My last Indonesia trip wrapped in 2012. It was the tag end of a year in Asia, and longer on the road overall, and marked the beginning of This Australian Life. As per my wont and budget at the time, I had gone well off the beaten track, to northern tip of Sumatra and Aceh province, searching out dives and solitude in areas still recovering from the 2004 tsunami.
It had overwhelmed me with its natural gifts. Lake Toba, Pulau Weh, green jungles and the towering volcanic peaks stood out starkly against the blue siren of the ocean. But a year in Asia leaves you jaded, and habitually brushing off locals, their sales pitches and kindnesses alike, becomes a reflex. You grow weary of the constant profiteering at your expense. Returning to a world of set prices, while comparatively expressionless and nannying, was a relief.
Amid the years spent combining grad school, a fledgling business, and the painful cost of rent in major cities down under, I had put off a return to SE Asia again and again. Apart from some domestic road-tripping, I hadn’t tasted the strange in years. At long last, after a skinny few months spent working and saving, we flew to Bali in mid-October, and headed east.
Indonesia is an odd one. A colossal archipelago of volcanic islands, it is blessed with some of the most incredible landscapes to be found anywhere. It’s larger population bases are primarily concentrated in Java, leaving huge areas largely alone. The surfing, fishing, and diving are among the best in the world. And yet, they also feel obliged to curbstomp their environment in a way that is almost unprecedented.
I can grasp the lack of sanitation and garbage collection. That comes with the poverty. But even some of the most striking landscapes play host to trees matted with plastic bags and other detritus, cast away without a second though. Your local dump is the vacant lot next door – but who would consciously choose to live next door to dump? Even among countries with a similar development index, they are remarkable slobs.
As our first order of business, we flew to Lombok to trek Mount Rinjani, rising nearly four vertical kilometres to the peak. The long ride across the island to our guest house gave us our first view of this island, a relative unknown, as we cruised past the large capital of Mataram, skirted past slow-moving trucks on dodgy mountain roads, and wondered at the towering minarets of the numerous mosques, which our driver dubbed ‘mos-kays’.
We arrived at the trekking house, were briefed on the following day’s early start, and crashed. The morning came quickly, and we began. The intense heat and sunshine of those first few hours spent in the lower altitudes came at a price – a slice of exposed skin on my back was sunburned to a crisp, while The Girl came down with heat stroke. She is an absolute trooper, and pushed on to base camp, largely without complaint.
We weren’t alone in feeling the pace, either – there was no shortage of people turning around during those first few k’s. With few tourist attractions on Lombok apart from Gili, the trekking shops played a bit loose with their recommendations, and their happy proclamation that the summit was doable by ‘anyone from schoolkids to seniors’ was a bit overenthusiastic. You needed some conditioning for this hike.
The angles slowly increased as the temperatures began to dip, with scudding clouds beginning to obscure the views in mid-afternoon. The vegetation changed from tropical to sub-tropical, and moss hung from the trees, to catch the moisture of the clouds. We stopped often for snacks and to refuel with fruit, courtesy of Josh, our lovely guide, and a pair of porters, who also did yeoman’s work at mealtimes.
The pitch continued to steepen as we approach the rim, and the dry season, now at an end, had turned the path in to a veritable skating rink. Thousands of pairs of boots had pounded the track in to loose gravel and dry sand, and more than one of us wound up on our hands and knees. We were relatively well-prepared, and we couldn’t whinge too hard – the local porters continuously rolled past us, sporting buckets of gear and water, clad in thongs, or simply barefoot. I wasn’t giving up my Merrells for love or money.
We finally made base camp after a solid nine hours of climbing, to sit and take in the views between the cloud banks that rolled in every few moments. The state of the camp, with considerable amounts of garbage and open latrines, wasn’t altogether to our fancy, but looking past it to the view of the crater reminded us of what we came for. We ate well and slept early.
Myself and Webs, a good friend, took off for the summit at 2am, our headlamps winking along the knife-edge track following the edge of the volcanic rim, the clouds soaking us through. A strong wind from the north meant we were finding volcanic dust in our packs for weeks afterwards. The path was perilous – comprised of granular volcanic soil, it was perhaps two metres wide, and dropped immediately away in to the void of the crater. We kept our wits about us.
With a thousand vertical metres left, the early start was meant to have us at the summit by dawn. The steep initial climb from base camp, as we pushed through ankle-deep sand and skirted past disenchanted climbers, nixed this plan. But it didn’t matter. After a final slog, we found ourselves completely enshrouded by cloud at the summit. Blasted by the gale, we could feel only accomplishment of the goal, rather than the thrill of a supposedly awesome view. After a few pictures of the grey, we reversed step, and headed to Gili Trawangan to nurse our aching legs.