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Ol Doinyo Lengai – An Adventure Too Far?

In November 2008 we joined a recce adventure through the Tanzanian craters stretching from Ngorongoro, Olmoti, Empakaai and past Ol Doinyo Lengai to Lake Natron on the Rift Valley floor.

A tame walking trail with some vehicle backup and the last stretch using donkeys to carry water, food and gear was set to be an adventure almost too far!

...campfire setting at Acacia Camp

…campfire setting at Acacia Camp

The hike itself included epic scenery with wonderful company. It amounted to 4 days of thoroughly enjoyable adventure, exercise, brilliant weather and great conditions despite the dust, heat and rationed water.

Fairly hard work with small space for the wicked and none for the lazy. It was a good time for each of us to settle into comfortable rhythms and relax with our own thoughts for hours on end and then share some truly hysterical moments at the end of each day. An outstanding adventure trail and hike by the best standards.

We finished off at a little oasis on the edge of Lake Natron and celebrated with multiple showers, good food and buckets of beer. This was all a bit premature…

Ol Doinyo Lengai from Acacia Camp 11 October 2008

Ol Doinyo Lengai, a place of adventure

Known to the Maasai as “The Mountain of God” it had dominated our route from the practically deserted village of Nayobi to Acacia Camp down to the lake.

This is an active volcano with loose ash on baked rock that rises as a symmetrical cone up 1880m off the valley floor to its summit at just under 3000m. It’s truly imposing whenever in sight.

Ol Doinyo Lengai had been very active since early 2006 with a major eruption in September 2007 and others following through most of 2008.

On arrival at Ngare Sero Camp we heard that a week before some climbers had done the summit. Now a climb had always been a glimmer of hope and probably most unlikely but local guides were excited to take on the challenge so we decided to go for it at the very last moment. At midnight 8 of us set off with 3 guides.

…near midnight the main adventure was about to start

…near midnight the main adventure was about to start

The hike starts gently but before long you’re clambering up a very rough surface with swirling cold clouds and talc-like ash flying about. Our guides soon realised that recent eruptions had obliterated the traditional ascent routes. With a simple head torch you’re left with little choice. You either continue upwards or hang out in the cold and descend after sunrise. (A descent in the dark even in the best conditions is simply out of the question.) The wiser in the group hunkered down and backed off taking in the cold night, a few crazies continued.

So for hours we scrambled upwards, through ash filled gullies and over solid ridges where the options left or right were absolutely impossible. Often on all fours up to a loosely covered concrete apron nearer the summit. The final ascent route became obvious once dawn broke. We were well behind schedule at this point.

Onesmo takes a rest on his 25th descent of Ol Doinyo Lengai

Onesmo takes a rest on his 25th descent of Ol Doinyo Lengai

We found ourselves on a very exposed face where crumbling ash and a great ridge is marked by a notch in the skyline. The last stretch through these “Pearly Gates” to the summit up a very narrow edge was dodgy but we wasted no time – we took a few photos on the summit, hyper-ventilated some more and turned around.
We’d been heading upwards for 6 hours. Rarely looking backwards and consciously denying how risky this little jaunt had become. Getting up was easy, getting down was like a nightmare by comparison. Physically demanding up and more so down, the sun was starting to hammer us and with a strong respect for heights the going was mentally tough too.

13 hours after leaving the trailhead we were back at the vehicle – exhausted and very relieved. We’d been unknowingly ill-prepared for this one. We did this epic climb on snacks and a few litres of water each. In easy times Ol Doinyo Lengai had been treated as a moderate 6 hour hike and the slopes were well vegetated in those days.

Do it again? That walk toLakeNatronanytime but clambering up and down that volcano isn’t the happiest place for an acrophobe. The answer…of course!

The lessons? Very simple…

  • There’re few places in the world where you can just go ahead and have a seriously good adventure. Africa’s one – just take responsibility for your own risks, count on your buddies and let them count on you too.
  • Do epic stuff!

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