Oldonyo Lengai means “mountain of God” in the Masai language of East Africa and one can see why. Every so often when it gets angry it erupts and rains down lava and putrid ash on the surrounding area that destroys vegetation and poisons the whole area for miles around.
This still very active volcano is situated in the heart of the East African rift valley in north western Tanzania on the shores of Lake Natron. The lake is very salty, fed by waters that passes through remnants of past eruptions, but is a major breeding ground for the lesser flamingo. Just to the west is the famous Ngorongoro crater and to the north the wide open plains of the Serengeti.
This is Masai land. Masai villages dot the landscape and everywhere you find them herding their famous herds of cattle, making a living on this very harsh, Mars like landscape.
Mount Lengai still belches out steam and sulphur continuously and its last big eruption was only 3 years ago. After every eruption the crater and in fact the whole mountain changes shape and the whole area undergoes massive ecological changes. It is truly a harsh landscape ravaged by incredibly powerful forces that shape our planet.
The amazing hike to the top of this incredibly steep volcano starts on its northern side at roundabout midnight, led by a trusted Masai guide. Almost immediately it becomes clear that this is no ordinary walk. The path leads in a straight line up towards the top at a seemingly gravity defying angle, without the luxury of switchbacks. Progress cannot be measured in the pitch black of night and progress is slow.
Underfoot everything becomes softer and softer. The slope of the volcano is literally just made up of fine volcanic dust and ash. The sides are ravaged by deep furrows and by times one is precariously balanced between sharp drops on either side. As one reaches higher and higher, the going becomes even tougher as one gasps for air and trudges upwards through this quagmire of putrid ash. Progress becomes painfully slow, at times 2 steps forward and one backwards and then 1 step forward and two backwards.
Everyone feels giving up at some stage, but for those ho continue, an amazing experience awaits.
After hours and hours of what seems like treading water one is suddenly overwhelmed by the unmistakeable smell of sulphur.
Here the flanks of the mountain becomes very exposed and the wind cuts icily through skin and bone. Now the smell of sulphur fills one’s nostrils and becomes almost overbearing.
Then suddenly, one is at the top. The crater falls away in front of you and one is prcariously balanced on the rim. An incredible view awaits. One can see the vapour rising out of the crater and gurgling noises rises out of the depths. The sulphur smell is unmistakeable. The sunrise and views from the top makes this challenging hike very worthwhile indeed.
An experience to be cherished for a long time to come