sitting in the middle of the Serengeti as there is nothing else like the sunrise and sunset here. The sun dipped and a long lone cloud sat just about the horizon with the sun traversing it first slowly and then more rapidly. The sunshine radiated in all directions as the sun eventually drifted below the horizon and then it was time for us to move on as we still had some distance to our camp. We drove in the dim light of dusk without our headlights, only turning them on at the very end when looking for our camp. Having been an incredibly long day, we were all quite happy to enjoy some cold hibiscus juice and a warm washcloth to wipe away the layers of dust from the day. Despite our setbacks along the way, we were finally here. Everyone was starving and very much looking forward to dinner which turned out to be a lovely buffet. We were to head out tomorrow morning at 6 am with a picnic breakfast and lunch and looking for whatever we could find. Everyone went to bed that night with the sounds of Serengeti in the distance and huge expectations for tomorrow.

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