I liked Lombok, and I think Lombok liked me.
From the moment I rode off the ferry at Labuhan Lombok, on the east side of the island, it presented before me an almost perfectly constructed and empty road that twisted north around the base of the massive Mount Rinjani volcano (and when I say massive, I mean covering over half of the entire island).
I was happy to once again be on a new island; a new place to roam free and explore to my heart’s content, with no schedule to keep to or promises to keep. How lucky can a man be?
Well, no schedules and promises to keep except for the one I made to meet up with Marc and climb 3,726 m (12,224 ft) up Mount Rinjani, the second highest volcano in Indonesia. DOH! While I was trying to remember how I ended up making such a promise, I caught a glimpse of her through the afternoon clouds, and knew it just had to be done.
But first I had one afternoon and night of freedom, so I enjoyed a leisurely ride round the top of the island to the west coast, and Lombok’s closest thing to a commercial tourist centre, Senggigi. Yes, I’m sorry, but I really fancied a beer.
It took around 4 hours to reach Senggigi by which time it was getting dark. It didn’t help that I went the wrong way and ended up stuck on a crazy busy road heading into Lombok’s biggest city, Mataram. With my Sat Nav still not showing any roads (thanks Garmin) and no map (thanks me) I took a guess and ended up even more lost in even busier crazy traffic. After months of isolation I didn’t welcome my return to the over populated world, and couldn’t wait to get out of it all.
Studying a highly detailed map I’d had the sense to photograph from a child’s primary school book, I could see Senggigi was north of Mataram, and I assumed on the coast (considering it had a beach), so I turned the beast north and then west and eventually we escaped the madness.
I rode up and down Senggigi a couple of times because I couldn’t work out if it was really there or not. I’d read it was a ‘happening party town’, but all I could see were a couple of bars full of old people and touts trying to sell me baseball hats and (strangely) crossbows. Did I look like I needed a crossbow? Maybe; sometimes I think I just have that kind of ‘I need a crossbow now’ face.
After the third slow ride along the ‘high street’ women started appearing on corners in satin bikinis & stilettos, waving at me, so I thought I’d better look a little less suspicious and find somewhere to stay.
Calling into one large hotel, I left soon after when they wanted to charge me $150 a night, and rode further out of town to look for a cheaper place. My dreams were answered when I came across the ‘Green Asri Hotel’ which had just opened a couple of days before. The place was luxurious and expensive, but they had an opening offer of only $45 a room; still out of my $10 price range, but I thought ‘what the heck’ – it was Monday after all.
Making the beautiful room a mess in about 3 seconds by throwing my dirty biker clothes on the floor, I jumped into the gorgeous shower and washed my hair (which didn’t take long). I must admit I do love the open bathrooms of many Asian countries, and find it very refreshing. It certainly speeds things up in the morning when you can take a sh*t, shower and shave all at the same time.
Twenty minutes later I had also washed my merino wool underwear (fab stuff) and was ready for a night on the town, with all the other old people. However, I couldn’t stay out for long because I needed my beauty sleep to prepare for my hike up an active volcano which last erupted on 22 May 2010. How did I promise that again??
But first I had to take my ‘complimentary opening massage’ at the parlour next door. I must admit I did feel like I needed a good massage, as the tension that develops in my back and shoulders after a long day in the saddle is substantial.
Walking into the (empty) parlour I was greeted in the usual very friendly Indonesian way, and handed a drink and a see-through black lace G-String. It was at that stage I began to wonder if I’d accidentally walked through the wrong door. Shy guy that I am, in the end I opted to keep my jeans on and just go for the back and shoulder massage. It was good, but she wasn’t quite strong enough to undo all my knots; perhaps I need a man?
In the morning I tried to get up early (I really did) but something just wasn’t working; I think it was my legs. After a while I could feel them again, and managed to coax them out of bed with the promise of a bacon and egg breakfast.
