A first hand report
At 3,726 metres above sea level, striking Gunung Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano, after Kerinci in Sumatra, and the 15th highest peak in the country. From all aspects it dominates Lombok’s landscape, and from the summit you can see east to Gunung Agung on Bali and Gunung Tambora on Sumbawa. The ascent, a popular activity for both foreign and domestic travellers, is nothing less than gruelling.
The site of a catastrophic eruption in 1257, the original twin peaks of Gunung Samaras were thought to have reached around 4,200 metres in height. The eruption is seen as the main cause of a “mini ice age” at the time (much as neighbouring Tambora was in the 19th century).
After the eruption, the cone is believed to have collapsed into the caldera (also as with Tambora) forming the gorgeous Segara Anak lake with the new “baby volcano” Gunung Barujari bubbling away within. Barujari remains active to this day with at least four eruptions or explosions since 2000, but even when it isn’t erupting, if forms a splendid view, both from the crater rim and, within the caldera, from the lakeside. The entire peak is now called Rinjani, not Samaras.
Climbing Rinjani, either to the crater rim or the actual summit, is one of the most popular activities on Lombok proper, but as with the climb of Gunung Agung on Bali, the fact that every man and his dog will happily book you onto a climbing package shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that the climb is easy. It isn’t.
Treks are run from two access points: Senaru to the north of the peak and Sembalun Lawang, to the east. They come in three main flavours: a one-night, summit-only trek, a two-night summit and lake trip, and a three-night summit and lake trek. There are pros and cons to each approach and none of the routes are “easy”. As our guide Padila said, “You need to feel some pain to get something good.”
The most popular approach is from Sembalun Lawang, meaning if you book in Senaru you may be shuttled there by minibus before you start walking. As we started in Sembalun Lawang, we’ll start from there, but if you’re planning on starting in Senaru, just read all this backwards.
Leave Sembalun Lawang (1,156m) early in the morning, climb via Pos 1 (1,300m), Pos 2 (1,500m) and Pos 3 (1,800m) to Plawangan 2 (eastern crater rim 2,639m) where you camp for the night. You then begin the ascent to the summit around 02:00, aiming for the summit (3,726m) for dawn. You then walk all the way out to Sembalun Lawang that same day, though some will camp again on the way out, making this a two-night trek at a more relaxed pace.
Leave Sembalun Lawang (1,156m) early in the morning, climb via Pos 1 (1,300m), Pos 2 (1,500m), Pos 3 (1,800m) to Plawangan 2 (eastern crater rim 2,639m) where you camp for the night. You then begin the ascent to the summit around 02:00, aiming for the summit (3,726m) for dawn. You then return to Plawangan 2, pack up and hike into the crater to camp beside the lake (2,008m) where you can also visit some hot springs. On the third day you leave the lake early, climbing the northern crater rim at Plawangan 1 (2,641m) before a long downhill hike through Pos 3 (2,000m), Pos 2 (1,500m) and Pos 1 before reaching Senaru at around 600m.
This is essentially the same as the two-night package, but you camp a second night either at the lake side (essentially allowing a day off) or at the northern crater rim, leaving just the hike down to Senaru from the crater rim on the final day. There are a few variations on this, depending on the operator.
For those with more time (and money) there are a variety of other options you can cobble together.
Which package to do?
Rinjani is not something to rush. Honestly appraise your level of fitness and ability to climb to an altitude of almost 4,000m in often challenging and precarious conditions. There are pretty much no allowances for safety and many people have died on the peak. You have insurance right? Read the small print and double check you’re covered. This was the fourth volcano we have climbed in Indonesia (after Agung, Kelimutu and Tambora) and easily the hardest.
If you’re after a quick fix and just want to be able to say “I climbed a volcano” then Gunung Batur or Agung (both in Bali) are easier climbs and both can be done more quickly. If you are just of an “average” level of fitness, we would suggest considering either the summit only, or a four-day, three-night summit plus lake package. We did the two-night, three-day package (see below) and found the final day to be simply too demanding — camping at the crater rim and walking out to Senaru on a fourth day would have been far preferable. However, if you are in good shape, then the two-night, three-day lake package is worth a look.
What is supplied and what do you need to bring?
Supplied gear varies from operator to operator. If you have your own gear you should be able to negotiate down the price somewhat. All offer tents (twin share) sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Other gear that may or may not be supplied includes:
*) A headlamp, for the ascent climb and if you end up trekking at night
*) A walking stick. We scoffed at this but grew to love ours and frankly wouldn’t have made it to the summit without it.
