I awoke at 4 am. There was only a sliver of a moon. Julius, my Maasai guide, was fast asleep–curled up in a ball in between the rocks. I wondered how soon the sun would rise. It was quiet, no breeze at all. Chilly. I was covered in ashes. Getting off of the volcano could not happen soon enough. Somehow, I still managed to dozed off. The next thing I remember, Julius was touching my shoulder. It was daylight! We could begin our descent.
I slipped and slid down the volcanic ash covered rocks as carefully as possible, worried about twisting an ankle, or even breaking a bone. Even with all that, I was happy to be going down. Two hours later, we were on the grassy slopes, a gentler walk back to the car, and a short drive to a hot shower.
I had battled a volcano and came out in one piece, grateful for the experience and humbled by Ol Doinyo Lengai.
I have always been intrigued by volcanos and their power. The ruins of Herculaneum, right next to Pompeii, destroyed 2000 years ago. The volcanic flows of Galapagos islands. Quito during the El Reventador eruption in 2002 which covered the city in 2 million tons of ash. Most recently, Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. But I wanted more. I wanted to see a caldera with lava. Experience standing on top of an active volcano. I thought Ol Doinyo Lengai was the place this would happen.
Ol Doinyo Lengai
Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of God) is a sacred mountain to the Maasai people. They believe that the god En’gai dwells there and do pilgrimages to make offerings to the god. Located south of Lake Natron and a very bumpy 4-5 hour ride from Arusha, it is definitely off the beaten tourist track. We did it as a detour from our 2-week safari in Tanzania and Kenya. On the route–beautiful scenery, small villages, waterfalls, animals and the feeling of being very far away from everything.
Known as the coldest volcano in the world, Ol Doinyo is the only volcano that produced carbonate lava which erupts at a relatively cool 510°C (950°F). All other volcanos are at least a few hundred degrees hotter. Since it is so “cold”, the lava never looks red. There are stunning views of the valley at sunrise from the top.
We left for the climb around 9 pm. Since my traveling partner declined to go, I left with Julius, a Maasai guide from the village. The beginning was gentle, grassy slopes of the mountain. This didn’t seem too bad. We walked along at a moderate clip. As others passed us by, I noticed that they were all wearing headlights and had walking poles.
We continue walking for another hour. The slope became steeper, but manageable. At midnight, we approached a steeper, rockier climb. The challenge continued as it literally became steeper and steeper with each step. I climbed on all fours–as if climbing up a ladder. Only, the ladder was covered in volcanic ash. Now, I knew why the other climbers had headlights. They were passing me more rapidly now. We continued climbing–Julius effortlessly, me with more and more difficulty.
My Finish Line
After 3 hours of climbing, it was past midnight. I was struggling up the steep rocks. The rocks and I were both covered in volcanic ash. My nose, my mouth, my hair, my hands. It was dark, very dark. It dawned on me that the very same rocks I was going up, I would have to descend several hours later when I would be much more exhausted. And, we were at least 7 hours away from any medical care.
I looked at Julius. “I’m finished,” I said. He nodded. I thought we would turn around to go down. Instead, he sat down on the side of the mountainside. I looked at him with a mild panic. He told me that we needed to wait for daylight to descend.
I still want to climb a volcano–just not one covered in ash.
Ol Doinyo Lengai humbled me. I learned not to underestimate a climb to the top of a volcano and to pay close attention to what I need, mentally, physically and emotionally, to embark on a challenging adventure. The gentle support and acceptance of Julius is still with me. And, I came away with a deeper knowledge of my limitations, especially when in another country in a very remote area.
I did get to sleep on the side of a volcano and that makes for a good conversation with other travelers.