Up Rinjani: Climbing an Active Volcano Through My Eyes

My normal traveling plan is to plan as little as possible. Plans are for the uptight, the less adventurous, for my parents. I love my parents, but they love to know exactly what the deal is. It gives them peace of mind. It removes the stress. I completely agree with that last point. Not planning can get very stressful at times. Luckily not doing so is more rewarding in the end.

Bali. My debit card has arrived in the mail (I’ve magically made a few of them disappear), and with it, my freedom. Since I could once again access my much needed funds, I could now leave Bali and see what the rest of Indonesia had to offer. But first, the question of where to. My original “plan” had long been to work my way back up to Malaysia via Java and Sumatra, scaling an active volcano along the way, but the Manta Rays and Dragons on Komodo were calling and those was in the opposite direction.

Luckily between them and I was the island of Lombok, home of Mt. Rinjani, a big ol’ active volcano with a supposedly beautiful crater lake. Unluckily, I’d have to leave tonight to make it work. Tonight as in the 1am ferry a quarter way around the island. Not a problem. I sent out some emails to trek operators, got back some vaguely confirming responses and a lone phone number and decided that was good enough. With only time to kill, we grabbed a bottle of whiskey and some Bintang (cheap Indo beer) and headed to the local Bali fishing holes. Awaiting us was a series of man made holes in the ground about thirty feet across, lined with small bamboo covered benches along with some janky fishing poles. Of fish, there were few, but we did succeed in eventually catching one, presumably after the whisky increased our fishing prowess. After much hoopla we tossed it back.

Accidentally locking my friends keys in his apartment (thanks for hosting me!) I jumped on a motorbike taxi. The ride would take an hour and having to wear my large, fully packed travel backpack was always an added bonus. Additionally, I put on a motorcycle helmet, most likely better suited for a bicycle, and my sunglasses to keep the wind from drying out my contacts, which predictably made everything black save for a few bright street lights. Essentially, I was riding blind. Upon arrival at the ferry terminal, I thanked my driver for not killing me and my sore butt thanked me for giving it a break already.

The passenger waiting area was packed. Families sitting on the floor. No other travelers that I can see. Thirsty, I head to the nearest store. Not wanting to find change for a 100,000 Rupiah note (10 units of the less inflated American dollars), a lady laying down in one of the aisles of her store tells me, without getting up, to take the bottle of water for free. Now I feel like an asshole. I’m the one with all that foreign money and I didn’t even pay for this water.

Time to hit the open seas. I board the ferry, find a nice cushy bench covered in plastic (which my arms and legs immediately stick to in the humidity) and naively think I can watch some pirated TV shows on my laptop and perhaps doze off before reaching Lombok in the wee hours of the morning. Wrong. The 18 inch monitor 30 feet from where I sit is playing one of the Terminator movies and the volume is turned up all the way on speakers bigger than the TV. All the way. These people don’t even speak English. They’re reading the subtitles. Why on earth does it need to be so loud especially in the middle of the night? I will never know. I tell myself that they think I’m weird too and it helps pacify my anger.

A Muslim man sitting across from me with his wife strikes up conversation. It’s 3am and I’m not at all in the mood, but as an international ambassador (something like that) I answer his questions and make small talk in his broken English. “I am from the US.” “Where?” (utter confusion) “America.” “Oh, AMERICA” (nodding and smiling). Non American travelers who hate on Americans for saying that they’re from “America” instead of the “United States” can suck it. I always start by saying the United States and no one knows what I just said. “America” is well know by all, regardless of language. He gives me something that looks like peanuts, and I’m pretty sure they were peanuts, but the nut inside was soft and mushy. No idea.

Disembarking the ferry I realize I have no idea where I am or how on earth I’m supposed to find the trekking company taxi. I usually just show up and someone is waiting for me. Simple as pie, normally. No one is here. It’s somewhere around 4 in the morning and no one seems to be looking for a tourist hoping to climb a volcano. I ask the nice Muslim gentlemen to use his phone and I call the trekking phone number. Gibberish. Actually Indonesian Bahasa with a smattering of English. Regardless, communication is not working so well. I hand the phone back to its owner who begins talking away on it. I’m next instructed to enter his personal car. The taxi will apparently pick me up at this nice stranger’s house. Okay. This is an odd situation, but as usual I just go with the flow.

Celebrity status. Because it is during Ramadan, the entire family is up at 4:30 in the morning and excited to meet the esteemed guest of honor, a real life American. Obama attended elementary school in Indonesia and for that, they will eternally love him. The introductions go smoothly and I even have the privilege of talking on the phone with the man’s brother who once visited the United States. Or maybe he was just happy to meet someone who had been there? I’m not entirely sure because of the language barrier. I gratefully partake in their morning meal, the last of which they will have until the sun rises and sets many hours from now. I admire their devotion, but look forward to eating again soon. It’s sooner than I anticipate. They literally will not stop bringing different food out for me to try. Extremely accommodating to say the least. Eventually my taxi does arrive and the driver sits down and has some food himself. He acts as if he knows the family, which baffles me, but nevertheless, we’re soon on the road. I doze in and out of sleep as we leave the city and begin winding through villages, light slowly creeping into the day. Busy predawn markets hinder our progress as well as some loose livestock. Along with the sun, the island’s lone volcano slowly appears and dominates the skyline. We approach.

