Hitting the Slopes
Peering into volcanoes amid abundant wildlife and rare forms of lava in Tanzania’s crater Highlands. Story and photographs by Patrick Scott
Like rumbling thunderclouds or far-off explosions, the muffled booms broke the silence as we reclined on a slope of pulverised lava beads in a small passage near the top of a volcano in East Africa, more than three kilometres up into the night sky.
It was 5am, and for six hours we had been scaling the colossal, pyramid-shaped Ol Doinyo Lengai — through waist-high tufts of grass in powdery ash, through loose rock and tight crevices and finally over hardened lava flows so steep I had to climb on all fours. Now we were exhausted, resting inside a fissure with chalky white walls. At sunrise, we would clamber the remaining 15 minutes onto the rim of the crater.
Our bed of gravelly black lapilli was warm, as if heated by an electric blanket. At my knee, a vent in the rock emitted swirls of steamy gas.
“You hear that noise?” my friend Kaixu Yuan asked.
“Yeah, it’s a thunderstorm in the distance,” I reckoned.
“That’s the volcano underground,” said Dennis Laiza, our Masai guide.
I was starting to understand what it actually meant to be atop an active volcano.
We were nearing the spectacular climax of our gruelling and astonishing weeklong journey through the Crater Highlands of Tanzania. The region sprawls along the East African Rift, where, millions of years ago, separating tectonic plates allowed magma to rise, belching out over many millenniums a multitude of volcanoes, many of them now collapsed calderas or dormant peaks.
The most famous of the mountains is Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa (5,895 metres), 160 kilometres to the east. Kaixu had booked a flight from New York with no set plan and wanted company. I’m not a big fan of snow or thin air, so I searched for an alternative adventure.
I was intrigued by the highlands and selected a mix of experiences: a safari in the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest volcanic caldera, 21 kilometres wide and said to contain an astounding abundance of wildlife; the Empakaai Crater, more than six kilometres across and one of the few in the region filled with a lake; and Ol Doinyo Lengai, the only volcano in the world to emit natrocarbonatite lava — dark grey, relatively cool (about 510 degrees Celsius) and fast-flowing.
I used Instagram to send out requests for guides and chose a relatively new tour operator named Daudi Minde. We settled on a trip that would include two nights camping, a 10-hour trek and four nights in a hotel and lodge, for $2,633 per person.
The tour was poles apart from luxury safaris with furnished tents and balloon rides over the Serengeti. Daudi cobbled together freelance guides, a borrowed old LandCruiser and no-frills accommodation for a trip that took us to places we surely would have missed without the aid of local specialists.
After landing in Kilimanjaro airport (I flew from Thailand, where I live), we spent the night in nearby Arusha at the Green Mountain Hotel, which, like most in the cities, was behind tall walls and a metal gate.
At 6:30am, our guide, Aidano Kayala, and cook, Ramadhan Singano, had the LandCruiser crammed with camping gear. We drove west past the ramshackle shopfronts, women grilling corn on the dirt roadside and ranks of young men on chrome-fronted motorcycles waiting for fares.
We knew we were in the wild when, two hours outside the city, a bull elephant lumbered across the road, spun around and blared his raised trunk, then rammed an acacia tree, showing off his strength or scratching his head.
At the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where, unlike in Tanzanian national parks, the Masai are permitted to establish settlements and graze livestock, the steep dirt road was being rebuilt with crushed rocks. Two LandCruisers were tipped and stuck at 45-degree angles, and Aidano roared past.
We stopped at the overlook to behold the vast circular chasm. At the tail end of a five-month dry season, the landscape was parched. Cloud shadows darkened sections of the leafless rim and the tan crater floor. A silvery green lake spread out on the left, and a patch of emerald woodlands near a stream stretched out on the right. Wildebeest appeared as black dots in the buff.
The 45-minute bucking bronco of a ride down the rim ended at a marsh, where we ate a tasty packed lunch of mustard-ginger chicken stew. We gazed at a submerged hippo, a few curly horned buffalo and a wandering warthog. As we jolted along a corrugated path past a line of pale pink flamingos in the shallow lake, a troop of baboons along the roadside and a herd of diminutive Thomson gazelle in the scrub, two things became apparent: the crater was mostly empty, and the wildlife was doing a lot of loitering.
In the rainy seasons, the expansive floor is lush and teeming with animals, including massive herds of migrating wildebeests. And because nearly all of the inhabitants are herbivores, we saw no chasing and fleeing. Instead, the wildebeests milled about or rested in acacia shade, and the zebras did a lot of standing around, motionless, like they were trying to remember something they’d just forgotten.
Still, the variety of free-roaming animals, unfazed by the few dozen LandCruisers clattering across the crater, was captivating.
