Thursday, 14 June 2012

Gunung Bagging


Trekking Indonesia’s Ring of Fire

Originally Published in Asian Geographic Magazine, January 2012

Every upwards step is a struggle.  To my left the mountain’s northern slopes pour away in a great green sweep towards the Sembalun Valley.  On my right the vast void of the crater holds the darkness like a liquid.  Ahead, beyond an expanse of soul-sapping scree, the summit rises in a warty outcrop of fractured iron-grey rock.  It is 5.30am; the stars are fading in a milky sky, and it is colder than I had ever imagined possible in the sultry Indonesian tropics. 
I am on the final approach to the summit of the mighty Gunung Rinjani, the 3726-meter massif which towers over Lombok, and I am hoping to make it to the top in time for a dramatic sunrise.  But between the cold, the exhaustion and that daunting scree slope, I’m not sure if I’m going to make it...


Indonesia has more volcanoes than any other country on earth.  The place is one giant chain of 129 active peaks, and countless others, dormant or extinct.  The tallest, Kerinci in Sumatra, rises 3805 meters above sea level.  These mountains, known in Indonesian as gunung, fuel Indonesia’s fertile fields with rich basaltic run-off, find place in history and legend as homes of rebels and spirits, and add a kick as fiery as a dash of chili sauce to the archipelago’s atmosphere.
For travelers these fire mountains are one of Indonesia’s star attractions.  Trekkers have long tackled the testing trails to the summits of the better known peaks, such as Java’s belligerent Merapi and Bali’s spiritually charged Agung.  In recent years Indonesia’s plethora of peaks have been categorized by enthusiastic trekkers, with those mountains with a 1000 meter + prominence given the tag “Ribu” (from the Indonesian word for “thousand”).  There are 222 of these sky-scraping summits, and the pastime of “gunung bagging”, ticking off as many Ribus as possible, is growing in popularity, with locals, residents, and travelers alike steeling themselves for a thigh-burning ascent through forest, scrub and scree for the ample reward of a dawn view of upland Indonesia, floating above a sea of creamy cloud.


Rinjani is one of the most prized of Indonesia’s gunungs.  The country’s second highest volcano, it rises over Lombok’s rice terraces like a malevolent ogre, its vast caldera holding a lake and a feisty, ever-smoking secondary peak. 
My journey began the previous morning, as I set out from the upland village of Sembalun Lawang with a group of fellow trekkers, a local guide, and a team of spectacularly hardy local porters.  We were to spend two nights on the mountain, climbing to the high ridge and leaving the tropics far behind, then descending to the shimmering quicksilver shores of the lake, before traversing the crater rim to drop through lush forest to the trailhead village of Senaru on the final day.  But the high point of the trip – literally – would be reached sometime around dawn on the second day.  We spent the night under canvas at a chilly campsite looking out over the crater, and set out for the summit at 2am. 
And now, with the dawn racing towards me from the direction of Sumbawa, I am straining every muscle to reach my goal…
Every step dislodges a minor avalanche; stones work their way into my boots, and just 24 hours away from tropical sea level, the altitude leaves me gasping.  Finally, however, I hit solid rock and scramble to the narrow outcrop that forms the summit – I’m just in time.  I am the first person to reach the top, and glancing back at the chain of flickering flashlights far below, I realize that I will enjoy the sunrise in splendid isolation.
All of Lombok is laid out below me, from the Rinjani crater beneath its thin veil of white mist, to the village-dotted bowl of the Sembalun Valley; from the three low stains of the Gili Islands, to the hook of the eastern port of Labuan Lombok.  And the view stretches further afield: from the blue haze to the west the perfect cone of Gunung Agung on Bali materializes, while to the east the great table-top of Gunung Tambora on Sumbawa rises against a brightening sky.  As the sun slips swiftly up like a ball of molten copper, I am already plotting other gunung bagging journeys…
Dos and Don’ts for Gunung Baggers

Don’t underestimate the weather – volcanoes rise steeply from a low altitude, and tropical temperatures drop dramatically as you climb.  You might be sweating in the forest at the trailhead, but you’ll need to dress for bitter conditions at the summit

Do take great care when climbing in the wet season (November to April) – the dry months (May-October) are the best time to trek, and some peaks, like Rinjani, are officially off-limits during the rains.  Others can still be tackled, but take local advice and check the forecast before setting out.

