Dawn was just breaking as Helen and I disembarked at Labuhan Lombok on the first leg of our journey to the mountain of Gurung Rinjani. The motorcycle taxi from the ferry terminal to the nearest village was a precarious sight even for Indonesia, laden with us both and two rucksacks each. A bus to Bayan and then a bemo to Senaru, the last village before the start of the trek, took the best part of the day.
We were dropped off at Gurung Baru Homestay where we took a basic but adequate room. Relaxing over a pot of tea at a local café, a young man introduced himself to us. Noor was keen to impress us with his knowledge of the mountain and we were happy to listen. He strongly recommended hiring a guide and porter and by coincidence he had climbed the mountain many times and offered his services. Both of us preferred to walk without guides if possible, at our own pace and with the satisfaction of independent success. Noor wasn’t impressed by our decision!
The motivation to climb Rinjani stemmed in part from it being the highest mountain on Lombok, and the second highest in Indonesia outside Irian Jaya at 3726m, but much more from the fact that there was very little information about it and as a consequence there would probably be few, if any travellers on route. The final and deciding reason was that what we had heard sounded stunning. The trek runs straight up the side of a steep active volcanic cone and then drops down into the crater. It then follows the edge of the crater lake, which was said to have a new smoking volcano growing up through it. I was keen to see if what I had heard was true!
Later that evening we went for a walk into the village to buy some food for the trip. It was the usual delightful noodles, avocados, tomatoes and bread. Standard trekking food for South East Asia! We also hired a tent and pots since I had stupidly left ours in Dempasar. On the way back we called in at the National Park ranger’s office, signed in and paid our 2000R entry fee and insurance. Preparations complete and with growing excitement I retired for the fitful sleep that always precedes an adventure.
Next morning we were up early and went for breakfast, pancakes and fruit to carry us through the first day of the three-day trek. In the background we could hear a heated conversation between Noor and his new Australian clients over the fact that Noor had not bought enough food. With some relief at our decision to go it alone, we left them still arguing and managed to get away by 06.30, following the road up through the small village.
The world was still asleep; only the smell of wood smoke betraying the unseen activities concealed within the small wooden shacks. At the end of the village the path split and I had to ask a young local girl the way. We passed a sign announcing that we were now entering the National Park and immediately after were in dense rain forest.
Trees closed in on both sides, their roots offering both helpful handholds and treacherous traps for careless footsteps. At one point on the path I noticed a cat-like creature with a long tail snuffling amongst the vegetation. Shortly after this I saw two fairly large monkeys with shaggy, dark brown fur and long tails, very different to the grey ones that I had seen hanging around the camps.
We reached Pos II at 08.30, a wooden shelter strewn with rubbish, where we ate some biscuits and drank water. Continuing through the rainforest was fairly slow going; steep, wet sections required careful negotiation before we reached Pos III at a height of 2100m; 1500m higher than the village.
The forest soon gave way to scattered trees set amongst a prairie of rich grassland and occasional exposures of volcanic rock. Although the trail was not way marked, its route was easy to follow - if we could no longer see any litter we were lost! We reached the rim at a height of 2600m and the view over the edge of the steep sided crater wall was stunning; a crescent-shaped lake, Segara Anak, turquoise in colour and 250m deep was set in an oval crater 8km long and 6km wide at an altitude of 2000m. Clouds floated over its rim to form a band of uniform height, while to the east, in the crescent of the lake, was a small volcano, 150m high, called Anung Baru (“new mountain”) bellowing a thin but continuous stream of smoke. Beyond this is the dominating peak of Rinjani, a sweeping ridge running to the summit and then down in a series of jagged steps to rejoin the rim. Rinjani last erupted in 1901 and is still considered to be very active.
On the rim we met a rather unfriendly monkey feeding from a rubbish bin, a treasure it protected with a show of its sharp canines. At noon we started the steep descent to the lake, 600m below. The terrain was rough and the going slow; I twice jarred my knee, the second time quite painfully and had to take it slowly. Helen luckily was comfortable with the descent and took the lead as we zig zagged down. We finally reached the bottom and walked along the lakeshore to reach the camp.
Before putting the tent up we wandered down to the white springs (Kokok Putih) where sulphurous water emerges from the rock at over 70ºC. Steam swirled about the pools of scorching water and I had to go about 100 metres downstream before I found a pool cool enough for me to tolerate. Green and black rafts of algae floated on the water while the edge held deposits of vibrant orange and yellows. Careful to keep my head out of the water I let the stress of the day drift away in the stream before emerging like a floppy lobster to prepare camp.
