Exploring Tanzania’s volcanic landscapes, from Ngorongoro to the Mountain of God.
“People used to hear the trembling sound coming from inside,” Maasai guide Alex Sabaya said, pointing at the volcanic cone far off in the distance, “and they thought God was in there. Oldonyo Lengai means, in Maasai, the ‘Mountain of God.’ They believed God was living in the mountain.”
This Mountain of God — the Lengai volcano, Tanzania’s third-highest peak — was our destination, a beacon on the horizon coming in and out of sight during our days of trekking, guiding us on. “It’s still an active volcano, the only one in Tanzania,” Alex told me. “Two weeks ago, we heard the sound of thunder from the mountain, like rocks crashing together.”
Thankfully, the volcano remained quiet throughout our hike. In fact, everything in this region felt calm and peaceful, an area with volcanic mountains, green hills, remote rural villages and wide open spaces that were notably absent of any other travelers. “Not many tourists come to this part of the park,” admitted hiking guide Joseph Kumbau. “They’re all down in the Ngorongoro Crater, hoping to see a lion eating a buffalo.”
Ngorongoro Crater had been my first stop, too, as I’d driven into the region to The Highlands, a new lodge deep inside the conservation area. Set at an elevation of 2,650 meters, it serves as a good base for exploring Ngorongoro and the lesser-known Olmoti and Empakai craters.
We drove from the lodge and down into the vast remains of the Ngorongoro volcano early on my first full morning in the country. Extinct for 2.5 million years, scientists believe Ngorongoro could once have stood taller than Kilimanjaro. The 600-m-deep caldera covers nearly 260 square kilometers, the grassy plains, forests, swamps, rivers and lakes inside home to one of Africa’s densest concentrations of wildlife, including the Big Five.
While there, I spent time photographing zebras and wildebeest galloping across the dusty grasslands. Later, I saw two lionesses crack open a warthog and call their cubs to “lunch.”
From the top of Engitati Hill, we watched a lone elephant trample through a swamp and, later, one of Tanzania’s endangered black rhinos amble through sage brush. “The Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti are the only places in Tanzania where you can see black rhino,” said guide Goodluck Silas, visibly excited. “Sightings are rare.”
We parked near Lake Magadi, the shallow waters busy with fluttering lesser flamingos. Goodluck guessed there were up to 8,000 out there on the water, but the lake is sometimes busier.
Ngorongoro’s wildlife is fantastic to experience and photograph, which is why the bottom of the crater can sometimes feel quite traffic-heavy with safari vans. There was no one at all around, though, next morning at Empakai. The view from the 2,740-m-high rim was blocked by clouds, but, after a quick, steep descent through the forest, we soon saw the shape of the crater walls and the salt-crusted edges of Empakai Lake.
We watched blacksmith lapwings join small clusters of flamingos along the lake shore. “Of every 100 or so people who see Ngorongoro, maybe five people go to Empakai and Olmoti,” Goodluck said, as we stood by the still lake.
In the afternoon, we made our way to Olmoti, climbing to nearly 3,000 m and looking out onto a river valley. A whooping call echoed across the golden grasslands, most likely the sound of hyenas with a fresh kill. “They’ve caught something,” Maasai warrior Peter Mwasini said. “They’re calling the others to tell them to come, eat.”
Heading deeper into the caldera, we detoured around thick trees to avoid disturbing any buffaloes or lions that might have been sleeping. Our group — me, Peter, Goodluck and ranger Saitus Kipalazia, armed with a semi-automatic rifle — talked loudly as we walked, to give any big beasts in the long grass advanced warning of our presence.
Zebra and wildebeest grazed in the distance as we hiked. “Something is coming toward us,” Goodluck warned, pointing at swaying grass. A hyena? A lion? A black nose poked out, then the friendly ginger face of Police, the trusty dog from the ranger station who’d followed us all the way up here. “They call him ‘Police’ because he likes to follow the rangers on patrol,” Peter laughed.
In the morning, I traveled back to Empakai to meet guides Joseph and Alex and begin our two-day trek to the Mountain of God. The road we spent the first half of the day walking along offered views over fertile green countryside to the extinct Kerimasi volcano and the 3,200-m-high cone of Lengai. The last eruption occurred in 2008, but the volcano is never truly dormant. In the past, local Maasai would sacrifice sheep or goats on the volcano, Alex told me, spreading the blood and performing dances to bring rain or cure diseases.
We hiked down into Naiyobi village, cowbells ringing as women led their animals across the hills, then on to Lerai, where a comfy temporary camp had been set up for the night in a forest of yellow fever trees. The day wasn’t over, though. In the evening, we climbed to a hilltop for sundowners, a bottle of South African Pinotage accompanying a fine view of Lengai, which had white streams of recent ash emissions on the slopes.
Next morning, we dismantled the camp and set off early to make the most of the cool air. The dramatic landscapes we hiked through were created in the geological upheaval that formed the Great Rift Valley. “About 1.8 million years ago, the Oceanic and Continental plates collided and pushed up, and that created what we call the Great Rift Valley,” Joseph informed me. “When they collided, Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Ngorongoro and Mt Lengai were all formed.”
The land warmed quickly during the morning. We hiked over a stubby point, known as Pembe Ya Swala (Antelope’s Horn), and descended into sun-baked grasslands, past curious zebras standing on the slopes of Lengai.
With heat levels on the sweltering side, we followed a stream of old lava flow through clanging herds of the Maasai’s cows. Tired and thirsty, I was happy to arrive at Lake Natron Camp, an isolated location surrounded by zebras, wildebeest, giraffes and, oddly, camels. I’d considered climbing Lengai to watch the sunset, but the guides’ verdict was that the night’s heavy mist and cloud would obscure any views and there’d be no visible sunrise — scant reward for a famously tough, steep climb.
Instead, I got a good night’s sleep and made my way down to the lakeshore early the next morning, in darkness. The sky was pinkening at the edges as I waded through rivers and walked barefoot through shin-deep sludgy mud that, given how many birds and animals use this lake, was bound to have contained other ingredients best not thought about.
The sun rose, illuminating hundreds, possibly thousands, of flamingos. Many of the birds would have come from Lake Manyara or, like me, traveled from the Ngorongoro Crater. Later, during the breeding season (September and October), the surface of the entire lake would be pink with as many as two million flamingos.
I stood and photographed the elegant birds for a while, small clusters soaring into the glowing sky, others flying in lines across the sun. It was an incredibly peaceful scene, not least because, behind me, there was not even a hint of a rumble of thunder from Lengai to break the perfect silence.