My friend in Eliye Springs on the western shore of Lake Turkana, built his lodge in 2007. When we were there in 2013, the most forward palm trees of his beach were standing in the water, and he had to protect the cottages behind them with sandbags. Since he had built, the lake had risen significantly. After the heavy rains of late 2019 and the first half of 2020, he had to give the cottages up and build new ones land inward, up toward the hill behind the lodge. Even the catchment of the Eliye Springs, a cemented pool, stood under water. The lake had risen again. This rising water level of Lake Turkana contradicts the prognoses of environmentalists: At a height of 240 meters, Gibe III on the Omo River is Africa’s second largest hydroelectric plant. In 2015 when the Ethiopians started filling it, environmental assessments predicted that this would diminish the water flows into Lake Turkana and disrupt the seasonal changes of the lower Omo valley and Turkana basin. Water levels would sink and ultimately, the lake would be left to dry. – And now the water level of the lake is rising.
Part of the mystery is that what is happening with Lake Turkana is happening with all the lakes southward along the Kenyan Rift Valley. The string of the eight lakes and the twelve volcanoes between them is one of Kenya’s main touristic areas and, so to say, the backyard for our excursions and smaller safaris out of Nairobi. And everywhere, the riparian land of the lakes is flooded.
On an island in the middle of Lake Baringo lies a favorite hideout of ours, the Baringo Island Camp. Since the 2019-2020 rains, the tents of the lower rows above the lake are submerged. The crocodiles and hippos love it. But Bilha’s favorite animal is the giraffe. She adores their eyelashes, black and long and beautiful. Without kajal. And just behind Baringo Island is ‘Giraffe Island’, an island on which a community conservancy organization, a decade earlier, had homed eight Rothschild giraffes, for their rescue. The Rothschild is one of the most endangered giraffe species, fewer than 3’000 remaining in Africa, 800 in Kenya. And Giraffe Island is the most peaceful place to stroll amongst one of the gentlest animals of the world. Was. The rising water level of the lake has reduced the surface of Giraffe Island to the point that their survival on it was threatened. Mathematically and according to computer simulations, the giraffe should be able to swim. But anyone who has ever swam knows how hard it is to keep your head above the water. And when your head rests at the end of a long neck as the giraffe has it, this will undeniably present you with a problem. Maybe this is why in real life, there are no written or image records of a giraffe swimming. So again, humans to the rescue: The giraffes were re-rescued to the mainland on a barge. And today, Baringo Island Camp is down to six tents available for self-catering guests and Giraffe Island is closed.
Further south, the main gate of Nakuru National Park is under water, its rooftop and the surrounding acacia trees, now dead, looking out of the lake. A morbid welcome to a nature park full of wildlife. The pink flamingoes for which Lake Nakuru was famous, have left. The mineral and organic composition of the lake’s water has changed and no longer grows the algae they feed on. The pink flamingo remains available only as a drink in one of the lodges of the park.
We have only lost some destinations for our leisure trips. But thousands of local people living around the lakes have been forced out of their homes. Hippos and crocodiles now roam around their flooded houses. And they have lost their livelihoods in fishing, farming, and tourism. Bewildered, they fear that they have angered the gods of their lake. They have drained and claimed wetlands for irrigated farming and for human settlement. They know that they have been encroaching on the lake, overusing, and polluting it. And now the gods of the lake are therefore punishing them.
So, what is actually happening? The rising water of the lakes is not only due to issues arising between the residents and the gods. It is also part of global climate change. Due to the extreme global warming over the last decade, the atmosphere has picked up humidity and there have been above-average rains, in some areas more than double the earlier normal. At the same time, the wider catchment areas of the lakes in the highlands have been degraded, forests depleted and converted into agricultural land and settlements. This causes more surface water run-off and more sediment to find their way into the lakes. The sediment accumulates at the bottom of the lakes and, as more water flows in, pushes their water levels up. Silt and sediments will also clog under water outlets. And finally, let’s not forget that these lakes are in the East African Rift Valley. Geologists hold that tectonic movements of the breaking continental plates to both sides of the rift are contributing to the rising lakes.
The northern tip of Lake Natron is in Kenya, the big rest of the lake in Tanzania. From here on, the Kenyan Rift Valley with its one line of volcanoes and lakes breaks into smaller valleys and gorges and a few more scattered volcanoes and lakes. In our quest for the Cradle of Mankind, we should ideally drive through them, further south, into the plains and hills of the ‘Ngorongoro Conservation Area’. We know this isn’t possible. As we drive to the lake on another trip, we explore the dirt road along the lake that continues into Tanzania. After a stretch, we run into a group of Maasai carrying Kalashnikovs arguing with four men in the uniform of the Kenyan Security Forces, also carrying Kalashnikovs. At some distance, a herd of cattle is standing in a cloud of dust. The Security Forces give us signs to stay off and turn around. We had hit that imaginary line in the landscape, the border.
