Olduvai Gorge: Way the Hell Back in Time

Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania's Great Rift Valley

While staying at the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, we took a short jaunt across Tanzania’s northwestern desert to visit the ancient Olduvai Gorge — aka human history’s Ground Zero. What we found there in the glorious middle of absolutely nowhere was surprising, sad…and inadvertently hilarious.

During our second night at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, we wrapped up in Maasai blankets before a roaring firepit looking out over the crater itself while our brilliant safari guide, Erick, gave an impromptu presentation on the Gorge. (I couldn’t help wishing college had been more like this, but then I might not have perfected my keg stand to such a great extent. Ah, c’est la vie.)

Most surprising factoid? The name Olduvai is actually a German lepidopterist‘s misinterpretation of oldupai, the Maasai word for the spiky, aloe-like desert plant that grows wild in and around the Gorge. Despite the woeful grammar involved, Erick assured us that Olduvai was fascinating to visit and only an hour’s drive away. He advised that animal sightings would be scarce, but we’d have the opportunity to explore the on-site museum and nearby Shifting Sands, as well as go for a little wander in the Great Rift Valley.


Behold, the sisal plant known as oldupai


Enroute the next morning (in the company of a septuagenarian Scottish couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary), we passed glimpses of far-off Maasai herders and their many, many wives hanging out in the swept-dirt, fenced-in fronts of their round and thatched bomas or encouraging beleaguered cattle to schlep from one mystifying point in space to another. Climbing high into the hills around the Great Rift Valley, we meandered beside groves of umbrella-wide acacia trees, some being nibbled by the darkest giraffes we’d yet seen.



For the record, by the way, roadside giraffes are way better than zoo giraffes. 

The long approach to the Olduvai Gorge Museum comes up out of the ether and ends in a shockingly shabby little complex. This was apparently the camp of famed anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey back in the 1970s, since taken over by the Tanzanian government’s Department of Cultural Antiquities and further subsidized by the J. Paul Getty Museum. But really? This is the best than can be done for an educational resource/monument to one of Earth’s most significant sites? I’d be truly surprised if some well-intentioned cash isn’t now lining the pockets of a greedy few. As of October 2010, it sure wasn’t visible in or around the museum.


The Olduvai Gorge Museum

Hardly more remarkable than a small-town local library, the facility lacked consistent air conditioning or non-torn window coverings (despite being set in an East African desert). Two small rooms told the tale of Mary Leakey’s incredible discovery of the bones of the Australopithecus hominid (known colloquially as “Lucy”), walls full of knock-off dinosaur fossils found nearby, and some random Japanese guy’s well-traveled bicycle. (Don’t ask.) The only bathrooms are about 500 yards away along a ramshackle path: fragrant and unlit concrete closets, each with a metal-grated hole in the ground. 

While visitors here are generally scarce, those that do come are encouraged to sit out on benches beneath a thatched awning with a Gorge-side view and listen to a semi-illuminating shpiel in round tones. I’m less than proud to report that the chubby Tanzanian gentleman in shorts and flip-flops doing the shpieling struck my funny bone something fierce; while he gestured stiffly and slowly out across the Gorge, sticking closely to his script and inviting us to follow in the “footyprints” of our ancestors, I slowly dissolved into a pile of muffled giggles, taking Adam down with me. 

While I work on being less of an a-hole, the Getty family might want to invest in a handful of audio headsets. Just sayin.’

Venturing out into the field proved to be far more rewarding, revealing head-expanding distances; a scattering of rainbow-shimmering guinea hens; even more scatterings of pink and white quartzes; and real, live oldupai plants. Set amidst almost nothing, we lingered around a quieting, simple plaque to commemorate the spot where Australopithecus was actually found.

The lonely memorial to Leakey's discovery of Australopithecus

It’s worth the drive out here just to see this landscape, where the vistas feel vast, oddly familiar, achingly empty and yet, full of a still-unexplored history. While I’ve always been a fan of standing on the shores of a new-to-me sea or ocean, visiting the Gorge felt different.

This felt like standing on the shores of time.


Continued in
Shifting Sands: In the Wind


See also
Ngorongoro Crater: Africa’s Amazing Hobbit Shire
Ngorongoro Crater: Survival of the Fittest
Ngorongoro Crater: Way Beyond the Rim
TWT Travel Binder: Tanzania

My Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta series
Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa
Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There
Logistics of an African Safari


  1. This is a FASCINATING piece. I feel like I learned more reading this than I did the morning’s newspaper.

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