Vacation! This week’s highest light is a trip to the Indonesian island just on the other side of Bali, namely Lombok. A few nearly screen-free days. Getting out of the city for some fresh air. Climbing an active volcano and recovering at a beach resort. Simple, primitive, physically exhausting action followed by luxurious pampering. Complementing, soothing bliss for body and mind. Wearing our trekking shoes, and with sporty rucksacks stuffed full of thermal underwear, nuts and swimwear fastened on our backs, we fly via Jakarta on Friday afternoon (as there weren’t any (decently priced) direct flights available for this particular weekend), which goes smoothly – celebratory red wine on the first leg of the trip, no delays, a member of staff from our trekking company waiting at the final destination to pick us up in his clean, spacious car and take us on a three-hour drive to Senaru, where his friendly colleagues greet us at their cosy lodge with mineral water and practical information about the climb that lies ahead before we’re shown up into our rooms.
Rudy Trekker. We bought a package to climb to the crater rim of Mount Rinjani – two days, one night – with Rudy, which was recommended by a friend. A bit more expensive than other companies, at US$225 per person, everything is impeccable – from timing, quality of food and gear to the friendliness of the staff. The price includes pick-up from the airport and transfer after the trek, one night’s accommodation in Senaru before the trek, entrance fee for the National Park (IDR 150.000/trekker), trekking guide, porters carrying cooking gear and camping equipment, plenty of food and mineral water, tent (incl. setting up and taking down), toilet tent (oh yes!) and paper, sleeping bag, sponge mattress and pillow.
6am Start. Prayers from the local mosque wake us up at 5am on Saturday (Lombok is 60% Muslim, 20% Hindu (so not as many temples here as in Bali) and 20% Christian), and when the singing subsides, the cocks take over and start to crow. As we arrived after dark, it’s only now, in the glorious sunrise, that we see the idyllic surroundings – bamboo huts, palm trees and mountains. Breakfast is served at 6:30 (fresh fruit, omelette, toast, juice, coffee) in the lobby, after which there’s a short briefing about the trekking procedure – and we lend some extra warm clothes. At 7 we drive through quaint villages and along lush rice paddy fields to Sembalun (1150m) for registration at Rinjani Information Center.
Trek Start. The first part of the walk is easy, with only a bit of an inclination through beautiful forests and meadows under a burning sun. It’s broken down into three parts: two hour walk to Pemantauan at 1300m; short rest; one hour walk to Tengengean at 1500m; short rest; one hour walk to Pada Balong at 1800m; lunch.
Company and Peace. There are several groups on the trail, but for the most part I see and hear only my two companions and our 24-year-old guide, Rizal. Feeling happy, free and carefree, we chitchat a bit as we trek along, but mostly we just concentrate silently, mindfully, on putting one foot in front of the other, which gets increasingly harder the further up we get. Rizal tells us a few stories of the locals, the mountain, the island. We chew a bit on our snacks – I brought a bag of dried figs, my friends a bag of sour worms and Rizal some wild honey, which was collected by his bee whisperer friends by magic (they’re never stung despite not wearing protection gear). Dominating the experience are all the sensorial impressions – the breezy temperature – the changing vegetation – the rustling of grass – the crackling of twigs – the sweet smells of wild flowers and shrubs. Everything is pretty idyllic, except for the considerable amount of trash lying around – but if Rinjani becomes a world heritage site next year, hopefully that will make people a bit less inclined to letting go of their sweets wrappers and plastic bottles.
Lunch. We rest for 2 hours at Pada Balong, where our guide and the porters prepare a lavish spread of freshly cut pineapple and watermelon and prettily arranged dishes of nasi goreng – steamed rice stir-fried with egg, veggies and thick soy sauce, a few pieces of fried tofu, tempeh and fried chicken on the side. Coffee and ginger tea.
