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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Savannah: A Friendly Place

Savannah isn’t a young American town. Established in 1733, Savannah is what we refer to as “historical” in the U.S.A. The city’s pillared homes and ivy-covered walls make a nice backdrop for visitors on any of the various guided tours of the town, but the reputed friendliness of Savannah is part of the reason people visit and then return.

I first traveled to Savannah on tour. My band played at a place in town, The Jinx, and I was impressed with the owner of the venue. She was kind, energetic and uniquely accommodating. She believed in paying touring bands and she even had a space available for the bands that came through if they didn’t have a place to stay. She promoted touring bands to local music writers and publications. She requested a stack of posters in advance and made a point to actually hang them. And so my first experience in Savannah was a good one. People were at the show and enjoying themselves. One man even bought two of everything we had for sale at the merch table and then opened up a tab for me and my bandmates to use the rest of the night. The one-off kindnesses I experienced in Savannah might have seemed just like good luck when isolated, but the collective hospitality of the town began to seem more intentional than not, more a fact of Savannah life than a fluke.


When I was back home in New York, I talked about moving to the South. Before visiting Savannah, I never knew charm and cool could be so inseparably paired in a place. When a roommate of mine eventually departed NYC with aim for Savannah, I bid her farewell with envy. I couldn’t undo my first impression of this Georgia destination; the luster didn’t fade with time.

My husband and I were haplessly traveling down the east coast in June. The trip had been a series of badly timed and poorly planned excursions that had led to more frustration than fun. We decided to stop in Savannah because he had never been there, but we only had one afternoon to explore. Yelp pointed us in the direction of a good cafe, so we parked and tied our dogs to the patio table when we arrived. We sat next to a Russian couple that had been living in Savannah for a while. Conversation sparked in that serendipitous way it does sometimes, wherein each involved party is actually in the mood to talk. When the couple said goodbye, two older gentlemen discussed our afternoon plans with us, giving us both advice and direction. We walked toward the river with the canopying Spanish moss overhead. Many more people than usual, it seemed, stopped to pet our dogs. Each person had anecdotal Savannah stories to share and we had listening ears. In between our conversations, we began discussing the town.

“Everyone is so friendly here. It’s unbelievable,” my husband remarked.

“I told you so,” I quipped.

When the heat of the afternoon had toasted our shoulders, we walked back to our car. My husband pulled out of our space and drove down the road and made a left turn. Unfortunately, he turned directly into another car, mistakenly thinking that we were on a two-way street when we were instead on a one-way street. I uttered a succession of curse words and we pulled over into a nearby parking lot to assess the damage. The two cars were damaged, alright. I was trembling as the woman who owned the car we’d hit approached us, feeling uneasy in anticipation of her wrath.

“Just tell me, what were you thinking?” she asked my husband in a voice sweet with maternal instinct.

“I thought we were on a two-way street. We don’t live here. I’m so sorry,” he responded.

“Well, that’s OK. Is everyone alright?” she asked, spotting our dogs through the open door.

“We’re fine, are you?” I asked.

“I sure am, and that’s all that matters,” she said before warming us with a smile I’ll never forget.

Labor Day island getaways from Wanderfly

Labor Day is fast approaching along with the official end of summer. If you haven’t had enough sun yet, maybe it’s time for one more weekend of lying on the beach, fruity cocktail and fun book in hand? We asked our friends at, a web travel tool that helps you choose a vacation spot, for some Labor Day island getaways offering deals for the long weekend.

Domestic: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head is a 45-minute drive from Savannah, Georgia (one of our favorite romantic destinations), with miles of public Atlantic beaches, dolphin cruises, and renowned golf courses. Not bringing your private yacht? ResortQuest will pay for your gas ($150 credit card) on Labor Day stays of 3 nights or more, plus free tennis and discounted golf.

Caribbean: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Feeling decisive? If you can book by tomorrow, you can save 35% on stays at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas. They’ll also throw in a free sunset sail and cocktails at their beach bar. Summer is the low season for most Caribbean islands, but a tropical weekend knows no season. Check out more of Wanderfly’s picks for St. Thomas here.

