At Mount Rinjani’s peak, 3,726 metres above the ocean that rings the Indonesian island of Lombok, the sun rose to create a perfect prism-shaped shadow on the crater lake below, with golden light spilling over the edges.
The lake is called Segara Anak, which means child of the sea, and in the middle of it, a sunken volcano splays out unevenly like a mound of spilled ink.
Sunlight reflects against the azure water and the rays gradually warm the hikers who pose with a worn metal sign that reads “Mt. Rinjani, 3,736 metres.”
It’s a silent testament to the aching legs and worn muscles that are inevitable at the apex of this gruelling trek.
I was one of those hikers and I can tell you, the pain was worth it.
Lombok is an hour-long boat ride from the island of Bali, Indonesia’s answer to the traveller’s quest for paradise.
Many people flock to this South East Asian archipelago to relax on white sand beaches flanked by thatched roof huts, but after a few days of that, a fellow traveller told me about his plan to hike Rinjani and I wanted in. It’s no feat for a slacker, considering this is the second-highest volcano in Indonesia, after Mount Kerinci on the island of Sumatra.
After the boat ride, my two travel companions — Jesper from Sweden and Cyril from Luxembourg — and I are driven to the town of Senaru, where we meet our guide, Anon, and the two porters.
We leave our large backpacks and pack a smaller one, with just enough warm clothes for the cold nights but not so much as to weigh us down.
Anon and the porters complete the trek twice a week, wearing flip flops and each carrying 25 kilograms of equipment in bamboo baskets.
We pass the yellow arch that marks Mount Rinjani National Park and set off through the jungle, dried palm leaves crunching under our feet and the humid air sending sweat dripping down our foreheads.
Anon spent 12 years working as a porter before moving up the ranks to lead treks. In broken English, he tells us about his son, daughter and wife, a sweet-sounding woman whom he calls during the trip to say he misses her.
The first day’s trek is long but the gradual ascent is a good warmup for the harder, steeper rock-climbing days ahead. We’re lucky enough that it only rains once and we take cover under a tin-roof hut where we eat a lunch of noodle soup.
After an eight-hour day of hiking, we reach our first night’s rest stop, setting up tents and a rectangular column over a hole in the ground that acts as an outhouse.
A perfect rainbow arcs over the valley below. As we settle down on a log to watch the sunset, Anon brings us a salty bowl of popcorn, which makes it feel like I’m watching nature on a sky-sized movie screen. We can hear the crackle of boiling oil and metal spoons scraping against a large wok and soon we’re served a hearty dinner of fried chicken and rice.
With the night comes a cool mountain chill, so we tuck, sardine-like, into the three-person tent and I hope that nature doesn’t call in the middle of the night.
We’re up at dawn the next day to get an early start on a big climb. The terrain is steep and rocky as we hike up to the crater rim at 2,067 vertical metres, where we get our first glimpse of the famed sunken caldera featured on just about every post card for Mount Rinjani.
A white trickle of smoke wafts up from the oval-shaped middle of the volcano, reminding us that it is very much active. The last major eruption was in May 2010, which sent ash spewing two kilometres in the air and raining down on surrounding villages. No one died, but there was a fatal accident a month later, when a woman trekking with her boyfriend fell down a steep section of the caldera wall.
Anon doesn’t try to hide the deadly consequences of a careless step. He encourages us (mostly me, perhaps judging me as the least co-ordinated of the trio) to go slow and to be careful, “because many people fall and die.” This is not the first time we would hear this ominous warning.
“He’s using the word ‘die’ too much for my liking,” quips Cyril, a statement with which I agreed.
With that in mind, we hike down toward the lake, taking big steps down the rocky boulders. We don’t even bother touching the rusty guardrails, some of which teeter precariously while others have full-on toppled over, to erase any false sense of security we might have had.
All this stress quite literally washes away when we reach the natural hot springs, a steaming waterfall to rinse away the dirt and grime of the day’s trek.
It’s several hours of more climbing, some of the landscapes rivalling Lord of the Rings epicness, until we reach base camp.
On Day 3, we’re up 3 a.m., an ungodly hour with a brisk chill in the air.
If there was a day I wished I had taken the walking sticks offered to me, it’s this one, because the three-hour ascent to the peak is gruelling. The loose-gravel landscape offers all the ease of walking uphill through quicksand. The narrow light of my headlamp barely illuminates where I need to place my feet.
I’m not going to pretend my thighs didn’t burn with the wild fury of a thousand hot spikes, or that I didn’t complete most of the steep climb with my hands scraping at the ground as if climbing out of the depths of hell. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t ask, nay order, Jesper and Cyril to shout motivational slogans to help me to the top.
But I will admit to crying - in awe, in exhaustion, in triumph, in wonder — when we huddle on the tip of that peak, just in time for the rising sun to cast that impressive shadow on the volcano below.
If you go:
Treks range from two days, one night to the crater ridge, or as long as five days, four nights. Tours either leave out of Senaru or Sembalun.
What to bring:
Hiking boots or stable trekking shoes. Gloves, a hat and sweater for the cool nights. A head lamp and walking sticks (these can be rented from guide company)
Cost: Three-day, two-night trek through Trekking Rinjani travel company which includes the boat ride to Lombok, local guide, food and water for 1,500,000 IDR (about $150 CAN) each. Don’t be afraid to bargain for a better price.
When to go:
The best time for climbing is between April and December. Mount Rinjani National Park is closed from early January to March for the rainy season. Guides and porters do not operates treks on July 17 to July 18 because of a religious holiday.