This is the first post of a 3 part series of my Lombok experience. The post is more of a story than a guide. Check out this Lombok guide (which featured me) if you are looking for a good one.
We were sitting in a small hut faced with a torturous dilemma.
Our shortened day at Senggigi had not allowed us to go beach hopping as planned. It was late afternoon when we had checked into our hotel and we had settled for freshening up, staring at the cloudy sky during sunset (the location of Senggigi meant that the beaches here were perfect to watch sunset from), and snacking from yet another beach side restaurant. When it was dark, we had realized we could not put off making arrangements for our hike any longer. I had a printed out list of all the tour guide companies but we had been too lazy to contact any of them when there was a guide to be found right next to our bike rental place. It had taken us a few minutes to convince ourselves that such a small office meant personalized service and discounted price and a few more to find the that small office in which we now sat.
Our dilemma was that we had to choose between a summit attempt or a more relaxed tour (comparatively) of the crater lake. The most popular tour was 3 days (the longer ones being 5 to 7 days) which was not an option for us if we wanted to spend one day at our last destination – Kuta. We knew this ofcourse, but we also knew that you could opt for a 2D1N hike and attempt the summit as well. Stubbornly optimistic, we were hopeful that we could spend a short time along the shore of the crater lake after coming down from the summit. So it turned out that we were looking at each other across the table trying to make a decision that, by right, we should have made even before getting on the plane to Lombok.
Some information about the hike – there are two places people start from – Senaru and Sembalun. On the first day you can reach the respective crater rims in time for sunset. Both the rims overlook the beautiful crater lake and here is where you camp for the night. If you are in the Sembalun-side rim, you can wake up in the middle of the night and attempt the summit. The next day is usually spent going to the other crater rim along a trek that ran along the lake and offered activities such as kayaking and soaking in hot springs. Unless you are, like us, on a two day tour – in that case the second day will be spent trekking back to the starting point. In a typical 3 day hike, people spend two nights on the two rims and the day in the middle trekking along the lake. The summit attempt is made on the night spent on the Sembalun crater rim.
Sadly, we had to sacrifice one of the highlights of the Rinjani trek. And we could not decide which. So we excused ourselves out of the hut and stood beside the road, hoping the fresh air would help us come to a decision in a logical manner. But logic was not our strong suit in this trip. We knew the arguments well enough – Asif reminding us that it was not only about the achievement of summiting the second highest peak of Indonesia and me arguing that we had just the right group to reach the top and that we could always come back with a different group and enjoy the hot springs. After several minutes of discussion, we settled for the relaxed trip but decided to keep our options open by choosing the Sembalun route.
We went back inside with Asif in charge of the bargaining. To our surprise, he had changed his mind in the thirty seconds it took us to enter and he calmly offered a price of 120 dollars for the summit trek. I remember I was so embarrassed that I was uncomfortable – we had researched prices beforehand and this was borderline unreasonable, but my embarrassment lasted only until our guide agreed to the price. When we came out, we were elated at the bargain we had won. We had disregarded the suggestions of choosing a well known trekking guide and had made the worst decision of the trip, but of course we had no idea then. Instead we were feeling quite smug about ourselves – the inevitable constant of every bad decision I have ever made.
Dinner was a time consuming business. We found out that the downside of having bikes was that it was quite easy to get separated especially when searching for a restaurant suggested by our guide. The restaurant was worth it though – we were realizing that peaceful seaside restaurants with great food were a recurring theme in Lombok. I am not a foody (the lack of description of food throughout is not an oversight) but almost every meal we had in Lombok was made special by the environment, be it the vibrancy in Gili, the serenity in Senggigi and Kuta or the wilderness of the hike.
On our way back, I stopped the guys at a road-side 7-Eleven. We had already ignored a few of the many suggestions google had given us, but I was serious about at least one – to get snacks and drinks for the hike. Apparently my two friends didn’t feel the same way.
“Why are you buying KitKats? Are you a kid?”, Asif sneered to discourage me from what he thought was unnecessary spending.
“Don’t buy if you don’t want to. But in that case I will buy extra and sell it to you at any price I want when we are hiking and you are begging for something to eat”, I replied.
In the end, we got ourselves a stash of chocolates and cold drinks. To this day, I remind Asif of this when he disagrees with me because in the end, it was one of the things which we believe got us to the top.
It was early morning and we sat in an establishment in the mountains, eyeing the pancakes that would serve as breakfast. We had risen with the sun and after checking out from the hotel, a taxi arranged by our guide had brought us to our present location. It was a restaurant more than anything else, but a map of the trekking routes hanging on the wall showed that it was also the meeting point for treks – the kind where you would meet your guide and receive an orientation. A guy called Leng received us and informed us that we would meeting our guide, Berry, along the way to the start point. We had been expecting the guy we had bargained with (I forgot his name) to be our guide, but we shrugged off the surprise and settled down to have breakfast, separate the things we were leaving behind, and enjoy the scenery.
