Our journey to Magadi began bright and early. It was a very cool morning, quite cloudy with the potential for a shower any minute. We quickly packed our bags and the field equipment into a rented lorry and the Land Rover, before saying our goodbyes to everyone in the compound. By 9:30 we were on the road, heading south through Karen into the Rift Valley. The lorry had 8 seats in the back of the trailer so we had a fantastic view the entire ride. We traveled on the same road we had taken to Olorgesailie a few days before and as we progressed the weather of the Rift Valley began to reveal itself. We left the clouds behind in Karen and were welcomed by dry gusty winds and warm afternoon sun. Pretty soon we were all sweating. The lorry died a few times on the road to Magadi so we constantly had to get out and push. Dr. Barthelme wasn’t very pleased that our porters would bring a vehicle with a faulty starter into the wilderness and who can blame him. Even with the delays we made it in good time, arriving in just over three hours.
Magadi is a very small town located right on the shore of Lake Magadi, a sodium bicarbonate lake covering around 100 square kilometers. Magadi is a mining town of sorts as a large factory there processes soda ash from the lake. This soda ash can be used for making various glass products, especially soda bottles. A new plant constructed in 2006 promises to produce an even higher quality soda ash, one that could be used for making eyeglasses and even fiber optics. However, due to technical difficulties, the plant is not yet operational. During the dry season, the lake is 80% covered soda so this isn’t the kind of lake you would want to swim in. First, there is the awful smell of sulfur that permeates the air. Second the lake is too warm. You see Magadi is fed by hot springs that constantly refuel it with salinated water from deep within the earth. The water temperature at these springs can hover around 200 degrees. The lake is home to a single species of small fish that have adapted to the extreme temperatures, Alcolapia grahami, as well as flamingos.
Our camp was located north east of the Magadi town, about a forty-minute drive through the bush. When we first arrived I could not believe how beautiful it was. Our camp was located at the edge of Little Magadi at the base of a 200-foot cliff. Rolling hills dotted with volcanic rocks surrounded us to the east and the south while small grove of trees provided shade in the afternoon. We wasted no time breaking camp. We used machetes to cut the grass down, then set up our tents. I joined Dr. Barthelme and Evans, our assistant cook, on a water run. The tank was located 30 minutes west at a small church/school house. It took ages to fill the tanks in the back of the Land Rover, but Dr. Barthelme took the time to explain some of the land features to me and the local Maasai children also kept us company. We also chatted with the Pastor of the church, Rev. James Haggai Onyango Ogonji, a kind and intelligent man who invited us to attend the church’s 1st anniversary on the following day. We accepted the invitation and then headed back to camp with the water.
That night, Alex prepared what would be the first of many great meals in the field. We had salad, potatoes, ugli, which is a dish that looks like mashed up rice, stew with beef and vegetables, and even fresh fruit. Not bad considering I was expected to eat beans and rice for the full two weeks. Our Maasai watch man, Mzee Olekukuu, joined us later that evening. Olekukuu has been a part of the team for 12 years. He is somewhere in his early eighties and has four wives. It is quite common for Maasai men to have more than one wife, especially one as old and as wealthy as Olekukuu.
That night I sat on top of the Land Rover and enjoyed the stars of the southern hemisphere, which I had never seen before. Without the lights from nearby cities it was absolutely breathtaking. I headed to bed around 9PM, anxious for the next day.