Is it Possible to Rediscover Something for the First Time?

Africa, Happiness, Music, Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints, roots music, tribal

Thirty years ago, give or take a month or two, a not so obvious child was born. (N.B. From the off, let me steer you away from fixating on an actual human birth, for a blog on the wonder of childbirth this is not. Figures of speech loom large in my writing, so apologies if you like your writing served on dry toast with a great dollop of literality. Oops! I did it again, smearing words on bread, which cannot be done, unless you’re making alphabet soup, in which case you can choke your own words, especially if the soup contains croutons.)

Well I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,

Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite

Anyway, back to the point. This not-so-obvious child was born in a New York recording studio thirty summers ago before the world junked out on the digital dope. The idea behind this multi-instrumental reproductive birth pang – no less the title track of the album – was that the child was obvious, and therefore should not be denied (could not resist a metatextual reference, so bear with me). But, trouble was, this birth went unheralded. No magi. No manger. Unlike the first born; yeah, that one with the South African mbaqanga rhythms and Ladysmith Black Mambaso a capella backing vocals, and for which everyone from Houston to Harare had heard of, recorded not five years before, this gift from our dancing God slipped into the world without slipping into my auditory canal for, oh, the next, uh, 30 years.

I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more,

I don’t expect to sleep through the night

The ‘Obvious Child’, track one of Paul Simon’s much anticipated follow-up to Graceland, that renaissance masterpiece from the little Jewish guy (I’m reliably informed he’s actually Jewish on his dad’s side, which doesn’t strictly qualify him) best known for writing whimsical folk songs about being in a grim northern English railway station pining for America, or about the pulp-faced wreckage of a boxer standing in a clearing on an equally grim New York street. Simon’s masterpiece part II should have registered first time round. But it didn’t. Not with me, at any rate. He titled this Graceland infant brother from another mother Rhythm of the Saints. The Boxer it was not. But Rhythm of the Saints was a lot like watching Muhammed Ali bounce around the ring in his pomp. In short, Paul Simon’s extended musical journey into African roots is pure, unbridled joy captured in a musical jar. Fireflies lighting up Brazilian drums and picking West African strings. The album might be about to turn thirty but when music is as timeless as this who gives a tinker’s cuss how old it is.

Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie,

But I say why

Rhythm of the Saints should’ve nailed it on release, but it didn’t. Hardly did it flop either, but neither did it electrify the music scene quite like its illustrious forebear. This much I know because I was nineteen and bonkers about music in 1991, and I don’t remember anything drowning out the sound of Nirvana’s Nevermind at the time. If Paul Simon wanted a shot at redemption on 1986’s Graceland, he certainly got it five years later with Rhythm of the Saints. Made with so much music multilateralism in mind that if you teamed up Kofi Annan with the entire line-up of the WOMAD festival you’d still fall short. And yet, the album wasn’t quite as percussive in the wave effect of critical acclaim as it ought to have been. Nowhere near that of a predecessor that, one could argue, whacked the first nail in the coffin of Apartheid. Maybe the curse of Graceland. After all, Elvis himself fell foul to it.

Why deny the obvious child?

Why deny the obvious child?

I’m fixing to shout to the rooftops about this black opal of a album, buried as it is still close enough to the surface to be easily mined. I won’t bore you with the particulars of my life, nor of a chequered year that’s been about as much song and dance as the long trudge to the gallows. But i will say that salvation doesn’t have to come wrapped in Jesus’ tunic. Paul Simon saved my life this year. Summarily, I dedicate this season of light to him. Or maybe this rapturous album transcends the man, leaving the listener making supplications to the creation over the creator. Track 3, The Coast, is one stubborn son of a female dog. Like unrequited love, its warm tones, its hypnotic melody, and its swinging hotspot rhythms squat in the heart long after the mind deems it sensible to evict them. Much as I try to ignore what is fast becoming musical recitation’s answer to Tourette’s Syndrome, day or night I cannot stop listening to it. When the ensemble builds like a human tower – Bahian percussion beneath Cameroonian guitar strings beneath Simon’s pitch perfect voice – my ageing body starts slithering in a whiplash motion. For a moment the hands of time turn back and i feel like a young buck lubricated at the seams.