As I forced the pancake down my throat and sipped the bitter tea, we checked if we had everything. We had arranged for waterproof-windproof jackets to be provided, but following the suggestion from blogs, we asked Leng to double check. Not very surprisingly, he knew nothing of our demand. So, we sat patiently, as Leng went about to find jackets from us. A few minutes later, a local woman came to us and handed us three worn-out jackets. We tried them on for size and accepted without complaining.
A short pick-up ride – that offered a breathtaking view of Rinjani – took us to the where the trail began. The starting point was a little underwhelming. It was a small village and the trail began from behind a small building on the road side. The first few hundred yards of the trail was littered with the trash of irresponsible trekkers – plastic bags, bottles and whatnot. Only a few trekkers were around, getting ready for the long walk ahead – we were already late. We had already met our guide, Berry and he introduced us to another group of 4 Malaysian trekkers he would be guiding as well. We just needed one last thing (in the list of things we had deemed necessary) – torch lights. There was a shop nearby but unfortunately there was only piece left. Once again, we told ourselves it was enough and began our trek of Mount Rinjani.
It’s difficult to describe a trek. When you reminiscent, it’s impossible to remember what you did for 7-8 hours. You remember events – major and trivial – and you remember whenever there was a major change in scenery. But what matters is that you do not forget the sense of adventure, not the initial rush – that only lasts for maybe an hour – but the unreal feeling that you are part of an epic journey in one of the epic fantasy books. Its different from lets say driving in the mountains and coming upon a beautiful scenery – while trekking, you are a part of the scenery, the hobbit in his journey to mount Doom, rather than a casual observer.
It can be tricky though. You have to take it all in during the whole time. Countless times, I looked back over my shoulder and the view was so mesmerizing that I just wanted to produce a patio chair out of thin air and sit there for a while sipping coffee. It’s appealing to think that you can enjoy the view once you have reached the top or when coming back down, but that is a bad idea. A lot of things can happen – you might be too tired at the end, the weather might be different later on or you might simply take another route on the way back. As Inexperienced as I maybe, I had read enough to know not to trudge through to the end.
“Trekking teaches us an important lesson of life”, I said to Asif and Majed, “it’s not about the destination, but the journey.”
It’s a testament to the magic of the place that they didn’t burst out laughing at the cliche.
The first part of the trek was gentle – I doubt we had gained much in terms of altitude before lunch. The walk was mostly on a trail a couple of feet wide, winding through the rolling countryside and surrounded by hills. It was a cloudy day which suited us very well since there would have been no shades if the sun was out. And luckily, the rain did not start until we were having lunch in a shaded stop.
In the lunch break, we met with a group from Germany who were travelling south east asia on their gap year. They had been travelling for over a month in Indonesia and were headed to Jakarta after the trek to extend their stay. Sitting there, huddled in the small shade in the rain and ravishing a bowl of bland noodles and a boiled egg, I could not help but feel a pang of jealousy. The concept of a gap year is an unimaginable one in my country (and maybe in most of Asia) – I myself got familiar with it in the final years of my university – and these guys made me wish I could have done the same. But more importantly, this and many other later encounters have made me realize an important thing – that travelling with the luxury of time is not as nebulous as one might think. If you want to see the world, you have to stop treating it like a wild fantasy and be serious about it.
The other thing I remember is that one of the guys handed us a roll of toilet paper saying we might need it. In the end we didn’t, but it’s something you might want to consider if you are planning to do this trek.
As the day wore on, the trek got steadily more difficult as the path got steeper and our energy levels got lower. We tried to pace ourselves properly, stopping for a short break every half an hour or so but never for too long fearing that our bodies might cool down. The walk was surreal. Sometimes, the path ahead would be lost in the clouds, sometimes the clouds would engulf us like mist in winter and sometimes we would look back to find cotton like clouds clinging to the mountain sides below. We were among the clouds that shrouded Rinjani when we had first landed in Lombok.
Our rented GoPro turned out to be a great investment. It rained lightly twice after lunch and we kept our phone tucked away safely in our bags. But with the GoPro, there was no need to worry about the rain and I found myself clicking away endlessly trying to capture the beauty of the trek with surprising enthusiasm. The number of pictures I took in Lombok probably comes close to what I had taken in my whole life.
