At the cradle of the world.
Journey. Richard Leakey is the most famous paleoanthropologist in the world. In the far north of Kenya, at Lake Turkana, he searched for decades for the beginnings of Homo sapiens. There he is now planning the first museum in human history. He was already able to get star architect Daniel Libeskind enthusiastic about the great project. Now he needs patrons.
Two days ago it rained in Illeret, a real downpour. In the semi-desert on the north-eastern shore of Lake Turkana this is a small sensation. Richard Leakey is correspondingly excited when he drives his SUV to Area 1. Years ago, he found the bones of an early man here. Now, after the torrential rain, new fossils may emerge through washing out. With a concentrated look he searches the underground.
The 35 degrees in the shade don't seem to bother Leakey much. Although he's already 73. Although he lost both his lower legs in a plane crash in 1993 and is dependent on prostheses. It does not take a quarter of an hour, then he discovers a bone in the hard clay soil, presumably from a long extinct antelope species.
A smile scurries over Leakey's face. He beckons Woto Hurri, one of his assistants. He will later recover the find professionally, take it to the nearby Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) and prepare it there with a kind of dental drill and chemicals. "It's a Sisyphean task," the researcher admits. "Only one percent of all finds are human bones. But the Turkana Basin is a world-class prehistoric excavation site, our crèche. Sometimes among our discoveries is a six with an extra number."
The TBI has now existed for eight years with two sites on Lake Turkana, the one near Illeret and another near Turkwel on the western shore of the lake. It was initiated by the Leakey family and New York's Stony Brook University, who wanted to create a kind of base camp to explore the history of mankind in this inhospitable region that was as close as possible to the excavation sites. Leakey succeeded in collecting 20 million dollars from Stony Brook University and private patrons for the development of the TBI.
Often Leakey himself doesn't come up here to northern Kenya anymore. The journey from Nairobi is too arduous. Too harsh the climate. He also has a competent successor in his daughter Louise, who supervises the excavations and manages the TBI.
Recently, however, he set off again for the "Jade Sea", as Lake Turkana is also called because of its turquoise green colour. In tow he had Daniel Libeskind, the US-American star architect and urban planner of Polish-Jewish origin. The spiritual father of the Jewish Museum Berlin had met Leakey's daughter Louise during a photo safari in neighbouring Tanzania and had shown great interest in the family's work.
Louise then arranged lunch between her father and Libeskind. "I carefully told him about my museum plans," says Richard Leakey. The famous architect became curious.
Together they flew to Lake Turkana, where the museum will be located. "Libeskind was immediately thrilled. He said spontaneously: "I'm in! And added that this could be his most important project," Leakey recalls. He had not expected such a positive reaction. After all, most people are rather intimidated when they climb out of a small propeller engine in the wasteland of northern Kenya.
At first glance, the area around Lake Turkana is actually the antithesis to a place that tourism managers would wish for: scorching hot, dusty, at the end of the world. Desert wind drives into the round huts of the semi-nomadic Turkana, which are clad in corrugated iron. Dry goats are looking for food on the barren ground. They are guarded by serious-looking children, barefoot, filthy encrusted. On the horizon the sea shimmers in the haze, powerful as a sea, eleven times as big as Lake Constance, packed with crocodiles.
Kenya's capital Nairobi is 1000 kilometres away. Anyone who dares to take the difficult route in an off-road vehicle is on the road for at least three days on shaky tracks - if the tyres hold out and there are no robberies by bandits. Tribal wars are the rule rather than the exception. They are held with Kalashnikovs, which are cheap to have in nearby Southern Sudan.
Libeskind left it all unimpressed. The two men began to make plans. The central hall of the world's first museum of human history is to rise 15 storeys high above the semi-desert in the future. This "cathedral", in which a huge DNA double helix is supposed to symbolize the essence of life, will be surrounded by buildings whose shape is based on the hand axes and other tools from the Stone Age. The ensemble will trace the outlines of the African continent from above.
Whether the museum will also show important hominid finds as well as other excavations and fossils, Leakey leaves open, but he seems to be rather opposed: "I don't think much of exhibiting such exhibits, locked away and behind glass. It is much more important for him to give easily understandable answers to the great questions of mankind: "Where do we come from? What makes us human? Who are our ancestors? Why were there dinosaurs and why did they die out? Why is there life on earth, why evolution?"
The temptation is great to dismiss Leakey's plans because of the inhospitability of the area as a fantasy. Who's gonna come here to visit a museum? Richard Leakey himself jokes: "All my life I've been doing things that I was told I should let be better." He's determined to end this project. And he knows full well that he doesn't have forever time. The researcher has undergone kidney and liver transplants and left traces of skin cancer on his lifelong sun-maltreated face. "From now on, I'm going to focus exclusively on the museum, spend all my time on it. Construction should start in two to three years, opening in five years."