South of Lake Natron inside Tanzania, the Maasai are under pressure. Their ancestral land is being requisitioned by the government for a highway, more land for conservation of wildlife and tourism and – the driving force of it all – a big game hunting reserve, suggested by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates. Grazing of livestock and even temporary settlement by the Maasai in these areas will be prohibited. In ruthless disregard for the over 200’000 affected Maasai and court rulings protecting them as indigenous people, the government has started evicting them from their settlements. And in another Maasai village an elder complained to the press: “Even before paying their respect to the elders, they began taking measurements for the highway. We were shocked and wanted to throw our spears to fight”. In ruthless disregard also to wildlife, the only concession of the government to environmental objections to the highway leading through the Serengeti National Park was that the road inside the park would not be paved and traffic would be controlled by the National Parks Authority.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is named after its landmark, the Ngorongoro Crater. – It’s actually not a crater, up there at the summit of a lava spitting volcano gone cold, it’s the rim of an inward collapsed one, fallen as far as 500 meters deep into the Earth. The crater is more or less round with a diameter of 15 to 20 kilometers. Things are big in Africa, in this case biggest in the world. And the crater is like a park within the park, with all the animals but one: Giraffes. They never got into the crater, because with their unevenly long front and hind legs and their ambling gait, they cannot descend steep slopes.
But the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was enlisted as an UNESCO World Heritage Site not only for the crater with its magnificent geographic scenery and wildlife attractions. It also makes key contributions to the story of human evolution. Some forty kilometers west of the Ngorongoro Crater, the Gorge of Olduvai and its surroundings are an important site of archeological human discovery. Like the Awash and Omo National Park for Ethiopia and Kobi Fora on Lake Turkana for Kenya, Olduvai is the Cradle of Mankind for Tanzania. The main anthropological attraction is a 24-meter line of footprints, left behind at Laetoli by hominins 3.7 million years ago. This is half a million years before Lucy.
At the Olduvai Museum over the replica of a few meters of that famous line of footprints, is the main mural depicting the group of three hominins that left them behind, in the natural environment of their time. And according to that painting, the giraffes then looked very much as they do today. The exhibits in the museum are a little bit random and do not really highlight the importance of the archaeological finds of Olduvai. I recognized a skeletal model of Lucy in the mix and immediately went to greet her. However, the significance of Olduvai lies in the scope of time that the finds of the area cover. Since the hominins’ footprints of Laetoli, the area seems to have been more or less continually inhabited by hominins and humans. Homo habilis was defined based on fossil finds at Olduvai. Homo erectus has left his conspicuous fossil mark and the most recent fossils of Homo sapiens are from only 17’000 years ago. No archaeological site can more coherently tell the story of human evolution in terms of habitat, tools, and fossils.
But who needs fossils! In the bush around Lake Eyasi at the southern end of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, only some 50 kilometers south-east of Olduvai, there live a remaining few hundred of the Hadza people, traditional hunter-gatherers. In groups of twenty to thirty individuals, they live in camps of small grass thatch huts. Out of their camps, they get their food from the wild of the surrounding bush. They gather berries, Baobab and other fruits, nuts and seeds and tubers. If need be, they eat roots. With bow and arrow, the men, alone or in pairs, hunt birds and small game. To hunt down larger animals, they form bigger groups. The men are also specialized in collecting honey and honeycomb, a seasonal delicacy on the Hadza menu. When after a few weeks the yield of their environment is exhausted, they move on. Due to the absence of any environmental footprint and their small number, the government lets the Hadza live their vanishing lifestyle wherever it leads them.
It is possible that the Hadza have lived in the area around Lake Eyasi since the Middle Stone Age, that would be for the last 50’000 years. Of course, a few things have changed since then. For instance, the Hadza today have dogs that help them hunt. And in 2001, a documentary of the BBC brought them into the tourist guides for Tanzania. Since then, they have proven one of those defining capacities of Homo sapiens: They learned. Very quickly, they learned that showcasing themselves for tourists as ‘Stone Age humans wearing baboon skins and running around in the bush’ brings them cash. So now, off touristic duty, they wear t-shirts and shorts and drink Coca-Cola – and beer. But they are still genetic relatives of the Pygmies of Central Africa, which brings them as close to primal Homo sapiens as you will get it anywhere on Earth. And this makes them invaluable for research on the life of early humans. There is practically nothing of the Hadza that has not been studied: Their diet and the microbiota of their guts, their immune system, the menstruation of their women and sexual division of labor, their judgement of facial attractiveness, the organic poison they use on the tips of their arrows, strong enough to paralyze a giraffe but not an elephant, their language which has those clicks of the Khoisan in it, and of course, their genome.
The Hadza have – or should I say had – a very basic cosmology. It builds on the sun, the moon, and the stars, and their life is about their ancestors and human spirits. In their creation myth, they came down from the sky through a Baobab tree and along the neck of a giraffe. As all modern humans, the Hadza are unfaithful and very pragmatic about their survival. Despite the giraffe having helped them onto Earth, they started hunting it for food. During a hunt, the men offer prayers to the sun and in the dark of the new moon night, they perform a dance ritual for the women which, again, is about hunting and meat. When the Hadza die, their spirits return them to the sun in the sky.
The concept of counting is foreign to the Hadza, their language knows no numbers and their notion of time rests in the present and immediate future. – That stuck with me. Imagine! No hours in the day. Only sunrise and sunset, day and night, the sun and then the moon and again the sun. No seven days of a week, no weekends. No months, no thirty nights from new moon to new moon, just the new moon when it’s there. And that’s when you perform the ritual. No years with cyclical events. No birthdays. No age in numbers of years. You are as old as you – feel? Act? Look? – It’s Friday, my wife calls from the garden whether I didn’t want to observe the ritual of our weekly gin and tonic, I glance at my wristwatch and see that it’s already past six and join her. Sitting down, I check the weather-app on my smartphone and see that today’s sunset is at 18h43. And as usual, we will have dinner at eight.