We grin for the obligatory group photo, all smiles of anticipation for the great journey ahead. Our little trekking group of 5 only formed the previous evening as we stayed the night at Green Rinjani’s. That was the company we’d entrusted ourselves to, to get us safely up and back down the 3,726 metre-high Mount Rinjani, an active volcano on Indonesia’s Lombok island. Unfortunately the water didn’t work at their hotel so I’m starting the trek already feeling dirty, having not been able to shower that morning…ah well, looks as though I’ll have to grin and bear being a bit grimy for the next few days! Shame we skipped the chance to swim in the waterfall that we walked to when we arrived at Green Rinjani, yesterday…
I’m the only girl on the trip! Luckily, Chris and I climbed Merapi 10 days before with James, the Welshman, so I already know I can keep up with him. As for Emilio, the American, and David, the Aussie, we’ll have to see as we go…. Remember, no pressure, “the race is long, but in the end, it’s only with yourself!” Yes, cheesy, I know.
Walking pole in hand, and 22 litre backpack on (full to the brim but luckily holding everything I need), I set off, walking slowly up the rambling hills. By this point, we’re all raring to go, after the 2 hour bumpy transfer from Senaru to Sembalun.This is nice! Lush and green… I feel like Julie Andrews, and the hills are indeed alive with the sound of music, as bird tweets fill the cool air. We pass a herd of cows whose bells ring out across the fields.
“You came at the best time of year”, Macho informs us. “In summer it’s too hot and there are too many people. It smells bad from the cows that die on the side of the paths”.
Lovely. I’m taken back to dead camels I’ve seen rotting in the Egyptian desert. The stench was pretty yucky, to say the least. I’m pleased we happen to have turned up at the start of the season in April. Nothing to do with our planning, just the luck of when we happened to be here.
After an easy morning walking through rice paddies, we stop for lunch – an impressive chicken and rice dish, complete with tomato garnish and prawn crackers. Our accomplished porters and guide cook for us whilst we sit back with a game of cards…manageable so far! All guides and porters puff away on cigarettes at break time without fail. How can they do that and at the same time keep so fit as they leap up the mountain with ease?!
The afternoon trek is a little different to the morning. The rice fields fall away as steep hills take over. I start to appreciate the walking stick and lean on it as I haul myself up grassy mounds. We stop for a quick break part way up which is lucky, as my heart’s getting close to leaping out of my chest. It’s not quite the relaxing break I’d hoped for, though. We sit at a rest stop and I turn around to see a huge macaque rifling through a bin behind me. It looks up and we stare directly at each other for a few seconds. Oh no! Look away! I quickly turn away and then glimpse back just to check the beast isn’t about to launch at me, having taken my stare as a sign of aggression. Luckily, it’s continuing to rifle through the bin. Finding a huge bunch of rotting bananas, it jumps off and one of its buddies takes up the prized bin position. These monkeys don’t seem to have got the hang of jumping on people’s bags yet, luckily for us.
After the break we continue huffing our way up the ever-steepening mountain. At about 4 in the afternoon, we all celebrate making it to the Sembalun crater rim. That wasn’t too bad! I guess the worst is yet to come, with the dredded summit climb. Chris and I take in the view of the lake from our camp as our porters pitch our tents. These guys have it up in a couple of minutes and make it to camp well before we arrive. I marvel at how they manage to go so quickly whilst each carrying thirty kilos in double bamboo baskets, balanced on a stick across their shoulders. Our guide, Macho, has instructed the porters to put the tents up on the highest ridge, so not only are we the only people in that area (no one to share our toilet) but we’re also the closest to the start of the summit walk. Our other three lads have to camp with the rest of the trekkers just below us and use the grimy communal loos, as the other guide had already put their tents there.
Already, the sun has started to go down. I take a few photos of the pink sky and we enjoy another hearty dinner along with a sweet Bintang…. We may be in tents with a hole-in- the-ground portaloo, but the porters still have beer and chocolate for us! I don’t feel any different with the 2,639 metre altitude, but I drink an electrolyte sachet for good measure.
