Indonesia leads the world in tectonic activity and has more strato-volcanoes than anywhere else on the planet. If you’re craving an adrenaline rush beyond the lights of Jakarta, trekking up one of these is a great legal high. See five awesome live volcanoes to hike up in this handy guide.
Most of Indonesia’s volcanoes are climbable, with a local guide. But beware; few rules and negligible safety precautions exist. My advice is, follow what local trek leaders say to the letter, dress and pack properly, and stay on the trail. The wet season can turn precipitous mountain slopes into headlong death slides, cold rain storms can trigger hypothermia, and one slip off a cliff can be… well, pretty nasty. In fact, make that ‘terminal’. Have I put you off yet?
Rinjani is the second highest volcano in Indonesia, standing at over 3,700m. It’s situated on the island of Lombok, a tropical paradise beside Bali. I climbed with a French friend, Florent, who had previously trekked up Mount Cameroon in Africa. Our guide was a wiry local named Madil, who told us he had scaled the mountain a reassuring 600 times. There are no villages or shops beyond the national park entrance, so we hired two short and sinewy porters, who slung food, water and tents over their shoulders in wicker baskets on bamboo poles. This meant we had only day-packs to carry, which was a blessing. The agility of the porters on the slopes was incredible – they never slipped or lost their balance, despite the heavy weight. The porters were cooks too, and the food was delicious, considering they were cooking over a wood-fire in one wok.
To start, we drove around the eastern coast of Lombok, through coconut groves and rice paddies beside the sea. Rinjani occupies half the island, like a giant wart. We headed inland, walking through arid grassland under a hot sun to the park administration to register for the climb. En route, Madil pointed out some brown toadstools and said they were magic mushrooms; haluciogens probably don’t mix with steep, treacherous climbing… We trekked on a narrow path cut through thick, long grass, and crossed crumbling concrete bridges, deep in soil and vegetation, spanning dry culverts. The rainy season is December to March, and trekking is forbidden then. We stopped at a crude wooden shelter for lunch, with a galvanized tin roof, where the porters cooked vegetable stew and a pot of tea over the fire.
The path got steeper. First we were in pine forest, but the trees thinned. Then we were on a bare slope, scrambling through rocks and boulders. Florent took the lead to the campsite at the rim of the crater. There were three other foreigners there. One Dutchman was possibly suffering altitude sickness, another risk on Rinjani, complaining of nausea and lethargy. This was scary stuff. Fog and cloud was billowing up from the crater, but we were able to peer through a swirl of mist at glimpses of the crater rim opposite and the lake below. It was an incredible vision.
We had packed wine, so we enjoyed Aussie Shiraz with dinner, from plastic cups. Self-inflating mattresses gave comfort in the tent pitched on a rocky ledge. Madil woke us at 2.30am and thrust his torch into the tent. We had tea, and fumbled into our coats. It was chilly and dark under a canopy of stars, but dry. The ascent was a slog along a narrow ridge of volcanic ash and grit, with sheer drops on both sides. Madil led and we stayed close. My hiking stick proved useful, helping me to yomp up the sand and stones. The batteries on my torch were nearly flat – a reminder of the need to prepare properly. Lights glimmered across from Bali in the distance. An electric storm flashed lightning on the horizon.
There were numerous false summits along the way. It was impossible to know where the real top of the mountain lay in the moonlight. We finally made it in 150 gloomy, pre-dawn minutes, just as the first threads of red were beginning to illuminate neighbouring Sumbawa island.
The views from the topmost crag of the crater rim cliff were breathtaking; a lake of sapphire blue far below us, with a new volcano forming in the middle, hissing steam. We stood on a narrow promontory of rock with sheer drops on three sides, with an extinct and bare crater far beneath on the left. The dawn light coloured the sky first deep indigo, then a navy blue, finally pink as the sun rose.
The descent was like skiing, sliding through sand, surfing over the coarse dust. We jumped in huge strides, and slipped and skidded down. Back at camp the porters had cooked banana pancakes, and the kettle was boiling on the fire. The only downside was the drop-away toilet hut behind the rock, but even the stench could not overwhelm my euphoria.
We broke camp and headed down the zigzag track on the inside of the crater, down to the lake. From the atop the mountain, the new volcano in the crater lake had looked tiny, now it glowered threateningly. The lake campsite had no toilet, so there were some visible and unattractive surprises lurking in the ferns beside the path. You don’t need many people to have a “poo problem” if there is no central sanitation.
Madil suggested that we hike down to the hot sulphur springs further down, while he lit the fire. We followed track through bracken to a steaming sulphurous pool under a cliff, with a hot water waterfall cascading onto boulders beneath. The torrent of hot water tumbling from eight metres above from the geothermal spring made an incredible shower. We had fried noodles for lunch, complete with a fried chicken thigh and a prawn cracker.
Then the rain came. This made the final section of the day’s nine hour trekking a test. Mist and drizzle swept in from over the rim. Soon the path was waterlogged, and resembled a stream of brown water. The rocks became slippery. Florent opted to stay close to Madil, while I slogged ahead with the porters, who had tied tarpaulins over their panniers. The visibility was poor and deteriorating. The path clung to the side of the crater wall. At one point I was bouldering up three metres of a rock-face, squirming my way into the niches to pull myself up. The porter with his panniers had such poise and balance that he didn’t need even to hold onto the bamboo pole to stabilise his load. We crested the lip of the caldera and from then on it was downhill all the way.
As the drizzle abated, we stopped at a sad and deserted green metal and wood shelter, beside which lay a dead grey dog, flecked with mud and filth, both bloated and emaciated. I rested and pulled out a soggy novel to read while I waited for Florent. Then we continued together to our final campsite in a forest. This was “Pos 3”, an elevated green wooden deck where we could pitch our tent. A troupe of very furry macaques watched from the woods. The mountain monkeys in Lombok have thick pelts, like fur balls.
We broke camp and headed down a path that grew ever wider as we approached the entrance of the national park on the south side. We finished the final half hour under a dripping canopy of green leaves and found a coffee house, where we could wait for the driver. Having conquered Indonesia’s best volcano, we then proceeded to experience the nation’s other world class talents, when we returned to our hotel for a much deserved massage.
Getting to Rinjani
There are daily direct flights to Lombok from Singapore on Silk Air or you can take a ferry or a plane from Bali. Garuda and Lion Air both have multiple daily services to Lombok from Jakarta.