The Unforgiving Rinjani
“It looks so forbidding!” James says with his eyes deeply contemplating at the summit of Mount Rinjani, piercing the sky above the island of Lombok. From the crater rim, the afternoon sun illuminates the very top of the volcano, giving a golden hue to the almost floating pyramid above the clouds, leaving its gigantic body on earth. Cold and unforgiving.
* * *
Six hours earlier we started our hike to Indonesia’s second highest volcano, standing at 3,726 meters, anchoring Lombok amid the Lesser Sunda Islands. The smell of fresh morning grass and the fragrant scent of ripening garlic in locals’ fields boosted our spirit to kick off the long hike through savanna and rain forests. Jen is our guide, a 21-year old lad who decided to become a trekking guide instead of continuing his study to college. “Even if I graduated from the university, it would be very hard to find a job here” he reasoned.
Clear bright skies erased our worry on the weather the previous day. Walking through the vast savanna, I relied on James’ extra trekking pole to help me maneuver through the uneven dirt trails. It was a relatively easy hike until we got to the second post where the unexpected sumptuous lunch took place on a bridge overlooking a verdant narrow valley, lightening up every hiker’s mood halfway up the hike to our base camp at the crater rim.
The atmosphere was bizarrely festive amid the hike to the notoriously difficult journey to climb Mount Rinjani… until a vicious fanged creature harassed us, shaking the tree branches to show his dominance towards the other two-legged primates below. Grey long-tailed macaques roam many parts of the forests around Rinjani, but this particular alpha male clearly asserted his intention to steal our snacks. Fortunately our guide and porters know better than anyone on how to handle them.
A generous scoop of rice with fried chicken leg, stir-fried vegetables, fried tofu and tempe, fresh salad and cut pineapples truly astonished us and fellow hikers. I would never imagine having such decent meal in the middle of nowhere, let alone during a serious hike to such a venerable volcano.
Little did I know that they provided the energy I would desperately need to get to the first base camp later that afternoon.
We were about to enter the rain forests when suddenly my right foot cramped, leaving me limp for a brief second. In a senseless decision to drag my body to a nearby post to rest my feet, I made my other foot end up cramping as well. Spontaneously I dropped my body to the shrub, leaving James with questions and worry.
People are nice. So was an old porter resting nearby who jumped from his place to help and give me massage. “Forgive me,” he said politely, “my hands are dirty.” Such a humbling attitude shown by an ordinary person whose intention was only to help.
“Did you often have guests like me who got cramped along the way?” I asked Jen out of my curiosity.
“Yes, but only Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans” he explained. I chuckled.
With unfit feet, I kept walking into the rain forest with James following closely from behind. Living in a tropical country means rain forests are no strangers for me. However, hiking through one shrouded in thick clouds was something I have never done before. I drag my feet to climb the steps of dirt, rocks, and tangled tree roots, one step at a time.
“How many more hills until we get to the base camp?” I kept asking Jen until I realized that I might have asked too often which made me sound like a very spoiled city guy. At this point we have made friend with four amiable Britons, an eccentric American astrophysicist with his friend who lives in Guangzhou, a lovely Swiss couple, a solo Australian female adventurer, and two small but strong Filipinas who have conquered Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia and Mount Batur in Bali prior to their ascent to Rinjani.
While dragging the feet was such an arduous thing for me to do, the porters dashed through the hikers as if they were walking on a flat surface on the ground. Moreover, my proper and durable hiking shoes are nothing compared to their worn rubber slippers. They are truly superhumans.
After the strenuous effort to conquer the hills, we barely made it to the base camp before sunset. In front of us the clouds slowly lift up to reveal the silverish reflection of Segara Anak – the volcanic lake – below. Dewi Anjani, as some locals believe, resides in the massive crater, drawing the more spiritual Hindus from the neighboring Bali to come to the crater to present offerings to her. Meanwhile, the mighty summit of Mount Rinjani overlooks from behind, radiating the beautiful yet revered nature of the volcano.
The skies turn to some of the most exquisite colors, blanketing Mount Rinjani with sensory festivity to console the weary souls of us – the hikers, coming from four corners of the world to marvel the grandeur of this mighty giant.
And gives us energy for the hardest day of our lives the following dawn.
Under the full moon and in the cold and harsh temperature, we wake up at 2 am to grab our early breakfast, a sandwich with cheese, lettuce, tomato and ham. But my mind does not care of what my palate tastes. It is rather fixated to the silhouette of the towering natural pyramid laid before my eyes. Firm and solid.
“Let’s go!” Jen tells us to finish our meal to get ready for the ascent.
