At 12,224 feet, this active volcano on the tropical island of Lombok (Indonesia) was a serious hiking challenge and a chance for Queenie and I to put all our training in Taiwan’s mountains to use.
You can learn all about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Rinjani
After taking a rather thrilling ride on a fast boat from Bali, Queenie and I walked off the beach and found the trekking outfitter we were in search of within a few minutes. I told them exactly what I wanted to do: 3 days, 2 nights, going up via the savannah grassland to the crater rim, making the summit attempt the next morning, then descending to the crater lake and going up and over the other side of the lip into the rainforest.
Now, it is in the economic interest of these entities to say yes to any such request, without any questions about the fitness or preparedness of the trekkers. After all, if the clients fail to make it and turn back, the company has still made its money, so why deter anyone? Whether we could actually do it, with or without a guide to show us the way, was the question that I pondered as I fell asleep early, awaiting the 5 a.m. departure by car to the foot of the mountain.
DAY 1 – The Savannah
We had a great team, consisting of a New Zealander (who we separated with due to different itineraries) and a young Belgian couple who went all the way with us. Then we had four porters and a guide. We made our way gradually up through a dry savannah, where a recent fire had razed a long flow of grass into a river of ash. We went through the occasional copse of trees, but generally the sun was the enemy all day. Then turning steeply uphill, we could feel the air getting colder as we hauled up an increasingly steep slope until we were almost on our hands. Then we mounted the crater lip.
The safari-like feeling of trekking easily through the savannah was priceless, but jaw-dropping was the view as the clouds within the crater blew out, and I took my first look inside this hollow of the mountain (a caldera), with its blissful meadows, dramatic cliffs, placid lake, foothills, and forests out of a dream, woods that were totally out of character for Indonesia. From the crater lip, one could look outside and see in the distance the signs of mankind in the form of roads or city lights. Looking into this land cutoff from the outside, there was a pure landscape of nature un-”developed” by humans. It was an oasis of peace floating a full day’s walk into the sky, with even the reminders of civilization blocked from view by cliffs all round. Something about the land inside the crater was like the world of a video game, bordered by a sheer wall, but with various sub-locations within: mountain passes in the rocky cliffs, the vast, foggy lake, the shrubby island and volcano in the center, the pine forest on the other side, a dry, dustland of volcanic powder, and of course, an idyllic, sunny grassland with hotsprings and waterfalls. You could design a Zelda overworld just like it to scale.
DAY 2 – The Summit
Waking up at 2:30 a.m., we ate some corn flakes with milk, dressed against the bitter cold and made way for the summit at 3 a.m. The moon was so bright we didn’t even need our SureFire flashlights until much later, when the moon set and left the world truly dark until sunrise.
In silence we watched our shadows as cast by the moon on the steep, moon-like landscape of gray powder and gravel. The air in our lungs was cold, but strenuous effort soon had us so hot we were stripping the layers off. I’m proud to say I carried the backpack with all of my and Queenie’s things the whole way. Each step caused you to slide backwards, so progress was agonizingly slow. At last we spent a long, long time fighting a slope about the breadth of a sidewalk, with a sloping drop on either side that would prove fatal to fall down. Again, luck was with us, for not only was the moon so bright but the wind was very calm, only blowing a little dust into our faces.
The last 200 meters was hellish. The slope was incredibly steep, and we were on gray sand and smooth pebbles of scree. For every two feet you steeped, you seemed to slide back one and a half. The summit was in sight, as a line of headlines terminated in the blackness just above (we were one of the last parties to start and had camped farthest from the summit. I’m proud to say Queenie and I were actually passing other climbers who’d started earlier most of the way up, and this is where our conditioning really told and paid off). At the altitude, air was a little more scarce and so we often took five or six steps and then paused to catch our wind, then summoned up the effort for a few more steps. It was miserably slow going, but we battled through it and reached the summit just after sunrise, though we got a great show of light on that last slope to the top, which was better than waiting for it with shivers.
