BY: CHOU K. S.
"What am I doing here? I don't have to summit. I have nothing to prove. I'm getting too old for this sort of mountain climbing. I want to turn back."
These thoughts raced through my mind as I took one laboured step after another on the ever-climbing slope. I gasped for breath - the air had thinned out at that high elevation. I was on the verge of giving up but my wife, and the beams from torches of climbers ahead, egged me on.
A sliver of warm light peeked from the horizon. My watch showed the time as 6am. We were supposed to be at the summit of Mt Rinjani by now, to view a stunning sunrise. Instead, the peak loomed far in the distance, imposing and unreachable. We still had a hellish climb to get there.
Soaring 3,726m over the island of Lombok, Rinjani is the third highest volcanic peak in Indonesia, eclipsed only by Mt Kerinci in Sumatra and Mt Jayawijaya in Papua. Its immense height and beautiful crater lake are what draw trekkers to scale its flanks.
My wife was convinced that we should do the same, so we booked a three-day/two-night hike where we would first trek up to the volcano crater rim and camp the night. Next is a descent down the crater to the lakeside, then up on the opposite crater wall. On the third morning, we would head for the summit before descending all the way down to Sembalun Lawang.
Our trek started at the village of Senaru, taking us through orchards before entering rainforest. The uphill trek was tough-going but fortunately, we had porters who carried the food, drinking water, tent, air mattresses, sleeping bags and cooking utensils in two baskets suspended from bamboo poles. Despite the heavy load, they literally ran up the mountain - wearing only flip flops.
Two hours into the trek, we gladly stopped at the first resting point. Our porters, having arrived earlier, already had a fire going. A hearty lunch of rice with instant noodles, pineapple and tea energised us for the walk ahead.
Uphill all the way
The terrain was an ever-changing palette as we climbed higher. Lush rainforest soon gave way to fields of ferns, shrubby foliage and then rolling hills carpeted with tall grass, edelweiss and conifers. Rinjani National Park harbours wildlife such as the rare black ebony leaf monkey, barking deer, leopard cat, palm civet and crested cockatoo, but these wildlife eluded us.
The trail turned almost vertical as we neared the rim of the crater. At the top, however, was an amazing view: a caldera of jagged peaks cups a lake which shimmers a turquoise hue.
Mt Rinjani once soared over 5,000m but volcanic activity caused it to collapse and the cavity filled up to form a lake. Subsequent eruptions led to a new peak emerging from the lake, creating the unique phenomenon of a "volcano within a volcano". Recent eruptions were restricted to the new cone Gunung Barujari (2,363m), with the last one in October 2004.
The campsite overlooks the crater, so there were great views all around. But there are no toilets, so you have to find your own spot and watch where you step. At an elevation of 2,640m, the cold was biting and our guide Masnun gladly served our dinner of gado-gado with rice inside the tent.
The next morning, a steep rocky trail led us down the crater to the lake. Scenic vistas of the lake and peaks distracted us while we descended. Sprawling over 1,150ha, the 230m-deep Lake Segara Anak can be mistaken for the sea. The sight of anglers along the shore caught us by surprise - people actually make the tedious hike to fish here. Masnun told us the lake is sacred to the locals, so many come to give offerings - and fish.
At the nearby hot spring, hot water cascaded into waterfalls and rock pools. Many locals come to bathe away disease but they left the place littered. So we abandoned plans for a rejuvenating soak. As for a dip in the lake, the water was just too cold!
After lunch, we scaled the crater wall to reach our next campsite. The path climbed relentlessly but levelled out at the rim. The campsite, perched on the crater lip at 2,640m, afforded another dramatic view of the volcano and lake. Our bodies beaten by eight hours of trekking, we were in bed by 7pm.
It was bitterly cold when we tumbled out of our tent at 2.30am. Masnun had prepared cups of sweet tea to warm us up and biscuits to fuel us for the walk ahead. We needed an early start to reach the summit at sunrise. At 3am, we joined the line of climbers snaking up the mountain. In the pitch darkness, the only sounds were our hard breathing as we struggled up the incline.
The trail gradually turned into loose gravel and soft ash, making the climb tortuous and frustrating. It was like scaling a gigantic sand dune: take one step, slide down half a step. Many climbers overtook us and some were already heading down.
We wanted to turn back many times but the thought that every little step would bring us nearer to the summit pushed us to continue. We finally reached the apex of Lombok island at 7am, taking four hours instead of the average three. But we felt better after seeing other hikers still struggling up.
The summit is just a craggy outcrop but the view from there was spectacular. Verdant green valleys spread out below and we made out the Lombok coastline and faint outlines of the Gili islands. The crescent-shaped lake is clad by a ring of peaks. In the distance, the peak of Mt Agung on the neighbouring island of Bali peeked out above the clouds. With such views, all the weariness seemed worthwhile.
We headed down after 30 minutes at the peak. In the morning sun, we finally saw the terrain which we had earlier traversed in the dark. The path was uncomfortably close to the crater edge and at parts only 2m wide, with steep drops on either side. I shuddered at the thought of a misstep.
With ash as fine as flour beneath us, we slid down most of the way, covering in two hours what had taken four to climb. Back at the camp, a breakfast of banana pancakes awaited us but there was little time to linger - we still had to walk down to the valley.
The trek back to civilisation did not get any easier but pretty scenery eased the pain. We walked through mist-clad ridges, sub-alpine forest, rolling plateaus, riverbeds with volcanic black sand and then, fields of tall grass where we had to sidestep mounds of cow dung - a sure sign that the walk was nearing end.
Finally, the comforting sight of farms and village houses came into view. It was 4.15pm - we had walked some 13 hours that day. We eagerly jumped into a waiting car that drove us to the sandy beaches of Kuta Lombok. To reward ourselves, we checked into the gorgeous Tastura Hotel.
Soaking away the aches in the pool later, we gazed at the outline of Rinjani in the distance with satisfaction. Sure, it was a gruelling climb, but the views and experience were well worth it.