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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tanzania: Lake Natron Stories | Footprints and the Kichaa Man

(This is the fifteenth installment in an ongoing series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. To start at the beginning, click here.)

A pair of giraffes are startled as we drive by, the flanks of the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai in the background.

We had one more stop on our guided tour of the Lake Natron area: A look at some of the oldest known footprints left by man. A rare find, the footprints were discovered in 2006 and were carbon dated back 120,000 years.

We arrived to find a big slab of rock surrounded by a cyclone fence. An old man emerged from a small hut nearby and he headed over to greet us. He and Parison shook hands and exchanged pleasantries as he unlocked the gate protecting the area. This was Koongo Ole Sakai, the very man who discovered the footprints here.

We walked across the knobbly fossilized mud; a mass of footprints were embedded across the slab. We tried not to step on them (it seemed sacrilegious) but it was hard when there were so many so close together. Parison explained to us that Koongo had been working at the Engaresero Camp mining volcanic ash when he uncovered the prints. He reported them to the owner of the mining company, who in turn showed them to archeologists. When the mine closed, Koongo stayed on to guard the prints, living in a small shack above the site.

This upturned piece of fossilized mud reveals how the discovery was made. In pulling up the layers of stone in the mining process the footprints were revealed.
We took photos and, of course, tried to fit our feet into some of the tracks (isn't that a requirement?) Wandering around in circles looking at all the prints we could see there were some children's mixed in with the adults, along with the distinct hoof marks of cattle. It wasn't hard to imagine a large family group walking across the plain together with their herd. It was strange to be standing next to Parison and Koongo in their traditional Maasai garb while viewing the 120,000 year old footprints of their ancestors. We stood alongside them as our Eddie Bauer UV resistant, poly/nylon clothing flapped in the wind, marveling at the absurd contrast of it all.

Ancient human footprints

Our car parked outside the enclosed footprint area.
Cattle prints were mixed in among the human prints;
it is theorized this is some of the first evidence of domesticated livestock.

As we walked toward the gate Parison whispered to us that it is customary to tip Koongo for his service. He lived out here all alone and this was his only form of income. We thanked him kindly for his tour as Mark handed him some shillings. Though he didn't speak English it was clear he was proud of his discovery and happy to share it with us.

We rode back to camp, dropping Parison off at his village on the way. It had been a long day, the wind, dust and heat had worn us down. Relaxing in the shade of the car after a shower sounded like a pretty good plan. Relaxing at the bar after our shower sounded even better.

More Dollars Than Sense

We were just finishing up washing the grit out of our hair
in the side-by-side showers at the campground when we heard something we hadn't noticed since landing at Mt. Kilimanjaro airport: the sound of a helicopter approaching. What the heck? Did someone get injured climbing up the volcano? We rushed to get dried off and dressed hoping to catch sight of it. We missed it, but could hear the rotors winding down somewhere close by. We locked up the car and rushed over to the restaurant/bar to find out what was going on.

As we entered the bar an array of the largest camera lenses we've ever seen were lined up on a blanket on the floor of the restaurant. Standing in the middle of the floor were two sets of rubber galoshes, each of which were secured with zip ties to large squares of plywood. A man and his son, dressed in photography vests designed to look "outdoorsy," were standing over the equipment in earnest discussion.

Things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

A haggard looking pilot walked in and started gesturing to the photographers, trying to tell them he couldn't take all the gear up in his helicopter at once. They, in turn, enthusiastically gestured that they wanted to take everything with them and their plan was to strap on the boots/platform combos once they were in the air. They wanted him to land the helicopter in the shallow end of the lake where they would climb out and walk in their modified "mud shoes" so they could get closer to the flamingos. All this was being discussed with very little actual dialogue, as the South African pilot didn't speak Mandarin, and the photographers spoke very little English. It was quite impressive, actually, how much was understood—we were able to get the gist of it from all the way across the room.

We sat down outside with our drinks, hoping to catch the rest of the story as it unfolded. After more haggling, the photographers went back to their tent and the pilot walked out into the courtyard shaking his head.

"Long day?" we asked. The pilot let out that universal "pshhhhh" sound of exasperation and sat down next to us.

"This guy wants me to land in the lake! I told him no way can I do that, you guys are going to have to jump out. If I land in that muck I'll never be able to take off again. Don't they know how thick that mud is? And you know what'll happen when they jump? They're going to sink to their knees, and no WAY am I letting them get back in with that crap on their clothes. Jesus Christ! What a day." He wandered off toward his helicopter and we tried to stifle our laughter until he was out of earshot.

After some more haggling, the two photographers untied their galoshes from the plywood sheets and carried them out to the copter along with an abbreviated supply of camera lenses. The staff from the bar came out and we all watched as it took off in the warm glow of the late afternoon.

They told us these two guys came to Lake Natron every year just to take pictures of the flamingos. The older guy was a rich executive back in China, and he was obsessed with the birds; he rented a helicopter for the entire week of his stay every year and had the pilot fly him around while he took hundreds of photos. It was our luck to have arrived while he was there; the entertainment factor was fantastic. As we watched the helicopter hover over the lake in the distance, we asked the bartender what the word for "crazy" is in Kiswahili.

"Kichaa!" they all said in unison, and laughed as they walked back into the restaurant.