Hundreds of stars have just lit the dark sky when we retreat to the shelter of our tent to get some sleep before our summit climb. The 3 inch matresses and plastic foam pillow are surprisingly comfortable… I manage to get quite a bit of sleep in before my bursting bladder wakes me. Lying in the tent with no idea of the time, I’m relieved when the alarm on Chris’ watch finally goes off – even though it’s set for 1.50am. Time to climb the summit!
Huh, I wouldn’t normally be too hungry at 2 in the morning, but this cheese, egg and tomato toastie is going down a treat, I think to myself, as I wolf it down in the dark. As I’m eating, Emilio, David and James set off up the hill. They’re the first people to start that day.
“Ready to go?”, Macho asks, 20 minutes later.
“I guess so!” I swallow a couple of ibuprofen, to take the edge off the challenge to come.
I remember my walking stick at the last minute, and then start to follow Macho up the steep path in the dark, head torch lighting the space below my feet. It’s a steep climb, up slippy rocks and what feels like gravel. Chris is lagging behind a bit as he tries to avoid injuring his previously broken ankle. In the end, we swap so he can follow Macho more closely. I’m so glad we climbed Merapi beforehand, so I had some practice climbibg in the dark. My head fills with random songs as I walk…’You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’…not quite relevant. Hmmm, ‘Little donkey, little donkey, on a dusty road. Gotta keep up, gotta get going, with your heavy load’… That’s more like it!
We’ve been going around 2 hours when the climb becomes easier, but we’re walking on a very narrow path with steep edges either side. Suddenly, the path becomes very steep again, the steepest it has been. And now the path is made up of just loose rocks and sand. This is the part everyone warned about, but we’ve already got most of the way and I’m not about to give up now! Up ahead, I can see torch lights and before long we’ve caught up with the other guys. Blimey, Chris is somehow now whistling off ahead of me with Emilio!
“How long until sunrise, Macho?”
“40 minutes…. Only 20 more minutes climbing to go”.
Well then, I’m not going to rush….nice and slow. The wind is now biting but I look down and become distracted by all of the lights I can see from a town, a world away.
I slowly make my way near to the top of the slope with the help of my trusted walking stick, and overtake David and James on the way. I shelter with our guides, Emilio, and Chris, behind a large rock, just below the actual summit peak. I put my rain jacket on over my thermal top. I’m already wearing my hat and gloves, and I can even feel the cold when I’m moving. We all shake our hands to keep them warm as David and James make it to the to where we are. We’ve made it before sunrise and are the first group up – woo hoo!
As the sun starts to show through the clouds, we decide it’s finally time to emerge from the safety of the rock. Together, our group climbs the last few meters to the very highest peak of Mount Rinjani. Wow!! I can’t help but gasp as the view takes my breath away. I’ve never seen anything like it! Bright orange light pierces cloud on the horizon. Dozens of mini, fluffy cloudballs sit below us, just out of reach. Unlike Merapi this is the real peak. Step more than a metre in any direction and you’d be in the clouds themselves… We highfive each other and I pull my camera out to take photos. They come out well but obviously can’t compare to seeing the real thing. After a couple of minutes, I can no longer feel my fingers. Macho wasn’t kidding when he said the rock we rested behind was sheltered! I put the camera away and my glove back on. I try to talk and smile but by this point I’m struggling to move my lips… I decide it’s time to head back down.
As we start to go back down the mountain, other people pass us on their way to the summit. I spot a girl in just a thin hoodie with no coat, hat or gloves. She looks close to tears but I offer words of encouragement. She’s nearly there! The first part of the descent is much easier than going up as we slide down the sand. Once again, Chris and Emilio are shooting off, and I’m followed by David and James. As we approach the final section, I can see we’ve climbed up slippy dirt paths with dry volcanic rock rivers. It’s tough work and Chris and I both take our time. I preferred climbing up to this!
Back on safe ground at our tent, yummy banana pancakes, toast and eggs await…yay! We say goodbye here to David, James and Emilio, as they head back down to Sembalun and finish their trip. Chris and I have 2 extra days and are off to get a close up view of the immense lake.
I remember Ariee, the manager at Green Rinjani, saying that the climb down to the lake from Sembalun was steep. Actually though, this isn’t too bad! There are lots of solid rocks to stand on, and even stairs to walk down. Before long, the three hours are up and we’re wading through the gorgeous lake to our camping spot. Beautiful, if a little chilly with the wind! The lake is huge and we have a great view of the volcanon itself, perching on the opposite side of the water.
