Climbing The Mountain Of God, The World’s Weirdest Volcano

Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania
huguesn, Flickr

In the northern Arusha region of Tanzania near the border with Kenya, a geological oddity pokes its nose out of the rift valley floor. It’s Ol Doinyo Lengai, the only volcano in the world that erupts with natrocarbonatite lava.

Natrocarbonatite is half the temperature of the glowing silicate lava you see oozing out of Hawaiian volcanoes and it flows many times faster. It spills forth like water in black frothing streams. If you don’t want to melt your Merrells in 950-degree rivers, you have to watch your step on the summit.

In the Maasai language, Ol Doinyo Lengai means “Mountain of God.” The Maasai’s supreme god and the creator of the world, Ngai, has resided there since time immemorial. Presumably it’s rent controlled.

From afar, the peak of Ol Doinyo Lengai looks like it’s puffing out small clouds, as would a cartoon train. Up close it’s apparent that little clouds have condensed around its cone. It’s not that high, though, at just under 10,000 feet. But height is not the only obstacle to summiting the volcano. When you travel to the middle of nowhere with no guide, luck is a huge factor.

Twenty of us were in Tanzania on a geological field trip with our university’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. As an aside, if you want to travel for work, don’t become a travel writer. Become a geologist. You’ll spend way less time in front of a computer and far more time in the middle of beautiful nowheres.

After landing in Nairobi, we rented a 4×4 and two vans to haul us – 19 students and one enduring, stoic professor – into and around Tanzania for two weeks. By the time we reached the turnoff from the paved road to Ol Doinyo Lengai, our luck had expired.

Lava flow on Ol Doinyo Lengai
Kerry Klein, Flickr

The road to ODL angled parallel to the shoulders of the Gregory Rift, part of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, across flat expanses of grassy savannah and past a skeletal acacia trees. We were at the tail end of Tanzania’s brief dry season and the acacias had been picked clean months before. The new grasses had yet to take hold in most places, and the road rapidly deteriorated into fields of soft earth. Our vans constantly sunk deep into the loose soil and even our 4×4 lost its footing regularly.

Van stuck in the earth
Kerry Klein, Flickr

On the uninterrupted African savannahs, you can see a plains storm from a long way off. The dark clouds billow across the sky and below them a torrent of rain dims a uniform trapezoid on the horizon. Dramatic to watch from afar, but impossible to drive through on the unprotected veld.

At this time of year a storm brought more than rain. In front of us on the road, a dark squall sagged heavily looking like a bubble waiting to burst. The fierce winds whipped up dust and sand from the parched fields in skinny sepia tornadoes. We eventually came to a complete halt as we plunged deeper into the storm. The visibility dropped to zero, and we had to sit it out with nothing to look at outside but a uniform swatch of cafe au lait dust.

View from the window during a dust storm
Adam Hodge, Gadling

By the time we arrived at where we thought the Maasai village was supposed to be, 9 hours had passed, and the sun had long since gone down. As we searched for the village in the pitch black nowhere, one van’s bash plate (the protective cover on the bottom of the engine) tore off and then the 4×4’s radiator went on the fritz, causing its engine to overheat and die.

Jerry-rigging a temporary fix for each took time and it was already midnight when we finally found the village. Our plan to begin climbing at 2 a.m. in order to avoid getting roasted by the equatorial sun was completely out the window. None of us had slept. The base of the volcano was still an hour’s drive away. And since we had two broken vehicles we that meant we had to shuttle three separate groups to the mountain in the one working van. Starting at 4 a.m. the first group set out on a couple hours of sleep. With any luck we would get everyone there before the sun launched a full assault on our climbing party.

No luck. The final group began the ascent at about 11 a.m., just as the sun came down on us like Thor’s hammer. I was part of the last group. It took me 5 hours to climb up the steep barren slope, feeling every step like Sisyphus, and clawing my way up on hands and knees near the top. The porters were up in only a few hours, bouncing from rock to rock as if they hadn’t heard of gravity.

Maasai porters and guides
Kerry Klein, Flickr

At the top I crawled into a shaded tent and collapsed into dreamless sleep. The sun, sensing my respite, sought out my hiding place and began to suffocate me inside. Two ravens named Never and More then lived at the top of the volcano and they squawked with displeasure from their perch on the crater ridge as I burst from the tent gulping for air.

