Then, in July 2007, we took a trip with friends from home. The Ngorongoro Highlands hike takes place in the Maasai country behind the fabled crater. The long, arduous and always beautiful hike ends at the summit of the Mountain of God. That’s what he Maasai call it, Ol Doinyo Lengai. The peak is over ten thousand feet tall and it is an active volcano. The sheer mud and rock walls rise like an industrial smokestack, denuded and vertical. Both of my kids had already climbed it and told of the dangers and awesome views. Along with Nancy, they had both climbed Kilimanjaro as well. Kili is almost 20,000 feet at its peak.
Luke and I were to meet Nancy and Kate, along with our friends, in Arusha the day before starting the hike. On the way up the Rift Valley, a driver headed in the opposite direction lost control of his car. He came careening across the road immediately in front of us. His car raced up an earthen embankment and went airborne, landing on its roof. I was the first person to get to him.
I found him alive but wedged beneath the steering wheel. One of his legs had pushed through the floorboard of the car. Within seconds a group of Tanzanians joined me and some began issuing instructions. “We have to turn the car back over,” someone said, and instantly the crowd mobilized to flip the car. “Give me his cell phone,” another cried out. Within a minute he’d managed to get the man’s wife on his phone. They worked with partnership and confidence and soon had the guy out of the car and lying on the grass.
I went back to the car marveling at the display of courage and compassion. Their lack of institutional support has created a beautiful network of interpersonal support.
Luke and I continued up the road to our restaurant meet-up in Arusha. As we approached our group’s table, I felt my foot miss a step. I managed to keep upright only by grabbing the back of a nearby chair. The waiter going by me with a tray of glasses grabbed hold of a chair at the same moment. It took me a second to realize that the water jumping in the glasses reflected the trembling of the ground. “Earthquake?” I asked him. He smiled and nodded. “Get them often?” He responded that was the first one he’d ever felt.
The first was followed by a series of rolling aftershocks. The radio reported that the Mountain of the Gods, Lengai, was erupting. There was talk of shutting down the Ngorongoro Crater National Park. But Nancy insisted that we were still hiking and I agreed it didn’t hurt to go on out there and have a look. The Park is actually a ‘conservation area’. It includes a controlled-access game reserve at its cratered center. Unlike other game parks in Tanzania, the conservation area is home to both human and animals. And its boundaries are not fixed by a fence. As a result, no one was there to say the area was closed to hikers. We set out, as planned, the following day. The first hike was twenty kilometers across the Ngorongoro highlands. It ended on a mountain overlooking the smoking stack of Lengai.
Our friends were duly anxious as we approached the rumbling, smoking mount. When evening fell, they let us know they had made a family decision to turn back. I asked them to think about dangers involved with heading back at night. I urged them to sit it out in the shadow of the volcano. They were reluctant, but agreed to wait for daylight before trekking back.
I told Nancy what they had decided when I got back to our tent. She immediately lit in about what chicken-shits are travelling companions were. The moment she said it, an earthquake struck so hard it landed Nancy on her ass. I told her I took that as a bit of a sign and she finally gave in. We wouldn’t complete that spectacular hike until the following year. Here’s what Wikipedia says about that week:
“Volcanic activity in the mountain caused daily earth tremors in Kenya and Tanzania from 12 July 2007 until 18 July 2007 at 8.30pm in Nairobi. The strongest tremor measured 6.0 on the Richter scale. Geologists suspected that the sudden increase of tremors was indicative of the movement of magma through the Ol Doinyo Lengai. The volcano erupted on 4 September 2007, sending a plume of ash and steam at least 18 kilometers (11 mi) downwind and covering the north and west flanks in fresh lava flows.”