Nowhere has human evolution left more traces than in the northern Great Rift Valley. There, we have the fossils of Lucy, there we have fossils and tools of Homo habilis, and there we have fossils, fireplaces, tools and the first footprints of Homo erectus. And nowhere do we have more fossils, settlements, tools, and artifacts of Homo sapiens. This is a region of Africa I know particularly well. I have crisscrossed it on many long and short safaris. From Djibouti, where I first put foot on African soil as a boy, through Ethiopia and Kenya, where at Lake Turkana I started my studies of the Nile crocodile, my footprints lead all the way down to Tanzania. And in the archaeological sites of the Awash, the Lower Omo River, the Lake Turkana Basin, and the Gorges of Olduvai, my own footprints now lie over the ones of archaic humans, early modern humans, modern humans – and fellow post-modern humans called tourists
I am not an anthropologist or archaeologist and my trips to these sites are not scientific field trips. They are for enjoyment. Getting to these far and remote places is part of the fun and adventure. But for that you need a good vehicle. Already in 1990 when I first came to Nairobi, I was on the lookout for the best vehicle for all my planned and unplanned safaris. I had a choice to make: For off-road vehicles, the Paris-Dakar Rally – like survival for humans – is the ultimate fitness test. Kenya having been a British colony was crowded with Range Rovers and they had won the Dakar Rally twice. But they were heavily built, I didn’t like their form and I didn’t want to drive the same vehicle as the local police. The Mitsubishi Pajero was the up and coming four-wheel-drive. But they were light and fancy, and I didn’t like their form either. So, I bought a Toyota Land Cruiser. The station wagon. A dream of a car with all that counts: Technology, comfort, drivability, performance, durability. When we left Kenya, we put it in storage and mobilized it for our annual vacations in the country. It is today 30 years old, has just under 250’000 kilometers on its meter – that is six times around the world – and my wife is still driving it. The Pajero would go on to win the Dakar Rally eleven times, but once in the Serengeti, I had to pull one out of the black cotton soil with my Toyota.
Driving a ‘cruiser’ allows me to go with the flow. When on the move, your perspective of the panorama under the infinite African sky changes in a constant flow. You steep in space and time. Physical. Mystical. Some of the landscapes I drive through reappear in my dreams. On a trip from Maralal to Lake Turkana, from the ridge of the Laikipia Plateau down into the Great Rift Valley once, my brother coined the notion of ‘drinking landscape’. Anyway, it was this good old Land Cruiser – or later its newer V8 supplement – that laid my tracks to the areas in which Homo sapiens evolved and laid his footprints into Africa and the world.
Ethiopia is atypical for Africa in many ways. For instance, having to get out of bed in the morning with only seven degrees Celsius outside and no heating in the house is not what you expect to be up for, being appointed Ambassador to a country in tropical Africa. Addis Ababa lies at an altitude of almost 2’400 meters and in the night, it gets cold. But there is an escape we used to take: Drive down into the Great Rift Valley and warm your bones! To do so, from Addis Ababa you have two options:
You can head north through the highlands, up to Komboldcha and from there, 1’800 meters of altitude, you descend into the Afar Triangle, at the very northern end of the Great Rift Valley. To Semera you drop 1’400 meters and its hot and dry down there. Just north of Semera, you have the Danakil Desert and north of that, you have the Danakil Depression, dropping as far as 100 Meters below sea-level. And 130 Kilometers south-west of Semera, you have the archaeological fields around Hadar, where the bones of Lucy were unearthed. Countless hominid fossils from the times of Lucy well into the Stone Age were found there. At one spot, they found fossils of intermediate humans, an archaic human somewhere between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.
But if you’re not into fossils, this part of the Lower Awash Valley offers little attraction. It’s not a very appealing environment, hot and dry and the land is barren. Practically no vegetation, a thorny bush at best. And except along the Awash River, the trees from which Lucy took us down have long disappeared. Having been there, you can say that you were at the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. But that’s about it. All the same, I picked up a hand axe from there. It’s not a very sophisticated one, rather raw. Nowhere close to a smartphone, not even a mobile phone. Maybe a stationary fixed line telephone like the one my grandfather had, vertically adhered to the wall with two bells on the top and the handset hung on a hook to its side. In my own assessment, early Stone Age, Homo habilis. Today, it lies on the mantle of the fireplace in my house in Ferenberg.
