stopover in Karatu

Before I can continue my KFFS re-cap, I have to write a quick note. My buddy Andrew and I, who are traveling to Olduvai together, are in Karatu, Tanzania about 2 hours outside of Olduvai Gorge. We are waiting for a car to come and pick us up. We were hoping to be there by now…in fact we were supposed to have gotten in last night, but things often don’t work out as planned here. Our bus from Nairobi had something wrong with the axle (I think) and so we and two other people got our bags from the top of the bus and hired a matatu (minibus) to take us to the border. From there our bus company actually managed to find us and put us in minivans for the rest of the journey to Arusha. So a 5 hour trip turned into 7 hours pretty quickly. Then we had to get Tanzanian shillings in Arusha so that took some time. And there were many miscommunications along the way. We finally got on the express bus to Karatu at about 5pm. Sadly, the trip is 2 hours and since the gate to Ngorongoro crater national park closes at 6pm we had to stay in Karatu for the night. However, we stayed at a lovely placed called Msimbisi Inn. Had a hot shower and everything. Very nice. Oh and we ate dinner at a place called Paradise last night. I had chicken and fed the leftovers to the resident mouser cats. Then Andrew and I looked at the toothmarks on the bones. Yes, we are dorks. But it’s such fun. So now we’re emailing and such for a few minutes before we sit down and wait for the guy to come from Olduvai.

I still probably won’t email again for a couple of weeks, but then again you never know!



about 44 hours in Nairobi

We got back to Nairobi yesterday morning at about 10:45am. The road down was filled with trials and tribulations per usual. What would a field season be if nothing unexpected happened? Not nearly as exciting, I say. But I digress. There are 6 whole weeks to re-cap. And since my time at the Easy Surf is short today, I’d better move it along.

So we went to Mugie Ranch for about 5-6 days. Gorgeous ranch…don’t remember the exact size but it’s an enormous wildlife reserve and they have a black rhino sanctuary so we saw plenty of black rhinos. Wonderful creatures. We were actually able to get fairly close to them in the land rovers. Lots of baby rhinos too. Mugie has a great track record…low infant mortality. And since they are browsers, they were not being adversely affected by the lack of rain in the Laikipia region. Grazers, on the other hand, like the buffalo, were severely stressed and we saw lots of carcasses of animals who had just starved. Very sad. Laikipia in 2006 was lush and green. This year it was quite dry and the grass a pale green. Unfortunately, this seems to be the perfect environment for ticks. There were more ticks than you can shake a stick at. Little red pepper ticks and bigger ones. I was told by one very wise scientist that the little ones were males and the big ones females. This may be true. There may also have been a couple of species of ticks there. I found one on my belly one night. That was my first night there I think. And one day when we were doing the taphonomy exercise with the students (remember taphonomy? study of how things go from being organic remains to fossils), we found an eland carcass (large bovid) and the whole area was like a tick nest. We were ambushed by little red ticks all over our clothes. We did not stay long. I even used my deet this year the ticks were so bad. But no one got tick bite fever, so that’s the good news. I got quite good at killing the little buggers too. The tiny red ones you can just place on your fingernail and smush with another nail. The big ones require more help. You can throw them in the fire if you are near a fire, but otherwise I found the pliers on my leatherman to be the best method of squishing them. I would not make a very good buddhist in the bush. Far too many things to smush.

The students really dug the taphonomy exercise. I was one of the instructors on it along with Jack M. and Steve M. who are both Rutgers folks. Jack just got his PhD. Steve is finishing up. Paul W., who is a Kenyan field worker and animal expert, was also involved. Paul is amazing. I have no idea how old he is but he does not seem to age. He only becomes more wise and wonderful. I knew him in 2006 as well. Amazing human being. He is also a force to be reckoned with when excavating. Anyway, the four of us were the instructors. We went out four days in a row with different groups of students and looked at various animal carcasses and taught them about the decomposition and scattering of bones by animals (like hyaenas) and other processes (like water) and discussed the probabilities of fossilization and so forth. Lots of interesting insect modification too. I picked up a long bone at one point (i.e. arms and legs) that was kind of old and there was a beetle living inside of it. So cool. And all sorts of insects would lay eggs on carcasses at different stages of decomposition. So many things can occur and subsequently leave little tiny marks on the bones.

There was a tame giraffe at Mugie. His name is Lawrence. I think he was an orphan. They have lots of reticulated giraffes at Mugie. And Lawrence really likes people. I had someone take a picture of me petting him while he at from a tree above me. Amazing creature. I also took a little video of him on the road between two land rovers while we were out one day. I hope it comes through okay. My digital camera died about 4 weeks into the field school but I believe that all of my images from before that point are preserved. I will load them as soon as I can when I get him at the end of August.

What else…we certainly saw lots of bovids ands and elephants at Mugie but I only once saw a carnivore and it was a black-backed jackal. No cats this year, but some students got to see a lion who had just gotten back from having an operation. Can’t recall why the animal had surgery. Oh, one of the interns, Lily X. was doing experiments with bone marrow for her honors thesis and I was helping her out now and then. Anyway, she had a sheep butchered and them was seeing how the marrow changed over a week’s time. The point of the experiment was to see if the marrow could still be edible to a hominin after a certain period of time…or something like that. Anyway, that’s the not point. On our last night at Mugie we put out some of her bones to see if any carnivores would scavenge them. And sure enough, we woke up to little pieces of bone that had been eaten during the night. I mean there were shards left over where there had been broken long bones the night before. It was so exciting. Then we boiled the bones when we got to Koobi Fora a few days later and looked at the tiny tooth marks. Pretty sure it was jackals that ate them. For someone like me, that was super cool. It was like a moment of realizing that yes, carnivores do really scavenge bone! So silly, I guess, because of course they do, but to see it in action is a whole different experience.

We left Mugie that morning at about 7:30am and headed northwest. We drove about 13 hours that day. It was a tough one. But we made it all the way to Loiyangalani which is not to far from Koobi Fora. So we made the whole trip from Mugie to base camp in two days. In 2006 we did it in 3 days because we had problems with one of the vehicles. Loiyangalani is nice…a little oasis in the desert just a km or two east of Lake Turkana. They have natural hot springs and the camp we stayed in uses the springs for their showers so there is always hot water. Sadly, some of the showers weren’t working properly so most of us had to take like 1 minute showers because at one point only one was working. Not everyone bathed of course, but even if only half of us did, that was about 30 odd people. Scary. Somehow we managed.

Got to base camp in record time the next day because the “road” was so good (barabara mzuri sana…that means very good road). The day before was barabara mbaya sana (very bad road). My new favorite phrase in swahili. In fact we made such good time that we were able to swim that afternoon in the lake. Amazing. Lake Turkana is still beautiful, just like I remembered from 2006. Sadly, the Ethiopian gov’t is building a damn on the Omo river north of the lake, its only inlet (and there is no outlet for the lake which is why it’s so alkaline). The lake level could drop 20 meters in the coming year if this really goes through. It would be so devastating for the people who live up there. It has been dropping over the years anyway, but it’s been fairly gradual. This would make it very quick. Next year the KF/Ileret area might be vastly different.

Anyway, I should probably get moving. I have to buy some supplies (like snacks) for the road to Olduvai tomorrow. My buddy Andrew and I are being picked up at the Sirona hotel at 7:15am. Should arrive in Arusha, TZ around 1pm assuming no catastrophes with the bus. We’ll see. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to email again before I go. Perhaps. Maybe there will be internet at Olduvai but I don’t know. If not, it will be about 2 weeks or so before I write another post.

Until then…