Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Climbing Rinjani: Summit and Descent

We woke up at 2, had a light meal, and readied for the final stretch to the summit. Our guide estimated it would take about four hours to get to the top, hopefully just in time for sunrise. The Belgian couple in our group had decided to keep sleeping and skip the summit, as they were already happy with what they had seen, while the Dutch couple had reservations but decided to go for it. It was calm at the campsite, and the sky a clear vault full of brilliant stars. I felt warm in my layers but knew it would be colder once we got onto the ridge leading to the summit.

Sure enough, as soon as we headed up above the tents the wind returned. The going was fairly easy at first, though the path was nothing more than ashy dust, which got kicked up by the few dozen trekkers going towards the top and reduced visibility even more (if possible) in the inky black night. The Dutch couple was struggling and stopping far too often, so they told me and the two British girls to go ahead while they stayed back with the guide. This was fine with us, as stopping so much made it hard to maintain a rhythm or keep your body temperature up. It was also impossible to get lost, as the path was obvious and illuminated by the headlamps of other climbers.

We trudged on through the dust, with nothing to see except the patch of ground lit up by our torches and the distant lights of towns around the island far below. The early stretches of the trail had been cut through rocks that were taller than us, providing shelter from the wind, but after an hour or so the rocks fell away, leaving us completely exposed. At some point the dirt transitioned to extremely loose scree and the angle of ascent increased, and this is where the climbing became hellish. The loose rocks gave way any time you put weight down, meaning that for every step you took, you slid back half the distance you had just covered. Between the awful footing, cutting wind and ever-present dust, things were turning ugly.

We had been making good progress, steadily passing slower groups, but this bogged down everybody. More frequent breaks to rest burning calves became necessary, and any rock that broke the wind became a blessing. My hands and face were cold, but my torso was steaming thanks to the exertion, although anytime we stopped my sweat turned cold in a hurry. The summit was silhouetted against the bright stars, but it didn't seem to be getting any closer, though we were obviously covering some distance.  

After roughly an hour of this I noticed that the sky was beginning to brighten to the east. It was almost imperceptible, but sunrise was coming. We could also tell that the summit was near; our timing looked like it would be perfect. A final wall of rocks just below the peak gave us one last pause from the wind, and we stomped onto the summit as a band of orange and yellow stretched across the eastern horizon. I couldn't completely feel my hands thanks to my thin gloves, snot was running down my face and my legs were on fire, but we had made it to the summit! (Among the first people there that day, actually.) 12,224 feet above sea level, and this was easily the tallest mountain (and only volcano) I've ever climbed. The bulk of the climbing hadn't been too difficult for me, but that last stretch was a nightmare, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment to be at the top.

We caught our breath and looked east, only to be winded again by the breathtaking view.
Once there was enough light I got a picture with one of the signs indicating the height of the peak.
The dramatic geology around the summit spoke of a violent history, and also looked like an excellent stand-in for Mars.
Finally, the sun peaked above the clouds and rose quickly, illuminating Lombok and the waters around it. The wind still packed a punch, but every minute brought stronger rays.
Then, while everyone was staring at the sun, I turned around exclaimed at the incredible view behind us: a shadow of the peak had been cast across the caldera and stretched all the way to the horizon, in something of an alternative cover to Dark Side of the Moon, if Pink Floyd were more outdoorsy. This was one of the most surreal natural images I had ever seen. This also provided a sense of just how far we had climbed, as we had been on the shore of the lake less than 24 hours earlier.
We hung around the peak for about 30 minutes, just taking everything in, until we decided it was too cold and began the descent back to camp.

While the dusty scree of the summit ridge had made for a brutal climb, going down it was a completely different story: we were able to run/slide down the whole thing, kicking up huge clouds of fine dirt along the way and flying past people who were still going up. Now that the sun was out we were also able to see what we had climbed up past: steep slopes feel away from either side of the path, and one would be in serious trouble if they were to slip or trip off the trail. We reached the tents in just an hour and were nice and toasty, rendering most of the cold-weather clothing useless for the rest of the day.

After resting for a bit and feasting on banana pancakes we packed up and took off for the descent down the rest of the volcano towards the village of Sembalun. The sun was burning strong in a mostly clear sky, and the frigid temperatures of the summit were a distant memory. The dusty trail, bone-dry since Lombok was in the middle of the dry season, made for filthy, at times choking, trekking. I tied a bandana around my face and we trudged on as our clothes and exposed skin became caked in a layer of earth.

