Most climbers travelling to Tanzania have only one target in mind: the towering summit of the six-kilometre high Mount Kilimanjaro. Ask them if they’re planning on scaling Ol Doinyo Lengai and odds are you’ll get a blank stare. Ol Donny-who?!
But if you want a serious challenge, in much less time than it takes to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, and without any of the crowds, Ol Doinyo Lengai (which means Mountain of God in the Maasai language) could be just the thing. At 2,980 m (and still growing), it’s Tanzania’s highest active volcano, and although it’s half the height of Kilimanjaro, the challenge of reaching the top is not to be underestimated.
The volcano towers serenely over flamingo-filled Lake Natron, located in the Rift Valley about six hours’ drive north from Serengeti National Park. From a distance it looks majestic and gentle, its slopes curving gracefully away from the perfectly symmetrical cone. But as we all know, looks can be deceptive.
I climbed Ol Doinyo Lengai in October 2016, just a week after successfully completing Kilimanjaro. Having achieved that with relative ease, I thought little of climbing a much smaller peak. ‘It’s half the height!’ I said to myself, ‘There won’t be any altitude issues! I’ve just done Kili, so I’ve got the strength and fitness. How hard can it be?!’
Answer: pretty bloody hard. Not to sugarcoat it or anything.
With a serious helping of grit and determination you can make it to the top of Ol Doinyo Lengai and back down again in about 12 hours. But rather than start at first light and be home in time for tea and medals, the standard procedure is to start at midnight and climb all night, in order to finish at around lunchtime the next day.
From what I can make out, there are two reasons for this: (1) if you get to the top in time you can watch the sunrise, and (2) the mountain is so steep and terrifying that if you could actually see where you were going, it’s highly likely you’d freak out and give up. And honestly, even in the dark, plenty of people do just that.
But I had no idea about that when, armed with my sturdy boots, a headtorch, several layers of extra clothing, water and snacks, we set off at around midnight from our campsite on the shores of Lake Natron. The group consisted of me, a German couple named Mike and Tina, and our local guide Luka.
I barely took any photos of the journey up: it was too dark to see and I was too busy concentrating on trying not to fall off the side of the volcano to get the camera out. So I’ll briefly describe it for you.
At first it was doable. A little unstable underfoot, sometimes. Hot and sweaty, on the lower slopes, for sure. A pretty robust uphill climb, definitely. But all entirely manageable for someone who’d already made it through Kilimanjaro summit night.
And then it got steep. Really steep. So steep that if I glanced up or down, or did anything other than look directly at my feet or the ground just ahead of me, I was gripped with a gut-wrenching, nausea-inducing kind of vertigo. Lesson quickly learned: don’t look up or down!
It was also slippery. Ol Doinyo Lengai is an active volcano, and the last eruption was in 2008, when fresh ash and lava covered much of the slopes. That means that you’re mostly walking on either loose, or compressed ash, which makes for a pretty shoddy hiking surface, to say the least. Most of it is firm enough to take a person’s weight, but every so often what appeared to be a solid foothold would suddenly give way underneath me, and if I reached out to grab a nearby rock it frequently crumbled away in my hand. Factor in the overall steepness and you can probably understand why it was about the least fun I’ve ever had in a foreign country in the middle of the night.
Nonetheless, after about four hours we did eventually make it to what our guide Luka described as ‘The Resting Place’, a small sheltered bay tucked into the side of Ol Doinyo Lengai about an hour from the summit. Not knowing how speedy we’d be, Luka had allowed plenty of time for us to make the ascent. But because we’d made good progress, we now had to wait here in the cold and dark until it was time to head to the top for sunrise.
This was a dangerous time to be sitting quietly with my thoughts. The longer I sat, the more I thought about how much further we had to climb, and how steep and scary it was, and how perilous the descent was going to be. Because of course the more up we did, the more down we would have to do later. And that didn’t sound like fun at all!
So, like plenty of people had done before me, I freaked out. This was insanity! I’d had enough! I couldn’t go any further! But when you’re perched on the side of an active volcano in the middle of the night with two others and only one guide, you don’t really have a choice. You could sit there alone in the dark for three hours waiting for them to go up and come back, but that’s just as unappealing. So really the only thing you can do is give yourself a stern talking to and then carry on, bear-crawling on hands and feet if necessary to avoid tumbling backwards into the blackness.
Which is what I did. And eventually we made it to the top, and sunrise.