*) A good pair of shoes. Sandals will not suffice (though some porters walk barefoot or in flip-flops, in case you weren’t feeling inadequate enough).
*) A long pair of trousers and comfortable T-shirts
*) A warm top (ideally fleecy)
*) A raincoat
*) Sunscreen and mosquito repellant
*) A waterproof bag
*) A small medical kit
*) A hat
Trekking companies will supply drinking water (initially bottled, then refilled from springs) and food (standards vary tremendously) though you’re well advised to bring your own supply of snacks as well.
Make sure all your electronics are charged as there are no charging facilities on the peak, obviously.
Do you need a porter and guide?
All treks come with a porter crew who carry your food, water, camping gear and so on. They do not however carry your bag. If you want a porter to carry your own pack you need to hire an extra porter. We carried our own bag. Pack the bare minimum!
A guide is mandatory.
What does it cost to enter the park?
Park admission is 5,000 rupiah for Indonesians and 150,000 rupiah for foreigners. Some trekking companies will include this, others do not. Again, if you are watching your rupiah, it pays to compare the fine print.
What does it cost for a trekking package?
Price varies somewhat between operators and be careful that you are comparing the same deals when shopping around. Inclusion of gear like head torches, walking sticks and gloves can save you a bit of cash (as otherwise you’re well-advised to buy them beforehand). Otherwise the main change is food. Many operators will offer three levels of service “budget”, “standard” and “deluxe”, where the budget deal might give you a pancake for breakfast while the deluxe has cornflakes…
We saw one night packages for 1,750,000 rupiah (budget) and 2,350,000 rupiah (deluxe) and two night packages 2,150,000 rupiah (budget) and 2,850,000 rupiah (deluxe) with the standard package in between. All these per person for two to four trekkers. Shop around online and you’ll see a bit of variation and you can easily pay more than these prices if you want deckchairs lugged around for you. We paid around US$300 per person for a group of four on the three day two night package, which included accommodation beforehand at Sembalun Lawang and airport transfers. It is definitely worth shopping around.
One more word on pricing, precious little of what you’re paying actually goes to those doing the heavy lifting — the porters, and to a lesser extent, the guide. We were told guides were paid 250,000 rupiah per day and porters 200,000 per day — regardless of the number of guests. There’s a pretty hefty profit margin built in there and it isn’t going to the people doing the hard yards.
While tipping isn’t mandatory, it is expected — both for the guide and the porters. Discuss with your group what everyone is comfortable with and present it to the guide and porters individually at the end of the trek.
If you have serious misgivings with your trip we suggest taking it up with the operators — not your guide and porters. If there are problems during the trek, you should let your guide know as soon as possible to avoid misunderstandings (and hopefully to sort out any issues straight away).
When to go?
Rinjani National Park closes annually at the height of wet season, generally January and February, but the exact spread of dates is determined each year. Weekends are busier, holiday weekends busier, national holidays busier and four-day weekends (when we did the trek) extremely busy. The day before we entered the park, more than 900 people (plus porters and guides) were signed into the park.
Ideally, if you are after a more peaceful trek, you want to do the trek midweek, away from public holidays but also dodging peak season across European summer, so aim for April/May or September/October.
How safe is trekking Rinjani?
There is little allowance for safety on the trail. There are few ropes and where railings have been installed (notably in places into and out of the crater) they are in such a bad state they arguably increase dangers rather than reducing them. There are no apparent limits on the number of climbers who can attempt the ascent at any one time and overcrowding along the climb through the scree as people run back down barely dodging you can be quite a hair-raising and unsettling experience.
Signage is minimal, though the trail is generally very clear.
There are limited avenues for rescue in the advent of a serious injury. Helicopters can apparently land at Plawangan 2 and we were told it costs 50 million rupiah to get the pilot into the cockpit. It reportedly took two days to carry out a woman who died by the lake the day after we were there.
If you slip and fall, spraining an ankle, breaking your leg or worse, in all likelihood you will be carried out on a litter carried by porters. Watch your step and wear sensible clothes. Give the mountain the respect it deserves.
Which company to use?
This is the tricky part. Many of the trekking guides are freelance and so the guide you had a great trip with may not be working for the same company when somebody else makes a booking thanks to your recommendation. In the past we have been very impressed with Green Rinjani, but it pays to do your own research. Other reputable operators include Rudy Trekking and Hiking Rinjani (whom we trekked with). Our guide, Padila, can be contacted directly via Facebook.
