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Olduvai and the Mysterious Shifting Sands

Located in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Olduvai Gorge is uniquely positioned on the road from the Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti. We are often asked whether a visit is “worth it” – especially when it comes to deciding whether to travel overland or fly between the two. We think the answer relates directly how “into” archaeology and/or paleontology you are. olduvaiYou won’t be seeing much more than the gorge from its rim, and the iconic rock formation. (Fun Fact: Olduvai is the location of the first monolith in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey series of books.) It might be hard to believe, but after days of spotting elephant, lion, cheetah and zebra in Tanzania‘s northern game reserves, you may actually be in the mood for something completely different.

The Olduvai Archaeological Site and Musuem

Lois and Mary Leakey brought Olduvai (now Oldupai) Gorge to world’s attention with their early hominid discoveries during the 1930’s. Oldupai Gorge, located in the Ngorongoro Conservation area in northern Tanzania, is 30 miles long and 295 feet deep. It’s got nothing on the Grand Canyon, but this gorge holds a treasure chest of fossils spanning over 5 million years. Major fossil findings include Australopithecus Zinjanthropus (Boisei), Australopithecus Afarensis (like Lucy), and Homo Habilis (tool guy/handyman). The “Laetoli footprints” were perfectly preserved in a rock bed 30 miles from Oldupai. They distinctly show two upright bi-pedal hominids, out for a stroll more than 3.5 million years ago.

IMG_1436The “Cradle of Mankind” is not that impressive to look at, and the museum founded in 1970 by Mary Leakey is a modest affair. But it all comes to life with a little narration from the soft spoken local guides who are trained archaeologists. You can clearly see how the rock strata has formed over the past 5 million years and why this site is so special. For an extra fee, you can clamber down and take a closer look. Two camps on the rim of the gorge are still in use by researchers from American and Spanish universities. Paleoanthropologists still spend several months a year excavating with the help of local Maasai.

The Museum
Several slightly dark rooms, some designed by the Getty Museum, contain fossil casts of early hominids, tools, artifacts and fossils of various animals that roamed this area millions of years ago. A fascinating display board of old photos show the Leakeys at work, at camp and at play. The “Laetoli Room” has the cast of the famous footprints. The actual footprints have now been buried for their own posterity… Read more about the Laetoli Footprints…

Olduvai or Oldupai?
Olduvai was incorrectly pronounced and spelled by early paleoanthropologists working in the area. In 2005, the Tanzanian authorities officially renamed the Gorge Oldupai. Oldupai is the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant Sansevieria ehrenbergii, which grows in the Gorge.

For the most part the Olduvai Gorge & museum can be considered is an interesting diversion for an hour or so: a side-trip off the main road and back. The only reason to drive down into and along the gorge would be to explore another great mystery – the Shifting Sands:

Shifting SandsThe Mysterious Shifting Sands
There is a mysterious and beautiful volcanic ash dune of Shifting Sands situated near Olduvai Gorge. These crescent-shaped mounds are a remarkable phenomenon. Technically they are known as barkan, and they are created when there is sufficient dust on the ground and a unidirectional wind to blow it. The dust collects around a stone, and continues to accumulate until it literally forms a small dune. The process continues and the dune moves. In this case, the Shifting Sands move around 10 meters every year. The crescents have their two sharp arms pointing the way the wind is going, and the whole shape is beautifully symmetrical. The local Maasai believe the shifting sands originated from their most holy of places – Ol Doinyo Lengai or “Mountain of God”, which you can just see from Olduvai on a clear day.

When you first come upon it, it looks like aliens must have left it behind. Especially as the sand is not only very fine and black, but also highly magnetized due to its high iron content. When you toss it up in the air, it sticks together and falls back onto the dune almost like a boomerang, rather than blowing away on the wind. Here’s a picture of Yvette’s guide Hillary illustrating the phenomena.

shiftingsandsLocating the Shifting Sands
Be prepared to go off road when looking for the mysterious shifting sands, as it moves and there are no sign posts! You may find yourself driving straight through the seemingly endless grass plains, avoiding the occasional giraffe, zebra, termite mound, and Maasai cow. But it’s totally worth the detour. When Anouk’s guide took her to see it, two young Maasai boys showed up with their faces painted white after their recent circumcision ritual. It made for the most ethereal experience, quite on a par with the wildlife she witnessed later that day in the Serengeti!

Ask us to include one or both in your next overland safari such as our Tanganyika Wilderness Safari.

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