And in remembering a road sign,

I am remembering a girl when I was young

Track 6 is She Moves On. Get this, apparently he pens it as a kind of paean to his ex-wife, Carrie Fisher. (Emoji with love hearts for eyeballs) Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, object of my adolescent fantasies sat statuesquely beside the debonair Jabba the Hut in an off-planetary bikini with hair plaited like a brunette Rapunzel. ‘When the road bends, when the song ends, She moves on.’ She certainly did. Sadly, it was onto acute bipolar disorder that she moved. But hey ho, unlike most who rest on their haunches, at least she moved. And if you ever listen to this number, so will you. In fact, maybe that’s the life force behind this work of art that can’t be hung in a gallery. Music is art providing someone’s playing it. When the music’s over…lights out. A song lives only for as long as it’s brought to life. Like any oral tradition that binds tribes into carriers of the flame, music is magic when multilingual. And on Rhythm of the Saints Simon performs an incantation on me unlike most other minstrels who try their damnedest to transcend the medium of sonic art.

The speeding planet burns

I’m used to that

My life’s so common it disappears

And sometimes even music

Cannot substitute for tears

It remains, perhaps, an ironic twist of lime in the caipirinha that the album’s closing track, The Rhythm of the Saints, ends with the lines printed above. And sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears. Is this a call to melancholy in the midst of joy? Can the two ever be truly rent apart when the greatest music makes symbiosis out of sounds and emotions. I have scribbled these thoughts down in the time it’s taken to listen to the album: twice (I took a break to sway my fidgety self to the those Pied Piper drumbeats). In the end, I do declare that these tears Paul Simon cannot hold back, even after composing this unforgettable musical oeuvre, have to be tears of pride that for a guy who made incredible folk songs with Art Garfunkel twenty years before, could go one better by bringing music back home to its birthplace of Africa. My own tears, for what it’s worth, are of relief that 2021 was rescued from ignominy by a little genius from New Jersey for whom the world didn’t quite appreciate when he was busy changing it with his Rhythm of the Saints.

True love sometimes has to round the block before it’s noticed. But nevertheless: how on Earth did I miss the carnival first time around?

On the Mountain of God (PartIII)

#adventure, adventure, Africa, mountain of god, Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania, travelogue, Trekking

If this was any Mountain of God, the God in question suffered at the hands of a greater one: the weather. Rain lashed the steep slopes. The gradient, the worsening conditions, the midnight black, the rising panic: this was becoming a Jesus lashed by the Romans moment.

I couldn’t stop but turn on my hips to train the head torch on what was immediately behind me. The pitched floor of the volcano, the void behind and beneath. Raindrops rushing me out of the inky nowhere. I began to slip down, unable to keep my footing. Grabbing what purchase i could from the ground, chunks of the weirdest paste came out in clumps. I feared the worst. Not even the Himalaya had put the fear in me like this mythical giant. And like a mythic giant, once stirred from slumber they arch and wriggle, until rising mightily there’s nowhere to hang on but hurtle down.

Moses, my guide, was close ahead. He kept turning to reassure me. I saw in his dark features great courage. Yet, even he, the Masai warrior with a taste for suicidal volcanoes, looked at the very least surprised by these Scottish-like conditions.

It must have been after 3am by now. Lengai sat practically on the equator, but the temperatures struggled above latitude 50. We had been ascending – what felt like near-vertically – for upwards of 4 hours. How much longer until the summit? Moses cast a look of disappointment. “We’ll be there for sunrise. Two more hours.”

“There will be no sunrise at this rate,” I shot back.

Beseeching me to go on, Moses sensed the mood had shifted in me. For the first time in a long time an indifference overcame me about reaching the goal. I had travelled so far overland, paid so much for the privilege of my own cook, driver, armed guard, not to mention donkey handlers. I had spent so many months orchestrating this plan. And yet, here we were, 120 minutes from the crater of the world’s quirkiest volcano and I wanted nothing more of it.

“All right,” I said to him. “Let’s keep going. I suppose the rain might stop.” Of course, the Scot in me knew that when a man wants rainclouds banished, the weather gods don’t take kindly.