Having soothed my aching limbs we found a flat piece of ground by the lake on which to pitch the tent. I had my reservations about drinking water taken from a volcanic lake, and the trail of human faeces did little to allay my doubts as I walked along the lakeshore looking for dead wood. I started a fire and put a pan of water on it only to discover that the pan had a hole in it. Cursing the hi-tech stove and pans left in Dempasar I fanned the fire until really hot and then put the pan at the edge so that the drips did not put the fire out. It was dusk before I’d cooked our noodles, supplemented with a shaggy ink cap mushroom that I had picked on the descent. We ate as the sun set behind Rinjani. After a desert of biscuits we sat by the dying fire and watched the stars before turning in.
Getting up just before dawn we ate the cold noodles saved from the night before not wishing to go through the hassle of lighting fires again. Breaking camp we headed for the second rim and back out of the volcano’s crater. The long grass was soaked with dew and my feet were sopping as I squelched along the path. We contoured around the valley and it was not long before I was struggling as the path climbed steeply upwards. I don’t really know what was wrong with me but my legs were like jelly and I was having problems breathing. Helen was fine and her determination and support kept me going.
The two and a half hours it took to reach the second rim seemed like an eternity. We rested here for 30 minutes before setting off to climb to the start of the summit ridge, which we reached after quite a tough climb. An hour later I hung our packs in a tree at the bottom of the ridge, hopefully hidden from inquisitive primates. There was no way I would reach the top carrying my pack so we decided to hide them. There were no other people on the mountain above us and we could see nobody below. Carrying just cameras, water and biscuits we set off for the final ascent.
Leaving the ridge we climbed the edge through a weird moonscape comprised of volcanic ash and lumps of lava rock. Below the lip of the ridge the elements had carved jagged sculptures, painting them in tints of ochre and terra cotta intruded upon by thin streaks of bright red and orange. The ash and clinker underfoot was sombre grey, interspersed by patches of sulphurous yellow and the occasional lone plant; a splash of green on the edge of existence.
The last section became steep and with every step forward we slipped back in the volcanic ash; it was hard on the legs and totally demoralising. After two hours of dull slogging we finally stood on the summit. We could see Garung Agung on Bali protruding through the cloud and the crater and caldera of Rinjani. Treating ourselves to some chocolate to celebrate we soaked in the view for 20 minutes before beginning our descent. This was easy and great fun, scree-running down volcanic ash!
We collected our packs, which were untouched, and dropped down off the ridge to where the going was hard and slow. At the bottom we passed Noor who had just reached Rim II; he ignored us, probably further angered by our speed and success. I pitched the tent on the rim among some pine trees while Helen fetched some water. By the time she returned I had a blazing fire going on which we cooked our noodles while the sun went down. We slept well after our arduous and successful day.
Again we were up early and ate our leftover cold noodles as the sun rose. It had rained in the night and the water had continued to drip from the trees; the tent was soaked. The descent started off steeply, passing through copses of trees scattered about the grassland. The path was wet, compacted mud with a surface film of moss which made it very slippery. I went over several times while Helen continued in mountain goat fashion!
Eventually the gradient eased, the copses stopped and we were walking through volcanic grassland of oat grass with the occasional patch of wild flowers. The rolling grassland dotted with isolated trees, torn apart by occasional gorges and dry riverbeds was beautiful.
The grassland gave way to woodland where woodsmen wielded axes. The product of their labours was everywhere; the felled trees were cut in situ into 6” square beams, which were carried out manually. We became lost on the many new paths made by the woodsmen and Helen became quite concerned. Finally leaving the woods we spotted a village.
We had taken the wrong path in the woods and the village we found ourselves in was called Bawak Nao not Sembalin. We sat by the side of the road for an hour waiting for a bemo to take us to Senaru. From a small wooden kiosk I bought a dozen small, spicy semosas, which cheered us up and helped to pass the time.
On return to Senaru we stayed at the much friendlier Puri Jaya Wijaya where we ate Nassi Goreng (fried rice with an egg on top) followed by fried bananas. Later the owner’s wife treated us to a bowl of Bubur; sago in a soup of coconut and milk with the taste of caramel, a traditional and very tasty Indonesian dish. There is no better way to end a noodle-fuelled adventure than with a large and beautiful meal complimenting a landscape that assaults the senses with such raw, primal force as that of volcanoes.