We spent the day exploring the summit, taking samples and clambering around the outer edge of the crater. The summit is filled with tiny peaks called hornitos, which are formed from solidified lava. We came across one spewing forth natrocarbonatite, black like oil. It gushed out of a wound in the hornito’s side and cascaded rapidly down the crater’s slope. Natrocarbonatite lava is completely dehydrated, so it reacts quickly with humidity in the atmosphere and turns white within hours. You can tell how old a lava flow is by its color.

Hornito on Ol Doinyo Lengai
Kerry Klein, Flickr
Lava flow on Ol Doinyo Lengai
Kerry Klein, Flickr

The view from the crater’s ridge was superb. Storms lashed the sky at the depths of the scene, though it was calm and clear nearby. The volcanic ash that has landed around Ol Doinyo Lengai (and other long-dormant volcanoes in the region) creates an extremely fertile soil that grass thrives in, which in turn supports the expansive grasslands’ millions of wildebeest, antelope, zebras and a pantheon of famous predators. An apt name, the Mountain of God.

Night came quickly, as it does by the equator. I was looking forward to a night’s rest on the soft, pliant floor of the crater. Earlier, my friend and I hadn’t thought to tie down our tent because it was so calm in the shadow of the crater ridge…

… Our tent billowed as the gale-force winds became more powerful. We recognized when the tent was smothering us that someone would have to sort this out. I stepped out to pin it down and was immediately soaked and almost knocked over in the wind. None of the pins held when I stuck them in the soil. I called my friend out of the tent to hold it down. He emerged, got soaked, and clutched one corner as I gripped the other. The tent began to lift off the ground, pulling us up and away. We had idiotically attached ourselves to a massive sail. We dug our heels into the ground and braced against the wind. After a moment we looked at each other knowingly, and with a nod let go of the tent. It whipped away, plunging into the blackness.

We fled, pelted by the rain, to the nearest shelter, an occupied one-person tent that had already flooded. The three of us crammed close together to keep warm, knees to our chests, and tried to sleep under one sleeping bag in two inches of water. I listened to the others shivering and noted the cruel irony of being freezing cold while sleeping above a lake of lava.

In the morning light, we found the remains of our tent 20 meters away where it had sailed into the crater wall. I hope his few seconds of freedom were worth it.

Crumpled tent
Adam Hodge, Gadling

With only one van at the bottom of the volcano to bring us back, we decided to retrieve the second van from camp, lack of bash plate be damned. We had driven about 3 miles from the volcano toward the camp when the rumble of a deflated tire brought us to a stop. We had a spare, but predictably the tools to remove it from the underside of the van were AWOL.

Incredibly, after a futile hour of trying to jar the bolts loose with a metal rod, another vehicle came by on the lonely road. A tour guide was scouting out the volcano for a hike the next week and he offered to drive one of us back to camp to fetch the other van. Several hours later, as we sauteed on the road in the no man’s land between the mountain and camp, the injured van came hobbling along, and we were able to use its tools to release the spare tire.

The group reconvened at camp by the early afternoon. We fixed the radiator leak in the 4×4 with an egg, strung up the bash plate with a bit of flimsy wire and negotiated down the porters, who were trying to fleece us for double what we had agreed to pay. As the sun winked out, we lurched away from camp, navigating through honking zebras in the dark, soft-soiled open plain.

Van stuck in the earth
Kerry Klein, Flickr

The wire holding the bash plate in place promptly failed within 20 minutes and every time the metal intestines of the engine crunched against the hard ground we held our breath. Like an inauspicious totem, I changed vans and immediately my new transport was rendered immobile. I hopped out to check what was going on and saw the van was perched happily on solid ground. We tried four different gears and none would engage. Our clutch was shredded.

Under the van’s headlights we attached a tow strap to the 4×4, which snapped on cue each time we drove through a dip in the road, significantly shortening our lead. When we got up to speed again on the final gravel section, the front of our van was no more than four feet from the rear of the jeep. When the 4×4 braked, if we didn’t react we would careen into its bumper. As we hit 50 miles an hour on the last stretch of gravel road, I turned around to see everyone in the back snoring obliviously. Then I looked over to Jake in the driver’s seat, staring wide-eyed at the taillights of the 4×4, taking deliberately long breaths and blinking on purpose.