The Green Asri Hotel was even better in the daylight, and I was glad I’d splashed out on such a lovely place. Despite their lovely infinity pool and bamboo bar, they didn’t have bacon & eggs anywhere on the menu, so my legs had to settle for the usual Indonesian staple of rice, with more rice (and a bit of chicken feet).
I’d arranged to meet Marc in Senaru later that day, a village close to the start of the hike up Rinjani, so thought I’d better get my skates on. The night before I had missed most of the beautiful coastline after going the wrong way and taking the inland route over a huge twisty mountain covered in monkeys. This time I followed the coast and was greeted with some of the most beautiful beaches and views I have seen to date.
I also caught occasional glimpses of the three tiny Gili Islands, just off the NW coast, famed for their idyllic remoteness, but they would have to wait for me to climb a volcano first.
Further to the north I rode through lush green paddy fields which kept forcing me to stop and take pictures. Each one I saw seemed to be more green & lush than the previous one, which meant I stopped quite a bit.
After a few hours I reached the north of the island and the road turned south towards Senaru. I actually made it there before Marc late afternoon, and after finding the guesthouse he’d arranged (good job one of us was organised!), I paid the owner’s young nephew a few dollars to take me to see a couple of nearby waterfalls.
Sendang Gila Waterfall is a short walk from Senaru and is a MUST see. Here water plummets 50m (160ft) into a small plunge pool and it gave me the one heck of a back massage I needed yesterday.
Tiu Kelep Waterfall is a bit further on, and just as beautiful, after a great little hike through the rainforest. Here spectacular falls cascade into a larger pool ideal for a swim up to the base. I was surprised there weren’t many tourists here – only me and a couple of others – but it saved me (or them) a slight embarrassment as I’d forgotten my swimming shorts and had to strip down to my underwear for a swim. Good job I’d decided to wear some! After my hot & sticky bike ride and hike, the water fresh from the volcano was invigoratingly cold and just what the doctor ordered.
When the sun started to set, the swim went from being invigorating to being just cold, and so I got out, drip-dried as best I could, and made my back to Senaru, young guide in tow.
When we got back Marc had arrived fresh from his comfortable 150cc Yamaha Byson ride, so we set off for dinner to plan our attack on Mt Rinjani the next morning. After a couple of beers we decided this grand mountaineering feat would, in fact, be easy peasy, and the various reports we’d read about people finding it difficult must have been written by girly boy scouts (no offense to any girly boy scouts reading).
Yes, being two fit and strong Alpha Males, we would run and skip up the volcano like mountain gazelles, singing ‘The Sound of Music’ whilst smoking a pipe and completing The Times Crossword.
The fact that most tours to the summit take 3 days & 2 nights (or even longer) should have told us something, but in order to save money, and in our optimistic wisdom, we decided to find a guide to take us up in 2 days & 1 night. The guide Marc eventually found was very keen to do this for us, and later we found out why – because HE wasn’t actually going with us. Instead he paid 2 of his porters (peanuts) to run up after us, carrying two bamboo poles laden with all our camping gear, food and water.
Anyway, it all seemed a great idea at the time, so after a hearty ‘one choice breakfast’ of banana pancakes (I hate pancakes) we set off in a car early next morning to a village called Sembalun, where the trail head began.
I was well equipped, as usual, in my Merrell trainers & jeans; not the ideal ‘hiking up a volcano’ attire, but it’s pretty hard to carry enough clothing for all occasions on a motorbike. On my jean’s belt I strapped my leatherman, med kit, GPS (and spare battery), sun cream, mobile, camera, torch, rain coat, spare socks & talc (great moral boost on the 2nd day), bandana and wet wipes (great for washing when you have no water). See – I can be organised when I want to be! Good job I had a big belt. Over all this I wrapped my fleece jacket around my waist, and was then all set for a journey to the centre of the Earth. Marc, on the other hand, gave all his spare clothes to the porters to carry, on top of their already back breaking loads – perhaps he was a girly boy scout after all? Or maybe he was just Captain Sensible, and I was the wally.
