They say that hell is in the centre of Earth. They’re wrong. Hell is situated 3726 meters above the ground, on the Indonesian island Lombok. And it’s called Mount Rinjani. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. This IS going to hurt. But as the great Murakami wrote: 'Pain is inevitable, suffering optional.'
Whether you’re shooting a commercial or climbing a mountain, there’s no secret to success, it’s all in the prep. To save yourself from trouble, you need 3 things: 1. the right fitness 2. the right company 3. the right gear. You don’t need to be Arnold or Sly, but it helps. I’m a frequent runner, my wife a gym junkie. But Mount Rinjani will always remain a gruelling experience.
Read all practical details. What to book? What to pack? On: http://www.greenrinjani.com
We did some research and settled for Green Rinjani. They have an excellent reputation and they are one of the rare companies that bring back all the trash. The 3 day package (we paid 210$/person) also includes pick-up from Kuta, Lombok (or wherever you are). It’s a long, lifeless drive to Senaru. We check in quickly, meet our German hiking companions Benny & Jule and decide to kill the rest of the day at the Waterfalls.
The best shower ever
The park is a mind-blowing crossbreed of Malaysian jungle, Swiss mountain streams and Viking waterfalls. Wear rubber kampung Adidas (not heavy hiking shoes) as you need to cross the river a few times. I can’t resist taking a shower under one of the waterfalls. The noise is deafening, almost intimidating as I approach the falls. The cold water feels like concrete crashing over my head. It looks more pleasant in movies. A hiking trail leads to the even more spectacular Tui Kelep. This alone is worth the trip to Senaru.
It’s already dark when we walk back to the hostel, right next to the Green Rinjani office. The place is a series of simple, spartan rooms. No luxury, no towels and lucky for us … no water. This gets us a free upgrade to the boutique hotel, normally reserved for the luxury package. ‘The Lighthouse’ is a homage to traditional architecture, with the typical bamboo mat walls. The view is stunning, the rooms spacious, the bathroom spick ’n span. But we won’t enjoy it for long.
DAY 1 - Wasn’t this supposed to be a walk in the park?
Pick-up is at 6u30 am. We’re only taking basic luggage, the rest is safely stored at the Green Rinjani office. After 1 hour of curvy roads we arrive at the foot of the volcano in Sembalun. I’m lucky to sit in the front. The rest of the team arrives car sick at the registration office. There’s that awkward feeling when I write my name and age in the book. I have to turn at least 5 pages to find a person older than me. The average age is around 27. This is clearly a young people’s game.
We all get a 1.5 litre bottle of water and off we go. The first 2 hours are supposed to be a walk in the park, through an arid landscape that resembles the African savanna. But after half an hour, we’re all sweating like crazy and my backpack seems to weigh 100 kilograms. It took a stick to break the camel’s back. And 2 extra water bottles to break mine. On the horizon, Mount Rinjani, doesn’t seem to get any closer. So this is just the easy part, right? We’re all starting to get wet feet.
The Lord of the Flies
We come to an ugly concrete construction of Pos 2 where we halt for lunch. The place is infested by flies. No wonder. We’re surrounded by garbage as little companies bother to carry the garbage off the mountain. Most is simply thrown. Or burned. A tricky operation, as the fire can spread quickly. The result is a hill with half the grass burned. We plant a tree - a Green Rinjani tradition - knowing it will probably end up in flames.
The meal is simple, but we are served like kings. All hail the Lord of the Flies. A tomato is cut in the shape of a rose, a nice gesture that shows attention to detail. I almost break my back as I try to lift the load of our porters. up to 50 kilograms of goods are divided over 2 baskets connected by a thick bamboo stick. The men, wearing nothing by flip-flops, carry this on their bare shoulders. It’s a gruelling job. ‘But better than nothing’ says Adhi, our guide ‘Over here, a man has to work one day in the fields to get 50 IDR (3$). Here, they get more.’
Why did I pack so much stuff?
After 2 hours break, we start the 3 hours trek to the Crater Rim, where we will set up camp. The dusty path gets steeper and steeper. With every step I’m second guessing every item in my bag. Did we really need that t-shirt? Or that extra torch? Every piece is now worth its weight in gold. I’m suffering, but I’m literally stepping into Adhi’s footsteps, to keep the pace. The rest of the group is following with difficulties. Meanwhile, we’re passed by the porters on their flip-flops. Some even have enough breath to smoke a cigarette. How do they do it?
Camp 1 - Meet the Toilet Tent
Finally we reach the misty crater rim. A cold wind is blowing over the mountain, so we quickly dig out our North Face gear. It’s busy, the best camping spots have already been taken. We manage to convince Adhi to camp on a narrow strip behind the mountain, safely protected from the wind. The porters set up the tents in no time, but we still need to wait for the sleeping bags and mattresses to arrive. Meanwhile, the toilet tent is being installed. Basically, it’s a little hole in the ground with a sail around it. It covers you from sight, not from sounds. We’re all pretty nervous to try this out. It does require some acrobatic skills to land your package in the right spot. But shame disappears quickly. ‘Ah well, we’re all the same’ Miguel, a Spanish climber laughs ‘We’re all on this mountain.’
