February March, 2003
By Allan Lang
My friend Dave Marsocci had been to Kenya before
both as a college student and on his honeymoon and had wanted
to go back for some years. He invited me to accompany him on a new expedition.
Dave arranged and planned everything and was very knowledgeable and experienced
in the field. I didn't ask any questions. I just had to call up the travel
agent and pay for my ticket.
We flew on a British Airways jet into Nairobi and I'd been given a book about Kenya for my birthday, which was just before the trip. I was reading this book in the airport while waiting for Dave and the rest of the group. I didn't know much about Kenya at that point, and I didn't know exactly where we were going. When I met up with Dave, and saw the itinerary I was pretty surprised to learn that all the places the guide book said to avoid, were exactly the places we were headed for!
It was late February, 2002, and the Gulf War was getting ready to start. We met a lot of Peace Corps workers in Nairobi who were very nervous about the upcoming conflict. Most of them were trying to get out of the country as quickly as they could, and we were just heading in. We spent the first night in Nairobi in a hotel. US officials evidently knew we were there, because around 2 or 3 in the morning somebody stuck a note under our door requesting us to report to the American Embassy the next day. We were pretty sure the Embassy would be asking us too many questions about what we were doing, maybe wouldn't let us go where we wanted, and might even tell us that we couldn't leave Nairobi at all, so we just decided to ignore the message and try to get out of town as fast as we could.
The first day we had a meeting with our support crew, and got all of our provisions together. Nothing was drinkable where we were going, so we had to secure plenty water and food. Dave did an excellent 110% job of organizing everything. We had an old military vehicle with four wheel drive and a Kenyan driver and cook both named Paul and a third person who came along to help us with breakdowns and other problems (of which there were many).
On the second day we left Nairobi and drove for about a half a day until we reached the town of Rumuruti. The town was on our way, and we were glad to visit it because a very rare meteorite (an R3-6 chondrite named after the town) was seen to fall there on January 28, 1934. In Rumuruti we couldn't get out of the truck because there were about a million people swarming all around us. Every time we stopped anywhere we were surrounded by people asking for gifts, or hoping to sell us local crafts. We were the only non-African people around, and we obviously had some money, so these locals (mostly children) followed us everywhere. We brought along bags and bags of hard candy to give out to the kids, which kept them happy. Dave earned two nicknames "Gadget" because he had every kind of little gadget you could imagine pens, small flashlights, all kinds of penknives for gifts and trading with the locals; and "Doc" because he also had whatever item might be needed for any situation. He knew how to get along with the natives, and enjoyed wheeling and dealing. He traded for masks, bracelets and whatever else they had available. He was a big hit with the locals.
After Rumuruti there wasn't much in the way of roads. Later that day we were driving along the slopes of a mountain and we passed a gang of armed soldiers. They waved and shouted at us, but we didn't stop. About an hour down the road we did stop to take photos of locals in colorful traditional costumes. While we were there, the soldiers caught up to us. There were about a dozen guys all heavily armed with automatic weapons and they were all crammed into a small vehicle that really only had enough room for about four guys. They were literally sitting on top of each other. The soldiers barely spoke English, and through our interpreter started asking lots and lots of questions who were we, and what were we up to? And they came right up and started grilling me first thinking, I guess, that I was the leader of the expedition. I told them that I was an American and that we were heading north into the desert. Later, after the soldiers had taken off, my interpreter said, "Don't ever tell anyone that you are an American!" The interpreter also told us that there had been reports of Taliban in the area. We never did find out who the armed guys were. They were a pretty ragtag bunch, and they told us they were tracking cattle rustlers and bandits. Cattle rustling is big business in Kenya.
About an hour down the road we ran into the same
guys again. We came around a bend, up over a hill, and there they were
with the road blocked, so we had to stop again. Once again they came right
up to me, but this time they asked if we "could take four" of
his men with us. The head soldier's English was so bad that at first I
thought he had said "We're at war" which got us pretty nervous
for a few minutes. We did end up taking four of his men along with us
for the rest of the day and then dropped them off.
After three days' hard cross-country drive we arrived at Lake Turkana (once known as Lake Rudolf). It's an ancient lake where paleontologist Richard Leakey, then director of the National Museum of Kenya, found important fossils in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including "a steady stream of hominid fossils that dazzled the scientific world."*
On the edge of Lake Turkana we passed an outcrop
of cream-colored rock sticking out from in-between two layers of basalt.