When we reached the paved road it was 5 in the morning, 11 hours after we left the village. Jake engaged the parking brake, stepped down unsteadily from the driver’s seat and collapsed in a deep sleep directly on the pavement.

Beach party on Zanzibar
Kerry Klein, Flickr

Under a clear night sky next to a crackling fire on a Zanzibar beach two days later, we sipped cold Kilimanjaro beers and toasted our calamitous success. Some adventures are meant to be enjoyed in memory only.

Besides, it could have been worse. Thirteen months to the day that we had slept on the summit, Ol Doinyo Lengai blew its top, spewing ash and lava over the plain in the largest eruption seen in decades. Where we slept on the summit is now a deep crater.

Luxury resort harbors Tanzania’s last tropical coastal forest

Experience Tanzania's coastal forest at the Ras Kutani eco lodgeFor adventure travelers, the classic visit to Tanzania begins with a climb up Kilimanjaro, followed by a safari on the Serengeti, and is topped off with a relaxing beach experience on the island of Zanzibar. The first two items on that list are unmatched experiences that simply can’t be beat, but those looking for alternative to the beaches of Zanzibar may want to consider a stay at the Ras Kutani lodge, an eco-resort that offers access to the last tropical coastal forest in the country.

Located just 20 miles from Dar es Salaam, Ras Kutani offers beautiful and tranquil beaches along the Indian Ocean. The warm coastal waters are home to a vibrant and thriving coral reef system, which is home to dozens of species of fish, and is visited frequently by dolphins, sea turtles, and even whales. This makes it an ideal setting for snorkelers, although sea kayaking and boogie boarding are also popular activities when the surf is up.

But the main draw to lodge is the spectacular coastal forest that surrounds the resort. Charles Dobie, the owner of Ras Kutani, made it his mission to save and preserve the coastal forest there, and as a result, he now owns one of the last remaining examples of that amazing ecosystem. The lodge is surrounded by 100 acres of this lush forest, which is home to more than 130 species of trees, four different types of monkeys, a wide variety of birds, as well as baboons, wild pigs, and the rare and beautiful Civet Cat.

Visitors to the lodge can stay in one of nine unique and spacious cottages, or four hilltop suites, that have been designed to mesh harmoniously with the environment. In addition to the relaxed beach activities, they are also able to take a self-guided tour through the coastal forest, where they can explore its natural wonders for themselves. Afterward, guests can enjoy the lodge’s famous gourmet cuisine, and relax by the ocean, where if they’re lucky, they may catch sea turtles as they hatch, and make for the sea.

To learn more about the Ras Kutani lodge, and everything it has to offer, visit the resort’s website.

Five Reasons You Should Go to Zanzibar Right Now

I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but I’m looking at a graying sky that will soon turn to rain. Fall is here in Seattle, and soon, we’ll be in the dark, depressive days when when we question our choice of home. Meanwhile, off the coast of Tanzania, the dreamlike islands of Zanzibar await. Surely, you don’t need convincing to head off to the Spice Islands, but if you do, here are five reasons you should stop what you’re doing and book a flight to Zanzibar International Airport right now.

Stone Town is freaking cool. Oh, sure, it’s bit touristy and there are overpriced cocktails and mass produced souvenirs. But there are little alleys to wander, and the famous and beautiful Zanzibar doors with their intricate carvings and metal details. There are cafes where you can get brightly colored tamarind drinks and there’s a lively central market with fish mongers and butchers and produce vendors and oh, wow, saffron is really cheap here. Hey, this is where Freddy Mercury came from, it’s the kind of place that breeds THAT kind of crazy cool.

I’d been told that Stone Town can be sketchy and the locals aggressive towards tourists — I found this was absolutely not the case, people were kind and friendly and helpful and almost absurdly welcoming — I wondered if I hadn’t lived in Stone Town in a previous life.

The beaches are gorgeous. Soft golden sand, turquoise waters, shockingly picturesque dhows (boats) anchored just off shore… the northern beaches are lined with palm trees and kids playing soccer and oh, you’ll share the space with Speedo wearing Italians, but it doesn’t feel crowded and the water is fine, come on in! The tropical waters make for good snorkeling and diving, too.There’s delicious seafood. It’s an island, of course there’s great seafood. Whole fish grilled on open fire. Tuna on skewers with chili dipping sauce. Giant prawns with garlic. Great big crab claws. Dine seaside on a torch lit patio or, if you’re crazy for street food, head to the Forodhani Gardens night market and get the seafood pancake, a crispy fried crepe-like dough with fresh fish, veggies, and an egg mixed in to bind it all together. Yum.

