Six hours on the back of a motorcycle, most of it on sandy washboard roads through thorny acacia scrub and dry grassy planes with absurd pock-mark crater hills, every hour the environment seems to become more harsh and extreme. I think my fifth-grade science text book’s description of an Archaen landscape would match the surroundings on our way to Oldonyo Lengai. The brown and greys of the landscape are accented with dust devils spiraling up to the dark clouds like smoky skeletons of thunderbolts. Somewhere rain falls in sheets from a dark cloud making a gap in the horizon, but where we are the sun beats down relentlessly. Dinosaur-like Kori Bustards with their thick neck and long legs add to the prehistoric effect.
Oldonyo Lengai -the mountain of god – is visible hours before we reach it, a symmetrical cone against the rugged terrain. Around a bend in the road, the steep escarpment of the eastern branch of the East African Rift Valley appears behind the volcano, at its base, a pale flat mirror perfectly reflects the hills around it. No waves disturb Lake Natron’s surface even though the wind is making the long grasses ripple around us.
We drive into the local Maasai village for our classic chipsimayai lunch before finding our way to our campsite. Just minutes before arriving at the camp the air begins to get hazy around us, the sun is dimmed and Oldonyo Lengai, which just stood clearly before us against a blue sky seconds ago, is completely engulfed in a dust storm. Despite the dusky quality of the light, we see the green oasis of Maasai Giraffe Camp where the grass is irrigated and the acacia trees are green and full of weaver bird nests. It gets darker as rain clouds move over, then lighter as the raindrops capture the dust from the air. It is still hot out, so I find it refreshing to stand in the pelting rain which first makes muddy streaks on my arms, then washes them away.
The camp is run as a community inclusive eco-camp by a welcoming Belgian lady. Because we are the only guests and it is rainy, she offers us a small cabin instead of camping in a tent.
The next day we set up the volcano climb and do some sightseeing in the area. The village has a cultural center, where we arrange a guide for the mountain and pay the fees, there is also a small museum on the Maasai culture and local geography. Tourists are usually obliged to take a guide from the cultural center to visit the lakeside and a waterfall above the village, but we are given permission to find our own way. First stop is the lake – Ava drives us as far onto the mudflat as possible before the motorcycle tracks get too muddy. At a distance, we first see a huge flock of great white pelicans with their awkward bills. Driving closer we scare the pelicans and they take off single-file, each matching the movements of the one ahead of it, forming a pattern like a ribbon waving through the air. Eventually, they swirl into a kettle and rise into the sky in the distance. The bulky shapes and aviation show of the pelicans dwarf the slender lesser flamingos calmly grazing in the shallows with no care of our presence.
There are hundreds (thousands?) of the pink birds in flocks in front of us. Somehow the harsh environment of high temperatures and alkalinity that would kill nearly any other animal has become the preferred breeding ground for 75% of the world’s population of lesser flamingos. 2.5 million of them nest on the salt islands that form in the shallow lake during the dry season and feed on spirulina, a sort of algae that grows in the lake, coloring it red when it blooms. With an abundant supply of spirulina and the toxic water to protect them, the flamingos thrive here, oblivious of threats to their habitat by meteorological events inconsistent with the lake’s seasonal cycle or by the dilution of the mineral-rich water due to anthropogenic changes in the lake’s watershed.
The sun sets very early on Lake Natron. The escarpment to the west of the lake cast its shadow on the valley shortly after 4:00pm, and we still have a waterfall to see!
So off we go to where a river has carved a canyon to make its way down from the plateau into the valley. the bottom of the canyon isn’t much wider than the river itself, so we are often hugging the cliffs or wading across the river to find the best way upstream. The shade of the canyon and the fresh cool water are a welcome contradiction to the heat, salt, and sun of the lakeside mudflats. Up the canyon’s twists and turns there is a waterfall of lush vegetation, small palm trees, mosses, and other water-loving plants forming a vertical oasis against the browns and grays of rock, dry grass, and acacias. The actual waterfall is a tributary tumbling down the side of the river canyon under the foliage for meters, before exposing itself to view. The stream must be rich in minerals, as it visibly deposits precipitates along its path, causing the rock to grow across the canyon and downwards like a stalactite.
The canyon is only as wide as the river at this point, and a steep cascade in the river would prevent us from continuing along the river, so we scramble up the cliff until we find a path the hugs the side of the canyon. More tributaries pour into the river in a similar fashion to the first waterfall. As we walk back along the high trail, a Maasai boy with his heard of goats comes behind us, singing a song and whistling.
