Nothing funny has happened over the past week. In fact, the past days have been no laughing matter at all.
I bought a package tour to climb Gunung Rinjani from a shady looking character called Muly. He had been skulking around the bungalows where I had been staying on Gili Air, regularly appearing at my elbow while I tried to eat. I ordinarily wouldn’t enter into an agreement this way but he spoke remarkably good English. I realise that this in itself is no measure of virtue, and maybe quite the opposite, but I decided to trust him. Besides which he made a few quick phone calls to his contacts on Lombok and gave me a better price than the touts on the street were offering. Rp 1,700,000 – all include, sir.
After a fitful night sleep wondering if I had effectively cast my money into the sea, I took position at the harbour at the agreed time and began the long wait for the considerably wealthier Muly to arrive. In typical Indonesian style, he rolled up an hour late on an antique bicycle wearing rip-off aviator sunglasses and smoking a clove cigarette. No problem, sir, all include. Muly like Australians. I quietly vowed that Muly would be seeing quite a bit more of this one if he had just scammed me. In any case, he quickly decoded the shipping timetable that my tertiary education had been unable to make any sense of whatsoever and pointed out the appropriate public ferry.
Getting into these things is a mission in itself. These little boats are too small to dock at the jetty. Instead, they are loosely moored in the shallows so that they pitch and surge with the swell. Passengers have to time their run, wade into the water and step up onto the running board without getting washed away by the waves or bowled over by the boat itself. The ferry was nearly full to the rafters already, and after watching several Muslim women in full regalia skip aboard as though there was nothing to it, it was my turn. Surely it couldn’t be too hard. I’m fit. I’m strong. I have adequate coordination for my size. I’m reasonably well insured. With a 20kg backpack cinched on tight, a smaller backpack full of phone, laptop, cameras, passport, books etc, shoes in one hand and water bottle in the other I rocked back and forth timing my run like a primary school girl with a skipping rope. I made a break for it. Knee deep water, only a few feet from the boat, timing perfect, smug satisfaction. Then I stand on a piece of sharp coral. Then another. I waste valuable seconds staggering from one painful foot to the other like a Peter Garrett music video, all the while trying to keep upright and dry. Suddenly, all of the water sucks back, then the boat lifts and surges straight at me on the incoming wave. I get hit hard across the shins by the running board. A collective ‘oooh’ comes from the crowd already aboard. Comfortably seated, watchful but otherwise impassive, they seem to be enjoying the show. Wet to the waist with bleeding shins and still dancing on the only square metre of jagged coral for miles, dignity is lost. Again. Finally I manage to clamber aboard. Thirty or forty dark sets of eyes watch me try to contort my bulk into the only free space left. One foot at waist height on the fuel tank and the other leg splayed around two baskets of cabbages, my groin twanging at snapping point. My bags are stacked on top of me. The outboards are fired up and we pull away from shore. I peer around my bags to look back at Muly through blue haze of two-stroke exhaust. He grins at me from behind his cheap sunglasses. Hands in his pockets, I’m sure he’s rifling through the wad of notes I handed over to him the night before. I curse him again.
After an hour of being perched uncomfortably amongst the cargo in the belting sun and getting lashed with the spray of every wave that broke over the bows, the outboards died. Lombok, which had slowly but surely been getting bigger on the horizon, was now behind us as the ferry drifted uselessly in the swell. Fifteen minutes of rapid fire Bahasa between the skipper and his apprentice finally resolved the problem. My right foot had nudged and kinked the fuel line, earning me angry glares from the skipper, his apprentice and all others aboard. The offending foot was pushed back towards me off the fuel tank, giving me a posture a little like a grasshopper at rest, and a groin that if strummed would play a high C. We continued on our way.
