Ol Doinyo Lengai

Ol Doinyo Lengai means "Mountain of God" in the language of the Maasai people. I do not speak that language, but I do know that it was a real bastard of a climb! I thank my young friend and onetime neighbor, Rob Anstey, for bringing me there to learn this firsthand. But we were not alone this time. Also along for the adventure were two of our best Tanzanian friends, Julius F. Koola and Ngaya A. Munuo, plus one of Ngaya's school friends named Lucas (or "Parrot," since he had a reputation as a guy who talks a lot) and one of Rob's fellow Englishmen, a young man named John who was in Tanzania for a "Gap" year program. We began our climb at half past midnight on June 5, 2002, reaching the summit just before dawn, and returning to our rented Land Rover at 10:30 AM.

Tanzania's only active volcano, this mountain is "only" 9,400 ft (2,900 m) high, but it's basically a combination sand dune and slag heap, a cone with sides inclined at a 45-degree angle, and the "trail," if you could call it that, takes you straight up it, with no switchbacks to speak of. Like most of my companions, I was half crawling half of the time, backsliding in loose sand and ash, grabbing hold of grass or roots or whatever I could get my hands on, including unreliable rocks which kept crumbling beneath my fingertips. We required frequent rest stops, during which our guide, a Maasai warrior on the downhill side of middle age by my estimate, would often nod off, betraying himself by snoring. There is not a single tree on the mountain, unfortunately, because that would have helped a lot. This is also why we had to make the climb in the middle of the night, because we would have roasted if we'd tried it in the daytime, in 90-degree desert heat with no shade or water to be found. I carried about a gallon of water on my back, and it was enough---barely. My mouth and throat got completely parched by inhaling all of the flying dust and ash kicked up by our passage. By the time we got close to the top, where we got onto some semisolid rock (much of which had a fine frosting of white ash which made me yearn for a powdered custard doughnut), I was hobbling along on my walking stick like an octogenarian. I wasn't the only one. I remember saying to Ngaya that now we know how his grandmother feels every time she takes her regular constitutional from their house to the gate of our school.

Even getting to the mountain was an odyssey. Once we turned north off of the main safari road in Mto wa Mbu (an unfortunate little stopover for tourists on the way to Ngorongoro Crater, the name of the town means "Mosquito River") it was four-wheel-drive all the way. Since the dry season was just beginning, the myriad tracks through the bush had turned to dust. Our driver, Isaac, who was, shall I say, a bit too timid for our liking, insisted upon bringing along a friend of his from Mto wa Mbu who supposedly knew the way. Maybe this extra assistance helped, maybe he didn't; we didn't pay the guy anything, but he seemed to calm poor Isaac's nerves. There were several occasions when our vehicle nearly became mired in deep dust the color of butterscotch pudding, and many times when we kicked up such a cloud of the stuff that Isaac actually had to stop and wait for it to settle before he could see well enough to drive on. Of course, these old-school Landrovers are less than hermetically sealed off from the outside environment, so the car and occupants quickly became coated with a fine film of dust. And that was the easy part. The real fun began when we left our campsite at 11:30 PM to drive to the base of Ol Doinyo Lengai. We had added to our party our Maasai guide plus a local youth who just wanted the experience of climbing the mountain. This brought the number in our party to ten, too many to sit inside the Landrover, so Isaac's friend and the extra climber had to ride on the roof rack. It was pitch dark, no moon, and barely any road. The Maasai guide rode up front between Isaac and myself, calmly issuing directions to our flustered driver and thereby preventing a rollover in places where the track was disrupted by particularly deep pits and trenches. At best, the car rode like a small boat in an ocean storm. I have no idea how the two guys on the roof managed to hold on. For his part, Isaac gripped the steering wheel white-knuckled in spite of his dark skin, and repeated, as if it were a mantra, "Sitarudi tena. Sitarudi tena!" ("I'm never coming back here again!")

So what was the point of all this? Not the climb itself, because it had few redeeming qualities. The views were spectacular, except that by the time the Sun had risen, we were too fatigued and absorbed in the complicated process of descending to pay much notice. (We heard a tale that some guy once toted a hang-glider all the way to the top and then jumped off. I'm thinking that would be a good way to do it!) But the crater at the summit made it all worthwhile. I'd never go again, but it was definitely worth doing once. Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only active volcano I've ever climbed, and at the top we suddenly found ourselves in this bizarre lunarscape that looked like the product of one of Salvador Dali's nightmares. There was steam coming out of cracks in the ground all over the place, and from the top of numerous white ash cones, which I later learned are called "hornitos." The most recent lava flow was less than a week old. Before climbing, we met some people who had warmed themselves by this lava when they were up there. I jabbed it with my walking stick and found it to be still tacky. From underneath the hornito associated with this newest lava flow, we could hear a sound like someone banging on pipes in a basement. The whole place smelled like sulfur. John commented, as we approached the summit, that this was probably the first time in his life that he wholeheartedly welcomed the smell of rotten eggs. Anyway, it was crazy. I can't really describe it, but I've got a few pictures and a couple chunks of lava rock to remind me. Five of the six of us climbing had also done Kilimanjaro, but we all agreed that this summit was even more spectacular, and the climb more grueling! So, tough trek, but big payoff if (and only if) you get to the top.

We did manage to enjoy some of the other offerings in the area. Ol Doinyo Lengai is north of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and not included in any National Park, so there are no fees to go there if you're a resident of Tanzania, which all of us were. Lake Natron, a large soda lake, is spitting distance from the mountain, so we went there and visited the flamingos. We camped at the Waterfalls campsite, which is situated at the base of the Rift Valley escarpment on the banks of a swiftly moving stream. An hour's hike up the stream takes you through a lovely gorge up to a place of numerous waterfalls and palm trees which would definitely be included in my personal vision of Paradise. We went swimming there on the day before climbing the mountain. Anyway, for those of you still in Tanzania or planning to visit Tanzania, I recommend the area enthusiastically, and I also recommend climbing the mountain (once) if you're a fairly serious hiker and can take some punishment.

You can see more of my pictures, and then see some really good ones while reading what National Geographic Magazine has to say about Ol Doinyo Lengai.

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Write to Matt Povich.