It’s affordable. You can spend 300/night in one of the island’s chic resorts or you can spring for a room in one of Stone Town’s cool renovated buildings (right now, it’s 215 for high season in the best room at Africa House). You can spend that, but there’s no need. Your biggest expense is going to be your plane ticket. Once you’re on the ground, you can also get a double with a shared bath a mere two minute walk to the beach for 20/per person. A nice dinner will set you back 10 dollars, and that includes beer. Again, you can spend more, and certainly Zanzibar has its share of high end tourist offerings. But you don’t have to. Shop around for hotel deals, you’ll find stays that are priced to offset the sting of the airfare.

It’s Zanzibar! Do you need more reason than that? Even the name — Zanzibar — has the pull of the exotic. This is the Spice Islands, for crying out loud. For the change that’s in your pockets right now you can buy fragrant vanilla pods and packets of saffron and coffee seasoned with ginger and cinnamon bark. Zanzibar was a trading post for the Arab world, the Persians were here, and the Sultan of Oman and the Portuguese. David Livingstone had a home here, yes, THAT Livingstone, as in “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” There’s the tragic history of the slave trade and the footprints of great explorers.

Situated at the edge of Africa in a cultural crossroads of African, Persian, Indian, Arab, and European influence, Zanzibar is irresistible. Go because it’s Zanzibar!

My travels to Tanzania, including the excursion to Zanzibar, were hosted by Intrepid Travel. My shiny opinions, however, are really and truly my own and if I could go back to Zanzibar tomorrow, I would. Photo, mine, shortly before sunset at Nungwi.

Travel writer Q&A: Julia Dimon

Travel journalist and television host Julia Dimon lives the sort of fast-paced traveling lifestyle that most people, even quite experienced travelers, fantasize about. She’s visited over 80 countries and she’s been featured as a travel expert for countless print, online, radio, and television sources. Dimon’s excitement as a traveler is palpable. I asked her about her background, her move from writing to television, some of her favorite destinations, and her top tips for travelers and prospective travel writers both.

Q: Describe your profession.

A: I’m a travel journalist, host of several travel TV shows and hard core adventuress with a blog called Travel Junkie Julia.

Q: Tell me about your family background as a traveler.

A: My mom is a travel writer. I guess that adventure is in the blood! I had the privilege of traveling with her on assignment when I was growing up. As a family we went to Costa Rica, China, Europe, Cuba. I got the travel bug at a young age.

Q: For years you wrote about travel for the Toronto Star and then for Metro. How did you make your move from writing to television? Do you expect to remain in television or return exclusively to the writing at some point?

A: I started out as a travel writer and columnist, freelancing for many publications. Then, while in Turkey on a round-the-world trip, I met a fellow Canadian travel writer named Robin Esrock, who is now my co-host. Robin thought it would be a cool idea if we had our own TV show. I agreed. He pitched a concept to a production company, who took it to a Canadian-based broadcaster. From there we collaborated and developed a show about the real lives of two young travel writers, under pressure and on deadline. The show is called Word Travels and we’ve shot 40 episodes over three years.

TV, like travel writing, is also in my blood. My Dad is an Emmy-award winning producer, so I suppose it was fitting to blend travel and TV. Getting on a full-time travel show was a combination of luck, timing, my strong reputation as a travel writer and a helluva lot of work. Since filming Word Travels, I have shot a travel series for MSNBC and am hosting a new show with Ethan Zohn (winner of Survivor Africa) for the new adventure network Outside Television. I really enjoy the medium of TV and am moving more into that direction but writing is a part of who I am. I’ve been a writer since I was 12. I wrote movie reviews for a kids page in the Toronto Star for over a decade before moving into the travel section. Writing will always be a part of who I am and what I do.
Q: As travel writers we are often asked about our favorite places. I don’t know about you, but I always find such questions impossible to answer. But I’d like to tweak this question and pose a few variations on the theme: your favorite destinations for beaches, street food, budget travel, splurging, and mass tourism?