After lunch the terrain transitioned from pine-filled highlands to a long, sloping savanna of shoulder-high grass. The heat rose as we got closer to sea level, and the last two hours of hiking baked us. Just before reaching Sembalun we re-entered the jungle, where troops of black monkeys swung through the trees. Finally, after 25 km (15.5 miles) of trekking over three days, we reached the end of the trail. I was hot, exhausted and utterly filthy, but it had all been absolutely worth it. The scenery of Rinjani is simply staggering, leaving me with sights and moments that I will certainly never forget. This trip couldn't have gotten off to a better, more epic start.
We were given a ride back to the guesthouse in Senaru, where I finally had a chance to get a glimpse of myself in a mirror: I looked like Alice Cooper, with dirt caked around my eyes and mouth, hair so crusty I could barely run a hand through it. I cleaned what I could in the sink but it was soon time to hop into a van and head to Bangsal, a town on the coast where boats to the Gili Islands depart from. After an amazing four days on Lombok, it was time to head to a completely different destination.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Climbing Rinjani: Part Two

I hadn't slept in a tent in ages, and the first night on the volcano was a reminder of just how miserable such an arrangement can be. The weather was calm when we went to bed, but by midnight a vicious wind was howling through the campsite. I had gotten into my sleeping bag with just a pair of pajama pants and a hoodie on, but I soon had almost all of my clothing on - it was cold even without the wind, and to make matters worse the zipper on the "door" to my tent was broken, allowing gusts to barrel in unobstructed. Several times I thought the tent was going to collapse, and since I couldn't close it I expected to wake up in the morning with a monkey cuddled up next to me. I barely slept, passing the hours tossing and turning in pitch-black darkness just waiting for the night to end.

The sky finally began to lighten, and as I emerged from my useless tent the piercing cold made sure I was wide awake. I walked back up to the crater rim and waited, shivering, for the sun to rise over the volcano and bathe us in its warming rays.

After breakfast we geared up and began the day's trek, which would take us down to the floor of the caldera and then up the other side to a campsite below the summit. It was shaping up to be another beautiful one, with a brilliant blue sky overhead and the powerful sun sharpening the incredible scenery into bright focus. The wind, however, was relentless, and our guide said if it didn't let up we wouldn't be able to go for the summit the following morning.

The descent into the caldera was steep and occasionally treacherous, with loose rocks and deep drops keeping us alert. The flora was reminiscent of the American west, not a tropical island near the equator; with pine trees clinging to the caldera wall and brown shrubs scraping our pants. Fortunately the work warmed things up, allowing us to shed some layers and soak up sunlight.

Within about 90 minutes we had reached the shores of the azure caldera lake and were presented with a rather alpine view, while the volcanic cone smoked on the right. I went for a dip in the clear, cold lake (which is actually much warmer than fresh water would normally be at such an altitude due to the heat of the volcano) and felt instantly refreshed, cleansed of the dust and grit that had accumulated on me over the previous day.

We walked along the lake to our lunch stop, and while the porters set up we hiked to the nearby hot springs, which are also heated by the volcano. The green water doesn't look clean at first, but boy does it feel good on sore muscles.

The incredible valley which the hot springs are located in.
After steaming for a bit we returned to the lake and had lunch on the shore, where you could contemplate the creation of this amazing place. Gunung Barujari emitted its steady plume of smoke, a constant reminder of the power that lies beneath it. The black land in front of it was created by lava flows from recent eruptions.

With lunch finished it was time to go up again, first along a lengthy, wind-blown ridge and then back into the clouds through a few stretches that required scrambling up rocks on all fours. We reached camp early, around 3:30 pm, meaning a nap was in order. Once the afternoon clouds cleared I walked up to the top of the ridge which the campsite was located on and took in the summit, which looked deceptively close. We would be waking up at 2 am in order to get to the top for sunrise, and it was going to be cold. I was nervous.
Another spectacular sunset behind the caldera rim, and it was time to get a bit of sleep before the summit climb. The wind had slacked off so we were definitely going for it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Incredible Indonesia: Climbing Rinjani - Part One

By nearly any measure, Indonesia is a country that boggles the mind. Spread across 17,508 islands stretching over 3,000 miles along the equator, Indonesia is home to 255 million people, enough to make it the fourth most-populous country in the world. The population is extremely diverse, featuring hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups. All of this means getting a thorough understanding of the people and culture there would be a major undertaking, and I certainly know next to nothing when it comes to these subjects.