Another half hour onward and upward and the rain was truly routing the mountain’s immense flanks. Continuing to slide a foot for every two planted, I suspected foul play, that God – or whoever dwelt in this abominable realm – had no intentions of receiving worshippers that day. I slumped onto the liquid ground, my shoulders hunched in defeat. Moses noticed straight away, and turned back to see what was the matter.

“It ain’t gonna stop, Man. I just know it.”

“Look,” he replied. “You’ve come a long way. You can do this. You’re a Masai, like me.”

“But even if we reach the top, what then? We can’t see anything.”

I had, obviously, researched this expedition, leaving no visual stone unturned. You don’t take on something of this magnitude without first watching a few YouTube documentaries containing aerial panoramas shot from helicopters that leave you gasping for breath. Knowing that on a clear morning from Lengai’s summit Mt Kilimanjaro was there in all its abundant glory ninety miles away, that candy floss flocks of pink flamingos could be seen massing over nearby Lake Natron, and that practically the whole floor of the neighbouring Rift Valley could be savoured with a single sweep of the eye, was beginning to bother me. Why? Because, at this rate there was going to be no clear morning. We were going to end up wreathed in filthy rain clouds, unable to see more than a few metres of visibility.

I tried telling Moses this. “It’s about the views, man.” This fine young man looked, for all intents and purposes, an ancient soul shouldering all blame for what the sky was throwing at us. But none of this was his doing.

“I’m really sorry, Scott.”

“That’s okay, Moses. Let’s wait here a while before we think about quitting.” In truth, the sun could have been shining and I still would have been too afraid to march on.

Far below us I could discern human life in the form of four beams of torch light. Through the swarm of rain drops I studied them for many minutes. They were ascending swiftly. Rainproof and determined, that was for sure. What started as four tiny specks of light moving up the mountain in a series of switchbacks, after a while – how long in this surreality I had no idea – the lights began to close in on us.

Out of the blackness we were confronted. By four white faces. Two were dressed to the hilt in waterproofs while the other two appeared suitably attired for the park on a summer’s day. Through her sculpted hood, one the figures stared right through me. Her headlight bore into my soul as I gazed back at her.

“Are you alright? Why are you sitting here?” she asked. “We saw you climb quickly and then suddenly stop. Why?”

I told them of my misgivings. Playing down my uneasiness about the mountain’s peculiar aura, as well as the impossible gradient of the slopes in these conditions, I chose to accentuate the missed photo-op side of it.

“If this rain doesn’t clear in the next half hour, there’s no point in summiting. We won’t see anything. Isn’t that the whole point of it?”

The girls, both Polish and air hostesses in Norway, as it turned out, eyed me sympathetically. They knew that what was gripping me was also gripping them. This trepidation was self-evidently not shared by all. Their male companions, Russian and by my reckoning not air hostesses, lobbied to go onward. We all remained in this eerie stand-off, perhaps 8,000ft up the world’s only carbonatite volcano. The two underdressed Russians were having none of it while the two overdressed Poles were showing signs of apprehension going any further.

On the face of it, the two Polish girls, Moses and I, were willing the rain to abate. We accepted not only the danger in clinging to such a rain-sodden slope but also the futility in walking vertically halfway to heaven only to get stopped at the pearly gates. The Russians had no such reservations. Men are men, particularly in a nation where Putin would not have forgiven their cowardice so readily.

‘We go on,” they stated. And that was that.

“This rain is here to stay,” I said somewhat defeatedly, and a whole lot defiantly. “I’m turning back.” Moses looked bereft. All he wanted was to be the best midwife he could be, delivering me into wondrous new world.

The girls turned their headlights toward the Russians, then me.

“We’re coming with you,” they said.

The split was on high up on the Mountain of God. One of the Polish girls admitted she had been afraid. I seconded that fear and we were the better for it. As we traipsed down with a beaten Moses ahead, I kept turning to see the progress of the Russians. In a true George Mallory moment, the last we saw of their head torches was them disappearing into a thick wreathe of raincloud about 9/10ths of the way up, according to Moses.

