I had never heard of Gunung (Mt.) Rinjani before opening the Lonely Planet Guidebook. I’d seen dozens of the ‘Top 100’ travel lists sent around Facebook, and they are very Euro-centric. There’s no harm in that. I expect them not to be very far-reaching. But even better guides like Lonely Planet and adventure travel lists fail to mention Rinjani or hide it’s glory.
But when I got the first look at a picture of the stunning caldera I was captivated. How is this not on the top ten lists? What would it take to get up there? Some initial research made it sound really difficult. There are different routes and itineraries, the summit sounds really hard and I don’t find a lot of reviews by families that have done it with young kids. One guy says he was very fit (ran several times a week) and afterward his legs hurt for 3 days. Ouch.
Amanda has a bad knee, (but she has done the highest mountain trekking of all of us – the 13,000 foot Mt. Misty in Peru sp?). Emma and Lily are bad ass, but still young. We’ve done long hikes on the Great Wall and the Amalfi coast, but those were single day hikes (although the kids were younger.)
Even up to a few days before we left, I checked in with Amanda, “Can we really do this? We can still cancel if we want…” She agreed we should still do it, but we both knew it would be hard. It’s one of the few times, I’ve been apprehensive before one of our adventures.
We arrive from Hong Kong on a daytime flight operated by Cathay Pacific. The girls pass out in the Bali airport where we spend a few hours before our night flight to Lombok, the next island over from Bali. It’s a 30 minute hop and for the first time ever, we are actually greeted at the arrivals with a sign that says ‘Creekmore’ by a nice young kid named wan-wan (like juan-juan).
Emma, as we were getting our bags said, ‘These airport pickups are never on time are they? She’s impressed. We drive for three hours to the base of the mountain, dodging motorbikes, carts and pedestrians. It’s Ramadan and the nightlife is active and the roads are narrow. Wan-Wan drives safely, but it’s hard in the front seat not to cringe with every motorbike we pass.
I chose Rudy Trekker because they had the most reviews and seemed to be the biggest operation. They weren’t the cheapest by far, but it’s still not that much money – about $275 per person for a private group, two nights all-inclusive except for a few small items like poles and headlamps which we brought. And that’s including an extra porter. With a trek this challenging, I didn’t want to have the girls carrying anything.
We overnight at Rudy’s cement block hotel on nice mattresses, which we need before spending two nights on little mats at high altitude. At 6am we get up with a few other trekkers, mostly twenty-somethings, and eat eggs and toast and coffee before our 90 minute drive to the other side of the volcano. There is a little registration hut where we sign in and pay our $15 fee for entrance to the park. By the looks of it there aren’t many young kids or old men on the trail, and only a handful of Americans.
And we’re off. The hike, without the summit, is 12,000 feet up and down over 3 days for 18 hours of actual hiking plus breaks. The summit is an additional 6,000 feet and is very difficult. As we a start out, I’m pretty sure that I’ll get up at 2:15am for the 4 hour hike to the summit tomorrow. Much of that hike is climbing sand vertically, which is as tough as it sounds. Lily is even interested in summiting, but it’s only the first hour. I’m pretty sure she won’t be up for it.
The first stage of the trip takes us through dry grassy fields and a gentile slope. It’s hot and dry, savannah, the first of many micro-climates and ecosystems we will see. Our guide is named Mohammad and he has two girls, about the same age as Emma and Lily. I ask if his daughters have been to the top yet, ‘no, they are lazy!’ he says. He barely gets to see them during trekking season. He is on the mountain four nights and six days a week from March to November.
The trail is pretty flat, but it’s goddamned hot. An hour in, and we stop in a grove of trees. The porters are here, eating and smoking. Mohammad looks at me a little but guiltily, and says ‘It’s Ramadan. We tried to go without water and food, but it’s too hard.” I don’t know what the culturally appropriate response is, but I say “I think he would understand.” He says the only job is this or rice farming, which barely makes any money at all. I’m guessing he might bring in a few thousand dollars a year as a guide.
The porters do these treks carrying 50-60 lbs each on a bamboo pole and make even less money. Most of them do it in flip-flops! They go at least twice as fast as we do, always set up ahead of us for snacks and lunch. There are five total porters for the four of us. Mohammad carries a bunch of snacks and extra water for us, at least 40 lbs. My bag is, maybe 25 lbs, and it’s hard enough as the trail gets more vertical. I can’t imagine how the porters prepare for this. The first time must be terrible.
After about three hours of hiking, we take a lunch break and meet a small group from Northern Ireland. Like us, they are cheery and still clean. The food, a stir-fry with some pre-cooked chicken and tempeh (no chicken for us, except our omnivore Lily) is pretty tasty. There is even a salad and fresh fruit. I’m surprised at how good the food tastes, but it might be deceptive. Hiking and camping food always tastes so good!
As we get higher and approach the cloud line, it cools off, mercifully. But the trail gets a lot steeper, and each step starts to burn a little. We take frequent breaks for Lily who is doing an amazing effort to keep up with us long-legged giants. Our legs seem to recover fully with each rest, but as soon as we take another uphill step our quads and butt burns.
I stay back near Lily and sometimes Amanda so they don’t get too far behind. Emma likes to move fast and stays up near Mohammad. I know we’ll make it, but I’m still surprised at how much my legs hurt. Near the end of our eight hour hike (with two hours rest total) the final ascent to the ridge becomes covered in mist, which gets so cold we have to put on jackets. It’s erie and spooky. I’m mentally and physically exhausted.
And then as simply as an elevator door opening, we hit the rim and the mist disappears, the outline of the caldera against the blue sky is majestic. We snack on a Beng-Beng, and Indonesian chocolate and caramel and crunchy-bit candy. Woo-hoo! We made it to the rim. This isn’t the best view yet, that has to wait till tomorrow, but it’s still amazing.
We encounter our first disappointment: the base camp is trashed, literally, with garbage. I had been told this was the case, but it’s a little surprising nonetheless. It doesn’t take away from the beauty of the surroundings though. I just can’t look down. And it’s pretty amazing. We are served some tea, which feels like drinkable morphine.
Over dinner, Mohammad asks us if we will hike to the summit in the morning. The 5000 foot hike we just did was pretty exhausting, and I’m not sure with just a few hours of sleep that I’m ready to go another several thousand feet uphill in sand in the dark. The girls are pretty quick to say ‘Not us.’ I take a few seconds longer but look him in the eye and say ‘Not for me.’ Base camp will be as high as I go.
The tent is tiny and not very warm, but we fall asleep instantly when night falls. I wonder if I’ll regret not summiting.