Climbing Rinjani and cycling Senaru to Kuta (Lombok)
I will begin where Astrid left off. We were so full hope and excitement on reaching Senaru and the prospect of trekking Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia’s second highest volcano and a place of pilgrimage. In the end however we were just glad to get the hell out of that town. Not all of our experiences were negative, but it did leave us feeling generally morose, something we haven’t felt on this trip before. It probably started with the creepy guy staying in the room next to us and culminated in a partially disappointing and frustrating trekking experience. Furthermore, Senaru ended up representing our collective feeling of malaise and purposelessness that leached briefly into this part of our adventure.
Initially Senaru was lovely. On the second day we had a relaxing morning, reminiscent of our rest days in Australia. Then we headed to the 2 waterfalls on the edge of town. Unlike all the other tourists, we chose not to take a guide and it was totally not necessary. The paths were well made and easy to follow, aside for one river crossing. We swam in the pool at the bottom of the pounding falls and watched Ebony Leaf monkey’s frolic in the jungle canopy. The walk back to town gave us sweeping views of the fertile valley below, rice terraces, jungle and mountains. Natural Asia at its best. Unfortunately back at our guest house we had to contend with ‘creepy’, a local guy who was just a little too keen to get to know us and kept trying to invite himself into our room. He was by no means threatening, just creepy and annoying.
So trekking Rinjani. That has come to mean to many things to me. Beautiful views, awe inspiring scenery, filthy campsites, human excrement, pointless, overpriced guides, frustration, disappointment. I cannot say out right ‘don’t do it’, because the great bits were really amazing, but I would hesitate to recommend it, although with time my recollection of it grows fonder. On the bad side, firstly they make you take a guide and when I say guide I mean it in the loosest sense of the word. For us it was a guy whose English was only marginally better than our Indonesian, who sometimes walked in front of us (or maybe 1 hour behind), repeatedly telling us to ‘be careful’ because being women we were obviously quite challenged in our ability to walk over rocky ground. The paths are so obvious and there are so many people up there, unless you are a complete novice at hiking there is no way a guide is necessary. The whole thing is quite expensive (even though we got a discount for providing our own gear), so someone is making a lot of money out of this trekking operation and I am pretty sure it is not the guide or the porters. Yeah, we ended up having porters too. We weren’t planning to, but agreed in a moment of weakness and exhaustion after cycling up the hill into Senaru. It just seemed easier at the time. Probably a mistake.
The porters do all the work, carrying up to 40kg of gear in two baskets, connected by a bamboo stick. None of the companies have invested in any kind of lightweight gear so there are many more porters then would be necessary. None of this (expense, annoying guide, amount of people) would have be such an issue if it wasn’t so obvious that the environment is being totally trashed. Porters cut down trees to cook food (probably up to 20 fires per night with the amount of groups up there) and rubbish and human waste litters the campsites. Plastic bags, bottles, rotting food. None of the money the tourists pay appears to be used to provide any kind of infrastructure (such as compost loos) or education. I know the situation around Rinjani is a reflection of a much greater issue in Indonesia, as there is no rubbish collection and many people are unemployed. It makes sense that as many people as possible get employed around the trekking business, and that it’s simply not part of people’s consciousness to pick up rubbish. However as people who love nature and care for the environment, the rubbish and destruction really impacted on our experience. All the other western tourists we talked to felt the same. You can see that some of the guides are aware of it too, and are trying to do what they can but it really requires a massive shift in consciousness which can probably only come through education, viable alternatives and capped numbers of people trekking.
Now to the good stuff, and although I may sound a little morose, there was plenty of good things about the trek. We walked steadily up hill for many hours on the first day, through savannah and open woodland. Our camp was made on the crater rim, with spectacular views of the crater lake and surrounding rim of the volcano. We went to bed at about 7.30pm and were woken about 2.30am to begin the trek to the summit. It was strange walking in the dark, looking back and seeing a row of head lamps behind us. The last part was very difficult, one step forwards and 3 slipping back on loose ground on an exposed ridge. Progress was painfully slow but Astrid and I made the summit just prior to sunrise. It really did feel like being on top of the world. At 3700m, nothing around us was higher. We had amazing views of the volcano, the lake, the Gili Islands and even Sumbawa. It was pretty cold up there too, an odd sensation for us after spending the last few months in warm weather.
