The most difficult and rewarding challenges are not always the biggest ones. And as Marc Reading discovered, Ol Doinyo Lengai, a relatively petite volcano in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, is one such example.
The stark, looming figure of Ol Doinyo Lengai casts an imposing shadow over the lands of the Maasai people in northern Tanzania. Their name for the volcano translates to the ‘Mountain of God’, not a surprising moniker considering both its stature and its habit of repeatedly spewing lava and ash into the heavens.
However, with the last volcanic activity of note taking place in 2008, rewarding treks up the mountain are again possible. We, like most, based ourselves for the climb at the nearby Moivaro Lake Natron Tented Camp. We were actually at the end of a four-day trek through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which started from the village of Nainokanoka and travelled via the Olmoti and Empakaai craters. These days were a great way to acclimatise, and gave us an insight into the rural Maasai way of life. They also offered stunning scenery and great photographic opportunities, especially at Empakaai. After our many preparations for our summit attempt on Ol Doinyo Lengai, the last task on our list seemed to be the simplest one – getting an early night. But with a 10.30pm wakeup call (yes, 10.30pm!), this was easier said than done.
The early start was essential so that we could climb the 1700 or so vertical metres in the cool of the night and descend in the morning before the sun had time to send temperatures soaring. The sweltering temperatures during the height of the day in this region are exacerbated on the mountain’s slopes by the amount of the sun’s heat that the volcanic surface absorbs and radiates. The bonus of this night-time schedule is having the chance to watch the sunrise over Africa’s Great Rift Valley from the summit.
After our all-too-short sleep, we met our two local Maasai guides for tea and coffee before leaving by road for the base of the mountain. The drive took about an hour, though it can take even longer depending upon the state of the track. Still, don’t count on catching up with sleep en route as the bumps ensure there is no last-minute napping. Our drivers took us as high as possible before depositing us on the mountain’s bare lower slopes at around 11.30pm.
The evening was warm, and we had a near-full moon to help guide us. But all signs were not promising. Behind Ol Doinyo Lengai to the east heavy clouds were building, hinting at rain, and the light wind occasionally carried the ominous smell of sulphur, a reminder that the volcano is still very much alive.
We turned our head torches on and began a gradual ascent of the lower slopes. There was very little vegetation, but previous descriptions (before the eruptions of 2007/08) had noted this area was “a grassland dotted with trees and small bushes, with klipspringer and occasionally eland present.” The only sign of life we saw on the route was a lone Egyptian cobra that slithered off when disturbed by the lights of our vehicles on the way. After about an hour on the lower slopes the path narrowed and steepened, leading us onto the mountain proper. This was when the unique character of the climb unveiled itself. The hard, concrete-like lava formed numerous ridges interspersed by erosion gullies. These ridges and gullies ranged from a few centimetres wide and deep to sheer chasms of over 20m. In the dark and on an ill-defined path they are potentially very dangerous. Besides having experienced guides who know the route well, head torches, good walking poles, and a great deal of care and sure footedness are essential.
The major portion of our climb on the lower part of the mountain involved shadowing a major gully from the ridge running adjacent to it; this involved a combination of walking and scrambling. This set the tone for the rest of the climb, as we were either scrambling up the hard, smooth rock ridges or following the ash and sand filled gullies between them. Either way it is a relentless grind.
Luckily, the rainstorm that had threatened us since we started skirted the mountain and disappeared to the north. If it had rained the rock would have become very slippery and the gullies would have turned into watercourses, making for a treacherous climb indeed. The God of the mountain was smiling on us!
The pace we set was very slow due to the nature of the route, which had us on all fours, using both our hands and feet for traction on many of the ridges – we had to be cautious and look for good foot and handholds. The erosion channels are a different proposition altogether; they are awkward to scramble up and getting any sort of good foothold is annoyingly difficult. I resorted to trying to kick steps as you would on a snow climb and it did seem to help!
We stopped twice on our way up, both times lying down in gullies to warm up and shelter from the rising wind, which had caused temperatures to drop quite dramatically. Looking down and across the mountain, the views under the cleared sky were spectacular. Lake Natron and the Ngorongoro Highlands were clearly visible, as was the Acacia camp site that we had used on our earlier trek into Lake Natron. In the distance the lights of Moivaro and the surrounding Maasai villages could easily be picked out.
