The Maasai Warrior and the Holy Mountain

Tanzania is home of some of Africa’s greatest natural spectacles but it also feels, well, just that – a spectacle – its roads lined with German tourists in safari vehicles and its traditional African hospitality coming with a (large) price tag. You have to search harder for the magic here than elsewhere in Africa, but there was one place I thought might have some left. I had read about Ol Doinyo Lengai in Peter Matthiesen’s The Tree Where Man Was Born, perhaps my favourite African travel book, and negotiated with my driver to spend a night camped nearby and attempt to scale the mountain.

Ol Doinyo Lengai means the Mountain of God in the Maasai language, who believe that his holiness lives inside. It’s also one of the few active volcanos left in Africa (it last erupted in 2007), and the only volcano in the world that produces natrocarbonatite larva, black and fluid rather than red and viscous. The track approaching the mountain was filled with Wildebeest grazing alongside cattle, watched over by young Maasai boys. The mountain was visible for some time from the track; steep, bare, conical, with cracks scored down its sides as if by the raking nails of giant claws.

By the time we arrived at the nearest village it was dark. We camped alone by the shores of Lake Natron, a caustic lake popularised by Nick Brandt with his photographs of dead animals encased in salt. Senior village men were sent for and they told me the price, $100 including the guide, whom they introduced – a Maasai warrior in full tartan, beads and funky hair. We would start at 11pm to climb for sunrise, so I tried to get some sleep.

On time, the warrior returned, now dressed in gear more suitable for climbing, including some boots given to him by a previous adventurer from Hungary. He guided our landcruiser along the rough track to the base of the volcano. Luckily, there was another pair of would-be climbers, whose own vehicle rescued us when we got bogged in the volcanic sand.

I left the driver behind to sleep. He gave me a cheery wave, and we set off, head torches illuminating the short grass, which quickly gave way to bare sand. The climb was unrelenting and tiring, as we struggled through constantly slipping, black volcanic sand. We were without a break or change in the extreme incline for five monotonous hours. The other climbers gave up the struggle sometime in the night – we saw them back at the bottom at dawn. Luckily, the darkness hid the steepness of the terrain from me and kept my vertigo at bay. Nearer the top, the sand gave way to a kind of smooth, natural concrete that my feet found hard to grip on to, handholds were few and I wondered how I would get down again.

My guide appeared uncertain. It turned out he was a university student, home for the holidays and making a bit of extra cash, unsure of the way and unused to the exertion, and we stopped more to give him a rest than me. We dozed in a small, cold crevice hear the summit. I woke him when it was starting to become light in order to make the summit before dawn. From our crevasse, we climbed on all fours up to the final ridge line. With an almost sheer drop on either side, my vertigo finally got the better of me and my body refused to climb 100m up the final ridge to the summit.

Instead, clinging on, I looked out. Behind us the volcano smoked, its sulphuric stink overpowering. To the west was the rift wall and beyond it, the Ngorongoro highlands – bare, weathered and majestic in a range of green and ochre hues. To the north was the pink of Lake Natron full of flamingos, surrounded by the extinct volcanoes of the Gregory Rift Valley.

It was impossible to judge the distance to the foot of the volcano, the featureless plain and the steepness of the incline making it look very near. I had previously inured my knee and knew the descent would be painful – I had decided the pain was worth it – but was still shocked by the intensity of the hurt. I had to hobble down backwards through the sand, the slippery descent even slower than the climb of the night before.

To pass the time, my guide recited what appeared to be speeches in frequently incomprehensible English of the type learned primarily through books rather than through talking with a native speaker. It had turned out he had learnt by heart speeches of Anglophone Africa’s greatest independence leaders – Nkrumah of Ghana and Nyerere of Tanzania.

Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation. The notion that in order to have a nation it is necessary for there to be a common language, a common territory and common culture has failed to stand the test of time or the scrutiny of scientific definition of objective reality… The community of economic life is the major feature within a nation, and it is the economy which holds together the people living in a territory. It is on this basis that the new Africans recognise themselves as potentially one nation, whose dominion is the entire African continent.

I talked about my work with Aboriginal people, how many people felt impoverished by the loss of tribal identity and language in favour of a general Aboriginal identity, what it meant to be Maasai versus African and so on. I didn’t expect the warrior to be a philosopher. He seemed a good young man, and I felt a kind of protective pride for him. I thought, he is a future leader and this village will be in good hands with this one. I envied him his rock solid identity and his belonging. How lucky are they that can embrace modernity without losing tradition. I didn’t have a tribe, or a home, all I had was this rare experience – of climbing the holy mountain with a Maasai warrior philosopher. Perhaps I’m poorer than him but it still felt authentic and precious, the magic I had been searching for. At the bottom, I rejoined my driver, his fake concern for me clearly motived by the hope of a big tip, and I was a tourist again.

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