One point of note here is that both our porters were sporting the very latest volcano-hiking FLIP FLOPS. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, all guides & porters we met along the trail did not only carry their own bodyweight in provisions up a very high, steep volcano, they did it in FLIP FLOPS! When I saw this I instantly felt guilty worrying about the suitability of my Merrell trainers; it was very funny to see these small Indonesians in shorts and flip flops running up much faster than squadrons of ‘professional’ hikers dressed to the nines in walking boots, gaiters, hiking poles and Gortex clothing.
Setting off fast as we intended, Marc and I almost sprinted along the trail leaving our 2 poor old porters miles behind in our dust. After a while we realised perhaps this was not such a great idea, as we ended up going the wrong way and had to backtrack to the correct path. In the distance the mighty volcano loomed huge in front of us, and I couldn’t wait to get closer and get stuck into the real slopes. It sure was a beautiful sight.
After only what seemed like a few minutes, we reached the first resting point, Stage 1. Here we rested and waited for the porters to catch up under their donkey loads. The journey so far had been easy – a nice gentle elevation rise of only 150m (500ft) through scenic woodland and green meadows.
Eager to crack on, when the porters arrived we quickly drank, ate biscuits, and chased off for the next Stage. Stage 2 is only another 200m (650ft) in elevation, and again we got there early waited for the gang. Progress was very quick, and we joked, half serious, about making it all the way to the summit before midnight. At Stage 2 our porters wanted to stop and make us lunch, but we said it was much too early and we’d rather crack on to get a bit further. I could tell in their eyes they thought we were mad.
They were probably right.
The trail to Stage 3 is again pretty straight forward, rising only another 300m (1000ft). In the distance we soon became aware of a fire, but thought little of it. However, as we got closer it became apparent it was quite a large bush fire and looked out of control. It was also heading directly for our trail and was close to cutting us off up ahead. We sped up to outrun it.
Thankfully we just managed to get ahead of it before it reached the trail, as otherwise it would have stopped our climb for sure. Up close the noise was almost deafening, and as I stopped to take a photo I became aware of really how fast it was moving up hill towards us.
We hastened our stride for a while and were soon well ahead of the fire, but several unlucky people we passed heading down would surely be stuck for several hours or more until it burnt out or passed through. Just what they wanted when they were tired, hungry and thirsty. In fact all of them looked exhausted; some of them dead. Many had huge blisters on their feet and told us horror stories of how difficult the climb to the summit was, and how they were never going to hike anywhere ever again. One girl was even walking down in bare feet, as her blisters were too painful in boots.
By now we had heard several times that the final 3 hour climb to the summit was the stuff nightmares are made of. The upper cone was covered in loose, deep scree and ash, sending you sliding one step back for every two steps you took. This hardly seemed believable looking at the idyllic conditions that surrounded us now, so we gave it all a stiff ignoring and continued on like lambs to the slaughter.
Upon reaching Stage 3 we were both still feeling great, and ‘Base Camp’ (Plawangan Sembalun) was only one more stop away at the foot of the summit.
This time we didn’t bother waiting for our porters, and continued on to victory, guessing they’d guess we had carried on – crazy men as we were. We were now starting to climb the base of the classic, steep cone section, and it suddenly became much harder.
It was while bounding up this rapidly steepening trail that I begun to realise it wasn’t going to be as easy as we imagined, and perhaps every single person we had met before could have been telling the truth; it was going to be bloomin’ difficult!
The terrain had turned to an unfriendly mix of loose soil, sand, gravel and ash, and I really started to wish I had hiking poles. It also rapidly climbed 840m (2,800ft), and soon my legs were burning, unaccustomed as they were to doing anything except dangle by the side of my Tiger.
To get to the crater rim ‘Base Camp’, people usually take 8 hours or more, and there’s a reason why; slow and steady wins the race every time. Marc and I had shot off like mad Whirling Dervishes from a cannon and covered the distance in half the time, but now I was paying for it.
