K2inCanada's Blog

November 2, 2016

Day 9-12: The easiest and toughest hike – Ol Doinyo Lengai

Filed under: Africa, Animals, Hike, Travel — K2 in Canada @ 11:10 PM

Came across this National Geographic article this past weekend, and it reminded me that I never finished our Africa trip report. We never saw these “Ancient Human Foot Prints” mentioned in the article but we must have been close 🙂

This post takes you back to our Africa trip in 2014 for almost the last time. For previous post click here. We ended this great adventure with a donkey-guided 3 day hike and a night climb up an active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai, to see the sunrise. The Maasai call it the “Mountain of God” and it is part of the African Rift Valley near Lake Natron. It last erupted in 2013! “Whereas most lavas are rich in silicate minerals, the lava of Ol Doinyo Lengai is a carbonatite. Due to its unusual composition, the lava erupts at relatively low temperatures of approximately 510 °C (950 °F). This temperature is so low that the molten lava appears black in sunlight, rather than having the red glow common to most lavas. It is also much more fluid than silicate lavas, often less viscous than water. The sodium and potassium carbonate minerals of the lavas erupted at Ol Doinyo Lengai are unstable at the Earth’s surface and susceptible to rapid weathering, quickly turning from black to grey in colour. The resulting volcanic landscape is different from any other in the world” (Wikipedia).

Before we climbed the volcano though we hiked through parts of Nogorongoro Conservation Area and down into the rift valley – a spectacular trip. If you rather just look at pictures, lots of them, use this link.

HikeEarth (Medium) (2)

Day 9 (Sep 6, 2014): The day we started hiking. I didn’t really know what to expect from a donkey-guided hike. Didn’t really know where we would start from, only that we would end it with climbing an active volcano on the 3rd night. We were told to bring no more than 1 bag each for the donkeys plus a small day pack we would carry. And we managed to fit both of our stuff into one medium size dry bag. Pretty much just needed an extra coat for the evening and some spare shirts. But before we left civilization we had yet another huge breakfast of french toast, sausages, veggies, scrambled eggs, pancakes and water melon. And we almost ate it all :-). By 9AM we hit the road driving back up to the Ngorongoro Park Entrance Gate. Weather was sunny and reasonably warm, which was good as we had to wait for an hour + for Mike to get another park permit. We did not want to get it too early as we would be spending the first night in the park. That meant we had to be out again exactly 24hrs from when the permit was issued! We were entertained by a busload full of 18-21 year young African girls – trainees for the hotel industry. They were fascinated by Jeff’s beard and every one of them had to get her picture taken with him. It was pretty fun. I had some time to take pictures of flowers and birds. Finally we were ready to go again. We took a right turn after the gate driving through a high valley of open grassland. It was quite beautiful and so different from where we had been. We stopped near the Maasai village of Bulati along the way to pick up our guide – Makamero. He was an awesome guide, spoke perfect English and taught us a lot about modern Maasai. We drove on for a little bit then stopped in the middle of nowhere. We would meet Mike and the car again before the volcano climb while Hamisi would be coming with us onto the hike as our cook. But for now, Mike only dropped us and Makamero off to start the hike while Hamisi went ahead to set up the first camp. I had no idea where we were really but it felt great to finally be able to stretch our legs after 7 days of Safari where you are not allowed to leave the car EVER. We walked through long grass up a gentle slope following what looked like animal trails rather than hiking trails. Turned out that slope was part of the Empakai Crater rim. The views over the high valley were spectacular, a bit surreal, not like the Africa one knows from the nature shows. It was so quiet. Almost nothing moved except the grass in the wind. We were stared at by the odd donkey or goat or cow, who for sure thinking “what on earth are YOU doing on my turf”. As we reached the crater rim we hit a dirt road and the walking got even easier. Spectacular views of the crater down below and the first glimpse of our final destination – Ol Doinyo Lengai. It looked steep! Lots of flowery bushes along the way. Lots of colourful birds. Hyena tracks. We passed a couple of Maasai women and their donkeys bringing back long grass to fix the roof of their hut. Maasai have strict rules about who does what – the men tend to the animals while the women cook, fix the house, gather food, take care of the children etc. Didn’t quite sound like workload sharing really :-). But the young women we passed were in good spirit and joked with our guide. Even when they just talk their voices sound like they are singing. Such a melodious language, Maa, which I am sure is impossible to learn by Germans. Roughly 3.5hr after we left Mike and the car we got to our first camp right on the Empakai Crater rim. We weren’t the only ones camping on the rim. 10min or so before we reached our camp there was another one set up with another couple. I think they were speaking German :-). But the two camps were far enough apart that we did not see or hear them. Our camp was right opposite the trail down into Empakai Crater which offered fantastic views over the lake below. Another alkaline lake but apparently there also was a fresh water spring on the opposite site. We could hear monkeys in the wooded slopes but didn’t see any. Hamisi had tea and popcorn and cookies ready for us and the tent was already set up as always. Shortly after, our 3 donkeys and their handler, a really tall Maasai, Luca, arrived in camp. I recognized the group – we had passed them in the car on our way to the start of our hike. They had come a long ways. The animals, knowing the drill, started grazing right away completely ignoring me trying to pet them. These are not pets but work horses and the least valuable animal on the Maasai scale. I thought they are the cutest! Not being able to make friends with our donkeys, I took off for a bit to take pictures of the flowers and birds along the road. Those birds don’t sit still much either. When I got back Makamero was trying to get a fire started. The wood was pretty wet from rain the night before (lucky us) and it was more smoke than warmth. It actually got quite cold as the sun set. But as always, Hamisi had an awesome dinner ready for us. Potato soup followed by spaghetti with a veggie & beef stew and fries. MUCH more elaborate than our kayaking camping food. We hit the tents by 8:00-8:30PM, all of us but Luca. I am sure he slept outside by the fire. The donkeys were put into a thorny bush corral.

