Majestic Mount Rinjani dominates North Lombok, reaching into the sky at a dizzying 3,726 meters. The volcano is still active with at least 16 recorded eruptions in the 20th century. Its dazzling cobalt-blue crater lake is one of the greatest sights you will ever see, and the climb to its summit is also one of the toughest you will ever do. Veronika Klvanova learned that the hard way.
Text and Photos: Veronika K
Typically all the volcano trekkers on Rinjani sign up with one of the many tour operators based out of either Senaru or Sembalun Lawang villages, both located at the base of the mountain. Join one of those and you will get a guide, a cook and an army of porters. Everything is taken care of and you are practically being carried up top alongside your equipment. My friend and I wanted to figure out a more independent way to go about this grueling trek. We romanticized how reaching the top just by ourselves would be that much more rewarding, so we decided to say no to all the organized tours.
The slopes of Rinjani can look deceptively calm to any would-be novice climber.
On one sunny weekend in September we felt our heads were filled with enough information on how to tackle this challenge. One long, sticky ferry ride from Bali and few hours on a scooter on Lombok’s poor roads, we arrived at the foothills of the sacred Mt Rinjani, to which both Muslims and Balinese Hindus make pilgrimages. Quiet Sembalung Lawang village won as our starting point as it cuts off about 1,000 vertical metres from the hike, and without thinking about it too much we packed up our food and water supplies. This decision turned out later to be our first miscalculation as we packed as if for a picnic in the park, not overnight on the mountain. Being recreational hikers after all, not Mt Everest conquerors, everything took us way longer than planned and we started the trek a few hours later in the day than the recommended noon time.
The way up to the top is not exactly sign-posted so our mini-group of two started with great enthusiasm only to get lost at the first intersection. Luckily for us our mistake was quickly corrected by an amused local farmer. The first few kilometres ofthe hike up to the first post are relatively easy and take you mostly through quiet and scattered farmlands on dusty snaking trails. Upon the entrance to the Rinjani National Park the landscape changes to vast surreal savannahs and you get a better view of the mountain top, stretching in an arc above. Our initial plan was to get all the way to the crater rim towering 2,600m above sea level. If your fatigued legs carry you up there before dark, unlike us, you get to see the first glimpses of the magnificent Anak Segara lake. This area is also the base camp where most groups camp out overnight and from which attempt the last push for the summit at around 3am.
We planned to mimic this itinerary, however, the number of hours needed for reaching the rim turned out to be miscalculation number two.
Things start to get serious once you enter the pine tree covered, dusty hills. Due to our late start, we lagged way behind and did not bump into any other hikers until the third post, a long way up the mountain. From there we had to use our hands to stay put on the increasingly steep trail, with loose footing.
I was at awe seeing the porters in action. They carry basically everything that you don’t want to, plus camping gear and supplies needed for a night at the rim. All that in overloaded woven baskets placed across their shoulders. My back started feeling extremely sore just by looking at them. They were followed by sluggish international and Indonesian tourists carrying nothing but a camera and perhaps a selfie stick. Almost all of the hikers were covered head to toe in professional hiking gear; the trekking poles, boots, and the hat to top it off, whereas the porters were modestly dressed and in flip-flops! What was also impossible not to notice was the abundance of trash everywhere we looked. It seemed the higher we climbed the worse it got. The garbage was shocking and sad at the same time and it distracted me from the natural wonderland around us.
Mingling with the other hikers, their guides often asked us where our support group was. Avoiding a longer conversation, we gave ambiguous answers, and pointed either ahead of us or back down the trail. According to some travel guides climbing independently is not allowed, but we paid the park fees and signed the necessary paperwork at the Lawang centre, so we were good to go.
As the sun began to set, we knew we could not make it up to the rim by dark, and morale got a little worse thanks to the rather depressing amount of garbage everywhere, and at some points the national park resembled a dumpsite. After nightfall our mini-team reached a dead end and we were surrounded not only by pitch-black darkness but also by a repulsive intense odour. After taking out our torches, we realized we took a wrong turn and walked into a campsite’s equivalent of outdoor toilet, which looked like a toilet paper minefield.
At this point I really started to feel the gravity of my overloaded backpack pulling me down. My slightly smug attitude about attempting the climb ourselves was dissipating and I felt I was done for the night. The pampering support of guides and porters would have been great at that point, but having not reached the rim, we camped at the first flat spot right by the path. A few hours of a shut-eye and it was time to get up and get going again, which was brutal to say the least.
It was 3am, and disoriented in the dark and everything sore with the most extreme part of the hike still ahead of us, it was impossible not to notice a string of moving lights on the mountain shoulder leading to the summit – it appeared that roughly 100 climbers had got a big head start on us.
Climbing in the dark is no fun, no fun whatsoever. The terrain is rough; it’s a series of steep rocky sections with mostly loose rock mixed with sand. Once we reached the crater rim covered with dozens of tents, the trail became less obvious and harder to follow. After a series of wrong turns and trying not to fall into the crater lake, we were finally on the mountain ridge. From there the real ordeal began. The summit loomed deceptively close, but we still had four more hours to go.
At this point the climb gets gradually more and more draining and demanding. You take two steps forward and one step back and the last few hundred metres before the summit are the toughest. The trail is nothing but slippery scree. I had to take a break every five minutes, and at this elevation it’s also harder to catch your breath.
But, once you make it all the way up to the top all this suffering is forgotten. The scenery is ineffable. You get to see the sun rise over the stunning lake and a full panoramic view all the way to the ocean. It is impossibly overwhelming and getting outside of your comfort zone is indeed rewarding. We finished our last fried rice meal and in all the euphoria ignored the fact that we had nothing but a few chocolate bars left for the return journey.
After soaking in all the awesomeness, we began our descent, planning to get a warm shower and food by the end of the day. The euphoric emotions and adrenalin from reaching the summit quickly waned, as fatigue took over and my feet morphed into one giant painful blister.
Knees jarring, shoulders crying, knees squealing, I wished I had my support group, not only to carry my stuff, but to carry me!
Every cell of my body was hurting. With no food and water left, the last few remaining kilometres felt way worse than the attempt to reach the summit. Night crept up on us almost without notice and I started hyperventilating, shaking and whimpering like a five year old. My only support group was my slightly less miserable, better-shoed friend.
The situation seemed hopeless. The vast savannah offered no point of orientation to guide us to the village. We stumbled across a controlled wildfire with its flames reaching up to the tree canopies. This whole spectacle was an awfully great metaphor for my present mental and physical state – an utter inferno.My body was somehow able to robotically move for another few hundred metres, but then it just shut down and I couldn’t move anymore. My friend’s move was to carry me to the nearest shack in someone’s field and that’s where we had our unplanned sleepover number two.
The next morning at sunrise I woke up from a “coma” only to realise we were only about a kilometre away from our homestay. I had elephant feet, couldn’t fit on my shoes and finished the hike in socks. In the end I conquered the mountain, but the mountain also conquered me, and I left with a new found respect for it and life itself.
You can join many of the reputable tour operators, have everything carried, every meal planned, and every decision made for you, or you can try things out for yourself, though you risk trudging and weeping by the end of it. So, say yes to independent exploration, but also say yes to being better prepared next time. The motto of this endeavor: ‘In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.’