At 3,726 m, Rinjani is the second highest volcano in Indonesia. This summer, I ended up climbing it on a two night, three day trek in the Mount Rinjani National Park, Lombok. It was an adventure that I was not prepared for. A real bucket list experience where I swam in a crater lake next to an active, smoking volcano and slept in a tent teetering on the side of a crater rim – two things I definitely didn’t picture myself doing when I booked my annual leave and packed for Indonesia…
Why you should never say yes to a three day hike without doing your research
I’ve been putting off writing this post. Partly because I’m embarrassed that I thought I could climb a mountain in a summer dress and Converse, and partly because it’s difficult to convey what climbing Mount Rinjani was like, aside from ‘bloody hard’. These were the most physically and mentally challenging three days of my little life so far. I’m not sure if I feel proud of the achievement or just stupid for putting myself in a situation that I was completely unprepared for. Oh, and I cried. So there’s a little insight into my level of outdoors-iness.
Getting from Bali to Lombok
The view out of the airplane window as we touched down in Lombok was one the most intriguing window seat perspectives I’ve ever experienced. As the plane soared over endless rice paddies; I could pick out people working on the land. I wish I had taken a picture, but my camera was out of reach.
Fresh from a night of parting in Kuta, my three girlfriends and I had arrived at Bali Denpasar airport earlier that day feeling spontaneous. We’d bagged flights from Bali to Lombok for £15 at the check-in desk and felt really pleased with ourselves about it.
The departure process itself was terrifying. Denpasar was so badly organised that we almost missed our flight, and airport staff kept directing us to the wrong gate. As we boarded the plane, the giggly air hostess inquired, “Destination?”
Well, I hope you know hun.
In the Arrivals hall taxi drivers swarmed around us, each offering lower prices than the last. It was actually quite comical, standing looking at each other and pondering what to do while all these men stood looking at us enquiringly.
We drove around Lombok for a while looking for suitable accommodation. The taxi driver played Adele songs. Apparently Lombok loves her as much as we do. Eventually we checked in to a guest house and the receptionist asked us about our plans. We all shrugged and five minutes later an enthusiastic boy knocked on our door to ask if we fancied climbing a mountain. Yeah alright, we said. Two day adventure or the full three days? Sure! Sign us up for the whole hog!
That’s where it all went wrong.
I think my choice of outfit proves how under prepared I was to climb a f*cking mountain. I signed up for Mai Tais on the beach and maybe some yoga, not this sh*t.
Day 1: Climbing Mount Rinjani
It was dark outside when we rose at 6am in the pouring rain and waited for our minibus. The night before, I had watched one of my friends slip a bottle of body scrub into her rucksack. “I’m sure there’ll be showers along the way”, she said naively. Oh, how wrong she was.
We arrived via the village of Senaru (600 m), which is a village on the northern side of the mountain, near the resort area Senggigi. The other possible entry point is Sembalun Lawang (1,150 m), on the eastern side, which is closer to the summit. After platefuls of banana pancakes, we set off through the rain forest.
From the get-go, it was a steep hike, but enjoyable. Look at us, being all fit and wholesome. The village dogs snaked past our limbs as we hauled ourselves through the trees. Between gasps for breath, we alternated between two phrases: “I feel so intrepid right now”, and “I’m f*cking sweating”.
There were three dedicated ‘rest points’ before camp on the first day but we paused frequently to wipe sweat from our brows, appreciate the scenery and swear like troopers. The best advice I can give to someone planning on doing the Rinjani hike is to pack loads of biscuits, because sugar will definitely be your friend. I had a few shaky moments over the three days, but nothing a few coconut cookies couldn’t fix. At one point I got hysterical giggles and had to inhale handfuls before I was sober enough to continue.
I saw wild monkeys for the first time! The long-tailed grey macaque (the Bali temple monkey) is common right up to the crater rim, and they aren’t shy. We also spotted the much rarer ebony leaf monkey. These wise looking creatures swing from branches in the clouds, preferring to keep their distance.
Soon, the altitude got too much for the village dogs and we left them behind. The trees began to thin and then we were on top of the world, walking into the clouds. Above the tree line in Rinjani National Park the slopes are barren and rugged, coated in volcanic rock. There was no path for us to follow. Fun.
Camping on Mount Rinjani
It felt like we were never going to get to the campsite for the first night, but eventually it came into sight. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.