Fellow hikers with head torches on their heads walk sprightly with their trekking poles gripped firmly on their hands, marching towards the summit, a silent impromptu troupe of hooves and pants.
Thin sheets of dust fly in the air as we walk on the steep trail at the first third to the summit. Loose gravels and volcanic ash slow us down as we keep going backward after a few steps forward. My feet are still sore from the difficult hike on the previous day, and that does not help to cope with the tough terrain to reach the highest point of Lombok. James and Jen are a few metres away in front of me, regularly stop to check on me.
Upon the end of the first third of the trail to the summit I barely have any energy left to continue the ascent. Realizing that going together with James and Jen will only slow them down, I ask them to leave me and go to the summit before the sun rises. I sit back to rest and catch my breath while watching other hikers pass me by. Half an hour later, the latest group arrive, leaving no one behind them. From this vantage point I can only see a part of the crater with the trail towards the summit laid ahead of me. My feet will not be able to take me to the summit, or else I would only cause problems to the others. However, I pushed myself to walk further, down the second third of the trail to the summit through a relatively easier terrain. Alone and under the full moon.
The calm and cold ambiance strangely soothes me as I walk further. The sound of the wind, whirling vaguely around me, complementing the sound of my shoes stepping on the gravels. To my right, the moon shines brightly over one of the peaks around the crater rim, leaving Segara Anak in a complete darkness below. Meanwhile, to my left, the twinkle of the dim lamps from people’s houses in Senaru brighten up the sleepy valley.
The trail now changes into a much steeper path leading to the summit, a sign for me to halt as I have reached the beginning of the final third of the trail, only a few meters away from the summit. From afar, tiny dots of light move slowly towards the highest point of Rinjani, catching up with the time to be able to get to the summit before the first light rises from the east.
Slowly the sun rises over the neighboring island of Sumbawa, creating a tall shadow over the crater and waking up the edelweiss from the cold of the night. The outline of the island of Lombok starts to be clearly visible, with the three well-known Gilis – Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and Gili Air – at the very end of the western part of the island, together forming the stepping stones to Lombok’s more famous sister, Bali. Mount Agung – Bali’s highest point – comes out from the darkness at the west, seemingly floating above the ocean. This is why we all come here for, to witness such majestic view only very high mountains can give. Mother nature plays its light orchestra in a slow yet appeasing rhythm.
As the sun rises higher, waves of hikers start to leave the summit, down the treacherous trail. What was previously a dark path leading to the summit is now visible under the sun. Long stretches of thick loose gravels and ash proves to give another challenge to go down to the base camp. James and Jen has now returned.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” James explains with beads of sweat dropping off his face. “I even thought of giving up.”
The day is still long as we will go down the crater before lunch to see Segara Anak and go back to the other side of the crater rim before night falls. Wasting no more time, we walk fast down the very same trail that drained our energy a few hours earlier. Navigating our way in such terrain proves to be a hard thing to do as we keep falling due to the unstable soil we walk on. The camp site is in sight, but the faster we go, the more often we slip and fall.
Other hikers are resting around their tents, with the unmistakable faces of relief after the tough morning they had. In our camp, the porters have prepared a big plate of fries with a banana pancake and burger. What normally looks delicious now seems to be much less appealing after we properly scale the level of difficulty this mountain proves to have.
“Let’s pack our backpacks!” Jen tells us to prepare ourselves for the descent to Segara Anak where we will dip our feet in the cold water of the volcanic lake to relieve our strained muscles, or so we thought.
Going down the steep crater rim through the cloud zone with some nearly vertical path gives further stress to our weary feet. Carrying 10 kg (22 pounds) of luggage on our back clearly does not make things easier. We keep walking, passing through some of the most beautiful ravines studded with blooming edelweiss flowers, but it is the thought of feeling the freshness of Segara Anak that keeps me going.
Countless hills we pass through, endless meadows we go by, James’ pain after the tough hike to the summit can be clearly seen on his face. “We’re almost there” Jen boosts our spirit to keep walking towards the fresh water lake after walking for three hours. As we keep following him, suddenly the clear water of the lake emerges from behind a hill, propelling ourselves to move faster to call the descent an end.
The other hikers who get to the lake bank before us are already having their lunch, some still with wet hair after swimming in the lake. Our porters secure a place for us very close to the water, but coming closer we are discouraged to see the rubbish littering the supposedly picturesque lake.
“Who threw all of this rubbish?” I ask Jen.
“It’s the locals” he replies.
