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Fear & Loathing in Adobeland

I’ve been to many tourist traps in my life. In Paharganj in India, Kuta in Bali, Ao Nang in Thailand. Few measure up to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile though. A dusty little oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert, you would be forgiven for thinking you were getting away from tourists, tour groups and fancy restaurants. After a long but fantastic bus journey over the Alitplano from Salta we descended into one of the driest places on earth. The bus tipped us out and we had to go through Chilean border control and customs. Chileans are petrified – so it would seem – that you bring any fruit or vegetables into their country and so our bags had to be inspected by stoic-faced customs officials wearing latex gloves and lacking any sense of humour. I suppose digging in tourists’ dirty undies all day is not a job perk, hence the grumpy attitude.

After repacking our bags we set off down the dusty unpaved road into town. At first the little town was a little disorienting. It was late evening and every street looked the same. White washed buildings, red sandy roads and dim street lamps. The first guesthouse we stopped at wanted US$70 a night for a tiny room with ensuite bathroom. Yikes! Next guesthouse on from there was full. We were exhausted, bewildered and my pack was starting to cut into my shoulders. Eventually we were led to a hostel down the road by an overly friendly man on the street. We should have known better. Before we knew it, we had handed out $40 for a private room with shared bathroom without even having looked at the room first. Suffice it to say, it was the size of a largish coffin. It had no towels, no toilet paper, no waste basket, no plug sockets and the window didn’t close properly – something that is rather important in the desert since it get’s really cold at night. There was nowhere to put our stuff save for two wire hangers hanging on the curtain rail. We had just picked the worst value hotel in the world – according to Trip Advisor it is ranked as the worst place to stay in San Pedro.

So started out our visit to Chile. Margarét has been to Chile before. One of her favourite places was San Pedro, but a lot has changed in this sleepy village since 2005. The streets are lined with travel agents, restaurants and hostels. Everything is so overpriced it would make Bill Gates feel a little ill. A beer costs around US$5 (the bottle stores sell them for around $1), lip balm cost us $4 and restaurants are mediocre at best where a set menu was around $40 for 2 people. Everything is covered in a layer of dust even smelly hippies sitting in the square notwithstanding.

It’s not all bad though. There is a reason so many tourists come to this place in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We moved out of the worst place in San Pedro the next morning and found a much quieter and better place down the road. They even gave us a family room for the price of a double because all their double rooms were full. This place came with 4 beds, towels, a walk in closet and two rolls of double ply toilet paper every day! It turned out this was the highest rated place to stay in San Pedro, according to Trip Advisor. It was also only $20 a night more than the worst place in town.

The reason so many people come to the desert is for its sights. San Pedro sits at the northernmost point of the second largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Atacama. It is also situated under the most spectacular vista of some of Chile’s biggest volcanoes. Every day hundreds of tourists head out on bus trips to the surrounding attractions. Some tours climb up onto the Altiplano to visit salt flats, geysers, smoking volcanoes, colourful lakes, towering columns of stone, valleys that look like Mars and the Moon. While others take people off sandboarding, mountain biking and trekking. You can even climb a 6000m volcano with very little organisation or equipment needed. Of course, these tours come at a price. How much you ask? Our half-day trip to El Tatio geysers – the second highest geyser field on earth as well as the third largest costs a cool $40 each excluding the entrance fee. That’s lot of money for anyone to pay even if it comes with a free headache due to the altitude.

There is something to be said for the natural beauty here, as well as how easy it is to see it. We took a short walk out of the town to the pre-colombian fortress of Quitor, which turned out to have a fantastic view of the Valley of Death – so called because the first Englishman to see it called it the valley of Mars which sound like the word meurte in Spanish, hence the name.

