After about an hour of jaw dropping sights our guide came over and told us that this was not a place to linger too long – it was time to go back down. He urged us back to the crater wall. Despite my fear I really wanted to stay longer. I could have watched for hours. There is something about the unstoppable forces of nature that enchants me, perhaps luring me to my doom. I found myself desperately needing the toilet, so excused myself, and took a crap at a secluded edge of the mountain, looking down at the valley and depositing my own lava where the mountain’s has started to flow over the edge. Returning to the rest of the group we began our descent.
Here is Stella just near the top. Below her you can see a small portion of the amazing views we could see. Photos just don’t do justice to sights that surrounds you, filling your field of vision and everywhere you look. It was astounding to look down upon such features. In an aeroplane you are too high, and can’t look directly below, but when you can see something it is similar. But the tiny windows detract. From the mountain you can see so much. Sadly the clouds do gather, and the view deteriorates, and we had to return our attention to the steep and precarious descent. This proved to be more challenging than the ascent, exercising different muscles in our still exhausted legs. Once past the rockface we could speed up a little, but the sliding gravels made it dangerous. We saw some young white Kenyans running down, jumping from side to side as if skiing. Mtui and I thought it was worth a go. It was indeed a rapid way forward, but I kept slipping over and nearly dislocating something or falling into ravines. As I ran and jumped further I started to feel the strain in my knees and ankles and knew I would no longer have the strength in my legs to control my path. I slowed down and started walking again, watching Mtui disapear. Bastard – I said to myself. Yuki and Stella caught up with me having tried the same thing and decided it was a bit too tricky. Our legs had all started to seize up. As we descended the place where the vehicle was parked seemed to retreat faster than the summit ever had. My knees started to shake with fatigue, and I slowed to a snails pace, which must have puzzled our guide who stuck with us, unlike some others who had run off ahead of their groups. In the end it took us six hours to get back down – half an hour longer than getting up! I guess we need a bit more exercise so we can run down next time!
This mountain is truly amazing – I can’t wait to give it another go, especially since my legs stopped hurting. I doubt that there are many mountians where the view from the top and the top itself battle for your attention like Ol Doinyo Lengai. I think I would rather visit again than try for the top of Kili, highest mountain in Africa or not. When I get to the top I am going to ask – Where are the volcanoes? Where is the danger? The view alone just may not be enough.
Within the crater are several of what look like miniature volcanos – hornitos.
These are where the lava itself comes out of the volcano – while we were there this was in the form of regular spurts, up to 10 feet into the air. It looked like these pits had some little fella in them shovelling out dirt, but in fact it is liquid rock. The dark parts on the cones in the picture are patches of freshly “excavated” lava – it goes white when it cools.
Again I was a little nervous about the cones, but fascinated by the activity going on within. Some other people were going a lot closer, but I fear having a chunk of something hot searing its way through my skull and brain so kept my distance and advised Yuki to do the same.
Every time the cones ejected lava, some of the vents would let of a burst of steam then return to simmering away. Some people played dangerously close to these, even stepping inside. Luckily I didn’t witness any scalds.
Now the sun had risen we returned our attention to the crater floor. Over the years since the last eruption, Ol Doinyo Lengai’s crater has slowly been filling with lava. This does not mean that there is a big old pool of bubbling red and yellow firey rock liquid. The lava cools and forms a crust, as pictured here. I believe that in some places this crust might we quite thin, disguising a dangerously hot (520ï¿½C) core of molten lava. This can be rather dangerous. I was glad to have a stick to test the ground I was walking on. After reading the page linked to above, I wish I had some leather shoes!
Not wanting to miss the sunrise which was imminent, we headed on, although I wasn’t sure whether a growling volcano was something you want to turn your back on. The east side of the mountain was almost completely shrouded with clouds, apart from to top – we saw a view usually seen from aeroplanes, the sun rising up through a sea of white clouds. As we stood there watching it rise in the sky the clouds began to shift and we could see the valley floor below us, laced with meandering river beds. Still nothing man made was visible.
I felt like I was looking down from the moon.
As we crunched across the crater, Mtui shushed us and told us to stop.
A low growling noise was coming from one of the hornitos. A deep powerful vibration came from beneath our feet, as the volcano groaned and it resonated through everything. I wasn’t sure whether to stay where I was, continue walking or retreat to the rim.
Then we saw for the first time a small eruption, what looked like a spade full of soil jumping from the top of one of the hornitos.
As we mounted the crater wall we found ourselves in a different world. Standing on the crater rim I looked down to see a small steaming hole in the ground. I crouched down to feel the heat – it was like a boiling pot. We could have popped an egg in the hole and three minutes later enjoyed a tasty snack.