The final section of the climb that took us up to the crater rim really got tough, with the rock underfoot being loose and exposed, and the angle of ascent being very steep during the last 500m. This part of the mountain is dominated by a vertical ridge of crumbling rock, which we kept to our left while scrambling straight up yet another gully towards a distinctive notch on the skyline. I dearly hoped it would be the summit rim.
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At this point we were caught by another climbing party, and one of whom insisted on passing us because he was adamant that he wanted to be on the summit for dawn. This is the most dangerous section of the route, both for the ascent and descent (a climbing helmet would have come in handy). As it was, we had no choice but to slow down and keep a really keen eye open for debris. Not only would a strike be painful, but a slip here would have resulted in a long and painful slide down the steepest part of the mountain.
The volcano itself also had one last sting in its tail – when we reached the notch, exhausted, the crater summit was still about 100m above. The faint path that leads through the notch took a sharp bend to the left and followed a steep wall of rock up towards the crater rim. We climbed up the steeply rising track before finally joining the exposed rim.
The summit itself is part of the barren, windswept rim, and from it we looked down into the new crater. It’s also possible from here to further explore, as there is a path that runs around the rim. Sitting on the ash-caked surface, I couldn’t help noticing that it was warm to the touch. The evidence of the last eruption was clear, with hardened lava flows and an ever present smell of sulphur in the air. All in all it’s a surreal landscape and exactly how you would imagine an active volcano to look and smell.
With a last look into the crater and the mandatory summit photos out of the way, we decided on a quick descent, mindful that the rising sun would soon be turning the lower slopes into a furnace. The way down was every bit as difficult as the ascent, especially the steep upper section. The ridges needed great care, as did the gullies, and a slip anywhere on the upper slopes would have had serious consequences. The going was tough all the way to the lower slopes, but the sight of the vehicles at the pickup point glinting in the morning sun certainly spurred us on.
Although not as well known or as much frequented as either of its bigger sisters Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru, it is worthy challenge for experienced trekkers.
Marc Reading’s trek through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and up Ol Doinyo was organised by Wild Frontiers Tanzania (www.wildfrontiers.com).
The coolest volcano on Earth
Being an active part of the system that continues to shape Africa’s greatest geographical feature, the Great Rift Valley, is pretty impressive, but what makes Ol Doinyo Lengai stand out from all other volcanoes on this planet is its lava.
Rich in the rare sodium and potassium carbonates, nyerite and gregorite, as opposed to the silicates found in other volcanoes, Ol Doinyo Lengai’s natrocarbonatite lava is unlike any other on Earth. What makes it so special is that it erupts at the relatively low temperature of 500 to 600°C, which is less than half that of most lavas elsewhere. During the day fresh flowing lava appears black, only at night does it take on the more familiar orange glow. It is also less viscous than most lava (comparable to water), allowing it to flow quickly. Katia Krafft, the late French volcanologist and pioneering filmmaker, once called Ol Doinyo Lengai a “toy volcano” because its lava flows were cold enough to collect with a spoon.
Once solidified, the resultant rock is equally unique – it’s weak, unstable and prone to rapid weathering when in contact with moisture in the atmosphere.
The last major eruption at Ol Doinyo Lengai was on 4 September 2007. Plumes of ash and steam were carried 18km downwind and the resulting fallout covered its north and west flanks. The eruptions continued sporadically into 2008 with further activity in February, March and April resulting in the Maasai in the surrounding villages moving out to the shores of Lake Natron.
Plan your trip
KLM (www.klm.com) link London to Arusha’s Kilimanjaro International (JRO), which is the international access point for Ol Doinyo Lengai, with direct flights from Amsterdam. Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) and Ethiopian Airlines (www.Ethiopianairlines.com) also connect London to JRO, via Nairobi and Addis Ababa respectively.
Tourist visas are required by most nationals and are available on arrival at airports and land borders. A three-month tourist visa costs US$50.
When to visit
The most comfortable times to climb Ol Doinyo Lengai are June through September and December through February. Volcanic activity can close the mountain, so check with authorities before starting your trip.
Bradt’s Tanzania with Zanzibar, Pemba & Mafia by Philip Briggs (6th ed, 2009) is the best guidebook with details about Ol Doinyo Lengai.
Find out more
Wild Frontiers Tanzania (www.wildfrontiers.com)
Although incredibly rewarding, a climb up Ol Doinyo Lengai is neither easy, nor for those who are uncomfortable with heights or inexperienced at trekking. The ridges are difficult to balance on and the angle is relentless.