Do check the website before you set out, to get detailed route descriptions and top tips – and add your own info once you’ve climbed.

Don’t forget to pay heed to local customs – almost all Indonesian volcanos come with myths and legends attached, and are places of spiritual significance for many local people.  You should behave appropriately.

Do check in before climbing if your chosen gunung has a security post at the trailhead – if the staff know you’re up there, they’ll come looking if you don’t come back down!

Gunung Guides

When to go – May to October; the mountain is often officially off-limits during the wet months.
Getting there – Lombok’s international airport has direct flights from Singapore, and good links to other parts of Indonesia; many trekkers arrive by sea from neighboring Bali.

Where to stay – The trailhead village of Senaru has several guesthouses, such as Pondok Senaru, and fine views of the mountain.  Most people spend their first night in Lombok at the beach town of Senggigi, where treks can be arranged and transfers to the trailhead organized.  The trio of offshore Gili islands, meanwhile, are a fine place to ease your post-trek blisters…
Tip - The standard two-night Rinjani route runs between Sembalun Lawang and Seneru.  People make the trip in both directions, but start at Sembalun to hit the summit fresh on the second morning.

When to go – As usual the dry season is the best time to climb, though guides will take you in the wet season if the weather is calm.  The peak is off-limits during major Hindu ceremonies.

Getting there – If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of the peak as your plane banks in to Bali’s international airport.  You can set up treks in most tourist centers in Bali, though the most experienced guides are based in the village of Selat, close to the peak.
Where to stay – Bali is small enough to let you set out for the mountain from anywhere on the island, but Padangbai, Candidasa, or the lovely Sideman Valley make good bases in striking distance of the trailheads.

Tip – If you’re not determined to reach the actual summit, take the trail from Pura Pasar Agung, rather than the main trail from Besakih, Bali’s most important temple.  This route gets you to the crater rim, 150 meters below the actual apex, but the views are just as good, and the route is easier.

When to go – You can climb all year round if the weather is not too extreme, but this is a very active volcano, and may be off-limits if it’s letting off steam.
Getting there – Yogyakarta’s airport has links to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and domestic destinations.  The trailhead at Selo is about 80km away by road.

Where to stay – Most trekkers stay in Yogya, where the lovely Dewi Homestay is a fine budget bet, and the Phoenix Hotel oozes top-end Java-style.
Tip – Start from Selo by midnight to be at the top for sunrise, before the clouds roll in.

When to go – You don’t need to do any trekking to enjoy the views over the spectacular Bromo-Tengger caldera, and a visit at any time of year is recommended.  Semeru itself requires a tough two-day trek and is best avoided during the rainy season.

Getting there – Surabaya’s airport has excellent international and domestic connections.  From there you can head by bus or private transport to Cemoro Lawang, the main base for visiting the mountain.
Where to stay – Cemoro Lawang has plenty of guesthouses.  An alternative approach to Bromo involves a midnight departure from Malang, where Hotel Helios is a good budget place, and the Tugu Malang is one of Java’s most stylish hotels.

Tip – As an alternative to the main Probolinggo-Cemoro Lawang route, consider taking one of the less well-trodden tracks to Bromo.  The approach through Ngadas from Malang requires a sturdy vehicle, but takes in some fine countryside.  Bromo’s backdoor, meanwhile, the rough route from Lumajang, is a real adventure.

When to go – You can make it to the top of this 2891-meter Sumatran mountain year-round, if it’s not raining, and if the crater’s not in the midst of one of its regular bouts of volcanic activity.
Getting there – Padang has good air links to other Indonesian cities, and a few flights to Singapore and other regional hubs.  It’s two hours from there by bus or car to Bukittinggi, the main base for trekkers.

Where to stay – Bukittinggi is a pleasant upland town with lots of accommodation.  Orchid Hotel is a decent guesthouse and a good place to arrange guides for trekking.
Tip – Start at midnight from the trailhead village of Koto Baru to reach the top at dawn.  If you want to reach the true summit, however, you’ll need to tackle a very challenging route from the north, starting at the village of Kacawali.

© Tim Hannigan 2012

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