Mount Rinjani; December 24-29, 2012

Traveling the short distance from Bali to Lombok was quite an ordeal, although perhaps not atypical for travel within Indonesia. We ended up spending nine hours in the sweltering under-construction domestic terminal of the Bali airport, awaiting our perpetually-delayed 20-minute flight to Lombok. Communication from the the Merpati Airline staff was sporadic and sketchy, with many inconsistent explanations. The final conclusion was that Merpati had only one working airplane left in its fleet, criss-crossing Indonesia day and night trying to get passengers from one place to another regardless of published flight schedules. Unfortunately we'll be taking Merpati again later in our travels. At least this time we'll know what to expect.

Despite our very late arrival in Senaru, we were up early the next morning to set out on our four-day Mt. Rinjani trek. The trek was truly excellent: smooth logistics, stunning and unusual scenery, physically challenging, a successful summit bid, and acceptable weather despite it being the rainy season. Here are a few details:

The mountain: At 3726 meters (12,224 feet) Gurung Rinjani is one of the highest volcanoes in Indonesia and has become quite popular for treks ranging from one to four days. The longest trek -- the one we did -- ascends one side of the volcano to the crater rim, where one camps and then sets out at 2:30am to reach the summit for sunrise (photo 1). The crater floor is about 600 meters (2000 feet) below the rim and 1700 meters (5600 feet) below the summit, with a large lake and a smoking cone that erupted as recently as 2010 (photo 2, taken from the summit). After summitting, we descended to the lake where we spent a night and enjoyed a swim in hot springs fed by scalding waterfalls, quite surreal (photo 3). The next day we ascended to the opposite rim for the best overall view when the summit is out, which it's not quite in photo 4. The last day was a long descent through rainforest and finally coffee plantations finishing at the opposite side of the mountain from where we'd started.

The hiking: Reviews we read before the trek expressed sentiments from "by far the hardest thing I've ever done" to "downright dangerous". The trek was indeed quite challenging. The elevation changes are significant and Indonesians don't seem to believe in switchbacks -- the trail was often extremely steep, rocky, and rough. Reaching the summit required a long climb up a precipitous sandy ridge. (Photo 5 gives the flavor but isn't as dramatic as the real thing.) The day we descended the 1700 knee-jarring meters from the summit to the lake left us surprisingly sore for the rest of the trek and beyond. Even with a "rest day" when the hiking was a mere two-hour steep ascent, this trek definitely rates as one of the more difficult we've done.

Trekking service: We've been on full-service guided treks in various places around the world. With its website full of terrible English, and minimal communication at booking time
, we were a bit worried how John's Adventure would stack up. We needn't have been concerned. All three critical components of a guided trek -- guide, equipment, and food -- turned out to be excellent. Our guide Adi had good English and was experienced and fun. He's been up the mountain over 500 times in 15 years of guiding. Our tents were spacious and brand new. The food was plentiful and varied. We splurged on the deluxe package, which also included comfortable camp chairs (photo 6), a toilet tent, and more bottled water than we could drink. And somehow we ended up with the best campsite, by far, at every location. No complaints whatsoever.

Porters: Our trekking crew included four porters to carry all of the equipment and food, although we carried our personal gear. Every trekking region seems to have its own style for porter carrying. Here the porters lashed two baskets to the ends of a large pole balanced on their shoulders (photo 7). At the start the porter loads were as much as 35 kilos (77 pounds). It truly amazes us that the porters were able to navigate the steep and slippery trails without mishap, especially in their footwear of choice: cheap flip-flops.

Weather: December is the start of the rainy season so we were prepared for imperfect weather. (The mountain used to close from December-April due to rock slide danger, but the closure has been reduced to just a couple of months at the urging of the trekking operators. Nobody has actually been injured by a rock slide that we heard about, although like any mountain of this scope there have been various injuries and even deaths over the years.) We did have quite a number of downpours, but they always occurred during the night or at other times we could jump into our tents. Until the very last hour of the trek that is, when we got completely soaked, but we were able to dry off in the comfort of our post-trek hotel. Our summit morning was clear and dry with starry sky, lightning on the distant horizon, and just the right number of clouds at sunrise to make for interesting photographs. (As always, Tim's photos will be coming much later -- photo 8 shows Tim at work on the summit.) Had we started just one day later we would have missed the opportunity to reach the summit due to poor weather.

Other trekkers: There were a fair number of other trekkers on the mountain, a mix of Asian tourists, Western tourists, and locals on a pilgrimage for the holidays. Many were quite inexperienced and found the trek to be a near-impossible endeavor. But a handful of locals did reach the summit the morning we did, and they were quite anxious to be photographed with us (photo 9).

Garbage: The one downside of Rinjani is a significant amount of garbage at the main campsites. There doesn't seem to be a "pack it in pack it out" ethic, and it doesn't help that each campsite has resident monkeys on the lookout for food or even food-wrapper opportunities (photo 10). Only recently have some of the more conscientious trekking agencies instituted programs and incentives to reduce the garbage. We're hopeful the situation will improve over time.

Next: We fly from Lombok to Flores via a stopover back in Bali (which is in the wrong direction, but the only way to reach Flores from Lombok). We'll spend a night in the town of Labuan Bajo, then board the Nusa Tara for a week-long liveaboard dive trip around the islands of Rinca and Komodo.

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