Climbing the Maasai Mountain of God - A Journey to the Top of an Active Volcano

Brittany Stephen

Visitors: 283

The Maasai call it "the mountain of god", for not only do they believe their ancestors descended from it; they believe God lives atop it. It rises sharply and proudly out of the Great Rift Valley with jagged edges and carved angular slopes - as regal as is ominous, as beautiful as is rare - we call it Lengai. “Lengai" [pronounced: ling-eye] rolls trippingly off the tongue while conjuring images of mythical lands and far off places. It is, in actuality, a volcano - an active volcano at that; and the only active sodium carbonate volcano in the world.

Lake Natron

Lengai is situated in one of the most spectacularly jurrassic and underrated areas of Tanzania. Lake Natron is a natural alkaline soda lake that, from a distance, looks like a great, expansive puddle that covers the valley floor and glistens in the sunlight. The environment, however, is hostile; temperatures of the mud can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius and the alkaline level can reach a pH of 9-10.5!

Natron's edges are dotted in a pink tinge created by the thousands of flamingos that migrate there annually. They are some of the only creatures who can thrive in these conditions, the caustic environment actually acting as a barrier against predators. The fringe of the valley around it is composed of emerald green hills and slopes that create scenery unrivaled anywhere else in the world. Among this naturally pristine spectacle sits Lengai.

Setting up Camp

We arrive at the riverside base camp dusty from the hours of rambunctious 4 x 4 off-roading (no other type of vehicle could possibly make it out here). The campsite is minimalist complimented by the grandiose of the looming mountain that overlooks us. That is what we're going to climb tonight?? A few meters walk from where we set up our tents is a small river winding its way out of a canyon. We are told it leads to water falls, so we decide to take the short hike to cool off in the mid-day heat. After about 30 minutes of trekking in and out of water along the rocky ledges we reach the fall. Situated between two cliffs, it is blanketed in moss and flora. The noon sun makes rainbows in the mist and we swim and baske lazily on the shore like sirens. The scene is something of enchantment.

The Climb

The hike begins at midnight, the reason being we are to get to the top in time to watch the sunrise. As our vehicle clamors along the pocked earth to her base we can just make out a faint tableau in the moonlight. Our minds begin to wonder and we all sit silent with our doubts. We start trekking and immediately the effects of the 45 degree slope are felt. Our legs burn and shake with uncertainty beneath us. We laboriously climb higher through different elevations of vegetation: aromatic fields of mountain heather, dense grasses, rocky crevasses, and burned bush. We rest intermitantly to break our sweats and catch our breath. As soon as we stop moving however, the chilled wind penetrates our jackets forcing us to continue on our way, only to sweat again in minutes. It is virtually impossible to find a level of temperate comfort between the cold wind and the body heat generated by the climb.

As we near the top the landscape changes from difficult to hostile; the earth is covered in jagged rocks and loose volcanic debris. The slope continues to get steeper still and parts of the climb are having to be done on all fours. Whose idea was this?? Moments when one has to catch themselves from a stumble are often thwarted by a giant blast of cold air that wails down the incline like a banshee. We continue despite the innate urges to turn back - and suddenly the top comes into view in the blue-haze of daybreak. We lob ourselves over the side and all sit back in exhaustion and amazment as the African sun rises in the East.

From the distance, Lengai looks like her peak is exactly that, a peak. In reality, however, her ashen and barren cavern is vast and plain-like. The summit itself is lunar covered in a white molten crust with towering individual peaks (formed by mini-eruptions) that jut out in sharp, sporadic disarray. As you wander its vastness you feel a sense of tremendous accomplishment negated by a certain sense of unease. In certain areas, your feet crack through the crust setting free sulfurous smoke that rises out of the footprint as an eerie reminder that while Lengai may appear to be stable to the eye, she is anything but.

The wind is a constant force at this elevation; clouds fly past your face and seem to fall down the side of the mountain with no hesitation as if they're being poured like milk out of a carton. A trip to volcano's edge offers a spectacular view: a sweeping panorama of the entire region and beyond. Kilimanjaro, Meru and the lesser mountains are seen in the distant haze. The Serengeti lies just on the horizon. The sloping Great Rift slips effortlessly into the valley and from this vantage point looks like a massive green velvet curtain rippling to the floor. Summiting Lengai offers some of the most beautiful landscapes the eye can behold and is definately a unique and worthwhile endeavour.

That is, until you start down!

Interested in climbing Lengai or planning a Tanzania Adventure? Combine this climb with a Crater Highlands Trek for a real "Out of Africa" experience! Contact Tropical Trails - The Tanzania Adventure Specialists at:

An avid traveller and lover of Africa, Brittany Stephen is currently the Sales and Marketing Manager of Tropical Trails Safari Company. She originally hails from Chicago, IL - but for the past 2 years has made Tanzania her home.


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