Wild camping in Mt Longonot volcanic crater
While visiting Lake Naivasha recently, I woke up one morning and decided to go camping at Mt Longonot. However, as with any Africa overland travel this was to be an entirely unexpected adventure, for I had taken my tent with expectations of hiking to the crater rim but had no idea I would end up wild camping in Mt Longonot crater itself.
I knew it was possible to wild camp around it, I knew there was an extinct volcano on which you could climb the rim, I knew at the bottom of the crater there was a dark forest with buffalo, leopard and more. I just had no idea a guide would be willing to take someone inside to wild camp in the forest overnight.
He mentioned those words so many times, I began to have second thoughts – leopard, python and buffalo, but the opportunity seemed too ridiculous to turn down.
What a thought that myself and Gabriel would be the only two people sleeping wild that night in the middle of this ancient volcano in Africa.
Hiking Mt Longonot to the crater rim
Halfway into hiking Mt Longonot, I asked Gabriel to take a photograph of me posing unashamedly with the view. It was a privilege to be back overlanding Africa, standing over these plains where Masaai tribes safeguard their lands and many great lakes offer refuge to the hippo.
I often wonder why these parts are so less visited by tourists, the hike to the rim is not easy, but not hard, and the scenes on the way up are immense. Zebra and antelope grazed nearby and then meeting some fellow travellers on the way down, I remembered what we were about to do:
“Where are you going with the heavy bags?”
6 litres of water, a small kitchen, food, camera equipment, tents, a roll-mat and sleeping bag. Stupidly I carried everything I owned with me that day and would have to lug 20kg for the entire trek.
“You’re going to camp IN the crater? There are animals down there, what will you eat? how will you get out? are you absailing?”
At this point I began asking myself some similar questions before continuing upward, hiking toward the crater rim.
The first sign of fear
We would find smoke and remnants which I had read in another Africa travel blog but this was not the activity for which I was most afraid.
Reaching the crater rim was a jaw dropping moment only heightened by a thought that, the forest floor of this caldera was inhabited by animals and we were just about to descend into it.
Having encircled the edge of the crater for 30 minutes, Gabriel put down his bag and took out a cellphone:
“I will try to call my wife, there will be no signal from here”.
From this point I could not see a possible entry point and it was a very nervous feeling to know that somehow, we were standing over it.
Into the wild and an extraordinary feeling
Carrying 20kg down into the crater was a huge mistake and it made a tricky descent, very difficult. Unlike camping tours in Africa, grappling up or down a hill is not something I enjoy and with the thought of so much unknown ahead and such a majestic site in front, the way down was one of mixed emotions – It just seemed so bizarre, the entire time, to be setting foot in a volcano never-mind the fact that we would be wild camping in Longonot.
There was so much more yet to come but as we reached the bottom, I looked up at the incredible green canopy blanketing the crater floor and felt the feeling. You see, I have an obsession with finding places that make me feel a certain way and this moment, embodied that extraordinary feeling.
It was somewhere that few people would ever stand and even when we left, it would remain a cauldron of unexplored uncertainty. The remains of a buffalo were now at my feet and as I imagined his unfortunate fall from the cliffs above, the reality of wild animals returned.
Light began to fade and at this point, all we had to do was walk forward and we were home for the night.
Waiting for darkness and wild camping in Longonot
On edge having scrambled our way down and with darkness not too far away, Gabriel began hacking through the growth. He pointed to a bees nest in the rocks and said we needed to move past it quickly but carefully. It was the first moment I realized how every little thing mattered in the crater. Two years ago, a group of hikers disturbed a bees nest near the rim and two of them fell to their death – I had read about it, Gabriel had carried the bodies out.
“Everybody looks at the trees in the crater from up there and thinks it is flat underneath”
Thick and dense, we moved slowly and it was anything but flat. The heavy rains meant many trees had fallen down and climbing over or beneath them with such a heavy backpack was a strain. Rocks crumbled beneath our feet – lava rock, pure and untouched yet deceiving, as seemingly solid boulders fell away anytime we needed to climb later on. And it was not condensation coming from the bushes either, but rather the remnants of volcanic activity.
As we arrived to a clearing, I was still in awe that we were deep inside a caldera and how mystical everything appeared. In truth, it looked similar to the inside of any forest but at the same time, it seemed impossible to forget where we were. Gabriel set down his bag and began hacking at the trees for firewood – this was where we would be camping at Mt Longonot so I put up my $20 tent.
It had been an adventure already but I knew just like any bush after dark camping in Africa, it would come alive soon.
