Holy. Shit. What have I gotten myself into?
Apologies to my grandmother for the profanity, but that’s what ran through my head as I stood on the shores of Gili Trawangan and watched the sun rising over Lombok, revealing the volcano we were about spent three days scaling. Gunung Rinjani is not only the second highest peak in Indonesia, but a deeply sacred volcano to the Hindus and the Sasaks who often make pilgrimages there.
I had looked out towards Gunung Rinjani almost daily for two months — missing it only when the sky was too hazy to reveal its jagged peaks. I also heard passing tales from those who had returned from the climb about the brutality of the ascent and the shock of the altitude. I had been interested in hiking it as well, from a detached and “someday” kind of standpoint. So when Anders called me and said he had a three-day window off from work, and would I be ready to depart in thirty-six hours, “someday” came on a little suddenly.
I had two concerns about the three-day package sold all over Gili Trawangan. The first was the time frame. The almighty Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok informed me that the “most popular” route covered the exact same ground that we hypothetically would, but in five days instead of three. Our plan had us racking up one seven hour days and more than eleven on another. My next concern was price. We had payed one million rupiah each, or about $100, for everything — guide and porters, transport to and from Gili Trawangan, meals, tents and sleeping bags, etc. What kind of food and amenities could we really expect for just over thirty dollars a day?
In preparation for the cold nights we had packed as much warm clothing as we had (not much considering we were on a tropical island), and in anticipation of nine straight servings of plain white rice we brought as many treats as we could afford, like high-protein honey roasted cashew nuts and freshly baked banana bread as self-motivator. Other than that, our comfort and fueling was in the hands of our guide and porters.
We were trekking with two of our friends from Big Bubble, Kelly and Adam. I find that as a writer I struggle enormously to describe other people, and so I am sad that I can’t find a better way to convey their personalities to you beyond “immensely intelligent” and “dryly hysterical.” Suffice it to say I was so glad that they were coming along, as watching Anders try to hug human-affection phobic Kelly had provided me with a lot of comic relief around the dive shop.
Despite leaving Gili Trawangan at 7am on our first day, we didn’t start hiking until 11am due to an inexplicable number of transfers and a lot of sitting around and having no idea what was going on (luckily we’ve all been in Indonesia long enough that we didn’t even question this.) We joined a group with a couple from Italy and a couple from Spain, making us eight altogether.
The initial ascent was challenging but not torturous, as we moved into denser and denser rainforest jungle. Eventually, we were walking through the clouds and I would often watch Anders disappear entirely before my eyes, despite there being only a small distance between us.
We stopped for lunch and I marveled for the first of what would be many, many times, at how fast the porters managed to move — and in flip-flops, no less! By the time I reached the clearing where we stopped for lunch, they were already halfway done cooking.
I was also shocked by how crowded the trail was. August is peak tourism season, and yet I was still surprised by how many people made time for three days of torture — excuse me, nature, on their holidays. And for one final round of “I did not expect that,” I found myself shivering as soon as we stopped moving — we could feel the affects of altitude already.
What is that you say, readers? You come here for travel advice and not for unflattering mushy couple photos? Well too bad, that’s what you get for reading the blog of a chronic oversharer. Why don’t you just get over it already and accept that you and I are basically best friends.
After our late lunch, we made a major push to get to the camp site before sunset. It was kind of hard to stay focused though when there were adorable monkeys hanging out and demanding our attention. But eventually, we made it above the clouds.
After hours of vertical ascent, looking out at the ocean from over the top of the clouds was the exact motivational push I needed to get through the last hour. The entire day I had been lagging behind as I snapped photos frantically and then ran to catch up with the group, but with the end in sight I took my time — and also created some of my favorite images from the trip.
We reached the crater rim just in time to catch the final dip of the sun below the horizon. In just one day, we had ascended to 8,665 feet above sea level over 6.2 miles of uphill trekking. I was exhausted but exhilarated as we gazed down beyond the far edge of Lombok, onto the three Gili islands, and all the way to Gunung Agung on neighboring Bali. I couldn’t believe we had started the morning on that little speck in the distance.