I have a basic thin sweatshirt. Months spent in Southeast Asia and I’ve never needed more than that. Usually I need much less. A tank top can be excessive. But then I normally stay close to sea level. This volcano’s summit is over 12k feet away from sea level and apparently it gets pretty cold. I don’t see snow up there, so I naively figure my sweatshirt along with a long sleeve shirt underneath will be sufficient. Ha. Much more obviously lacking at the current moment are my beat-down pair of Vans, the only shoes in my possession and clearly not the recommended footwear of mountaineers. I meet my group. We begin our ascent.

The route we’re taking begins in the rain shadow of the mountain. It receives much less precipitation than the other side, so the vegetation is not lush but actually fairly sparse. Trees line creek beds but the rest is wide open grassland. The grass looks a little thirsty, sunscreen is a must and the water we’ve been allocated looks pretty slim for three days of this, but we push onward. Lunch time provides time to rest but without shade in sight, our chosen location is less than ideal. As I ponder this turning my back toward the sun, I see our guides begin to create a makeshift shelter. Taking large palm-like leaves lopped off earlier in the day, they plant them in the ground adjacent to a laid out tarp which is to double as our dining table. Respite.

The rest of the day is spent walking. Up and up, gradually becoming more steep until it is basically a staircase. Switchbacks have not been introduced to this far corner of the world yet. At least we have found an area where trees have decided to grow, keeping the tropical sun at bay. As evening approaches, the top seems inevitable and as assumed, it does exist. I find myself on the crater rim. To one side a view hindered only be the curvature of the earth. To the opposite, thousands of feet down, a crescent lake a shade of blue I have never known. Many thousands of feet above looms the summit to which we aspire. Seemingly so close, I try to imagine the hours of walking required to reach it but fail in its comprehension. All around is trash, garbage, rubbish, waste and finally, monkeys rummaging through it. Living off it. I want to push it from my mind, contemplate only the mountain’s beauty, but the ugly human aspect is inescapably there before me. Am I an active contributor to the cause? How can I not be? Our guide, disgusted, collects trash in the immediate vicinity and sacrifices it to the fire. Small consolation. What this mountain really needs is a deep clean, but the idea seems daunting and I’ve only three days on the mountain, one of which is now ending. Like all the other tourists, I fall asleep.

Two AM wake up. Coffee and biscuits. More coffee. I luck out and receive a headlamp and a windbreaker from a tired trekker in our group. He reluctantly admits that the summit is not attainable with another full day of trekking imminent. I’m sorry to lose his company but more pleased with my acquisitions. The first hour is not nearly as bad as it is dark. We follow in single file up, past rocks and trees. Hour two is much worse. The trees are smart enough to avoid this place. We emerge into the open and at the will of the wind. My hands are the first to feel it and I pull my sleeves up to shelter them. It hits me. To either side is nothing. We essentially are on a sandy catwalk, one which extends all the way to the summit still thousands of feet away. An eerie trail of headlamps leads off into the sky.

Cold wind. Walking. More walking. All this physical motion but it’s impossible to warm up. The sky slowly begins to lighten and my depth of vision begins to extend, although there is still nothing to look at besides my Vans digging into volcanic sand, one after the other. The sand becomes finer, more like a sand dune. It behaves like a sand dune as well. Two steps up, one sliding step back. The altitude begins to take its toll. I feel vincible. I have a sunrise to attend, but I begin to fear that I’ll miss the show. All this trudging just to miss what I came for? It’s not an option and I leave my group behind picking up the pace although my calves and lungs argue.

A girl crying. She’s devastated at her decision to turn back. Failure. It is the risk of setting goals. A real fear but nowhere to be found on my agenda. At least she now knows her limits. I do not. Is it because I have not pushed myself hard enough? The sunrise approaches, right on schedule, sharing its light but selfishly holding back on its warmth. It will be a close finish. Only a few hundred yards of black volcanic sand through icy gusts left. Only. I must run, or do the sand dune version of it, but I verge on exhaustion. That early morning biscuit isn’t exactly protein infused. I can now see others on the summit greedily awaiting the sun and curse my guide for not starting us out earlier. Finally, I scamper through the last few boulders signally my arrival at the summit, turn my attention toward the horizon and watch as direct light appears in my eyes. For a moment all is quiet. Bliss. This of course is followed by a cheer and the artificial sound of camera shutters. Feeling obligated to show proof, I add another Nikon to the chorus.

