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……