The journey south from Nairobi down into the hot, sparsely inhabited southern districts of the Rift Valley takes you first to the prehistoric site at Olorgasailie, then on to the dramatic salt lake of Magadi, and finally to the Nguruman Escarpment and the remote nature conservancy at Shompole. The scenery opens out dramatically as you skirt the southern flank of the Ngong Hills and descend steeply down the escarpment; if you’re travelling by public transport, try to get a front seat, as giraffe and other animals are often seen.
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Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site
Olorgasailie Prehistoric SiteBetween 400,000 and 500,000 years ago, the wide, shallow lake east of what is now Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site was inhabited by a species of hominin, probably Homo erectus of the Acheulian culture (after St Acheul in France, where it was first discovered). The site is endowed with numerous pathways, boardwalks and informative signs, and is a peaceful place to stay, though most people just stop here for an hour or two. The guided tour around the excavations (included in the entrance charge, tip welcomed) is not to be missed. The museum and accommodation are just above the excavations, on a ridge overlooking the former lake.
The early people who lived at Olorgasailie made a range of identifiable stone tools: cleavers for skinning animals; round balls for crushing bones, perhaps for hurling or possibly tied to vines to be used, like gauchos, as bolas; and heavy hand axes, for which the culture is best known, but for which, as Richard Leakey writes, “embarrassingly, no one can think of a good use”. The guides tell you they were used for chopping meat and digging. This seems reasonable, but some are very large, while hundreds of others (particularly at the so-called “factory site”) seem far too small, the theory being that they were made by youngsters, practising their toolmaking.
Mary and Louis Leakey’s team did most of the unearthing here in the 1940s. Thousands of the stone tools they found have been left undisturbed, in situ, under protective roofs. Perhaps the most impressive find, however, is the fossilized leg bone of an extinct giant elephant, dwarfing a similar bone from a modern elephant placed next to it. It was long hoped that human remains would also be uncovered at Olorgasailie, but despite extensive digging none has been found – providing more scope for speculation.
Today, sitting with a pair of binoculars and looking out over what used to be the lake can yield some rewarding animal-watching, especially in the brief dusk. Go for a walk out past the excavations towards the gorge and you may see baboons, duiker, giraffe, eland and even gerenuk if you’re lucky – Olorgasailie is the westernmost extent of their range in southern Kenya.
Lake Magadi and around
Lake Magadi and around
Lying in a Rift Valley depression 1000m below Nairobi, Lake Magadi is a vast shallow pool of soda (sodium carbonate), a sludge of alkaline water and crystal trona deposits, and one of the hottest places in the country. Magadi is also the second-largest source of soda in the world, after the Salton Sea in the USA. At Magadi, the Magadi Soda Company – formerly an ICI business, now owned by the Indian company Tata – operates the very model of a company town, on a barren spit of land jutting out across the multicoloured soda. The company’s investment here is guaranteed – hot springs gush out of the earth’s crust to provide an inexhaustible supply of briney water for evaporation. Everything you see, apart from the homes of a few Maasai on the shore, is owned and run by the corporation. You pass a company police barrier where you sign in and enter over a causeway, past surreal pink salt ponds, often flocked by flamingos. Now on company territory, a sign advises visitors that “it is dangerous to walk across the lake surface”, just in case you were contemplating a stroll across the soda. Note that some of the company police are touchy about you taking photos of the factory installations. Despite this, the atmosphere here, somewhat surprisingly because of the nature of the work and harshness of the environment, is relaxed and welcoming. By comparison with the rest of Kenya, the company pays its 700 staff high wages, starting at around Ksh20,000 per month; people tend to get drunk a lot, and staff accommodation and many services are free.
Many visitors come to Magadi specifically for its birdlife. There’s a wealth of avifauna here, including, usually, large numbers of flamingos at the southern end of the lake. At this end, there are also freshwater swamps, which attract many species.