Shifting Sands and Early Man’s Land

It was time to leave the Serengeti. We were up early as usual, this time to take the scenic route for a couple of sights before getting to our hotel in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for the night. While sad to leave, we were glad that the Serengeti gave us a stunning farewell gift.

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Muba drove us at a fast clip to the east gate of the Serengeti where he signed us out and where we mucked around at the visitors centre. There were quite a few agama lizards out sunning themselves.

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This guy’s pink and blue livery is so pretty and I love his affronted expression for daring to use the word “pretty” on him!

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The visitor centre also had a few rocky outcrops where there was a great view out of the Serengeti. Here, the plains extended on, but sadly in the form of desert rather than scrubland and kopjes. While it was even more arrestingly flat, there was a strong sense of desolation from the arid plains.

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The long drive out from the Serengeti gate brought us past a few scattered Grant’s gazelles and alarmingly, bleached antelope skulls. Later, a blob came up on the horizon and we knew that we were approaching the Shifting Sands. According to Muba, Ngorongoro used to be a mountain higher than Everest, perhaps even twice Everest’s height (or so he said). One day, the mountain turned out to be a volcano and it blew its top off, creating the largest caldera in the world. Some of the volcanic dust was magnetic. Over time, these magnetic dust particles coalesced into a dune known as the Shifting Sands. The sand was blown along by the strong winds sweeping across the flat plains, and kept together by the strange magnetism.

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It has a highly symmetrical shape because of the wind coming steadily from only one direction. According to Muba, it shifts several metres each year, slowly making its way westward.

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Here’s evidence that it really is magnetic! Either that or the iPhone is busted.

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Check out the movement of the sand in the wind. Videos often do more justice than photos.

Our next stop was the Oldupai Gorge, famously known as the location for Mary and Louis Leakey’s discovery of early man. For good reason, tourists aren’t allowed access to archaeological site itself proper. We contented ourselves with the little museum on the gorge. There was lots of information on wildlife in the area and various archeological finds.

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Note that they very proudly call the area Oldupai and not Olduvai as normally termed by the tourist industry and the scientific community. Oldupai is named after the hardy sisal-like plants that grow in the area. Olduvai is what the first westerner exploring the area called it. This German guy either heard wrongly or couldn’t wrap his tongue around the P and christened it its western form to the outside world.

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What was most interesting about the museum of two little rooms was the cast of the tracks of the early hominids. The discovery of the tracks of a large hominid walking together with a medium sized one and followed by a small one showed that they walked upright with feet not unlike modern humans’. This was the trigger to further discoveries along the same vein and the current thinking that Africa is the cradle of humankind. To me, the tracks of the three-toed horse and a little bird were more enthralling!

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We finished looking through the museum in about an hour, taking much longer than the other tourists, and went out to enjoy the view of the Olduvai Gorge. Check out the monolith in the centre. I wonder how it escaped erosion to stand proud like that.

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(Click here for a larger image.)

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