Getting Steep. The three hour afternoon trek to Sembalun Crater Rim at 2639m is rather vertical. Starting to feel our calves and glutes, grateful for the helpful tree roots serving as steps on the slippery forest floor, we keep a decent pace but are still overtaken by the slim and agile porters, who fly effortlessly up the mountainside in their flipflops, a cigaret in one hand, the other hand supporting one of the two baskets of supplies hanging from a branch over their shoulders. Happy Bahasa and American tunes sound from the baskets, which have got pineapples and mini bananas dangling from the rim. Good motivation to keep on going. Clouds come creeping over us, creating an eerie atmosphere in the heights; such a mystical thrill.
Camp above the Clouds. When we finally reach Sembalun Crater Rim (2639m), the feeling of relief is deep and satisfying. We tumble down on a blanket that has conveniently been spread out between our yellow tents on the green narrow ridge above the clouds. Such a beautiful, utterly fairytale-like place to find ourselves. Happy people congratulating each other for making it thus far, munching on generous helpings of green chicken curry and gazing pensively out across the Segara Anak lake, Sembalun village and the summit of mount Rinjani (add a hint of trepidation to the calm, pensive look) as the sun sets. A first time for everything – standing near the top of a mountain without a pair of skis and layers of snow under my feet. At 8pm the camp is completely silent. I’m comfy and not too cold in my sleeping bag. Last time I was camping was at Glastonbury a few years back; quite a different vibe.
02:30am Start. After a light breakfast, we put on all of our warm clothes (so odd to pull on trousers and a coat for the first time in 3 months, not to mention ski socks, thermal underwear, gloves and a beanie!) and head torches to head for the summit looming above us in the moonlight. 3 hours and 20 minutes of tense action. The first two stages make up a moderate climb, while the final hour-long ascent includes two wild stretches of soft lava ash, snaking through a rock face and leading us to the bare tip. Sweeping and slippery narrow slivers of ridges. Scrambling and sliding. Shaking with anxiety and cold. Dripping with sweat. Freezing again. Dream-like. Besides catching the sunrise, the advantage of doing this in the dark is so you can’t see how precarious the situation is and freak out. The potential of rolling to oblivion with any slight misstep. Just the right level of challenging. Hard but not too hard. Really just a question of using the right technique and having a positive mindset. Small steady steps so you avoid moon-walking your way up, and keep in mind that thousands of people do this every year (because it’s Asia; in the Alps, for instance, this last bit would have been shut off or lined with rails).
3726 Metres Above Sea Level. We reach the summit just before the sun rises above the Indian Ocean. All signs of fatigue and fear gone. Such a lovely atmosphere – everyone in silent awe, warming our cold hands (it’s zero degrees up here!) on tin cups of steaming coffee and ginger tea, taking in the sweeping, orange-tinted daybreak views of the mountain and its neighbouring ranges below us, the crater lake, all of Lombok, the deep, blue sea, Bali (with the majestic Mount Agung) and the Gili Islands.
After sunrise. And then it’s just a jolly slide back down to the camp, conjuring up so much black dust. Scrambling down the piles of ash, we shed layers of clothes and take on massive layers of dirt. Stop now and then to look down on the crater. An actual volcano!
Descend. Properly warmed by the sun and a second breakfast, we head back down to Sembalun. Climbing down is painful – the front of our thighs and our knees turn into masses of wobbly jelly – but it allows us a great view of that bit of the world that was covered in clouds yesterday. Afraid that stopping will make it impossible to accelerate again, and burningly eager to get to the next part of our trip, we skip lunch and trot all the way down in one go, appreciating our surroundings while doing our best to avoid slipping and tripping. I take one glorious fall right before we reach the village – just to get a little souvenir in the shape of a shining bruise on my right shin – where Rudy’s car is waiting for us. Back at the lodge we have a quick shower – which only manages to remove one of many stubborn layers of black dust – to make us appear somewhat presentable at our paradisiac beach destination.
