03 October 2014

Mount Rinjani: C'est Magnifique!

I bent over and grabbed my toes letting my hammies loosen and burn. I gave trekkers and the gods and the volcano a face full of butt. I didn't care. No fucks given. I had Rinjani to climb. No summit! 3726 meters of volcanic mean. I hit the groin too. Let'em see!

Unbeknownst to me a handful of Frenchies were leaning over their banana pancakes trying to ascertain my deal.

"He looks serious," Thomas said. (Translation: "What a dick.") 

"Do you think he's with us?" Julie asked.

Their group was 100% French...so far. They worried privately while I got loose. They must have known I was coming. They must have known I was American. Who but an American would rush a perfectly good meal just to moon the mountain?

Poor Frenchies...

The island of Lombok in Southern Indonesia is made up entirely of the stuff Rinjani spit out. Warm ocean waters crash onto black volcanic sand, jungles flourish atop lava beds hardened and buried, and in the center ending at some unknown point beyond a ring of clouds is the monster itself.

Lombok was my escape from Bali, and Rinjani was meant to cleanse me of its taint. I booked a three day, two night trek in Senggigi. I liked what I saw in pictures. I liked the idea of going from sea level to summit and back. I ignored the warnings.

In Senggigi I met several sets of trekkers limping away from the mountain. To a person they warned me that it would be a difficult climb. I dismissed them all. I decided that Senggigi had become infested with roving packs of weenies.

The trek started in a village called Senaru. The Frenchies finished their pancakes and we took a short ride to the trail head. We were an odd six-pack; Thomas, Julie and Oliver knew each other from University in Bordeaux. Thomas and Oliver having matriculated there from the French Antilles. Their French speaking allies were Anthony, a boxing/MMA coach and Ludivine a nice girl from I can't remember where--a lovely group of European travelers doomed to trek with a dude from California.

Our guide's name was A-sound + jibberish. He was a nice, somewhat quiet guy wearing worn out shoes and a Charlie Brown yellow t-shirt. He spoke with a rising inflection as if the volume was cranking itself.

The day was hot and humid, but both were nicely dimmed by the jungle canopy. Following the Charlie Brown beacon we climbed up and over steps carved from dirt and creeping roots. There were no flat sections to give moments of reprieve, it was all up up up, and we had six hours of up on the agenda.

Midway through we stopped for lunch. Everyone else stopped. I saw a sign that read "Waterfall 100 meters" and kept right on going. I do this. Ask anyone who has ever gone trekking with me. I'm the guy who goes pointlessly farther. I'm the guy who charges into the jungle with an imagined pith helmet and imagined machete. I stop just short of doing one-armed push-ups, because I'm faintly aware that my asshole vibe doesn't need any sprinkles of asshole.

In this case I got what I deserved. The waterfall was a rock wall ending in a pit full of garbage and the entire trail was littered with landmines--human poop landmines. The sign should have read "Deuce Drop Zone - Enter at your Own Risk." Stepping in a dog bomb is one thing, but the squish and stink of human doo doo that's just...that's just. I tried to avoid it. I really did. But no amount of dexterity could save me from poop spackled shoes.

Rinjani has a poop and garbage problem. There are no toilet facilities along the trail aside from a couple of unusable metal shacks with murder scene insides. And worse there is no plan in place to deal with the garbage generated by the thousands of tourists who visit every year. The long stretches of trail between porter camps are pristine, but the places people stop to rest have become mini landfills. The tourists, most of whom come from eco-conscious Western nations, are generally appalled by the situation and can be seen stuffing garbage into their backpacks to dispose of later. However, most of the garbage they generate is handled by the porters and the porters often add to the heap. Garbage with nowhere to go is a major problem in (from what I've seen) every corner of the developing world. And it is always an issue of education + simple solutions. The people paid to lug your gear up the mountain don't even have basic education, let alone environmental education. And even if environmentalism had been drilled into them since childhood, what are they supposed to do with all that trash? Give people (tourist or porter) the option to act responsibly and generally they will.

The Indonesian government collects millions of dollars a year in park fees, a few plastic bins marked "Recycle" wouldn't cost much. And they could get the tourists to clean up the mountain for them. I paid $140 for my three days, two nights package. If someone had said, "The guide, the food, everything is free, but you have to lug as much garbage as you can off the mountain." I would have said, "Done!" What traveler wouldn't? If the government sponsored one eco-trek per month the mountain would be clean.