It’s lonely up here at the top, a saying I now comprehend on a different level. Neighboring volcanoes are visible far off in the distance, yet a few steps in any direction would take me into a void producing visions of vertigo. The cold replaces the happiness of success and can no longer be ignored. Time to leave this desolate place and return to the life back on earth. But first a little fun. Any child knows the thrill of flying down a sand dune. The joy to jump and know a soft landing awaits. How can I not indulge? Children also know the annoyance of repeatedly removing the sand from their shoes. I re-experience this as well. The descent takes half the time, maybe less. All that work against gravity and suddenly its your friend. By the time we return to the crater rim, my body screams for a crumb, nutrients of some kind. I greedily gorge on our basic breakfast, scarfing down the my lone egg with pleasure. And I’ll need it. We plan to get down to the lake and back up to the rim in time for a sunset. No small task considering we’ve been walking for the past 6 hours.

Setting out the views are spectacular. The lake, Segara Anak, Child of the Sea, is always visible showing off its unique color. Clouds creep up the most exposed side of the volcano, threatening to block our view and engulf us in white, but they benignly stay at bay for now, leaving us to enjoy the caldera, the lake and the sun. Eventually, the younger cone, forming out of the center of the lake is visible. It is the active portion and I look for signs of smoke. Just a little huffing and puffing please, but for now it sleeps. My guide assures me that its better off this way. He’s seen it come alive some ten years before and was never quite so afraid.

As we go, the occasional group of trekkers passes us, headed in the opposite direction. French, all French, every one of them. I’m baffled and confused. Yes, I’ve met a handful during my travels thus far, but all the trekkers? My acquaintances usually range from England, Holland, Chile and Canada, but on this particular hillside there is little diversity. The French travel agents must market the crap out of Rinjani. It’s beautiful, but you’d think they’d spread out some. I hear Java has a bunch of volcanoes too. After voicing my confusion, I learn that August is basically a national no-work month for the French. Closest thing I can think of for Americans is the week between Christmas and New Years, but that’s a week and the entire country isn’t off, just a large portion of it. I don’t speak any French.

Further on, we pass our porters. They’re the local Indo guys that cook for us and set up our camp for the night, but most impressively, they carry all the supplies, bundling it all up on either end of a large stick resting across their back and shoulders. Generally they just make the tourists look bad with their dark complexion, lean muscle, lack of fatigue and crappy sandals which make everyone’s hiking boots look like overkill in comparison. Normally, we pass them as they converse in some shade and smoke cigarettes, but this time they’re collecting firewood for our meals, hacking away at live trees. I look around and start to notice sticks of presumably once live trees that have been ransacked of any easily removable branch. Every small pine tree now just looks like a pole. The tourist demand for hot cooked meals is a harsh reality here. The dried out collectible firewood is long gone so it’s on to the live forest to provide the fuel. Who knows if there is any regulation on this or not but it’s obvious nothing is being enforced. Sad for the mountain, losing a small piece of itself at the hands of hoards of tourists like myself looking for the next adventure, the next experience, the next photograph.

Of photographs there are many. The vistas as we descend into the caldera. The lake back-dropped by the active cone and further up, Rinjani’s peak now so far away. The dense fog sweeping in through the trees. A quick and refreshing dip in the hot springs resets my layer of dirt and sweat back to zero. A great feeling, but its only a matter of time before the grime returns. And embrace its return I do as we climb our way back out and away from the blue water, back to the crater rim for one last nights sleep, one more campsite on an impossibly picturesque cliffside location. I try to breathe it all in, I linger at the lookouts a little longer. I’ll likely never see this place again. Not for lack of want, but because there are too many places left to see in this world before I can go for a victory lap.

The final day of trekking is uneventful. Grassland at the higher elevation soon turns to lush jungle. A trade of fierce sun on your back for sticky air in your face. With the end so near, group conversation slowly dwindles. Everyone is exhausted and too focused on the finish and the next step of their trip or their return home. Since time with each other is fleeting, further bonding lacks the fire it had when we set off. A natural state we all are familiar with at the close of a journey.

But while my time on Rinjani is ending, my trip rages on. No sooner have we reached the park entrance before I am swept off to catch my bus to the next island over. I arrive with the bus fully loaded, waiting for me, the lone western passenger. All Indonesian eyes watch as the operator raises the price from what I was originally told only to give me back too much change. Should I give back to a man making a buck off my ignorance? I settle in for a long ride, one which will end with me in some unknown Indonesian town at three in the morning. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

Pics coming soon in a separate post. Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Up Rinjani: Climbing an Active Volcano Through My Eyes

  1. I totally know what you mean with the whole saying ‘U.S.’ vs. ‘America’. Saying ‘America’ sounded pretentious and annoying, but no one understands ‘United States’. I just got over it

    • Yup, and who wants to be pretentious? I guess the rule of thumb is “America” if you’re speaking to a non-English speaker and “United States” if they speak English well.

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