The rain also made us realize how underprepared we were in general. I don’t know why we had thought that a waterproof jacket would be enough when our trousers and more importantly, our bags were fully exposed, but we were rescued by the plastic raincoats Berry took out from his backpack. They were more like extra large plastic shopping bags with holes for arms and legs, but they were enough to fend off the short drizzles we encountered and keep the contents of our bags dry.
If we had done one thing right preparing for the trek, it was buying the chocolates and the drinks. The tour agency takes care of the meals and afternoon snacks, but having some sugar every hour or so does wonders for your energy levels. It might be too much to claim that we could not have made it to the crater rim without the snacks, but it is undeniable that they made the trek a lot easier. Which not only allowed us to enjoy the trek but also gave us the confidence to attempt the summit. If anything, we did not bring enough. We had to be careful to try and save some for the daunting summit push and even then we would find ourselves short on supply later on.
The last hour was the hardest. Unsurprising, considering the fact that we had been walking for almost 5-6 hours, but that was not the only thing – being close the destination has a way of making you restless. On top of this we realized we might be missing the sunset. Our late start and the slowdown due to the rain meant that we were few of the last people in the trail. As the light began to fade, we tried to accelerate in hopes of catching the sunset but our body would only allow us so much.
We reached the rim just in time to catch the dying lights of the sun and the fading red reflection in the lake below. I had imagined we would be watching the sunset resting in front of our camp with a cup of steaming coffee in hand, but finding our campsite was all we could do before the daylight was gone. A minor setback – but definitely something I would keep in mind for future treks.
The campsite was dirty – but we had known that it would be. It is one of the recurring lament of every trekker I had read. And it is true for all the rest points along the way. It does little to dent in the majesty of Rinjani but it is a sad display of human irresponsibility and a less-than- adequate management. But, as if to make up for it, the atmosphere was one of contentment – the kind created by people who had had an extremely rewarding day. Or maybe I was just projecting my feelings onto others.
With darkness came cold. When you have just reached the rim (or reading about the base camp in blogs), it is hard to imagine the struggle of staying out in the open at night. But when your body starts to cool off, the night settles in and the wind picks up, it is really a challenge to come out of your tent, even to answer the call of nature.
When I had imagined the campsite on the rim (or rather let my imagination run away), I had the image of a village during a festival. I had imagined campfires in front of the tents, people sitting around eating and getting to know the fellow trekkers, connected by their experiences of the day. Sounds of laughter floating about and maybe even a song or two. At the very least I was expecting an atmosphere of celebration and I was certainly planning on celebrating myself. But as the evening turned to night, the campsite became silent. Part of it was the chilling cold, part of it was the prospect of the summit push late at night, but I think the main reason was tiredness. We fell asleep as soon as we heard our dinner would be delayed (our porter was missing or something – another reason to choose a proper trek company) and even after we had had our dinner and a cup of coffee (it was lukewarm and we were huddled inside our tent – not what I had dreamed), and came out to be greeted by a beautiful moon, we could not stay for long.
Something needs to be said about the view at night though. It was close to a full moon and the lake below us reflected the glow like a white sunset. The lake cradled in the mountains was already breathtaking, but the moonlight made it almost mystical. Standing there, shivering in cold and stunned into a reverent silence, we realized there was not a shred of doubt that we had to push for the peak.
You would think that it would be difficult getting up at 3 am in the morning after the tiring day we had, but it really wasn’t. We were feeling quite good after the much needed sleep and relieved that our muscles weren’t sore. Harder was swallowing the atrocity of a pancake Berry brought us with a cup of tea. But as we came out of our tent, bracing against the cold, we were greeted with yet another amazing sight. It was as if my imagined village had started a revolution and were marching into the night with torches in hand. The reality was that a lot of people had already started their trek and their flashlights marked one of the slopes far away. We could see the procession slowly moving forward, their flashlights clearly visible against the night sky, wobbling so that they looked like torches. Our last bit of weariness was suddenly gone and we slowly made our way, led by Berry, out of the campsite.
We made a few bad decisions before we left. The most costly was leaving our windproof-waterproof jackets behind. We didn’t forget them – we decided, bolstered by our 1 day trek experience, that the physical exertion and our normal jackets, a hoodie in my case, would be sufficient. We knew the last part was steep and challenging, so we wanted to be as light as possible. Which is why we kept our bags and handmade walking sticks behind as well. All we had was 2 pieces of Kitkats in our pockets and 1 flashlight to share among 3 of us – you can’t get lighter than this.
As if created by design, the summit trek of Rinjani had three distinct phases. The first part will test your commitment. If you are having second thoughts or harbouring doubts about your abilities, this is the part where you will be most dearly tempted to turn back. Not that you won’t be tempted later on (unless you have insanely good fitness levels), but the sudden increase in difficulty and the proximity to the campsite, where you can go back without jeopardizing the Rinjani trip, can make you wonder if the summit is really worth it.