I think Marc must have some kind of mountain goat blood in him, because although he had slowed down too, he was still climbing up in leaps and bounds ahead of me. I felt really sorry for him when he realised he’d dropped his sunglasses and went back down a few hundred meters to look for them. I would have gone to help him look, but to be honest I was so tired I would have rather bought him a new $200 pair just so I didn’t have to go down and climb back up. Luckily he found them anyway, so I didn’t feel so bad.
Eventually the ground started to harden again, and the going got easier for a while. It was now about 2pm and I was starving, and thoroughly regretted not taking our porter’s advice to have lunch way back at Stage 2. There’s a reason why they know best; they’ve done this trip once or twice before! (Big note to self – always listen to porters taking you up volcanoes, and don’t be such an idiot).
Eventually we made it to Base Camp and the first thing we did when the porters finally showed up was stuff down a whole packet of biscuits and build a fire for the best cuppa hot tea I’ve ever had.
The view from the crater rim was incredible, and we wondered if it could ever be much better from the summit. We were the first ones there, by quite some way, and it was lovely enjoying the views before the crowds started to arrive.
We had found a good spot to pitch the tent, and soon the fire was burning and our dinner (late lunch) was cooking as the other hikers/campers started to arrive.
I may have mentioned this before, but the one major thing that lets Indonesia down (for me) is the amount of rubbish that is strewn about EVERYWHERE. Indeed, even sat on the edge of this incredibly picturesque volcano in a National Park, I was surrounded by rubbish. It is sickening (for me) to see people throwing garbage away over their shoulder without a care in the world. Throughout my stay in Indonesia I don’t remember seeing any litter bins anywhere. It feels strange to return my empty drink bottles to the shopkeeper when I can’t find a garbage bin, to have him look at me as though I were mad, and throw them on the pile of rubbish out the back of his shop.
At least the tide may be starting to turn, as our porters packed all our rubbish to take back down, and I even saw 2 fine gentlemen collecting rubbish on their way down in huge garbage bags. Despite this, there is still a sickening amount of litter on Rinjani, and this has attracted hundreds of scavenging long-tailed macaque monkeys which are a right pain in the bottom, stealing all kinds of things (including hats, food, and crossbows) when your back is turned.
Our 2 porters were not only incredibly fit and strong, they were also very good cooks (isn’t everyone a good cook when you’re starving?). Over a small wood fire they managed to knock up a delicious meal of fried chicken, rice, veg and omelette, just in time to see the sunset over Bali.
There’s something incredibly relaxing watching the sunset at high altitudes. It was so still & peaceful, and we felt like we were on top of the world.
We were lucky – the sky was beautifully clear and the orange sun winked its last goodbye as it disappeared behind the mountains. Then we watched the sky darken until the first star popped out to say hello. It was going to be a great climb to the summit, but with no cloud cover, a cold night!
And cold it was. I don’t know about Mark, but I almost hugged him in our small 2 man tent in an attempt to keep warm. We turned in pretty early because we were up at 2 am to have a quick breakfast and start our ascent, but I’ll be darned if I could sleep! The cold was the main reason for this, although Marc’s snoring added a little spice to the recipe. The sleeping bags that were included in our guide fee were, to be fair, not the best quality in the world. My feet were like ice because the zip at the bottom of my sleeping bag had broken; I’m sure that wasn’t listed as one of the attributes we should possess when attempting the 3,726 m (12,224 ft) summit.
After what seemed like forever it was 2am and, wide awake, I jumped out of the tent and started my pre-climb routine, which consisted mainly of defrosting my joints and having a cup of tea. I saved time getting dressed because I was already wearing all the clothes I had in bed – it was that cold.
