Gunung Rinjani is a 3,726m (12,224′) active volcano on Lombok Island in the Indonesian archipelago. The eruption that created its massive caldera is thought to have started the little ice age more than 800 years ago. It last erupted in 2010, with lava flows and smoke that spread 12km. And every day, hundreds of people climb it. Last week, we were two of those people.
It’s not that hiking Rinjani seemed dangerous. But these things never do until something terrible happens. And that’s just the beginning. I fully acknowledge that I’ve been jaded by of our recent year exploring New Zealand, but I just don’t think that the payoff in beauty was worth the considerable effort, expense, or risk of hiking Rinjani.
We’re neither ultra-marathoners nor first-time backpackers. We’ve put plenty of miles on our boots and like to think that we can hang with some seriously difficult walking. We’ve finished longer and more remote walks in the United States and down under. But Rinjani was, without a doubt, the hardest walk we’ve ever done.
There are a few options when booking this trek: one, two, or three nights camping on the mountain. We chose the two night option because we figured there was no reason to rush, but three nights seemed excessive. On our first day we were picked up at five in the morning and ferried first to Senaru in a taxi for two hours, then hopped in the back of a truck for another hour over to Sembalun. From Sembalun we began a gradual ascent through some cow pastures and over some rolling hills.
It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on us, so even though the walking wasn’t hard, it was unpleasant. But more unpleasant was the massive amount of trash littering the trail. We couldn’t walk more than a few feet without seeing something tossed aside by another hiker, and the areas where people stopped to rest were positively filthy. Aerosol cans, candy wrappers, many, many wads of toilet paper, and almost as many petrified logs of human excrement were in high concentration along every bit of the 50km trail. It was gross.
After lunch we began climbing steadily through the forest up sandy slopes and, seven hours after we began, we reached the crater rim and set up camp. It was a hard day, but nothing truly out of the ordinary. The walking was boring and the scenery average, but the view of the lake that filled the caldera at the rim was satisfying. We went to sleep with the sun setting over the other edge of the massive crater, tired from the early wakeup and steep ascent.
While day one was a hard warmup, day two was the backbreaker. Those making the summit push woke at two o’clock in the morning after a cold and uncomfortable night and set out with headlamps to make the summit by sunrise. After a 1000 meter vertical climb up a loose scree field we reached the top, though we were joined by about 200 other hikers. It wasn’t exactly the pristine and spiritual moment I’d envisioned. To deal with the cold, a group of trekkers were even burning plastic bags at the summit! Great idea!
Just after dawn we descended back down to where we’d camped the previous night, had a quick breakfast then continued the descent down into the caldera. One of the coolest things about Rinjani is that it’s central crater is filled with water, creating a massive freshwater lake at 2000m. There’s also a natural hot spring bordering the lake. I love hot springs (who doesn’t?!), so I was particularly excited about this part of the trek. Unfortunately, this was another experience ruined by the disgusting amount of trash everywhere. There was rotting food, used underwear, and pretty much every other nasty thing you can think of spoiling this fantastic natural wonder. The locals that were soaking there didn’t seem to mind, but I can’t imagine ever getting used to that scene.
After lunch at the lake (which was of course filled with garbage) we began the trudge up the other side of the caldera, back to the rim. The walking in this part of the trail was actually quite enjoyable, with a long and interesting traverse along the side of the crater walls. At times we were scrambling hand over hand and at others walking lazily along the crater wall. If the rest of the trail were built like this my tune would be completely different. As fun as this part was, it came at the end of a fourteen hour day of walking, so I was pleased to stumble into camp.
Day three began with a very steep descent down slick sandy soil and sharp volcanic rock. After a few hours of pain it leveled off a bit and the jungle popped up to shade us for a more reasonabley graded descent. We reached Senaru and our transport on the other side after about six hours walking, relieved to be finished.
So we’d spent 27 of the previous 72 hours walking through a terrible combination of steep ascents and descents, endless loose sand and scree fields, and poorly cut trails straight up the mountainside when a few switchbacks would have made good sense. Miles of pain are part of backcountry hiking, but this had the added element of frustration. With every two steps forward on the loose rocks and gravel, we slid backwards one, and every step down felt unsteady, ready to blow at any moment.
Further, hiking Rinjani isn’t cheap. Even though the trail is well marked and getting lost would be a feat in itself, it’s forbidden for foreigners to hike without a guide. And the guiding companies require use of their porters. I’ve never walked with porters carrying my food, tent, and water before, and though it didn’t sit well for me I understand the system. The mountain is their moneymaker and we’re supporting the local economy. As our porter friend Hero put it “In Senaru, you work in trekking, or you don’t work.” The porters were very nice and did exactly as they were asked, I just don’t like being strong-armed into paying $200 for a service I don’t want.
And where is that money going? The guiding companies are clearly making out ahead here. The local bosses running the show were well-dressed and drove fancy cars, while the porters sweating up and sliding down the dusty mountain with eighty pounds on their shoulders (and wearing flip-flops!) wore tatters and were over the moon for our modest tip. Did I mention that one of our porters was missing an eye?! This seems exploitative at best and criminal at worst, and I’m an accomplice. Don’t make the same mistake.
There are more things at play here and I won’t belabor the point. The mountain is clearly struggling to support all this activity. The summit was so crowded with people celebrating their accomplishment that I thought I might get shoved off a cliff. Erosion is a pending disaster on the many loose slopes. But these seem trivial now, as I consider all the other things at play here.
Rinjani is a unique mountain in that people with no technical alpine skills can summit a fairly high peak. It’s just being mismanaged by the government and exploited by a few small groups of people. If someone in power cleans it up, adds some simple toilets, regulates the guiding companies, and cuts down the number of trekkers per day, it will be worth climbing. In the meantime, don’t be a party to the crimes being committed on it every day.