In ancient sands that reveal our past

Above: The anicent earth of Turkana by the Turkwel River flowiing into Lake Turkana
Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: 3 February 2018 Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper

Eagle's eye-view of Turkana Basin Copyright Rupi Mangat
Eagle’s eye-view of Turkana Basin Copyright Rupi Mangat

The eagle’s eye-view from the air is fascinating – vast horizons of sand, thorn trees, plains and hills. Closer to landing time at Lodwar, l scan the hills of Lothagam with their ancient sediments dating seven million years before present – when this part of the world was the home of dinosaurs like carnivorous theropods, herbivorous sauropods, and flying pterosaurs that lived many more millions of years than seven.

In my mind’s eye this would be the magical grounds for a Harry Potter sequel – with beast- footed dinosaurs (theropods) that shook the ground they walked on; mega-gigantic sauropods’ that nothing could rival their size and flying pterosaurs that ruled the skies. Pterosaurs were actually reptiles and the first vertebrates known to have mastered the power of flight.

That all this was happening in this 18,000-square-kilometre Turkana Basin, when l’m suddenly brought to present with the bump on landing at present-day Lodwar -the ‘old’ new desert city surrounded by volcanic hills that’s now booming with business in the wake of oil discoveries.

 Turkana Basin Institute 34 kilometers north of Lodwar Copyright Rup Mangat
Turkana Basin Institute 34 kilometers north of Lodwar Copyright Rup Mangat

l learn that Turkana Basin Institute is only 34 kilometers away from here. I’m bursting with excitement. In 2016, a Dassanach fossil finder with TBI had come across a fossil in the ancient sediments. It took a week to unearth the gigantic fossil of Loxondonta adaurora – a gigantic prehistoric elephant whose skull alone weighed two tonnes or 2,000 kilogrammes!

It lived four million years ago when the desert was much greener. Even a century ago there were elephants when Count Samuel Teleki strode into Turkana and confirmed the existence of the last of the African Great Lakes on 5 March 1888,which he coined the Jade Sea and named it Lake Rudolf (after the Prince of Austria).

Little did he realize that it would be the world’s largest permanent lake in a desert – its length 265 kilometers – equivalent to the distance from Nairobi to Mtito Andei (half-way to Mombasa) or Nairobi to Kericho (near Lake Victoria). There’s no way one can do the lake or the surrounding vistas in one visit – which means there’s always something new that Turkana tweaks.

There’s little time for the lake as we drive through scorched river-beds, sand pans, hills and doum-palm thatched homesteads of the Turkana that pop up every few kilometres. Camels and goats graze on the little pasture in the desert and only the thin line of dark green tells of the Turkwel River flowing out of the massifs of western Kenya to reach the lake.

Two hours later at the gates of TBI reality dawns. In the excitement of wanting to discover the ancient era of the dinosaurs up to present all brought forth from the fossil finds stored at the world famous institute, we should have sought permission for a tour.

Red and Yellow barbet at Turkana Basn Institute - l would happily have traded places with it to flit around! Copyright Rupi Mangat
Red and Yellow barbet at Turkana Basn Institute – l would happily have traded places with it to flit around! Copyright Rupi Mangat

So at the gates of TBI, the lanky Turkana gate-keeper sadly shook his head and informed us that everything was closed and no one to show us around because everyone was on a semester break. At this point l would have happily been the colourful barbet perched on the fence.

Standing outside we scan the lay of the land. Faulted ridges, red soils, volcanic litter – and we’re standing where the dinosaurs ruled. Imagine telling that story to a kid!

The dinosaurs went out with a bang…two theories are that a massive meteorite hit the Yukatan Peninsula followed by massive volcanic eruptions in India that brought an end to the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

With the big ‘beasts’ out of the way other life took advantage of the vacuum created.

Turkana is the cradle of humankind. Reading the TBI website, it states. “Every human being alive today shares DNA inherited from a common ancestral population that we currently believe lived in or within a few hundred miles of the Turkana Basin, about 60-70,000 years ago.”

To visit Turkana Basin Institute

There’s so much to see in Turkana from the north to the south, east to west and the islands. It’s the home of the Turkana boy – the most complete early human skeleton ever found. It is believed to be between 1.5 and 1.6 million years old.

But remember it’s a vast territory and super-hot. Plan your itinerary well.

Turkana Basin has yielded the world’s oldest stone tools including the emergence of modern Homo sapiens (us) in the last 250,000 years.

The Cradle - Lodwar's newest luxury lodge Copyright Rupi Mangat
The Cradle – Lodwar’s newest luxury lodge Copyright Rupi Mangat

In Lodwar stay at the Cradle Tented Camp for the modern visitor.

On a budget go to Saint Teresa’s Pastoral Centre: Phone: (+254-54) 21.468, Email:  – en suite rooms by Turkwel River.