Sunday, April 10, 2011

The "Vacation" from my Vacation

Gili Trawangan
Indonesia was supposed to be my break from hard travel. To relax, lay on the beach, do nothing. The vacation from my vacation. So far I've surfed, shopped, scuba dived, socialized, and trekked but I haven't spent a single day lazing the beach. Oops.

After Kuta I got on a boat to Gili Trawangan, a small island off Lombok that's known for it's diving, beaches, and backpacker scene. I arrived homeless and directionless, the boat literally dumps you and your belongings on the beach. As I walk up the shore a mob of local men converge on me shouting "accommodation!" or "transport!" and trying to thrust business cards in my face. Jesus, let me get my feet on solid ground at least! Fending off the bombardment I made my way to the main road and picked a direction. Right seems nice. So off I went down the dirt path, dodging fast moving pony carts packed with tourists. There are no motorized vehicles on Gili Trawangan, which is fairly tiny, only bicycles and pony drawn carriages. So cute! It turns out it's not so hard to find your way on Gili T., I managed to have my dive course and accommodation worked out within 30 minutes.

I had to ride a bike a long way for this solitude!
Now let me tell you a thing or two about Gili Trawangan. An island paradise perhaps, with glimmering blue waters and corally white sands. But the local guys? What a pain in the ass! Constant attention from male Indonesians trying to shake my hand and not let go, wanting to know my name, what I'm doing, trying to sell me drugs, trying to GIVE me drugs, prompting me to party with them. I'm sure some mean well, but come on, let me walk down the street in peace on occasion! I got the impression that a unique Gili T. trend has formed where a lot of the local guys depend solely on tourists to fulfill their. . .needs.  The local culture is mostly Muslim and quite conservative. Outside of marriage I don't think all these single young guys were getting laid . . . ever. And then, somewhere along the line boat loads of liberal Western girls showed up on their shores wearing practically nothing and wanting to party. A pattern formed and now, years later, I'm paying the price. I came here to DIVE dammit! I don't want your weed, I'm pretty sure Whistler is the weed capital of Canada, this is not new or exciting to me! Mushrooms? Fun, but not worth getting tossed in Indonesian jail for, that's not on my travel itinerary. And finally, yes, I'm all alone, boo hoo, but I'm not some sad, love starved traveler. I will be staying in my own hut tonight, thank you. I mostly laughed it all off, the harassment was in no way aggressive or scary, just a constant annoyance for those of us not interested. I've heard similar reviews from fellow female travelers, even some with male partners with them. So when you hear about the friendliness of the Gili Trawangan locals, yah, it's true, but they're just a little too friendly.

Me and my dive instructors
But I must say in the bubble of my dive school, run almost entirely by Westerners, I've totally enjoyed myself. I loved diving! My instructors said that I was very comfortable and capable, and I felt like it too, it's not hard and it's so rewarding! The best part was rolling backwards off the boat for the first time. Letting the tank weight tip me from the edge I began to fall. Then, with a crash I was born into a new blue world in which I could see nothing but bubbles and the surface up there somewhere glittering in the light. It's a little disorientating, but then I realized YAY, I can breathe, and YAY, I can see, and YAY, I'm not going to sink like a rock with all this heavy stuff strapped to my back. FUN! On the way into the depths you are taught how to equalize to get that ouchy feeling out of your ears...and then there is a whole new world to be discovered! Over my 3 day course I saw 8 sea turtles, some over a meter long, flying effortlessly through the water or just chilling on the bottom munching seaweed. I saw octopus and cuttle fish that could change their skin colour so quickly they appeared to pulsate with blues, and reds, and grays. I saw rays and lobster slinking along the bottom or hiding beneath the corals. On my deepest dive, to a depth of 22m (deeper an open water diver is supposed to go, but my fast learning and comfort was rewarded), we saw white tipped reef sharks! And all this is set amongst a forest of multi-textured corals of every shape and colour. The fish that inhabit this seascape come in the billions, ranging from massive, rainbow-coloured schools to tiny individual Nemos (clown fish) that hide in the anemones. Now I'm addicted and want to see more! It isn't a matter of if I will do my advanced dive course, but when.

After I completed my dive course I finally had a few days with no plan. Time to do nothing and finally get that beach time? Wrong. It seems my type-A travel personality got in the way, and I signed myself up to hike Ganung Rinjani. Quite possibly the STUPIDEST thing I have ever volunteered and paid money to do. Imagine a ginormous, active volcano nearly 4000m above sea level. Indonesia's second highest peak and of course I just HAVE to climb it. So much for my Indonesian vacation from my vacation. So off I went to the island of Lombok to climb Rinjani 4 days after they opened it for the season. That means 4 days ago it was considered too gnarly and dangerous to reach the summit. Like I said, stupid. . . . .

Above: Our crew and guide          Below: Very stylish poncho
As we drove across Lombok I was impressed, it is gorgeous and largely undeveloped. Tropical greenery bursts out of every available space and there are emerald rice patties rimmed with perfect swaying palms. Me and my fellow climbers, 3 Dutch friends and a German couple, arrive at the Rinjani base at Senaru ignorant of our upcoming test of wills. That morning we began our ascent through a steamy tropical jungle. The air was so humid it was hard to tell if the moisture was accumulating on us as we walked or if it was the sweat flowing from our pours, but regardless we were soon soaked and dripping. . . .And then it started to rain. It was raining so hard cats and dogs don't even begin to do this downpour justice. It was raining horses and cows, ok? My guide supplied me with the most ridiculous child's size poncho that was fluorescent pink and yellow with cartoons on the chest, AND the head hole was too small so I had to rip it to get it on. Stylish. And we walked, in the pouring rain, up a mountain, wrapped in unbreathable plastic (poncho) in the thickest humidity ever (not comfortable!). Not to mention it was steep, and muddy, and the trail was completely rutted out by rushing water. Why, exactly, did I sign myself up for this?