I started to realise that this three day trek was going to be hard on me. I’m no princess, but I do prefer to feel like my bed isn’t going to fall off the side of a mountain. Call me old fashioned.
We were camping on the caldera rim, but it was too misty to see the volcano below us that evening. The next day, visibility lifted and it turned out that our precarious camping spot had been worth it.
I took this photograph from the viewpoint at camp.
Our guide and the porters cooked us a huge dinner each night: endless plates of rice, chicken and vegetables. Nestled in my bowl of carbs was a curious thing: a whole, boiled egg with a crispy, oily coating. I still don’t understand how or why they had fried a boiled egg. Perhaps it’s a traditional delicacy in Lombok?
Rinjani guides and porters
Our small group of climbers slept in pairs in two-man tents, but the porters who carried our food and equipment for us were not so well sheltered. I was really upset to see that they were all to sleep under this makeshift cover together. They couldn’t even lie down fully.
Our guide was lovely and frequently apologised for his (very good) level of English, but I worried about his well being. The porters had it especially rough: carrying huge baskets of food on sticks across their shoulders as they navigated the terrain with ease all day must be incredibly hard on their bodies. These guys probably have one of the toughest jobs in the world. Most wore no shoes. It was their lack of English that determined their role, while the guide was able to earn more money and avoid carrying tourists’ tents and food.
Day 2: Swimming in the lake near an active volcano
In the morning we crawled stiffly out of our tents into a shroud of mist, and ate stodgy banana pancakes to set us up for the day. When we rose the first morning, I had no idea what the day had in store. Miles from civilisation, we were alone in the wilderness – a weird feeling when you’re accustomed to constant twitter updates and a coffee shop on every corner.
After all that upwards climbing, we were suddenly descending over 600m back down the precarious rocks to the lake, using wobbly handrails as guidance.
I quickly realised that health and safety regulations in Lombok were probably not up to the standards of the western world, and panic began to set it. It crossed my mind to ask if anyone had ever died on this trek, but I thought better of it. The next day, my question was answered, and I wish I hadn’t overheard that conversation. Yes, people have died hiking in Mount Rinjani National Park.
Despite my doubts about our safety, hiking Mount Rinjani was nothing short of unforgettable.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled about undoing our upwards progress, but I was about to experience one of the coolest things I’ve done on my travels yet: swimming in a crater lake next to a smoking ‘very active’ volcano. The trek routes were closed as recent as 2010 because of eruptions, but you know – YOLO and all that.
Within the huge 50 km² caldera sits the crater lake ‘Segara Anak’ (Child of the Sea). Eruptions within the caldera have formed a new small cone called Gunung Baru (New Mountain), and this mini peak was the surreal backdrop for our morning swim.
We underestimated how cold the water was going to be, so we didn’t paddle for long. The summit loomed forlornly to our left, and I cursed the tough climb down to the lake. We had undone all our hard work!
Rinjani’s natural thermal pools
Another traipse through the landscape, and we came to the hot pools, which were teeming with Asian tourists. A strong sulfuric fog hung in the air but we got in to the murky water anyway. Anything to soothe our aching thigh muscles.
With refreshed vigour, we dried off and began the climb to the last camping spot before the summit. As the rocks got more and more dangerous, a thunderstorm broke out. Visibility was low and we were being pelted with rain. My converse were slipping over the wet rocks and there was dirt under my fingernails. I made a vow to buy decent hiking boots for my next little climb – if there was one.
It was then that I realised that as much as I loved adventures, I definitely don’t enjoy putting myself at risk. What we were doing was, frankly, stupid. People don’t live this high up for a reason. I was over this whole ‘climbing a mountain’ thing, and ready to go home – or anywhere there would be cocktails, unlimited Wi-Fi and sun loungers. Even just a dry, stable piece of land would be nice.
Unfortunately, no helicopter was going to come and save me. There was nowhere to go but up. I’m not proud of this, but an inner drama queen I didn’t know was lurking inside of me came out somewhere around this point. I was shaking and gasping for breath as I hauled myself up and up and up. I now know I needed sugar but I didn’t want to pause to gather myself. I just needed to get to a point where I wasn’t going to die if I fell.
There was a long way to go. We started to pass lone climbers who were climbing without a guide, and I felt sick with worry for them. Then again, at least they’d come in the right gear…
I felt only relief when we reached the campsite for our final night. The summit still loomed mockingly over us, so I turned my back on it and looked at our view from the tent instead. Yeah, I may be smiling in the pictures but I just wanted to get it all over with.
