As we struggled uphill, using our hands to climb as much as our feet, slipping and sliding and sweating in the ashy gravel, I asked myself again why we had decided to do this stupid trek.
Our feet could find no purchase in the soft ground. For every strained step forward we slid half a step back. Progress was painfully slow.
Picture trying to walk in a kids’ ball pit, the ground filled with colourful plastic spheres impeding your way. Annoying, right? Not a helpful walking environment.
Now picture that at a 45 degree angle.
Now picture that in the dark, along a narrow ridge, with the edges sloping down at an alarming angle off into the murky darkness. Your torch illuminates the sheer sides of the cliff, but you try not to think about it too much. And anyway, you are too busy thinking about the burning in your legs and your lungs.
That gives you the barest wisp of an idea of how hard the summit was. Even now, a few days on, the memory of it is fading and I know that I can’t fully live that feeling again: the feeling of utter disbelief that it would ever end, that we’d ever make it to the top.
When our guide was giving us a garbled itinerary for the three day hike, back down at base camp in Senaru, he used a stick to trace our route on the map.
‘Day one,’ he said, illustrating with his pointing stick. ‘Easy walk to Pos 1, Pos 2, Pos 3… and then it’s fucking hard.’
Well, Amet, I have to agree. It was fucking hard.
But on the other hand, it was also one of the best things I have ever done. It was a huge challenge, both physically and mentally, but those views from the top of the peak…
I really just don’t have the words. And this from a girl for whom words are the way the world is processed.
But let me start at the beginning. How this whole crazy venture started. How we somehow managed to put together a group of 10 people for the trek, all of whom who had known each other for under 48 hours, but who became a big, slightly dysfunctional family in less than that time.
I met Brigitte in a horse and cart. We had travelled over from Gili Air to Lombok in the same rickety public boat, and bonded over our shared reluctance to believe the ‘helpful’ people congregated outside the port, telling us that it was too far to walk to the shuttle bus pickup point.
It may seem illogical that the shuttle bus does not leave from the same point as where the boats arrive, but that’s Indonesia for you.
So we hopped into a horse and cart together, after much deliberation (did we believe that it was ‘very far’, as we were being so earnestly told?), and off we went.
When you meet someone you get on with well while travelling, it’s usually a good idea to stick with them. And so it was now: two days later and we had (loosely) organised the three day, two night trek up the highest peak in Lombok. For ten people: the two of us, a couple of Germans, another Dutch girl from my hostel, and five more Dutch boys
(There are a lot of Dutch people in Indonesia. Possibly more than there are actually in the Netherlands)
So the tour was booked in the morning, and that same afternoon we found ourselves all crammed into a minibus and on our way to Senaru, where we would be staying the night before the hike.
It was basic accommodation, but pleasant enough. Joeri discovered that his room was already occupied – by a spider the size of his head – before he was rescued by one of the staff from the trekking company.
I had been expecting some sort of briefing before we headed to bed that evening. But as it turned out, the aforementioned gesticulating with the pointing stick was pretty much all the briefing we were going to get. We did spot a useful kit list tacked up on the wall, though (with some items scrawled on in marker pen, presumably as an afterthought – maybe they thought that most people would realise on their own that ‘shoes’ would be a useful item for a three-day hike).
So to bed we went, un-briefed, and soon discovered the minimal thickness of the walls when we were all privy to Niko’s singing, and later his snoring.
The next morning arrived, and we were joyfully awoken by Niko’s dulcet tones – more piercing than any alarm – and quickly got ready to leave.
We were treated to the first of many, many banana pancakes for breakfast, kindly provided by our hosts, and then loaded unceremoniously into a pickup truck for the hour long drive to our start point at Sembalun.
It wasn’t the most comfortable ride of my life, but neither was it the least. And it certainly wasn’t the most discomfort we would be facing over the next few days.
The trek started off very well. Our spirits were high, our legs were fresh, and nobody had yet developed blisters.