A: Beach: Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, is one of my all time favorite spots. Sugar white beaches, amazing fresh seafood and a fascinating blend of Arabic and African cultures against a very cool capital city.

Street food: Thailand has some of the best street food. Steaming dishes of pad thai, green curry, red curry, chili mango and the occasional deep-fried grasshopper make for an interesting and extremely affordable foodie destination. As for street meat, you can’t beat a Toronto hot dog from a street vendor. Grilled sausage topped with a buffet of condiments, fried onions, pickles and bacon bits. Not good for you, but delicious.

Budget-friendly: Laos is one of the most beautiful and most affordable destinations out there. For those travelers who are concerned about making their money last, I suggest forgetting Europe and considering India, Cambodia, Bolivia or Peru.

Splurgeworthy: Jordan is a fascinating country but it’s not terribly cheap. Between spending a night in the desert at Wadi Rum, snorkeling the Red Sea, seeing the skillfully chiseled pink rock in Petra, floating in the Dead Sea, and soaking up the Roman ruins in Jerash, the country has a lot to offer the adventure traveler. You absolutely can do Jordan on a budget, but with so many five-star hotels and fancy Dead Sea spa treatments, it’s more tempting to splurge.

Mass tourism: Does Chernobyl count? Kidding… I was there last summer and I’m still waiting to glow radioactive. I’m a big NYC fan. After all the traveling I’ve done, I think New York is the most vibrant, dynamic city in the world. It’s my Number One city, closely followed by Paris. Number Three is still up for grabs…

Q: Top tips you’d offer to someone wanting to work as a travel writer?

A: I have written some tips for people wanting to break into the travel writing business.

Q: Top tips for regular travelers?

A: Go with the flow. Not everything is going to go according to plan so be flexible and take things as they come. Often the best travel experiences arise from the unexpected. Connect with local people and never turn down an invitation, within reason of course. Safety is obviously your number one priority. The people who know the country will be better than any guidebook and can give you insight into the local culture. Go local – where do local people eat, shop, play? Arm yourself with knowledge, be social and ask everyone you meet for recommendations on cool things to do. Learn some basic local language, try everything once, and always carry toilet paper.

Q: What are your essential carry-on items?

A: Laptop, iPod, all chargers, camera, a bunch of magazines to catch up on world events, an empty water bottle, snacks (almonds, dried fruit), sometimes a blanket.

Q: Where is your next trip?

A: I just got back from a palm tree-piña-colada filled weekend at the Gansevoort Turks and Caicos. Next I’m going on an Antarctic expedition, an 11-day voyage on a luxury vessel from Patagonia to the Antarctic Peninsula. Fjords, icebergs, glaciers and tons of cool wildlife are in my future. After this trip, I will have visited all seven continents. Whoo hoo!

Top 5 hotels for having an affair

Looking for a place to take your mistress for the weekend? Trying to plan a secret rendezvous with your lover? If so, check out ABC News’ list of the top 5 hotels for having an affair.

The draw of these hotels, according to the article, is “thick walls, a discreet staff, a bit of romance”. Noel Biderman, the creator of a website that matches would-be cheaters with potential dates (The tag line is “Life is Short. Have an Affair”. Classy, huh?) says ideal hotels for trysts also allow guests to check in under a pseudonym and offer good room service.

Biderman recommends the Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel, for its private residences outside of the hotel, and suggests looking for hotels that are new or off the beaten path. There is less chance you’ll run into someone you know at one of these places. Also recommended is the Amenjena Hotel in Marrakech. It comes at a price, but Biderman says an affair is the time to splurge (Why not, you may as well spend your money now so your spouse can’t take it all when he or she divorces you, right?).

Another high-style option is the Il Palazzetto Hotel in Rome. With it’s simple but luxurious decor, it gives guests the feeling of being in their own residence (Of course, because you want to think about your own marriage bed when committing adultery.) &Beyond Mnemba Island, a private island retreat near Zanzibar, makes the list, as does the 1870 Banana Courtyard in New Orleans. The hotel is in the fantastically romantic French Quarter, and its history as a bordello adds to its allure.

Of course, the article also wisely points out, you could just stay at any of these hotels with your significant other. The privacy and luxury they offer may make you feel like you are doing something naughty, spicing up your stay (and maybe your relationship) in a way that won’t land you in divorce court.