In the shadow of the spirits

Spiritual journey ... looking out to Rinjani.
Spiritual journey ... looking out to Rinjani. Photo: AP

Jo Hegerty takes a rain check on a trek to a crater in Lombok but still discovers a mountain's heart.

I was supposed to climb a volcano today. I was going to slay the dragon track and come eye-to-eye with the fury of nature at her sulphurous best. But we've been outwitted by a far less spectacular phenomenon: rain.

The steep track up Lombok's revered volcano, Rinjani, is too treacherous to climb. This is not a huge surprise to the locals, who tell us the track is often closed during the four-month rainy season. I allow myself 15 minutes to be annoyed that the trek was even offered at this time of year, then decide to make the most of whatever comes next.

Of the 13 people in my tour group, only four of us are willing to take the alternative trek being offered. We won't get to the crater, or see the smouldering, active young cone that rises from it; instead we'll trek to Rinjani's lower slopes and camp in her shadow.

We set off across a plain with four porters, two guides and a pair of three-foot-tall boys, following a narrow track carved from the grass to reveal rich, claggy soil. It's not raining but there's steam in the air already and Rinjani gathers clouds around her like a shawl and watches our progress as we slowly start to climb.

The porters are either shy or disinterested in us at first and they race ahead, balancing bundles of pots, pans, tents, tarps, food and water on their shoulders with wooden poles. In gumboots and thongs, they skip up the lower slopes of this volcano in the way only locals can. We tourists walk at a good pace behind, but like elephants one foot in front of the other.

Along the way, our head guide, Armasih, describes the many uses of the trees, bushes, grasses and fruits around us: boil this bush to make a pesticide, chew those leaves to alleviate stomach problems.

By mid-morning we reach the border of the national park and the official start of Rinjani's slopes. The volcano is of great spiritual importance to the Sasak people of Lombok, with many making regular pilgrimages to the crater. Armasih tells us that the people who live on its slopes must also pay their respects, even though they see the volcano every day. One of our porters, Mariati, is a spiritual leader and he will ask permission from Rinjani before we progress any further. Like most of Indonesia, the people of Lombok are mostly Muslim but here animistic traditions creep in and Mariati asks Allah to ask the spirit guides to look out for us. He then presents an offering of betel nut leaves and tobacco and rubs each of our foreheads with potent garlic.

Thus protected, we carry on, crossing a smooth black river of ancient lava before being closed in by the foliage as the track takes us through the national park. We stop at a grassy ledge above a river and get maximum exposure to the mountain's moody climate. Freezing-cold mist engulfs us, then clears completely and we're hot. Moments later, rain clouds race past.

Meanwhile, the miracle of mealtime is taking place as the porters unwrap their Mary Poppins bundles, chop wood, boil a kettle and peel vegetables with bush knives. It takes more than an hour to get lunch ready and when it arrives, we're touched by the care and effort involved.

Over the next couple of hours, the walk climbs until we reach the high plains where pretty, fawn-coloured cattle graze alongside Rinjani. Young herders wrapped in batik cloths squirt salty water at their charges, who lick it up with greed. The clanging of their crescent-moon adorned bells is the only sound.

We reach our campsite with plenty of time to spare and the porters busy themselves setting up tents, building fires and offering hot, sweet tea. That evening, we all sit around the campfire and sing songs. Coming from all corners of the globe, we struggle to come up with a single song we all know. The porters sing Sasak songs and Indonesian pop tunes.

Dawn is magnificent, with Rinjani wearing a trail of cloud that catches the pink light. Today we're going foraging in the rainforest a little further down the slopes and the porters, who are now our friends, help each of us identify the ferns we can eat and avoid the itchy bush.

We take our haul of foliage down, down, down, along switchback tracks that eventually become surrounded by cabbage crops, bamboo plantations and rice paddies. Armasih leads us through a village where we attract a following of excited children and shy women wearing bright headscarves.

As the men prepare us one last meal, we sit on a wooden platform and watch village life unfold around us. Armasih's wife is weaving cloth on a manual loom while his daughter looks after her two-year-old brother. Their great-aunt is squatting on the ground rolling out raw cotton, then spinning it into yarn. They grow capsicum, chilli and strawberries in their small garden and keep fish in a small pond. We can hear the screams of children as they wash and play at the edge of a rice paddy.

When the bus comes to collect us, we're all exhausted but there's one more thing we need to do. We line up with the porters, the junior guides, Armasih and his family and smile. I know that when I look at this photo, I'll see that although I didn't get to look at Rinjani face-to-face, I was allowed to see into her heart.

The writer was a guest of G.A.P Adventures and Zuji.com

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Garuda flights from Sydney to Mataram in Lombok from $961 through Zuji.com. There is one stop at Denpasar in Bali. You can catch a public ferry from Padangbai, Bali, to Lombok, which costs about $US5 ($6.90) one-way but takes five to eighthours.

Trekking there

Independent hiking is not recommended and the wet season is from November to March. Senaru is the most popular departure point for guided treks but leaving from Sembalun makes for an easier climb. Contact Rinjani's Family Hand Weaving and Adventure to organise a trek from Sembalun: arstrek@yahoo.com. The G.A.P Adventures Discover Lombok nine-day tour, departing from Ubud in Bali, includes a two-day trek to Rinjani's crater. See gapadventures.com.

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