Where You Take Two Steps Forward and Slip One Step Behind

In a nutshell, that’s what climbing up to the summit of the volcanic mountain of Mount Rinjani is. A feat no less than challenging but one that rewards you with awe-inspiring vistas, if you have the determination to keep marching forth.

Sep 16, 2017 · 10 min read

It’s easy to get carried away by the mundanity of everyday life. Even easier to work up a list of excuses to convince yourself why right now isn’t the right time.

But, it had been several months since my last summit and the mountains were calling. A trekker from Sweden I had met on Mt Kinabalu last year happened to mention Rinjani. I’d been eyeballing the active volcano at 3726 m since.

Most good things come in small packages

When my earnest attempts at persuading overbusy friends to join me had resulted in futility, I asked my 10-year-old son, just for fun, “I’m going on the mountains. You wanna tag along?” In a heartbeat he answered in the affirmative, excitedly accepting my insincere offer. So I thought to myself, “Why not?”

That would be his maiden trek. Hadn’t imagined it in my wildest dreams. Within 4 weeks of settling on each other as travel companions, we kicked off our 5-day adventure.

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(Left: Tiu Kelep Waterfall) A hike up and down from Senaru Village to the two famous waterfalls of Rinjani a day prior to beginning the trek warmed us up and a refreshing dip in the water cooled us off.

Jamal from Reza Trekker had made all the arrangements. All that was left to do was to walk, from 1150 m up to 3726 m and then down to 601 m, all in a span of 3 days and 2 nights.

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Gunung Rinjani National Park, a geological park spread over 280,000 hectares of land, is situated on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. A 45-minute ride on this pickup took us from Senaru to Sembalun, the starting point of our hike.

Day 1: On cloud nine

Entering the national park from Sembalun Gate (1150 m) presents one with brilliant geography.

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Made mostly of flat plains with savanna at the outset, it gives the impression the trek is going to be easy until 2 hours later when you reach Position 1. From that point on it only gets steeper and narrower with each passing position.

As the savanna turned into a rocky uneven landscape, we were at the same level as the clouds. No wonder then that a break for freshly prepared lunch at 1800 m was a surrealistic experience.

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Our porters, Andy and Kendur, who doubled as chefs, cook up a feast as Amak, our guide, looks on. By the end of the happy meal, we were glad we had relieved our crew of some of their load.

Indonesia is largely a Muslim country. It was the month of Ramadan at the time, and Amak, our mountain guide, was observing the fasting month, even while on the trek. I haven’t met a man in my life with more dedication to his work, devotion to his faith, and all-in-a-days-work attitude than this man. In his shoes, I wouldn’t have lasted the first 100 metres.

Day 1: A walk in the park

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The porters carried food, water, cookware and tents for us on the trek. Each porter had about 10 to 15 kg of load in each basket. What’s remarkable about these men is they don’t complain about the burden on their shoulders or their physically demanding low-paying job or their lack of proper footwear. In fact, most of them walk the rugged terrain in flip-flops or barefoot. They say it gives them a better grip. “We went and bought fancy shoes and equipment but for them it’s a walk in the park,” exclaimed my son. Makes you wonder how some can be so happy and content with so little in life.

The most intriguing thing about Gunung Rinjani is that its topography changes every so often. One moment your feet are sinking into volcanic ashes, a half hour later you are trudging over a sea of rocks and a few minutes past you are walking in a jungle of trees.

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(Left) “Wow! You are STRONG! How old are you?” That was a fairly common question as fellow trekkers were mesmerized by my travel buddy’s zeal. (Right) Slow and steady wins the race on the steep uphill.

The last stretch of the first day was a prolonged 3-hour steep climb largely meandering through intertwined tree roots and rocks, tough even for seasoned trekkers. Everyone, including the porters, knew only small steps could take them far on such ruggedness. Rayan, my little guy, fell down a few times. No pain, no gain. I was only too glad he didn’t ask to be piggybacked.

Day 1: Keep calm, sit back and enjoy

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With the Mighty Rinjani spewing out clouds in the backdrop, we were thrilled to have reached the crater rim in one piece and long before the sun set.

Finally, we made it to our final pit stop for the day, Sembalun Crater Rim. At 2639 m, the views from this vantage point were nothing short of breathtaking. Looking down from the edge of the mountain, you could see Segara Anak, a caldera lake with beautiful blue waters at a surface elevation of 2008 m and a depth of about 200 m at its deepest. We would be able to touch its water soon.

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With clouds billowing over it, the lake sheepishly peeks in and out teasing the paparazzi waiting for that Kodak moment. Tiny tents dotting the narrow crater rim put things into perspective. Man may be mighty but Mother Nature is mightier.

Meanwhile, our chefs had a hot drink and snacks ready for us as we soaked up the allure of the enchanting Rinjani and its surroundings, something we had come to believe we were deserving of after the strenuous 8-hour hike.

Night 1: It’s not a race; you don’t have to finish it

No sooner does the sun set than it gets chilly at that altitude. All you want to do then is stay warm in your sleeping bag inside your tent. You lose your appetite because noshing requires getting up and peeling the sleeping bag off you. Sleep, however, comes difficult because of anxiety.

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We live in Singapore where it’s warm year-round. As such, any single-digit temperature gives us the shivers of tundra. On that particular day, it must have been close to 0 degrees with wind chills.

Drifting in and out of slumber, at around midnight, when Rayan had done enough debating with himself, he tapped me and asked, “Mommy, would I be letting you down if I didn’t go all the way to the top? I’m scared.”

I’d half-expected that moment. “You know what? You have already surpassed all my expectations by making it this far. Stay put in the tent. I’ll see you when I’m back after sunrise,” I answered.

It’s not a race. You don’t have to finish it.

