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.

Hotel in Vancouver, Canada, puts a new spin on in-room iPads

hotel No need to worry about tipping your tour guide on your next trip to Vancouver, Canada, as the OPUS Vancouver hotel has recently added iPads to each of their 96 guest rooms to act as personal tour guides of the city. While the trend of adding tablets to hotel rooms is not a new concept, the OPUS adds a new spin by having the technology reflect the guests’ personality and show them around the city.

First, guests choose their rooms based on what they like: Red Modern and Minimalist, Blue Stylish and Sophisticated, Green Artful and Eclectic, Orange Vibrant and Outgoing, or Taupe Daring and Dramatic. Your in-room iPad concierge and guide will then give you a personalized tour of the city based on your personality. To make these fictional guides more human, they’ve been given names, professions, and home cities. Guides include:

  • Pierre, a food and wine critic from Paris
  • Billy, a cultured rock star from London
  • Susan, a fashion executive from Toronto
  • Mike, a doctor from New York
  • Dede, an actress and prima donna from Los Angeles

And no need to worry about Wi-Fi as the virtual guides work offline, as well. For more information, click here. To get to know the tour guides a little bit better, you can also visit the OPUS Hotels’ Blog to read some posts written by the fictional characters.

How to be a good house guest when visiting a friend abroad

good house guestIf you ever have a friend living abroad or meet someone traveling who extends you an invitation to come to their city, take advantage of the opportunity and go visit. Seeing the city with the help and knowledge of a local or native is invaluable, especially if they know you and your point of view, plus it can save you money in travel expenses (see more reasons to visit a friend from Mike Barish, who was an excellent guest last year).After a year in Istanbul, I’ve hosted a dozen or so guests and seen all the big tourist sites more times than I needed, but also had a great time showing friends and new acquaintances around my new city.

No matter how well you know your host, you still should aim to be a good house guest (you want to get invited back, right?). After you book your tickets, here are some more pre-travel plans to make before visiting a friend abroad.

  1. Do your research before you go – When your host asks, “What do you want to do while you’re in town?” you might think that saying “Oh, whatever, I’m here to see YOU!” shows how flexible and low-key you are. What it really does is put pressure on your friend to come up with a plan to entertain you and show you the best side of the city. You may not want to present them with a checklist either, but knowing what sights are important for you to see and what interests you can help your host figure out where to take you. You might learn what’s overrated or stumble upon something no tourists know about.
  2. Bring gifts from home – I’ve asked for a lot of oddly specific items in the last year from visitors from the US – Ziploc bags, Easter candy, and the ever-popular expat-in-a-Muslim-country request: pork. But some of my favorite gifts have been unsolicited: two friends brought me things from their home cities, including wild rice from Minnesota and Ghirardelli chocolate from San Francisco. Imagine what you’d like if you were away from home for an extended period of time: gossip magazines? Beef jerky? Some New York bagels? Just because it seems common to you doesn’t mean your friend (expat or foreign) won’t be delighted.
  3. Give your hosts some space – Whether your friend has a night or a week to spend with you, respect their time and space, especially when they are spending it playing tour guide with you. While I’m lucky to work from home, I still need time every day to answer emails and write fine blog content like this, and appreciate friends who have found other ways to entertain themselves for a few hours. Take the time to do a super-touristy activity your friend wouldn’t be caught dead doing, catch up on the local history, or just go hang out at a cafe on your own. I spent a great afternoon last summer with a visiting friend sitting by the Bosphorus, drinking beer and reading books – no itinerary required.
  4. Share your “fresh eye” with your host – No matter how long your friend has lived in town, they probably don’t know EVERY restaurant or piece of local trivia. If you read about a cool new restaurant, make reservations and treat your host to dinner. Taking a walking tour one afternoon? Maybe your friend would like to learn more about the area too. This makes your pre-trip research all the more valuable and take the pressure off your host to come up with fun new things all the time.
  5. Stay in one night – While it’s a lot of fun to eat out when traveling, it can get old fast, not to mention expensive. If you are in town more than a few days, offer to make dinner or order take-out for your host. Just going to the supermarket in a foreign country or discovering what Chinese food is like in Turkey can be a memorable travel experience. A night staying with your friends, sharing some good duty-free wine (another thing to add to your host gift!), can be a perfect way to end your visit.

Any other tips you’d share with house guests (or hosts)? Leave them in the comments below.

Washington, DC tour guides lose right to be wrong

The right to an accurate tour is conspicuously absent from the Bill of Rights – unlike the freedom to run your mouth endlessly. For this reason, tour guides are fighting new regulations intended to ensure that visitors to our nation’s capital get the correct info. Tour guides will have to pass a 100-question, multiple choice exam that includes questions about Washington, DC‘s architecture, history and more.

Of course, some tour guides are pretty ripped about this.

Segs in the City, Segway tour company, claims that the exam infringes on their right to free speech. The company’s owners, Bill Main and Tonia Edwards, have filed a federal lawsuit to stomp out the new regs.

Unconventional travel tips to ensure a great vacation

You know the basics: Don’t forget your I.D., pack your 3-1-1 bags, always bring a spare set of clothes, and make sure to charge your cell phone before setting off on your adventure. But how about trying something a little different? Here are some not-so-typical things that can make a vacation fun

Don’t book a hotel before venturing off to your destination.
Take a chance and go to your destination without pre-booking your hotel room. The fun of not knowing where you are going to stay heightens the excitement of the trip. Not only will you be able to see the hotel up-close-and-personal but you might be lucky enough to find a hotel at a cheap rate.

Forget the web. Spontaneity helps keep the fun in relationships, so why not be spontaneous when it come to your vacation activities? Forget researching the web before you go. Get there and explore — you will have the insider’s guide as you explore your surroundings and check with the locals to find the destination’s hidden treasures.

Become your own tour guide. Take a walk around town with others and see what you see. Talk to locals about the town’s history; you are more likely to find secrets and additional information from them than with a tour guide.Cash out. Budgets are extremely important but splurging on something worthwhile can add to the fun of vacationing. You worked hard to be able to go on vacation, so why not treat yourself while you’re there? Whether it is a five-course meal at a high-end restaurant, a pricey souvenir that you are sure to never forget, or VIP seating at the hottest local club, you are sure to have a blast breaking the bank.

Re-introduce yourself to entertainment. Leave the electronics at home. You do not want to be distracted by portable DVD players and iPhones when you are visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time, or climbing Mt. Washington. Re-introduce yourself to entertainment from before it was electronic (i.e., nature, reading, walks and sunsets.)

Pack only what you need. Over-packing can actually save you in the long run. Imagine not having your sneakers on a vacation to the beach. You want to visit the boardwalk and ride the rides, but all you brought were a pair of flip-flops. Nothing brings your mood down like not being able to do what you want to do because you packed lightly.

Antoinette Francis is a Seed.com writer.