Wildly determined and fearless - the Leakeys have always been that. Richard Leakey's grandparents came to Kenya as missionaries in the 1890s. He himself, a convinced atheist and scientist, takes a critical view of the strictly believing Protestant background of his ancestors. But he stresses that his ancestors came poor and destitute to East Africa and wanted nothing to do with the rich, white settlers who in the first half of the 20th century cultivated a rather pleasure-seeking lifestyle (often at the expense of blacks).
Richard's parents Louis and Mary Leakey were the first direct hits as explorers of human history. Richard's mother Mary found the oldest known fossils of early humans in Tanzania. And his father Louis refuted many scientists of his time who believed that man came from Asia and was only a few 100,000 years old. He is de facto even the originator of the theory that the origin of mankind is to be found in Africa - a point of view which is again doubted today.
For Richard Leakey, born and raised in Nairobi, it was clear that he would one day follow in the footsteps of his parents. He is only 22 when, on a flight over Lake Turkana, he suspects that the region could be rich in fossils. Back in 1967, the unknown young man made his living on safaris. "To get to the shore, I had to rent camels first." But the effort is worth it. In 1969 he makes his first big find here: His people recover the almost completely preserved skull of a prehistoric man who lived here more than 1.7 million years ago. He also digs stone tools out of the volcanic ash.
Leakey then has an airfield built so that he can return at any time. In the following 20 years, he caused a sensation with ever new discoveries and strengthened his reputation as the planet's most famous paleoanthropologist. In 1984, he then uncovers the world-famous Turkana boy. The completely preserved skeleton contributes significantly to the fact that the "Out of Africa" thesis about the origin of human beings is substantiated. Here, at Lake Turkana, humanity was born, Leakey suspects. For this reason alone there could be no better place for the museum.
In the meantime, the family is already researching the family tree of hominids in the third generation. The Leakeys account for more than half of all descriptions of former human relatives. And Richard's wife, Maeve, also has her share.
Louise, their daughter, grows up in the bush and knows how to drive a Land Rover even as a primary schoolgirl. She now manages the TBI and is married to Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian prince (and descendant of King Leopold). Emmanuel de Merode has since made a name for himself as director of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and as a fearless animal welfarist.
One such is Richard Leakey. The fight against poaching and the ivory trade was always as important to him as the search for the origins of mankind. He had large piles of confiscated elephant tusks burned and was not afraid to mess with powerful opponents and denounce the excessive corruption in Kenya. His leg prostheses bear eloquent witness to this. After all, the crash of his small plane in 1993 was very probably an attempted murder.
Leakey was under personal protection at the time because he had received threatening letters and phone calls. Manipulations of the wreck were actually detected. He's playing it down himself: "No one could prove it was sabotage. Okay, they tried to kill me. But I've decided to go on living."
Today, the researcher even jokes about his leg stumps: "They allow me to fiddle out of unpleasant social events. I fake phantom pain, and everyone regrets me." Leakey prefers to spend time in his vineyards on the Grabenbruch rather than on the parquet floor. Here he experimented successfully with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two grape varieties that were not exactly created for cultivation on the equator. But that's how he ticks. He wants to show that it still works.
Anyone who knows the life story of Richard Leakey has no doubt that he will also make the seemingly impossible possible with the museum. Leakey itself expects total costs of around 100 million US dollars. So far, only Tullow Oil, a British-Irish gas and oil company based in London, which produces black gold in the Turkana Basin, has pledged three million dollars - "only" 97 million is still missing. He is currently in talks with large foundations in the USA, reports Leakey.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta also supported the project, ditto the Tourism Minister. "The museum is supposed to be a statement. Something Africa can be proud of. And a reminder that we all have the same roots, regardless of skin color, race, nationality, or religion."
Leakey is currently recruiting a team of exhibition designers. They will also integrate a planetarium into the museum. There the visitors will be able to see a film about the origin of the earth. "If the history of our planet could be pressed into a single day, we humans would appear in it only in the last two seconds. We're just a blink of an eye in the stream of time." He wants to convey such insights to visitors easily and playfully. They will use multimedia technology to understand how palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists work together, which biomolecular processes and dating methods they use, and what role genetics plays in this. He already has a name for the museum: Ngaren, the Turkana word for beginning.
Leakey hopes that his project will bring a boost to the Turkana Basin, which is so close to his heart: new roads, more flights from Nairobi, perhaps even an international airport like Arusha in neighbouring Tanzania - but above all more tourists again. "Lake Turkana is a very special place," he says. "You can hate him. Or love him. I have become hopelessly addicted to him." ®
One of the last great adventures for individualists - der Trip to Lake Turkana.
The Turkana Basin is an ardent furnace on the border with Ethiopia, constantly threatened by drought, Kenya's poorhouse, a place for survival artists. African novices who only want to see the "Big Five" and live in luxurious lodges are better off sticking to the famous parks in the south of the country. But for all those who want to experience something very special, the "Jade Sea" could be the right destination.
Although poachers have decimated the animal population in the Sibiloi National Park on the east side of the lake, the reserve is still a species-rich ecosystem. If you are lucky, you will see long-necked giraffe gazelles that stand on their hind legs to eat, Beisa antelopes or the rare little kudus. Lyre antelopes and Grevy zebras graze on the lake shore. If you stay at the Kenya Wildlife Service guesthouse on Alia Bay, you are quite sure to have the herds to yourself, because more than 500 tourists don't visit the park - every year! What a contrast to the crowds that crowd the Masai Mara during the great animal migration.