“Would you like to try some fishing?”
Hell yes, I would! I take the stick rod from Macho and flick the hook into the water. Within a couple of minutes, I get a tug on the rod and pull it out of of the water. A fish!! “Aaah!”
I lose myself in my excitement of having actually caught a fish so quickly. The fish swings back and forth as I shake the rod, before I get a hold of myself and pull it in. It’s dark body writhes and the orange stripe on its back shines. Macho quickly takes it off the hook and tosses it to the ground. Before long, our porters collect it and add it to their pile. On a roll, Chris and I attempt to catch more fish, but sadly none of them take the hook, although they do manage to take the bait, crafty things. No matter… Our guide and porter have already caught enough for all of us. We enjoy fish supper… It’s surprisingly good, if a bit lacking in flesh. As the porters bring dinner to us we take the opportunity to have a quick chat. They speak some English and are nice enough, but it feels a little odd that they carry our tents and food, bring our dinners, and we haven’t even been introduced. I try to at least break down a small bit of the barrier by asking their names and saying hello.
After dinner we retreat to our tent. No sooner has it gone dark, a long howl piereces the night. And it’s close. So close… The next thing I know, I can feel something brush past the tent as it runs by.
“Awooooooo. Aooooaaooo.” The howling continues. Wild dogs…. But any concern I have quickly gives in to fatigue. I fall into a long and comfortable sleep.
I wake up to the sound of what could be a thousand birds. Thankfully, the wild dogs seem to have gone. The weather is still cool so we enjoy breakfast (banana fritters!) in our tent. A couple of other British trekkers we keep seeing walk by as I’m having another unlucky attempt at fishing.
“Have you been to the hot springs?”
“No, we thought they weren’t hot yet, this time of year.”
“You have to go. It’s sooo hot I had to move out from underneath the main steam!”
Right…. “Macho, can we go to the hot springs please? They’re already warm!”
Half an hour later and we’re off. Yay! A huge waterfall pours over the rocks. Pools at the bottom gather fresh water. In ten seconds I whip my clothes off to reveal my bikini top and shorts, and climb in. Chris is just as happy to see the hot water as I am and we sit below the metal pipe that the water gushes out of. Lush shampoo bar at the ready, I lather up and scrub my hair. Finally, my hair will flow freely again and not stay up as though it’s in a ponytail made out of cardboard, even after I’ve taken my real ponytail down! The water does smell a bit sulphur-y, but that’s the least of my worries right now!
After a deep scrubbing we dry off and head back to camp for a mammoth lunch. Chips, omelette, rice, noodle curry and fruit…. I’m not sure how I put it all away but I’m pretty sure it’s the largest meal I’ve ever eaten (of course, meals with chocolate desert don’t count…I have a special pudding valve for those).
Back to the crater rim
Lunch over, we set off on our third day of walking. I feel slightly sick at this point, but soldier on. Oof, the climb is steep! But then, what did I expect, having to walk from the lake back up the other side, to the Senaru crater rim? Guess I was hoping for an easy ride having done the most difficult part of reaching the summit. Thank goodness we came down via Sembalun and are going up to Senaru. The steep, slippy paths would have been much harder to climb down! At least going up I’m less likely to slip. Ow…I walk straight into a branch stubb that’s sticking out of the cliff and it jabs into my thigh. That’ll be a nice bruise for later. And great, it’s starting to rain…only a few drops. Please don’t rain hard!
Phew, the path evens out so we’re walking on a flat section. It’s a pretty thin walkway, which drops off down the steep slope on one side. But the view we have of the lake is great. Time for some more photos? As porters overtake us on the trail I’m humbled again by how they manage to carry their loaded baskets with ease, when I wouldn’t even manage to hold an empty basket and climb without holding onto the rocks.
After 2 hours climbing, we make it to the crater rim. It’s too cloudy to see across to Bali and the towering Mount Agung today but at least the rain has stopped.
“Aargh!”, exclaims Macho, “I just helped clear this up last week!”
I look around and survey the rubbish he’s grimacing at. Crisp, noodle and biscuit packets litter the open clearing. This is the first large amount of litter I’ve seen since we started. Macho explains that he volunteered as part of a clean up team the week before, just before the season started.
