Friday morning saw me catch two bemos to the little village of Senaru, which teeters on the northern slopes of Lombok's towering volcano Gunung Rinjani (gunung means 'mountain' in Indonesian). On the way I got talking to a young bloke called Saina who said he ran a new losmen in Senaru, and he could help me get all the equipment needed for the hike up the still-active volcano that dominates the centre of Lombok. I gently refused his offers of a guide or a porter – a guy I met in Ubud convinced me they were totally unnecessary – but I rented a tent and roll mat off him for 24,000rp, and bought four days' food and some water for 28,000rp, somewhat cheaper than the equivalent costs in Australia and New Zealand. Packed and ready to roll, I spent a night in his new and delightfully positioned losmen, relaxing as the sun went down and the local mosque broadcast its chants over the valleys (Lombok is mainly Muslim, while Bali is mainly Hindu). The next day I got up ridiculously early to conquer another volcano.
Gunung Rinjani is huge; in fact, it's the biggest peak in Indonesia outside Irian Jaya, which has mountains that make even professionals think twice. The only times you can see the peak from the towns around the volcano's base are first thing in the morning and last thing at night; it's so big that clouds form around it after a couple of hours of sunlight, shrouding the crater in mysterious grey swathes. At a height of 3726m (12,224 ft) it's a lot bigger than anything else I've attempted to climb so far, and the walk up to the top from the village of Senaru takes a little over two days of solid mountain hiking.
Most people, by which I mean about 99 per cent of visitors to Rinjani, hire a porter to carry all the food, camping equipment and so on. These porters, who double as guides, are astounding; walking up sheer mountain paths with everything strapped to two ends of a bamboo pole that they balance on their shoulders, they manage to traverse sharp pumice trails with nothing but flimsy sandals on their feet. The weights they carry are nothing short of backbreaking, and you never hear a word of complaint as they trudge their way round the park. So most people load up their porters and do the walk with just a daypack, carrying maybe some water and a bit of warm clothing.
But I decided I wasn't most people, so I packed up my tent and sleeping mat, along with eight ready-cooked meals of nasi goreng wrapped in banana leaves, and set off into Rinjani National Park with a heavy pack and a hastily copied map of the area that looked more like something from The Hobbit than a serious proposition. The pack weighed quite a bit, the other tourists thought I was crazy, and I started up the track at 7am on Saturday 20th September.