To his credit, Muly didn’t sell me to organ traders, or a Lombok pimp. I was met by a group of men on the opposite shore like a long-lost relative. I found myself snatched from the boat, bent back into a more or less linear shape and half carried, half dragged up the beach like a near-drowned Japanese tourist at Bondi. My bags were thrown onto one scooter and I was thrown onto the back of another, before hurtling off to the trekking depot at neck-snapping speed, the horn announcing us the entire way. There, I was to meet the rest of my group. After a reasonably comfortable meal and sleep given the spartan accommodation, we made our plans to tackle the mountain the next day.
Rinjani is a beast. She is a poorly tempered volcano that regularly erupts and puts an end to all air traffic into SE Asia, except for the ever reliable Plummett airways. Searingly hot, unrelentingly steep, she is the second highest mountain in Indonesia and the 38th highest in the world (according to Wikipedia). Through the day the summit is obscured by clouds so that you can never be certain how much further is left to climb. A brutal six hour hike on day one took us into the line of clouds at 2700m. Our porters had beaten us there and set up a tent city ‘base camp’ on narrow shoulder of the mountain. When the sun set behind the mountain it became shockingly cold.. The conditions were primitive at best. There is no sanitation, litter is everywhere, and the food rations are meagre given that everything has to be carried up on the shoulders of the superbly muscular porters. We slept fully clothed on a yoga mat in our tents. Shivering and searching all night for a more comfortable bit of rock.
Day two began at 2.00am. After some thin, hot tea and dry biscuits we set off to make an assault on the summit in order to be there before dawn. Above the cloud line, and with a full moon to help light the way, the remaining 1000m does not look far. But this final stretch exposes the true temper of the mountain. The trail follows a narrow spine with a dizzying drop off on either side. As the grade steepens the path deteriorates to become a scramble through volcanic ash and scree. Loose enough so that half a dozen steps bring you back to the same place that you started -a little like trying to climb an enormous sandhill. The higher we went, the more bitterly cold it became. Multilingual swearing surrounded me, and after an hour of unproductive scrambling in the scree a lot of people conceded defeat and stopped their climb. With my heart rate sitting consistently above 160, and trying to keep a straight line between the two drop-offs , I could see why people have died trying to get to the top of this brute. After three hours of unrelenting effort, we made the summit. It is surprisingly small for the size of the mountain, and in the dark and cold, extremely dangerous for the 50 or 60 panting, jelly-legged people that were trying to fit on it. After a foot-stamping, hand-clapping half hour, dawn broke. The view is stunningly beautiful. Local people on pilgrimage lay down their prayer mats and knelt for their devotions. Westerners pulled out their cameras and jostled for position to capture the views. I joined in, snapping off as many photos as my non-compliant fingers could cope with. After an hour of bone-chilling cold, I had had enough of being nudged towards the edge by people with their selfie sticks. I broke from my group and began the descent back to base camp.
Exhausted, we regrouped at our tent city and dozed for an hour or so. But, after six hours of hard vertical hiking, we were far from done for the day. At about 10.00am, we set off on a precarious three hour, 700m descent into the caldera to stand by the volcanic crater lake and swim in the hot springs. This was followed by a murderous, slippery, three hour climb up the other side in the rain. Wet, cold, hungry and tired we fell into our tents for an even more uncomfortable night as soon as the sun set. Day three was the final six hour descent back to the heat, humidity and incessant noise of Lombok civilisation. From this point, everything that happened on my trip over there recurred in reverse. I got manhandled back onto a scooter, jelly-legs trailing like a squids tentacles. Then whistled down to the harbour where the same group of men hurled me back into a public ferry and returned to Gili Air with more dignity and credentials that I left it with.
Most Western people appreciate Rinjani for the spectacular sunsets that she offers up, cold bintang in hand. For the locals, the volcano is of cultural and religious significance, and pilgrimages are expected of the devout. Despite the inauspicious start to the trip, I’m grateful to Muly, and hope that he makes a tidy profit at my expense.
Looking across the channel of water from the safety and comfort of beachfront chair, the mountain is nothing more than a postcard silhouette. At this time of night she seems quite gentle and benign.
However, Rinjani has no sense of humour.
Climbing to ‘base camp’