Some call it the cradle of humanity. At Olduvai Gorge, they say, some of the earliest ancestors of the human race - some of the first members of the Homo genus - lived, learned to use tools and rose up on their hind legs and began walking upright.
If so, it is not surprising that they walked away. This dry, dusty, barren area in northern Tanzania is hardly conducive to the establishment of great civilizations. Probably not much has changed here, say the experts, in the past few million years - except for the volcanoes. Back then, back when what we call Olduvai was home to clans of creatures now known as Australopithecus and Homo habilis, seven active volcanoes dotted the area. We know because on one day all those eons ago, one of them laid fresh layers of ash that preserved and protected footprints of a group of three habilis walkers.The footprints were outward bound. Even then, there were other places to go. And not only for that group. Some theorize that Homo sapiens also originated in Northern Africa and set out from here to populate the world. But all we know is that during recorded history, this area has never been home to more than a handful of wandering tribes. In more recent times they were called the Loliondo Maasai, the Tatog, the Dorobo, the Hadza, the Sandawe - tribes that eventually domesticated cattle and followed them across the grasslands, content to live as simply as their fathers and great-great-great-grandfathers did.
There were few resources and little inclination to settle into cities and build great palaces. But that's not to say the area is without its riches - especially to modern minds, who find wealth in the abundance of traditional wildlife and a storehouse of knowledge written in the stones and bones of the past.
Where once people walked away, increasing numbers are now coming back.
Today, the archaeological sites at Olduvai are just one of the fascinating pieces of the area known as the Ngorongoro Conservation District, a region set aside in 1959 to preserve both the heritage of the past and the living treasures of the present. Covering an area of 3,196 square miles, the district includes not only Olduvai Gorge but also the famous Ngorongoro Crater, a remnant of one of those ancient volcanoes and now home to an amazing array of wildlife. The district is not considered a national park but rather a pioneering experiment in shared land use; villages and cattle of the local Maasai tribes are allowed inside the boundaries, although they are strictly regulated. Offering unsurpassed glimpses of history, of nature and animals and of their interactions with man, Ngorongoro is, truly, one of the Earth's rare places.
In 1911, a German butterfly collector named Kattwinkel was the first to stumble into Olduvai Gorge and recognize its potential as an archaeological treasure trove. But the names most associated with it are the Leakeys - Louis and Mary - who spent years upon years dusting away grains of sand before one day in 1959 coming across the broken bones of a near-human skull. The primitive hominid, named Australopithecus, dated back 1.75 million years.
And it was Mary Leakey who in 1978 discovered the trail of footprints at Laetoli, some 20 miles away. Some small-brained, apelike/humanlike creatures left them 3.5 million years ago.
Despite the fact that the Leakeys dedicated their lives to solving the mysteries of evolution, to finding the missing links between themselves and these early hominid species, many questions and much controversy remains.
At Olduvai there is a small museum tracing the discoveries there, displaying mostly copies of some of the finds. It has no answers, either, only theories, only examples of tools and samples of bones. Still, to come face-to-face with the ancient past, to look from the heads and bodies of friends to the heads and bodies of these old, old life forms is a particularly intriguing experience.
At about the time the hominids were walking through volcanic ash, nearby Mt. Ngorongoro probably rivaled the great Kilimanjaro in size. But eventually, its spouting days over, the cone collapsed inward to form a caldera some 19 miles in diameter - still the world's largest intact crater.
With walls 2,000 feet high and a crater floor of about 102 square miles, the crater is home to a variety of ecosystems that sustain and support wildlife of almost every description. The crater walls are no barrier to the animals, which move in and out of the area at various times of the year. Lions born in the crater have been known to travel deep into the nearby Serengeti, for example. But permanent water and abundant grassland provide them with a reason to return.
Conservationists estimate that at any given time the crater is home to anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 large animals: wildebeest, zebra, gazelles, buffalo, eland, kongoni, warthogs, topi. Wildebeest, comic in appearance but successfully adapted to this climate, make up about half the population. Rhinos, victims of both poaching and habitat incursions, have decreased from approximately 100 in 1965 to around 20 today. About 100 lions usually call the crater home; maybe 400 or so spotted hyenas. Hippos wallow in a number of pools; flamingos are drawn by the thousands to the soda of Lake Magadi. Elephants - mostly males because the crater can't support the larger herds of females and calves - wander through the brushlands. Everything, it seems, but giraffes have found a way to live within the crater walls.