Another trip we did was for sundowners overlooking a salt lake in the Salar de Atacama. Sipping pisco sours, while the sun paints the surrounding volcanos blood red is quite an experience. Granted there were about 200 people with the same view too. We also took a trip to a dizzying 4300m at 4am to see the El Tatio geyser field. The reason for the early drive was due to the geysers being most active at sunrise. Margarét and I were wearing just about all the clothes we brought with us to brave the subzero temperatures. The field was filled with fumeroles and vents that spouted superheated steam into the air. It was quite a sight. One of the geysers is even nicknamed “The Killer” due to having killed a few tourists who got too close and fell in. Our guide told us it isn’t so much the temperature that kills you, it’s the mixture of arsenic, cadmium and sulphur that does the trick. In about 20 minutes. Not a pleasant end indeed. The drive back to San Pedro was no less spectacular alongside smoking volcanos and beautiful wetlands filled with birds. We even got see the very odd looking viscacha (kind of like a rabbit with a long tale) and vicuñas (the smallest of the camel family and only occur at altitudes above 4000m).

So San Pedro is a bit of an enigma, ask any traveller that has been there whether they liked it or not and they will usually say they loved the sights but hated the multitude of tourists. I guess you could call it Chile’s version of Disneyland – Adobeland. There is very little atacameña culture to be seen in the main part of the village and yet there is heaps of it just a short walk out of town. For us, we both came away with colds caused by the dusty and dry air. As for the Atacama desert, there are few places I have been that have such mystical appeal. Scorchingly hot during the day and positively chilly at night it is definitely a part of the world I will never forget. Just remember to bring muchos dineros (lots of cash) with you and try to keep a straight face when you get told the price of a bottle of water.

Gunung Rinjani Trek – Part 1

Rinjani Summit from the trail

Three steps up and one step back down. That was how my morning was going. I was woken at 2:30am. A relief really as I was struggling to sleep. It was cold and noisy in our tent, partly due to the icy wind buffeting it and partly because the sleeping bag I had been given was really thin – not to mention – smelt like an old pair of socks. I put on my shoes and popped my head outside the tent. It was even colder. This is going to be a long morning. 1100m, 3.5km and -5ºC on the summit.

We got this crazy idea after a long, uneventful ferry trip from Bali to Lombok. We had bought tickets to go to the Gili Islands in the north of Lombok, but on a whim we decided to climb Gunung (Mount) Rinjani. A trek we had very little knowledge of apart from the fact that it would take a couple of days to complete. When you want something in SE Asia from a travel agent and you have a bit of money, you can usually get it very quickly and so 3 hours later and a hellish ride through blackout stricken villages we found ourselves in the tiny trekking town of Senaru in the northern part of Lombok. Since we’d arrived at night, we had no idea how big an undertaking this would be.

Gunung Rinjani is at the center of the Indonesian island of Lombok. It is the second highest volcano in Indonesia after Kerinci volcano in Sumatra and rises to a height of 3726m. To say it dominates the landscape of the island is an understatement and it is largely responsible for the island’s weather patterns. Within the 8km wide crater is a lake called Anak Segara or Child of the Sea and a caldera called Gunung Barujari or New Finger Mountain. The lake is estimated to be around 200m deep and is at approximately 2000m above sea level. Gunung Barujari forms the active portion of the volcano and spouts steam, rock and lava every few hours during the day. Up until May 2010 the area was considered too dangerous to trek in as the eruption rate of Barujari had increased. The ‘small volcano’, as the locals call it, is slowly growing out into the lake giving it an irregular crescent shape. According to the charts in the Sembalun Trekking Centre, the volcano used to rise to over 5000m up until 10 000 years ago where serious of catastrophic explosions led to the formation of the giant crater and a drop in size. To give you an idea, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is 5895m high and it is the largest free standing mountain in the world. Gunung Rinjani in its current form is the same height as Mount Fuji in Japan.

Our group on the morning of the start of the trek.

The Crater

The next morning while we were eating breakfast we got our first glimpses of the peak we would be climbing in the dark the following morning. From way down below, it didn’t look too challenging and the slope to the summit seemed average. Our first clue that we were in for a harder time than expected came from trekkers who had just returned from the mountain – a couple from Thailand. They had turned back 200m from the summit. When we passed their room, we saw muddy hiking boots outside. “Oh shit, we only have running shoes”, I said to Margarét. More trekkers arrived at the bungalows, they had the same report: it was tough, steep and they had also failed to summit. We were rather unprepared having left most of our cold-weather trekking gear back in Bali.