However, my trip wasn't about people or culture, it was about nature and the great outdoors, both on land and in the ocean. In these aspects Indonesia came through in spades; no surprise considering it has the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world, after Brazil. My entry point was the island of Lombok, which sits between Bali and Sumbawa, and I had one main objective there: climbing Mount Rinjani, at 12,224 feet the second-tallest volcano in the country (out of over 150 active volcanoes). This was my first time traveling south of the equator.

I arrived in the dark, and after a three-hour van ride I was in the small hill town of Senaru, one of the gateways to Rinjani. It was cool at night, though I had no idea what the area looked like until morning, when I was greeted with this view from the restaurant of my guesthouse.
Imposing Rinjani - the summit is on the left.
I had planned to begin the three-day, two-night trek to the summit that morning, but my guide informed that the rest of the group had been delayed, so we wouldn't begin until the next day. I was annoyed at first, but this gave me time to recover from a long day of travel from Saigon and go on a short hike to a couple of waterfalls that begins right in town. The weather was utterly perfect, with barely a cloud in the sky - a trend that would continue for most of my time in the country.

The rest of the group arrived the next morning - two British girls in university, a Dutch couple and a Belgian couple, all of whom were great. After a short ride to the entrance to Rinjani National Park we signed in at the ranger's station and set off, our tireless local guide leading the way.
For the next few hours we were ensconced in dense jungle as we ascended the dirt path. This stretch was fairly easy, though it was hard to tell how much progress we were making since we couldn't see the surroundings through the trees. After lunch clouds started to move in, as Rinjani creates its own weather and clouds over every afternoon.

We continued on through the mist, spotting numerous monkeys along the way. The trees were beginning to thin out, while the clouds muffled all noise and lent an eerily silent atmosphere to the climb. There were plenty of other trekkers on the path, but it never felt crowded. Eventually we hit a very steep ridge through tall grass, followed by a rocky slope that made for tricky footing. Patches of blue sky were beginning to appear, which meant we were nearing the top of the cloud bank.

The terrain began to level off, but we still had no real sense of where we were, until suddenly we reached the rim of Rinjani's massive caldera and were treated to this staggering view:
Rinjani's summit can be seen on the left.

After slogging through jungle for most of the day, to suddenly have such an epic vista was somewhat shocking. We were now looking at what makes Rinjani so famous; the 3.7 by 5.3 mile caldera, which was formed by an enormous eruption in the 13th century that blasted up to 10 cubic miles of rock into the atmosphere and may have helped begin the Little Ice Age. The eruption caused the old volcano, called Samalas, to collapse, creating the present caldera. A deep blue lake, known as Segara Anak, has since filled the caldera, while the current active cone, Gunung Barujari, sits smoldering in the middle (it most recently erupted in 2010).

At this altitude the sun was still strong even though it was approaching 5pm, and we took in the spellbinding views while the porters set up camp away from the rim. I had seen pictures of the caldera while doing research for this trip, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer scale of it. I had never seen anything even remotely similar before, and I found it hard to comprehend the sheer geologic force it took to create such an incredible view. The dichotomy between this and my normal daily view of polluted, overcrowded Saigon couldn't have been any more pronounced.

As the sun descended towards the horizon the temperature began to drop rapidly, and we started unpacking our cold-weather clothes, which I had to buy at a specialist outdoor shop in Saigon since I never need such gear in southern Vietnam. We had a very scenic camping site, perfectly placed to watch the incredible sunset.

Pitch-black darkness fell in a hurry, and the clear sky became a brilliant display of the stars, possibly more than I've ever seen. We went to bed early, feet throbbing and calves burning, ready to carry on the trek the next day.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Off to Indonesia

I'm off to Indonesia early tomorrow morning for almost a month. After booking my flights for this trip ages ago I put off most of the actual planning until the last couple of weeks, when I belatedly realized it's the high season there and everything needs to be booked in advance. The past few days have featured intense Lonely Planet skimming, Agoda scanning and Googling. My first stop is Lombok, where I'll climb Mount Rinjani, the second-tallest volcano in the country at just over 12,000 feet, followed by getting dive certified in the Gili Islands. After that I had originally intended to head to Java for more volcano trekking, but after a relatively last-minute alteration I'm completely scrapping Java in favor of two weeks of motorbiking around Bali, hopefully with a bunch more diving and trekking along the way.

I'll be back in early October with plenty of pictures and surely some great stories. I won't be posting before then (not that I've been posting much anyway), but do please stay tuned! I swear I'm going to post more regularly once I'm back as well. Cheerio.
I hope my view of the Rinjani caldera is as good as this one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Con Dao: Vietnam's Last Paradise?