We already knew that this part was going to be steeper, but we weren’t expecting the loose soil. We had to test our footing at every step and use roots, branches and whatever we could find as handholds to hoist ourselves up as we continued our slow ascent. In some places, we even had to go down on all fours to prevent slipping. This is where we began to wish fervently we had invested in head lamps and it was only the beginning of our wishes and regrets. It was ironically fortunate that our hands were free because we did not bring enough flashlights.We managed to take turns with the one we had and just followed other groups for light.
We soon found ourselves separated into two groups. Asif was having trouble with the slope and fell behind with Berry, who had own powerful flashlight, while Majed and I went ahead with ours. Normally, as was the case the previous day, we would have stopped and waited for the person behind to catch up, but given the difficulty of the terrain, I was afraid of my body cooling down. That and the fact that Asif was talking of going back. So, Majed and I pushed on, determined to overcome the first hurdle before our bodies started protesting too much, deciding to wait once the hard part was over.
The reward for the hour and a half of climbing, crawling and stumbling was the second part of the summit trek. The steep forested ground with loose soil and gnarled roots gave way to gentle slopes almost barren of vegetation. The ground fell away on both sides, and if you were as late as we were, the predawn light would let you enjoy the breathtaking view while the clouds moved and shifted to change the scenery constantly. Sometimes you would look at one side and find that the path you are walking on has risen from a sea of clouds. At other times, you would have trouble seeing more than 20 metres in front of you until the wind carried away the cloud to reveal the path snaking up the mountain, dotted with trekkers like a line of ants. And you can enjoy the view all through the thirty minutes that this part takes without having to exert too much.
Unless you are afraid of heights – and it turned out Majed was. We had waited for Asif for a while as planned, but realizing that we had no idea if he was coming, had decided to continue on our own. Also, the fading darkness made us painfully aware that we were late for sunrise. We didn’t know if this was because we had started too late, or because we were just too slow, but we had to hurry if we were to reach the top in time. As we neared the end of the relaxed part of the trek I was eager to push on, convinced that the goal cannot be far if the sunrise was so close – we were, after all, supposed to see the sun come up from the peak. So, when Majed, daunted by height and the light rain that had started to fall, suggested that we might as well enjoy the sunrise from where we were (“we have practically reached the top!”), I stubbornly muttered – half to Majed and half to myself – that there was no way I was stopping after coming this far. And then I pressed on without looking back, hoping that Majed would have no choice but to follow. And thus, when I started the final part of the trek, I found myself alone.
Fittingly, the last part of was the hardest. The slope of the climb, the constant chilling wind and our tired legs – all of these nagged me to give up, but the main challenge was the lack of footing caused by the volcanic ash that formed a one-foot-deep layer on the whole path up to the top. For every step I took, I slid down half a step, and the step took double the energy in the first place. It was really demoralizing when travelling a couple of hundred feet took close to half an hour.
But even more demoralizing was seeing the sun break the horizon during the climb. The summit trek was supposed to be a three and half hour pursuit and I would have blamed myself for being too slow if it weren’t for the fact that I was in the middle of hundreds of people forming a line to the top. If I missed the sunrise, at least a hundred more people did too. So here is a piece of advice for beginner trekkers – expect the summit trek to be closer to five hours than four to give yourself a better chance to catch the sunrise.
The last two hours of Rinjani trek was easily the most daunting physical challenge I had ever faced. The zeal and the rush of adrenaline at the beginning of the trek was all drained by this point and I realized that I had to depend on sheer stubbornness if I was to have any chance to make it. So I put my hoodie over my head, put my hands in my jacket, hunched my shoulders and focused on the next step, or more accurately, the next step and slide. I let my mind wonder – daydreaming about me celebrating on the top, sharing my experience with friends when i go back – anything to distract myself from wondering how much longer I could go. At the back of my head a philosophical me was thinking there was a life lesson in there somewhere, about focusing on one step at a time, but I was too tired to be impressed.
There was also plenty of time for regrets. I began to wonder why I never considered bringing a pair of gloves seriously. Halfway up, my fingers were numb, and by the time I was close to the top I had started wondering if I could get a frostbite from the chilling wind (a wind-bite maybe, I thought dryly). I had to keep my hands inside my jacket pocket the whole way up, which did not make balancing while my foot slid down any easier. The only times I brought them out was when I needed to shake some feeling back into them or when I had to stop myself from tripping. I started to miss my waterproof jacket when there was another very light shower soon after I had left Majed behind. If there were anything resembling a proper rain, I would have been soaked to the skin and I shudder to think what the relentless freezing wind would have done to me then. I even realized the usefulness of a hiking stick which I had always dismissed as a piece of extravagance. And while I am still unconvinced when it comes to trekking a solid-footed ground, the summit trek of Mount Rinjani alone can make buying them a worthwhile investment. Lastly, I began to wish I had brought my backpack so I could have carried water bottles with me. We had been depending on the few bottles Berry was carrying and the last sip of water I had had seemed like a lifetime away. All I had was a piece of KitKat in my pocket, my red herring, and I hung on to it till the end.
