A common response to the invite had gone along the lines of: “Who climbs a volcano for their stag do? Tell me you are flying to Bali and then straight onto Bangkok?”
A good number had politely declined a three-day hike with in excess of 7km of vertical ascent and descent; however, seven good friends signed up for the adventure.
Frank was one of them. An ultra-marathon runner with a wild head of hair, he had recently attended his brother’s wedding where the groom had headed down the aisle on crutches as a result of a stag do injury. With good reason therefore, my fiancé was comprehensive in her questioning of our plans.
Before setting off to summit Mount Rinjani, on the Indonesian island of Lombok, I had supplied a spreadsheet of timings, locations and telephone numbers. In a moment of excitement, I had also described the major eruption in the thirteenth century that had resulted in an awe inspiring crater lake seven kilometres in diameter and a mini global Ice Age. That had invited many more questions.
To join Frank and I, our comrades also numbered two friends who spent most lunchtimes in the gym, two avid cyclists and, another who ran 100km for fun each week.
The last earned the nickname Concave Cuong for his physique: that of a man who needs a new pair of running shoes every couple of months.
As merely an infrequent half-marathon runner, I felt like I might be the weak link in this well exercised group – so I organised a pre-event, under the auspices of ensuring we had all worn in our gear, to walk the wilds of Singapore. Those of you who know Singapore will know the city-state tries its best, but our 15km jaunt through the jungle surrounding MacRitchie reservoir felt like taking the Piccadilly Line to prepare for the Trans Siberian. You could fit twenty-two of Singapore’s tallest mount, Bukit Timah, stacked on top of each into our target – Gunung Rinjani.
Nevertheless, the ‘boot wearing in’ session around the reservoir and up the mound went to plan and the following weekend, we were carrying hand luggage full of dark rum, scotch and enjoying a 9am lager at Changi airport.
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Having left a successful career in the City behind to travel with me ten years ago, my best man James never returned to the UK or the rat race and now runs his own television production company. He’s a gutsy, passionate man who counts presenting and boosting client investment amongst his many talents. He doesn’t list travel logistics. And so it was that our outward (and return) journey would take an entire day via four airport terminals; fortunately, it diverted via a seafood lunch and a stack of Bintangs.
We arrived at base camp in the early evening where John, the owner of the adventure company we were to use, regaled us with stories of inconsiderate European trekkers who left their litter and loo roll all over the mountain.
John’s long white robes, songkok and glowing smile immediately command your attention and put you at ease. I had spent some time liaising with him in advance of this trip as I had some rather unusual requests; he was a no-man as well as a yes-man, which inspired confidence.
He had begun with “no, we don’t do that”, moved on to 500 dollars a head and we negotiated from there. See, I wanted to have a silver service dinner, tables, chairs and a wine cooler to be transported up to the crater rim at 2600m (what were you thinking?!). I assured him I would bring the champagne, we’d sit on the floor, and the last of my friends to sign up for the trip would have the honour of carting it all up the volcano. We had a deal.
After the volley of abuse at other tour operators for leaving rubbish all over the mountain, John then got onto the meat of the conversation and described the precipitous drops that awaited the photographer who inadvertently stepped backward to get a wide-angle view on the summit. This ensured our full attention at the following safety briefing. A sense of adventure, quickly formed camaraderie and genuine boyish excitement filled the air as we headed to sleep.
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5am wake up calls are welcome in very few circumstances, but the following morning was most certainly one of them. The sun rose over the volcanic valley of rice paddies that flowed down towards the sea just as lava from Rinjani once had. The beach-clad Gili islands were just visible over the sea to Bali. The mist burnt off and the air was moist and clean. The inhabitants who farmed fields or carried tourist’s water up the volcano did this every morning, but for me, a city dweller all my adult life, this 5am call was the very definition of magic.
The first day was a tough, but exceedingly pleasant hike up to 2600m and the crater rim – through fields of elephant grass, incised with river valleys that during this dry season were often just black sand and volcanic dust. It was hot, but the peace of the wind in the ears of the grass was calming. At the same time, the expanse of space that rose unforgivingly to the volcano peak was electrifying for a city dweller.
Pine trees replaced elephant grass, the incline grew steeper and the clouds we entered after lunch gave a feeling of intimacy, of enclosed endeavour to the group of maybe a hundred hikers treading the path that day.
The group very soon hit a modus operandi: Alistair and George, the two gym boys, would forge on ahead with our porters, with the remainder of us puffing along behind. At each stop where we reunited, Alistair would (justifiably) carry a swagger of the alpha male, and we’d all have to bring him down a notch.