We were pleasantly surprised by our camping setup, where we had not just sleeping bags and decent tents but also sleeping mats to make our beds a bit softer. Still, as soon as the sun set we were freezing, and layered on everything we had brought plus the rental jackets we had talked our tour-package-seller into including. We had hesitated over packing so much clothing but were grateful for every stitch of it. I had had lovely mental images of all of us bonding over a campfire at night, but in reality we were so frozen we could manage little more than huddling in our tents in the fetal position and wishing for sleep.
We emerged groggily from our tents at sunrise, waiting for the sun to come and heat us back to life. We had camped quite literally at the edge of the crater, and I had not a few nightmares throughout the night of crawling out to go to the bathroom tent, and stumbling to my death in the dark.
I was so shocked when this dog trotted over to us. “How did you get up here!” I asked the pup as I gave him a cuddle. “That dog has four legs,” Kelly quipped as she packed up for the day ahead. Fair point. But I was still impressed.
As we packed up camp and waited for breakfast, the sun rose higher in the sky and light drew slowly across the crater bowl — giving us our first glimpse of the postcard views advertised at travel agencies all over Bali and Lombok.
It really was stunning.
We were the last group to set off at around 9am. Based on that and our very late dinner the night before, we ascertained that we had some new porters in the group. They were sweet and friendly and I can’t even begin to imagine doing what they do, so we were all understanding. Breakfast brought about my first minor internal complaint, when we were served toast and a pancake each. We had had rice and noodles for lunch and dinner the day before, so I shouldn’t have been too shocked by the double carbs — but still, those meals also included fruit and some vegetables and egg. It’s hard to get the energy you need for days of trekking from two slabs of processed white bread. The pancakes were the only thing I refused to eat throughout the trip; they were just inedible.
Luckily I had peanuts and cashew nuts to snack on throughout our knee-pounding descent into the crater. I don’t mind downhill trekking so much, though the amount of technical precision it takes can be exhausting — you can’t really tune out, or you’ll end up with a twisted ankle. But Anders dreads it and so we were both happy when we reached the lake in just two hours.
We all relaxed and soaked our tired feet in the cool water until the fog rolled in. It was really unbelievable to watch — one minute, the sky was blue and clear and the next I felt like I was in the middle of a time lapse movie as a white cloud enveloped the lake.
So off to the hot springs we went.
After a day and a half of sweaty hiking and no showers, we were all pretty psyched to get into those hot springs and soak off some of the built up grime. The fog had also brought in a cold front, so we all changed into our bathing suits and hopped into the water in record time. I couldn’t help but think over and over again how similar the landscape was to another place I’ve been. Indonesia and Iceland — who would have thought there would be a connection?
The monkeys started circling thanks to the groups preparing lunch in the area, and I hopped out to make sure they didn’t make off with my camera. At this point our group realized that we had no idea where our guide was, and he hadn’t told us when he would be back. We all sat around confused and somewhat irritated for quite some time — if we had known what was going on, it would have been great to use that time to relax, but instead we were pretty on edge. While my time in Southeast Asia has taught me in many ways to function without the information that I usually want and think I need, it can still be a little unnerving sometimes (for example, when you are alone in the middle of a deep volcano crater jungle with no idea where your guide went or when to expect him or how to get out if he doesn’t reappear.)
Eventually of course, he did, and after lunch by the lake we started the trek back up to the opposite side of the crater rim. This is when things really started to get ugly. The first hour was okay, though I felt a knot forming in my stomach just looking up at the vertical distance we had to cover. Eventually a series of steep switchbacks began and for the next hour and a half I had to finally turn on my iPhone and use those battery reserves I had been saving up. With my music on, I tuned out and just focused step by step on blasting through the final ascent. Though this was our shortest day of actual hours spent on the trail, this portion really challenged me to my physical limits.
I pretty much collapsed when we made it onto the rim and over to our camp at the base of the summit. There was a celebratory nature in the air among the dense crowd of camps, all mentally preparing for the impending 3am wake-up call. This was the moment I had been dreading — the fabled, brutal midnight slog to the summit. My mind was racing with dramatic scenarios and self-doubt, and as I finally lulled myself into a restless sleep, that same thought from two days before echoed through my head — What have I gotten myself into?
Stay tuned for the next installment!