Posted from Arusha, Tanzania
We had reached a flat, higher part of the valley east and north of the Ngorongoro Crater when the clouds broke up enough to reveal Ol Doinyo Lengai. There's grass there instead of just shrubs and it supports herds of zebra, gazelles and wildebeest, as well as cows, donkeys, sheep and the Maasai who herd them. The loose gravel grabbed our tires and misdirected them. To pedal was exhausting. To walk through the gray stone, flecked with sparkling volcanic residue, too slow. We stopped for lunch, peanut butter and jelly under a small thorn tree, the only shade around. Crimas towered over us and Ol Doinyo Lengai brooded in the distance, calling us closer with its outstretched arms.
A young Maasai walked up and shared our little shade, just staring at us. The wind persisted and so did she; the mountain and the Maasai watched over us until we had rested and gone.
Ol Doinyo Lengai loomed closer and closer as we continued to follow directions given by Mohammed, a friendly bicyclist we met in Mtowambu (Swahili for "mosquito river"). From the turn to Gilai, Crimas is on the left and Ol Doinyo forward and to the left. Between them is a crater that we took to be "hole of the God," as Mohammed drew in my notebook. Straight ahead, at the top of the hill, a single baobab was silhouetted. We rode up ahead just to be sure of the turn and at the crest of the hill is another crater. This too could aptly be named "hole of the God." Only a couple hundred meters off the road, I ran up and took a look
It is an almost perfect circle, hundreds of feet deep. Would it be irreverant to climb down, I wondered? I didn't have the time anyway. MinWah was waiting with the bikes, and we had to find our turnoff and a place to camp.
Our group had split further. Quinn was on a safari with his visiting parents, so MinWah and I took a week to make a loop near Tanzania's most popular safari areas.
Back we went, past the baobab and down the hill. A left on a sandy dirt track took us down to the valley floor. The Maasai disappeared and our only companions were herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and a few ostriches.
Nobody brought us to that spot. We just looked at a map, got on our cycles and went. Nobody told us we could or could not camp there. Nobody even said we should or shouldn't. We're not on anybody's safari but our own and the rays reaching up over Ol Doinyo Lengai are so much sweeter for us having found it. How many before us have been so lucky to set up their tent in the shadow of the volcano to the tune of grunting wildebeest?
As it got darker still, two thunderheads, lit up from inside by lightning, marched around Ol Doinyo, but they never reached us. Maasai torches flickered on the distant hills like fireflies throughout the night.
The fear grabs you and it won't let you go, no matter which way you turn. No matter how many times you roll from your side to your back to your side again you still lie awake listening for sounds of your impending demise.
Then the inevitable: footsteps outside the tent. I lift my head and look, not willing to turn a blind eye to my doom. Whatever it is is startled and gallops quickly away; a goat or a small gazelle.
Occasionally there are voices on the road. Usually we're concerned about getting caught or molested, but now the voices have a soothing effect; others are out in the night as well.
A jeep goes by on the road. The headlights are on the tent and it slows. Maybe they'll stop and tell us we can't camp here, we must follow them into town. But it's just a trick of the road. The lights curve away and it speeds up. My secret wish for a savior fades with the engine noise.
It started with two Maasai warriors. They spotted us from the road as we finished dinner and hailed us.
"Tuna weza kuwa hapa?" MinWah asked. "Can we camp here?"
I didn't understand a lot of the following conversation (MinWah's Swahili is much better than mine). I was able to discern at one point that they wanted us to go with them rather than camp there. And I did understand the word "simba."
This was the African bush. Literally, it was almost all thorn bushes.
"Lions like where there's more grass," MinWah said. I wasn't so sure.
The Maasai herd cattle, sheep and goats. We've seen them - even at night - with their animals. They couldn't do that if there were lions, MinWah suggested.
"Yes, but what do you think those spears are for?" I thought to myself. "Those aren't just for show."
Many of the Maasai carry long spears. A foot-long spike adorns one end and a flat, feathered blade maybe twice as long tops the other. I was told a Maasai can kill a lion singlehandedly with one of these.
With the dawn, the fears fade. The rationalizations that were so ineffective in the night seem more likely. Lions don't hunt humans, and even if one came by, what would she think of our tent? The spears are probably more for rustlers or the Maasai-Chagga war than for wild animals. And our two acquaintences, who were friendly and jovial characters, who laughed and smiled in our presence, well, they could have been putting us on.
Better to wonder than to see a silent feline shadow pass between the door of the tent and the stars and know for sure.