Sadly, I cannot claim I did not have any second thoughts about completing the trek. By then, the sun was fully up and there was no end in sight. I was convinced that it was already nine or ten in the morning (it was somewhere around seven), and was worrying about returning back to the camp too late for our return journey. I started wondering whether all the people slowly making their way upwards were set to reach the summit. So, I approached a small group, a guy and two women, and asked them whether they were going all the way.
The guy looked at me with indignation and surprise, “Ofcourse!”.
That was all that I needed. I shook off my doubts and stayed with the group the rest of the way up.
I reached the summit at around 7:30 although I was convinced it was much later. I might have celebrated more dramatically (the way I had been dreaming for the past hour) if I was not so exhausted, cold and friendless, and if there weren’t so many others (I had always imagined me among a small group of thirty huddled together in the summit in the dark waiting for the sun to come up). As it were, I settled for a grin and a high five with the guy in the group I had been following.
After the initial jubilation, I began to miss my friends. I wanted to share the excitement with someone but everyone around were in their own groups, chattering excitedly and taking pictures. Which reminded me that our only camera, the gopro, was with Majed. I sighed. It seemed that I would have to go back without a single picture of one of the most memorable moments of my life. Resigned, I stood near the edge of the summit that overlooked the crater lake and tried to enjoy the view. But I was distracted by the group I had followed. They had settled down beside me (or I near them), and were taking out their water bottle while I tried to judge if they had enough to share. I desperately needed some water before the return journey. When they were done, I strolled casually over to them and asked if I could have some, trying not to look the fool who had gone for the summit trek without carrying any water.
After gulping down some much needed water and ravishing the KitKat I had been saving, I felt somewhat better. Not comfortable though – the wind was almost fierce up here and even the short exposure during drinking and eating had left my fingers numb. The wind and the cold (it was about 4-5 degrees) made it impossible, or at least quite uncomfortable for anyone to stay for more than half an hour, as if to prevent people from hogging the top.
As I stood there trying to capture every detail of the scenery in my mind, the woman who gave me water took out a DSLR. I weighed my options. I could either be the irritating guy who wouldn’t leave them alone or I could go back forever cursing myself for not asking. It turned out I became the irritating guy who checked his mail every day for the next 2 months waiting for a mail that never came. I have only myself to blame really. I wrote my email address on the back of a small card (holding the pen like a knife as my fingers were numb) and hoped she would be able to find it after her trip was over. A much less foolish thing to do would have been to ask for her email – or even her name for that matter. My only excuse is the cold, and maybe the fact that I was planning to stick with them during the descent. Anyways, it’s a tragic irony that the greatest regret of the trip for me, a guy who always scorns at people taking endless photos, is not having a proper photo of myself on the summit.
The summit of Rinjani was a relatively small place – a group of 30-50 people made it feel somewhat crowded. One edge overlooked the crater lake in its entirety – the view that had enchanted me in the first place. One corner was elevated slightly than the rest of the place and it was here people took their milestone photos. It had a sheer drop from the edge and could only accommodate a few people at once, so the summiters were waiting for their turn to go and pose. Most of us held a flag of Indonesia and a sign with 3726 m written on it, but a few had come better prepared. Some had a flag of their own country while others had placards of their own – one guy even had a romantic message for his girlfriend.
After half an hour of shivering in the cold, marvelling the view and congratulating myself, I was ready for the descent, or to be honest, the group I had decided to follow was. I took a last look around and started on the way down. There were still quite a number of people coming up the opposite way and I thought to myself that maybe I wasn’t that late after all. Tiredness and anticipation were plain in their faces and now it was our turn to shout encouragements to them as they passed us.
But I had a surprise waiting. I was about fifteen minutes from the summit when I looked up to find Majed trudging up the slope looking like hell. His hands were tucked in the pockets of a jacket that wasn’t his, and his face had the same expression of grim determination that was all around. He seemed happy to see me – he was too cold for his face to be particularly expressive – and I stopped in order to greet him.
“You made it!”, I exclaimed.
“Do you have the KitKat?”, he demanded.
“Umm..”. I felt a pang of guilt as I explained how I had finished it, convinced that he wasn’t going to make it.