Day 2: Beating the sun to rise

At 2:15 am, with Rayan in the company of Andy and Kendur at the campsite, Amak and I geared up with our headlamps, water and camera, ready to set out on the three-and-a-half-hour gruelling ascent to the summit. Two minutes into the hike I packed my camera into the bag. It was clear from the get-go that in that pitch-dark blackness there was only one thing to focus on — the next step. Some moments will have to remain captured in the mind.

The climb from the crater rim to the peak, largely above treeline, is divided into 3 equally long sections. The first section, a moderate climb, is about 45–50 degrees steep. The second section is an easy albeit long walk. It’s the third section, however, that gets the better of you. It’s here when you question yourself with every step if you can make it to the next step. A 1-km long segment at a roughly 40-degree incline, this part is made of volcanic soil and loose stones. With every two steps that you take forward, you slip back one step. It’s out of your control.

The last stretch wasn’t without incidents. I skidded a few times. There were people falling all around. One in particular took a sudden fall on her rear and slid down a distance that set her back quite a few minutes of climb time.

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The last section of the trail leading up to the summit by the day. None of this was visible on the way up.

I was moving at a pace of about 15 metres a minute. Couldn’t have moved faster if I wanted to. There were some who tried to hurry but realized all too soon they were out of luck. A fellow trekker from France kept collapsing every few minutes out of breathlessness. Some sports are not about speed and stamina. They are about stability and steadiness.

That continued for a long 60-over minutes. I kept asking Amak, “How much more?” He would answer, “Just a little bit more”, “Almost there”, “About 20 minutes more”, etc. Towards the end, I literally started counting the seconds. Just when I felt I had no energy left, the moment of exhilaration arrived.

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Lo and behold! I set my foot atop the summit of the Mighty Rinjani in all its glory. I had beaten the sun to rise. This sunrise might not look any different from other sunrises. The only difference is the sunrise from 3726 m marks the day you overachieved. For me, it was akin to winning an Olympic Gold.

Descent, not my favourite part of any trek, was not too bad on this particular occasion. You could slide down like a kid. I had a little accident on the way and hurt a finger and both little toes. Aside from that I enjoyed the ride down.

Day 2: Changing focus

Once back at the campsite, there was no time to waste. After nursing my wounds and picking up Rayan, we left for the next 8 hours of hiking — first, a very steep and slippery climb down to Lake Segara Anak (2008 m) and then a climb up to the other edge of the crater to Senaru Crater Rim (2641 m).

However, climbing down was tough. I barely managed to crawl owing to my injured toes. I had already popped 4 panadols and changed the plasters thrice in 3 hours. My toenails were a dead mess and would eventually fall off a month later.

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Totally drained of energy

With the excruciating pain dominating my mind, even Lake Anak in all its splendour didn’t seem as exciting. The original plan was to swim in it but I felt the water was too cold for my taste. So, we decided to make a detour to the nearby hot springs to soak our feet. The hot springs didn’t impress me much either. I thought the villagers dwelling in that area had altered the surroundings, making the attraction unappealing. I was in a sullen mood. As I think of it now, I regret letting my enthusiasm give way to lacklustreness.

I realized 2 nights later while browsing through my photo gallery that I had been so consumed by the pain I had completely missed the opportunity to appreciate the beauty on the way.

Day 2: Sometimes you are ahead and at other times other people are ahead

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Mt Rinjani Trek Map

It was past 3 pm when we began our climb up to the campsite through a maze of tree roots in the thick forest. The ground was slippery from the showers a few hours ago and the denseness of the jungle blocked sunlight from reaching us.

We were all exhausted. Amak was worn out, too. We tried to convince him to end his fast but he was staunch and broke it only as dusk fell.

Our porters, who had long reached the campsite, had set up the tents and made preparations for dinner. But, we were nowhere in sight. Worried for our safety, Andy came looking for us with his torch. He found us scrambling our way up a boulder. Seeing another familiar face boosted our spirit and helped us cover the remaining hour-long distance faster.

Once at the campsite, Rayan and I took our shoes off, went straight into the tent, slipped into our sleeping bags and crashed without bothering to even remove our socks or jackets. We woke up only as the sun rose once again.

Day 3: Today is a new day

“You didn’t eat anything last night. You don’t like my food?” asked Andy. “Sorry, Andy. We were just too tired,” I replied.

But as the new day dawned, I began to look on the remainder of the journey with renewed energy.

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As we prepped for our 7-hour hike downhill, Rayan was in a splendid mood. He scampered off and said, “Mumma, we will see you at the lunch stop. You come along with the other trekkers, okay?” I didn’t mind as there were hordes of other hikers who were all making their way back.

Realization had finally sunk in that we had achieved quite a feat. My little dude had shown great camaraderie making me glad I had asked him to join me. It wouldn’t have been half as fun without him.

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Fallen trees and foliage on the trail going through the thick rainforest. We were about 20 minutes to Senaru Gate from here.

All’s well that ends well. And just like that, we were at the end of a journey of several miles that began with a single step!

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Senaru Gate (601 m) is the goodbye point of the national park. Terima Kasih (thank you) to the men who learnt how to climb before they learnt how to walk!

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” — John Muir

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Travel is important not just because it exposes you to newer places, people, climes, cultures and cuisines but because it gives you an opportunity for introspection.

When you reflect upon your journey, you observe there isn’t a book or a blog that can teach you things you would get to learn first-hand from experiencing them.

For me, my 5-day trip drove one particular message home — “Better an ‘oops’ than a ‘what if’”. Two steps forward and you might slip one or several steps behind. But, as long as you keep going, the vistas will be yours to enjoy.

If there is a mountain you have been willing to scale, remember what Nike says — JUST DO IT.


Mumtaz is an outdoor junkie.

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