With the benefit of daylight we could finally appreciate what it’s like to be at the top of an active volcano. And this one is pretty impressive, to say the least! Ol Doinyo Lengai seems to be the near-perfect archetype of a volcano: a symmetrical cone shape, pocked with vents spouting sulphuric gas. Inside the perfectly circular crater, a yawning throat gurgles and belches spurts of blue-black lava. It’s not as impressive as the lava lake at Nyiragongo in the DR Congo, which I was lucky enough to see in 2018, but it’s still pretty damn cool.
But while darkly fascinating it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted: the crater rim is just 1-2 metres wide with slips to certain death on either side. No wonder the Maasai call Ol Doinyo Lengai the ‘Mountain of God’ – take a wrong step up here and you’ll definitely be meeting your maker rather sooner than you might have expected!
The four of us spent some time looking around and taking celebratory top-of-the mountain photos, but it was something of a hollow victory. Constantly in the back of my mind was the knowledge that we still had the descent to deal with. And now we no longer had the benefit of darkness to lull us into a false sense of security. Now we could see in full, gut-wrenching detail just what we were dealing with. Looking down over the vertiginous slopes towards the valley floor some two kilometres below, I honestly had no clue how we had made it up there in one piece, and even less idea how on earth we were ever going to make it down again. Even attempting it was surely suicidal.
But we had no choice, so down we went. Step by careful step across the loose volcanic debris, using a single walking pole for balance (we’d hired these from a local guide before starting and I can honestly say that was without question the best $5 I have ever spent). Each and every foothold had to be carefully tested before trusting all your weight to it, for fear that it would give way and you’d go sliding off the mountain with nothing to grab onto or break your fall. On top of that, there was a constant risk of dislodging loose stones and sending them hurtling towards the person below you – with painful consequences. It was utterly insane.
So we had to resort to slightly unorthodox methods of descent in order to avoid serious injury to ourselves or each other. But careful though we were, there were still plenty of slips, and all three of us were soon covered with scrapes and bruises.
Luka, meanwhile, trotted about like a sure-footed mountain goat, giving encouragement, carrying our bags for us, or offering a hand for extra support down a difficult patch.
To be fair, the view of the Rift Valley far below was an epically beautiful distraction, but I think I appreciate it far more now, from the photographs, than I did when I was standing there with it right in front of me. Then, I was too busy concentrating on the next step, and trying to keep a lid on my fear, to really take it all in. Now, when I look at the photos, I can see how bonkers, yet how stunning it really was, and I’m grateful that I saw it because I know I’m unlikely to witness anything like it ever again in my life.
And so we continued down for several hours. And the closer we got to the bottom, the more I got used to the techniques needed to avoid falling, and the happier and more confident I felt that we were indeed going to make it back in one (slightly battered) piece.
My fellow climbers, on the other hand, experienced the opposite. Without the benefit of Kilimanjaro training, the hours of challenging descent soon took its toll on their legs and knees. Four or five hours in, and Mike in particular was hobbling like an old man. But he gritted his teeth and carried on, every painful step one closer to that blessed end.
And yes, dear reader, we did make it. Not without an awful lot of angst, but after six and a half hours of descent we were finally reunited with our car, and it was a joyous reunion, as I’m sure you can imagine. I looked back at what we had just done and I simply couldn’t get my head round it. Up close, in daylight, it looked insane. It was insane! And yet somehow we did it – and although that makes me extremely proud, it’s also something I’m very relieved to say I will never do again.
Tips for climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai
So you’ve read all this and you still want to go? Good for you (you’re clearly made of sterner stuff than me!) Here are my top tips.
- Make sure you’re up to the job. As you can tell, it’s not for the unfit, the faint-hearted, the dodgy-kneed or anyone who suffers from vertigo. But if you’ve climbed stuff before and you’re the sort of person who likes a challenge, then go for it! You’ll probably enjoy it way more than I did.
- Don’t forget to take the following: decent hiking boots, a headtorch, at least one walking pole, plenty of snacks and water, a couple of good warm layers for the top, and a camera!
- Try not to take anything unnecessary. A heavy backpack makes it much harder to balance on the way down.
- You’re not allowed to go up without a local guide. Try to find one who speaks good English and is experienced. Having someone who can give you support and encouragement at the critical moments will really help.
- If you think there’s a chance some of your group might not make it, consider hiring a second or even third guide to take back down anyone who doesn’t want to continue.
Have you climbed Ol Doinyo Lengai? What did you make of it? Leave your comments below…