Now I am definitely NOT a morning person, and I hate getting up early. I also hate being cold, and the two together put me in a mood resembling a grumpy grizzly bear rudely awaken from his hibernation 3 months early. Once I was up and moving though, I felt better and just wanted to start climbing. Like anything, the waiting is always the worst part, and we both wanted to start before the masses to avoid getting penned in.
After a quick brew and biscuits one of the porters turned into our guide and took off with us. The other porter remained behind to tend the camp & (I hope) cook us a massive British Fry-Up when we returned (Marc was hoping for cheese and red wine, being French). The idea of starting the climb at the ungodly hour of 3am is so you can reach the summit at sunrise, around 3 hours later.
If I said this final part of the climb was difficult, I would be understating its degree of difficulty by 10. Or maybe even 20. The going was very hard indeed, made even harder by the fact my head-torch was next to useless and didn’t even illuminate my chin, let alone the ground ahead of me. I might just as well have strapped a glowworm to my head. I took this to be my Karma for earlier laughing at Marc’s huge ‘miners’ head-lamp which looked like it had been nicked from the front of a VW Beetle . Well, Marc was the one laughing now as his lamp lit up everything in his path, including the nearest star 4.5 light years away.
Our guide had shot off like a bullet, obviously getting his own back on us, and no-doubt overjoyed at losing his heavy load.
Not being able to see where I was putting my feet, it felt like I was walking up a massive sand dune, and every step I took I slid back down to within an inch of where I’d started; just like all the stories we’d been hearing. To say it was demoralising would be a vast understatement.
It was dark, cold and windy. Marc and our guide moved slowly ahead of me as my misplaced ‘blind’ footsteps slowed me down tremendously. It felt very lonely at times, and knowing I wouldn’t survive long in the low temperatures if I fell off the edge or got stuck somewhere was quite sobering (I’m good at falling off the edges of things).
We trudged on up the very steep volcanic cone, through loose gravel and ash, sliding backwards and slipping over, for what seemed like forever until I felt like my legs were made of jelly. I gave them orders to continue or else standby for a thorough whipping, but they collapsed underneath me, exhausted, and there I lay on the side of a volcano, looking up at the peaceful night sky above. I’d been so focused on hauling my fat ass up to the summit that I hadn’t noticed what a beautiful night it was. As I lay there, Marc and the guide well ahead, I had a rare moment of absolute serenity in the absolute silence of the night, under the light of a billion stars. Life is good, I thought. But cold.
I probably could have laid there for hours, but Marc and Bob (darn I wish I could remember the guide’s name!) must have thought I’d fallen off the edge. By the way, falling off the edge was very possible, and I came close a couple of times when the narrow path edged up along a knife blade with sheer drops either side. This is probably the real reason they make people climb up at night – so you can’t see you’re literally inches from certain death!
At one point I did actually feel like giving up and dying; my legs jellified, hands freezing and moral dashed upon the rocks of despair, but thankfully I managed to pull myself together and soldier on, albeit at the pace of a geriatric snail.
For much of the way Marc kindly waited for me to catch up, blinded me with his lighthouse beacon, and then bouncing away again like Tigger. Was I really that unfit? It appeared so. However, along the way we did pass dozens of other hikers that had started before us, so I couldn’t have been that bad.
In places the ground hardened and I gained a new lease of life, sprinting ahead in ecstasy like a shipwrecked sailor landing upon dry land. When it turned to slush again, my heart sank. At one point my legs were burning so much I was forced to start crawling on all fours. Marc, of course, found this highly amusing, and started calling me ‘Volcano Monkey’. For all I cared he could have called me anything; all I wanted was to get to the bl**dy summit so I could collapse again in peace.