Trips are best booked at Senaru or Sembalun Lawang. Ask to see equipment, meet your guide and ideally meet (not just be shown a comment book) previous trekkers. You’ll often be able to wangle a discount in person with the operator direct rather than booking online.
The further away you book (say Mataram, the Gili Islands, or Bali) the more likely you’re dealing with an agent who in all likelihood has never been near Rinjani before and you’ll have very limited recourse when you discover you’re not getting what you paid for. We met a number of backpackers on our trek who had just shown up and jumped on a random trip and their experiences were very mixed. Do not book a Rinjani trek in Padang Bai.
You want a small group with an experienced, English-speaking guide (if you are English-speaking). Do not hesitate to ask any questions that are on your mind.
Is there a waste problem?
Yes. Human waste and litter are a massive problem in Rinjani National Park. If you’re used to trekking in relatively clean national parks, prepare yourself. Lead by example. Do not litter, and carry all your rubbish out with you. We have a conversation on the trash situation on the peak here.
What is the trek like?
Starting from Sembalun Lawang, you commence walking through rolling hills of savannah dotted with scratches of forest and the occasional cow. It’s a two- to three-hour, easy walk that delivers you to Pos 1 at 1,300m. Another one to one and a half hours brings you to Pos 2 along similar terrain, though the going gets a bit steeper. The bridges you cross apparently date back to a (long abandoned) plan to build a road to the crater rim during the reign of Suharto.
From Pos 3, the going gets considerably tougher — well, steeper — and while you slip in and out of tree cover, you’re also just as likely to be smothered in mist and low cloud that blows in and out as the day gets later. You eventually break out onto a viewpoint that offers amazing views up to the ridge leading to Rinjani on your left. From here it is another hour or so to the crater rim.
In our case we left Sembalun Lawang at around 08:30 and reached the crater rim at just before 17:00 — it was a long, hard day.
The next morning, we left camp at 02:00 for the summit. The summit climb is basically broken into three parts: a steep slippery dirt trail followed by a long, kind of flat (really just less steep) stretch and then the final ascent, a punishing climb through scree — basically you’re ankle deep in loose rubble.
While our intentions had been to reach the summit for dawn, in practice two of our group pushed ahead while we broke the climb at about 05:00 to wait for sunrise (and so more light) to attempt the final climb. We reached the summit at about 07:00.
The trail for the ascent is quite narrow, with steep slopes running off at each side. Because it was very, very difficult to climb in the scree, some trekkers returning from the summit would run down it. Half out of control, this was extremely unnerving for other climbers. It’s another reason to do the climb out of peak season.
The summit has a number of viewpoints where you can gaze over Sumbawa to the east and the Gili Islands and Bali to the west. Watch out for the jostling crowds. There are no safety railings and people have fallen into the crater from here.
Once the happy snaps are done, it is basically the same walk in reverse back to the campsite. We found it considerably easier going down, but it is challenging in places to remain under control.
Back at the campsite, we rested for a couple of hours then ate and pushed on into the crater. The hike into the crater is along roughly hewn stone, sometimes with stairs as the trail. It is steep (watch your balance) but relatively straightforward.
Once you reach the base of the crater, it is a long, perhaps three-hour, up-and-down walk to the lake’s edge. As with the previous day, we arrived at the lake at about 17:00 and quickly decamped to the hot springs for a well-earned soak.
The last day commences with a pleasant walk around the edge of the lake, followed by a quite tough climb up to the crater rim which took us around five hours. From there it was a steady walk down, sometimes in the rain, and often slippery, through some beautiful forest that we’d have liked to have had the time to walk slower and better appreciate.
We emerged at Senaru around 19:00 and while we were ready to whine about having to walk in the dark for an hour, we were told of another group who emerged the previous morning at 03:00.
While the summit was the most challenging, this last day was by far the most demanding and all four of us were shattered. If it had been broken up by camping on the crater rim after the lake, we’d probably all have been in considerably better humour.
Should you climb Rinjani?
If you have the time, the money and the fitness, then yes. The peak is spectacular and camping beside the lake and across from a bubbling volcano was pretty wondrous.
That said, we found the crowds, the rubbish and at times the reckless behaviour of others to be quite off-putting. We wouldn’t climb Rinjani again. We think Tambora, while not as tall, is equally spectacular and offers a far more serene setting than Rinjani. Likewise for those with less time, a more accessible peak like Agung on Bali is perhaps worth considering instead.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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