Above: First view of the cone through the mist                   Below: The "trail"
After and uncomfortable, damp night in a tent perched on uneven ground we set off at 5:30am. It was very steep uphill as we stumbled past the tree line and up to the rim of the crater. When we finally reached the top at 2641m  above sea level we strained our eyes to see the view and . . . Mist. Damn. Not so inspiring. But, no time to waste, now that we had climbed over 2000 vertical meters, it was time to descend down inside the crater to the lake, over 600m below us. You'd think going down would be easier, and maybe it would have, if there was a proper trail. But everything was so overgrown, unmaintained, and crumbling we literally had to pick our way, step by step, foot by foot. And then it happened. The clouds began to part revealing the most surreal view I'd ever seen. Rising from a giant lake, with a backdrop of forest clinging to the outer crater, was the inner volcano, a large, barren cone with hardened lava reaching out in a star formation from it's base. It oozed steam into the atmosphere. It was stunning, and all at once, the hardship so far was worth it. Once we reached the crater lake we were rewarded with the most amazing hot springs, located directly beside a large, gushing waterfall. Only a few boulders held in the hot water that trickled directly from the rocks. Awesome! We all eagerly hopped in, soaking our poor, tired muscles. I took turns rotating from the cold river to the hot pools and it was soooo good. But soon our guide was urging us on. We'd only covered about half the ground we needed to that day. And lucky us, now that we'd climbed all the way down inside the crater, we now had to climb back out on the other side to base camp at 2639m. You do the math. I can tell you personally it sucked, big time.

Hot springs in the mist
That afternoon we scrambled our way, in the rain, up the sheer crater's edge to base camp. It was freezing up there, and being so hot everywhere else I'd been up until that point I hadn't packed enough warm clothes. That night I froze, but at least I didn't have to suffer long . . .our wake up call came at 2:30am. No that's not a typo. 2:30am is the time you need to get up to reach the summit by sunrise, and you have to be there by then because shortly after the humidity rises from lower elevation and shrouds the entire view in mist. So by 3:00am we were on the side of the mountain climbing, in complete darkness, with only our flashlights for guidance. And it was no walk in the park. The volcanic soil was loose here and it's extremely steep. More often than not you had to scurry on all fours while your feet slid out from under you and your hands clung to the gravel while you hoped to God you wouldn't slide away into the dark abyss. The wind howled at what seemed like 100kms an hour. I'll tell you right now, we didn't all make it to the summit. In fact, a whopping 4 out of 6 of us were conquered by Rinjani that morning and had to turn back.


After 3 hours of climbing in the dark I noticed the sun was just bringing it's first hint of light to the horizon. For the first time, I looked around and realized how high I was, climbing a steep, gravel-coated ridge no more than a meter in width. It dropped down on either side into what looked like oblivion. I began to hyperventilate. Suddenly the wind felt like it was going to whip me right from the mountainside. I was all alone in the dark, with everyone either far ahead or behind me. I laid my stomach down on the earth and clutched the gravel in my hands and tried to breathe but I was panicking. This is so stupid, no mountain peak or pretty view is worth my life! Tears began to pour down my cheeks, right there, as I clung to the windy ridge. I wanted anything and everything familiar then, to be warm and dry and safe. I looked back down the trail and thought about turning back. . . .But did I? OH HELL NO. I made it to the summit blood, sweat, and tears and all. I'm not one to do things halfway. Just as I was about to have a panic attack the sun came and there was my guide, maybe 100m behind, sitting to watch it rise. He was alone, everyone else had gone back. I could see the peak high above my head and slowly I sat, then stood. I dug my feet in and continued into the wind for the final ascent. On the top was the most spectacular view I'd ever seen. The skies were open and you could see for miles to the Gilis in the northwest and Sumbawa in the east. The crater lake and cone was below us in full view, looking unworldly. Us two survivors had a celebratory high five and took turns snapping photos of one another. I was all smiles and couldn't believe I made it!

View of the lake from the Rinjani summit, just after sunrise
Ubud sculpture
And I will end the tale there. Just a side note, the real story still included another 7-8hr descent back to the nearest village at Sembalun, over 2500m below the Rinjani summit. I fell, I bruised and scratched my arm. My flip flops made a guest appearance as they so often do. I had to make my way all the way back to Gili T. that night, find a place to stay, book my ticket to Ubud the next day, collect my big pack from the travel agent's. By the time I collapsed into my rented bed for that night I think I was the most exhausted I'd ever been. That trek was extremely challenging and made Nepal look like child's play.

I'm now in Ubud spending way too much money on food and massages. Only one more day now until I am off to Zambia!

....Below are some monkey pictures that really weren't relevant to my story....They just hung around camp during the trek looking for handouts....But they were too cute so I had to include them :)


  1. WOW! What a great story! You made my day with that awesome and inspirational adventure! Keep up the great blogging and have a GREAT rest of your travels!

  2. Awesome yet again babe! Great way to start my day off:) And tell those men that you already have one!!!! hahaha:)

  3. Have you noticed I no longer ask any questions when you tell me things like "I'm going to hike a volcano"? I now take it for granted you're risking life and limb and if I knew what was really involved I'd be the one hyperventilating. So help me Jordan, if you kill your ass over there I'm going to come and beat your dead body to a pulp!! Love, Mum.

  4. Hey Jordie - just finished reading your Nepal and Indonesia adventures :)

    So glad you are having a good time despite all the hiking hardships and sooo wishing I was there with you!

    Take care, miss you!

  5. Thanks everyone! And mom, I plan on coming home alive!