During my travels in Vietnam, I've been struck by how readily developers obliterate beautiful places in the name of tourism, often ruining the very places they are trying to attract people to. Nha Trang, home to a stunning bay surrounded by mountains, is now a wall of high-rise hotels and proposed mega-projects. Ha Long Bay has been terribly polluted by tourism boats, and Phu Quoc is undergoing a transformation that will render it unrecognizable in a few years. I understand tourism is important to the economy, but at what cost?

Fortunately, last week I discovered there is still one largely untouched paradise: the Con Dao archipelago, a collection of 16 mountainous islands about 150 miles south of Saigon. Me and Natasha arrived at the tiny airport on Con Son, the main island, in the morning and had five days in the sun to look forward to.

The weather was beautiful almost the whole time, even though it's the wet season in southern Vietnam. The island is very quiet, with just a couple of stoplights and little in the way of traffic. This was definitely the easiest motorbike driving I've done in Vietnam, as the roads are good and there are few people around to almost run you over.
The main beach in town. Incredibly, it was always this empty.
After lunch at the excellent Bar200 we headed to the other side of the island from town, to Dam Trau Beach, which is at the end of the airport runway, so the twin-engine prop planes which Vietnam Airlines flies to the island occasionally rumbled overhead. Con Son is remarkably undeveloped - there are no high-rises or garish Vinpearl eyesores; no beer clubs blasting Vietdub at 200 decibels; and no backpacker bars full of shaggy gap year kids in 333 singlets. The main road doesn't even completely circle the island, and it's usually hemmed in by rainforest. It's incredible.

There is also a lot of history to Con Dao - it was once an outpost of the British East Indies Company, and the French turned it into a notorious penal colony, the facilities for which the government of South Vietnam gladly used to punish its enemies before the country was reunited in 1975. There are several old prisons and a museum which document this gruesome past, but we focused on beaches and motorbike drives instead.

Dam Trau
The water was crystal clear and the sand largely empty, allowing us to soak up some serious rays in peace and quiet. Well, not until the truckload of army soldiers who were drinking and singing appalling karaoke left early in the afternoon.

The next couple days consisted of similar lazing about in the sun, and one evening we went to dinner at the Six Senses Con Dao, regarded as one of the finest (and most expensive) resorts in the country. (Brad and Angelina stayed here when they visited a few years ago.) The property is stunning, with a private beach and pool and a tasteful wooden design. The dinner at their By The Beach restaurant was incredible, and completely worth the huge tab (the meal cost as much as our four nights of accommodation at Con Dao Camping and five days of motorbike rental combined). If you're planning a trip to Con Dao and can afford a blowout meal, definitely go for it.

The next day we drove to the western side of the island, where the rugged scenery doesn't even look like Vietnam. This area is much more exposed to the wind than around the main beach, which was generally pretty calm.
Finally, on the last day we did one of the many hikes available in Con Dao National Park. The archipelago is very diverse and largely protected (at least on paper), both on land and below the water, with a number of trails and dive sites available. Some of the smaller islands are nesting grounds for sea turtles, and numerous fish species can be found in the area. This trail ran just over a kilometer to the abandoned So Ray plantation, built during the French colonial years.

The highlight of the hike was the wildlife - we had been told to keep an eye out for monkeys and a large species of squirrel, For most of the hike all we saw were birds, bats and some insects, but as we neared the plantation we heard the sound of larger animals in the trees. After looking closely we spotted several black giant squirrels hopping around the branches. Over the next half hour we saw several more in addition to a pair of moneys, and they all kept their distance. This was the first time I had seen such wildlife in nature in Vietnam - other places have monkeys, but they are so used to human contact that they walk right up and steal whatever food you have. I enjoyed having to work to see the animals.
View from the plantation's watchtower
The main market in town.
 Afterwards we drove over to the beautiful Van Son Pagoda, which overlooks the stunning East Sea from the side of a hill.

With time for one last quick drive around the point to the west side of the island, we took in the simply incredible view for a few minutes, and then it was time to reluctantly head back to Saigon and its noise, traffic and pollution.

Mother nature treated us to a beautiful sunset over the Mekong Delta on the way back.

Con Dao is easily one of the best destinations I've been to in Vietnam, and I've been almost everywhere. It is quiet, gorgeous, largely untouched and has some great food. It is still largely off the tourist trail since flights to it and accommodation once there are generally more expensive than elsewhere in Vietnam, but surely it will be 'discovered' at some point. I sincerely hope that, whenever that happens, it doesn't go the way of Phu Quoc. Vietnam has a chance here to retain something truly special, and me and Natasha are already figuring out when we can go back for more.