Rinjani overwhelms those who attempt to climb it to the very limit of their strength, but ironically it is engulfed in local people’s indifference to keep their own backyard clean. However, the breeze of the mountain air, the calmness of the water and the magnificent view of Mount Baru – the small active volcano – refresh our mind and body after the very hard day, so far.
The epic setting of the towering mountain peaks over the volcanic lake drew the attention of some of Indonesia’s advertisement agencies to shoot their commercials for their clients. Djarum Super – one of Indonesia’s biggest cigarette companies – had one of their TV commercials filmed here, depicting three adventurers canoeing the calm water of Segara Anak.
“How did they get the canoe up here?” I ask Jen.
“With porters, lots of them” Jen explains.
“Yamaha even plans to bring a motorcycle to the summit of Mount Rinjani for their TV commercial” he quickly adds.
As difficult to grasp as it may sound, it is indeed a ridiculous idea to bring a motorcycle through the perilous trail we took earlier this morning. But we, humans, have proved to always come up with wild ideas over the course of history.
“Do you want to go to the hot springs?” Jen asks us.
“No, let’s continue the hike to Pelawangan Senaru” we reply, pointing at the other side of the crater rim where our second base camp is located.
Walking carefully through fallen rocks scattered along the lake bank, I find the first part of the ascent very relaxing and easy compared to what I had earlier before lunch… but not for too long. A 45° trail laid before our eyes is the only way to get to our base camp where we will spend the night. As we go further down the trail, rotting logs from fallen trees often block our way. At some parts we even have to do a little bit of rock climbing due to the vertical obstacle we encounter, still with our backpacks adding more weight to lift up.
Towards halfway of the ascent my energy has literally been drained. Walking on flat path has never been harder, let alone dragging myself up the hill for hours. “Are you okay?” James keeps reassuring me. To make things worse, I accidentally hurt my left ankle from the previous descent as I kept using my left foot to support my body and the extra luggage when I went down some rocky obstacles.
It turns out to be the longest hike of my life, ever. With my depleting energy, I drag myself, one feet at a time. Finally three hours after we started the ascent, the iron rods leading to the camp sites are finally sighted, bringing a relief to me as I realize the excruciating hike is almost over. “We’re nearly there” Jen encourages me.
* * *
Strong wind shakes our tent, with a vague rumbling sound from the outside. We peek out of our tent to check on the skies before we walk to the crater rim to take some quintessential photographs of Mount Rinjani, Segara Anak, and the puffing Mount Baru before we leave this mountain in a few minutes. The breathtaking view of the summit, the new volcano and the fresh water lake with white clouds rolling over the crater rim pays off all the grueling hike we did on the previous days. Magnificent views of Mother Nature sometimes never come for free, indeed.
“The way down is a lot easier than the route we took on the first day” one of the porters assures me. “There are many tangled tree roots which make good natural staircases.”
A little past 7 am we start our final descent to the village of Senaru where we left our other baggage before we started the hike two days ago. Rocky path still proves to be a tough terrain for me to conquer as my left ankle has not recovered yet from the injury. I keep walking a few meters behind James and Jen, forcing them to stop every now and then only to check me out. The tangled tree roots do act as natural staircases but they have their drawback: dangerously slippery especially in the cloud zone.
Our lunch stop turns out to be the stop that changes everything. A hearty portion of spaghetti with chicken and bolognese sauce and a can of coke bring up my sugar level which help me boost my energy during the final leg of the ascent.. that and the fact that we are only a few kilometers away from our finish point makes me even more driven to reach the end line, soon.
I push myself to walk faster out of my reluctance to slow James and Jen down towards the end of the trip. I put aside the pain from my left ankle and focus on the trail and try to not slip my way through the roots and wet soil. Once I have gotten the rhythm to walk fast down the hill, I surprise myself with how swiftly I move from one tree root to another to maneuver through the forests. One hour later the gate to the hike to Mount Rinjani through Senaru is already in our sight, bringing an even higher excitement to us. We are nearly there.
The hike to Mount Rinjani was undoubtedly the most strenuous thing we have ever done, but in hindsight the experience truly affirms one of human’s greatest attribute which enables us to conquer the tallest peaks, the deepest oceans, and the most unimaginable places: passion. It pushes us to our physical limit, force our brain to think of ingenious creative solutions for our needs, and make our lives better everyday. It was indeed the passion of exploring new places that brought us here, to the mighty giant that is Rinjani.
As our plane flies higher to the sky, the sturdy and majestic pyramid of Mount Rinjani, too high for the morning clouds to cover, radiates the golden hue over the island of Lombok. Unforgiving, but one of the best things that Mother Nature has to offer.