We walked and slid our way back down to our campsite to a breakfast of fried banana and questionable toast. Although we were tired from already close to 6 hours of walking we now descended to the crater lake. After a quick swim in the lake we trekked to the hot springs. Such bliss! We luxuriated in the hot water while the afternoon clouds swirled low around us. Our camp was on a beach, right next to the lake and some Balinese pilgrims. Low clouds continued to slink in and the area was soon shrouded in a fine mist, followed by rain. We read, napped and drank cups of tea in the tent, while listening to the soothing patter of the rain. A fabulous way to spend an afternoon. Later, I watched the darkness and mist descend on the lake while listening to chanting and the ringing of bells from our Balinese neighbours. It filled me with a sense of peace and calm and definitely remains the one of the highlights of the trek.
We woke to brilliant sun and stunning views of Rinjani and the surrounding mountains. Astrid and I could have stayed there all day and in fact were hoping to spend at least a few hours relaxing and swimming. We had previously been informed by the boss of the trekking centre that today’s walk was only about 3 hours to the crater rim, or just below on the other side. Our guide however had other ideas and initially we were happy enough to start trekking. At the top of the crater rim we were again rewarded with stunning views and I asked our guide if we could camp here. He said it wasn’t possible and that the porters had already left and we would camp lower. All day he was quite evasive whenever I asked about where we were camping. There was nothing we could do as the porters had gone ahead with our stuff. Much earlier he had mentioned to Astrid that the porters like to camp at the bottom of the mountain so they can drink rice wine and it soon became apparent, as we descended passed all the other groups that we were in fact camping at the foot of the mountain. When we finally got to our tent at around 5.30pm we were a mere 1.5km from the town of Senaru and set up right next to a shop. One of the porters looked like he had even walked home to shower. So much for 4 days hiking. We confronted our guide who apologised and then made up a range of excuses (we got the impression he just wanted us to shut up). Neither of us really like confronting people and making a big fuss, especially where cultural and language barriers exist. However, this was ridiculous and we had clearly been taken advantage of, as at no point, even though I had asked several times, had our guide given us any choice or discussion about where we could camp. We were simply marched down the mountain.
Wordlessly we packed up our tent and walked the last 1.5km into town, grabbed our bikes and our stuff, found a guest house and cracked open a Bintang. We were both hot, filthy, tired and slightly emotional. Astrid was able to secure us a partial refund (not without a lot of discussion as the boss had obviously not been told the full truth initially) a few days later but the whole experience left us feeling rather deflated.
Later on that evening, Jou a really lovely local guy came round and we shared rice wine (local style, more or less having shots of wine out of one glass) on our front porch. Jou gave us a bit of an insight to local attitudes and the rubbish problem (apparently the government used to pay porters to carry out the rubbish but that has stopped now and may or may not restart). It was a shame we had not met Jou earlier as he is a guide on Rinjani and I feel our experience would have been very different had we gone trekking with him.
Recovering in Senaru the following day (from rice wine and trekking) we came to the realisation that both of us felt unsettled, a little homesick and somewhat without direction. We basically had a month to kill until we meet up with Misch, Key and Brooke in the Gili’s. As stated before our plan had to been to cycle around Lombok and Sumbawa with a stop off to climb Rinjani. Now that our major goal had been achieved (Rinjani), cycling around, essentially killing time seemed rather pointless. We were still used to having a clear goal, like Darwin had always been in Australia. It appeared we had two options, to change our thinking, or to change our situation. After mulling over it for a day, in between banana juices and nasi goreng, we came to the realisation that the two and a half weeks before us were an opportunity to do some of the things we wanted which did not involve cycling. There were a few options but we ended up choosing surfing, mostly because we were already on Lombok, a fairly renowned surfing island.