It looked interesting to me after all that black volcanic rock, so I asked
the driver to stop. It was the first time I'd asked to stop on the whole
trip. We jumped out of the truck, and within five minutes we'd found numerous
fish fossils. They were young fossils but really nicely preserved
dark brown on a light-colored matrix. Some of them were quite large. It
was getting late in the evening, and the main focus of the expedition
was to hunt for meteorites, so we didn't spend much time with the fossil
fish, but we did plan to return.
From Lake Turkana we headed further north towards the Sudan, and into the deep desert. It was a staggering 125 degrees at 6:30 PM in the evening. At the edge of the desert was a missionary post where we spent one night. They had a huge concrete irrigation tank full of water bugs and everything else, but it was the only way to cool off, so we all climbed in. We were drinking sodas and beers that seemed to be about 110 degrees and those were the cool ones!
The desert area was our main destination, and it was where we hoped to discover new meteorite specimens. We were disappointed to discover that one end of the desert was nothing but a big salt flat. This desert actually floods, so at the other end you have a seemingly endless expanse of mud which has had the very top layer dried by the sun. Any meteorites that might have been there had long since been sucked up by the mud and we didn't find anything.
We spent two days hunting there with no luck and then returned to the fossil fish locality at Lake Turkana. We hired a local guide to show us around, and that day we found many fossil crocodile and fish teeth, and vertebrae. We also found a whole layer of giant concretions. I cracked one open and there was a fossil mollusk inside it, which I put in the back of the truck.
That night we were back in the compound, and some locals were upset about what we were doing. They claimed that we were removing their "local treasures." Some of the young men seemed as if they might be college students. They had a geology paper with them and they were by quite some coincidence looking for fossilized mollusks. I still had this giant concretion in the truck, so I gave it to them to give to their local museum. After that, the locals started calling me "The Professor," as they seemed to think I had some idea of what was going on with the local geology. Word of our visit got around fast, and the local authorities came by that evening to investigate. The first thing they did was tax us for using their roads! After that the District Commissioner, who is in charge of the entire region, arrived and searched our vehicle while we were having dinner. He was under the mistaken impression that I was there specifically to collect these fossils and that I knew all about the local geology. He insisted that I "was up to no good," so it was suggested that I "donate" all my finds to him. It wasn't worth getting into trouble with the authorities over a few teeth, so I handed all of my fossils over to him.
When we told the Commissioner that we were headed north, at first he didn't believe us. He told us that "nobody goes up there" and that it was mostly a Muslim area and very dangerous. He told us that we shouldn't be going into that region, but that if we did, we needed to go with an armed convoy. We avoided all of that because we didn't want anyone to know what we were really up to, which was looking for meteorites.
The next day we visited an area where a different group of missionaries had investigated a supposed meteorite fall about fifteen years earlier. We couldn't find any of the elders or eyewitnesses to the event, so we moved on. We had some unpleasant encounters with baboons who tried to steal everything from us. They were strong and very aggressive. One of them stole my pocket knife and some others stole our beers.
The last mission of our trip was to drop off gifts for a child that an American friend of mine was sponsoring. We had to walk a couple of miles each way into the village where he lived. On the way in it was okay, but on the way back we heard an extremely loud buzzing sound, and saw a big clump of killer bees above us. The hive looked like a giant, giant log with its ends cut off, up near the top of the tree. We must have disturbed the bees by walking too close to the tree. They were so agitated it sounded like the whole tree was about to take off, so we moved away as quickly and quietly as we could.
From there we began the long journey back to Nairobi. The terrain was so rugged in many places that we periodically broke our nearly indestructible ex-army vehicle. It was so hot one day that one of the tire patches blew up. By the end of the trip, we'd broken three sets of leaf springs and gone through five tires. We had no more spare parts and towards the end of the trip spent a day and half limping back to a small town which looked like something out of the Wild West where they had some welding equipment. We got in around 11 PM and around 3 or 4 am they had managed to fix the leaf springs so we could head back towards civilization. Our diver had to stay up all night to keep an eye on the welders.
Dave Marsocci put together an extremely exciting trip for us, and I have to give him a lot of credit for it. He handled everything, and everything went flawlessly. We all made it out safely with no injuries, except for some sore behinds from bouncing up and down in the back of that army truck. Next time, I will definitely be bringing a pillow.
R.A. Langheinrich Meteorites and Lang's Fossils hope to return to Kenya for a second expedition. If you are interested in joining us, please email us here for details.
New accounts of Allan's adventures in the world
of fossils and meteorites are added to the site on a regular basis.
|*Quoted from Jim Foley's biographical sketch of Dr. Leakey at www.talkorigins.org|