Confession: I’m a Zinjanthropus Groupie

I recently returned from a trip to Tanzania; a trip I told everyone was about cheetahs, and lions, and leopards.

Zinjanthropus (Australopithecus boisei) replica on display at Olduvai Gorge.
Zinjanthropus (Australopithecus boisei) replica on display at Olduvai Gorge.

I lied. It was actually a trip to fulfill a lifelong dream to see Olduvai Gorge, and to walk in the footsteps of my childhood heroes, Louis and Mary Leakey.

I was a strange child.

The Leakeys, as you may know, were giants in the field of human evolution. In the 1950s and 60s, they made discovery after discovery which added to our knowledge of how we came to be. Much of their work was done in a place called Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania.

Since I am a child of the 60s, I grew up watching their accomplishments on television and in magazines like National Geographic. I dreamed that someday I might meet Louis and Mary, and maybe even find a way to do what they do.

My obsession was so bad that I actually wrote a letter to Louis in about 1970, when I was 9 years old. I have no idea what I wrote, or how the letter found it’s way to Africa, but Mary replied. Somewhere in a sea of less important paperwork, I still have that letter. In it Mary explained that Louis was very busy, but that they both appreciated my letter. And she encouraged my interest in human evolution.

The Leakey story at the tiny Olduvai Gorge Museum in Tanzania
The Leakey story at the tiny Olduvai Gorge Museum in Tanzania

I often wish I had followed up on that letter, but when I heard that Louis passed away in 1972, my dreams of becoming a world-famous anthropologist faded too. I went on to other things, mostly wildlife-related things like writing and photography.

And that’s how I finally found my way to Olduvai Gorge.

The monument at Olduvai Gorge to Mary Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus in 1959

Situated between two of the great wildlife meccas in Africa – Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti plains – Olduvai Gorge, and the site of Mary Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus in 1959, is a place I had to visit.

Giving up a day of Big Cats and Great Migrations isn’t an easy choice for most wildlife photographers, but it was a prerequisite for my first trip to Africa.

A thunderstorm rolled in just as I arrived, and I watched silently as a deluge of rain washed the valley. I toured the tiny little museum, and I persuaded one of the guides there to take me to the site of Mary Leakey’s historic discovery. He didn’t want to drive into the gorge and cross the Olduvai River in a driving rain, but I was not going to be denied.

It was slick and muddy, but worth the risk (and the tip) to be able to stand in the footsteps of my heroes.

The site is still an active dig, although only in the middle of the Tanzanian winter – June, July, and August. Since I was there in January, I was alone, with only my guide. And for a time I forgot completely about wildlife and photography.

I was lost in my thoughts and almost didn’t take any photos at the small monument commemorating Mary’s discovery, but my guide suggested I should. I’m glad he did.

Childhood dreamed realized.

Did I mention I was a strange child?

A view of Olduvai Gorge from the rim as a storm rolls in. The official name of the site has been changed to “Oldupai”, in keeping with the traditional Maasai spelling of the word.

You can find out more about the Leakeys and their work at

You can see more from my trip to Africa at

2 thoughts on “Confession: I’m a Zinjanthropus Groupie

  1. Strange children grow to be strange men, could by why we are good friends 🙂

    What a great decision to pilgrimage to Olduvai Gorge, a huge regret of mine from my trip to the Dolomite Alps is that I spaced out that I wanted to see “Ice Man” who was only a few miles from my hotel in Bozen. I didn’t remember until after I had left, as I was preoccupied capturing the mountain magic of the Dolomite Range. Good for your for following through.

    What an epic adventure you had!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this and your experience. While I would love to travel to Tanzania, also, in my lifetime, the likelihood of that is pretty slim. Your writing really brought the experience – and your lifelong interest – to life. I’m very moved. Thanks again, so much.

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