A little more than halfway through the trip, our party of two became a party of three, with the arrival of my globe trotting sister. We were reunited at the Bali airport, which was a little more exciting than we had planned (or hoped for — how did that manage to be the one place with unreliable wi-fi?!). We made our next flight in the nick of time and a mere thirty minutes later were touching down on the island of Lombok. The plan here was to hike Mount Rinjani, the second tallest volcano in Indonesia, and having arrived early in the evening of June 4th, it was a little amazing that by 8am the very next morning we were setting off, having secured a car, traveled three more hours to one of the base camp areas, found an open lodge, and negotiated a hike/trek package all in the span of about 14 hours.
We had also navigated another baffling but hilarious bout of miscommunication, this time with our lovely guesthouse proprietor who graciously prepared a late dinner for us when we pulled up well after dark.
Guesthouse Manager [taking our orders]: What would you like to drink with your meal?
Ainsley: A bottle of water, please.
Manager: Sorry, no water.
Kris [pointing to mineral water listed on menu]: You’re out of mineral water, then?
Manager: Yes, so sorry.
[45 minutes pass while we eat dinner and plan for our upcoming expedition]
Kris [on our way out]: Is one of the stores down the road open and selling bottled water?
Manager: I can bring you water, no problem,
[The three of us debate whether he’s actually running down the street to one of the roadside stands to get us water. Two minutes later — definitely no enough time to have fetched water and come back — who should be knocking on our door but our friendly manager, three bottles of water in hand.]
Mount Rinjani is an incredible peak, long held as a sacred pilgrimage site by both Hindu and Sasak Indonesians. Our launch point was the fertile Sembalun Valley, from which Rinjani rose deceptively gradually. The first part of the trek took us through a peaceful savannah landscape, gently sloping upwards along a narrow path between chin-high grasses. To hike Rinjani, you are required to pay a national park entrance fee and hire a guide along with at least one porter (depending on the size of your group). When we came to our first rest stop only an hour or so into the trek (really a stroll at that point) and our guide offered us snacks, I felt a little pang of disappointment that this was perhaps going to turn out to be a hike “lite” experience. Ha! I needn’t have worried.
We stopped for a long lunch break and soon were joined by a number of other trekking groups. Each meal was prepared from scratch by our porters — who also carried the food, cooking supplies, and all sleeping gear including sleeping mats, sleeping bags, tents, and more. Significant portions of our hiking conversations were devoted to discussions of how amazing the food was (hands down the best of the trip, and I don’t think it was just because we were working so hard and needed the calories!) and also how well Indonesia would do in medaling if there were an Olympic sport where competitors had to cart barbells up mountains.
The post-lunch part of our hike got pretty steep (apparently they don’t believe in switchbacks in Indonesia). That section was called the Seven Hills, and each hill was taller and more steep than the one before it. The fog rolled in across the mountainside as well, and we were enveloped in this surreal mist, until at one point the clouds parted and we could see just how far we’d come.
We made it to our camp some time later and basically started bedtime preparations immediately because wake up call was 2am. Yep, the plan was to have a light breakfast and start the Day 2 ascent at 2:30am in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise. During our downtime before attempting to fall asleep at, like, 7pm, we learned all about toilet tents:
Realized that the summit climb was in fact going to be more intense than we had given it credit for:
And spent some time collecting trash around our camp. I was saddened to see plastic and other detritus scattered at every single stopping point along the trail. Littering is technically not permitted, but there’s clearly absolutely no oversight in this park, and hikers have an out of sight, out of mind mentality by finishing a meal, for example, and leaving it to their porters to clean up, who, in turn, either discard the remains right then and there, or (even worse) attempt to burn it. The idea of carrying out what you carry in needs to be enforced, but until there are audits and fines and, perhaps most importantly, a massive clean up of the existing litter to wipe the slate clean, nothing will change.
We slept horribly because the wind picked up and proceeded to rattle our little tent all night long. The silver lining is that it blew away all of those clouds and when we started hiking again at 2:30 the full moon was out, lighting our way.
From the start, between the combination of darkness, sleepiness, and cold, this part of the hike felt tough. As we ascended and the trail became increasingly exposed, anytime we came across rock formation that provided some cover from the biting wind, there would already be a hiker or two huddled in the nook. All I wanted to do was keep moving for some body heat, and when the sun started coming up Kris and I had a renewed burst of energy that kept propelling us forward.
The last part of the climb was the hardest hiking I’ve ever done in my life. I consider myself to be in pretty good shape: I run a couple of times a week, I sometimes take the stairs to my 15th floor office (you would too, if your elevators were as slow as the ones in my building), and I regularly traipse all over NYC. But this pushed me to the max. I was being buffeted about by the wind, climbing along a narrow trail (maybe 10 or 11 feet wide?) with a pretty steep drop off both sides. My fingers were painfully swollen from the altitude. With each step I took through the slippery volcanic gravel and ash, my foot slid almost completely back to its starting point, and if I wanted to stop and rest on this probably 30+ degree incline, my calves trembled from the different but equally exhausting effort within seconds.
When we finally made it to the summit I truly became convinced that I was going to get blown off by the wind, though to be fair, I was so wiped by that point that keeping my balance was a serious struggle. I plopped down on the rock face and started laughing hysterically — a little too hysterically, as all of the effort from the past day and a half hit me like a ton of bricks.
Our climb back down was more like surfing — we basically slid along gravel for a few hours. This time, though, we had a spectacular view to enjoy. I couldn’t get over the strange lonely beauty of the moonscape and the ridge that we picked our way along for literally miles.
We made it back to our campsite around 10am, seven and a half hours later, and crawled into the tent for some recovery time. We amused ourselves the whole way back down to the savannah part of the trail by keeping track of how many times we all fell or nearly fell on the steep and slippery path, and we finally made it back to our starting point around 5pm.
Mount Rinjani was grueling and mentally taxing, and absolutely amazing. I will treasure the memory of this trek and how hard we pushed ourselves, and how good it felt to know we were capable of that kind of effort. The summit is about 12,500 feet, which is certainly lower than something in, say, the Rockies (a peak there would be more along the lines of 14,000), but the difference is that rather than starting the hike from 8 or 9,000 feet up, as would be the case with a hike out there, we started from about 3,000 feet. The summit conquered us definitely more than we conquered it, but I guess that’s the point, in the end. This mountain will endure and we’re just passersby. I mean, I would worship Rinjani if I were Indonesian!
These weary travelers finished the trip in the best way possible: with five days on Gili Air, a tiny dot of an island just to the west of Lombok. From our beachfront villa, we could see Mount Rinjani rising in the distance and say to ourselves with satisfaction, “We climbed that.” (When we could see it, that is — it looked like we went the two best days possible, as most of the following days appeared to have been rained out.) Our remaining days were filled with sunbathing, reading, swimming, happy hours and sunsets on the beach, massages, and delicious food on repeat.
We also had a snorkeling adventure that included swimming with a couple of sea turtles.
And Kris and I went scuba diving for the first time — as it happens, on World Oceans Day. Incredible!
I feel a bit like I’m letting the cat out of the bag about this wondrous place, by raving about how amazing it was and posting all these pictures. The good thing is that the size of the island will hopefully prevent it from ever really becoming another Bali; the island is already fairly developed and most of that build out has been done without compromising the small-town feel of the place (though I hear it unfortunately gets overrun by drunken partying Australians around New Years). I would go back in a heartbeat.
So there you have it: how to explore Indonesia in three weeks. If you made it all the way through, thanks for reading and letting me re-live the experience! You know with whom you should get in touch when you’re ready to start planning your own trip to this incredible country… 🙂