a Peak Experience


By: Shaun McVicar

Climbing Mount Rinjani, Lombok’s geographical and spritual heart, is now “hot” among the island’s visitors. However, as Shaun McVicar discovered, the trek to the summit is not for unfit or faint-hearted.

            My heart was pounding, feet aching, my thighs were screaming and I felt like joining in. I wanted to tear up that glossy travel magazine that had drawn me to trek up Lombok’s towering Mount Rinjani.

            Then, unexpectedly, the ground levelled out and my view of the world changed immediately. So did my attitude. Before me lay on the most spectacular sighs I had ever seen.

            I was standing on the narrow rim of Mount Rinjani’s massive volcanic crater. Off to the left the walking track that had tormented me for so many hours continued along the crater ridge and soared up toward Rinjani’s jagged peak in the distance. A troop of grey monkeys sat motionless, curious, partly hidden in the grassy scrub that covered the lip of the crater.

            The sky was an endless blue but nearly as blue as the vast azure lake, Segara Anak or “Baby Sea” which lay in the volcano’s deep crater, far below. The lake’s surface rippled with gentle waves which lapped against a wide sandy beach. At one end of the lake nestled the second, smaller volcano, Gunung Baru (New Mountain) which looked like suprisingly perfect miniature of its great mother. As if one cue, junior contentedly puffed a yellow cloud of sulphur into the air. Even the monkeys looked impressed.

            There was no sound but the wind and my own breathing. There was no sign of other climbers. Before me lay this spectacular volcanic lake. Behind me lay foothills rolling away to the beautiful Pacific Ocean. It was positively transcendental. This was Lombok. This was why I had come.

            Touted as the “New Bali”, the prime reason I went to Lombok was to climb Mount Rinjani, the island’s geographical and spiritual heart~a still-thumping one at that!

            Climbing Mount Rinjani is now “hot” and it seemed that everyone I spoke to was a trekking guide who could organise the best and cheapest trek. While it is possible to make the climb without a guide, I planned to watch sunrise at the summit. This would involve an awkward ascent in the dark and I felt a guide would be useful~at the very least someone to play cards with if the weather was bad.

            The trek started at the quiet village of Sembalun Lawang (now to be Sembalun) on the eastern slopes of Mount Rinjani. We met our porter and cook and headed off.

            For the first two to three hours we traversed the lower slopes and foothills, through undulating grassland and light forest. The trail was reasonably well-defined but heavily eroded, and at times turned into a treacherous and potentially ankle-breaking trench. As the trail wound its way through thick, tall grass, it was often difficult to see where we were heading and where to step.

            During ther first few hours we passed a number of simple but newly-built walker’s shelters. It soon began to rain. When we came to the next shelter, bursting at its same with trekkers and guides, I realised just how popular trekking is on Mount Rinjani. About 30 people were crammed on a wooden platform that was no more than two metres by two metres. But the strange thing was that I did not see any of these people again on the rest of the trip or, for that matter, any other person on the mountain, except at the summit.

            We pitched camp in a sheltered spot an hour down the track near a swiftly-flowing stream. There were spectacular views of the sea and the many small islands jus off Lombok. But whatever was above the campsite remained a mystery due to a layer of thick cloud. Next morning though was picture-perfect and I discovered what lay above~a daunting, denuded and towering volcanic cone.

            To my relief, when we started walking againg that morning we seemed to be heading around the volcano, but this was not to last. The trail soon took the shortest route~straight up with barely a bend or deviation. Loose footing made each step dificult and there was constant danger of topling backwards.

            We eventually made it to the crater rim for what proved to be an unforgetable view and experience. But this was only half the story because I was here to climb the summit! That night we pitched our tents on the rim of the crater. At 03:00 am, after a restless sleep (caused by a combination of anticipation, concern about the weather and monkeys raiding our belongings), we rose for the trek to the summit for the sunrise. If I thought the climb to the crater rim had been though, the summit climb was thougher. No wonder few travellers go al the way. It was bitterly cold and heavy cloud shrouded everything, making it difficult to see the trail. Our path lit by torchlight, I shadowed my guide as we travelled along the crater toward the soaring jagged peak.

            After an hour of scrambling we started climbing. Like the long ascent to the crater  rim the previous day, it was labourious and steep trudge. The ground under foot was made up of loose volcanic sand and it seemed to be one step forward and two steps back. Two hours later we arrived at a spot which my guide solemnly pronounced to be “near the top”. The cloud had lifted by that stage and I swear the stars twinkled a little more brightly with those words.

            The summit proved to be a series of rocky crags. In a few cases it was possible to scramble from one of these jagged outcrops to another but most were inaccesible. With equal validity, each of these rocks could lay claim to the title of The Summit and the grand height of 3.726 metres above sea level.

            I clambered up to what seemed to be as good a summit as any~it certainly was no lower than the others~and sat down to watch a high-altitude light show which exceeded my wildest expectations. A fine, deep red line split the inky night, following the gentle curve of the previously indiscernible horizon.

            Over the next 20 minutes the sky glowed mauve then a beautiful dusky pink before turning a fiery red as the sun’s orb began to appear and light up the jagged summit. As the sky lightened, the sea also seemed to glow from within and small islands lying just off the caost stood out sharply as black smudges against a luminescent pink surface. The summit gave spectacular views off to the island of Sumbawa in the east. Bali was clearly visible, just next door it seemed, and with the sun just peeping over the horizon, Mount Rinjani cast a shadow all the way to Bali’s shores. A little closer to home the three “Gilis”~three tropical islands just of Lombok’s coast~beck-oned as I began to feel the cold.

            Once the light had evened out I began the descent to our camp which I could see as a few green and blue specks far below on the crater rim. I discovered the path we had climbed in the dark was along a metre-wide ridge. A few false steps to one side, or a longer than usual backwards slide, would have seen a plunge down to the lake on one side or, on the other, an unstoppable tumble for several kilometres down the scree-covered outer slope of the crater.

            Climbers wishing to soothe their tired limbs can make the long descent to the lake, to the hot springs ot the Kokok Puteh river. Kokok Puteh cascades down a crease in the mountain side below the lake in a series of deep, yellow-green hot pools was an interesting sensory experience. The bottom and banks were made up of deep layers of yellow and black sulphur crystals and packed together into a sand-like substance. Once accustomed to the strange sandy floor below me, the thick sulphureous air above and the very hot water in between, the experience was incredible. The aches and pains from the trek melted away in the hot, flowing water~or was it because I was too pre-occupied wondering whether blisters were forming?

            That evening we camped by the lake and the next day made a final climb back up to the crater rim for the last glimpse of one of Asia’s hidden gems before hobbling down towards Batu Koq, our waiting van and some much appreciated ice-cold fresh drinks.

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