Yo Mama of Mountains
It stands there like a zit, ruptured by the clawing hands of an anxious teenager. Its contents expelled, it stands prominently, still. Tinged an inflamed ferrous red at the opening of the crater, a deep raking wound runs down its North Eastern face. Gunung Rinjani, as Indonesia’s 2nd tallest volcano, missing the preeminent position by a hair’s breadth, is also the country’s 3rd tallest peak. It’s prominence can be viewed distinctly from any of the neighbouring islands. And that very sight must have been a terrifying one in the year AD 1257, when Rinjani’s twin peak, Gunung Samalas blew its top so dramatically and forcefully that the event brought about a little ice age. That eruption was the largest one in 2,000 years and was much larger than the one at Gunung Tambora which erupted in 1815 and triggered off a global catastrophe that changed weather patterns drastically. Gunung Rinjani is still active today, with the latest ejections of material and magma occurring in May 2010 and October 2015. The existing volcanic cone continues to emit smoke till this day.
When you approach and finally stand at the trail head, you feel the volcano exert a perceptible force and presence. It is omnipresent, at least while on Lombok and the neighbouring islands, and almost an entity in itself commanding attention. We start along a sealed road, and turn off into a trail. Snaking past plots of agricultural land growing everything from vegetables to chillis and flowers, we passed by narrow trails between wood and thatch huts where the farmers stayed. Moving beyond the most fertile zones, the land opens up to fields of tall grass. The lallang are as tall as any man and will completely hide anyone who chooses to remain still. This is my favourite part of the area. Progressively, the landscape changes, the vegetation thickens, there are gradual rises in terrain, sand and soil are replaced by boulders and rocks. Deep notches in the land are crossed by rickety bamboo bridges with an architecture that deemed railings on only one side provides adequate safety – god preserve those who are left-handed.
Rinjani, always looming large and omnipresent, manages to sneak up upon us. It is so large and dominates so much of the landscape that we don’t even notice that we are on the mountain until we are more than halfway up. A mountain of many superlatives, it is large, it is wild and it is gritty. Venerated by the indigenous Sasak people, one interpretation of it’s name is thought to come from an old Javanese term for “Goddess” – a guardian entity towards which many seek comfort and provision in the form of agriculture and water. Anjani, in Hindu lore was the mother of Hanuman, the monkey deity from the Ramayana. It is little wonder that many mountains are likened to motherly figures, such as Everest. Like all unappreciative sons, we assault her with “yo mama” jokes, hurting her dignity with overpopulation and pollution.
5 hours into the hike, we arrive at base camp. It is along the thin ridge of the caldera, with a drop off into the crater lake on the side opposite from which we came. The Segara Anak is the water filled remains of the original volcano that was blown apart in 1257. Poking out of the lake is a smaller volcanic cone, called Gunung Batu, that has been venting acrid, sulphuric smoke since 2010.
The evening and part of the night was spent gathering strength for the early morning push to the summit. At 3 am, we rose for an early, rushed breakfast, to arrive at the summit for sunrise. The next 4-5 hours was considerably more challenging than the previous leg of the hike. Firm ground gave way to dust and loose sand, which didn’t provide any opportunity for a firm footing all the way to the summit. For every few steps forward and upward, we slid back down a third of the way.
Daybreak was truely a sight to behold. Just before dawn, a mist was forming close to the peak. It provided an ethereal setting for the sublime moment where the first rays of the rising sun peeks from beneath the horizon. Slowly, the skies morphed from cold and black, then to cool hues of a dirty blue, then pinks and oranges and finally to a brilliant marine blue.
The view from 3726 meters above ground was well worth the 2 days of trekking, sore feet and aching shoulders. It wasn’t a particularly difficult mountain, but the sandy terrain was infuriating. Aside from the slowed progress, I fell flat on my bottom a number of times.
From the top, we could see Bali’s Gunung Agung, and much of the island of Lombok. We could also look over the crater lake and see the smoking cone rise from Segara Anak. It’s also the perfect selfie spot where you’d encounter groups of people doing just that.
The other wonder on Rinjani didn’t ride from the ground with fanfare. The army quiet, fleet footed porters bounded up and down the mountain trails like sure footed goats. The quick moving lines of human bodies laden with all manner of supplies, like ants transporting morsels of food many times their own body weight. Most chose this life with no other option than the even more gruelling one of a iterant farmer. Although some regulation has been adopted to improve their working conditions, it is still rather abysmal. Most only have flip flops to protect their feet, some have nothing but bare feet. Their packs, although technically regulated to be less than 40kg, is hung on two opposite ends of a bamboo pole that is then slung across the shoulders. Here are some of the faces of the silent men of the mountain.