Trekking through the Moonscape: My Hike around Ol Doinyo Lengai after the Eruptions

Written by Thomson Safaris

As 2016 comes to a close, we want to take some time to recognize longtime friends of Thomson who have traveled with us years back. In 2009, Thomson Safaris guest Helen Parrish explored Tanzania on the Tanzania Trekking Safari, a trip that combines extensive hiking with a classic safari experience. Today, her memories of the trip are as sharp and vivid as they were just days following her adventure. Here, she reflected on her experience and discussed her exploration of the Great Rift Valley and Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano following a devastating eruption.

aerial view of Ol Doinyo Lengai and the Great Rift ValleyAerial view of the Great Rift Valley and Ol Doinyo Lengai topped with white lava.

I did not want to drive by Africa – I wanted to get out and touch it. When I was told I would get that hands-on experience on the Tanzania Trekking Safari, I was immediately sold. I was most looking forward to walking past the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano and seeing how the surroundings were affected by the recent eruption. No amount of explanation could have prepared me for what I witnessed.

Like kids getting ready for a snow day

On the morning of our hike, our guide Leonard started by checking our feet before we set out for the day. He did not like the spats I had on, so he dug through his supplies for “better ones,” and put them on us himself. We felt like little kids getting ready for a snow day.

Despite the fact that our camp had ash in it, none of us were expecting the gray, barren moonscape of the Great Rift Valley until we came face-to-face with it.

hiking in Tanzania's Great Rift ValleyAsh or sand? Out of context, it might be hard to differentiate. 

Walking on the moon

Believe it or not, the photos failed to fully capture the sense of other-worldliness. The landscape was absolutely devastated by the ash, and most of the vegetation was dead. The wind was blowing hard and the morning was quite chilly. Still, the sun could not have been brighter.

The ash was fine, like silt, and the wind swept it into drifts. Walking in it was more rigorous because it was deep, almost like walking in sand. We embraced the added challenge and continued on excitedly, talking about the landscape and asking questions.

hiking in the shadow of Ol Doinyo LengaiTrekking in the shadow of Ol Doinyo Lengai (on the right).


Great Rift Valley after the Ol Doinyo Lengai eruptionThis was, in my opinion, the most dramatic photo of the barren landscape.

What we learned

As we walked along, Leonard, to the extent that we could hear him through the wind, explained that Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only active volcano in the world that spits out carbonate ash and lava instead of silicate. Before the eruptions began, there were so many earthquakes that the lions left Ngorongoro. Soon after, the government had moved out many Maasai and cattle to keep them safe from the impending disaster.

We learned a lot from Leonard and laughed with him throughout our trip. He doesn’t just guide – he plans and anticipates problems that could impact his charges, always with an eye for solving them before we know they had happened.

Then and now: The Great Rift Valley in 2016

Great Rift Valley hike before and after Lengai eruptionsThe landscape has come a long way in a matter of 7 years.


Hike through Great Rift Valley photos before and after Ol Doinyo Lengai eruptionsGrass now covers the once bare mountains.

Since the eruptions in 2009, the land surrounding Ol Doinyo Lengai has recovered quite a bit. Lush, green grass now covers the endless plains, making it possible for cattle and other wildlife to graze. Life and color have returned to the area, as evident in the more recent photos.

We felt a real sense of adventure and camaraderie in 2009 when we trekked through the barren region, and the landscape enhanced that sense. I would not trade the experience of doing that with those folks for anything.


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