Day 10 (Sep 7, 2014): We got up before 6AM to see the sunrise. Unfortunately it was mostly hidden behind trees. But we did get our first and only glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro that morning from the “washroom window”. The washroom was a cement slab in the bushes with a hole in the middle – worked :-). After breakfast we watched them load the donkeys. Poor creatures. I wish we would have brought our own light weight hiking tent and not these heavy duty canvas tents. They must weigh a ton. At least between Jeff and I we didn’t bring much and kept it light. Hamisi, Luca and the donkeys took off towards camp two while Makamero, Jeff and I hiked down the 300m into Empakai Crater. It was mostly overcast but the clouds were high in the sky so that we could see the whole crater. The way down was through semi tropical forest with some large strangler fig trees, hundreds of years old, along the trail. We didn’t get to see any of the Blue Monkeys or buffalo or leopards that apparently live in the crater. There were flamingos in the shallows near us, lesser and greater ones. Not too many but enough to chase them into flight upon Makamero’s urging. Pretty cool! Back up on the rim the clouds dropped down on us and views were few and far between. Not until we started to drop down off the rim towards the Maasai Village of Niobi. The clouds started breaking up and opened up the views into the high plain and Ol Doinyo Lengai. But first we had to make a stop in Niobi as we were leaving the park. Along the way we were joined by Freddie, a maybe 10-12 year old Maasai boy who was selling the typical Maasai handmade bead wristbands. And he finally beat us down to buy one from him for a fortune of $1 and a power bar. We actually asked Makamero’s permission first about giving Freddie a power bar. Maasai diets are VERY strict – consisting of raw meat, raw milk, and raw blood from cattle. But Makamero gave us the okay and Freddie was visibly happy. We thought he liked the power bar but in truth, the $1 we paid for the wristband was about 3-5 times as much as he would usually get for it. Oh well :-), he deserved it. Once in town Makamero had to deal with the paperwork. He offered us to wait inside or outside. We thought sitting outside, now that the sun was out, would be nicer. A HUGE mistake. As soon as we sat down on a rock a whole bunch of women surrounded us trying to sell more Maasai handmade jewelry.  I really don’t care for that type of stuff and we didn’t have any small change left – Freddie got the last of it. Those women were really persistent though. Started singing and got right into our faces. Not enjoyable at all. Okay, I get it, we are rich compared to them. But we also already had spent a huge amount of money on this trip. The fees for the National Parks are very high and some of that should get back to the people. We would pay our guides, Mike, Hamisi, Makamero and Luca handsomely since they made us feel so welcome in their country. These women made us feel like we should not be here. It was actually really horrible and I was so glad when Makamero finally came back out and rescued us. The beautiful landscape soon made me forget the incident. The views were really quite stunning. We walked by a few herds of cows – the Maasai money. It looked like this village was comparatively well off for a Maasai village. Families live together in fenced in Bomas. Maasai men can have several wives. Each wife has her own hut. Most Maasai still live traditional lives despite the government’s encouragement to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle. Makamero was a very respected village elder. He had one wife and 4 children that all went to school, even the girls. A most progressive Maasai. We slowly dropped down into a high valley and the scenery changed quite a bit. The open grassland gave way to an Acacia forest.  Another hour of walking through the forest and we reached camp 2. Tents were nicely set up in the shade of the trees overlooking the surrounding hills. Such a lovely place to camp. Unfortunately a couple of the Niobi women and their jewelry had followed us to camp. They didn’t dare getting really close but they set up their stuff about 50m away from camp. It was only 2:30PM and after a bit of a rest in the tent, Jeff and I headed out on our own to explore the surrounding hills. As we followed the trail we saw smoke in the distance. The Maasai were burning off the dry grass along the slopes in anticipation of the wet season – ancient way of fertilizing the dirt. We stayed upwind of the burns and hiked up a little slope to get a nice view of Ol Doinyo Lengai now in full sunshine and Lake Natron in the distance. Breathtaking scenery. We saw the biggest grasshopper I have ever seen as well as a lizard on the way back – biggest animal yet on our hike and it wasn’t that big. We also ran into the two Maasai “arsonists”. They were very friendly, shook our hands and had their picture taken with Jeff. And all that WITHOUT asking for money once. The Maasai men are very proud people. It is women’s work to beg for money. Back in camp the jewelry girls were still there, plus a couple kids had joined. It was hard to ignore them. They even started chanting to get our attention. Eventually I went to Makamero and asked him if he could give them a couple dollars and sent them off. I really did not want to buy anything and I really wanted my peace and quiet back. And he did. Hard to say if he approved of it or not but he managed to have them go back to the village. Now that there was only our small group of Makamero, Hamisi, Luca, Jeff and I left I was happy again. Makamero took us for another walk up a different hill. It was late evening by now and the colours were even more amazing. He pointed out some serval cat, leopard and baboon tracks along the way. They are out here, even though we never saw any. When we got back to camp, Luca had the fire going, a real fire this time not just smoke, and Hamisi was busy getting dinner ready. Pasta with veggie stew and fruit for desert. After we were happily fed, that is Makamero, Jeff and I, were happily fed, we watched the sun set to the west and the full moon rise to the east. It wasn’t nearly as cold as on the crater rim the previous night. Luca was preparing his Ugali, the typical Maasai on the trail food, for his journey back tomorrow. It is some kind of corn flower but white in colour and not yellow, consistency of oatmeal. Luca and I chatted for a while when the others went to bed. His English wasn’t nearly as good a Makamero but it was definitely good enough for a conversation. He was fascinated by my blond hair :-).

