Remembering Richard Leakey’s Chivalry

RICHARD LEAKEY (1944-2022)

The recent death of paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey reminded me of his kindness as well as his crucial assistance to me while in East Africa decades ago. It was June 1980 when we met in Nairobi, Kenya. I walked into his National Museum office terribly concerned.  I was on assignment for Omni magazine en route to Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania to interview his mother, Mary Leakey, who with Richard’s father, Louis Leakey discovered Zinjanthropus—Mary later also finding the Laetoli footprints with her team.

Mary had telexed me in New York agreeing to the interview, instructing me to fly to Arusha, Tanzania and then take a jeep to her camp at Olduvai. 

But I was on a shoestring budget and my complimentary flight on Nigeria Airways routed me first through Lagos (where I managed to survive in a city then seriously lacking infrastructure as well as food) and then to Nairobi. I anticipated no problem finding transportation in Nairobi across the Kenya-Tanzania border.

But I was wrong. There were regional tensions at the time and upon arrival in Nairobi was advised that the border between Kenya and Tanzania was officially closed. What to do?    

Richard was at his museum desk when I walked in.  He was 35 years old then and had successfully recovered from a recent kidney transplant. I found him ebullient—a bit like his father must have been.  He was happy to help, saying: 

“If Mother telexed you to come to Olduvai, then you have to come!”

For a thousand dollars he offered to secure a plane and pilot for me.  The next hurdle was to get landing clearance from authorities in Dar es Salaam. 

I met a fellow from Lake Mwanza at the bar of the Nairobi Hilton who was running stones across the border and had connections. He offered to put me in touch with a certain Tanzanian official who could facilitate clearance.  

It took a week of pleading to Dar es Salam by phone before permission was granted.  It was landing clearance for only a few hours and only to interview Mary Leakey at Olduvai.

The plane was a single engine Cessna.  In retrospect, it may have been Richard’s own plane. I never asked.    

The pilot Richard hired for me flew us across the border, over Serengeti and Ngorongoro in the Great Rift Valley but had trouble finding the Gorge—a 30-mile-long ravine in Eastern Serengeti. It was the dry season and our maps were from the wet season. We circled three times before locating an opening in the terrain. I was getting sick. Finally, we found it, Olduvai, and dove in.  

Mary Leakey drove out to meet us as we landed, took us to her camp and introduced us to her four full size dalmatians who pounced on me.  She then made us a macaroni-and-cheese casserole, and we talked.  As a consummate scientist, however, Mary Leakey refused to speculate about anything—which was not exactly what Omni editors expected. Nor would she do so when some months later I traveled with an Omni photographer to her presentation in Philadelphia. 

I never saw Richard Leakey again. We had a brief email exchange about doing an evolution interview a decade ago or so when he was on the faculty at Stony Brook University.  His passing closes the door for me on storybook Africa.  But I am fortunate he helped to open that storybook for me.

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