“This definitely is an animal paradise,” Kaixu exclaimed, observing through the pop-top. “Except for the lions.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Aidano said. “I am the expert. I know where to look.”
After a futile search for the endangered black rhino — or any rhino — in the forested floodplain, we drummed towards our exit at the back of the crater, passing hundreds of wildebeests, buffalo and zebras and stopping to watch a bull elephant with long white tusks sauntering through the congregation. A pair of ostriches stood by the road. Crown cranes strutted and spread vulturelike wings.
“Is he dead?” I heard Kaixu exclaim.
We’d finally found a lion. But he was napping, his back to us about 18 metres away, his dark mane quivering in the wind.
We rumbled up out of the amphitheatre just before sunset and pulled into a glade near a Masai village. One of its warriors, Maleton Oleriro, tall and draped in a red blanket, would be our guide for the next two days. We talked as the fire of damp wood hissed and smoked.
Maleton told us how his late father had six wives, how his own arranged marriage three years ago included a dowry of 20 cows, and how he trained to be a Masai warrior with other boys by practising spear-throwing while herding cows.
The next morning, we rattled over to the rim of Empakaai Crater, an enchanting circular caldera about six kilometres wide and 300 metres deep, largely covered by a lake. The wind, sun and clouds created an impressionistic canvas on the gleaming surface.
We traipsed down a steep, dusty path, through a thick forest and onto a shoreline of stubby grass and sand. We were alone but for several thousand flamingos rimming the edge of a quarter of the deep lake in a pink arc.
We hiked for four hours towards another Masai village, joined by five women selling bracelets and carrying firewood. They sang a song of praise and fertility as we walked amid a primeval panorama of mountain ranges and a dazzling rainbow arcing towards our ultimate point, the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano.
The next day, our tents and gear saddled on two small donkeys, we embarked on an all-day hike — across a misty valley, through an ashy acacia forest and onto an escarpment that ran for miles down through the mountainscape. As a massive curtain of clouds lifted, we could see part of the Serengeti plains far beyond on the left, the sledge-shaped Lake Natron way off in front and the remote volcano to our right, its top crowned with a cloud mass bigger than the mountain.
We stopped in a dry riverbed with stratified walls and shared our beef stew with five passing Masai boys. They all wanted to be warriors like Maleton, and we took turns launching a walking pole down the ravine in a spear-throwing contest. Kaixu and I came in last. In the afternoon, we reached the bottom and waited on a hillock for Aidano to drive us to Lengai Safari Lodge.
A sandstorm was building, horizontal whirlwinds racing down the canyon and obscuring the lake in the distance.
A LandCruiser finally arrived, but it was driven by Dennis, the Masai guide who would take us up the volcano. Aidano had gotten stuck in deep ash a few miles away. We rumbled over and spent 20 minutes pushing and towing Aidano’s truck out of the depression.
That night we dined on a local dish called ugali, a polentalike mash that you ball to sop up stew with your fingers, and washed it down with Kilimanjaro lager.
After spending the next morning swimming at a crystalline waterfall near the lodge, we rested and at 10.30pm headed out to Ol Doinyo Lengai. Volcanologists estimate that the volcano started forming some 370,000 years ago. Explosive eruptions come every generation or so, with the last one occurring in 2007 and 2008.
After another jolting ride along an undulating, sandy path, we set out up the west slope at 11.15pm, trudging through the tussocks and powdery dark ash. Around midnight, we came across tracks. “Lion,” Dennis said, assuring us that they keep away from the lights. I kept close to the pack, determined to not end up as prey.
The wind was picking up, but the temperature was still in the mid-teens. The nearly full moon was dim behind a shroud of gauzy clouds. A drizzle speckled the parched stone with little black spots. The route became steeper. The ground was a mix of loose stones and sand so deep we slipped back several centimetres with every step up.
We scrambled up to the rim just before the sun broke the horizon next to Kilimanjaro. In a whipping wind, we looked down about 20 stories into an entrancingly beautiful cauldron of rising steam and sputtering lava.
The crater was about 200 yards across, stratified brownish cliffs encircling a moonscape of rough formations and sculpted hornitos in multiple shades of grey and white. Columns of gas rose from vents around the circle. In the middle, surrounded by arabesque flats that looked like crusted lakes, loomed a profusion of large cones, with jagged holes at the tops. The largest one was smooth and grey, and when the wind died down we could hear lava churning and spitting like some seething creature from the netherworld. Every minute or so, bursts of black beads splashed out of the hornito, tumbling down the sides.
I jogged briefly around the rim, stopping to contemplate the molten energy that shaped these highlands, and hoping for a nonfatal, but sizeable, eruption. But after about an hour, it was time for the teetering six-hour descent. The rising sun, heating the entombed lava slopes, was casting a pyramid shadow over the landscape far below.
© The New York Times
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 158 of Winning Magazine. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.