By CHANTAL COOKE
I am standing on the side of a giant crater. If I hadn’t just been informed otherwise I’d fancy that a huge meteor, in our distant past, had crashed into the land here, flattening the earth below and pushing debris into a ring around the core of the impact.
In reality it’s nothing quite so fanciful – but it is just as incredible. This huge crater is a ‘tuff ring’ – in other words it’s the remnants of a volcanic cone that has exploded and blown itself up; leaving just a crater and its steep, bare sides.
There are plenty of these craters in the area around Lake Natron and the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania – making it the perfect place to study volcanoes and their impact upon the landscape. Very few people live here (it’s one of the hottest places in the country and is harsh and inhospitable) and it’s hardly been changed by man since it was formed over a million years ago.
Ol Doinyo Lengai means “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language. The volcano is still active and is unusual in that it produces carbonatite (rather than silicate) lava. This lava dries a white/grey colour – giving the volcano the appearance of sporting a snow cap.
I’ve joined leading volcanologist Dr Ben Beeckmans and students from the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha, for a ‘volcano safari’. We’re not here to admire Africa’s wildlife (beautiful as it is) but to learn about volcanoes: shield and strato volcanoes; stratocones, spatter cones, tuff cones, and cinder cones; igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks; and the dangers that the volcanoes of the Arusha region of Tanzania may pose to the people living there.
Dr Beeckmans is keen to see seismic stations built on the sides of active volcanoes in the area, in particular Mt Meru. This is of specific concern as thousands of people live around the mountain in the town of Arusha – which is also a major tourist hub for those doing the safari trail of northern Tanzania.
Although the volcano is not showing any signs of erupting soon, it is inevitable that it will at some point (although no one knows when). A seismic station would give the local people enough warning to save thousands of lives.
Dr Beeckmans is passionate about volcanoes – and about science in general. So much so that he has founded Ecoscience; a luxury lodge and science centre near the Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.
Ecoscience is designed to allow scientists and students to work in the field and further their research and studies. The science centre is independent from the luxury lodge and offers comfortable tented accommodation with desks and wifi, as well as a large tent for lectures and meetings. It’s a unique concept.
The luxury lodge sits alongside the science centre and helps to support its work. Guests stay in cottages inspired by the round designs of the Masai huts. There is a relaxing lounge and restaurant with low slung sofas, a grand piano and spectacular views across the savannah. In fact every room at the lodge has an unimpeded view of the plains and hills beyond. There is no sign of human activity for miles around – quite a tonic after the frenetic buzz of Arusha.
Sitting on your raised terrace, outside your cottage, you can watch the birds flitting among the bushes and low trees, and the occasional mammalian visitor to the water hole, dug just a few metres from the edge of the site.
A short hike from the lodge will take you up a rocky outcrop offering 360 degree views of the savannah, with the mountains disappearing in the hazy distance.
I’d also recommend an early morning game drive; elephants, zebras, waterbucks, hyenas, giraffes and an ostrich were among the many wildlife sights before breakfast.
A few days at Ecoscience, with its colonial style luxury and European cuisine, will give you the chance to relax in a place that really is, genuinely, away from it all.
About the Author:
Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency – Panpathic Communications.