Tanzania: Climbing Mt Lengai
Ol Doinyo Lengai – Tanzania’s Mountain of God
By Adam Black
It’s a few moments before sunrise, and we are shivering on the lip of an active volcano. The crater rim is about a meter-wide, with fairly certain falls to death on either side.
In front of us is is the perilous mountainside we’ve just climbed – a steep hill of cragged rock and slippery volcanic dirt rising about 2000m above the Rift Valley floor, pocked with holes and fault-lines steaming out hot sulfuric gas. Behind us is the drop into the belly of the beast itself – an ominous pit of black lava.
Ol Doinyo Lengai is the volcano’s name, it means ‘the mountain of God’ in Maasai language. For the Maasai the volcano is a place of pilgrimage and reverence, the mountain god expresses its wrath frequently in the form of smoke and eruptions.
We are lucky this day that Lengai has bestowed her wrath upon us only in the form of sore knees and a slight sleep-deprived delirium. ‘That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,’ says one of my companions, looking at the drop below, and we all laugh like insane people.
No game drive
Ol Doinyo Lengai presides over idyllic flamingo-filled Lake Natron, located in the Rift Valley one day’s drive north from Serengeti National Park. My girlfriend Amanda and I travelled there with five friends after a four day safari spent sitting on cushioned seats and drinking beer whilst being ferried between various incredible animal sightings. It was pretty tough.
We arrived in Lake Natron in the simmering late afternoon heat, occasionally passing a lone Maasai in blue and red shukas, dangly beaded jewelry hanging from drooping earlobes, belt slung with the twin essentials of machete and mobile phone. They would survey us in stunned silence, as if we were the amazing-looking people.
As we rumbled into the town center an entire school of children flooded into the street behind our safari truck, waving and screaming as they chased us through the dust.
At dinner our guide Ombeni told us we had nothing to worry about regarding the climb and introduced us to a local guide – Denis – who would be taking us up the volcano.
Denis told us we would have to leave camp at eleven, and start our ascent at midnight in order to reach the summit before sunrise at six. ‘Do you have sticks?’ he asked. None of us had packed sticks.
Imagine you are the mountain…
After a couple of hours of light sleep we drove to the volcano, now eerily backlit by a low-hanging white moon. As we bumped along the dirt road Bow asked if we could put on a meditation tape.
A broad Australian accent implored us to ‘imagine a vast and ancient mountain in your mind’s eye’ and ‘become one with this mountain.’ It wasn’t hard to do, there was one approaching. The suspense was killing us so we switched the tape to Kanye West.
The Climb Begins
Spirits were high as we set off through the high grass around the base of the volcano. The gradient was gentle, and the time passed quickly as we chatted and sang songs.
The vegetation soon disappeared and we found ourselves walking between thigh-high valleys of volcanic rock, struggling to grip onto the black sand and loose gravel below. In the dark we sometimes failed to notice things around us, such as the cavernous gorge falling away to our right.
We’d only been walking for three hours but the summit seemed close. ‘How far from here Denis?’ we asked, and he said two and a half hours. ‘No way!’ we said, ‘It’s right there,’ pointing to the outline of what appeared to be the mountain top.
But the volcano was deceptive. Its sides curved exponentially like the side of a half-pipe. We tried to judge the angle of the slope by comparing it to the skyline. 50 degrees? 60? By now one of our group had decided the climb was too crazy, and headed back with Ombeni.
Eventually we were climbing on all fours, clinging to a precipitous slab of rock like uncertain lizards. Occasionally someone’s foot would dislodge a loose rock and you could hear it bouncing down the rock-face. The increasing gaps between the echoing cracks of rock on rock suggesting that a fall backwards would be very unpleasant indeed.
What we had thought was the top of the volcano was just the silhouette of a canyon leading up to the true summit. The air was tinged with the rotten-egg smell of sulfur as we began crawling through the loose dirt towards the crater rim. Gases leaked from holes in the side of the mountain in thick wafts of steam.
The truth Comes out at the Top
At the summit we peered timidly over the crater rim into the back lava below. ‘Denis, when’s the last time this thing erupted?’
‘Oh great… Has anyone ever died?’
‘Yes,’ he said, and went on to tell us a horrific story about a man who had been on the top with a research team in 2006 when he trod on a tube of lava that he had mistaken for cooled rock. His legs broke through the black outer layer and plunged into the piping hot lava inside. He lost both his legs and burned his hand terribly.
We cursed the volcano as Denis went off looking for orange lava, and laughed deliriously about the insanity of our present situation.
‘This is so ridiculously dangerous.’
‘Let’s just be happy we’re all alive.’
‘So far, we still have to get back down.’
‘No way, I’m not going back down, look at that slope, it’s even worse now I can see it.’
‘We can’t go down that thing, it’s suicide.’
‘You’re right, we just have to live here now, on this god-forsaken crater rim.’
‘Denis can go back down and tell Ombeni that we’re not moving until they send a helicopter to collect us.’
Our attitudes brightened as the first warm rays of the sun arrived, revealing the volcano’s perplexing beauty to us for the first time. In the dark the volcano had been all black and brown but now we saw that it was stained with surreal yellow and white patches of soft porous rock.
The descent was made easier by the brilliant view of the Rift Valley, but it was no less perilous. Our crew were staggered down the mountain, and there were frequent calls of “Rock!” as a stone above would be dislodged and come hurtling for one of the climbers below.
One mango-sized rock whizzed past my hip, bounced next to Tim, and set off on a collision course straight for David’s head. ‘David!!!’ we screamed. He dipped his head forward as the rock hurtled over his neck.
David turned and asked, ‘What?’ blissfully unaware that he’d avoided death by about two inches.
Ombeni was waiting for us at the base with a cheeky grin when we arrived several hours later. ‘Ombeni why didn’t you tell us that was going to be a suicide mission?!’
The cheeky grin spread. ‘If I had told you how hard it is, you might not have done it.’
We feigned outrage but he was right – it had been an undeniably memorable experience.
Our guides said we could rest our aching bodies at a nearby waterfall, but it’d be a one hour walk.
‘An hour?’ We thought about it – that’d bring our total walking time in the last 24 hours up to 14 hours.
We walked upstream along a river bed, shaded by towering walls of rock on either side. We had to cross the river several times along the way, and at one point Jess abruptly dropped knee-deep into a sinkhole and had to be dug out by Paul and Tim.
We were beginning to wonder if our time might have been better spent sleeping when we reached our destination and discovered it was a lush earthly paradise. Water rained from moist rocks high above, falling through palm trees growing at improbable angles.
We passed under the waterfall into the cool caves behind. Further along was a powerful waterfall which churned in the rocks below, creating a sort of natural jacuzzi. Denis opened his cooler and handed us each an ice-cold beer. We had returned to our natural state of sitting and drinking beer. Basking in the sun against the warm rocks I think we all could have fallen asleep right there.
You can book a trip to Lake Natron and Ol Doinyo Lengai through Savannah Discovery.
Adam Black is an Australian freelance journalist currently volunteering in Tanzania with his partner Amanda.
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