Yesterday I received an email. It was from a fellow hack writer, based in the States, who had been involved with a big “digital content” project I worked on a couple of years back. She was scrabbling around for work leads, as we do, and she wondered if I had any scraps to throw her way. Sadly I didn’t. In her sign-off she mentioned that it was ten years since she started out as a freelancer. It would never have occurred to me otherwise, but once I’d replied to her message I got to thinking: it must be around ten years since I started out too. I checked, and it turned out that it was precisely ten years ago today – 18 March – that my first piece of published travel writing appeared – paid for! – on the front page of the Sunday supplement of The Jakarta Post. It was a piece about trekking on Gunung Rinjani in Lombok (the trip itself took place in October 2006, I think; it was a while before it made it into print). The title and subheads were the work of the editor, Jim Read, who was kind enough to publish various whimsical travelogues that I subsequently wrote, as was Bruce Emond, who captained the JP’s glossy Weekender magazine (sadly no more). Here’s the piece, in full; it’s a bit purple, but it was a start anyway:
Pure elation on reaching Rinjani’s summit at dawn
Originally Published in The Jakarta Post, 18/03/07
It was 5.30 a.m., and bitterly cold. A broad saffron stain was spilling into the milky-gray sky over Sumbawa, and the green of the Sembalum valley was forming from the gloom.
The wind of the night had dropped to nothing, and despite the chill the sweat was dripping from the tip of my nose. Glancing back, I could see the flashlights of the other trekkers flickering along the ridge.
To my left a fearsome void opened in a sheer drop to the crater lake, and to the right the plummeting sweep of the volcano’s north wall ran down towards a pale sea. Ahead of me, rough and imposing, was the summit of Gunung Rinjani. But I still had a hellish climb to get there.
Rinjani volcano towers over the beautiful island of Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara province. Rising from the sparkling rice terraces to a dizzying height of 3,726 meters, it is the second-highest volcanic peak in Indonesia.
Only Gunung Kerinci in Sumatra is higher, at 3805 metres. Unlike the smooth cones of Bali and Java, Rinjani is more a massif than a single peak: the huge crater is some six kilometres across, and shelters a deep lake.
The whole of the Rinjani area was gazetted as a national park in 1997, and the mountain is one of the most prized trekking destinations in Southeast Asia.
Preparing for the assualt
We had arrived at Lombok’s well-served Mataram Airport two days earlier, and spent the first night in Senggigi on the west coast. Tourist development on Lombok is low-key, though the island has many of the attractions of its illustrious western neighbor, Bali: stunning rural landscapes, beautiful golden sand beaches, a fascinating traditional culture, and of course, Rinjani.
Senggigi is the only major resort on Lombok with a full range of hotels and services. Kuta on the south coast – far removed from its famous Balinese namesake – is the other resort, although it is still unspoilt, with the atmosphere of a fishing village.
All travel agents and most hotels and guesthouses in Senggigi can organize Rinjani treks at short notice. Prices are negotiable depending on the size of the group, and after a couple of hours comparing and negotiating from operator to operator we were all set.
The next morning after a dawn ride from Senggigi up into the cool of the hills we had set out from the highland village of Sembalum Lawang, cupped in an ancient crater and famous for its garlic and onions.
Our party was a motley crew of Surabaya-based English teachers and others, and we were soon strung out along the path from the village. A warm wind was blowing through the yellow grass, the smudged outline of the summit rising in the distance.
We had hired porters to carry our bags and camping equipment. They were spectacularly tough Sasak men from the villages around the volcano, with a lifetime of work on the high slopes behind them.
They carried their loads delicately balanced on stout bamboo poles over their shoulders, and made their way up slippery scree slopes in rubber sandals.
Oldest and toughest of these was Pak Mohammad, a wiry, cheery man who smoked kretek cigarettes continuously. Our guide was a cheerful young man called Dipan. He was from the village of Senaru where we would finish the trek, and he had grown up in the shadow of Gunung Rinjani.
Worth all the effort
The first day’s walking was easy to begin with, the route bending over the rolling grasslands with the coastal plain hazy to the north. By late afternoon, however, we were struggling up a steep and winding path through sparse pine trees toward the ridge.
