Words and Pictures by Jake Spencer and Hannah Murphy
Sheepishly staring at a plate of Banana Fritters, I’m really starting to wonder what I’ve got myself into. To make matters worse, these are no normal Banana Fritters. No, no. As if deep-frying a mushy banana wasn’t enough; this abomination of the culinary world has been splattered with chocolate sauce and then sprinkled with grated cheese. No, that is not a typo. Yes, the chef has gone mad.
What this amounts to, is an increased sense of fear and trepidation with regards to the activities of the next few days. Because we’re not in a restaurant here. Or a café. Or the home of an eccentric – but essentially wrong – chef.
We’re in the office of a company called Green Rinjani and, the next morning at 6am we will be beginning an ascent up its namesake Mount Rinjani, the active volcano that towers over the island of Lombok. I take the plunge and chomp down on one of the aforementioned fritters.
My stomach tightens. If I can’t even trust these people to prepare a banana properly; should I really trust them to guide me up a volcano that could erupt at any given moment?
What began as a silly consideration has now turned into a full blown commitment and – as a result – I will spend the next three days plodding up a volcano with my less than impressed girlfriend, Hannah. As if to give an indication of the grisly few days we have in store, the car journey from Bangsal Harbour is a solemn affair.
The near two hour journey is one of silence punctuated only by the incessant beeping of the car horn by the driver. If there’s one thing my stint in the neighbouring Bali has taught me, it is that: if in doubt; sound your car horn.
Dog in the road? Beep your horn. Overtaking on a corner? Beep your horn. Passing a tree or bridge that consider sacred? Yep, you guessed it, beep your horn. That and the fact that Indonesians tend to employ an ‘anything goes’ approach to driving that is somewhat Mario Kart-esque, the only difference being that our driver was not a moustachioed plumber from Italy.
After reaching the office and being given a very brief explanation of our trek delivered with robot-like efficiency, we were somehow deemed fit and ready to begin the climb the very next day.
On arrival at our accommodation for the night I considered asking for the Wi-Fi password. After all, home is not in fact where the heart is – as so many have wrongly theorised – but rather, home is where the Wi-Fi connects automatically.
As we were shown to our room, a ramshackle guest house complete with a damp bed and cold shower, I thought better. Facebook-free and pathetically tired from our car journey, we settled in, ready for our early start in the morning.
Morning came. Loudly. The new day christened by a rooster crowing vociferously, seemingly right outside our bamboo window shutters. After agreeing to pass on the cold shower we ambled down to breakfast, naively over-packed bag in tow. Breakfast devoured and bags loaded we began the drive to the base of Rinjani, situated within the village of Senaru.
Accompanying us on the journey was our newly-appointed guide Ano; a short, smiley fellow who seemed entirely undaunted by the prospect of a three-day trek to the summit. With good reason too; we later found out that Ano had climbed Rinjani well over 300 times over 23 years.
When asked whether we ourselves had climbed many mountains we thought it best to simply lie and say that we had completed ascents in both England and Scotland though were sure to point out that these imaginary climbs were ‘a lot smaller’ than Rinjani. We figured that now, just hours before the start of the trek, would not be the best time to divulge that we had in fact never climbed anything of the sort ever before.
Waiting at the base of the volcano was our personal porter. Taller than Ano, the porter wore a leopard print headscarf. A strange choice, I felt, and one that I imagine had been chosen haphazardly by mistake after we ‘booked’ our porter literally on the way to base camp.
And what a decision that was. That we even considered climbing a mountain with absolutely no experience and were planning on doing so carrying a ridiculously oversized backpack makes no sense to me now but at the time that was indeed the strategy. Instead, and very fortunately, we had managed to secure our leopard-printed porter’s services and, after a little struggle, he had our bag up and on his back. We were ready… Kind of.
And so, at 9am, the trek began. Despite the early morning start, it was clear to see that the searing heat from the sun was likely to be an issue. For the first hour or so, in vast open fields peppered with rice, shade was hard to come by. Hannah – one hour into a three-day trek – had already begun to doubt herself and secretly, in my head so as not expose myself to wails of ‘I told you so!’, I too wondered what I had let myself in for.
The heat somewhat subsided on the first real hill through the jungle undergrowth, no doubt helped by the shade offered by the trees. In the distance, we could hear animal-like calls into the wilderness, apparently those of hunters within our midst and thus adding to the Indiana Jones vibe.
On and on we trekked, thanking our lucky stars that we had booked an additional porter, sweating profusely already, with nothing to carry other than our ever heavier – and wearier – legs. Our mood, like the trek itself, was very much up and down. Noticeably, on the downhill sections, our mood lightened somewhat, though this was, of course, temporary, with another hill lurking behind the cover of the fog.