It is early to bed the night of the hike. It will be helpful to catch a few hours of sleep before setting off at midnight for the foot of the volcano. We meet our guide, Kelvin, a 22-year-old from the village with three years experience climbing the volcano. The drive takes 45 min, so we start hiking at 12:45.
Just minutes into the hike, Kelvin, stops us and points to a scorpion with his stick. It is the same color as the dry grass, with some black markings on its arched tail, we see a couple large centipedes as well and we are told of symptoms and the traditional cures that are used to alleviate their poison. Going gets steeper and the grasses by our side get shorter. At points the ground next to us seems to disappear, Kelvin says there is a lava flow path here, but our headlamps don’t shine bright enough to see the bottom.
Up up up. Feet traveling up the sandy path have created a trench in the rock in places, the cross-section shows layers of loose rocks and sheets of cooled lava. I can’t help but wonder how old the rock is just a meter under the surface. How many centuries and eruptions did it take to make Lengai grow a meter?
Soon I am using my hands on nearly every step lest I fall backward as sand and rocks slide out from under my feet. I can’t trust fixed rocks either though, what looks solid crumbles under little pressure. The quality of the rock on Lengai can’t be found on any other volcano in the world. Most volcanoes produce lava high in silicon that cools in stable crystalline structures, less susceptible to weathering. The Natrocarbonatite lava of Lengai, on the other hand, is composed of sodium and potassium carbonate materials which can be erupted at relatively low temperatures (500-600 C) and are unstable when exposed to the moisture in the air. We hope to reach the crater in time to see the red lava boiling, unlike other lavas, that are so hot they glow even in daylight, Natrocarbonite will look black after sunrise.
Up up up. Sometimes we are walking on large loose rocks in a trench, then on sand, then on a sheet of lava that feels like concrete made too sandy. The rotten smell of brimstone wafts down in waves. As it gets cold and windy we take a short break in a crevice, then continue up the last stretch. Kelvin shows us a crack that opened during an eruption in 2006, it is just 20 cm wide where we step over it, but it still gives me a bit of a chill. We have left the grassy slope far behind and are now completely surrounded by rock, but here and there a few green plants with yellow flowers peek through the rocks. Brushing my hand near one I have to jump back and nearly lose my balance, I burnt my hand on steam coming out of a small hole in the rock, I reach out more carefully and I can feel a breeze coming from the hole, sometimes warm, then suddenly burning hot.
We finally reach the top around 3:45am (well before sunrise), Kelvin tells us we are the fastest climb he has ever guided in his three years on the volcano. We walk along the rim of the crater trying to catch a glimpse of the lava, but the mist is too thick to see anything. We decide to go back down to our warm crevice for a nap, then climb to the crater again for sunrise.
By dawn, the clouds are still too thick to have a view, but at least we can see across the crater and down to the black and white lava boiling inside. There is just a golden moment when the sun peeks through the clouds, but then we are surrounded
by white again.
The way down is more difficult than going up for me, I don’t trust the friction between my sneakers and the sandy rock on a 49% grade, so I’m crab-walking and zig-zagging and twisting my feet sideways to keep from falling. If I gain too much speed to remain stable, I just focus on making sure all my limbs are moving at the same speed in the same direction until I can catch myself.
Once we are back down on a <30% grade, going is easier, we let gravity have its way and pick up speed sliding with the sand under our feet or jumping from rock to rock. Relived to have passed the risk of a more dangerous fall, I pause on a sandy patch and find my feet slip out from under me, landing me square on my butt. I have to laugh.
Down down down. Out of the cloud, I begin to enjoy the variety in texture and colors of the rocks around us, the view of the lava and water paths carving the slopes down into the plains below. Rain comes down from the plateau and catches us at the trailhead, we continue walking on the road we drove up on for a few kilometers before our ride comes to drive us back to camp.
A chipsimayai, a nap, and a swim later, we drive to the lakeside again for the evening rays.
The golden hour landscape over Lake Natron was painted using a White-throated Bee-eater as a palette. The bird sits in the crown of an acacia tree and hawks for insects, so gracefully as if it knows how beautiful it is. Its nape is the golden brown of dry grasses that cover the slopes of Oldonyo Lengai and the lake plane, fading into a brilliant green of new spring growth on acacia trees, its blue tail captures every color of the sky, while a pale blue band on its chest is the same light tone of the mirror-like surface of the lake; white and black markings on its head paint the clouds, rocks, dark volcanic sand and mud flats where flocks of lesser flamingos feed on algae.