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.

Bushtracks Expeditions Lets You Build Your Own Safari From Scratch

Bushtracks Expeditions offers fully customizable safarisFor more than 20 years Bushtracks Expeditions has been helping travelers visit Africa to experience the classic safari to its fullest. After two decades in the business, it is safe to say that they’ve learned a few things about organizing an unforgettable excursion into the remote corners of the continent. Now, they’ve taken all of that knowledge and experience and placed it online in a new tool that makes it a breeze to customize every element of your own personal safari, which they’ll then organize to your exact specifications.

This new online tool launched recently on the Bushtracks website where travelers are free to join any one of the company’s existing itineraries or completely build their own from scratch. That process can be as easy or as complex as you’d like, as the website gives you the option of starting with one of the preexisting safari options and simply tweaking it to fit your needs or you can begin with a completely blank slate and build the entire schedule into a dream excursion that will create memories to last a lifetime. And for those who don’t like to make too many tough travel decisions, there is even a safari wizard that asks you several easy questions then provides recommendations based on your answers.Of these, the tool that will be the most intriguing to experienced travelers will certainly be the “Build A Trip” option. This tool gives you full control over your entire African adventure, starting with the dates you are planning on traveling and the number of people in your party. From there, you’ll select your arrival destination from such cities as Cape Town, Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi and Windhoeck, amongst others. Once you decide where it is you would most like to begin your safari, you’ll then be presented with day-by-day options for the lodges that you would like to stay at and the activities that you would most like to do while you are there. Accommodations range in price but are all very comfortable with some high-end luxury options available as well. Some of the activities that you can choose from include such options as game drives through local wildlife preserves, trekking excursions, cultural experiences, visits to the spa and so on. You’ll fill up each day of your personal itinerary with all of the things that you’d like to do and Bushtracks will take care of organizing those events for you.

If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to have complete control over every aspect of your trip, then you’ll certainly enjoy the level of customization available here. Not only will you be able to build your perfect safari experience, but the expert guides at Bushtracks will do all of the work of putting the trip together. This kind of tool provides the best of both worlds, giving you the chance to design your own optimal experience while still getting full service from a well-respected travel company that has a reputation for delivering top tier service.

Man Wears 70 Items Of Clothing To Avoid Baggage Fees

An air traveler ended up wearing 70 items of clothing in an effort to avoid extra baggage charges at an airport in China.

Digital Spy says a local paper reported that an unidentified passenger at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport took out and wore more than 60 shirts and nine pairs of pants when his luggage exceeded the weight limit.

He is described as looking like a “sumo wrestler” in the report.

Wanting to board a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, the man was stopped in security by a metal detector and had to undergo a full body search. In his layers and layers of pockets, officials discovered batteries, thumb drives and device chargers.

Have you ever done anything crazy in a last ditch effort to avoid baggage fees? I’ve definitely transferred clothing from a checked bag to my carry on while in front of an airline agent, and I’ve seen people wearing 2-3 hats on occasion, but in this case I think I would have forked over the fee instead of sitting uncomfortably on an international flight.

[Photo credit: Flickr user geolawie]

Kenya Festival A Showcase Of Culture, Old School

Kenya

The annual Lamu Cultural Festival in Kenya is a showcase of tradition featuring much of what earned the island off Africa’s northern coast its World Heritage Site designation in 2001. Coming up November 15-18, 2012, the three-day festival offers a unique opportunity to explore the history, people, sights and sounds of Africa.

Lamu Island is home to Lamu Town, Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town and one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa. The town’s history dates back to 1441 and can be explored via a number of museums.

A full schedule of traditional dances, handicraft displays, competitions on water and land, Swahili poetry, donkey races, dhow races, henna paintings, Swahili bridal ceremonies and music. Since its inception as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, the festival has been a celebration of the island’s unique Swahili heritage.Getting there is tricky but, like so many other travel experiences, getting there is a great deal of the fun.

Scheduled flights daily from Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani Beach and Malindi land at close-by Manda Island airport (MAU). From there, dhow ferries bring visitors to Lamu where there are no vehicles. None. No tour busses, taxicabs, rental cars or even public transportation. This is about as close to the Africa of hundreds of years ago as we can get.

It is possible to hire donkeys to ride around the island though.

Check out the Lamu Cultural Festival and other Kenya information at www.magicalkenya.com.



[Photo Credit: Flickr user hktang]

Cameras for Kibera, a non-profit project to help Kenyans

The Dutch project Cameras for Kibera is aimed towards helping young Kenyans become video journalists in order to help them tell the stories about Africa’s largest slum. Kibera, Nairobi is home to possibly as many as 2.5 million people who live in crowded conditions of poor sanitation, poor housing and very little possibilites. For the most part, the plight of the people who live there has been largely overlooked which is one reason for the video project. This particular video was created by Rocketboom Field Correspondent Ruud Elmendorp who videotaped one of Camera for Kibera’s video journalists at work.

The thing I like about this project is its matter of fact approach. It shows people having a life despite the odds, but also points to the fact that help is urgently needed without making the people themselves sound pitiful. Cameras for Kibera is an offshoot project of the Dutch Hot Sun Foundation. If you have video camera you’re no longer using, here’s a possibility for putting it to use.