We ate chocolate chip cookies at the top, stood on the summit, and let ourselves be awed by the views. Then, with the sun up to light the way and warm our faces, we started down. Not only were we walking downhill with ease now, now we could look around and savor all the sights of that breathtaking mountain. The hard part was over, and we’d done it. Lots of people made it to the top, and they impressed me greatly. I’ve hiked ALOT and this WAS NOT easy in the least. All of us were in in various states of elation and suffering, but many who tried never got close. Queenie and I had done it very fast, and we felt exhausted, but great. We were among the lucky who had pushed ourselves hard but not overexerted ourselves to injury, strain, sickness, or threadbare levels of energy. It was a solid climb and, once over, our strength began to return nicely. We really felt all our hiking in Taiwan had paid off and allowed us to finish strong and happy. This is said by guides and tourists alike to be the hardest mountain in Indonesia, and we were warned how difficult it would be by other trekkers who’d done it the day before. The challenge didn’t disappoint. All who made it were heroes: nobody you see on the summit got there without alot of willpower, so congratulations again to all who’ve done this trek and made it. I try to imagine those who have done this before and after us without the perfect weather and conditions we enjoyed. In the rain it would be a nightmare and gusts of wind would have been a sour pestilence up there. Uninviting and fickle are high summits, harsh and not a place man can stay for long. But we all got a hard-earned dose of that calm that resides there, and a very well deserved breath of the keen air and as much beauty as our eyes could take in. Is 6 hours of hard trudging worth 15-30 minutes on a summit. ABSOLUTELY.
DAY 2 – The Lake and Hot Springs
When we got back to camp, the porters had our breakfast ready: coffee and tea, guava juice, sandwiches, fresh fruit, and other snacks. It was heavenly. Then we rested until our party assembled, and we set off down into the heart of the crater. We’d already done way more than your average day hike between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m., but we had a whole day’s hard haul ahead of us.
The way down was treacherous with rocky scrambles, where tumbles would have been most injurious, but we made it without incident down to a gorgeous meadow of grass between two cliffs and the lake. While the porters and guide got our lunch ready, we took a long, much-needed period of rest by the lake, in which we all trooped down to the natural hot springs to wash off all the dust and oil we’d accumulated. What a miracle of nature that hot spring was, as you will see.
DAY 3 – Up and Over Again
Now we had to go to the far shore of the lake and begin a climb through a totally new type of environment, with the aim of reaching camp on the crater lip by nightfall. The forest here was quite similar to the Smokies, with the same kind of trees and the same wet, white mist — a strange place to find yourself while still inside a volcano caldera. We barely made it out before sunset, but it’s amazing how far and how many hours your body can do in a day if put to the task. Looking back at the summit we’d so recently stood on from so far away with such a huge gulf of elevation between us was extremely fulfilling. Knowing we’d stood on that summit at sunrise, descended to the shore of the lake, and gone up the opposite end of Rinjani since then was perhaps the best part of our vacation.
Popping back out of that sunken land, which had seemed like a lost world, and suddenly looking at the outside again and the traces of civilization far away near the coast of Lombok was a little heartbreaking. It had been good to enjoy the world of untouched nature, high over the clouds so far away. When the sun went down, I knew I’d see the lights of the modern world again, and I did, but not before a glorious sunset over the island of Bali.
DAY 3 – The Rainforest
At last on the third day our long efforts told more heavily on us. Many trekkers in other groups had blisters, illnesses, aches, and other maladies besides exhaustion. Our muscles were starting to signal to Queenie and I that they would be having their words soon, if not after this was over then before. The stiffness took a lot more work to coax away, but soon we were moving as usual with warm legs. Getting into the jungle was nice, but it was also similar to trekking in Taiwan, and I think most everybody coming down the mountain was just ready for it all the be over. We’d hit all the highlights, and now we just wanted out. But we were still a long way from home. Stops for meals were nice, but it was a long, somewhat grueling day of 3 hour marches and brief halts. At this point, the scenery was just a leafy mass, without even a monkey to assail us and arrest our thoughts, so I, personally, went into la-la land in my mind. As I often have on long hikes, especially alone, I just tuned out and let my mind wonder down a thousand weird and random alleyways, waiting to snap of out it when a few more hours and kilometers of progress had led to some new development in the situation. I think most of us were on automatic pilot all day. At least the land, which had started its decline steeply, leveled out slowly as we progressed. At the end, our hearts sang and we walked on quick and merrily as we did the last kilometers on practically level ground in the shade. Then that wonderful mechanism of the human mind kicked in, and it was easy to wipe the dust off our hands and feel like, “Done. That wasn’t too bad.” We hopped in an awaiting van and how good it felt to sit brain-dead and exhausted in that car and watch the farmland of Lombok roll by.
