Amid the dusty, searingly hot Crater Highlands of northern Tanzania, in a region spattered with hot springs and steaming sulphur jets, stands a grey mountain known as Ol Doinyo Lengai. This is a Maasai name that means ‘Mountains of God’
The bleakness of the surrounding scenery is relieved by little more than a few twisted umbrella thorns and stunted baobab trees. Dust devils whirl over the fissured earth, and what little grass there turns to straw in dry weather.
An active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai is hardly a scenic attraction – it is only 9370ft (2856m) high, and not far away there is a much more majestic mountain, such as Kilimanjaro. But instead of belching fire and smoke like other volcanoes, Ol Doinyo Lengai spits out washing soda! Its extraordinary lava eruptions are formed of ash and carbonate – which becomes washing soda (sodium carbonate) on contact with moisture in the air. It is the only active carbonate volcano in the world, and what may sometimes look like snow on its summit is whitish ash from its remarkable eruptions.
But the molten rocks in the volcano’s core are black, and although it seethes menacingly enough within the crater, it comes out only about half as hot as normal lava – hardly even glowing as it spews from the volcano’s cent. Once it reaches the air, the lava changes colour and transforms chemically to soda – the type used for cleaning and bleaching, which can be strong enough to scorch.
Ol Doinyo Lengai erupted in August 1966, and 1967 there was another explosion. Today, the volcano still rumbles disquietingly. A climb to its rim takes six hours, and when visitors enter the crater, which is about 1000ft (300m) across, they look down into a hissing vent where lava bubbles like boiling tar. A visitor, Professor Curt Stager, wrote in 1990. ‘Every few seconds the ground rocks; a fountain of lava bursts through the vent and crashes against its walls.
Below Ol Doinyo Lengai’s northern slopes are Lake Natron, whose shallow soda-filled waters overlie a bead of rank black mud. There are few fish here, and no plants of any size. But blue-green algae (minute water plants) abound in the alkaline soup, alongside the tiny creatures that feed in the evil-smelling mud. There is an exceptional bird that relishes this environment – the flamingo. Shimmering pink multitudes of more than a million flamingoes often cover the lake surface while they feed on algae or tiny organisms.
The Maasai cattle-herding nomads of Tanzania and Kenya believe that their god, Engai, thunders at its cratered summit. One of the central figures of their religion is an Eve-like figure called Naiteru-kop. She was the first Mother and lived in paradise with many children but no male partner. She often gazed in rapture at the moon, and one-day Emgai asked her to choose between the day Engai asked her to choose between the moon’s survival and the survival of one of her children, and she chose to keep the moon. In this way, the first mother created human mortality.
Traditionally, the Masai measure a man’s wealth and status by the size of his cattle herd. The Masai eat meat, but rarely their cattle, except on ritual occasions. The humpback zebu cattle are kept for their milk and blood- drawn through a reed from the jugular vein of a living animal and drunk while still warm, or mixed with milk and stored in grounds their strength – their warriors were once lords of all the grazing lands in and around the Rift Valley.
Some Maasai still follows a wandering lifestyle, herding their cattle to the best grazing according to the season. But advances in medicine have resulted in a large population increase. Now pasturelands are over grassed and many Masai have drifted into the towns.
In the time of drought, Maasai herders have for centuries made a pilgrimage through the parched, ash-grey landscape to the base of Ol Doinyo Lengai to pray for rain. ‘Eng Kare! Eng Kare!’ is their eternal plea to Engai for water to restore the grass for their starving cattle.