Now safely at the foot of Oldoinyo Lengai, a grey dawn broke. The mountain, its flanks rendered green by the rain and gouged by overflowing gullies, its crown all but invisible, seemed to me a refugee from Scotland’s Highlands before the ice smoothed all before it. Never had equatorial Africa looked so dreich. As we boarded the jeep, the rain finally ceased. But, trundling off across the Rift Valley I could see out of the rear window a perfect conical rising until decapitated by one stubborn son-of-a-bitch cloud that simply refused to budge.

The Russians might well have landed first, but as sure as sugar is sweet there’s no chance they were going to be met by that uninterrupted view all the way to Kilimanjaro. Though for them, that was never the purpose.

Below are hyperlinks to versions 1 and 2:

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/06/on-the-mountain-of-god/

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/20/on-the-mountain-of-god-2/

Away With the Birds

#adventure, adventure, Africa, barn swallows, Birds, migration, migratory routes, ornithology

Is there any animal that spells summer quite like the barn swallow? Do they even realise they are a harbinger of good things to come? I do not know if it’s them deciding summer or if it’s summer that brings them into being. I dare say it matters not one iota the order of things, simply that one could not co-exist without the other. If either were to disappear, I cannot see how we could avoid joining them in the dustbin of history.

People living at lower latitudes might not appreciate the symbolic power of that first glimpse of a solitary swallow gliding and weaving, banking and dipping above the river and high over the houses. We, however, who choose to inhabit the Northern outposts of the habitable world (i.e. England), place more attachment than we’d have ourselves believe on the return of these seasonal visitors. For us, whether we admit to it or not, the swallow is arguably a national treasure, the most welcome sight over the White Cliffs of Dover in an age where few are getting all excited at the prospect of incomers. After nigh on six months of monochrome, half-light, naked trees and continuous dampness, you can about bank on the swallows to slap an injunction on this dismal run of days. And, yes, to save the rest of us from death by despondency. We owe them much. We owe them a debt of gratitude for returning to us what they callously took from us when they left the previous early autumn. While a simple thanks doesn’t wash with them, busy as they are frantically gobbling up insects on the wing to power the trip home to South Africa, we can perhaps begin to appreciate them by first getting to grips with how mindbogglingly difficult their journey back and forth from latitude 40 degrees south to latitude 50 degrees north.

Weighing in at slightly under half the weight of a pouch of tobacco, and measuring half the length of a school ruler from beak to the tips of their famous forked tail, these little fighter pilots don’t actually require aeronautical engineers to build their means of transport. Nature did that for them over millennia. They are, no less, the complete article. Top Gun school cadets that arrive on the scene with their seventeen million dollar supersonic jet fighter on their back. The inspiration of humans wealthy enough to chase the sun on a perennial basis, swallows don’t need two mortgages in order to live the dream. They do, however, need astonishing levels of stamina, as well as innate GPS coordinates to find their way literally from door to door.

Take the Cape of Good Hope as their starting point. It wasn’t that long ago that humans discovered the verifiable truth that the barn swallows we see here in the British Isles nearly all originate in South Africa. The telemetry of migratory birds was always an elusive truth until tiny metallic bands started to be fastened onto their twig-like ankles. When a swallow was located 8,000 miles away wearing the same band, the connection was finally made. This feat of endurance, flying the length of Africa plus the length of Europe surprised many birders. For starters, how does something weighing fifteen grammes make it that far year after year? And more beguiling, how does an animal with a tiny brain remember how to get home? I mean it’s not like home is just round the corner either. To find its way from a nest in the eaves of a house in a hamlet in a valley in an English county back to a forest in Lesotho or a hole in a crag deep in the Drakensberg Mountains, first it has to find a suitable crossing point on the south coast of England. it then needs to fly at about 50kph, avoiding predatory birds, as well as birdshot from hunters’ guns, through France, over the Pyrenees, over the baking plains of Castille in Spain, up and over the Sierra Nevadas before making another crossing of the straits of Gibraltar. Presumably it doesn’t stop for very long en route, other than to feed where it can and to catch some zzzz’s before the big one across the Sahara. Is this beginning to sound like an epic journey? Well, we’re not properly underway quite yet.