We could not have been more lucky. We had no rain at all, practically a full moon every night, and the weather was an alternating mix of morale-boosting sunshine and cooling cloud-cover. We enjoyed light winds to cool us off when we were hot, but no frigid wind blowing us off the summit. The timing was truly perfect for this trek. Our team was a great match, because we all completed the marches at more-or-less the same time, arriving within a quarter hour of each other at each halt or camp. For all that, the mountain took a heavy toll on its guests, and Queenie and I had to take our game up a notch but ultimately came out very well. A day or two of stiff legs and pain when walking down stairs was all we suffered afterwards, and now we feel stronger than ever. It was humbling to see porters with 50 or more kgs on a bamboo pole over one shoulder doing steep ascents in flip-flops. Sure they took some shortcuts when we took the scenic route, and they didn’t detour up to the summit and back to camp 1, but these guys were hardcore nonetheless, though they smoked about 20 cigarettes a day and littered like madmen. Sometimes going ahead and sometimes coming up behind, they were always at camp when they needed to be and cooked up way nicer food than any hiker expects to eat on a 3 day mission. The tents and sleeping bags were good, and we were never without water.
Mount Rinjani is special, for many reasons. It is special as a unique and dramatic creation of nature that cleanses of the soul of anyone who journeys into its high, hidden valley of wonders. It’s unique for all its diversity in such a small, inaccessible place. It coats you in dust and then showers you with steamy hot water. But I’m not going to go poetically into the all my five senses got out of this journey. When I got back to civilization, I had leveled up. My mental experience and maturity, and my body had broken a plateau. Everytime I do something like this, my perspective and my priorities evolve a little. Three days gone to the mountain and you come back a little changed, ready to face whatever’s next in life, refreshed and ready to tackle full-on your next priorities. It’s like a chapter break in your story.
Rinjani is also special because of where it is and that it’s convenient to Bali. I’ve never been a person who could tolerate too much comfort for long. Eating three square meals, working, driving, and generally living a responsible modern life without being active drives me mad after about a week. I can’t go coop myself up in a resort. It’s the equivalent to eating nothing but candy and sweets for every meal and makes me sick. But if you climb Rinjani over three days of hardship, what better place to reward yourself with some chilling out than in Bali, just a boat ride away?
After we’d pushed ourselves hard and tasted the bitterness on the mountain, Queenie and I found ourselves about a day later enjoying a private thatched-roof cottage, with a Balinese outdoor bathroom and top-notch resort facilities. We ate our fill of amazing food, surfed in the mornings, laid by the pool, and generally enjoyed a good, slow-paced few days of rest the like of which can only been had on that amazing island called Bali. Going from trudging up a slope of gravel in the 4 a.m. cold, more than a day from all help and a long way from a shower — to having a lamp-lit Indonesian dinner in a garden and getting in-room massages in your private cottage was quite a sweet leap. The soul, or at least my soul, needs the strain and the challenge of hardship and the basking in comfort in equal measure. Adventure is an addiction, no mistake, but one that builds you up rather than tears you down — I feel a stronger hiker than ever, even as I’m about to turn 29. I feasted on adventure in Bali and Lombok, then I feasted on the food, comfy beds, cheap massages, and chocolate milkshakes. Adventure doesn’t steal my sweet sleep like other addictions do, it grants it to me.