Day 11 (Sep 8, 2014): Up early, 5AM and on the trail by 7. We wanted to make use of the early hours as it was supposed to get really hot once we drop down into the rift valley. It was a sunny clear day and the views along the open ridge down into the rift and Lake Natron were stunning. Pictures just don’t do it justice. We left the trees behind right away. Ol Doinyo Lengai was towering to our right the whole time. 2000+m above the plain below. But we were not to climb it until midnight. Jeff stopped to look for leopards, I stopped lots to take pictures. Makamero seemed in a rush to get us down. Once we were off the ridge we walked along what looked like dry river beds. But they were white and any water we found was salty. The last big eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai in 2007 destroyed a village on its lower flanks and covered the whole area up to Lake Natron in salty ash and poisoned the earth for miles. Most of the area has somewhat recovered but there are still big white scars in the earth in which we walked along. Saw quite of few lizards and iguanas in them. Mike and the car were waiting for us in this open plain at the end of a rough dirt road. I thought we should have rather walked it than drive it. But first we said thanks and good bye to Luca and the donkeys. They would be walking back up to Niobi the same day while we hopped into the truck and drove into the town of Lake Natron.

Our 3rd camp was right in town, an organized campsite with SHOWERS! It was hot and I was in desperate need of a shower. I think we were the only campers. The other occupants were a cow and goats and … velvet monkeys. Lots of them. We spent some time relaxing, trip logging, reading, watching monkeys, a king fisher. I walked into town with Hamisi to get some meat for dinner. There was not much choice. In a wooden shack they had half a goat displayed on a wooden table. Goat is an acquired taste but I was willing to try it. I am sure this was the most expensive piece of goat Hamisi ever bought, having one of the rich tourists with him :-).  Back in camp while watching more monkeys, I discovered that the tree tops were full of bats. Mostly fruit bats and some yellow bats. Very cool! And by taking pictures of bats up in the trees I killed the time till 3PM when Mike and Makamero took us to a real river, Saitoti River, carrying fresh water out of the hills. We scrambled along or through it for about 30-45min. Unusual heavy rains in the hills had caused the water level to rise and the regular trail was flooded. We made it to the main attraction of this river nonetheless. A cave with a waterfall one could walk through – pretty neat. A nice refreshing shower, 2nd time of the day. We were not the only people there. Actually it was busy!  We met an Australian woman from Brisbane at those falls that was also going to do the hike up the volcano the same night. Back at the truck we drove down to Natron Lake. Its water level was way low. As the name suggestion, it was another salt lake. So again flamingos were the main attraction. We also saw a large herd of giraffes walk out into the open and some zebras and wildebeest. The first big game since our safari even though this area isn’t an actual game park. Back in camp we had an early dinner and I confirmed that BBQ goat is not my most favourite dish. The spinach and pasta were tasty though. We were in bed at 7:30PM to catch a couple hours of sleep before the big climb that night which was supposed to start at midnight. I didn’t sleep much. My throat was getting sore and I was worried if I’ll be fit enough to climb almost 2000m in one night.

Day 12 (Sep 9, 2014): Alarm went of at 11PM. We packed all the warm clothes we had brought for the top – apparently it would be cold – a couple water bottles and cereal bars. It was still hot at Natron Lake even at that hour. Like the previous night, we had a full moon and no clouds – perfect conditions for a night hike. After a quick cup of tea and some cookies we were off. Took about 30min to drive to the start of the hike. Makamero, who got special permission from the elders in Lake Natron, would be our guide and he had organized a couple Maasai hiking sticks for us which really helped! Usually one has to be accompanied by a local guide. Like the Australian woman we had met early and again tonight where we got dropped off. Don’t remember her name unfortunately, only that she was wearing tights with a leopard pattern. It was quite windy which was nice at the lower elevations so we didn’t sweat much going up. We all took off together, Makamero, Jeff, I, Leopard woman, her guide and her driver. The initial part was easy walking and not much elevation but it did get steeper quickly and the ground was pretty slippery. We hardly needed our headlamps it was so bright. As the “trail” got steeper we passed leopard woman and her guides. After about an hour of climbing Makamero called a rest. Jeff and I don’t rest usually until we are at the top. It was also getting a bit cold sitting there in the wind. Leopard woman and her team caught up with us again and joined to rest as well. I didn’t want to sit down but she did – unfortunately the rock she sat on was previously a baboon toilet. Yuck.  