Once into Morocco and over the Atlas Mountains, the landscape becomes disturbingly parched. The complex chain of organic life that begins with plants and eventuates in the presence of insects is on the wane by the time the swallows cross into Mauritania. By now they are well and truly at the mercy of the elements. These elements are always harsh, but sometimes brutal. Food disappears. Soil gives to dust, which swirls around in the lower atmosphere, blinding and choking everything. The heat is intense, even in autumn when the swallows are passing through. Shade at midday, shade at any time of the day becomes a rarity. The nights are frigid. There are so few reliable sources of insectivorous sustenance for them that ornithologists suspect that they make sizeable detours to arrive at Saharan watering holes, of which they are few and far between.

The winds on the open plains of the desert are hot blasts of angry air. The bird must take that wind head on, though if the little navigator gets sucked into a trade wind, he or she will end up blown far off course and into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean where its end is watery.

If the swallow survives the full-blown Saharan stage, by perhaps following the Niger river for water and sustenance, he will find himself entering the Sahel – that band of latitude south of the Sahara and north of the equatorial belt. You might think of the brave little swallow that his troubles are now behind him, but you would be wrong. This passerine bird needs to know it has not ventured off the ‘flyway’ (the corridor that they all traditionally take), but how does he know this when a) a sandstorm has most likely disrupted his passage; and b) when recognisable landmarks beneath them, used season after season to as reliable route finders, have been upended, scorched, moved, destroyed or otherwise fallen victim to man’s insatiable tinkering of his physical world? In the anthropocene age of man the job of swallow with homes in either hemisphere has become intolerably difficult.

If the 18g swallow has made it this far, his chances of reaching home do increase. But success is far from a certainty. In the Sahel, where acacias grow sporadically on impoverished soils, finding dinner is still a major issue. The swallow can try and seek out the brahmin cattle, for their tails are always swishing from the density of flies congregating around their shit. Still, remember, the swallow is a small bird who prefers a diet of gnats and midges and altogether smaller insects. The big-ass African variety, such as the tsetse fly remains a formidable mouthful. Now, beating his wings at upward of 70kph, the swallow powers its way past the Sahel to where green shoots grow. He has now reached the Equatorial belt somewhere around Northern Nigeria. His weary plight will be eased by the sight of forests coming into view. But they are merely a trap. Once he, and another few thousand of his brethren, have reached the forests of tropical West Africa they must be careful where they choose to take their traveller’s rest. The unfortunate will be snared in vast nets that locals booby trap the trees with. There is no hope for a swallow caught in the net. Even though he is only transiting, the swallow will be considered fair game and taken for the village pot.

For the brave few, they might follow the flyway (or skyway as i like to call it) out into the Gulf of Guinea. Once away from land the armpit of Africa can be a dangerous proposition. All it needs is a gust of wind and that’s it, game over. For the foolhardy if they stay the course, crossing the island group of Sao Tome and Principe, they can nail the short cut, reentering Africa in the primordial forests of Gabon, and further south to the mouth of the mighty Congo river. Here they might not be deprived the sustenance needed to power an 8,000-mile journey, but still they are not out of the woods yet. Dangers abound. The Gaboon Viper can strike while they are taking branch breather. Humans continue to predate them and every other piece of flying meat. The rains over the Congo come in torrents, the raindrops as heavy as concrete on their weightless bodies. The electrical storms over the world’s second largest contiguous forest are legendary. Do these pint-sized pilots feel fear?

Once beyond the Congo the swallows are beginning to home in on home. They are now in the southern hemisphere and there is every chance they know this, due to the Coriolis effect, magnetism, position of the sun and stars, and so on. Just when you thought they could hit the home straight for a ticker-tape parade celebrating their incredible marathon, another geophysical kraken emerges. Their voyage home comes to resemble Odysseus and his ten years of wandering. Angola treats them fairly well, providing the Goldilocks Effect for an exhausted bird. However, what lies beyond is in every way as rigorous and daunting as the Sahara. Except this desert is much older and much drier: the Namib.

South Africa is bordered by Namibia to the north. Namibia contains some of the highest dunes on Earth alongside a skeleton coast of nothing but bleached bones and shipwrecks. The ocean is an ice bucket under a burning sun. The dunes have disoriented weary travellers for eons. Only there can north be south and east be west. In the Namib desert can the swallow fall at the final hurdle. If he follows the coast south to the mouth of the Orange River, the swallow will have a fighting chance of making it home in time for supper, though how many lie dazed and confused in the red sands of the Namib no one knows, because no one ever ventures in there and comes out telling the tale.

