by Ailin Mao
Since last month, I am proud to state that I have climbed Indonesia’s three highest volcanoes, namely Gunung Kerinci in Sumatra (3805 metres), Gunung Rinjani in Lombok (3726 metres) and Gunung Semeru in East Java (3676 metres).
With the memory of Gunung Semeru’s challenging scree fresh in my mind, I decided to put together a little guide to help others keen to tackle these gargantuan, awe-inspiring natural wonders.
Before I begin, however, there are a few rules of thumb that apply to volcano-climbing in general and qualify as useful tips for the expeditions mentioned here:
(a) To start, keeping warm and staying dry are essential. Temperatures drop substantially at night, hence make sure to bring a warm sleeping bag and sufficient layers of clothing for a comfortable night’s sleep.
(b) With the possibility of rain in mind, both a poncho and a rain cover for your bag are important accessories. To further protect your change of clothes, it is a good idea to store them in a zip lock. At the end of the day, it feels heavenly to peel off sweaty attire and switch to a dry change of clothing.
(c) While I am not usually a fan of trekking poles, they admittedly come in handy during the steep scree-filled ascents towards the summits. You can choose to invest in one, but it is also possible to pick up a sturdy branch while following the trails through vegetation.
(d) With regards to training, I find working on endurance, as well as strength in both the thighs and glutes, to be the most beneficial. However, a large part of climbing volcanoes has to do with mental toughness and perseverance, not exactly elements that one can train. Nevertheless, some degree of fitness is helpful as it makes climbing for extended periods of time almost fun rather than painful.
1. Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra
The closest airport is Minangkabau International Airport in Padang, and it will take another 8 – 9 hour drive through stomach-churning mountain roads to get to the village of Kersik Tua close to the base of the volcano. Home stays are available for the night. We made contact with a guide prior to our arrival in Padang and a car was arranged for us. I do believe that getting there may be a challenge otherwise, although it is relatively easy to find a shared vehicle on its way back to Padang from the village.
The climb (2 days, 1 night):
We travelled during the rainy season, which, unfortunately, was not the most pleasant experience, particularly as your poncho grows increasingly sticky with sweat on the inside.
The first segment of the trek takes you through wild Sumatran jungle, the ground muddy and slippery after the rains. Make sure to look out for sounds emanating from the trees above – you are certain to encounter stunning varieties of birds and monkeys as you trudge along.
We camped at Shelter 2, situated at 3005 metres in altitude, a 6-hour walk from the start of the trail. There is drinking water in the area, along with a rain shelter, both of which are essential under the humid and wet conditions we climbed in.
At 3 a.m. the following morning, we continued on towards the summit. What ensued was possibly the toughest, yet most enjoyable, part of the trail. It is a 1.5-hour long scramble through volcanic trenches, slippery from the previous night’s rains, with steps high enough to require leveraging on the surrounding branches. Gloves were useful for this part of the climb.
The vegetation starts to recede and gives way to small bushes as you advance towards Shelter 3, an open space where you can also choose to camp for the night if the weather is favourable. The ascent towards the summit is not as challenging as the other volcanoes mentioned here, but it is a still a steep and slippery climb through scree to get to the top.
Once at the summit, the smell of sulphur can be overwhelming, and it is a narrow sliver along the crater towards the triumphant flag and signboard, making this a veritable trial for those uncomfortable with heights. Cover your nose with a scarf or mask; take in the sights and capture a few pictures, but it is not a good idea to linger for too long.
While the trail is clearly laid out, I do recommend having a guide if you are an inexperienced climber as there are usually only a handful of groups climbing Gunung Kerinci at any given time. Some parts, especially through the trenches, are also challenging and may be difficult to navigate.
We went with Endatno, contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org. He pointed out heaps of wildlife that we would have otherwise missed, and his wife also made a wonderful welcome back meal after the climb. Unfortunately, he overcharged us when it came to transportation, hence I would recommend making your own arrangements on the return trip to Padang.
If you do decide to climb on your own, do remember that Kerinci is an active volcano. You will need to pick up a permit from the ranger’s office before proceeding with the trek, and they will also provide advice with regards to the volcanic activity.
2. Gunung Rinjani, Lombok
Fly to the international airport in Lombok, an island alongside Bali that is quickly becoming a paradisiacal beach destination in its own right. As we were a fairly large group, we made arrangements with a local travel agency that assisted with transportation from the start. It is simple, however, to make plans on the go as you can pop into any travel agency along Senggigi to book a trek. With regards to accommodation, there are plenty of options available, and it is certainly a great idea to spend a couple of arak madu-filled days before or after the trek. I had a lovely, albeit short, stay at the Santai Beach Inn, ideal if you are looking for a cosy budget option.
The climb (3 days, 2 nights):
Rinjani differs from the other volcanoes listed here because it is a caldera with a massive crater lake in its centre called Segara Anak. The trek involves climbing up towards the rim, descending to the lake, and making an ascent to the other side of the rim before making your way down again on the other side of the national park. While this may sound taxing, the scenery constantly changes, making Rinjani a refreshing change from the round-trip experiences typical of other volcano treks.
There are two different points from which to commence the trek, Sembalun and Senaru. We started ours in Sembalun, recommended for those keen to attempt the summit as the highest point is along Sembalun rim. From the village of Sembalun, we walked for approximately 6 hours before arriving at Plawangan Dua, our campsite for the night, starting slow with a pleasant walk through stunning farmlands before tackling a steep climb for the rest of the way.