Apparently we had covered half the distance by now but not nearly half the elevation. From here on it got really steep. We used our hands 90% of the time. The footing was treacherous and even the handholds more often than not crumbled away beneath our hands. Good thing it was dark and I could not see much more than the immediate trail in front of me and Makamero’s yellow coat. It went on and on. My legs were shaking from the effort but we did not stop for more than a minute if that. It was cold enough that I did not break a sweat despite working hard. Every time I thought we must be near the top, another slope appeared. But eventually we made it to the large long slope – 45degrees and gusty winds. I was on my hands and knees to get up it. 3hrs45 after we left the car we were on top. Makamero said this was the fastest time he has ever done the climb. We walked along the narrow rim of the crater. The wind seriously tried to push us into the black gaping hole about 100m down. No glow of any lava though was visible. Or maybe the moon was too bright. Now all we had to do was wait for sunrise. But since we had been pushing so hard to get up we still had 2.5hrs to go. And it was so stupid cold! Not sure why I was surprised being at an elevation of 2800m. There was no shelter from the wind anywhere and even though we put on all the clothes we brought we could not stop shivering. Makamero just curled up underneath his Maasai blanket and fell asleep in seconds. Lucky him. Jeff and I curled up together to share our body heat but it was of no use. After an hour of shivering Jeff had enough and wanted to get out of the wind. We moved a short way down the final to find some shelter from the wind. That definitely helped and the shivers stopped. It was still cold mind you. Shortly after we saw Leopard woman come by. She went up to the rim and came straight back down saying it was too cold. They hunkered down right below us for a little bit  But they did not last and headed back down. 45 more minutes to go. We can make it damn it! At 6:10AM we crawled back up onto the rim. It finally looked like the sky is getting brighter even though official sunrise was still 20min away. We saw the full moon still to the west and a glow to the east. We danced along the rim to stay warm. The wind was still relentless. Finally, 6:30AM, and the sun rose as a blood red orb to the east. Incredible view – unfortunately the pictures don’t show it. Since there were no clouds the sky just brightened slowly without any amazing colours. I could finally see down into the crater and we noticed the dark black vent that is still active. Steam was coming out of the crater. Amazing to stand on an active volcano. It would have been good to stay for a few more minutes but the guys wanted to get back down. It’s a long and difficult climb down and with the sun would come the heat. Well, heat did not come right away but looking down the steep slope ahead of us made me think how on earth are we going to get down. And it was hard to put it mildly.  Slip, slide, crash! The footing seemed to get worse the further down we went. I must have crashed a hundred times. Even Makamero lost his footing once or twice. More than once he suggested to rest for a bit when I slid by him in a dust of dirt but I just wanted to get off this mountain. Bruised bones and bruised ego for falling on my ass over and over and over again. So did Jeff by the way. We passed Leopard woman and her guide and driver. They also were falling all over the place. The driver used to be a porter on Mount Kilimanjaro and even he cursed this decent. Said this was ten times harder than all the climbs up and down Mount Kili he had done in his 2 years as a porter. That at least made me feel a little bit less stupid. When we started the decent we were in the shadow of the mountain but about half way down it turned sunny and yes it did get hot! By the way, the views on the way down were phenomenal, no question. We could see all the way to the Serengeti from up high. But I was most happy when I could see Mike and the truck in the distance. I gave him a big hug for being there and waiting for us. I was sore, tired and grumpy! It took about 3hrs to get down – 9:50AM. That was for sure the hardest day hike I have ever done. If you plan on doing it, get a helicopter to pick you up at the top :-).

