Ol Doinyo Lengai – Climbing ‘The Mountain of God’, Northern Tanzania
Alistair reminisces about his climb up Ol Doinyo Lengai known as the 'Mountain of God' in Northern Tanzania
12 Jul 2021
15 Sep 2021
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Ol Doinyo Lengai, known as ‘The Mountain of God’ by the Masai who live at its foot in northern Tanzania, is an active volcano rising to just shy of 3000 metres. It is a stereotypical vision of what is conjured up in one’s mind of what a volcano should look like, with its symmetrical steep-conical formation, standing alone and proud in the plains east of The Serengeti.
Not content with an ‘active’ status, volcanologists describe it as ‘restless’ due to its near continuous effusion, a process where mini eruptions occur within the crater emitting gases and small nodules or ‘Hornitos’ leak some quantities of lava. Lengai is unique in that it is the only active volcano that erupts Natrocarbonatite lava. In lay terms: the lava is rich in rare minerals, and it erupts at a much lower temperature c500 degrees C. The last explosive eruption was in 2007 which destroyed the crater terrace upon which sat a collection of Hornitos.
I visited in 2005 prior to the last major eruption. It was on a bit of a whim, we were based in nearby Arusha, had access to a 4 x 4 and had a few days to kill, so we decided to go and climb 'The Mountain of God'.
We headed out along the tourist-beaten road towards Lake Manyara National Park, on reaching the town of Mto wa Mbu we stocked up on essentials, filled the tanks and then simply turned right off the main road. It was incredible. Stunning scenery and not a soul to be seen. The fact that just over the horizon was one of the busiest safari hotspots that exists made it that much more special.
Our overnight stop would be Engaruka Ruins, the remains of an ancient civilisation famous for its advanced knowledge of irrigation techniques. It was a society that grew very quickly and then disappeared, leaving in its dusty wake an archaeologist’s dream.
We had no idea what we would find and although its certainly no Machu Pichu it was interesting to wander round what you could tell used to be dwellings eons ago.
We set up camp in amongst the dwellings and very soon after we were surrounded by wide-eyed local children, at first, and then as word spread about the visiting Mzungu most of the local village came for a look.
Bizarrely very few of them spoke much English and as our Swahili was limited to a few words it led to an interesting few hours of international relations.
We headed off the following morning early and as we got further into Tanzania’s emptiness passing various Masai herding their goats, the road would disappear and reappear sporadically, probably washed away by the rains. We were dictated to move slowly and so enjoyed some patchy - and quite jumpy – plains game, mainly gazelle but the highlight was the simply stunning scenery.
Navigating by using the steeply tapered mountain, which we presumed to be Lengai, we followed our noses and headed towards 'The Mountain of God' and bizarrely we eventually stumbled on a small locally run campsite where we made base and picked up a guide to take us up to the crater.
The plan was pretty simple, we would climb at night to avoid the unyielding sun and have sunrise at the summit. The afternoon was spent relaxing and a walk up the river to Engaresero Waterfalls, a bizarre experience in an area which is known to be almost semi desert in the dry season, but so refreshing after the dust of 2 days travel and great preparation for an overnight walk.
We set off at about 6pm in our vehicle to our departure point where we would leave the vehicle and had an alfresco snooze before departing at midnight. We were lucky in that it was a full moon so walking in the dark was not so difficult. The guide led the way in his Masai shoes (flipflops made from old car tyre) and with his stick and we followed, kitted out in a motley range of walking and climbing equipment from hiking boots and zip off trousers to board shorts and cameras.
We had no idea what to expect and we wanted to carry as little as possible aside from our water. Would it be hot at the top? We were after all headed to the rim of a volcano.
The going started with less of an incline but was slippy, as it was coarse sand underfoot. As we progressed the incline got steeper, and the sand turned to rock so footing was more assured. All in, it was about a 4 hour walk and it was a new experience and quite a strange one to climb a mountain in the dark with no designated path or track, we just clambered over rocks and headed up.
We summitted at about 4am and it was bitterly cold. Sunrise was another 2 hours away, the guide congratulated us on being so fast. Had we known what awaited us we might have taken the climb a bit easier, it was bitter cold. We huddled down together on the rim, the one benefit of being on an active volcano was that the ground was warm so we put as much of our bodies on the ground as we could and waited for sunup.
With dawn arrived we wandered around the crater to watch the sun come up over Kilimanjaro in the distance. Tremendous, a view I will remember always. We then wandered down onto the crater terrace for closer inspection of the Hornitos. Standing on the terrace is a bit like being stood on a frozen lake, you know what is beneath you and you have no idea how think the crust is, not to say it felt unstable but still you do think about it! We explored the frozen lava ripples and the various Hornitos and were just mesmerised being in a place so alien – we were standing in the crater of an active volcano in the middle of nowhere!
After exploring for a few hours and a few photos, hunger started to raise its head and we started our descent down to camp before the burning sun came out in full force. How different it was on the way down to the way up. We had clear blue skies as we looked out over the Rift of Africa, instead of scrabbling around in the darkness. Our mood was one of contentment and spirits were high. A truly magical experience and certainly one of the highlights of my time in Africa. Why? It was so real, so authentic and it was a superb mini adventure away from any other tourists.
We got back to our vehicle and had a couple of hours rest before our guide insisted on serving us lunch. We headed back to his village and got stuck into some goat stew and ugali before heading back to normality. We didn’t have time to visit Lake Natron, which I found out was a mistake a few years later. It is a Soda Lake where you can see thousands of Flamingos.
Lengai used to be Tanzania’s best kept secret, located just north of its much more famous sibling, The Ngorongoro Crater, it is only recently that visitors have started exploring a bit more and are now visiting this quiet part of what is an otherwise bustling safari area. When I visited in 2005 roads to the area were poor and access to the volcano itself was along a goat herders track.
These days there are a couple of upmarket camps offering decent accommodation in a beautifully peaceful setting. Have a look at Lake Natron Tented Camp for an eco-luxury stay or African Safari Lake Natron Camp and Lengai Safari Lodge for a cheaper but still comfortable stay. Both have pools – an absolute must in these parched parts. Because this area lurks in the shadow of the famous Northern Circuit it very often doesn’t get a look in, as the pull of the game is too strong.
However, you can take a few days and combine it with a safari easily. You substitute your time at Lake Manyara for a few days in the charming Tanzanian emptiness and then after seeing the volcano or visiting Lake Natron you can access the Serengeti or/and or Ngorongoro Crater from the East or North meaning you get to enjoy this astonishing country and not just following the herds.