The first three posts we passed were very manageable. This gave us a (false) sense of optimisim: we could do this, of course we could.
In fairness, the majority of the trek was doable. It was sweaty and steep and long (both in terms of time and in distance), but it was certainly more a question of determination (or stubbornness) than actual fitness.
But then. Then there were the times where the terrain turned from a well-defined track into a sandy slope, with no purchase for your feet and no respite for your legs, which had to keep on working even just to keep you upright. The times when you reached a descent composed of loose sand layered over a steep surface, where even the best shoes were prone to skid and send you sliding down, arms flailing.
For someone as stability-challenged as me, even on a good day, the downhill was torture.
I fell over a lot.
On the other hand, as soon as we stopped, it was all fine again. At every break, we reflected that it wasn’t that hard, after all. And then on we went, immediately remembering that maybe it was actually pretty difficult.
Our camp for the first night found us at the top of the crater rim, looking out over the crater lake, further up than most of the other campers. Below and behind us were a string of colourful tents filling the hillside; above us was the daunting view of the peak which we were to ascend the next morning.
It was cloudy when we first arrived, but every so often there would be a break in the whiteout, and a collective gasp, a thrill of excitement would run through the group as we could see the full vista spread out below us.
Sunset was magical. There is almost nothing more beautiful than the sun going down behind the mountains and painting the sky with its light.
Once the light had left and dinner had been served, most of the group beat an early retreat to bed. It was probably about 7 o’clock.
As it turned out, when camping on the crater rim of a volcano, you need all the sleep time you can get if you want to get a decent number of hours in. It was windy as hell and gusts gripped the canvas with a vengeance. Even from the sheer noise of it you would struggle to drift off, but when the tent wall itself is beating you in your sleep, you don’t stand a chance.
Nobody got more than an hour of shut-eye that night. And anyway, we were to wake up at 2am for the slog to the summit.
The knowledge of a painfully early start is never conducive to a good night’s rest.
So the alarms went off mere moments after they had been set, and we sluggishly emerged from our tents, helped somewhat by the breakfast thrust at us by the ever-attentive porters. Niko and Lea’s tent outer had blown off in the night, which Niko took great delight in telling everyone (repeatedly), while neglecting to mention that it had landed just in front of the tent. Neither of them had wanted to get out of bed to reattach it, understandably.
We packed our bags with all of the warm clothes we could source, donned our headlights, and off we went.
I have already attempted to describe the experience of the summit above, so I won’t belabour the point, but it was honestly one of the hardest things I have ever done. Harder than Routeburn in the rain, harder than the Inca trail after three full days of walking, harder than any run or triathlon or sporting achievement.
We had luckily been forewarned by a couple of friends in the hostel that the summit would be tough.
‘There are a good 45 minutes where you will want to die,’ they’d confidently told us, except I couldn’t remember whether they were talking about the first or last 45 minutes of the peak.
To be honest, of the three and a half hour ascent, there were only about 45 minutes which didn’t fit that description.
But we made it – almost all of us (sorry Rico) – and as we struggled forward and upward for those last few feet, there was an unbelievable sense of accomplishment. For me, the struggle and hardship of a climb or a hike is always rewarded ten times over by the sense of satisfaction I get from completing it.
And the view from the top always helps, as well.
We stayed at the peak, savouring our victory, for longer than most, and were some of the last people to come down for breakfast. The descent was way more enjoyable than the climb had been, but everyone ended up with what felt like half a volcano in their shoes. It was more like skiing than walking: what had been a hindrance on the ascent was a huge help now, the loose ground providing assistance to our weary legs.
It is not often that I have eaten breakfast at 9am having already summited and descended the peak of a volcano, and walked for roughly 6 hours. But it was a pretty good feeling.
The only tough part was the knowledge that we weren’t even half way through our day’s hike, yet we were already so tired and dirty.