We drove back to the campsite at Lake Natron for a quick shower and a huge brunch. Pancakes, toast, spaghetti, rice w BBQ goat…. all the leftovers from the trip. I wish I could have had a nap as well but it was time to pack everything up and start the long trek back all the way to Arusha to sleep one more night in a real bed. We followed the rift valley south on a bumpy track back to Mto wa Mbu where we would drop off Makamero to catch a bus back home to his village. Initially we had some nice views of the volcano but eventually it all turned to dry rocky dust. No water anywhere. Dust devils all over. Few skinny cows tended by Maasai. Not sure how people can make a living in this arid area. We passed through some village where we had to pay a road maintenance fee. I am sure that wasn’t an official fee, but a source of income for the villagers. That and we gave away some of our water bottles. Apparently in 2009 this area went through a particular bad drought and the people lost almost everything. It wasn’t a pretty sight that day but it must have been so much worse 5 years ago. In Mto wa Mbu we had to get a flat tire changed as well. We could have walked through town but I just wanted to close my eyes a bit and not face all those people trying to sell us something. We said our good byes to Makamero – who almost felt like a friend to us now. On we drove for hours with one more stop at a snake farm not far from Arusha. It was a nice little break after sitting in the truck for so long. Next we dropped off Hamisi at his village – the most amazing cook ever. Not sure how he made all those fantastic meals on a single propane burner. And finally around 6:30PM we were back at where we started, L’Oasis Lodge in Arusha. Hugs and tears as we said good bye to Mike, our so trusted guide for the last 12 days. He wasn’t a big talker but that is exactly how we like it. We gave him our binoculars which he had gotten so fond of during the trip. Achmed, the British owner of the company was waiting for us in the lounge for the trip wrap up over food and beers. Shared a lot of ours and his stories. He must have heard it all before. We also met another safari guest who just came back, Steffen from Seattle, and planned to see Arusha town with him tomorrow before out plane back home in the evening. We crawled into bed by 9:30-10PM. It had been a long day and I slept like the dead.

Day 2 - The journey begins - Hamisis, Jeff, I and Mike

Thanks to Mike (right) and Hamisi (left), our most wonderful guides!

 

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