On that second night, we crawled into our sleeping bags before the sun had even gone down.
All four of us huddled in a 2 man tent, too cold and tired too eat our food outside. We joked blandly about room service when the porters delivered plates full of rice to each tent flap.
That night as the sun set, our guide apparently decided it was time to make his move. He asked me if I would like a foreign boyfriend, and I slyly slid a ring from one finger to another, showing him I was married. On receipt of this (false) information, he seamlessly shifted his weight to the other side and hit on my friend. I wondered at the quality of his life, if he was so prepared to pimp himself out to a stranger. Earlier that day, he had asked us how to spell the word ‘forever’, and we helped him type out ‘I love you forever’ in a text to his sweetheart.
(Not) Getting to the summit of Mount Rinjani
Before bedtime, we were told the plan for Operation Summit.
We would have to rise at 1.45 am to fuel up with carbs before tackling the summit. Eh, what? Nobody told me I’d be scaling a mountain in the darkness. Only a handful of people were determined (read: stupid) enough to go, and they set off into the darkness. I hadn’t even brought a torch, so my decision was kind of made for me.
Our guide reappeared a while later. When we asked him where his charges were, he told us that he had left them climbing to the summit. He was physically sick and couldn’t go on.
When the hardy climbers returned, I was selfishly glad to hear them say that sunrise wasn’t all that breathtaking. I think we hadn’t chosen a great week for visibility. The ones who went all the way told us that the final 300m was loose volcanic gravel, making me glad I hadn’t attempted to tackle it.
Few actually make the very strenuous effort required to reach the actual summit but instead stop at the crater rim (approx 2,700 m). To make the extra 1,000 m ascent to the very top requires a considerably higher level of fitness, not to mention strength of spirit and sense of adventure – which I clearly don’t have.
Day 3: The descent
During our upward journey, I’d been trying to ignore the niggling worry that kept crossing my mind. Err, how were we gonna get down?
With great difficulty, it turned out. As I skidded and slipped downhill, I started to regret my choice of footwear. A porter, clearly taking pity on me (the irony), handed me a wooden hiking pole. I don’t think I would have got down without it.
Heavy rain pelted down as the climb began to ease and soon the path we were walking along was a river that ran over our feet. My Converse were definitely ready for the bin. I was saturated, tired and miserable – and civilisation was still nowhere near nigh. Soon, I was wondering if I had taken a wrong turn. Surely the village should be in sight now?
Eventually, we heard the distant but unmistakable sound of chanting, and we broke into a run. We had made it!
Climbing a mountain together in Lombok was definitely a bonding experience between myself and the other girls. Peeing next to each other while clinging on to the side of the mountain for dear life was a little different to the drunken back alley pees at home.
I learned a lot about myself on that hike. I learned that I need sugar when I’m moody, I’m not as tough as I think I am and that I really, really hate camping. Still, climbing Mount Rinjani was an unforgettable experience and though I wouldn’t have signed up for it had I known how grueling it was going to be, I’m glad I did it.
A word of warning about Mount Rinjani Lombok tour companies.
I really, really wish we had done our research. Not just for our own safety (though that was a definite cause for concern), but because the tour company we were paying evidently weren’t very responsible towards their guides. The fact that some porters had no shoes really upset me, and our guide told us that he only had boots because a past hiker had left his behind. He was a young guy made entirely of skin and bone, and told us he often gets ill.
We paid a very small sum for the three day trek, and I would have much preferred to pay more and be sure that our guides and porters were properly looked after. Entry to the park costs Rp 150,000 (+-12 USD) per person. This fee is split up as follows: 13% to the national park authority, 62% to the Rinjani ecotourism trekking program and 25% for trek route maintenance. Tips are absolutely necessary.
The mountain’s Licensed Guide Association (HPI) issues certification to the Rinjani guides and porters but it should be understood that the certification standards and required training are no where near as rigorous as in many other countries. Serious accidents including fatalities do occur on Rinjani treks when led by accredited guides. I’m generally pretty laid back about safety, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the level of precaution I saw.
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You can check the prices of accommodation around Mount Rinjani on booking.com – there are loads of options.
Would you be up for hiking Lombok’s Mount Rinjani? Let me know in the comments!