And so I made a U-turn and started for the summit a second time with Majed.
Majed was more miserable in the cold than I had been – he seemed to hate the cold with a passion. Just like me, he had found a couple on his way up. They had given him water to drink and a jacket to fight off the cold and Majed had stuck to them for motivation and company.
After the initial muted celebration, the couple gave Majed their extra pair of gloves. It took us a few minutes of fruitless tinkering to realize that our fingers were too numb to even open the hook that held the gloves together, and we had to ask for help. Majed seemed a little better once he had the gloves on and we proceeded to hang around that couple as they took out their water bottles and biscuits. We hung around until they offered us some, all the time trying not to look the fools who had brought nothing on this challenging trek. It was an all-too-soon deja vu for me but I was grateful for the extra food and water.
I finally had the gopro in my hand. Interestingly, I still don’t have a good picture on the summit. Who needed the displayless GoPro when they had photos from a DSLR? Also, Majed was far from being an enthusiastic poser. Either he was too shaken from the climb and the cold or he was just not keen to go near the edges – probably both. As a result we have only two pictures on the summit, one of Majed standing well clear of the edges, with a background giving no clue as to where he was, and the other of us standing side by side, the crater lake on the background and the photographer’s finger in one corner. Not complaining – better that than nothing. But seeing that picture while writing this assured me that I wasn’t exaggerating about Majed being uncomfortable in the cold. It looked like I had stopped him from finding someplace warm and had forced him to take a picture with me.
About half an hour later, we started back towards base camp. We were supposed to be back at the camp for breakfast but again I figured if we were going to be late, so were a lot of others. So I wasn’t too worried. But soon, we were faced with new challenge – it turned out that the layer of loose soil that had dragged us down when we were climbing up presented a different problem when the direction was reversed. The stepping foot still slipped but now it wanted to make us do a full split. To keep balance, we had to go with the slide that made the descent more like skating than walking. And all the while, we could see the edges of the path on both sides, reminding us of the height we were at. Exhilarating, but again only if you are not afraid of heights. As I watched Majed carefully placing one foot barely in front of the other, his face as serious as if he was in a funeral, I started to wonder if we would be able to reach camp before the sun came down.
I shouted encouragements to him, tried to leave him behind so that he had have to follow (worked once before, didn’t it?), and even tried to make up some explanations about how taking longer steps would actually help with his balance, but all I got in return was a solemn reply to slow down. I was trying to estimate, with increasing worry, how long it would take for us to reach camp at that rate, when rescue came in the form of a guide. He saw Majed’s predicament and started showing him how to tackle the sliding. When that wasn’t enough, he provided support to help Majed keep his balance and soon they were cruising past me seemingly effortlessly, like two skating love birds.
Relieved, I took this time to use the gopro and capture the stunning views. I took a small video of the walking-sliding I was doing because I knew I could never explain in words what it looked like. I also took a few selfies along the way. As much as I hate selfies, some of the views were too good to let go uncaptured.
But there was yet another surprise in store for me. As I was trying to catch up to Majed, who, by then I had lost sight of, I saw Asif waving and beaming up at me. I was speechless – I had been so sure that he had gone back to camp.
“It’s so good to have finally found you guys!”, were his first words.
And he looked happy – probably more than anyone has ever looked upon seeing me. He had a muffler scarf around his neck that wasn’t his but I didn’t notice straight away. I told him the summit was a bit more than thirty minutes away but I was too tired to go for the third time.
“I don’t care about the summit. I am just glad to see you guys. Let’s go back”, was his startling reply.
Glad to have a companion, I didn’t push him. Asif asked me if Majed was alright. He had thought Majed was injured by the way he was being supported by the guide. We had a good laugh about that and started downwards, stopping now and then to get a few pictures. And Asif told me his story of the trek.
Asif was expecting us at the end of the first part of the trek. When we were nowhere to be seen, Asif and Berry rested for a while before Asif decided to continue. Berry stayed behind, saying that he would catch up. Asif looked for us all the way till the path started to slope up for the final part of the trek, and started to debate whether he had missed us along the way. That was impossible of course, the path was too narrow for him to have passed us by, but up there none of us was making good decisions and Asif was no exception. He was so caught up in finding Majed and me that he doubled back and walked back the way he had come in the hope that he would find us waiting for him somewhere.
Asif got back to where he had left Berry, but now Berry was missing as well. (that’s a mystery we haven’t been able to solve – Asif thinks Berry was taking a nap somewhere out of sight). So he turned back again. He was getting colder by the minute and then it started to drizzle. Asif took shelter from the rain under a big rock but there was no escaping the wind. And since he had stopped moving, his body was not generating the heat that had kept him going so far. Soon he was, and I quote “curled up under my shelter, shivering and wondering if I would make it out of here”. If we were in the habit taking Asif seriously, I would have said it was touch and go. Having known him years however, we concluded that he was merely cold and miserable.