The crater floor was almost completely level apart from the sharp hornitos that protruded here and there, smoke or steam streaming from their tops. I assumed we would stop here at the rim, but other groups had already proceeded to walk across the crater floor, which was white almost like snow, and crunchy under foot like the lake bed of Natron far below us.
We camped at the nearby Kamakea Campsite, getting some food and an early night. We set off for the foot of the mountain at 11:30 pm – in the distance was a chain of lights – other vehicles with more wazungu attempting to climb the mountain. I felt slightly dismayed that there were five groups that we could see trying to negotiate the treacherous lava flows on the way. We reached the foot of the mountain at about 12:15 am, met our Masaai guide, who smelt quite a lot like Konyagi, and had such a weak handshake I found myself checking to see if he had more than two fingers on his hand, which he did. He presented us with some recently hewn branches for climbing sticks and we set off on the moonlit path which headed more or less directly straight up to the top of the mountain. Masaai tend to walk in single file, and the path was designed thus. We rapidly found ourselves bunched up with one of the other groups – this may have been a sign that we had set off too quickly, but the first stretch of the walk was not steep.
The setting was fantastic – dark mountain silhoutted against the sky lit by a just rising moon that lit up the steep rift valley walls behind us. There was no sound but the wind, not even insects, as we proceeded along the gravelly path. Either side of us were deep gulleys that had formed from lava flows. A step to each side of the narrow path were numerous opportunities to break an ankle or neck. I surveyed the mountain profile to each side and watched as our path took us to a steeper and steeper incline. The path never desisted from its direct route, not winding at all, just heading boldly on to the top. After the first section, which was like a walk in the Lake District we got to a section where the path was heavily eroded or formed mainly from loose ash and gravel. Each step forward included a slide backwards half the distance progressed, and we slowed down significantly. Looking across to the escarpment at one point I saw that we appeared to be about level with the edge – surely we must be near the top now – it didn’t look far. But our guide shattered my enthusiasm – not even half way he giggled. We slipped and slid our way further up the mountain path, cursing at each fall. The path changed from the slippery gravel to larger rocks and eventually rock face, with a thin coating of small stones which skittered away under foot. Looking down and around I was amazed not to see a single source of light other than the starts. I felt truly priveliged to find myself in such a wild and remote location.
As we inched our way up we ended up on all fours, trying to decide whether to discard our sticks so as to free a hand, or try and walk upright like our guide. We would stop briefly every ten minutes. Stella started to worry about altitude sickness. Mtui started speculating about how long it would take to reach the top. It was four in the morning and none of us where really in the mood anymore. But we were definitely gaining on the summit now. We reached a level where the ground was coated by a layer of white powder – sulphur, ash? In the dark we couldn’t tell, but it was coating our hands, and getting in our mouths – I could smell and taste the mountain, both sulfurous fumes and this fine dust filling my nose and mouth. As we really did approach the top, the first glow of the sun rise began – it was 6 am. It took us 5 and a half hours to climb up, and we were knackered.
Looking south from the bed of the lake we can see the holy mountain and the rift valley escarpment.
The mountain is 9650 feet high (2895 metres). The base is about 4000 feet above sea level (1200 metres). Only a climb of about 1600 metres, but over a short distance, so very steep, as you can see from the picture.
The mountain is streaked with white that looks as if a giant bird has been circling and depositing its load onto the mountain. The streaks are in fact lava flows.
All around the mountain you find black rivers of rock from what must have been very spectacular eruptions and flows in the distant past. These flows are very difficult to cross by vehicle.
We saw that some local people were trying to create ramps to aid the passing of vehicles, though I fear these will be washed away every year when the rains come.
Lake Natron is a soda lake. It is the only breeding ground for Lesser Flamingos (the pink ones) in East Africa. They are attracted to the large quantity of algae that grows in the sodium carbonate rich waters. The lake changes size over the seasons. We walked out across the dry bed to where there was still water to spy on the Flamingos. They make odd grunting noises. We didn’t get close enough to see any babies – they often get a build up of sodium carbonate around their ankles which makes them too heavy to fly, and they perish.
Just near the volcano is a large crater, about 200 ft deep, known as God’s Crater.
Apparently this appeared after an eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai – I can’t remember if this was from Isaac or from Stella’s Rough Guide. It was a pretty fantastic cliff to stand on the edge of, and it helped build our excitement about the trip to come.
Another half an hours drive took us to the campsite where we would be staying, right up next to the escarpment. Mtui suggested we take a walk to some waterfalls for a shower, but since we could now see how steep the mountain was we figured that we needed to save our energy for that. Instead we asked to be taken to Lake Natron to ogle at the flamingos.