Climbing Oldoinyo Lengai

A number of people climb Oldoinyo Lengai each year. It is not a technical climb, but it is a very demanding and sometimes dangerously steep walk and scramble. You should be fit, strong and above all VERY determined. Everyone who has climbed has their own experience to tell and their own advice to give; here is mine.

Oldoinyo Lengai lies in Tanzania and should be approached from the south (i.e. from Arusha and Mto wa Mbu) or (more difficult) from the west (from the Serengeti Plains, Crater Highlands and Olduvai Gorge). It is in theory possible to approach from Kenyan territory to the north (from Magadi). However I emphatically do NOT recommend this; the track is totally unmaintained for much of its length and above all, it is against the law to cross the international frontier here. If you enter Tanzania here and were to be picked up by security officers you would be in big trouble.

You need a four wheel drive vehicle with good clearance to reach Oldoinyo Lengai; it may be (just) possible at some seasons to do it with less, but I would not recommend it. Approaching from Arusha, you take the tarmac road west out of Arusha (signposted to Dodoma) and leave this road at Makuyuni. Take the right turn to Mto wa Mbu (this is the paved road that leads to Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Olduvai Gorge and Serengeti). A few kilometres east (i.e. before) Mto wa Mbu there is a poorly marked earth road to the right, north across the Rift Valley floor. This is the road to Oldoinyo Lengai.

You cannot rely on public transport and hitching rides to get to Oldoinyo Lengai; you could get as far as Mto wa Mbu but after that it would be impossible. There is no regular public transport to Engaruka and Ngare Sero (two of the little villages on the rift floor north of Mto wa Mbu); the occasional lorries and landrovers that come by are likely to be over crowded already, and this is certainly not an area to find oneself in with nowhere to go when dusk is falling.

Assuming that you do not own a 4WD vehicle in Tanzania, then the choice is between renting a vehicle and driving it yourself, or going with a commercial tour company that will provide the vehicle, driver, camping equipment and (if you get the right company) experienced guides to get you up the mountain and down again safely and in reasonable time.

My sense is that if you are on your own, it is much better to go to the extra expense of a tour company; it is just too problematic to face possible vehicular and personal breakdowns without other people at hand. If you are a group of reasonably experienced and bush wise people, it is feasible to get out to Ngare Sero yourselves and negotiate with someone in the village to guide you up the volcano.

Why not just climb the volcano by ourselves, you may ask. After all, it is right there; impossible to miss it! How can one go wrong with a 2000 metre cone in front of one; all roads lead to the top, don’t they? In fact it is perfectly possible to get lost on Oldoinyo Lengai; the lower slopes are deeply gullied, and you could easily go in the wrong direction and end up on the wrong side of an impassable ravine; even the young and fit will have no energy to waste trying to get back on the right track.

My advice is that you should take a local guide with you; in terms of the total expense of your trip the cost will be minimal and it is one way of providing some income to people living in this very isolated and impoverished area of Tanzania. One guide who has considerable experience and is very interested in the volcano is Burra Ami Gadiye; you may be able to locate him at Ngare Sero though I doubt there is any way of contacting him in advance of your visit. Burra is in the first photograph below and again (sitting) in the photograph below it (taken by Tom Frisch in January 2001). With Burra is one of the young Maasai who live in the area around Ngare Sero and can be employed as porters; I find this really helps too as I have no energy to do more than drag myself up the mountain!

If you want to go in relative comfort (nothing can make Oldoinyo Lengai an easy climb!) go with Dorobo Safaris Ltd., P.O. Box 2534, Arusha, Tanzania. The Peterson brothers (David, Thad and Michael) have been taking people up Lengai for over 25 years and their employees are also highly experienced and very reliable. Contact them through telephone Arusha 2300, fax, or at their email address, dorobo@yako.habari.co.tz A warning – they tend to get very booked up, especially at peak holiday seasons, so contact them well in advance.  Another company that runs trips is Nature and Discovery run by Eric Christin; his email address is NatureDiscovery@ark.eoltz.com .

During 1998 and early 1999 there were some incidents of armed robbery of tourist vehicles in the area around Oldoinyo Lengai. Some tour companies, including Dorobo Safaris stopped taking groups to this region for some time. However other people have visited the region, climbed Oldoinyo Lengai, and returned safely. In July 1999 I climbed with Fred Belton and Chris Weber; we had no problems on our journey or on the mountain itself. The same was true when I climbed in July 2000, and on my most recent climb in July 2004.  My personal suggestion is that intending climbers should check with Dorobo Safaris or with other tour companies in Arusha, Tanzania, before making firm plans for your journey. We can only hope that the Tanzanian government will be able to maintain security in this area.  I would welcome hearing from anyone who has up-to-date information about the security situation in this region.

If you are planning a climb, here are some things to take with you:

  • Good comfortable supportive hiking boots, though you do not need mountain boots or rock climbing boots. However this is not the time to economize, to use those dear old worn out boots one last time or (worse) to wear in some new ones. I have lost several big toe nails on the way down Oldoinyo Lengai (actually they turned purple and hung on for a few months before falling off in the shower…)
  • Long trousers rather than shorts will protect you against rugged rocks and scratchy vegetation. Wear shorts under them and you can take off the long trousers when it gets too hot or you get into the crater.
  • LOTS of water. If you go with Dorobo Safaris they will take care of this for you. If you go on your own, make sure you have enough good water for the climb.
  • Lots of sunblock; solar radiation can get very intense at nearly 3000 metres.
  • A good (not too heavy) flashlight with ample batteries; it takes at least 4 hours to climb (I take 6 hours!) and it makes good sense to start before dawn and get the worst of the climb done before the sun is scorching you.
  • Layers of clothing; you will sweat and you will shiver. It is almost always windy on top of Oldoinyo Lengai and it can be cloudy and really cold; people have been close to hypothermia. Noel’s space blanket (see photograph below taken by Celia Nyamweru in August 1990) came in extremely useful when we took a rest on the climb.

  • Whatever light food you find suits you best when putting out maximum energy for 4 to 6 hours. Personally I can eat very little (my digestive system seems to decide it wants no part of the whole experience) but I have enjoyed dried fruit, oranges and the occasional square of chocolate or mint cake.
  • A digital camera with enough storage and batteries, or, if you are still using film, then LOTS of film. You do not need a big heavy camera or a long lens; the views are spectacular enough not to need embellishment unless you are a really serious photographer. The illustrations on this site taken by Burra Gadiye were taken with a disposable camera!
  • Attitude: take it slow, take it steady, stop when you need to. I would not go so far as to say that climbing Oldoinyo Lengai is all in the mind, but the right mental attitude will make a great difference.
  • Above all, remember that however tough it is going up, most of us find the descent even worse! If you are in charge of your own climb, make sure you leave enough time for the descent, that is at least 4 hours. The lower slopes of Oldoinyo Lengai in thick grass and between deep gullies are not a place to be as dusk is falling, which it does quickly in northern Tanzania.
  • If you are not comfortable with heights and above all exposed, steep windy heights, Oldoinyo Lengai is NOT the place to be. If you really want to see what the summit crater looks like, why not charter a light aircraft from Arusha and take an overflight? The only problem is that you cannot be sure when you take off in Arusha whether or not the summit will be covered in a cloud.

We made it! St.Lawrence University students on the university’s Kenya Semester Program climbed Oldoinyo Lengai in February 1995; Kristen Hall gave me the photograph below.

I made it! Fred Belton took this photograph of me resting on soft powdery lava after climbing from the west on 23 July 1999. No surface ever felt softer!

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