Update: According to the internet, "62% of park entrance fees go to the Rinjani Ecotourism Trekking Program." Apparently I failed to notice that 62% of the garbage was red tape. 

Anyway, enough with the rant...

Up up up we went until the jungle canopy thinned out into nothing. With only dust and scrub brush to protect us it felt like the sun had a vendetta. I wanted to get the hike over with as quickly as possible, so I walked butt-sniffingly close to the guide until he got tired of my prodding and ushered me into the lead. I wrapped a silly scarf around my head not caring that I looked like a sexually ambiguous pirate and started moving fast; no breaks, no breathers. The view behind me was gorgeous, but I didn't give it much time. I stomped-up dust cloud after dust cloud until I reached the rim, and GOD DAMN!!

There was the caldera. I hadn't seen it coming. I had forgotten it was waiting. The image washed over me and took my weariness and intensity with it. I floated over to a rock and sat down to appreciate the splendor.

We set up camp with our backs to the caldera and watched the sun sink beneath an ocean of clouds. We imagined it setting farther still; beyond the dust and scrub brush, beyond the jungle canopy and rough cut steps, beyond Senaru and the black sand beaches of Sengigi, beyond the sea--shimmering its way around the curve.

The temperature dropped with the sun. We asked our guide if we could have a campfire and he said that we didn't need one because we were cooking with gas. We were too exhausted to explain that we wanted a fire because fires are awesome...and warm. So instead we inhaled plates of Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and hit the tents in pairs. Thomas and Julie (being a couple) had obvious first dibs. Ludivine chose me because I was the only boy who didn't admit to snoring. That left Anthony and Oliver, the two biggest dudes to share a tent. Poor guys. We might as well have wrapped the leftovers in plastic wrap.

Sunrise at the caldera. 5am. That was the plan. I woke up an hour before and stumbled out of the tent to find a sky gone mad with stars. It was freezing so I snagged my sleeping bag and bundled up. Our neighbors on either side were cooking breakfast over gorgeous flickering campfires. Envy prickled through me and I edged closer. I wanted to join them, but I couldn't find the gumption, so I sat in the shadows leering like a perv at a peepshow.

Day two was supposed to be the "easy" day; six hours of vertical V--down to the crater lake, past the hot springs and up to Camp Two, high above the caldera--our launching point for the summit.

The crater lake is called Segara Anak (Child of the Sea) and it is really something. The high walls of the caldera reflect off its shimmering surface; drawing you in, inviting you closer. After more than two hours of steep rocky trails we were all too happy to accept that invitation. We stripped down and waded into its icy waters. We whooped with joy and floated lazily with the blue sky stretching away. What peace! What serenity!

Stupid ass lobsters is what we were...
Rinjani doing its thing in '95

Rinjani is an active...no scratch that...VERY ACTIVE volcano. In 2010 it sent rock and ash nearly 20,000 feet into the sky. In 1995 it went into lava spewing nightmare mode. We should have been concerned that the ground might rumble and the water might boil, that the sky might darken and burn. We had no such concerns. We floated and frolicked, careless and unperturbed that we were in Mother Nature's crock pot and that she could turn up the heat at any moment. Fortunately, she didn't. So, we crawled out of that cauldron and straight into another.

The nearby hot springs are slimy primordial pools trimmed with enough stunning nature to seem beautiful. Our legs were sore and our feet were throbbing so we paid no mind to the dinosaur pee colored water and let it soothe what ailed us.

Afterward we pulled dusty socks over damp feet and laced up dusty shoes. We groaned at the sight of the up up up and began to ascend the backside of the V in a familiar formation; Thomas and myself up front with Julie and Anthony not far behind. Ludivine, still visible in the distance, making her way. And bringing up the rear, from a near but separate dimension called Island Time, was Oliver. Oliver who thought the porters were going to carry his backpack for him. Oh, Oliver.

We set up camp on a high plateau. Clouds packed the valley and then blew away just in time to reveal a bright yellow sun setting over the lake. A very smart Indonesian man had set up a tent at the top of the trail selling beer and snacks. We bought a bit of both and relaxed as best we could, but the shadow of the summit was both literally and figuratively upon us. We knew that we had to be up at 3am. We knew that we had to climb toward sunrise in the blackness of night. It didn't matter if we were ready. It was coming.

