Asia and Africa 2004-2005 travel blog

Atop Ol Doinyo Lengai

Climbing Group

Circumcised in Black

Engaruka Group

Goat Girl


Masai Girl


The Trio

Copyright 2005

David Rich 1200 Words

OL DOINYO LENGAI: T h e C o o l e s t V o l c a n o o n E a r t h

During a lull before climbing Kilimanjaro I tackled the coolest volcano on earth. Ol Doinyo Lengai perches on the edge of Tanzania's Rift Valley where we all began. The name in Swahili means 'Mountain of God', white beard spreading down the mountain. Cool it is, the only volcano in the world exuding snowy natrocarbonatite at a mere 1000 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Centigrade), half the temperature of the molten basalt ejected by all other active volcanoes.

I didn't climb Ol Doinyo Lengai because it might just melt off my shoe instead of a whole foot. I climbed it because it was the only active volcano in Tanzania and way off the battered tourist track, in the boondocks almost equidistant from its famous neighbors: Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro. This cool volcano sits on the south edge of flamingo-breeding central for East Africa, shallow, pink and enormous Lake Natron that stretches to the Kenyan border. Imagine a hundred thousand flamingoes filling a lake stretching 56 by 24 kilometers (34 by 15 miles).

I bounced along a full day of dusty roads through Masailand past ostrich, zebra, giraffe and the occasional unseen lion. Onlookers sprouted spears and arrows, mostly wearing scarlet and red plaid while adorned with ivory hair combs and a menagerie of ear-rings, and these were the guys. The ladies easily out-pierced first world youngsters, sporting etched cheeks, copious waterfalls of beaded ear-rings with ten appliances cascading from each ear with little silver disks on the ends, copious bracelets, medallions and necklaces while dressed in bright pink, orange, red or blue except those ominously dressed in black. Black is worn only by recently circumcised adolescents, male and female alike. Though circumcision is banned by the Tanzanian government it's still widely practiced among the Masai because no one exists to enforce the contrary.

I spent the evening taking pictures of smiling waifs with spools the size of corncobs pushed through lower ears and bolts munster-like through the tops because they too would someday soon be fashionably ear-ringed in cascades of colorful beads. The little ones tended snowy goats with suckling kids inside the thorn-tree strewn perimeter of the family boma while their elders supervised herds of cattle representing the ultimate in Masai prestige and wealth, tough as leather cows with every rib showing.

I sat in on a command-decision pow-wow held by the local Masai chief where they settled which acreage of land would be held in reserve for cattle grazing during the coming dry season. The meeting adjourned with nothing to do but quaff a beer in contemplation of reaching the top of Ol Doinyo Langai, one of the steepest climbs on earth, its coolest volcano jutting 2000 meters (6600 feet) straight up.

Ol Doinyo Lengai sits on the edge of the Rift Valley two degrees south of the equator, which is to say hot. The MO for climbing is to begin shortly after midnight, arrive atop at dawn, meander inside the crater and scoot back down before evaporating in the blazing African sun. It was an exceedingly good idea but not for the reason given.

After two hours sleep we set off at one a.m., two Swedish jocks, me and a local guide, an hour earlier than necessary. We could have gotten three hours sleep. It became immediately certain the flashlights wouldn't last for the hours required to climb. We were following two small groups whose lights dimmed in lockstep with our own.

Below the top we'd been stumbling in darkness before we paused near a toasty sulphur vent and napped an hour to avoid challenging the icy wind raging over the crater just above our heads. One of the other groups hunkered down with us was uniformly silent except for a slight-figured sandy-haired chap with an English accent moaning about the freezing cold and why they'd ever decided to climb 'this _______ volcano'.

It was worse on the way down. That's when we found out the real reason for setting out in the dark. If we could have actually seen what we were climbing we maybe wouldn't have. Ol Doinyo Lengai is cut by vertical rivers that allow a single way straight up and no switchbacks to break the grade. We began at a 25 degree pitch and ended summiting at about 40 degrees, four hours seemingly straight up from the trailhead over 5000 feet (1600 meters), slo-mo climbing agony levering knee to chest, knee to chest, again and step again. There was silent sympathy with the morose complaint from the next group about why they'd even considered climbing the world's coolest volcano. Any overbalance on the way up would have avalanched us all the way down, which meant if we'd by some miracle survived, we'd have had to begin all over again. Unthinkable.

The icy hurricane mellowed at sunrise, allowing us to clamber down into the powdery plain of the crater to face the wind and one of the most exotic sights anywhere: a moonscape of continuous eruptions, pointy vents burbling with red-white lava, flows like brilliant orange water under the surface, around and near our feet. We stepped gingerly and carefully, sinking into powder, testing recent flows for solidity in the heavy fog, the cloud that often obscures Ol Doinyo Lengai's primordial top. We shivered and shook, posing in front of 10 meter cones (33 foot) burbling lava and venting sulphur in towers above our heads. Several vents emitted strange vibrations, an omen I finally decided meant we should start down before we either froze or auto fe-ed, and with unanimity we shakily did.

The cloud lifted fifteen minutes into our scamper down but no one had the heart or willing feet to climb back up for photos. We argued how much we'd have to be paid to make the climb again and someone surely jested, saying in the neighborhood of a billion Tanzanian shillings, a mere million dollars. Halfway down I posed the group for photos with the brilliantly green Rift Valley spread out below. Two hours later we were back in camp aching to sleep the rest of the day and night through, thankful to have survived near freezing and baptism by fire atop the coolest volcano on earth.

Before You Go: Check out superb photos of the volcano by entering 'Ol Doinyo Lengai' on any search engine including You'll likely find the link to National Geographic magazine's spread on Ol Doinyo Lengai from its January 2003 issue. During the National Geographic expedition one of the towering vents in the crater collapsed, sending a meter (3 feet) of lava cascading and barely missing the photographer who also had to fend off monkeys stealing their supplies.

Tours of Lake Natron including a climb of Ol Doinyo Lengai cost about $100 a day per person from Arusha, safari headquarters with over 140 companies providing expeditions for anywhere you wish to go including Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro. Enter any of these terms in your favorite search engine and you'll find more information than you can imagine exists for the boondocks of northern Tanzania.

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