By 5p.m. we’d all reached our campsite. Fifty or so two-man yellow tents were pitched in threes and fours all along the ridge.
Occasional breaks in the cloud revealed the far side of a sheer walled valley full of rock falls, tropical trees and a trickling stream. It had been a tough, adventurous day, and the location was simply spectacular.
To reset the alpha balance that evening, we insisted Alistair move his tent to make room for the dinner table, as it clearly was the best site; grumbling subsided and we ate.
As darkness fell, the temperature plummeted and we all huddled around a fire, sharing viewpoints and our tales from the day, lubricated by good measures of our stashed spirits and our Cohibas. The stars you cannot see in Singapore appeared and the moon rose over the mountain ridges. The sheer scale and awe of nature grips me on hiking trips. In cities, man gives the impression of temporarily being in control – out here, where the scenery is awesome, there’s no data, help is hours away, I really feel I am lucky to have been invited in by Mother Nature to what is firmly her patch.
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Breakfast in the early hours (we’re talking 2.30am) seemed on first inspection to be pancakes and coffee. By the second bite the taste buds had awoken and it was clear that the pancakes were laced with raw onions and served in an even stronger onion jus. The coffee tasted like mud. Aware we had a thousand metres to climb to the top, I munched my way through two plates of what is certainly the foulest breakfast I have ever had to eat.
What followed was difficult, dangerous and utterly rewarding.
We navigated by the light of our head torches – the moon having set. A trail of these little white stars flickered off into the distance all along the ridgeline and headed up to the volcano summit.
Step by step was the mantra. A steep dusty incline, punctured only by a few thorny trees onto which we could grab for support was followed by a couple of hours hiking along the ridge-line and I was acutely aware that one wrong move off the path could mean a thousand-metre fall.
Just as when the cloud had descended the previous day and brought a sense of intimacy to the struggle, the sun’s rise this morning removed this cloak and revealed the immense landscape into which we had been invited. The 6km wide crater lake was on one side and the serenely flat Bali Sea on the other.
The last hour was a trudge up a completely exposed pile of volcanic sand and scree. At 3,500 metres on precious little sleep, my brain didn’t function at all well, but at least the risk of a calamitous fall had rescinded and it was just a physical battle that remained: me versus this huge pile of sand.
At the summit, I found Alistair and a dangerously chilled George who had been in the bitterly cold wind for an hour. Over the next half hour the other exhausted members of our party joined us: James and Frank with their spectacular beards, and concave Cuong.
The highest point of Rinjani is a three metre square patch of rock reached via an even narrower isthmus. Two metres in any direction from the middle of it and you would fall off the mountain and die. Given the physical exhaustion of everyone who summits and the jubilation running through their veins, I find it amazing that more people do just that.
Nonetheless at the time, we weren’t thinking about dying (too much) and passed around a little metal sign reading ‘Mt Rinjani 3726m’ that lives atop the peak. We knew we only had a short period of time up there before we all became like George, so it was body warming hugs all round and a quick series of photos.
We lolloped down the scree slope. Each leaping stride we took ten times the length of those climbing in the opposite direction.
On the ascent, at 3,400m, Phil had reached his physical limit, found a boulder and hunkered down on the leeward side to watch the sunrise. Usually found in a neatly pressed short sleeve shirt, Phil is only a handful of years younger than my father. That he had reached within 500m of the summit was a fabulous achievement. I was relieved to see no sign of him there when we returned. I had struggled on the ascent with leaving him, my mind awash with the tales of exposure suffered by previous adventurers.
Our second breakfast was unmemorable, as it had not an onion in sight. I was keen to press on down the valley side as quite incredibly, in spite of our achievement of climbing and descending almost two vertical kilometres before 9.30a.m. – we still had a full day ahead and we were behind schedule!
But the route down to the valley floor was sheer. The porters danced the loose rocks; but for me there was no sensible way down at times without a rope. One missed step and you could have cracked your head and that would have been it. A day later, I would understand better how to descend at pace: to allow myself to not always be in control, but to only seek temporary ledges to support my weight, en route to a place where I could stop and stand. However at this moment, I had no faith in my path finding, I was exhausted, scared and a complete novice.
We arrived down at the crater lake in the late afternoon, and soon abandoned hope of hiking out that night. Instead, we headed to a hot spring, found a superb campsite on the lakeshore and had time to celebrate our achievement.
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That evening, it was finally time to try out the pit toilet. Each night our guides would dig a small round hole, erect four poles and wrap around a canvas sheet for privacy. A toilet roll lived atop one of the poles. I unzipped the door to provide a quite literally smoking view, before dropping my sunglasses into the hole.