The fridge on the ridge
After a gorgeous sunset, the temperatures drop to freezing point. Our hilarious long johns and thermal t-shirts prove to be no luxury. One hour ago, I was cursing the extra weight. Now I’m extremely grateful I’ve brought all these extra items. The sleeping bags and mattresses finally arrive. They are surprisingly thick and comfortable, we even have our own little pillow. On this mountain there’s no time for romanticism. There’s no sitting around the campfire to reminisce about the day. It’s simply too cold. And we need to get up at 1u30 am for the summit. The night belongs to the rats and mice, having another blast on the garbage lying around the camp. Sweet dreams. Tomorrow starts tonight. And it’s going to be the longest day of my life.
Day 2 - Summit or Bust!
At the first alarm sound, I’m the only one to jump out of the sleeping bag. My wife lays shivering in hers. ‘I think I’m gonna stay here. I didn’t sleep’ she mutters. I don’t argue and wrap my bag around hers.
In the next 3 hours we’ll have to climb 1200 vertical meters in pitch dark. But that’s the easy part. The real killer is the path itself: an endless trail of gravel, nearly impossible to climb. It’s 2 steps up, 5 steps down. I’m starting to curse every meter of this damn mountain. And the worst thing is: I can’t blame anybody but myself for this nonsense. I signed off for this, even paid 210$ dollars to participate in this ordeal. But there's no way back. And thank goodness, after 1 hour the surface gets more solid. We’re now walking on a tiny rim. It’s pitch dark. But I can feel an endless darkness gaping next to us. One mistake and … well, lets not think about that.
Why did I sign up for this?
We finally come to the last stage. Climbers are hiding behind a big rock. A new player has arrived: glacial wind. The sweat on my back is freezing. In my gloves, my hands are going numb. We’re now trying to climb a cone of gravel. Progress is slower than ever, my quadriceps are about to explode. I’m gasping for air with each step. I’m falling behind. This is becoming like the final kilometres of a marathon. Don’t think about the others. Don’t think about your time. Just keep going. The light is starting to peep through at the horizon. Slowly I discover a vague outline of the summit. Finally, I have a target. Summit fever takes care of the rest. Adhi comes back to check on me. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll make it.”
The sunrise is already in full swing as I reach the top. I once asked Lebanese mountain climber Maxim Chaya: “How was it on the top of Mount Everest?” He answered that they actually spent very little time there. That their minds were already with the long decent. Now I understand what he meant. I quickly pose for some pictures, with the flag, with the signboard, with different backgrounds … careful not to miss anything. Because I ain’t doing this again. Ever.
The gravel on the mountain is also tricky for the decent, I’m gliding down in a cloud of dust, partly on all fours. Now in the light, we can admire the lake - a crater in a crater - and see how close we walked to gaping valleys. Around 8.30 am we’re back in the camp for breakfast. My wife - fully recovered - asks me: “How was the summit?” I only remember throwing out some F-words.
Is this day ever going to end?
The summit is just half of the story. Now we need to descend to the crater lake. With sore legs we climb down rough pieces of rock, careful not to make mistakes. On the horizon, a forest fire is starting to spread, burning down half the mountain. Some groups have turned around, but we’re heading straight towards it. I hope these guys know what they’re doing.
Moral gets a mega boost when we hit the hot water springs, right next to the forest fire. It’s the four elements - earth, water, air and fire - united in one. Totally surreal. The water relaxes our muscles. The only hard part is coming out of the hot water, back into the cold air. Adhi’s awaiting us with another great lunch, next to the mountain lake. If it wasn’t for the steaming volcano, we’d would think we’re on the borders of a Canadian lake. But nobody’s really enjoying it. Our minds are with the last climb, another 3 hours up to the other side of the rim.
We're moving on quickly for a bunch of zombies. Spirits are high when we see the lake getting smaller and smaller. The trail gets dangerous, more like alpine trekking, requiring to climb on all fours. How the porters can go quicker than us on this terrain, I still don’t understand. Finally, around 5 pm, it’s done. We’ve reached the other rim and our tents are already set up. I waste no time to do what I really feel like doing: crashing into my sleeping bag. What a day!
Day 3 - Welcome to the Jungle
I must have slept for 14 hours. And I feel truly revitalised for the final descent. Most of it through the jungle, so it feels like a home match. After 1 hour, we reach the forest. We storm down the dusty trail. The pace is insane. We can almost smell the finish line. But we need to cool down. Tree roots are creating treacherous steps. Fatigue shows. We all slip, trip and tumble like in a slapstick movie. The jungle itself shows remarkable little life. No birds, no insect noise, no colours. So different from the rich, tropical forests of Malaysia. And the trail never seems to end. Only when we see climbers coming up the other way, do we get an idea of distance. Judging their fresh faces, the starting point must be really close. Some climbers look totally unprepared. A Dutch dude didn’t even bring winter gear. Total madness.
Never say Never
And finally, there it is: the gate of Rinjani National Park. We’ve made it! 3 days of gruelling trekking have come to an end. Would I ever do it again? ‘Hell no!’ I scream out loud. But Benny, our fellow climber, quickly corrects me: ‘Trust me, next week you’ll love it. When you’ll see your pictures, you’ll feel proud.’
We’re now 2 weeks later. And yeah, after 3726 meters of hell, I’m starting to see a bit of heaven.
Next Episode: 'The Gili Island - Why doing nothing is something.'