The air cooled as we left the sultry tropics far behind. The great Rinjani peak towered over us and the hills beyond Sembalum were dark.
We reached the ridge just before sunset. We watched as the light faded behind the black line of the far ridge, across the shining Segara Anak crater lake, then we made our way to the first campsite.
It was a cold and windy spot, at the foot of the steep rise towards the summit, but the views down to the lake on one side, and back towards the coast on the other were spectacular.
A couple of other trekking groups were camped out already, all planning to make the final climb to the summit in the early hours of the morning. We ate a hurried dinner of mie goreng (fried noodles), rustled up by the porters, then clambered into our tents.
It was bitterly cold when we stumbled into the darkness at 2.30 am. The plan was to reach the summit for a spectacular sunrise, and those of us foolhardy enough to try set out up the steep, slippery path after a cup of lukewarm, sweet tea.
I quickly pushed my way to the head of the group and was soon walking peacefully alone along the high ridge. Empty blackness opened to my right, and to my left the lights of the distant coastal villages glittered in the dark. Up above dozens of shooting stars streaked out of a clear sky.
The final climb to the summit was desperately hard. The path became loose gravel, rising at a steep angle, and the effects of the high altitude soon became apparent as I gasped for breath.
But it was all worth it when I reached the top in time to watch the sun creeping up above the flat-topped outline of Gunung Tambora on Sumbawa.
All of Lombok from the fish-hook of the port at Labuan Lombok, to the low stains of the Gili Islands was visible, and in the west the cone of Bali’s Gunung Agung loomed from the low cloud.
It was shockingly cold, but the elation of reaching the summit kept me warm as the other trekkers started to arrive.
As we rested in the brightening sunlight Dipan told me that local villagers believe that the mountain holds the key to eternal life. But to seek the secret is dangerous, and people have been turned to stone for trying.
Back at the campsite we ate a breakfast of banana pancakes, then started the descent to the lakeside.
Segara Anak Lake (“Child of the Sea” in Sasak language) is sacred to the people of Lombok. For the ethnically Balinese Hindus the waters are the Home of the Gods, and for the Sasaks too, some of who still cling to pre-Islamic beliefs, the waters are home to powerful spirits.
There are crude alters at the water’s edge, scattered with Balinese sesajen offerings, and during the annual Pakelem festival pilgrims make their way up from the villages to cast gold offerings into the lake.
Rinjani is still active, and rising from the lake is Gunung Baru (“New Mountain”), a volcano within a volcano that emerged from the waters in 1942, and erupted as recently as 1997.
While the porters prepared lunch we took advantage of this geothermal activity by washing away our aches and pains in the steaming hot springs that bubble from the rocks below the crater rim.
The afternoon saw us trekking uphill once more, following a beetling path along the northwest crater wall. The jagged dagger of the summit was fringed with cloud now, and the wind was singing in the trees.
But we were all elated when we reached the top of the ridge in the golden light of evening. From here it was downhill all the way to the beaches.
The second campsite was a warmer spot than the first, sheltered by the ridge and not far from the start of the dense forest that cloaks the lower slopes. We made our way into this forest the following morning, a welcome change from the barren landscape higher up.
The shaded humidity was a return to the tropics, and the canopy and undergrowth bustled with life. Grey macaque monkeys eyed us suspiciously from the branches, and rustling in the distance suggested the wild deer and forest pigs that live in Rinjani National Park.
Once we caught a glimpse of a pair of elusive ebony leaf monkeys, fleeing through the treetops.
We reached the trailhead village of Senaru at midday, weary and footsore. The Park office is located at Senaru, and there are a several simple guesthouses and restaurants. The area is also scattered with villages of rattan and bamboo where Sasak traditions are maintained.
But for us, tired and dirty, it was time to relax.
After fond farewells to Dipan and the porters we were on the road again, heading for the white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters of the Gili Islands where we could ease away the aches and blisters, and look back at the dark outline of Gunung Rinjani, looming to the east, with some satisfaction.
© Tim Hannigan 2017