By now, the great navigator has completed seven of the eight thousand miles. In the Western Cape he can perch on the fynbos, and while the vegetation might be on the prickly side, he will find a good square meal and a place to rest his weary wings.

He’s made it. Many have fallen by the wayside. And, to think, our magnificent young fledgling was only born in England in May, so how in God’s name did he cruise the flyway without having that internal map to guide him? The possibilities are too great, the implications of his amazing solo feat semi-mythical. Leave the answers unanswered. It’s all good. Some mysteries are well-kept for reasons known only to Gaia.

He’s home, South Africa are world rugby champions, the sun is shining as only the sun can in a waterworld southern hemisphere where the skies are cerulean blue owing to the amount of ocean. The earth has tilted away from north to south while he’s been on the wing for those breathless six weeks. He and his squadron of fellow travellers have literally pulled the Earth upward to let their hemisphere bask in the full glow of sunlight. They used invisible pulleys and guy ropes that we cannot see (I know that, because I decoded a conversation between two of them one day). Meanwhile we in the northern hemisphere batten down the hatches for another deathly winter until the swallows return in April or May.

Oh, yes, the return. Did I mention? They’ll be making the homeward journey north as well, about four months from now. That’s if we humans don’t mess up his time-honoured route along the invisible skyway by altering the landscape uprooting trees, exterminating insects, to plough yet another bloody field before he leaves again. Given how far we humans have redecorated the Earth’s surface, it’s a miracle they even find their way back and forth year after year.

So the next time you see one wheeling, darting and generally performing top-notch aerial acrobatics on the green and by the river, doff your cap and take a bow in his direction. For what this tiny frequent flyer does without leaving a carbon trail, we could only dream of.

On The Mountain of God

Africa, Danger, mountains, Oddities, Travel, Uncategorized, Volcano

I remember rounding that bend and it coming into view, as plain as day. It wasn’t like any normal geological feature. By seeming to fuse beautifully with the ground beneath them, most uplands rise and fold and generally harmonise with the physique of the surrounding landscape. But not this bulge in the earth. Not Ol Doinyo Lengai. Lengai intrudes like a gigantic unwanted visitor. Its flanks, gouged with the long and drawn scars on the cheeks of a street fighter, jar with the green and rolling highlands around. Too volatile to keep its clothes on, too uncivilised to wear them in the first place, the mountain of God is bare and bold as belief itself.

For a full day, maybe two, my shuka-clad guide and I had threaded down on paths from the Crater Highlands. On the descent, the heat was incipient. It rose in small but profound shifts for every hundred metres or so dropped. Like a great fuck up in the joinery of the Earth, the Rift Valley was a natural sight as arresting as any. The thrusting up one side, the slumping down of the other, so pronounced were both that it was hard to tell which side of the rift had done the thrusting and which side the slumping

As we descended onto the floor of what eventually becomes the boundless plains of the Serengeti, we lost the stature and the confidence that being on high ground had enabled us with. Contrastingly, it was Oldoinyo Lengai, the mountain of God, that rose in prominence. We were now standing on the same floor, no blocks under our feet to give that impression of fighting on equal terms. Born a stratovolcano and therefore devoid of facial form (forms like spurs and ridges, and bits that look a bit anthropomorphic if your strain your eyes hard enough), the mountain nevertheless looked on, taking the corner of my eye as its own. Rounding it, I was like a dog rounding a hackled opponent in the park. My eyes were fixed on it, and it on me. ‘I am going to the top of that,’ I muttered with a feeling of incredulity and a weary sigh of foreboding.

Now on the plains, Africa’s sun began to bite. We had traipsed all day and with temperatures topping 40 Celsius, even the leather-tough Masai said enough was enough. Calling on our jeep to come fetch us, for the last couple of kilometres to camp even scrawny trees appeared to offer a nod of understanding. In the wing mirror I caught a glance of it sliding away, that rumbling behemoth. We would be back the following night to tickle its flanks while hopefully it slumbered and let us do what bedbugs do while humans sleep on unwittingly. At this prospect I had misgivings. No slouch on the slopes I always considered myself, yet such misgivings I had rarely, if ever, felt. That was until now.