The next morning at 2, we started uphill on a well-marked path through vegetation, eventually reaching a point where solid ground was replaced with slippery volcanic gravel. The climb towards the summit was challenging to say the least, but the views en route are pretty incredible and we were quite happy to take it slow. After a couple of hours of struggling through scree, not only does the summit await you, so do impressive views of the caldera and its magnificent lake. If the weather is clear, you can even spot Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance.
We then made our way down towards the banks of Segara Anak, a pleasant spot for lunch but do prepare yourself for disappointment as they have a serious trash problem in the area. We continued on towards Senaru rim, tackling a continually steep climb before stopping for the night in a misty, foliage-covered campsite shortly before the rim, away from the crowds. The final day was marked by a continued descent towards Senaru village, taking us through varied landscapes – from sandy trenches, to endless grasslands.
If you were to start from Senaru village, you would only be able to attempt the summit on the third morning. In my opinion, I would have found the summit far more challenging if I already had two full days of walking under my belt.
Made it to the summit of Rinjani at 3726 metres, albeit a little behind schedule.
As mentioned previously, tourism is well developed on the island of Lombok and you will have no problems booking a trek from Senggigi. Do note that park regulations forbid trekkers from attempting the route without a guide, hence you will need to embark on some kind of organised expedition. While on Rinjani, we did encounter a few individuals who managed to sneak in on their own and latched on to other groups during the summit, but they simply ended up looking cheap.
This was the first volcano I attempted, and that was back in 2011. As such, for a more detailed account of the trek and the experience it promises, I suggest having a look at Gunung Bagging’s excellent write-up as well.
3. Gunung Semeru, East Java
We arrived at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, and it takes another 4 hours by road to get to Ranu Pane village, the starting point for the trek. As we travelled during Hari Raya Aidilfitri, we were concerned that it would be near impossible to find a local guide on short notice. As such, we went through an Indonesian travel agency (contact information below) and ended up joining a large group of incredible elderly Singaporeans aged between 50 and 65 years of age. From the sheer numbers of scruffy backpackers we encountered en route, however, it looks like it should be easy to catch public transportation instead. In Ranu Pane, there are numerous home stays available, and they also rent out equipment if you do not have your own tent or sleeping bag.
From Ranu Pane village, it is a short walk to the entrance of the national park past the ranger’s office and beautiful farmlands. You start on a paved path before proceeding on a trail, remaining relatively flat and marked by alpine foliage throughout. 3 hours in, you find yourself staring into the blue waters of Ranu Kumbolo, a wondrous volcanic lake that would make for a great overnight stay if you were looking to extend the trek by another day. A short but steep hill awaits you as you move towards the next landscape – a vast plain with tall grass and little shelter from the elements. The heat will be pounding down on you, making hats and sun block must-haves.
The campsite of Kalimati situated at 2700 metres in altitude can be reached after a total of 6 hours of fairly easy walking, making the first day quite breezy in comparison to the other two volcanoes. However, whilst it may seem innocent enough, do not under-estimate the volcano. We embarked for the next segment of our climb at 2 the following morning, trudging up well-trodden trenches towards Acropodo for nearly 2 hours, placing us just below the final delineation of vegetation.
The summit itself was an uphill battle against scree and sand, resulting in a 3 hour-long exercise in futility as we took two steps forward only to slide back one and a half. Gunung Rinjani pales in comparison to the challenge Gunung Semeru poses at this point, and the seemingly insurmountable climb seems never-ending. To make things a teeny bit easier, I found it useful to follow the switchbacks others had made, but these end 100 metres from the summit because of the incredibly steep and slippery conditions. At this stage, being on all fours and scrambling upwards seems to be the only option.
At the top, however, a spectacular sight awaits you. Perched on the rooftop of Java, the volcanoes of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park punctuate the horizon, along with the nearby volcanic twins Arjuno and Welirang. Every once in a while, Gunung Semeru will put on an impressive performance, making a sound reminiscent to the rumbling of several airplanes before erupting in a cloud of sulphuric smoke.
We travelled with Indonesia Journey. It was well organised, but a little costly. As mentioned previously, it is entirely possible to make your own way to the starting point. The trail is also clearly marked and there are a fair number of groups attempting the summit at any given time, making it viable to embark on this independently.
In addition to Gunung Semeru, you may also want to visit the Bromo sunrise viewpoint and Bromo caldera. Both are landmark destinations on East Java’s tourist trail, hence get ready to battle crowds. Nevertheless, the view is worth the effort and you are certain to head home with some magical shots.
Each of these volcanoes has attributes that I loved and others I didn’t like so much, and it would be impossible to select a favourite out of the three.
Nevertheless, I would easily recommend Rinjani to any first-timer: the infrastructure surrounding the experience is excellent, and the island of Lombok and the nearby Gilis are a wonder to explore post-climb. As the most popular option, however, you will have to contend with crowds and the irresponsible disposal of garbage, both of which can mar otherwise scenic surroundings.
For those who are looking for adventure, Kerinci’s wild jungle trekking should be quite satisfying. Of the three, this was the volcano that required us to do a whole lot more than just walking.
While Rinjani has incredible vistas, I have to swing towards Semeru if asked which volcano has some of the most breathtaking moments. From the quiet serenity surrounding Ranu Kumbolo, to the anticipation that accompanied waiting for Semeru’s eruption whilst on the summit, there is nothing quite like being on the rooftop of Java.