Visit to Ol Doinyo Lengai

Being friends with people who work in the safari industry certainly has its benefits! This weekend we drove north of Arusha and out into the bush to visit one of the most unusual Ol Doinyo Lengai - the volcano called Mountain of Godvolcanoes in the world: Ol Doinyo Lengai, which means ‘Mountain of God’ in Massai. The volcano, which has been spewing ash and smoke for a few months now, is a pretty awesome sight, and as we approached the luxury tented camp where we were to stay for the night it coughed a plume of blackish-grey smoke! Apparently, it is the only volcano on earth which has a a carbonate lava flow instead of a silicate one (for more on this volcano’s amazing uniqueness, click here).

We were very fortunate to be able to stay within sight of the mountain, at a bushcamp which is owned and run by the company for which our friend works. Beautifully decorated, and with all the luxuries of hot water and refrigeration which you might not expect in such a remote setting, it really was a little piece of heaven on earth. We on the wooden deck which overlooks the vast valley floor and mountains in the background, sipping our sundowners and savouring the splendid scenery. After a lovely picnic meal of Relaxing at campcold chicken, potato salad, carrot and pineapple salad and, of course, chocolate cake for desert, we retired to the lounge area to continue the good company and conversation. The wind had picked up, and by the time we got to bed our very large, permanently erected tents were creaking and flapping under the strain of it all, making sleep rather difficult until the wee hours when it finally died down and we could get some proper rest.

In the morning, the tinkling bells of Masai cattle could be heard in the valley below, reminding me of our trip to Ngorongoro crater, now also visible as a ridge in the far distance behind the closer mountains. According to our guide, the crater’s name is actually taken from the Masai word for this tinkling sound, hence the rhythmic repetition of the sounds. After gobbling down a huge breakfast of Mexican omelettes, courtesy of Glyn’s culinary skills, we departed back down the hill and proceeded, as we had done on the way in, to get covered in dust as we bounced along the dirt track road. I was pretty pleased not to have to have done it on the bikes, as it would rate right up there with the worst of them, as it had both a lot of sand and a lot of rocks, both of which can easily see me going sideways!

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater (the view to the right of the first viewpoint)The crater is quiet incredible. After a very steep climb on a well-made dirt track we crested the caldera’s edge and not long afterwards stopped at the first available viewing point for one of the most spectacular sights we’ve been privileged to see on this trip. Stretching away from our right, far into the distance, and then swinging back towards us on the left was the entire rim of the crater of this enormous extinct volcano. The crater floor itself is also in view, and looks like someone’s been mixing water and oil together – here is a patch of blue where Lake Magadi lies, there is a large greenish blue area which we later find is a huge watering hole and river system, and in the background are swatches of browns, yellows and reds which fade into purple the further back you look.

Descending down an incredibly steep one-way track, you suddenly realise that all those colours didn’t even hint at the little brown specks which start to show themselves as you climb down into the crater itself and begin to pick out the wildebeest that dot the plains. I have to admit that although I did expect to do some game viewing, I hadn’t really contemplated how they would relate to the surroundings; so I found myself feeling rather surprised at just how many animals we came across, but also how scattered they seemed – one Thomson gazelle here, a rhino there, a large lonely elephant and a solitary hyena were among our initial sightings. It occurred to me then that what I was finding different about this experience was that, for the most part, you can see for quite some distance in the crater (and can therefore tell that this little bushbuck is on his own), because much of it is short-cropped grassland, whereas I am used to having to squint through thick undergrowth to catch sight of anything that might be moving, and I’m guessing one is inclined to imagine that there might be a lot more out there than perhaps there ever was.

Elephant at waterholeIn any event, our wildlife sightings were pretty spectacular. In the space of about six hours we saw four of the Big Five: Buffalo, lion, rhino and elephant. Leopard is the only one we didn’t manage, but I don’t think we can complain, particularly as we did manage to see a cheetah! I was blown away. At primary school, our sporting houses were named after the big cats, and I was in Cheetah House, so in a funny kind of way I’ve always wanted to see a cheetah. And there it was – perched atop a little rocky outcrop, and almost impossible to spot. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for our eagle-eyed driver, Exaud, and the fact that two other cars were already stopped there, I don’t think we would have seen it. We spent the better part of half an hour just sitting watching it, only moving off when it went off to lie down in the shade, denying us much more of a view.

Lunch was a hodge-podge of food we’d bought on the way and some of Exaud’s packed lunch which he very kindly shared with us. We ate it at a waterhole where there was green grass for us to sit on, along with about a hundred other tourists whose drivers obviously also had the same idea. I think it’s a regular haunt for anyone stopping to eat there, and as a result we were swooped upon by an assortment of enterprising birds who knew a free lunch when they saw it. These included little LBJs (unidentifiable little brown jobs), guinea fowl and some very bold brown kites who would sweep down out of the sky to snatch sandwiches out of your hand!

We left the crater at about 5:30, climbing the very steep one-way ascent path, leaving behind the dry savannah landscape and entering the dark, dank forest that hugs the crater’s southern edge. We wondered if we might spot a leopard here, but decided that there were so many suitable hiding places that it would be very unlikely, which it was. Leopard are still on our must-see list for the next time we come here to visit the Serengeti.

We spent the night not far from the crater, on a working coffee farm where the farmhouse had been built by German expats in the early 1900s. We found a photo album with pictures of the original family who lived there, and a history of the place which was quite fascinating. Being German, they experienced problems during both world wars, and during WWII were sent to prison camps in Zimbabwe from where they were repatriated back to Germany. The farm itself was expropriated, and from what we could make out the old farmhouse is now run as a bed and breakfast by the local church as a source of income.

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

We have been incredibly lucky this past week to take some time out and just relax, first in the motorbike riders haven that is Jungle Junction in Nairobi, and then in the safari capital of Tanzania, Arusha, in the company of our very good friends Chantal and Peter Trevor.

It’s rather odd having quite so much time to indulge in those almost forgotten past-times of having a bath, reading a good book or watching a bit of telly. Indeed, even having a cup of tea and a chance to enjoy it at leisure had become something of a long-distant memory. (Tea just isn’t the same without milk, which has been tricky to come by – and powder just doesn’t do it for me – so pretty soon after leaving old Blighty we switched to sweet black coffee as our preferred beverage). So, it’s a real privilege to be able to just switch on the kettle for a brew and sit down in a comfortable seat, biscuit in hand, to savour the delicious concoction.

Indeed, even the biscuit experience is worthy of mention, given that we’ve been able to delight in munching on some old favourites, including both Nuttikrusts and Choc-its, two South African biscuits which are virtually impossible to find in the UK. Not good for the waistline, certainly, but oh so good on the tastebuds!

It’s not been all lazing about and no action, though. This week did see us heading off to the nearby Ngorongoro Crater National Park, where we spent the day exploring this fantastic landscape with a very knowledgeable and capable driver, Exaud, whose Landrover we also had to hire for the experience as motorbikes are most definitely not allowed into the park!