Throughout the weekend, our group left nothing but these re-covered in pits on the mountain. However, we walked through hundreds of metres of undergrowth strewn with shit-covered wet wipes and had to choose campgrounds with care to avoid piles of rubbish.
It didn’t ruin the weekend at all, but inconsiderate tourists are slowly killing this great Indonesian mountain, and by not stopping it, the guides and porters are limiting their own livelihoods. That a citizen of a country where it is taboo to throw litter willingly does so on the other side of the planet really upsets me.
Having spent quite some time in the toilet tent fishing out my glasses, I had missed out on lots of tough talk regarding going for a swim in the freezing crater lake. On many family holidays to Newfoundland in my youth, I swam in a variety of stunning and freezing freshwater lakes. Once you’re in, the cool water is a fantastic tonic to any troubles you may have, physical or mental. James and Alistair joined me in the nippy dip. It was still a good deal warmer than a Tajik river that will forever stick in the memory!
In my latest attempt to counter Alistair’s alpha-ness, I had earlier informed the guide he was vegetarian. On the first morning, the size of the breakfast banana pancakes had been a concern to this self-proclaimed super-eater and he had requested extra eggs be packed to feed his protein yearning. Giving him a plate of vegetarian rice for dinner seemed apt. This plan backfired. Unawares, Alistair took taken one of the plates full of chicken and I was left eating the fried rice.
The lake fell perfectly still after our swim, and after dark it was evident just how alone we were. Around the crater there wasn’t a light stronger than a torch. The night sky was a lighter shade of black than the crater sides, and as the stars sailed overhead, we each appreciated just how fortunate we were to be there sharing that moment. How physically tired, how cheerful and how appreciative of the friendship on our adventure. I was donated lumps of meat from my fellow diners, we chilled a bottle of champagne in the lake, and fashioned a drying rack out of branches, on which we dried our swimming trunks and towels.
We shared opinions that night over the fire whose sparks took turns to singe our freezing swimwear.
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The walk the following day was incredibly tough on the aching muscles and joints, but packed full of views to numb the pain. We hiked largely alone, each comfortable spending time with the mountain at our own pace. The lush forests of the early morning gave way to panoramic views of the crater later. Condors soared on updrafts and I stopped to watch a troop of macaques leap overhead in the jungle canopy and stop to munch.
By the time we re-joined Alistair and George back at base camp in the valley where we had begun in three days earlier they were on their second round of Bintangs. Ramadan meant it was rather difficult to restock the beer fridge; however George came to some arrangement with a man on a motorcycle and 20 minutes later, we were again sipping (warmish) Bintang and enjoying his cutting humour.
Alistair was using the feeble Wi-Fi to search out some more appropriate Stag Do entertainment in Senggigi (the island’s capital), but it being a Muslim island in Ramadan where horse and carts are still a normal mode of transport, he wasn’t having much luck. Here I would have hoped to end the tale, but there was one final twist.
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There were hugs and thanks all round; we jumped into a couple of 4x4s and headed for our resort and its pool to rest weary legs.
After an hour of discussing immigration and politics in the speeding Nissan, we got to the small village of Pamenang at dusk. Dusk during Ramadan has an extra special meaning, as the majority of the population will be indoors breaking the fast. As we sped through the quiet village, a cat ran in front of us. Our driver swerved one way, lost control, swerved the other way and then the car ploughed into the ditch, skidding along for a few seconds before colliding with a concrete block, pirouetting through 180 degrees and landing facing the wrong way on the side of the road. Both axles snapped.
When we landed, I couldn’t breathe at all well. We scrambled out of the car and I spent some time calming down on the day bed outside what I suppose was a community centre. I’d also ploughed one of my teeth deep into my lip so was gushing blood. No one was seriously injured. Had it not been Ramadan, and had we not been wearing seatbelts, I expect someone inside or outside the car would have died.
The car was a write off. Alistair abandoned all hope of finding a strip club in Senggigi and we waited for a replacement vehicle to take us onward. Our driver from the airport on the outward journey had taken in excess of three hours and clipped the wing mirror of an oncoming vehicle during one seat-clenching overtaking manoeuvre on a bend. I vowed at that point to never remain in a car driving inanely. I had read that car accidents are the most common cause of death for tourists and now first-hand, I had almost become a statistic.
Three weeks later, commuting to work on the metro, I was still struggling with the transient pain of two cracked ribs. But the sight of a blue lake on an advertising poster made me smile and recall my addiction to the friendship, the adventure, and the combination of exhaustion, achievement and beauty that a mountaintop sunrise brings.
Who climb’s a volcano for their stag do? You should try it, but please make sure you wear your seatbelt.
Photo credits to Alistair, James, George & myself!