But we duly packed our things and set off again, with some reluctance, for the long slog down to the crater lake and up the other side. It was a tough, tough day. I got very frustrated on the descent because I just couldn’t prevent myself from slipping and tripping and sliding and falling. I normally take it in my stride as part of who I am (a clumsy idiot), but that day I took it hard because it costs so much more effort to go downwards when you are constantly straining every muscle and every fibre to try to remain upright.
But eventually we made it down to the lake, and there we stopped for lunch. This was the part we had all been waiting for: a swim to wash off all the caked-on grime and dust and dirt that had accumulated from two days of hiking with no shower.
First, though, we ventured to the hot springs, about ten minutes’ walk away, whereupon the girls embarked upon the difficult task of changing out of sports bra and into bikini tops with only a sarong as cover. We managed it, though, with just a brief pause to wait for some overtly starey men to vacate, and at last slipped into the blissfully warm water to soothe our aching muscles.
It was perfect.
(Although it was slightly unnerving that just by the springs sat a large group of chattering locals, sheltered under a large tarpaulin, some of whom seemed to be giving us the stink eye. But our guide had showed us to the place, so we can’t have been doing anything too wrong).
After as much heat as we could handle, we traipsed back to the lake and plunged (OK, hobbled) into the cool water there to refresh ourselves before lunch. The unfortunate reality was that the foreshore of the lake was largely filled with rubbish and slime, so it wasn’t as idyllic as it looked from afar – but it was still not a bad place for a dip. Lunch was accompanied by vast numbers of flies, so we weren’t too keen on lingering for longer than necessary.
Eight and a half hours of walking down, we still had three hours left to go, so off we went again, with the lofty crater rim hanging above us, taunting us with its evident height and distance from our current position.
We huffed and sweated our way up to the crater, as the path gave way to rocks which had to be scrambled up. At various points there were actually metal handrails installed, presumably indicating the particularly treacherous points in the trail, only half the time the rails were laying skewiff across the path.
Well, health and safety isn’t really Indonesia’s thing.
We made it eventually to our camp, which was once again further on than most, and with relief collapsed onto the first available patch of ground.
We were a little way down from the ridge, which gave us hope that it might not be quite so windy that night. Unfortunately our hope was unfounded: if anything the wind was fiercer. Nobody’s roof blew off this time, but our tent (and most of the others) practically caved in on us, which made for a less than pleasant sleeping experience.
The last day of hiking was for me one of the hardest. Almost entirely downhill (hello constant fear of falling), and down horrendously slippery paths, I was also the last to get going in the morning, so was playing catch up most of the time. I was grumpy at the guide for not having mentioned any time in particular that we needed to set off, and grumpier still at my own body for consistently failing to keep me upright. My feet were full of blisters, my legs were shaking with the effort of slowing my descent, and I was getting irrationally angry at the guide for constantly trying to help me because I CAN DO IT MYSELF OKAY.
Sometimes I despair at my stubbornness.
But through it all, the best hiking companions I could wish for kept me sane, continually waiting for me at each stop, and insisting they didn’t mind my going in front of them despite my snail-like pace.
And then we made it to the bottom.
And I am now writing this from a boat somewhere in the Pacific. We are speeding our way past Sumbawa, one of Indonesia’s lesser-known islands, on our way to see Komodo dragons in Komodo national park. I still can’t stop thinking about the trek (and my legs certainly wont let me forget it; I can’t even sit down to pee without a concerted effort), and I don’t think I will be able to for a while yet.
It was easily one of the best things I have ever done, but it was also one of the hardest.
And I would recommend it to anyone and everyone who makes their way to Indonesia, because you will regret it if you don’t.
We hiked Rinjani with Lenk Trekking and paid 1.5 million rupiah each, in a group of 10. Apart from the tour itself, this included one night accommodation before the hike, and transfers to and from our hostel in Kuta Lombok. I’ll put together a post with recommendations on doing this trip later this week and link back to it here!