The briefing from the trekking company that evening described the program for the next 3 days. We would start from a village called Sembalun at an altitude of 1300m and would be hiking for around 8 hours to get to base camp one at 2600m. We would then set off at 3am for the summit which is at 3700m, return to base camp one, pack up and head down to the crater lake at 2000m for lunch, where we could enjoy some relief at the hot springs. Afterwards we would climb back on to the crater rim (2600m) on the other side to spend the night at base camp 2. The third day would involve a fairly easy stroll back down to Senaru.

A clear view of the summit from Sembalun

At the briefing, we met our guide – Alam. A tall, wiry, chain-smoking Indonesian in his fifties, sporting a large mustache who spoke very broken English. He was responsible for 9 trekkers and 5 porters. We would later find out that this was inadequate and that Alam’s skills as a guide (according to him he had been up 500 times over 22 years) left a lot to be desired. Add to this the fact that he had just returned that day from another trek. 4 of the trekkers – Joseph, Laurence, Ariane and Elizabeth were from Canada, there was Ritchie, the mad Scotsman, his girlfriend Karlien and Felix from Germany and finally, Margarét and myself to make up the last two of the group.

The next morning we set off after breakfast in a small flatbed truck for Sembalun. A tight fit, considering there were 9 trekkers, 5 porters, the driver, tents, sleeping bags, our food for 3 days and Alam. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. Lombok is a very beautiful island. In my opinion, it’s natural beauty even surpasses Bali. We were taken through rice paddies, onion and garlic farms and a bustling village market – all under the shadow of the towering Gunung Rinjani. The closer we got to the mountain, the larger it appeared.

The first half of day one was easy. It went through fairly flat farmland and a bit of forest, all the while the gradient gradually increasing. After lunch things changed dramatically. The once flat path had become very steep. The surrounding temperature had started to drop too. At about the halfway point, we noticed some of the porters from another group had put on jackets and beanies. The trail had jacked up to between 20 and 30 degrees in angle and the vegetation had changed completely. Near the crater rim, it was quite cold, approximately 10ºC when outside of the wind. The exertion was keeping us warm but every time we stopped to rest we could feel our sweat cool and chill us.

Porter under Gunung Rinjani

Finally, after 8 hours we reached base camp one. Perched on the crater rim on a flat piece of land, was our tiny tent city at 2600m. The top of the mountain was covered in thick cloud but every now and again we got glimpses of the summit. It looked impossibly high.

After a Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and a piece of chicken we settled down in our tent and tried to get a little bit of sleep before the 2:30am wake up call. My sleeping bag smelt like stale socks and was very thin. So I put all of my clothes on that I had brought with me. A pair of tights, hiking pants, a t-shirt and a fleece. It was going to be a long night – or a short one, depending on how I looked at it. The wind started picking up and our badly pitched tent was flapping quite loudly in the wind. Add to that, the heavily excited 40 Singaporean school children, staying in the camp next door and you can imagine the amount of rest we managed to get.

Base Camp One

It was with a degree of relief that I stumbled out of my tent into the icy wind, ready to tackle the last 1100m to the top. Due to a habit I have inherited from my father, I had brought 2 headlamps along to Indonesia, these turned out to be indispensable as the others in our group were walking with flashlights.

The first part of the climb was very steep. We had to scramble up a 200m high, very loose section onto the ridge that led to the top. Once we reached this ridge, one of the girls in our group turned back with Alam as her torch had stopped working. Ariane, fresh out of medical school in Canada, asked if she could walk in front of me as her flashlight had also stopped working. So with Margarét in the front, me at the back and Ariane between us we slowly inched our way up toward the summit.

