What a strange name for a place. Actually, once one has lived in Masai Country for a while, these place names are not too strange to the ear, but become just part of another peoples heritage. However, Olorgesailie is a heritage place for mankind because of its ancient past.
Getting to Olorgesailie is all part of the visit to this prehistoric site and certainly a part of my stay in Kenya for the past nine years of my life. Our group were regular visitors to this site because of its history and rugged beauty. The main camp site is located near a dried lake bed strewn with volcanic rocks. It is very hot during the day, so our visits are timed to arrive in the area in late afternoon and spend the whole day there and then leave late morning the next day before it heats up again.
Olorgesailie was first discovered by geologist, John W Gregory, but in 1943 Mary and John Leakey excavated the area with paroled Italian POW‘s. On the way down the escarpment, before the city of Mai Mahiu, these same Italian POW’s built a chapel that is still standing. But that road leads from Nairobi to Mount Longonot, an extinct volcano in the Great Rift Valley.
My story of Olorgesailie involves the journey there and our weekend stay at the site. Because the camp site is not very large and growing in popularity by tourists, we are limited to how many of our guys can make the trip. So we decide the lucky ones by the top winners of a Bingo Game held several weeks previously.
Olorgesailie is located about forty miles south of Nairobi but takes about two hours to get there because of narrow bad roads that twist and turn around the hilly countryside, slowly descending to the Great Rift Valley. It is worth the trip, not only because of the historic site but also because the changing landscape along the way. Heading out of Nairobi to the Ngong Hills already has a changing landscape of greenery, especially after the rainy season. The best and coolest time to visit the area would be in late July or August, the cool months of this part of Kenya.
The Ngong Hills were made famous in the movie “Out Of Africa”, a story about Karen Blixen who settled in the area and now the city, Karen, Kenya, is named after her. Once one leaves the Ngong area the landscape slowly begins to get more bleak and dry. At one point an hour out of the Ngong Hills, the landscape seems strewn with volcanic rocks, large sized rocks, like they were spewed out of a volcano and scattered everywhere, probably from the volcano Mount Longonot.
Eventually the road turns off onto another rugged powdery dirt road that leads to the Olorgesailie camp. Even though the area is now quite dry and desolate, surprisingly there is enough greenery around. It is at this site that we look for our huts, or kibandas, where we will stay for the two nights. Brother Jack and I will stay in one kibanda, Fr. Richard and Brother Steve will stay in another, and two other huts will house the other four men, Peter, Erick, Ben and Raphael, our novices.
It isn’t long before the Masai find us with their women presenting us with all sorts of beautifully made belts and sandals decorated with colorful beads in typical Masai patterns. The men are also willing to pose with us for photos, their long and slender bodies, dept that way by their meager diet here in the dry and forsaken land. They wear thin, long, red and black pladded blankets woven from wool and fastened around their waist with their decorated leather belts that hold their leather sheaths that hold their long knives. With warrior like dignity, they stand with their long steel tipped spears in one arm and slightly lift their opposite leg held in place behind the other leg.
The Masai women are also noticeably dressed in solid bright blue fabrics with their leather belts and multiple beaded necklaces around their heads. Supposedly, a necklace for each child they have given birth to. Some of these necklaces are about one inch wide and beaded in traditional patterns. This is where I bought my first Masai belt that has lasted me several years! Once they realized that we have bought all that we are interested in, they leave.
Interestingly enough, Olorgesailie was never a settlement, which one can figure out after staying here long enough, especially if the site has never changed over the thousands of years. It is quite inhospitable except for the animals and Masai that have adapted to the place in recent times. Ancient peoples came here for the stones! This site has been determined to be a factory for making all sorts of stone implements that were then carried away. There are hardly any human bones found here, other than animals bones.
Our first meal is simple, easily heated with a camp fire, which we settle down to tell our stories and keep warm for a while. While the days scorching hot, the evenings can be quite cold as most desert areas. Some of us go for walk until we hear some hyenas in the distance. The park guard reassures us that the hyenas will not come into the camp. If they do, they are only interested in our bones that we leave behind. Fortunately, we do not have any.
However, it is the brought our binoculars and a telescope. The view of the sky is spectacular with no moon and no nearby city light to water down or pollute the stars. The telescope is useless since there are no planets nor moon in sight…yet. We explain to the guys that even with a very powerful telescope one will still see only a point of light, a star. However, a point of light may be a binary, or a double star, like the second star in the handle of the big dipper, which is just on the horizon to the north. In fact, with an even stronger telescope, which we wouldn’t be able to carry out here in the middle of Olorgesailie, we could easily break that point of light into a three star system. The binoculars are great for viewing multiple star systems like globular clusters and the Andromeda Galaxy.
We are all hoping these kibandas will keep out the very desperate hyenas. In the morning, I realize that hyenas are not my biggest problem. I decided to take a shower it is still cool. They have a small kibanda for that with too many openings in the walls, at least I think so. Into my shower, however, I spot a troop of baboons coming my way. Unfortunately, I have read of people and baboons fighting over the water tankers that are brought into town during the droughts.
The baboons know how to operate the taps. I am wondering, standing here naked, if they know how to work these shower taps as they quickly approach up the path. I am not willing to find out, and race out of the shower stark naked grabbing my towel. Bro. Jack is awake by now, especially after I come running in and shut the door behind. He is a little surprised at my lack of modesty, but quickly understands as I explain, looking out the window of our kibanda following the baboons as they head for the shower! Fortunately I hadn’t lathered up yet, and in that short time I was already dry.
As can be expected, there wasn’t much fine dinning in the desert, but we did bring lots of food that didn’t need to be refrigerated, and by now the ice had already melted in our cooler. So, it is not surprising that I do not remember much about what we had to eat. Fortunately, the baboons were only looking for water and soon went on their way. We did not stray far from the camp, but we did explore the display sites around the area, that were constructed by the funds received by the Leakeys. We all tried to imagine what it was like to travel by foot in this heat, to this desolate and out-of-the-way spot, knowing that one was one the food chain of many predators in the area, even baboons.