Rinjani, on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, needs no introduction for anyone with the slightest bit of interest in doing something outdoorsy with travelling in Southeast Asia. After Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, it is probably one of the most climbed mountains among travellers, and there is no lack of information on the practicalities of doing a trek there. A lot of Singaporeans go, because it's a short flight away, and the climb, while tough, doesn't require technical equipment or skills. Good for city dwellers like us.
I was travelling in Europe in April when a friend texted me and invited me along, and I agreed - too quickly, on hindsight. About a month before the trip, I looked it up, and found a disturbing number of blog posts by climbers that included the words "hardest thing I've ever done".
Like I said, Rinjani isn't technically challenging, And yet, at 3,726m, Rinjani was a tougher climb than Kinabalu (4,095m), and yes, is probably one of the hardest physical things I've ever done. You will look down at what seems like a near-vertical "slope" consisting entirely of sharp rocks and think, "Is this where I die?" You will look up at what seems like a never-ending, steep slope of gravel and think, "I can see the sunrise from here, thanks". You will force yourself to go on because you don't want to be the only one in the group to not finish, and then feel ashamed at being so shallow and pointlessly competitive. And after the climb, you will spend a few days flinching every time you see a flight of stairs. Rinjani is not something to attempt without some physical and mental conditioning.
But the beauty of the place is worth every iota of pain. You start off (in my case, from Senaru) in bright sunshine, under a sky so blue and clear, that you can't stop smiling. June is the dry season, and the air is crisp and cool. There is almost no shade at the beginning and the sun is relentless but you've got your hat on, and Rinjani looks deceptively benign, welcoming even. How bad can it be?
The lower part of the mountain is a picturesque savannah, all rolling grasslands catching shafts of light and shadows cast by the fast-moving clouds. It is hypnotically beautiful, and also the only part of the trek that can be considered a cake walk. The sun vanishes behind the rolling mists and it becomes pleasantly cool. When you stop for lunch, you will feel victorious, and even kind of smug for managing rather well so far. Silly me.
Post-lunch, the pace picks up considerably. The incline is steep, and although the leg muscles are working fine, you start to feel a little out of breath and keeping up conversation becomes challenging at times. Entering the forest, it becomes considerably chiller. Looking behind you is a bad idea if heights bother you.
After a three-hour slog, you arrive at base camp and find that your porters have everything all nicely set up, and they've even got a kettle going to hand you a hot drink right away. I should say at this point that if you engage a trekking agency to guide you, you will never go hungry and never have to deal with tedious things like pitching tents, starting fires, and digging your own toilets. While I don't mind doing any of those things on flat ground, I didn't think I was fit enough to carry my own tent, drinking water and food up a mountain, so no regrets taking the pampered route this time. We went with the Rinjani Trekking Club, and they were excellent - very conscientious about not leaving trash behind, and very professional. Just be sure to get the right one since there a few copy cat agencies trying to piggyback on their good reputation (http://www.rinjanitrekclub.com/).
We went to bed around 8am, and woke up to start the climb at around 1.30am, under moonlight so bright I didn't use my head lamp or torch at all (it was the full moon). I have few photos at this point because a) it was cold; and b) the physical difficulty of the climb at this point made the whole of yesterday seem like a casual stroll in the park.
It's one thing to read about how it's all "take one step up and slide two steps back", and I've actually had some experience with this before climbing other volcanoes. To actually climb like this for some four hours was a whole different story. Only one of us actually made it within 4 hours, to sit on the summit with dozens of other people to catch the sun creeping up over the horizon. Quite a few climbers gave up and simply took in the view on the narrow, windy ridge that leads to the top, which is pretty spectacular.
I made it one whole hour after the fastest climber in our group, and by then, the sun was up. The upside is that we had the summit all to ourselves, as other climbers had already descended. It's not a very big space so it was quite the luxury, lying back, munching on apples.
The descent was GREAT. It's sort of like skiing on gravel, and except for the need to sit down and tip the loose rock out of my shoes from time to time, and the blazing sun (do not forget the sun hat), it was basically the reward for the hellish climb up.
At some point I gave up on taking photos, because I was way too tired. By the end of the third day, when we had left the lake, returned to the bottom of the mountain, and walked back to the guesthouse where we had left our non-essential luggage, my legs were stiff like two pieces of wood, and aching so much that sitting down on the toilet without screaming felt like an achievement.
On hindsight, I wished we took a longer trip - we did it in three days, two nights - and spent a couple more nights in Lombok, which, like Bali, has staggeringly beautiful coasts and beaches. It is also way less touristy than Bali and much quieter, even in the towns that cater to tourists, like Senggigi. Rinjani is an intense experience, and hopping on a flight home a day after getting our feet back on firm ground didn't quite seem like the right way to end it.
But now, looking back, enough time has passed for me to remember the serenity, rather than the slog of the climb. We went during peak climbing season, and yet it was possible to find myself completely alone at some points, listening to the rustling grass, the whisper of the mists, the crunch of sand and dirt underfoot.
I was worried when I first heard just how tough the climb was going to be, but this trip taught me the value of doing things that scares me a little. As far as I can tell, it's always worth it when you get to the other side.
If you go:
- Ask your trekking guide about their trash practices. And bring your own stash of trash bags for your own bits of rubbish to bring it down with you. The trash problem on Rinjani is not pretty.
- My trekking agency provide plenty of fresh fruit, but veggies is limited to cabbage, tomatoes (not a veggie I know) and carrots, often cooked in a far more oily manner than I would like. Also, the snacks are usually sugary biscuits or bananas. I like all these things but I was relieved to have my own stash of nuts and dried fruit to snack on from time to time.
- Don't make the mistake of thinking it can't be all that cold because it's the tropics. It gets very cold at night and the mists leave a damp chill in the air, which made it rather clammy in the tents. The base camp and summit climb is also largely exposed to constant wind, which is sometimes strong enough for guides to call off climbs. I recommend a good fleece and shell at minimum, and how many base layers you need to keep cozy.
- Wear a beanie for the summit climb but pack a sunhat and sunblock for the way down! There is no hiding from the sun.
- We camped at 2,600m, which didn't seem high enough for altitude sickness to be a problem, but I woke up that first night feeling giddy and nauseous. It passed after I popped a pill for altitude sickness. I felt the same way when I trekked in Nepal and although I never went higher than 3,200m so I think I'm a little more sensitive to this than most. Something to note, if you're the same.