That night we finally got our campfire--a small but glorious thing. Trekkers from various groups gathered around to tell stories and crack jokes. A few of the porters joined in on the fun, including one of our own, a kid named Andy, whose catch phrase was, "Ketchup! Mayonnaise!" Thankfully, the celebration played louder than the horrendous Indonesian music crackling from a Hip-Hop Barbie speaker box. It was a grand time for a short while, but soon we settled into restless sleep. We had to.

You may be wondering how I was able to communicate with so many Frenchies around. The answer is good people. My companions went out of their way to speak English and in most cases fluently so. At times the conversations went French on me, and when they did (Thomas and Julie especially) were there to translate. I never felt left out, I got it, I understood, with one very important exception: Anthony's stories.

Anthony spoke English, but only at a conversational level, which was a great loss for me because he is obviously a seriously funny dude. I watched him tell stories with his entire body, all forty-two facial muscles playing their part, and his words, French words, were clearly delivered with perfect emphasis and perfect timing.

At one point I watched Anthony pull Oliver aside and tell him a story that had Oliver doubled-over with laughter. I asked Oliver about it later and he explained that Anthony saw an amazing balancing act by one of the porters. He was a little guy loaded down with 40 lbs of camping supplies and those supplies started to slide off. Most people would have thrown the supplies aside or crumbled to the ground beneath them. But, not our little porter. He simply jutted out the pinky toe on his left foot and shazaam, balance restored!

The translated version of this story is funny, but I didn't watch Anthony tell the story, I watched him perform it, so I imagine the original was much funnier. Nuance (French word btw) often gets lost in translation, especially the nuance of humor.

The summit...

I drew the zipper down and crawled out of the tent already feeling cold. I walked to the edge of a cliff and peed into obscurity. Across the plateau orange tents glowed like jack-o'-lanterns. I stuffed my sleeping bag into my backpack in preparation for the summit where temperatures were often below freezing, where my windbreaker would not keep me warm. I turned my back to the mountain and stretched out. Let Rinjani see!

The summit trail is no more than a few paces wide with 1000 meter drops on either side. We moved forward with slow careful steps. The stars were dim and we had only headlamps to light our way. I stayed close to A-sound + Jibberish; falling behind in all that darkness was a freakiness I didn't want to face. We were one of the first groups to set out, a few headlamps danced like fireflies ahead of us, but mostly it was nothing but dark and doom.

The higher we got the longer the line of lights behind us grew--a swishing phosphorescent tentacle. The ground beneath us was a mixture of lava rock and powdery soft ash. With every step our feet sank and slid backward. It took three steps to cover the distance it should have taken one. And with so much darkness there was no way to tell how far we had come or how far we had to go. This was by far the hardest part of the trek. My legs were weary and my patience cracking. More than a few, "Motherf----er!" shouts rang out.

Nearing the summit A-sound + Jibberish and I stopped to wait for the others. I was covered in sweat that was quickly hardening to beaded ice. I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag and leaned against a rock at the edge of the plummeting cliff. I ate chocolate cookies by the handful watching fireflies pass and the sun bring purpose to the pain.

We made our way to the summit without Ludivine and Oliver. It was too cold to wait any longer, and the end was so near, another 10 minutes of rock and sliding ash.

The sun rose higher and the fireflies became people overjoyed at their accomplishment. We crowded together, dozens of us, patient, exhausted and happy. Lombok lay below us in a 360 degree panorama. We could see how far we had come. We could see the Gili Islands leading away like giant black stepping stones. And in the distance Bali piercing the clouds with its own volcanic peak.

Ludivine and Oliver made it. I was so happy to see them, and so proud. We were all together, standing as close to the heavens as Indonesia gets.

From there we hiked straight to the bottom of the mountain; 3am - 3pm with a dead tired finish in Sembalun. We crammed into the back of a pick-up truck and whizzed away cramping and dehydrated. We were down from the mountain and still rolling forward. There were no goodbyes, no farewells. Ludivine changed her plans to keep us together. Anthony changed his plans to keep us together. And together we sailed for the Gili Islands.

We kept going. And someday we will go again.

Because the best travel stories have bookmarks not ends.

 Vous me manquez, Frenchies! Et je pense souvent a vous. Voyageons bientot!