LANG'S FOSSILS TRIP TO AFRICA 2003

 

February – March, 2003
ACROSS KENYA BY ARMY TRUCK
SEARCHING FOR FOSSILS AND METEORITES IN AFRICA'S GREAT RIFT VALLEY

By Allan Lang

My friend Dave Marsocci had been to Kenya before — both as a college student and on his honeymoon — and had wanted to go back for some years. He invited me to accompany him on a new expedition. Dave arranged and planned everything and was very knowledgeable and experienced in the field. I didn't ask any questions. I just had to call up the travel agent and pay for my ticket.
We wanted to do some meteorite hunting and fossil collecting. It was an opportunity to finally see Africa, which was something I'd always wanted to do. It was an adventure just waiting to happen.

We flew on a British Airways jet into Nairobi and I'd been given a book about Kenya for my birthday, which was just before the trip. I was reading this book in the airport while waiting for Dave and the rest of the group. I didn't know much about Kenya at that point, and I didn't know exactly where we were going. When I met up with Dave, and saw the itinerary I was pretty surprised to learn that all the places the guide book said to avoid, were exactly the places we were headed for!

It was late February, 2002, and the Gulf War was getting ready to start. We met a lot of Peace Corps workers in Nairobi who were very nervous about the upcoming conflict. Most of them were trying to get out of the country as quickly as they could, and we were just heading in. We spent the first night in Nairobi in a hotel. US officials evidently knew we were there, because around 2 or 3 in the morning somebody stuck a note under our door requesting us to report to the American Embassy the next day. We were pretty sure the Embassy would be asking us too many questions about what we were doing, maybe wouldn't let us go where we wanted, and might even tell us that we couldn't leave Nairobi at all, so we just decided to ignore the message and try to get out of town as fast as we could.

The first day we had a meeting with our support crew, and got all of our provisions together. Nothing was drinkable where we were going, so we had to secure plenty water and food. Dave did an excellent 110% job of organizing everything. We had an old military vehicle with four wheel drive and a Kenyan driver and cook — both named Paul — and a third person who came along to help us with breakdowns and other problems (of which there were many).

On the second day we left Nairobi and drove for about a half a day until we reached the town of Rumuruti. The town was on our way, and we were glad to visit it because a very rare meteorite (an R3-6 chondrite named after the town) was seen to fall there on January 28, 1934. In Rumuruti we couldn't get out of the truck because there were about a million people swarming all around us. Every time we stopped anywhere we were surrounded by people asking for gifts, or hoping to sell us local crafts. We were the only non-African people around, and we obviously had some money, so these locals (mostly children) followed us everywhere. We brought along bags and bags of hard candy to give out to the kids, which kept them happy. Dave earned two nicknames "Gadget" because he had every kind of little gadget you could imagine — pens, small flashlights, all kinds of penknives — for gifts and trading with the locals; and "Doc" because he also had whatever item might be needed for any situation. He knew how to get along with the natives, and enjoyed wheeling and dealing. He traded for masks, bracelets and whatever else they had available. He was a big hit with the locals.

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After Rumuruti there wasn't much in the way of roads. Later that day we were driving along the slopes of a mountain and we passed a gang of armed soldiers. They waved and shouted at us, but we didn't stop. About an hour down the road we did stop to take photos of locals in colorful traditional costumes. While we were there, the soldiers caught up to us. There were about a dozen guys — all heavily armed with automatic weapons — and they were all crammed into a small vehicle that really only had enough room for about four guys. They were literally sitting on top of each other. The soldiers barely spoke English, and through our interpreter started asking lots and lots of questions — who were we, and what were we up to? And they came right up and started grilling me first thinking, I guess, that I was the leader of the expedition. I told them that I was an American and that we were heading north into the desert. Later, after the soldiers had taken off, my interpreter said, "Don't ever tell anyone that you are an American!" The interpreter also told us that there had been reports of Taliban in the area. We never did find out who the armed guys were. They were a pretty ragtag bunch, and they told us they were tracking cattle rustlers and bandits. Cattle rustling is big business in Kenya.

About an hour down the road we ran into the same guys again. We came around a bend, up over a hill, and there they were with the road blocked, so we had to stop again. Once again they came right up to me, but this time they asked if we "could take four" of his men with us. The head soldier's English was so bad that at first I thought he had said "We're at war" which got us pretty nervous for a few minutes. We did end up taking four of his men along with us for the rest of the day and then dropped them off.
The landscape was constantly changing as we drove. We were moving across Africa's Great Rift Valley — an immense geological feature caused by Africa literally ripping itself apart. Sometimes we'd be up in the mountains, then we'd pass through areas of tropical vegetation, and then we were back onto the desert floor again. All along we were seeing huge outcrops of volcanic rock -- black basalt — sticking up through the vegetation. It was clear evidence of volcanic activity and of the Rift Valley's violent geological past.

After three days' hard cross-country drive we arrived at Lake Turkana (once known as Lake Rudolf). It's an ancient lake where paleontologist Richard Leakey, then director of the National Museum of Kenya, found important fossils in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including "a steady stream of hominid fossils that dazzled the scientific world."*

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