Conquering Tanzania’s Mountain Of God
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Many of Africa’s greatest adventures lie well away from the main tourist trails. Cameron Fergus climbs Oldoinyo Lengai in Tanzania for a new perspective on God and man.
By Cameron Fergus
“It’s a volcano, as long as we keep going up we’ll be fine.” My girlfriend’s plan to abandon our guide, though ambitious, was also probably a little too impulsive. Here we were, in the pitch-black African night, halfway up an active volcano in Tanzania, surrounded by thick fog in an area frequented by leopards, and our guide was fast asleep at our feet. Okuni, our brave Maasai warrior, experienced mountain guide, and only hope of scaling the volcano, possessed the enviable ability to fall instantly and deeply asleep. It was time for a decision. Try again to wake our slumbering leader or push on alone.
We had come to this rugged corner of northern Tanzania to climb Oldoinyo Lengai, an ancient volcano known to the Maasai tribe as the “Mountain of God.” The volcano was precisely the off-the-beaten-track destination we were looking for. A picture-perfect volcano emerging almost 10,000 feet from the surrounding plains, it epitomized remoteness, and, let’s face it, climbing the Mountain of God just sounded epic.
Our drive to the volcano — often simply referred to as “Lengai” — from the town of Arusha followed a collection of roads, tracks, and goat trails that are typical of East Africa. The drive was interrupted twice, both times in a uniquely African manner: a giraffe munching on an Acacia tree in the middle of the road, and an opportunity to take a close-up photo of a lion sleeping in the shade. Finally, after a long, hot, and dust-blown adventure we arrived at the shore of Lake Natron in the late afternoon.
Lake Natron sits 25 kilometers north of Lengai and is a wonder in its own right. With the sun retreating behind the surrounding hills and the sweeping dance of the flamingos playing out before us, our position on the lakeshore was a quiet, peaceful, and stunning place to be. The energy-sapping heat of the day had passed and the cooling breeze off of the lake was a welcome relief. The only sounds in the world were the clacking of the pink and white beauties on the lake and our feet crunching the salt-encrusted shores as we raced the quickly fading light to catch the spectacle. We were honored to have the performance to ourselves, and buoyed by the fact that the interactions of life in Africa’s wild continues to play out each day regardless of the existence (or size) of an audience.
The serenity of the lake was offset by Lengai’s massive form, looming over our shoulders as a reminder of our night’s planned activities. “Lengai is a wall,” laughed David, our driver, guide and entertainer, “and I am glad I won’t be climbing it. I have organized for a local Maasai to take you to his God.” Our mountain guide, the softly and infrequently spoken Okuni, later assured us that the Maasai god “Ngai” was generally a welcoming host, with only infrequent demonstrations of his eruptive might. And yes, according to Okuni, somewhat baffled at being asked such an apparently obvious question, Ngai was, of course, a man.
Ascending Lengai requires a midnight start in order to avoid the scorching heat of the Crater Highlands during the day. The seven to nine hour round trip (four to six hour ascent, three hour descent) requires no technical climbing prowess, just determination and a sense of humor as you will slip repeatedly on the crumbling, powdery slopes. Due to the largely unmarked and apparently random routes up the mountain, an experienced guide is essential.
But what to do about our brave Maasai guide, halfway up the mountain of his god, asleep amidst the rubble of the last eruption? Despite previous attempts at calling his name (meaning “three’”in Maasai, signifying his place in the family behind his older siblings), and hurling small rocks down the mountain, Okuni was not to be disturbed. Following yet another suspicious sound — this time the unmistakable thud of heavy paws landing on rock emanating from just beyond the fog — a well meaning nudge was administered to Okuni’s leg, awakening our guide with a start.
The major challenge in climbing Lengai (aside from keeping your guide awake) is navigating the crumbling channels created by the lava flows which, in turn, give way to increasingly steep and slippery rock faces. Whilst Lengai’s last major eruption was in 1966, its active status has been maintained through a series of significant but smaller eruptions, the most recent reported throughout 2008. The lava flows, powdery slopes, and pungent stench of sulfur were evidence to us that while (like our guide) Lengai is frequently sleeping, it is certainly not finished its active life just yet. For many hours we climbed in and out of the gullies formed by Lengai’s eruptions, slipping (repeatedly) and cursing ourselves (frequently).
The arrival of rain around 4 a.m. did nothing to help elevate our position on the mountain or our morale. On the bright side, the unseasonable rain would “keep away the leopards” according to Okuni, breaking the silence he’d maintained for the past two hours.
The summit of Lengai appeared as the rain began to let up and the sun lightened the sky to the east. Our toil throughout the night had delivered us to a crater which was covered in an impenetrable, sulfuric fog, seemingly an inadequate reward for all our efforts. Denied the sunrise vista at the summit, our descent featured perhaps the most startling panorama of the trek. The surrounding hills, painted green and grey behind the retreating mists, was the unanticipated treat that bolstered our spirits for the return journey.
The steep slopes of the mountain were no easier to negotiate on the way down than they were on the way up, but the early morning light revealed just how this volcano truly towers over the surrounding landscape. Lake Natron in the distance was covered in a fine mist, with no sign of the congregation of flamingos from the previous day. Despite the beauty of the views, we returned to the base of the mountain exhausted and a little dejected. Our difficulties on the mountain must have been evident as David, who had driven from camp to collect us, simply reaffirmed “I told you Lengai is a wall.”
For days after I was disappointed about Lengai. I had felt deflated after all the effort and expectation. I had imagined a scorching heat emanating from a wildly bubbling crater and a 360-degree view of Lengai’s surrounds, but we had climbed throughout the night to find a summit clouded by fog.
But as I thought about it more, perhaps therein lies the lesson. The places we visit owe us nothing. They were not created over millions of years so that we could have a great set of photos to take home. Other climbers have reported looking deep into Lengai’s gurgling crater and of spectacular views from the summit right across the plains to Mount Kilimanjaro. But all is forgiven. I now look at Lengai, a picture of exactly what a volcano should look like, and send up a prayer to Ngai to welcome and reveal his inexorable charms to all of those souls willing to venture off of that well-beaten path. And to please keep his Maasai faithful awake, there are leopards out there . . .
Cameron, in lieu of payment for this piece, has agreed to make a donation in the amount of $40 to WaterAid, an organization working to support clean water efforts in Tanzania.
You can do the same. Click here to make an online donation to WaterAid.