Sacred highs and filthy lows: Climbing Indonesia’s second-tallest volcano

Gunung Rinjani looms over the island of Lombok. Indonesia’s second-tallest volcano is 3726m, with a 6km-wide lake inside its crater, and a smoking second cone that erupts every few years. Its lush, fertile slopes feed rice paddies, strawberry fields, mango orchards and cashew forests.

For centuries, locals and Hindus from neighbouring Bali have made pilgrimages to the summit and the lake to leave offerings for gods and spirits. Nowadays there’s also an unsteady stream of tourists plodding up, doing their penance after too much partying on Gili Trawangan.

Matt and I climbed Rinjani with my little brother and his girlfriend who had flown out from Australia to see us. Greg was game; Kat was game until she learned how thin the sleeping mats were.

We set out on a glorious morning, but I was a tad nervous. Partly because we had to be up at 2am on day two, in order to reach the summit by sunrise. I can barely talk when I’m sleep-deprived, let alone climb a thousand metres. I didn’t want to let my brother down – or let him beat me to the top.

But mostly because the guy who ran the trekking agency kept talking ominously about “our condition”. Apparently tourists in bad condition often didn’t make it or had to curtail the trek.

Was I in good condition? It made me feel like a used car.

Our condition

Claire: Older model, faulty ignition, but unlikely to breakdown if you manage to start

Matt: Nippy off-road vehicle but inbuilt sat-nav often malfunctions, needs eco-fuel

Greg: New aerodynamic look, powerful acceleration on hills, fuel-hungry so regular pitstops necessary

Kat: Leisure rather than sports vehicle but surprisingly versatile, may need a push up steep hills, functions better on premium fuel

As it turned out, we were all in better condition than our guide. An hour and a half in, he flung himself down on a log, pouring with sweat – “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. As he lit a fag, he reassured us he wasn’t ill – just unfit because it had been a month since his last trek. In high season he climbs Rinjani twice a week.

Our porters were also energetic smokers but barely broke a sweat as they hared up the mountain in flipflops, carrying bamboo poles laden down with our food, tents, sleeping bags and mats. We had two porters for five of us, but they often have to cater for groups of eight or more. Later we discovered that the guide and porters only got a fraction of what we’d paid: 200 (£11) and 175 (£9.80) rupiah per day respectively.

The blue sky didn’t last. By the time we reached our lunch stop, Rinjani was shrouded in cloud and it began to pour. We huddled in a shelter and watched monkeys picking through the litter left behind by trekkers and porters.

Litter is a big problem all over Lombok, but it was really sad to see so much in a national park. When we finally hauled ourselves up to the crater rim – our campsite – it was even worse. We got our first glimpse of the sacred lake, but I couldn’t see past the piles of rubbish or the rats feasting on biscuit wrappers and vegetable peelings.

Tens of thousands of people climb Gunung Rinjani each year and pay a 360,000 rupiah fee to the national park, but none of that seems to be going towards tackling the problem. The agency guy promised his porters bring down all their rubbish, but he was just telling us what we wanted to hear.

And can you blame the guide and porters for not caring when they’re paid so little? The tragic thing is it’ll be their livelihoods ruined if people stop going because they have to camp in a rubbish dump.

Day two

Our guide woke us at 2am with triangles of toast and coffee, and we strapped on headtorches. Almost immediately the soil turned into fine black sand that gave way beneath our feet. I had to angle my feet outwards and dig them in to make any headway. It felt like I was sliding two steps backwards for every one forwards. Only on the way down did we realise we were inching up a ridge that dropped away sharply on either side.

The last 45 minutes was a slog – it was like trying to walk up a waterfall gushing sand. I could hear Greg cajoling Kat, or maybe just himself: “Not far now… you can do it.” Matt knew better than to say anything to me. I’d have pushed him off the ridge.

The view from the summit was glorious: we could see Bali to the west, the stepping stones of the Gili isles, Sunbawa to the east, and the crisp shadow of Rinjani as the sun rose – as symmetrical as an Egyptian pyramid.

Maybe it was the lack of sleep or oxygen, but there was something spiritual about being up in the clouds, watching a new day break over this lush island. Or maybe I was just high on sugar crackers.

But it was bloody freezing (note the holey socks on hands) so we didn’t linger. I unleashed several minor avalanches as I stumbled down, past other grey-faced Europeans beached halfway up, my trainers filling with sand and stones. By 8.30 we were back at the campsite scoffing a banana pancake; Rinjani had already retreated into the clouds.

I just wanted to pass out in my tent, but we had to carry on down, down, down to the lake, thighs turning to jelly as we hopped from rock to rock. It sits 700m below the crater rim and is known as Danau Segara Anak – Child of the Sea. The Balinese throw gold and jewellery into it before ascending the summit. Sadly the shore was an unholy mess: awash with years of litter.

No wonder macaques prowled greedily.

So we trudged on to the very hot springs, which soothed our creaking muscles and brought me out in a fresh sweat.

Then it was back up, up, up to the opposite side of the crater rim, where another sublime view awaited – of Rinjani’s active little brother, smouldering Gunung Baru – and another grotty campsite.

Day three

The end was in sight! A mere four-hour downhill hike through rainforest, dodging the snaking tree roots, knees shrieking and stomachs growling. The porters did an impressive job of producing tasty meals from the dwindling contents of their baskets, but the portion sizes also dwindled. I began to worry Greg might gnaw off the guide’s leg.

We made it to the park entrance by midday, just as the heavens opened. Our reward was a bowl of instant noodles. I savoured every mouthful as if it were rump steak or barbecued sea bass with a side of crisp calamari and a mango juice and a mountain of fried rice and fried banana and fried… The hunger was getting to me too.

Now we just needed to get to our next destination: a tiny fishing village in East Lombok. The agency guy had promised us a free transfer – which turned out to be in an open-top truck, and it was about to bucket it down again. Kat looked like she wanted to gnaw off the agency guy’s leg.

The verdict

A couple of days later, Kat reflected on the experience. Her verdict: “slightly traumatising” but “character-building”. I’m not sure if she was talking about the physical feat or the sleeping in squalor.

I suspect it’s the last time they’ll agree to holiday with us, but at least I beat Greg up the mountain.

Metres climbed: 3,300

Cost: 1.5m rupiah per person (approx £80), although like most things in Indonesia, the price of the trek is negotiable. Give what you save to the guide and porters. Even if you’re as terrible at haggling as we are, tip the guide and porters generously – at least 10%