When dates are impending, they can leave us shaken and a whole lot stirred. When the following night arrived, our date was set. The afternoon had produced clear skies, but now that the equatorial night had plunged light into a bath of blackness we could sense a change in the weather. Pulling on those gloves, slipping into that climber’s cat suit, I felt like we were about to burgle the mountain.

‘Why are we climbing at midnight?’ I asked. ‘Do volcanoes only erupt during the day?’

‘It’s the heat,’ the Masai replied. ‘Cooler for climbing at night.’

‘Maybe so, but a whole lot darker, too.’

‘Don’t worry’, he foreswore. ‘You are safe with me.’ This he said holding his trademark sword by the hilt.

Over rough ground our jeep trundled until we reached the trailhead. One other jeep was there, its headlights trained on a sliver of mountain. The air was heavy and the moon raced across the sky. Darting behind walls of cloud, when it came into the open it cast a silvery accusation at the mountain. Barely able to look up for fear of what was to come, I kept my head low. It was then I noticed the first drops of rain on the bleached grass.

We started out well enough. My eyes on stalks, I did the natural thing by following my guide. Narrow beams of torchlight was all we had. Having done this before, he had that gait of a guy who just knows he’s going to make it. The incline started gentle, the floor of the lower flanks quite the strangest feel to the pitter-patter of human feet. Beneath our soles, the feel of it was akin to walking on glass. Sounding hollow, for some reason I adjudged that tiptoeing would not awaken the giant, as if creeping in my cat suit would improve my prospects, or change a damned thing.

Still the rain fell. Harder and steadier it came. From shower to unremitting rainfall, the carbonatite ground now turned into a paste. Beneath the paste was, as described, a weird substrate of thin ice or window glass. By now it was after midnight. No murmur was there from Lengai. Not a peep. This is why we climb a God at an unGodly hour, I surmised. Pitch black and alone, gauging height and position was all but impossible for me. My life was in my guide’s hands. After a while scaling ever steeper gradients, I grasped the ground, turned my head and, through the bombardment of rain through the beam, did see faint traces of light at the bottom of the mountain of God. ‘We have come far in short time’, I said to my guide. ‘No, he laughed. ‘We are still at the bottom.’

Soon enough, our hike became a scramble. The rain came down harder. The volcano rose to meet me nose to flank. It became apparent why gloves were the order of the day. Feet and feet alone were not going to suffice. Hands were deployed and the ascent took on a whole other complexion. Two limbs turned in to four. I had always thought that the pleasure in mountain hiking was that it was a hands-free experience, but this night was turning out different. Within two hours the gradient had gone from reasonable to completely unreasonable. The mountain of God might have been busying itself in answering prayer or meditation or whatever rock gods do, but by ensuring its slopes were not only slick but steep as shit, we had our work cut out. The trials of Job coupled with the labours of Heracles: and I was paying top dollar to be threatened with extinction by an anything-but-extinct zit on the face of the earth.

And so, up and up we went. My guide ahead, he paused periodically to check if I was still clinging on. Meanwhile, I could not help but look back and down. My clothes were soaked. The mountainside was by this point being drenched in a torrent of equatorial rain. Clumps of sticky carbonatite paste were coming away, like tufts from a chemo head, in my hands. Steadying oneself upright was turning into a nightmare. For once in my life I was wishing I were short and stocky and not tall and gangly.

Panic rising, about three-four hours up the mountain – 2,500m who can tell – I found myself alone. Craning my neck around in a moment I can only compare to the myth of ancient Greece when Orpheus, having rescued his lover, Eurydice, from the underworld, commits the fatal error of turning to look at her as she rises up behind him only to tumble back down forever, I saw the underworld with mine own eyes. The torch beam was powerful, but even it dissipated into the blackness immediately behind me. Initially I assumed it to be the void of night, before realising that the only void I was seeing was one involving the absence of solid earth behind. If you can imagine standing on a small meteor hurtling through deep space – that is exactly how it appeared to me.

To be continued……

On The Mountain Of God

Africa, Travel, Uncategorized

    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)