Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Joseph Ridgwell
There I was on the Indonesian island of Lombok, one of 17,000 islands in a vast chain that form the world’s largest archipelago. And I was there to climb a volcano that dominated the entire island, Rinjani, second highest peak in the whole of Indonesia. It was to be a gruelling, but life-changing four day trip.
We set off at dawn in four battered jeeps. A gang of locals, hired as guides and porters and reputedly the best in the region, accompanied us on the trip. The head porter organised us into one big group. What I noticed straight off were the size of his calves. They were as big as my thighs, huge, and immediately reassured me that this was the right man for the job. The other Lombok porters ranged in age from the youngest who looked about twelve, to the leader who appeared to be in his forties.
Shuffling about in the shadows was a small scruffy mongrel. The guides believed the mangy dog was the spirit of a young Swiss climber who had fallen to her death a few years previous, and now followed every expedition to the summit. The dog was a good luck symbol they said.
As the rising sun burned away a swirling low-level mist we walked single file along a well-defined path into the jungle. Occasionally we heard loud crashing noises and caught fleeting glimpses of black and white monkeys moving powerfully through the canopy high above. Many brightly coloured birds flitted here and there.
The first days climb took us to the rim of the crater. Once out of the jungle the soil consisted of soft dry volcanic ash and was easy going underfoot. Lightweight plimsolls or thongs were best suited to the dry conditions. The views inside the crater were breathtaking. Far below a huge turquoise volcanic lake and a smaller volcanic cone dominated the scene. Thick grey smoke billowed from a gaping vent at the top of the parasitic cone, and the sulphuric atmosphere literally took your breath away.
That night we camped at lakeside underneath the stars. Nearby thermal hot springs allegedly possessed curative powers, and were regarded as sacred by the locals. Many made the long and arduous trek to the high-altitude springs in hope of curing their maladies.
Clouds of steam rose visibly from the natural spa and added an almost surreal quality to the picturesque mountain scene. By now we were a few thousand feet above sea level, and as I took a relaxing dip in those fluorescent green bubbling waters, a blanket of ghostly cloud floated hauntingly far below.
The final ascent of the caldera began a few hours before dawn. As the porters roused everyone, the sound of tents being unzipped, sleepy voices, and fumbling movements pierced the remainder of the night. The first thing I noticed was a big golden moon hung low in the sky. As we climbed higher and higher the gold moon dissolved into nothingness and a huge gash of rust-coloured light appeared on the horizon. Moments later a brilliant sun exploded across the sky.
Now I could see just how high we had climbed. I had never been that high before and suddenly felt a great paralysing fear. At one point the trail was only a few feet in width with sheer thousand metre drops on either side.
The going became very difficult and the air grew thin. At this point a few people began turning around, exhausted by their efforts, and headed back down the trail, defeated.
The summit was by now infuriatingly close, but with every step forward I took half a step backwards. By now any conversation between the remaining climbers had ceased and all heads were bowed to the wind.
At some point I found myself alone on the trail, and then it was just me and the mountain, one on one, and I cursed with every step. With a hundred meters to go I fell to my knees exhausted, with every bone aching and lungs bursting, until something suddenly nudged my legs. And there he was the scruffy black dog, the spirit of the tragic Swiss girl! He barked at me three times as if to say, come on, get up and reach the summit god dammit!
The winds raged all around, attacking me, biting into my thin clothes and chilling me to the bone. I stood up, shielded my vision from the whipping, wild winds, and zoned in. And there it was and I had made it. The summit.
Endless views spread out before me for miles and miles in each direction. The little black dog and I sat and gazed at the magnificent sunrise. The silence was deafening, the sun oppressive, and the magnificent panorama filled me with shock and awe.
Down below, far, far, far below, millions of people were just beginning to wake all over the world. I was exhausted but also exhilarated. I stood up a final time and raised my arms to the sky and touched heaven.