All the anthropological finds of the Awash are on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, up in the cold highlands. First in the line of display is, of course, Lucy. Leaving Addis in 2013, I promised her to come and greet her, every time I would return. I have done so several times when my support to an Ethiopian project brought me back and I really enjoy these encounters. Also, the ‘Lucy Lounge & Restaurant’ of the museum gives you the perfect setting to reflect on our origins and the human condition in general, over a cup of Ethiopian coffee.
Scenically, the second option to descend into the Great Rift Valley is a much more rewarding drive. We would also do it when it was warm in Addis, and with visiting friends: We would drive south along the eastern rim of the Ethiopian Plateau, visit Tiya, and at Butajira, turn East and drop for a thousand meters straight down to Lake Ziway. In the perfect climate of the African tropics! Tiya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its mysterious stelae from between the 11th and 13th centuries. They refer neither to Christianity nor to Islam and it is proposed that the stelae marked a holy place of the local people for the performance of rituals. And as is often the case with historic sites where spiritual ceremonies were held, it still airs this mystical atmosphere. Maybe this is also due to the fact that humans have been in Tiya for a very long time; a selection of tools from the Middle Stone Age has also been found at the stelae site.
Lake Ziway is a worthy tourist destination in its own right. Bird watchers go there for the Sacred Ibis, the Great Pelicans, or the African Marabou. Of course, there are crocodiles. And on one of the islands in the lake, there is a monastery in which the Ark of the Covenant is said to have been kept, over a period of time in the 10th Century. Today the Ark is supposed to be kept in the cathedral of St Mary of Zion, in Axum, in the North of Ethiopia.
Lake Ziway is the first of the string of lakes of the Ethiopian Rift Valley that are all fed by rivers flowing south. The watershed is just north of the lake and the Awash River, running down the western flank of the valley, flows north. At the bottom of the valley, the river is dammed to create Lake Koka. From there, the Awash River continues into the Awash Valley and then the Afar Triangle, where it ends in a saline lake on the border to Djibouti. The road more or less follows the river and entering Awash, it forks. To the East, the road will take you out of the Great Rift Valley and up onto the Somali Plateau, to Harar and Jijiga in Ethiopia, and ultimately, to Hargeisa in Somaliland. But that’s a trip for another day. Continuing north at the bottom of the valley and following the Awash River, you come into the Awash National Park, some 300 kilometers south of Lucy’s archaeological site of Hadar. The landscape is wild, raw, arid, and beautiful. Volcanic mountains, craters, hot springs with palms, savannah and bush. And you have the falls of the Awash River. As for wildlife, in the night you might hear the roar of a lion or the laugh of a hyena. A perfect destination for a day or two off. And on the way getting there, you pass the Awash vineyards.
Somehow the Ethiopians became wine drinkers – also atypical for Africans. Already on the Great Obelisk of Axum, the center of ancient Ethiopia, viticulture is attested. And on another stela there, a wine called ‘Axumite’ is mentioned. Today’s Axumite is produced by the Awash Winery. It is extremely sweet. As their popular music suggests, the Ethiopians are rather sentimental, so they prefer sweet wine. Their traditional honey wine ‘Tej’ is widely popular. The Awash Winery also produces dry red wine and its ‘Gouder’ is maybe too sour by what the Axumite is too sweet. But grapes seem to like the soil, the not-too-humid-not too-arid climate, and the temperatures of the Great Rift Valley in this area. Since 2007, an international company invested in a second winery for Ethiopia and started planting a new vineyard, in Ziway itself. Every time we passed, we monitored the growth of the vines and eagerly wondered how its wine would taste. The first bottle left the winery in 2014, a year after we had left. But an Ethiopian friend in Switzerland brought us a bottle of the new ‘Rift Valley’ Merlot. A good, straightforward wine. They also produce Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. And for traditional Ethiopians, a sweet rosé called ‘Acacia’.
All this considered, there is no doubt that many of our ancestors stayed in the Lower Awash Valley and it may truly be the Cradle of Mankind. But then it became more arid and dropped deeper into the depression of the Afar Triangle. Becoming Homo erectus and then sapiens, I would have moved out. Forbid moving up into the cold and rough highlands to the West, I would surely have stayed in the Great Rift Valley, checked on the vineyard in Ziway, and headed south.