Along the way we passed a number of trekkers, seemingly returning from the summit. Each encounter was pretty inconspicuous. Pleasantries were exchanged, the odd joke and a nod of the head to some. All bar one, that is. Blaring the Avicii song, Wake Me Up, one group was seemingly trying to send us a hidden message. A warning. ‘Wake me up when it’s all over’ the song looped.
(It is worth noting, at this point, that this is not a cautionary tale as to why you should not climb Rinjani. Far from it. The views we experienced were second to none and highly unlikely to be duplicated in any other scenario. You can see some of these extraordinary views from the photos and yet, they still don’t do it justice. We had an amazing time on the trek also but as the Trip Advisor reviews so correctly advised: this is not for the faint-hearted. It is a slog. It is incredibly hard work. But, by God, it is so, so worth it.)
Higher and higher we climbed, up ridiculously steep sections on which each and every climber was scrambling on all fours. Difficult enough when you’re in hiking boots. Almost impossible when you’re in near grip-less running shoes, as myself and Hannah were. Having said that, our guide Ano and our porters sailed up the side of the mountain in flip-flops, whilst carrying an abundance of bags, no less. Comes with experience, I guess.
With each step up the mountain we took, the mist further descended on us, to the point where we could not see even those only a few metres ahead of us. Silhouetted against the mist, however, was a gang of monkeys ominously skulking about.
The last thing I needed right now was to become involved in a fisticuffs with a hungry ape bursting through the mist, no doubt battle hardened against numerous tourists over the years. I’ve seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I know exactly what happens when you enter their territory uninvited.
Tightening the grip on my Oreo’s – an invaluable staple of the clueless virgin mountain climber – I kept my head down and ploughed on into the unknown.
At the top of every hill, another ever steeper hill emerged and protruded through the mist. Trails spiralling endlessly up into the sky. But, after what seemed like hours with seemingly no end in sight we finally reached the crater rim.
Sat above the clouds, our campsite for the night truly was a sight to behold. With the sun setting over the glowing blue crater lake Segara Anak, the 9 hour climb suddenly showed itself to be more than worthwhile. Difficult, but worthwhile.
As we settled down in our tent, the clouds rolling in around us and the cold from the altitude setting in, we tried not to think about the impending 1:30am wake-up call that would signal the start of our ascent to the summit.
Sleep comes quickly… as does the aforementioned wake-up call.
Trying to get dressed in the dark is difficult at the best of times, even more so whilst on the side of an active volcano. Eventually though, with a headlight so pathetically dim it made the Kardashian’s look bright, we began our treacherous ascent to the summit. Stumbling and fumbling around, trying to soak up as much light as possible from those around us, the sheer drops to either side of us did nothing to quell our fears.
The first three hours up to the summit were difficult. Not least because of the lack of light. There was a short flat section, though, ‘the easy middle section’ as Ano referred to it… which lasted all of fifteen minutes. And then it was hell. The climb was gruelling, and the last 2 hours were inexpressibly difficult. The path was narrow – with yet more perilous drops to each side – and very, very steep.
The ash, that is in hindsight to be expected on a volcano, provided a constant obstacle to our quest to reach the top. ‘One step forward, two steps back’ seemed to be the order of the day as we slipped and tripped in the thick ash. On and on we trudged.
There’s only so many times you can exclaim that ‘it’s not too far’ and offer words of motivation before it has the opposite effect than that that is intended. Unfortunately, these words of encouragement quickly became insincere for Hannah and the final push to the summit was spent in tired silence but for the incessant humming of the American nursery rhyme ‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt’ (look it up!) that had inexplicably decided to take over my body at this most unfortunate of times. In fairness, the song did in fact seem to help, allowing me to focus on something other than keeling over and dying.
Almost thwarted by a very slow German man in front, we finally reached the summit of Mount Rinjani! Though we both feared that we would have to stop and go back, or perhaps just topple over any one of the precarious edges we passed en route, we had made it. We had reached the very top! Though it had indeed been difficult – much more so than we could ever have imagined – the sense of achievement on reaching the summit was truly indescribable.
As we scaled the peak of the volcano – 3,726 metres up – the crowd of sweating, panting and generally exhausted climbers stopped to watch the sky light up. The sun peaked up over the sea, and gradually rose up into the sky, illuminating the ocean below us, the distant shores of Bali, the white sandy beaches of the Gili Islands, and the green hills we had conquered on the way to our greatest triumph. We made it to the top. There was still the small matter of getting back down, but we had made it!
To top it all off, Ano rewarded us back at base camp with a plate of banana fritters each, complete with lashings of chocolate sauce and, of course, cheese. How else would you have it?
A culinary abomination has never tasted so good!