Asif ’s relief came in the form of yet another guide. This guy was accompanying a Korean woman and when he saw Asif ‘s state, took out his extra muffler scarf and gave it to Asif . That didn’t seem enough and so the woman did the same. They helped him wrap the mufflers thoroughly around his head and neck and gave him water. Nursed back to life, Asif decided to start for the peak reasoning that sooner or later he had to bump into us. The hour before he found us had been so depressing for him that he did not have to think twice choosing company over achievement.
That should have been the end of our Rinjani story. We had done it, we had pushed ourselves and we had conquered the summit – the hard part was surely over. It was not. The return trek, the part we had thought to be the easiest, the part where we would be talking about the unforgettable experiences of the previous days and enjoying the scenery without our legs burning from the effort of climbing, lasted till midnight. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, we had to walk for twelve full hours to get to civilisation from the base camp.
The main culprit was rain – that much was certain. It rained soon after we had had our late breakfast (more pancakes) and although it was not heavy, it was enough to make the descent treacherous. We were really slowed down, maybe because we were really bad at climbing down, or maybe because we had no guide to give us a hand or, in the very least, some directions. The arrangements were that we would be accompanied by two porters on the way back while Berry would take the Malaysian group for the second day of their trek. As it turned out, the porters could not speak a word of English and were too burdened themselves to help us in any way. If anything, their movements, light and sure footed as cats, even with all the loads they were carrying, was demoralizing. They would lead the way, and then wait for us to catch up, unable to even warn us (at least in a language we understood) that we were not going to make it on time.
Not that it would have helped. We were well aware that we were going to be late and were anxious to be done before light was gone (if only we knew). I kept on slipping, and I ended up on my backside quite a few times. Going faster would have meant risking a twisted ankle and I shudder to think what would have happened if that came to pass.
During the first few hours, Asif ’s shoes were adding to our troubles. They were one size too small for him and his toes were sore to the point that he was limping slightly. I don’t know if it was the descent that was more challenging with small shoes or if the stress from the previous day was catching up to him, but he was having a lot of problems. In fact halfway through he got so frustrated that he took them off and literally threw them away.
The lunch was no help either. Having had only pancakes for breakfast after the challenging summit climb and before starting the descent, we were expecting a more substantial meal. We should not have – the arranged itinerary only provided breakfast and snacks that day. But then, we were supposed to have been back by lunch time. So when we settled down in one of the resting huts along the way, and saw the porters putting oranges and pineapples onto a plate, our hearts sank. We were already out of any snacks of our own – so there was nothing with which we could replenish our energy. We told ourselves that we would be having a feast before evening and pushed on.
As daylight began to fade, we started to become edgy. Surely, we weren’t supposed to trek in the dark. We did not even have enough flashlights for each of us. And now it was me who was starting to slow the group down. The constant slipping had taken a toll on my knees. My hand-made walking stick, the one Berry had made for us, had snapped and I had taken Asif ‘s to try and take away some weight off my knees. But we knew we weren’t moving fast enough. Nor were we recognizing anything that would assure us that we were close to the end of the trek.
Our unease grew when we met a couple of guys on the way who informed us that the end was quite a few hours away. Trying not to panic, we decided that we had to get some idea about what was happening. So we approached the porters and after a lot of hand gestures, managed to convey that we wanted them to call Leng. Once Leng was on the phone, Asif explained our situation to him and asked him how much walking we had left. When Leng’s answer confirmed our growing fears, we asked why the path seemed unfamiliar to us and whether or not there was any way to be out of the mountains that would not entail walking for hours in the dark. We were hoping that we could get to a nearby village or a road and find ourselves a ride. But there was no way out. Apparently, we were taking a different route back because our transport (we had plans to go to Kuta that same night) was waiting in a different place from where we had started. I can’t remember the names of the places to check now if the routes were significantly different in terms of length, but we suspect that we did walk more than we had to. Leng also said that he was trying to send some motorbikes to meet us but he wasn’t sure how far as into the mountains they could reach.
Soon it became dark. Fortunately for us, the porters had two flashlights of their own and the path had become relatively flat. Still, sharing three flashlights among five people on a narrow muddy path meant that we had to tread carefully. I slipped a few times in the darkness and the increasing discomfort in my knees slowed me down even further.