Climbing on a volcano in pitch blackness can be a very scary experience. The path of pebbles and gravel was very steep and narrow. If I shone my headlamp to either side I was greeted by a black void and the ground under my feet consisted of loose gravel, which my feet sank into with every step. I was also trying to shed enough light on the path in front of Ariane. We soon lost sight of the 3 trekkers in front of us and the rest behind us. The rough, grey path loomed up in front of us, so steep it looked like we were climbing a wall. Dim shapes briefly appeared in the inky blackness on either side. The icy wind howled, kicking up dust and ash into our eyes. What on earth were we doing here? This is nuts, stupid, just plain dangerous. Soon it was a case of 10 steps forward and then a short rest, then another 10 steps. The angle of the climb had jacked up to around 30 degrees and the ground was slushy, consisting of loose stones and ash. One of the Canadians described it afterwards as similar to walking in snow.

The climb looking back

Panic started to creep over me. Something which I had to swallow. I didn’t want to go back down in the dark, a prospect which seemed even more dangerous than heading up. If we stopped and waited for sunrise we would freeze. The only option was to continue upwards. In some parts, we had to scramble on all fours. Our rests started to get longer and longer. We could feel the difference in altitude. The darkness was made thicker by a cloud that was moving over. My panic levels were growing by the second. Who knew how far the drop was into the crater on my right or how long I would tumble off the mountain to my left? “This is so stupid”, I could hear Ariane muttering in front me. I was cursing the mountain, my ineptitude, our stupidity for being here, it seemed like the only thing to keep me sane – a very dark moment. We passed Felix, one of the trekkers in front of us. He was on his way down. He hadn’t summited, but he said he was too cold and that he had had enough.

The cloud on the mountain had lifted and we could see the faint lights of the other 2 trekkers and the lead porter in the distance. It looked very far away. Suddenly, we saw the lights coming back down towards us and our first instinct was stop and wait. Ariane didn’t want to go any further and Margarét looked tired and cold. It took a bit of courage, but I told them we had to continue, we were so close and the group in front of us must have reached the summit. It was about 5 am and the horizon to the east was slowly starting to show a faint glimmer of light. With every step we took it got brighter. This part of the climb was the steepest and for every 3 steps that we took, we slid back one. 100 Metres from the top it became bright enough to turn our headlamps off. We could see the summit. We met the group ahead of us – Joseph, Laurenz and the porter – huddled behind a rocky outcrop, out of the wind. They were freezing. The porter was nearly stiff, he was dressed in long pink socks, flip-flops and shorts, holding a packet of cookies in one hand and a cigarette in the other and wrapped in his thin sarong. He was offering the cookies around.

Volcanic shapes

The last 30 metres to the summit was fairly rudimentary and in that moment I caught a glimpse of why mountaineers do what they do. It is quite an adrenalin rush to be standing on the top of the world, exhausted and staring at the 360 degree view of the scenery around you. It was about 6am and the sun was just peaking its head over the horizon. The clouds started to give way and we got glimpses of Lombok’s neighbouring island, Sumbawa. I rattled off as many photos as my frozen, clumsy fingers would allow me. More trekkers from other groups arrived at the top and as the light started to spread over the volcano crater below, we saw the most incredible landscape appear beneath our feet. 1700 metres below, the Lake Anak Segara, hemmed in on all sides by the 600m high crater rim – the menacing 400m high cone of Gunung Barujari in the centre. It felt like I was in a chapter of The Lord of the Rings.

Sumbawa at sunrise

The descent back to camp was amazing. As the sun rose more and more, the landscape around us became clearer. We could see all the way down to the bright green Sembalun Valley and to the sea. The 1000 metre sheer drops on the other side, into the crater, were even more astounding and to say the least unnerving.

The descent

After spending some time on the top, freezing my fingers and face, we decided to start the descent back to camp. We passed numerous trekkers at various points in their ascent. Many of whom were part of the Singaporean group. The way down took us about 2.5 hours. Partly due to the fact that we stopped every 20m to take more photos and partly because we had to keep emptying our shoes of small stones and ash.

We got back into camp at around 9:30am, where we greeted by our porters with a cup of hot tea and a cold banana pancake.

Porters with Crater Lake
In retrospect, as gruelling a climb as it was, the feeling of standing on the summit and the views of the landscape around us on the way down, blocked out the difficulties and dangers of what we had done in the darkness that same morning. Reward doesn’t come without a bit of hard work and that could never be more true than when climbing a mountain.

You can read the second part of our trek on Rinjani here.