This is a journey of a “thousand” miles and it took me ten days to settle emotions and write it down.
It is 2:45AM at the base of Oldoinyo Lenkai, one of the few active volcanoes in East Africa but also the spiritual home of the Maasai people. It is called the Mountain of God, a spiritual place where our people pilgrimaged during times of difficulty, to make sacrifices and plead with Enkai (God) to remember mercy. Such an event took place a few months ago.
We stood at the base, six of us, including Lemurra ole Kingi, our Tanzanian guide, who lives 15kms from here and Solomon Lekui, also Tanzanian friend who drove us from the Namanga border crossing. The rest of us were Kenyans – all of us with our burdens of spiritual and physical expectations.
The guide, I and Tete Kisenya (an engineer with Nokia), were the only experienced hikers. We also have with us Nase Kelel, a friend who runs an NGO in Narok and Nelson Ole Reyia, a charming fellow, and proprietor of Oldarpoi Camp in Maasai Mara.
The breeze was cool, not cold, really nice and felt great on the skin as we walked, tall grass scratching my hands, itchy and I put them in the pockets. The first two kilometres were easy and we were in a great mood – friends among friends, the jokes endless.
Lemurra, the guide led us in a single line, insisting that we must follow one another. His space, his short steady legs told a story – strong, agile, and experienced.
Characteristic of the Maasai, music came along the way. We sang warrior songs, Lekui mostly creating verses that fit the moment, Ole Reyia singing along, nudging the talkative soloist. It was motivating, we were having fun.
Trouble – Nase’s shoes were too heavy for her. I thought so. She changed shoes after the guide’s wife earlier advised that Nase’s beautiful shoes won’t survive the mountain. Shoe swap – Nase took the guide’s shoes and we hit the road again.
The climb is getting steeper and our music and jokes got better as we slipped and held onto our walking sticks. On both sides of the trail were deep and dark crevices.
“If you get lost here, fall into one of these valleys, no one will find you, Not even helicopters,” the guide had earlier warned.
We must stick to one line, follow one another’s steps. It was a comfortable pace – the climb was getting hard and there were no more gentle drops that help one to catch up energy or breathe.
Lemurra and Nase were at the front – they were having conversations about pain here and there but the guide had this way with words, encouraging words that kept the lady moving.
Our pace started to slow down as the mountain got steeper. I looked up and was shocked – it was almost at 60+ degrees steep and there was no other way up but a straight path. We trudged on, a slow under a kilometer per hour on a very irregular surface, lots of slipping and scrambling. But we still sang and laughed at ourselves.
Water, snacks and energy drinks here and there. Ole Reyia and Lekui were strong – actually very strong, a little reckless too and excited to get to the top.
Lekui turned out to be the surprise since we had ambushed him to climb and I still remember the horror on his face. But he is a child of the savannah, grew up a herdsboy, he can survive any challenge.
I enjoyed walking from behind, loved the moonlight and the breeze – I needed a slow pace for my knee that got injured during a run a few weeks ago, not forgetting my primary goal here of prayer and submission.
It was approaching morning dawn and the moon was behind us, no longer bright but a gloomy orange. We were at what they call Sakafu in Kiswahili – an area of bare solid rock and just ahead of it is what they call “Goal,” a kind of entrance where two huge pillars give way to the peak of the mountain. From here, Sulphur from the volcano hit our nostrils.
We have, without mentioning, ceded the ambition of getting to the summit at sunrise. Our pace was too slow and we focused on getting there without breaking bones or leaving anyone behind. Several team members were on their fours – climbing up by any means possible. The guide was excellent, unbelievably encouraging and it seemed he had everyone at his beckon. The feet were in pain, shoes misbehaving but the spirit of the hikers was strong.
I looked back at how far we have come and it just hit me that this is a beast of a mountain! It is literally a wall, straight up with no switchbacks or flat spots like most mountains. If the climb is this crazy, how on earth are going to come down? Tete, the elite mountaineer among us was probably thinking of the same as she walked a few yards ahead of me.
Our music had by now died out at the shock of how to get to the summit past the “Goal.” The sun was up, shedding magical light to the Great Rift Valley behind us. The shadow of the whole mountain was reflected at the valley. I have never seen a such a beautiful scenery.
We got past the Goal at 7:00 AM only realise that there is still one massive wall to climb, steeper than We were walking past vents that emitted smoke. The summit was about 50 meters but it took us an hour and a half to climb.
We got to the summit at 8:30Am! The summit gives you a magnificent view of the crater to the east, Lake Natron to the north as well as the incredible steep descends to the south. It is windy and cold. Mt Gelai and Ketumpeine sat quietly in the near horizons.
The smell of Sulphur is strong. The mountain rumbled loudly in intervals, hot magma blurting from two vents in the crater. We froze to watch in amazement, the wind and cold beating against our faces. Surreal feeling!
This is the moment that we have been waiting for and all of us had this epiphany – generations of our people have been here. It is here, during difficult times that our forefathers and mothers met the spirit of God. I suddenly came face to face with the spirit my paternal grandmother, the first Christian in our family, who told me stories about her experiences here.
We walked on the rim of the crater, holy grounds, each one of us meditating differently. The rumble from the crater is mind-boggling as it pushed hot magma out of the vents. It will keep doing this for an average of 20 years until the magma fills the whole crater, then it will explode like it did in 2008.
We started the descend – a very tough one. From the start Ole Reyia realized that his beautiful shoes had lost grip – they were now slippery and dangerous. They swapped shoes with the guide though not quite the right fit.
Our energies were up going down and started jokes on how everyone was descending either on their fours, walking or on their bottoms. The “googlers” were the famous ones – the ones that went down on their bottoms and when they got up, the dust on their behinds resembled the two circles on the Google logo!
The descend tested our physical strengths to the limit. Every step going down on the rocks or soft volcanic soil took everything that we got. There were many slips and falls but we never stopped moving. Just as we climbed to the surface, we must get down – there is no other way. Your prayer and mental strength become the only weapons that you have against the mountain, your tired body, and the hot sun.
It was hot and we were all really tired and running out of drinking water as well. We took a lot of breaks along the way. This mountain has no vegetation cover and we could see our destination down there but getting there looks like a mirage.
“I am walking like a zombie,” Ole Reyia told me as I took stopped to look around, appreciate the beauty of the valleys below. Yes, the man has taken a real beating…his shoes were no good for him too but I was not in a better shape but told him that we keep walking.
By the time we all got to the vehicle, it was 11 hours and almost 5pm. It was a huge relief, a tremendous sense of achievement as we looked back at the mountain behind us.
Oldoinyo Lenkai is one of the toughest mountains to climb in Africa. You need a good guide as well as physical and mental strength. We arrived at Worldview Camp at Engare Sero for the night, with our sore bodies but the cold beer never tasted so good!