Tanzania’s Ol Doinyo Lengai is the Mountain of God to the Masai people who live in its shadow. So central is this iconic mountain to their folklore that these East Africans venerate it as the maker of the world. Geophysicists would agree, but not for spiritual reasons. For the rock boffins, Lengai is the mother lode of raw materials that makes this mountain truly exceptional.
Still, this little tale seeks not to dwell on the stuff from which exceptional volcanoes are made. Rather, it’s about the stuff that we discover we are made from when gripped by the struggle to overcome fear, gravity, and the raw elements to reach a summit like Lengai’s.
The Mountain of God strikes a chord. God! It’s a mountain alright. For any rich man or woman who has taken on this 3,000 metre deity in East Africa’s Rift Valley, ascending through the eye of a needle to heaven disguised as a camel might be easier. From the watery labyrinth of cenotes in the limestone shelf of Mexico to the deep crevasses on Greenland’s icecap, the underworld is below us for good reason. Few, if any, of Earth’s natural wonders place that underworld over our heads. However, there’s one place where one looks up to look down: on the terrifyingly steep and slippery slopes of Ol Doinyo Lengai where the journey to Hades is straight up on the most dizzying of gradients.
Now you might wonder why a modestly-proportioned mountain on the warm, sunlit uplands of the planet could be damned. There are harder. True. There are higher. True. There are more frigid. There are more rarefied. There are more technical and more ragged, more vertiginous and more spiteful. All true. It’s just that Ol Doinyo Lengai is no mountain in the sense of ordinary. So banished is it from the range, so weird in its makeup, that it ought to be bagged and quarantined.
Tanzania’s second most iconic cone after Kilimanjaro, like Africa’s tallest point ninety-nine miles to the east, Lengai is not even a mountain in the classic sense. Rather, it is a volcano. Unlike Kilimanjaro, Lengai is neither dormant nor ordinary. In fact, there is literally nothing like it anywhere else on the known Earth.
Before the tale is told, a little descriptive background needs to be sold.
Tanzania’s only active hotspot, Ol Doinyo Lengai is geologically-speaking a stratovolcano, a perfect cone of natrocarbonatite material that shares a chemistry with none upon none of the world’s other roughly fifteen-hundred active volcanoes. Still growing year on year, it lies in the Great Rift Valley with the Serengeti away to the northwest, Lake Natron to the north, and the Crater Highlands featuring the famous Ngorongoro to the south. A serene majesty, it shares the throne with no other. All its crater siblings are long dead and collapsed, whose green calderas are filled with either water or wildlife. Alone it presides. Trusted by nothing and trusting nothing surrounding it, Lengai cuts a lonely, slightly sinister figure to whomever makes the descent on foot from the pastures in the relative cool of the crater highlands to the baking soda lake of Natron on the Kenyan border, a shallow alkaline icon of a lake where congregate some of the largest migrant flocks of pink flamingos anywhere on the planet.
On the approach the Mountain of God plays a game of deception, dominating like the hunched back of some primordial giant. From the thatched roofs of Masai huts dotted on their simple homesteads many miles away Lengai looms. How could it be anything but a God among men? When clouds mass over its rim – hanging around for a piece of the action as they often do given its amplitude and the brazen attitude with which it punches the air over the rift valley – a somberness seems to fall over its flanks, if sombre is something both mountain and God can feel. Lengai, you could say, is a widower in a world full of happy marriages: the marriage of the African sky and the African earth; of the million-strong wildebeest herds and their precious migration; of the Masai and their beloved Brahman cattle; and, perhaps greatest of all, how the colour of the lion’s pelt and the parched grasslands marry into a perfect camouflage arrangement.
As mentioned, Ol Doinyo Lengai is made of sterner stuff. Out bubbling from the open wound on its head is lava tapped from some wellspring of hot matter in the Earth’s mantle. When the crater floor is spattered with its lava, that lava is cold blood geologically-speaking. It is born at five hundred degrees Celsius, less than half the temperature of your average volcano. So cool is it, in fact, that apparently it can be gathered up with a dessert spoon (but only a fool would eat it). Because, or in spite, of the cold reptilian blood in its vein, the stuff that makes Ol Doinyo Lengai a God among tall and slender tribesmen in red shuka robes emerges without the signature glow of hot orange magma. Black and muddy brown are the colours of the bile it spews, glowing a dull red only when night falls. When the rain touches Lengai’s lava, within minutes it turns a paste-like white with a hardness of cement. Another unique feature is that Lengai’s ejecta shatters as glass when it comes into contact with high-altitude air.
Bizarrely, its volcanic outpouring hardly carries with it any of the silicates that predominate in the earth’s crust. Instead what channels up consists of 90% whitish carbonates of potassium and sodium, leaving the crater floor a strange feat of nature. Black strings of pahoehoe basalt on Hawaii’s Mona Kea this is definitely not. Quite how the segregation of the dominant silica and lesser carbonates happens baffles even the greatest minds in geology. Be that as it may, how does it do it? How does Ol Doinyo Lengai offer up its burning treasures on a spoon? How does it make liquid turn to shattered glass?
Their answer: Ol Doinyo Lengai is of another planet. That in itself makes it worth a multi-modal Phileus Fogg journey to climb and, with the Gods appeased, conquer, too.
…In the next part of my real-life adventure, I go in search of Ol Doinyo Lengai’s summit on a week-long trek through the Crater Highlands to my ultimate destination on the shores of Lake Natron. A veritable expedition, with my trusty, sword-wielding Masai guide by my side, we travel with armed guards, porters, cooks, drivers and even two sad-looking mules to the mountain.
Truly underestimating its ferocity, on Ol Doinyo Lengai will come a Mountain God that wants only to punish the trespasser(ine). The starless night, the unremitting rain, the desperate scramble to stay on the edge of that terrible mountain falling away onto the valley floor thousands of feet beneath….
(Image, © Trespasserine, 2014)