Indonesia is definitely one of the most exotic places I have ever seen. When an opportunity came up to be there on business, I knew it would be a remarkable trip. Travelling for work, though, meant I wasn’t going to have too much free time to explore the country. What to do, when you only have a day or two? (Sorry, didn’t intend that to rhyme). A Google search of “highest volcano in Indonesia” led me to two active stratovolcanoes: Mount Kerinci and Mount Rinjani. Kerinci, in the island of Sumatra, rises to 3,805 m (12,484 ft), but seemed a little less interesting than Rinjani, 3,726 m (12,224 ft) tall, in the island of Lombok. A photo of Rinjani’s crater lake with an active cone rising from one of the sides, immediately caught my eye. I had a destination.
The ascent to the the rim, where we set up camp, was a grueling and long eight hours. My guide, porter and I set off from the village of Senaru at about 9 a.m. in scorching heat. The first four hours cut through farmland and the lovely foothills, with Rinjani watching defiantly from above. Elevation gain was mild but constant. After a break for lunch and chatting with other trekkers, we started on the second part of the trail, with a terrain very similar to what I had experienced in some of my previous volcano climbs in Guatemala: dry, black earth, slippery at times. The mountain side had now become much more steep but incoming clouds, the views and a breeze eased the effort. We got to the crater rim about one hour before sunset, my legs exhausted, the temperature dropping quickly. Clouds below us covered much of Segara Anak, the crater lake, but here and there I could see glimpses of it. While my guide prepared dinner, I chatted a bit with a friendly Finnish from another group that had just set up camp, but I was in bed by 8.
At 2 a.m. the guide woke me up with a cup of tea and we set off to the summit at 2:30. I hadn’t really slept much. I was cold all night in spite of wearing two layers under a down jacket and kept being startled by the howling of some dogs that live on camp on their own, scavenging the trash left behind (trekkers, please, insist with your guides and porters to bring back the trash). The climb from the crater rim to the summit has three parts. The first part is very hard, the second part is hard and the third part is hell. As we started on the first part, we ran into a Japanese girl looking very sick and upset. My guide attempted to discourage me from continuing. “This is very very hard”, he said, “and already two people from the group that is in front of us have given up and returned. The lake is beautiful and the hot springs are reallly nice.” I saw what he was trying to do: save himself from having to walk up.
Once I made it absolutely clear that I really did not care for walking down to the lake or to hot springs, and that the purpose of my trip was to summit Rinjani, my guide seemed to make peace with the fact that he had to do his job and show me the way to the top of the mountain. We then proceeded quietly, slowly and surely up the hill. I was glad to have a guide. The terrain is treacherous at times and the trail not always too easy to find, particularly in the dark. The night was pitch black and the sky so gorgeous I would have liked to just lay on the ground and watch it. At a couple spots, where we could get protection from the merciless wind, we took small breaks.
The sky was beginning to turn blue in the horizon when we got to the last portion of the ascent, the terrain now turning to loose volcanic sand and gravel. I was so glad I had climbed volcanoes before. I knew that persistence pays off and it did: the summit was spectacular. With not a single cloud in the sky, we could see all around. The crater lake, shimmering with the first sunrays hitting its still surface, was a deep dark green, and the inner cone rising from the north side of the lake, still active, was letting several columns of smoke up. I sat eating an apple and watching the surroundings, delighted.
Wanting to make sure I could make it back to the airport in Mataram in time for my flight, I decided to make it straight back to Senaru instead of continuing to the hot springs by the lake. My guide was obviously pleased with my decision, having developed a bad cold overnight, surely a result of inadequate gear and nutrition and the exhaustion of climbing this mountain three or four times a week. So we turned around and, breaking camp after an early lunch, walked back to the foothills for the second and last night of the trek. After dinner I took a good look at the Southern Cross and quickly fell asleep. The next morning saw us back to the village by 8 a.m.
Guides and porters at Rinjani are an interesting group. Much as I had seen while hiking volcanoes in Guatemala, they bring with them few clothes and almost no gear, preferring to lighten up the weight to carry uphill instead of protecting themselves from the fierce cold during the night. What I had not seen before was such a pervasive cigarette smoking habit. Guides and porters smoked heavily, almost non-stop. I asked them how come, to which they explained that smoking gave them the energy they needed to deal with the physical effort of the trek. I might feel the same if I had to walk up several thousand feet carrying tents, enough water for two days, food and cooking utensils for three people…