I began to have flashbacks to when I climbed Cotopaxi in Ecuador, the highest active volcano in the world at 5,897 m (19,347 ft), 2 meters higher than Kilimanjaro. Here it is usual for climbers to spend at least 3 or 4 days acclimatising to the depleted oxygen at this altitude, but I thought (very naively) that I could climb straight to the summit in 2 days. I did it, but it almost killed me. A big factor in the ‘almost killed me’ bit was the fact that I didn’t have any water for the 7 hour climb to the summit from base camp. Long story, but that was a lesson I was not going to repeat. The other factor was that it’s just so darn hard, and the lack of oxygen made me feel like every step was the hardest step I had ever taken in my life. The 50 degree slopes of sheer ice didn’t help either, nor the fact that I lost one of my gloves down a crevasse.
After what seemed like an eternity of damnation, at last we caught a glimpse of the summit only 200 yards away. It’s interesting the reserves of strength your body will hide from you in your time of need, as at that point I literally sprinted to the finish faster than a fly’s bottom hits his head in a car crash.
We’d made it up in 2.5 hours, and there were only 2 other guys up there before us (pumpkin eaters). We grabbed my camera and our guide, Bob, and snapped a few photos for our memoirs. It was indeed a joyous occasion, but Marc had forgotten the champagne.
We were about an hour early for the sunrise, so we sheltered out of the wind best we could and asked the sun politely to hurry up before our nuts froze to our jeans. Now we had stopped moving it felt much colder, and lucky I had my emergency extra layer Gortex jacket to keep me warm(er), even if it was green.
Finally the sun came up over Sumbawa, we all clapped, and then headed back down for tea and medals. Sorry, that was what I wanted to do, but Marc was intent on taking hundreds more photos, and so we stayed up there for a bit longer.
Now it was light, our friend the volcano looked a lot different. For a start, she was even more beautiful than I imagined, and the views did not fail to take our breaths away. It was incredible to see a perfect triangular shadow cast by the huge volcano as the sun rose higher.
As I sat waiting for Marc to run out of batteries, it was interesting looking at the faces of the hikers still making their way up the torturous slope. They were looks of pure pain and exhaustion, just as mine had been an hour earlier. One elder woman (in her 50’s?) arrived under the arm of a man, tears pouring down her face, utterly frazzled. Good for you old girl – you made it! I very much doubt I’ll still have the faculties to be doing it again at her age.
Going down was fun. A lot of fun! Zigzagging at warp speeds like confused wefts on a loom of LSD, we belted down the volcanic scree slope, undoubtedly annoying everyone we passed with flying debris in our wake. But it was fast and worth it, and I needed a hot bath and a cuppa tea.
Back at Base Camp, Bill (the other porter) had the fire roaring and cuppas ready, but he had forgotten to fill the bath. Never mind. That was REALLY one of the best cuppas I’d ever had. Banana pancakes were then served, and this time I was so hungry, I almost liked them. We had been the first ones back down to camp, and now as the crowds rolled back down we decided to get a head start, quickly packed up the tent, and set off for home.
If we thought we’d gone up quickly, it was nothing compared to the way we screamed down at Mach 1. Our guides/porters were also much faster, with most of the weight eaten from their baskets. On the way we stopped for various great shots, including great views of the crater lake and surrounding countryside.
Then I fell down and twisted my ankle. Bugger! Fighting on, my pace slowed, but I wanted to get down before my ankle swelled up and slowed me further. To do this I modified my gait into what I can only describe as a half-gay, half-skipping hobbled canter, but it seemed to work.
Within a couple of hours we were almost home and dry, and then we started meeting hordes of trekkers at the start of their trek climbing their way up. We wished them good luck, told them a few horror stories 😉 and then got ourselves an energy drink and whatever food we could buy at the local shop in Sembalun (more biscuits, surprisingly).
Sitting under a shelter waiting for our transport home, we both felt as though we’d achieved something pretty awesome, and witnessed one of the amazing sights this world has to offer. But it had taken its toll. Within minutes of stopping, my ankle swelled, my legs stiffened, and soon I was hobbling around like an old woman. I couldn’t wait to book into a flash ($50) hotel and spoil myself, doing nothing but lie on a hot beach and bathe in crystal blue waters for eternity.
Strange then, because the next morning I wanted to do it all again.