Qunci Part One. The drive to our resort is as dream-like as the summit climb – we slide in and out of sleep, and opening our eyes now and then, our vision is full of turquoise water, white beaches, palm trees and beautiful villas. We stop at the perfect tropical haven. Friendly welcoming staff, beautiful bungalows in perfectly manicured palm tree gardens, three infinity pools above the beach, a spa building at the centre and fine dining restaurants in airy wooden constructions facing the ocean. Spacious, cream-coloured rooms with open-air bathrooms. Before meeting my friends for drinks in the beautiful teak sun loungers by the middle pool, I enjoy a second shower – the best of my life, quite possibly! Look down to see black dirt flow across the white pebbles covering the ground. Look up to see the palm trees and the clear, blue skies above my enormous rainforest shower head. Brush my teeth for ages. Put on a clean dress. Head down through the palmy walkway to sunset happy hour. We lean back in the sun loungers, enjoy every sip of our coconut water ginger martinis and gaze across the calm pool to the rolling ocean waves and the red sun sliding down below Agung. Ahh. Move just a few steps across the lawn to the Indonesian restaurant. Sink down in comfy white pillows. Order a glass of red wine. Munch on delicious, spicy seafood. Share a dessert. Walk down to dip our feet in the salt water. Wish each other a good night at 8pm. Fall asleep looking forward to two days in this setting. Another first – having no idea which town I’m in (I still don’t) and feeling no urge, at all, to leave the grounds (save a short walk down the beach). I’ll be back to explore the island; this time I’m here to gaze upon the sea from a horizontal position.
Notable Pre-Lombok Moments of the Week:
Desert Island Discs. I listen to the fascinating stories of human rights activist, Sara Khan, American ambassador to Britain, Matthew Barzun, British-Jamaican reggae musician and celebrity chef, Levi Roots, and fragrance magician, Jo Malone, while walking to and from work, breaking in my brand new bright red trekking shoes. I just love that podcast so much – how passionately they all speak of their (dream) jobs, how reflected and funny they all are, the relaxed and intimate format, the carefully chosen tracks that remind them of significant moments of their lives.
Ghost Festival. This week the guy in front of the Monkey God Temple is shredding up yellow pieces of paper resembling money and throwing them into a basket by his red plastic table. Incense-infused fires in tin cages on every street corner. Elaborate dishes of colourful food set out on pavements for the gods. Garlands of pastel-coloured clouds and coins soaring above the streets of Chinatown.
Sarnies. On a sunny day, I have lunch just across the street from work with a friend who has just returned from a few weeks in Denmark. Sarnies is a great spot – evidently as passionate about the quality of their products as promised on the website – we share a delicious aubergine sandwich and seared tuna salad in the walkway while catching up. On another sunny day, I enjoy a cup of coffee there, this time with one of the English girls working close by. I keep repeating it – but it really is so important to me – the little familiar encounters that make this place feel like home and offer nice little non-work-related inputs to the day.
Diandin Leluk – Projector – Dheepan. An authentic Thai food experience in the Golden Mile Complex, followed by a glass of wine in the neighbouring indie cinema, where we watch the 2015 winner of the Palme d’Or, a French crime drama telling the story of three Tamil refugees fleeing the civil war-ruined Sri Lanka and seeking to reconstruct and improve their lives in France. All the elements of this Wednesday evening are highly recommendable.
A Cloud on the River. Crossing the river to meet my friend at the Thai place after work, I spot a curious sculpture in the water by the Esplanade Drive bridge. It’s a small steel platform with almost invisible two-metre long sticks supporting a white cloud from which water is pouring down over the platform. I can’t figure out whether I like it or not, but it makes me smile.
PS Petit Celebration. After work on Thursday, I meet my Lombok travel buddies for a glass of wine to say cheers to the forthcoming trip. I do love this place – and the feeling of childlike euphoria… we’re going on (a short, but still) holiday tomorrow!
Strangers’ Reunion. And one more chance to celebrate – on Friday morning, this time, with my travel writer friend from across the street, at a lovely little cafe down by Blair Road, run by the people behind Curious Palette and equally as charming. Poached eggs, perfect Aussie coffee and excited talk of all the wonders of Indonesian islands.