It was an eerie, out-of-this-world experience – walking in a narrow path curved in the unbroken sea of grass, darkness and silence pressing in from all around, while tiredness and doubts threatening to overwhelm us from within. I think we would have enjoyed it a lot, had our situation not been so uncertain, but this was not the bicycle ride of Gili. We still weren’t sure how much longer we had to walk and I was praying that one of my recurring knee injury would not deem this to be a suitable time to make an appearance. But the experience, while not pleasant, was unforgettable.
And I am fiercely proud that we got through it without breaking down. Or without turning on each other for that matter – it would have been so easy to become angry and frustrated at our predicament and blame one another for one thing or another. Instead, we tried making tired jokes whenever we had the energy, and kept telling each other how it could not very long before the trek was over. For me, it is a solemn reminder of how important the people you travel with are in making or breaking a trip. Ending the Rinjani trek in a foul mood would have undoubtedly tarnished the experience.
Towards the end, I started to fall behind, limping behind one of the porters, while Majed and Asif pushed forward hoping to find help Leng had promised. In some ways, it felt similar to the last part of the summit climb. I was alone and tired, trying to focus on the next step and the next step only. But unlike before, there was no option of turning back. There was a moment of excitement, at least for me, when I heard barking a little way off to my left. I remember wondering if my walking stick would be of any help if a wild dog came out of the shrubs. Out of the corner of my eyes, I looked at the porter for any signs of danger. But if he was at all worried, he didn’t show any signs, and after a while the barking faded away and I was back in my exhausted trance.
Help did come for us towards the end, an but it did more to provide an exciting end to our adventures than to ease our hardship. Leng had sent two motorbikes to carry us through the last part, and they only reached us when we had only half an hour of walk left. The bike ride, however, almost made me wish we had done the last part on foot. The trekking path was too narrow and too uneven for the bikes and so Asif and I had a thrill of a ride worthy of being in a theme park (there were only two spots, so Majed had to continue on foot). The bikes went off road immediately, and we spent the next half an hour holding on to the bikes for dear life, jaws clenched. I remember at one point, my bike was going down a slope towards an edge and I was wondering if my savior had made a wrong turn, or if he was a psychopath with the intention of committing a glorious suicide. When he started to turn a few feet off the edge, I was sure we were making a U-turn. Instead, I barely had the time to duck behind him as our bike went straight into the jungle on the left. I could hear the leaves and branches slapping against us as we went through to another clearing on the other side.Only God knows how they navigated the hillside in the dark. My guess is that we were not the first trekkers to have needed some help.
It was close to midnight when we finally reached a village. Majed appeared some ten minutes later behind our two porters. A pick-up truck was waiting to take us to Leng’s small restaurant, where we had kept the rest of our stuffs. Our rescue bikers accompanied us, since the payment for their services were not settled and since we refused to pay for the misadventure. It was a short drive, but with our bodies giving in to the fatigue, Majed and I had trouble keeping our eyes open even in the cramped front seat. When we reached our destination, I dry heaved on the side of the road. It was as if my body knew it could finally afford to protest the ordeal it had been put through.
As we sat in the restaurant waiting for Leng, we reluctantly ordered some food. The feast we had dreamed about during lunch did not seem in the least appealing anymore, but we knew we should put something in our stomach. There were only a few options available, but then, it was close to midnight, and we were lucky that the kitchen was still open. I rested my head on my arms for what I thought was a few minutes, but when I lifted my head and asked Asif when Leng was coming, I found that I had fallen sound asleep. Asif had already talked to him, settled the payment of the bikers (we had insisted that our tour organizer pay for the bikers, and seeing the state we were in, Leng had not argued), and taken his suggestion to postpone going to Kuta until the next morning. The last part was disappointing, as I was hoping to wake up next to the sea the following morning, but apparently the road was not safe that late at night. Leng had gone out to find us an accommodation for the night while we waited for dinner.
I was surprised to find that I could not eat anything – my body was not done protesting. To be fair I had ordered Laksa, probably for the first time in my life, and was only hoping to pick out the chicken cubes from the disgusting mixture, but I could not even do that. My mouth seemed to think I was putting rubber cubes in it. Afraid that forcing it might cause me to vomit again, I gave up. I wasn’t feeling hungry at all, just an overwhelming longing for a bed.
When Leng was back, we got up, tipped our porters for sticking with us ungrudgingly till the end, and walked to a nearby hotel. We knew the hotels in this area were budget, and that suited us just fine, since we were wasting our first night booking at Kuta. The hotel was more than adequate – except for the weird fact that it did not have soap or a hand-wash. (Even the front desk, which we would approach the next morning, had no idea what we meant by soap, until we acted it out. Then she exclaimed “Oh, Sabun? Don’t have”). I barely managed to take a shower before I was out cold on the bed.
“This is gonna be the best sleep I ever have”, I said. And it was.