Ol Doinyo Lengai
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Maasai Mountain of God, rises nearly 2,000m from the floor of the Great Rift Valley in Northern Tanzania in a steep, deeply eroded cone of pale sodium and potassium carbonates.
Viewed from high on Gregory's Rift, the escarpment forming the western wall of the Rift Valley, its flanks fall in a perfect, unbroken curve to the sweltering plains of the valley bottom. It is truly magnificent.
Geographically young, but the only active volcano in the region, it rumbles and throws up ashes and gas at its quiet times. It erupted violently from September 2007 to April 2008, sending a column of ash thousands of meters into the air and turning the hills to its west into a ghostly moonscape.
The crater changes constantly. Below its dark shattered cliffs is a huge flat pool of unique pale lava and crusty chemicals from which strange spires protrude. New ash cones are already appearing. Being there is risky: responsible guides equip climbers with a hard hat, goggles and a mask, as the produce of any moment cannot be predicted. You are next to nature at its rawest and newest. In late 2008, it was too dangerous to go into the crater itself, which had to be surveyed from its rim.
The views along the Great Rift Valley, to the other (extinct) constituents of the Avenue of Volcanoes, and over the fumeroles and blow-holes that dot the glassy plain far below, like the bubbles of a thick, slowly boiling soup, are outstanding. Lengai is a sinister, immanent presence for miles around, and it is not surprising that it has an important place in Maasai lore. Many still visit it to sacrifice and pray.
Getting up there is tough. Before the recent eruption, you slogged painfully up steep, loose ash slopes from the north - one step back for every two taken – but this is now deemed too dangerous as it takes you into the active crater. The best route is currently from the east, but this has its own dangers: while it follows a narrow ridge that perhaps offers a steadier climb, the upper reaches are very steep and now coated in a hard, brittle crust (the result of rain on the ash of the recent eruption) which, while giving a fairly good grip when climbing, is harder to descend and could reward an error with a long unstoppable slide, quite possibly ending in a fall over a cliff. It is currently a place for very experienced scramblers with a taste for risk and a head for heights. A good guide is vital, not least because the trailhead would be impossible to find without a 4WD and a knowledgeable driver/guide.
We made our own climb in October 2008, at the end of Tanzania's dry season. After an expectant afternoon of resting up in a peaceful, shady campsite in a side valley down toward Lake Natron, then tackling a condemned man’s last meal, we set off at 11pm. We circled the mountain's base for an hour, admiring its vast silhouette against a bright starry sky, then drove up a sandy river bed then up a long grassy slope to the trailhead.
The trail starts up a steep grassy slope onto the long ridge, which leads straight up the mountain between deeply eroded gullies on each side. While it is initially a fairly easy plod through alternating patches of long grass and ash crust, it soon becomes steep and narrow – not exactly a knife edge, but at times not far off, with crisp slopes leading to drops into the invisible ravines to each side.
We trudged steadily on, passing the hour, two hour and three hour marks – half way, on our schedule. We developed a delightful routine during our breaks – torches off and a luscious stargaze, the mountain’s moon-shadow stark against the silvery plains below. We passed a Swiss couple who had set off at the same time as us, striding ahead so we could see their torches some 20 minutes above us. Experienced mountaineers, they were considering turning back – and eventually did so. It became so steep that we packed away our sticks – no use when scrambling on hands and knees - and took out our gardening gloves, invaluable tools presented by the resourceful entrepreneur Bimb Theobald. It became very steep indeed; while climbable, the prospect of the long descent on this slippery surface, and the possibility of having to return the remains of the beautiful and courageous Cynthia Wu, our Taiwanese companion, to her family – or indeed those of the imperturbable Reggie Heyward to his – became increasingly unpleasant, and I called a halt.
It was too steep to be able to sit for any length of time, and too cold to wait for dawn, so we descended slowly on our bottoms. The sky ahead of us started to lighten, and we reached a point where the incline was sufficiently reduced that we could sit securely and open our packs. We munched dried fruit and swigged water while we revelled in a gradual but thrilling display. The plain far below us slowly emerged from the soft darkness. A line of fumeroles led directly away toward the red-streaked sky. To our right, shadows formed in the ravines of the crazy lower slopes of Ker Maasai at the Rift Valley edge. The ancient volcanoes across the valley were dark silhouettes against the lightening sky.
And then we continued our slow, uncomfortable descent, half of its four hours (my first walk ever that has taken longer to descend than go up) on our derrières, hands and heels; thank god for the gloves. The day heated up rapidly, the colours brightened as if a dial was being turned up, before flattening for the long hot day. And then we were back to our jeep – thankful and very tired.