It is little wonder, then, that the crater has been designated a World Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve and is often described in superlatives.
"It is impossible to give a fair description of the size and beauty of the crater," wrote the late naturalist Bernhard Grzimek, who spent much of his life working there, "for there is nothing with which one can compare it. It is one of the wonders of the world."
With these words in mind, our group prepared to descend into the crater. We had been to the Serengeti and to Lake Manyara National Park and thrilled to the wildness and beauty of this country. But, we sensed, there was still a treat in store.
Clouds hugged the crater rim, where a few tourist lodges have been built, surrounding us in fog and mist as we transferred to the four-wheel-drive vehicles needed for the drive down the steep crater walls. Our driver's name was Annil; he was a smiling, friendly native used to taking visitors on this trek. "You will like it," he said. As we descended beneath the clouds, all of a sudden the crater floor opened up below us, a breathtaking panorama spread out for our view, and we knew he was right.
Our first stop, to put up the roofs of the vans, was near a water hole being used by zebra, wildebeest and soon a herd of cows being driven down the crater wall by a young Maasai boy. Here, at the very start, was an example not only of the wildness but also of the co-existence found here.
Next came Lake Magadi, which has also been around for a few million years. The unusual soda content of the water is particularly appealing to birds, most especially flamingos. Thousands of flamingos provide a lacy pink fringe for the water. We watched as they took off and landed, as they communicated with each other, as they did what flamingos do when they are not standing around with one leg tucked beneath their feathers.
At lunchtime, we had picnic boxes served up at the edge of Ngoitokitok springs, a large pool where hippos come to cool off. Accompanied by the splashing, grunting cadence of the lumbering beasts, we kept one eye on the pool and one on the sky. "The birds are very bold here," Annil told us. "Sometimes they will come down and take your food away." But it was not one of those days, so we ate our fill and watched the hippos.
After lunch, the vans headed in different directions (there were four in our group) but with radio communication among the drivers so that if one spotted something the others wouldn't miss out. The drivers know the animals well and have a good idea where they might be at various times of the day. Still, it is an adventure governed by luck. This is not a zoo or a safari park but natural habitat, where the unexpected is the order of the day. The number of vans allowed in on any given day is limited, and for the most part roads are designed to keep animals at a respectful distance.
So it was when we spotted a lump of rhino off in the grass, lying in the sun. "I'm sorry; I'm not allowed to leave the road," explained Annil. "We must watch from here." The distance was a bit far but not bad - especially when the animal rose, turned to face us as if it was just his job to pose for pictures, then slowly turned around and lay back down, work done for the day.
Later on there was excitement and buzzing back and forth among the drivers as we came across a young male lion that had been separated from his pride. He was lying in the road, and not particularly happy being the center of such attention. But he bore it well for a time before moseying off into the grass.
"You are very lucky," said Annil when we came across two hippos who were out of the water, contentedly munching grass along the bank. "It is rare to see these animals out of the water."
He said the same when we saw a large blacksnake, and a pair of blue herons on the water, a martial eagle dining on its prey, a pride of lions sunning themselves on the rocks, a herd of cape buffalo peering above the grass, looking as if they just put on their horn wigs for the day, and much more. We knew that whatever we saw, this would be a memorable experience. Still, we liked to think we had a bit more luck than the usual.
Toward the end of the journey, as we had stopped to watch a large bull elephant move across a meadow and to give the drivers a chance to compare notes and passengers, the late-afternoon sun highlighted the golden bark of the acacia trees, the weaver birds were calling in the trees and a feeling of contentment had settled over the group. And it was interesting to think about the crater, with its varied and verdant ecosystems, and the gorge, plainer, more sparsely inhabited. Yet both have ancient ties and both hold amazing treasures.
Civilization may have moved on; but how fortunate, indeed, that such places as Ngorongoro were left behind.