The next day we departed Senaru and it was a relief. We both felt better as soon as we left that town, winding our way rapidly down the mountain. At an intersection some kilometers further on we had two options, to take the easy the road down to the coast or the more scenic through valleys and mountains. Being Jude and Astrid we chose the latter. And wow. They sure don’t use civil engineers to build roads here! The gradients were insane. We have never had to push our bikes up hills, even when it was really steep. But there was no hope of making it up these hills. We sweated and pushed, occasionally pedaling, for a good many hours until we reached a small village. Here we bought some supplies and then pedaled off on a small side road. We wound our way passed small farm plots and people returning from a day of laboring in the fields. Eventually the land opened up and a farmer showed us where we could camp, even clearing the ground for us with a machete. Our camp spot was beneath the shadow of Rinjani with views to the ocean. As we set up the tent, the usual watchers came and joined us. We had conversations in a mixture of broken English and Indonesian and shared a cup of tea. When it became obvious we were going to bed, they finally left, leaving us a mobile number in case we needed anything. People are very kind and we feel safe. The watching is just something we need to get used to.
The next day we cycled through a stunningly beautiful valley, well worth the pain of the previous day. Magnificent shades of green, seemingly abundant food growing everywhere, and the towering volcanic rim surrounding us. Small villages and colourful mosques also dotted the valley floor and children waved and shouted as we cycled passed. Soon, the dream of flat cycling ended as we started another arse breaking climb over the volcano rim. It was not long before we were pushing our bikes, mist closing in, as we inched slowly higher. After a rest break where we had been contemplating our insanity, an empty truck approached us. It was too good an opportunity to miss. We flagged it down and they were more than happy to throw us and our bikes in the back. It turned out we were not actually that far from the top. Oh well. The truck was a nice break as we sped down the other side, through jungle and into a mountain village called Sapit.
We hadn’t planned to stay in Sapit but it was getting late and threatening rain, and it appeared there was a guest house in town. Half an hour later we were clean, warm and sipping a cup of tea with sweeping views of the town and mountains as it began to rain. The right choice for sure. The guest house were were at, Hati Suci is one of those places that might see a handful of tourist a month, in the high season. It’s nestled in amongst beautiful gardens, high above a lot of the town with views to the ocean, surrounded by the ever present mountains. Sapit is not touristy at all (which is why it’s so nice), but what it lacks in tourist attractions it makes up for in Mosque’s. The town had about 10-12 Mosques which all appeared to compete against each other during the call to prayer. Some sounded beautiful, while others more like cat’s being strangled. Regardless of the often loud Mosque’s (call to prayer is 5 times a day, including 5am), Sapit was a lovely place to take a break.
We spent a day exploring the town, walking through small back alleys and seeing locals go about their lives. Tobacco cash crops appear to be the major industry around here and some women invited us in to take a look at how they dry and hang the tobacco. It made me realise again why we see so few women compared to men out and about when we are cycling. The women are out the back, working. Whether it is in the houses with children, or in a place like this, stacking tobacco. It makes your mind spin, watching several generations of women working together, at how different their lives are from mine and Astrid’s.
We left Sapit the following day, cycling steadily down hill most of the way, back to a main road. There was a lot of traffic and places to stop for yummy treats along the way. After a few hours we began spotting the odd westerner on scooters and it appeared we were getting close to our destination of Kuta. Not to be confused with Kuta, Bali, Kuta Lombok is laid back and low key, perhaps what Kuta Bali used to be like. Here ramshackle buildings stand next to somewhat less ramshackle buildings, cows, chicken’s and goats may be spotted wandering around at any given time. There’s a local village right in the middle of Kuta and men herd Water Buffalo along the roads. There are no western chain stores (aside from the one Novotel, tucked away down the beach) and the whole place is a relaxed mix of locals and western travellers. The beach is beautiful and surf breaks stretch out to the right and left of the town. We had found a sweet home for the next two weeks, life is good.