Cooking buffalo and instant noodles
You must understand, none of this was planned, we were wild camping in Longonot, an ancient volcano, but just a few hours ago, Gabriel was relaxing in the midday sun on a dirt road to Mt. Longonot.
For this reason, I assumed we would be relying on the contents of my insanely big backpack for food and so unashamedly took out two packets of instant noodles. I was wrong though, for just a few days ago, a wild buffalo was causing problems in Gabriels village and rangers decided to put it down, hence the whole village would have the luxury of meat for a week.
I cooked the noodles on a stove, Gabriel boiled the meat, we mixed the two together and moved closer to the fire as darkness consumed our tiny campsite in the crater.
There’s something in the darkness and opening the tent door
When Gabriel looked up at me, we had already been chatting for hours around the campfire. The moon was flickering in between the branches above and aside from crickets in the distance, there was silence.
We had both heard it and while I was unsure or unwilling to acknowledge as to what it might be, I could tell by the look on Gabriels face that he was not. After staring into the darkness for a brief moment, he looked back over the campfire in my direction and continued the conversation more quietly.
We climbed into our tents soon after but while I quickly forgot about that strange sound, it was only because Gabriel had not told me what it was.
It was an unusual sound but I was too exhausted to wonder for too long and fell back asleep. One, two, three, four, five – a different nightmare was interrupted each time by this subtle sound. When I opened my eyes it would stop and leave only the sound of my own breathing, I knew exactly where I was each time but the sound and nightmares were disturbing.
It may have lasted no more than a minute or even seconds but it was a very vulnerable feeling, distinct, primitive and unlike any other I have know. I had experienced it before while camping alone in Botswana and have long known it is as something which makes me uncomfortable. Ironically, these moments make me feel alive at the time, but then I can’t help thinking that this same feeling is also the primal fear and imminence of death when it happens.
It was 4am and I had regrets for drinking so much water at the campfire. It took a few minutes building up to opening the tent door, first sticking my head through the gap and then standing up. And there it was – nothing, only a still dark forest and an Irishman shivering in his Tommy Hilfiger underwear.
It took 4 hours to cross the crater floor, Gabriel marking the trail with a machete as we went. Rocks crumbled scrambling up hills, over fallen trees and through what seemed like many different scrubs. There were hot springs, without the water, and awesome glimpses of the caldera rim between the trees. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like an explorer, trekking through uncharted territory in search of the unknown.
Gabriel stopped and began pointing at a nearby tree, there were claw marks running twenty feet to the branches above. I wanted to ask but he spoke before I had the chance:
“You know, last night when we were sitting at the fire, I heard something but was afraid to tell you – It was a cub crying, a leopard, maybe for its momma”
I had heard it too but then he knew this already. We walked on and seconds later he was stopped once more looking back at me – it was animal feces, maybe a few days old.
“There is only one cat in the crater”
As we continued, I could not help but stop every few minutes to think about where we were standing and how this was truly a once in a lifetime experience,but then I was also looking at the steep caldera wall ahead, our supposed exit point, and wondering how on earth it was possible that we would make it up there.
No time for procrastinating in a volcano
In many ways this adventure was similar to the past few years working in the travel industry, for there was never any blueprint for what I wanted to do and the journey to make it this far was always unplanned and infused with the worries for what might happen.
All week my eyes had been glued to a laptop and now I was climbing the rock face of a volcanic crater. It was a new experience, exhausting and terrifying but with Gabriel Kahinga telling me “Don’t be afraid, don’t panic, you can do it Derek”, we finally reached the rim where I collapsed in front of a bewildered group of Italian tourists.
On the crater rim we celebrated by eating cornflakes with powdered milk and I smiled knowing that this amazing guide and this immensely difficult climb had inadvertently told me I was right to come back to Africa, to lead trips myself and help other people find their new experiences.
However, while a work environment in this part of the world may seem very different to the one in which you are now reading, the same issues still apply – the routine, monotony, stress and even boredom. In this sense, I want to say that the hike to Mt Longonot was not really about climbing or wildlife or volcanoes or Africa but simply to escape the routine, to find adventure in spite of the time, to spend more time doing what I love and to spend less time worrying about what could happen.
Night in the Crater Complete
Having climbed down into the crater and then wild camped on the floor of Mount Longonot last night, it took 5 hours to hack through 6km of lava rock forest and then climb back up to the crater rim on the other side. It was physically exhausting, far beyond my comfort zone and at times, very scary.
We ate buffalo at the campfire and became friends in the complete silence of an ancient caldera.