Lorna Buchanan-Jardin/Courtesy of The Safari Collection

Renowned paleontologist Louise Leakey guides travelers on explorations of Lake Turkana, an ancient body of water in eastern Africa where even today some of the oldest human fossils are still being discovered. 

Michele Jana Chan
August 15, 2017

As the helicopter rose over a ridge, I caught my first glimpse of Lake Turkana, a breathtaking sky-blue crescent in the desert of northern Kenya. Nomadic fishermen still make camp on spits of land that reach into its alkaline waters, which fill a basin formed more than 4 million years ago. Brightly colored mineral pools dot the shores of the lake. Little volcanoes poke through its reflective surface, including one, known as Central Island, that is still active. A smaller lake inside the crater is home to thousands of flamingos.

Thanks to Lake Turkana's rich fossil record, it is one of the world's great laboratories for the study of human origins. I had come with Louise Leakey, a paleontologist from a family of scientists who have worked on the banks of the lake for nearly half a century. To raise awareness and funds to support her research, Leakey has teamed up with the Safari Collection, a tour operator, to guide the Lake Turkana portion of a five-night itinerary that also includes helicopter tours, wildlife encounters, and luxury lodge stays. After landing, we strolled by the lake, passing several archaeological digs in progress. I spotted a sinewy fisherwoman cleaning a tilapia she had just caught. She was from the El Molo, an ethnic group that has resided in this part of Kenya for thousands of years. As she raised a sharp rock to tear open the belly of the fish, we made eye contact. For just a moment I felt like I was one with the slipstream of history. Then she looked away, flipping offcuts to one side. Seagulls dove to snatch up the guts.

Over the next few days, as Leakey showed me primitive tools and other artifacts, I understood Lake Turkana's power: to remind us that we are but a blip in the lifespan of the planet. A journey here is a call to live zestfully and to stay curious about the world — even its most remote parts.

Five-night trips from $14,780 per person (four-person minimum).

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