“The rubbish gets worse throughout the season as more people come. But it’s mainly the guides that leave it here. They don’t care about how litter can affect the mountain. ”
Huh…all the more reason to be glad we paid for one of the reputable tour companies then, that states in advance that they bring all litter back with them. Macho and our porters even stop to pick up extra along the way. Good on them!
Having had a quick rest at the cloudy Senaru rim, we make our way 1 hour down the other side. The rocky rim area soon turns into ever-thickening forest. It’s a bit slippy, but not too bad. We make it to our campsite in one piece. Of course, our super-human porters are already there with our tents up in the middle of the woodland clearing. They have a fire going for dinner, and before long we’re tucking into some more delicious food (chicken sate, my favourite!) and a Bintang. Luckily, there are no howling noises in the night this time, even though we are warned to keep our shoes inside the tent, lest the dogs fancy a new chewing toy!
In the morning when we wake up, macaques are jumping through the trees around our camp, pretending to munch on berries whilst secretly eyeing up our breakfast. No matter, we eat in the tent anyway to avoid the drizzle. I’m sure there’ll be down to see what leftovers there are when we’ve gone.
The final morning of walking is tough. My ever-tiring legs seem to refuse to act quite how I want them to (even pushing on my thighs is sore). There are no views at this point and although I normally like walking through forest, the tree roots can’t be competely trusted to give me grip. They’re damp from the drizzle, and the path is steep. More than once my feet skid underneath my weight, but each tome in the first couple of hours I luckily regain my balance. I can keep up with Macho and Chris, but the speed feels more like racing than having a nice forest walk. I didn’t realise we were training for Macho’s yearly race!
I’m relieved when we stop for a break at one of the resting posts. That is, until a puppy comes up and licks my knee. Aaargh, rabies alert! It’s only a puppy, I tell myself, and it doesn’t look very rabies infected…. Does it show quickly? At least it’s only a small lick. In reality I barely felt it. I’m sure I’ll be fine, but I rub some disinfectant handwash on it for good measure.
The final hour of the climb becomes less foresty but the path is still steep, offering little grip. At one point my feet do slide out from underneath me completely and I drop ungracefully to the floor. It doesn’t hurt, but it may explain the odd black bruise that shows up on my rear end later… We reach a sign marking the Senaru entrance. We made it! Oh, not quite… A few more minutes to go. When will it end?! After what seems like forever walking further and further down a path, we arrive at the Rinjani park office.
“OK, we wait here for the car to pick us up”, says Macho, nonchalantly.
Huh… That’s it? I was expecting to walk all the way to Green Rinjani, see the building from a distance and joyfully stride towards it (with a load of staff clapping to mark our amazing feat and survival, of course!) Well, Chris and I are both relieved to have made it back safely in one piece anyway.
It’s with mixed feelings that I come to the end of our journey. I’ll be pleased to return to a nice hotel but I’ve enjoyed being out in the wilderness. No emails, no tasks to do but keep putting one foot in front of the other… Maybe I could keep this up for a few more days! But then I remember that would involve sleeping in a tent, rolling from side to side as my knees throb away…Then again, maybe not. Quit while you’re ahead, I say!
And finally, some tips for climbing Rinjani:
– Don’t just sell out for the cheapest company… If you can, choose one that brings their own rubbish back and helps avoid the mountain being littered.
– Bring warm clothes including a waterproof jacket, hat and thick gloves. Even if the weather is boiling at sea level, it’s not at the summit.
– Wear decent shoes… Although we saw lots of people slipping up the hill in pumps.
– You don’t really need to take snacks. We took chocolate and didn’t even manage to eat it all, which for me, is a huge deal.
– Bring a good head torch. It could be the difference between you making it up to the top of the summit and not, in the dark.
– Ask your guide about borrowing a walking pole… It can make the whole thing a lot easier on the old knees.
– Personally, I preferred hiking up the Sembalun side than going back down the Senaru side. It’s more picturesque, so if you do just go up and back one way, then bear that in mind. Although do remember that most companies are based in Senaru, so to start at Sembalun the tour involves a 1hr30 drive.
– Have fun! Enjoy the views and the company, on a once in a lifetime experience!