Europe: Iceland
So Iceland might not be known for sandy beaches or fruity cocktails, but relaxing in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon works pretty well too. Iceland Air is offering a free stopover in Iceland on flights booked to European cities such as Stockholm and Amsterdam. Just have time for one destination? Reykjavik is only about 5 hours from the East Coast with direct flights from New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Orlando, as well as Minneapolis and Seattle.

If you’ve had enough sun, Wanderfly has plenty of other travel ideas. Visit their site and tell them what you’re looking for (with interests from art to extreme adventure) and how much you want to spend and they’ll give you personalized recommendations. Stay tuned for more Labor Day travel ideas on Gadling.

Hilton Head Island photo courtesy Flickr user Lee Coursey.

In Search of Serendipity in Savannah

Sitting in the passenger seat of a lime green Mustang, driving out of the historic center of Savannah, I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. A guy in a black suit was taking me, well, somewhere.

I asked where we were headed. “Bonaventure,” said Shannon, as he started describing one of the biggest cemeteries in the area and the funerary traditions of Georgia’s generations past. I was going to tour a graveyard with a stranger I’d just met, and it was a perfectly Savannahian moment.

Traveling the American Road – Savannah

My friend Rob and I arrived in Savannah with little more than a vague notion that it’s filled with lots of public squares. And it certainly is: one of the most impressive planned cities in the United States, along with Washington, D.C., there’s seemingly a live oak-shaded place to stop every time you turn a corner. But we didn’t want to spend our stay hiking in the 100-degree heat.

We had little idea of what to see or do, so Rob and I headed for the hotel bar, which usually leads to an adventure of one sort or another. We met Becki, the bartender, yes, but also an ambassador to the city who seems to know everything and everyone in town. In minutes, Rob and I had a table for dinner and a pedicab waiting to take us there. (A caution: Pedicabs are just as touristy in Savannah as they are everywhere else.)

At Sapphire Grill, we sat at the bar, sampling appetizer after appetizer while drawing recommendations of what to do out of the staff. They kept coming. A guy sitting at the other end of the bar spoke up, with a dream quote. “Savannah is the kind of place where you start drilling down and you find more and more.”

Later, Becki told us to call her friend Shannon Scott, an expert on Savannah’s history, which tends toward the eerie. We made plans to do a tour in the morning, but I don’t remember agreeing on cemetery sightseeing. No matter: that’s where we were headed, to see the graveyard featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where a number of Savannah’s best (and most tragic) tales should be told.

Shannon’s tour took us past noteworthy graves of Johnny Mercer, Gracie Watkins, Corinne Elliot Lawton and Noble Wimberly Jones, a founding patriot and delegate to the Continental Congress. Shannon’s insights lent helpful historical context and he told stories we wouldn’t have heard had we visited without a guide. A couple of turned-around tourists we bumped into seemed positively overwhelmed; in Shannon’s charge, we were free to simply enjoy the visit, the monumental sculpture and the history.

After the walk, our guide invited us to lunch. We decided on Blowin’ Smoke, where the pulled pork rated as some of the best I’d ever had. Oh, and our waiter? Shannon had met him recently at a party. Just another Savannah coincidence.

No, not every city can be a cruise port

It seems every large coastal city wants to be a cruise port, either as a place to visit or to be a home port where a ship operates from, and for good reason. Cruise ships can bring a lot of tourists and their dollars when they visit. At a time when local economies are recovering at best there is a lot of interest but not a lot of realistic expectations.

“The reality is they have as much chance to get a cruise ship to visit as they do in luring the Lakers from Los Angeles” says cruise industry expert Stewart Chiron CEO, speaking of a feasibility study done by Brownsville, Texas. “These results are based on the cow jumping over the moon, planets aligning and may also require peace on earth!” he added.

Savanna, Georgia also did a study that returned “better than expected” results with big numbers like up to 350,000 visitors by 2020 and a potential industry of $100 million a year reports the Savannah Morning News.

Not so fast says Chiron, cautioning leaders to be realistic. “I think Savannah is a wonderful city and know it would make a wonderful option, but there needs to be more than desire and their reasoning is way off.”

Cruise lines move cautiously when choosing ports, opting for those that can serve the most potential passengers and produce the best financial results. While the allure of a cruise port may be the stuff tourism dreams are made of, Chiron concludes the big question is “Where will the cruise lines be able to reap the highest yields?” adding “This ultimately may delay Savannah’s heartfelt desires.”

Flickr photo by taberandrew