The Night Black Lava Dust of Meru and The Mountain of God

[Mt. Meru]

Three elephants graze just above Miriakamba Hut against the sheer cliffs of Mt. Meru’s “Socialist Peak” after the Kilimanjaro Sunrise—slow snow pink peak.  A full sweat hike through fig tree arch yesterday with Stuttgart Alexander after abandoning the tough elderly Londoners and the mandatory armed ranger [for the buffalo, but porters walk unprotected up and down constantly].  Stories of South Sudan Doctors Without Borders employment—gunshot wounds, mostly from weddings [what goes up in celebration comes down in pain and suffering], one group even managing to kill the bride.  Tribal rivalry atrocities and difficult births from working until labor.

Click for full slideshow

Click for full slideshow

Orange sulfur soil dotted with shrubs and multi-colored stones gave way at the vegetation line to black lava dust and the occasional strewn hunk of Meru’s interior.  Undulating ridges of stone provide some scrambling, then up to the ridgeline—rough precipitous destruction to the left, smooth incline to the plains on the right.  A bright near full moon illumines the various layers of cloud.

Alexander, who is ill-prepared for the 15,ooo ft. cold and resorts to wearing a rain-poncho, Robert [his guide], and a Ranger’s assistant named Nixon, who has no idea where he is going [sent along to keep us from getting lost], and I reach Socialist Peak just after six—breaking through the heavy windy mists to revel in the sunrise.  The fluttering rolling clouds give glimpses straight down into the ash-cone and crater; the majority of Meru having been blown completely away during an ancient explosion, leaving the spectacular horseshoe-shaped cliffs.

[The Mountain of God]

A tall, lean Maasai with red eyes, slightly brown teeth, and the air and attire of a defeated guerrilla commander, Freddie engaged Kiwi Jessica and I outside the hostel, having used his intelligence forces to learn from our Meru driver that we were interested in climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai.  Since his price was a third of others’, we took a fateful chance.

Click for full slideshow

Click for full slideshow

Silence reigned as Freddie’s uncle Joshua stalled the beat up Land Cruiser in heavy Arusha traffic, went around back, negotiated a Land Rover push, and popped the clutch.  [This was our first inkling of how things were to go, as well as an explanation for constantly leaving the truck running, or parking on a decline.]  Following a short disappearance during our first stop for ugali and goat hunks [we were now Maasai] Freddie returned in a jovial state, commenting on Tanzanian corruption, which became a favorite topic despite his claim to “not even want to talk about it.”  At this point he began to cast  smiling glances in my direction at the back, supplemented with  a thumbs up and a “my brother.”  By the third gate to pay fees he was visibly staggering and wanting to linger in villages—to which honest Josh replied “Twende, twende, twende” [Let’s go].  I began to despair of this man leading us successfully to the top of an active volcano, and then I had to laugh inwardly at our budget safari experience.

At the final tiny boma before camp, a Maasai village elder approached the truck.  He wore under his traditional robes a western warm-up jacket, white beaded ornaments dangled from the tops of his ears, and he had slightly protruding long teeth.  Calling me “Babo”, Maasai for grandfather, he managed to convey the following to me in his native language:  “If you are going to the Mountain of God, you must have strong legs [lifting and slapping his thighs repeatedly] and you must be strong of heart [patting his chest].  If God is angry at you, the mountain will spit fire and stones, if not, though the way is difficult, you will be rewarded at the top.”  He smiled, stroked his chin, and said “Babo”.

Ol Doinyo Lengai stands conically alone opposite the hot plain with its swirling dust-devils and cartoonishly thick-trunked Baobab trees arrayed on the ageless plateaus.

Surprisingly, Freddie is punctual at the 11pm start time, unsurprisingly he reeks of gin and keeps repeating “It’s a good time, good time,” to which I am unclear whether he means the time just had, or that to come on the mountain.  The cruiser rattles and slams through the alkaline dried beds to the trail-head, where Freddie immediately falls, catches up to, and stays diligently behind the group of heavily geared, trekking-pole clattering Austrians and their guide.

Approaching hour five of the moonlit 45 degree ash-slope climb, I can’t take it anymore—the Austrians are faltering, groaning, and pausing after each step.  Freddie refuses to lead [I can only imagine how he felt at this point], so I scramble past and lead myself to the rumbling north crater in time to see the most beautiful sight in Africa–sun-breaking on the southern slope of Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru and Mt. Kenya flanking the horizon, the craters and rippled folds along the great Rift Valley spread in the morning’s shadows below.  Skirting the collapsing east side of the crater I climbed to the pinnacle wall between north and south craters in a state ineffable.  A flurry of shivering photography and I was joined by a few black specs on the distant rim–Freddie, Jessica, and Vanessa had made it.

On the ride to camp following the ash-glissade down, Freddie is splayed out dead asleep in the front seat.

Lake Natron’s dried mud bottom stretches through the stark landscape of small rock outcroppings.  The wind ripples and speaks through my shirt.  The wet pink flamingo horizon is like a mirage.  The Maasai women encircle the jeep with their wares.

15 K off the main road the Cruiser runs out of diesel.  Ironically, the Austrians [who made it eventually to the crater] are right behind to ignominiously jostle-push us the rest of the way for more fuel.

Infamous Freddie is asleep.

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~ by Scott Hamilton Peters on February 19, 2009.

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