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Mt. Rinjani – between heaven and hell

Mt. Rinjani, my fourth volcano this year, is by far the toughest to visit. It is Indonesia’s second highest volcano at 3,726m, and takes, at the very least, two days to summit. I signed up for a four-day/three-night trek, having been warned that it was a tough, but achievable, adventure. I know that I am a slow, cautious walker and not as fit as I should be, so I wanted to give myself as much of a chance as I could.

I’m glad I did. This trek is as much about mental stamina as about fitness. Having a positive mental attitude and the sheer force of will to put one foot in front of the other when it feels impossible to go on are essential because the whole trek is unrelentingly steep, almost from the word go.

Day one is all about climbing to the rim of the caldera in preparation for summiting Rinjani in time for sunrise the following morning. My trek (with Rudy Trekker) started from Sembulan Village at 8am. I was with a much younger, fitter couple, a guide and four porters who were carrying all the camping and cooking equipment we needed for our trek (about 35kg each). The beginning was a fairly gentle gradient although in full sun it quickly became necessary to stop regularly for water breaks. Our guide set a cracking pace, which I struggled to keep up with as the trek progressed, but was essential to get us from point to point in the end. I walked with a pole for the first time ever and truthfully found it very useful in taking the strain off my aged knees during the steeper sections. (I even resorted to two poles coming down when my knees were pretty much buggered, and they helped a lot!)

We walked steadily upwards for about 7 hours, including a lengthy lunch break at 11 in a less that scenic location. When we arrived at the rim we were greeted by a carnival of coloured tents and knackered hikers, most of whom were planning on summiting Rinjani the following morning. A few though, had already decided not to try due to the steepness of the day’s trekking, which says something about the gradient of day one and the potential gradient of day two! Our campsite was well located in a sheltered spot overlooking, so we were told, Segara Anak Lake. The only problem was that the cloud had come in and enveloped the slopes of Rinjani and its surrounding mountains so all we could manage were tantalising glimpses through the mists. Eventually a full moon came out and the skies cleared a little, magically making the tops of the mountains glow as though they were floodlit.

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We retired to bed early in an attempt to get a few hours rest before beginning the summit trek at 2am. This ascent is divided into three distinct sections: a very steep start once we had left the carnival site behind us; a steep ridge walk and then, for the last hour or so, a scramble up a relentlessly steep incline of sand, ash and loose shale where one step up could actually be two slips down and any incremental progress was a cause for celebration. This is where sheer bloody-mindedness kicked in and I literally cajoled myself up to the summit with motivational mantras, threats and a lot of swearing. I was resigned to missing the sunrise with my tortoise speed but I actually made it bang on 6am, just before the allotted time. According to the guide my speed was normal and there were still a lot of people behind me when I summited. My companions, by comparison, were cheetahs, and managed the summit at a much greater speed with seemingly no side effects.

The top of Rinjani is cold, very cold at about 1 degree, and sadly very busy with all the other trekkers we had seen at the bottom who had made it to the top. Our sunrise was hampered by low cloud again but to be honest, the glimpses we got of the lake, the Gilis and of Bali and Lombok below us, were nothing compared to the sense of achievement I felt in actually summiting a mountain nearly four times as high as Scafell Pike in the UK, and definitely four times as steep.

Of course, we had to go back down the way we had come up. Theoretically, it should be quicker as you can let gravity and the shifting shale do a lot of the work for you. But it’s easy to fall too, and a long way from help if you injure yourself. Having two walking poles definitely helped at this point but I was just a slow coming down as going up, although I was able to enjoy the views as the cloud cleared below us.

On returning to camp, we had a quick second breakfast of burger and chips before packing up and continuing our descent to the lake and our second campsite. This trail was also steep, and rocky, and my knees were starting to suffer. It was a miserable, damp, foggy walk that I completed pretty much in silence. I began to get irritated by the inane chatter of surrounding walkers, the graffiti and the incessant litter problem that Rinjani suffers from. Reputable companies bring down the litter generated by their groups and guides and porters are expected to carry down an additional bag of rubbish each as they go a long. But lots of disreputable companies also run treks here and sadly lots of locals also wander the lower trails and leave very clear, and disgusting, evidence of their visit. The campsite by the lake was one such ‘tip’ and the warm springs, part of the attraction of the lake and a great place to ease aching muscles, looked like a refugee camp with tents and litter everywhere.

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That afternoon I just put myself to bed and tried to ignore the noise and chaos that surrounded me. I ate what I could in my tent but I was so exhausted I wasn’t hungry and sleep and oblivion were much more appealing. When I surfaced the following morning I did feel more human and a dip in the best of the hot springs did ensure that I wasn’t as crippled as I could have been.

Our third day’s trek was negotiable. We could have simply walked for a few hours back up to the caldera rim and camped there with the hordes. My group, however, elected to continue down the mountain for a few more hours and camp in the rainforest, therefore removing us from the masses and reducing our final day’s trek to a few hours, rather that seven. It was as unrelentingly steep as before and although rocks and tree roots make great steps up, negotiating them going down when your knees don’t want to bend further than 90 degrees is very hard work. The trick is to use the porter paths, which might be a bit longer but usually avoid the steeper sections. They’re not always easy to see, especially when you’re already knackered from focusing on making every step as painless as possible. But they help.

Camping in the forest was lovely. There was peace and quiet, a camp fire (how many men does it take to light a fire?), beer, a lovely curry for dinner and glimpses of the sunset through the trees. Sleep came early again that night although the darkness was punctuated with unfamiliar noises, the worst of which was the dogs, used for pig hunting. One dog, we discovered in the morning, had got caught in a pig trap nearby and its pain was palpable and loud. It was alive and walking, but badly injured with the trap around its waist. It hovered around us but was uncatchable, and made its way painfully down to the forest edge with us. That simply added to the pain I was feeling on the last day. My thighs were screaming, my knees jarred and I developed a blister on one of my toes with every downward step. However, I made it to the pickup point: exhausted, grubby, bleeding and hobbling but exceedingly proud of myself.

I would say it is one of the hardest treks I’ve done and is somewhere between heaven and hell. I’m glad I did it, and I’m delighted by all my volcano adventures this summer, but I don’t think my love of Lombok will extend to repeating a visit to Rinjani.

 

 

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