The German Wolfgang Deschler once ran the legendary Oasis Club on the lakeside. In the late 1980s, celebrities such as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Thomas Gottschalk flew in by seaplane in the parched moon landscape. Photo shootings for fashion magazines took place at the pool, and John le Carré did research for his 2001 novel "Der ewige Gärtner", in which Deschler also plays a role. He used to say, "Not many interesting people come up here."
Tempi passati. The German sold the club long ago. Political unrest, tribal conflicts, bomb attacks, pirates on the coast - there are many reasons for the slump in tourism in Kenya. The cradle of mankind sank into a twilight sleep.
It is particularly fascinating to travel by land from the Omo valley in southern Ethiopia, the only tributary of Lake Turkana, to Illeret in northern Kenya. Louise Leakey even thinks that this is the only way to understand the whole dimension of the cross-border region as the nursery of Homo sapiens. Leakey's father Richard also made important hominid finds during his expeditions to the Omo valley. The river is also the lifeline of Lake Turkana.
Because Ethiopia's state-owned energy supplier is now damming up the Omo in gigantic projects - three out of five power plants are already in operation - and at the same time a lot of water is diverted for cotton and sugar cane plantations, the Omo is less and less able to fulfil its function as a lifeline: The water level is dropping, Lake Turkana is salty. And the tribes living in the Omo valley lack the fertile mud from the floods, which allows them to cultivate crops on the banks.
Most of the 16 ethnic groups in the Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still retain their archaic traditions. The Suri drink the fresh blood of their cattle, to which they open the carotid artery with an arrow. The Mursi women proudly wear their heavy clay lip plates. The Kara paint their bodies with artistic ornaments. The Italian Ethiopia researcher Carlo Conti Rossini therefore christened the valley "museo di populi", Museum of Peoples.
Those who travel from here further south, across the "green" border to Kenya, will recognize the shimmering and reflections of the lake in the endless expanse. And finds a small sea without a drain, which loses its water only by evaporation.
This is where the Dassanech live. Their round huts have recently been covered with corrugated iron to protect them from the constantly blowing wind. On the Ethiopian side in the Omo Delta the tribe hunts crocodiles and catches Nile perch - on the Kenyan side around Illeret they keep goats and cattle.
The Dassanech and their southern lake neighbours, the Turkana, have traditionally fought bloody feuds. It is about abducted women, stolen cattle, coveted grazing grounds and water rights. In former times they fought these fights with sticks and spears. But since cheap Kalashnikovs from Southern Sudan have flooded both the Omo Valley and the Turkana Basin, the blood toll has increased dramatically. A Dassanech, who wants to be accepted as a man, must kill the man of a neighbouring tribe, so the code of honour demands it. Tourists therefore have nothing to fear.
On the Turkana Lake, forgotten by the world, there are no ferries despite its enormous size. If you want to visit Central Island, the volcanically active island in the middle of the lake, you need a strong motorboat that can withstand the waves up to two meters high and the dangerous winds. And even then it takes a good hour from Alia Bay before the outlines of the mysterious island emerge from the haze.
Central Island is a kind of small Galapagos, a bird paradise with cormorant colonies, pelicans, herons, storks and flamingos that live in the crater lakes with their different salt concentrations and colours. And then there are the crocodiles of Lake Turkana, who gather in the "Crocodile Lake" of Central Island in January and February to lay their eggs. About ten thousand are said to be the largest concentration of these lizards in all of Africa.
The tourist density, on the other hand, is negligibly low. Those who translate to Central Island and camp there in comfortable safari tents will probably have the island all to themselves. Africa can hardly be experienced in a more intensive and original way.
A combined "Cradle of Mankind" trip to Southern Ethiopia (Omo Valley) and Northern Kenya (Turkana Lake), for example, may look like this: From Addis Ababa by charter flight to Omo Valley (Lumale Camp); on to Omorate (exit stamp) and across the "green" border to Illeret in Kenya (registration at police station), Sibiloi National Park with Alia Bay, Central Island, western shore of Lake Turkana (Lobolo Camp), transfer to Lodwar Regional Airport and flight to Nairobi-Wilson domestic airport. Here is the entry stamp for Kenya. Taxi transfer to the international airport and return flight. Tourist visas for both countries must be obtained in advance in Germany.
The British East Africa specialist Wild Philanthropy (https://wildphilanthropy.com), founded by animal and nature conservationist William Jones, is the only organiser with local partners in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya who run comfortable tent camps in beautiful locations there. The travel consultants put together individual tours with small aircraft charter. Jones can also arrange visits to TBI. Price for four persons from about 900 Euro per person and day (all inclusive).
There are currently travel warnings from the Federal Foreign Office for certain regions of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya - but this only applies to individual travellers.
Author: Dr. Günter Kast