Lombok, Gunung Rinjani: lady of the volcano

Lombok, Gunung Rinjani: lady of the volcano


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When will the volcano next erupt?” I ask. Byflickering candlelight, the queen of the underworld, Deva Anjani, speaks through the possessed body of the young woman, whispering her answer. “In five years,” she says. “Maybe 10.” Not tonight, then.

That’s a relief, as I am sitting in a bamboo hut halfway up the slopes of the 3700m volcano, Gunung Rinjani, and it’s a long way down if I need to run.

Not that the goddess doesn’t have some very good reasons to blow her top sometime soon.

Far away from the Euro-backpacker vibe of the Gili Isles and the surfer hangouts of Kuta and Gerupuk in the south, the Indonesian island of Lombok’s interior harbours a different atmosphere, brooding, traditional and overshadowed by Indonesia’s third highest active volcano, which last erupted in May 2009.

As I drive through the foothills of northern Lombok, I pass a worrying hotel billboard advertising “free satellite television and fire extinguisher”. I stop to pay respects and light incense at Lombok’s oldest Hindu temple, Lingsar, dedicated to the volcano, home to Anjani, mother of monkey king Hanuman. For most of the year Rinjani has been closed to tourists because of lava flows and seismic activity, so temple offerings and fire extinguishers are the least I can do to prepare.

Volcano Rinjani is one of those heavy smokers that just won’t quit, but it is also trying its best to be green. It is one of the great vulcanological attractions of the world, and each year more than 3000 international trekkers tackle the three to four-day journey to the summit and caldera lake. But they are not Rinjani’s problem.

“It’s the pilgrims,” says Asmuni Irpan, trek manager of the Rinjani Ecotourism Program. “Mainly the women and old people. They throw away plastic bottles and bags and just don’t care.”

More than 80,000 Indonesian Hindus come from as far away as Bali and Java each year to climb Rinjani by the light of a full moon. They perform rituals and bless the blades of their kris (swords) in the sacred waters and hot springs of the caldera lake.

Unlike most foreign hikers, these pilgrims are unable to afford well-trained national park porters who diligently carry out all rubbish. And the days after a full moon, the trails to the summit are littered with empty noodle cups, plastic wrappers and even toilet paper, trailing in the wind.

From 1999 to 2006, the New Zealand government funded the Rinjani Trek ecotourism initiative supervised by the local national park professionals of the Rinjani Tourism Management Board. The program was set up to help Rinjani establish sustainable tourism practice to benefit the local hill tribe community while sustaining the biodiversity of the mountain.

And Rinjani does have an ecology Australians will find familiar. It is the Wallacea, the transition point between Southeast Asia and Australasia, where sulphur-crested cockatoos and ebony leaf monkeys share a forest of fig trees, casuarinas, orchids and pines.

Indigenous Sasak villagers revere the volcano as sacred, a place of worship and week-long cave meditation retreats. To avoid crass tourism experiences found at volcanoes such as Merapi, Bromo and Agung, the RTMB has established several programs to empower local people as tourism stakeholders.

“We have to educate and change their mindset,” says Irpan. “For instance, we teach the youngsters that rubbish has a value.” Once a month, there is an organised trek up the mountain by rangers with local schoolchildren for a clean-up day to collect bottles and plastic, which the kids are paid to bring down.

The RTMB has a booking agency co-operative to train young local Sasak men as porters, carrying camping equipment and food for international trekkers. All porters are taught the importance of maintaining the environment and rest station facilities, sticking to established paths, customer service and emergency procedures. Among hill tribe villages on the volcano slopes are women’s programs, promoting traditional weaving techniques and folk crafts, sold to visitors as souvenirs. So local culture, as well as ecology, is protected.

But funding from NZ has ended and to maintain the same high ecotourism standards, the national park has had to increase entrance fees from 25,000 rupiah ($3) to 50,000 rupiah. Unfortunately, the local government has also decided to take a larger cut, with 20,000 rupiah of each admission fee going straight to the state.

As if to justify their increased take from the national park fee, talkative local politicians have been proposing so-called eco-tourism projects such as the building of a sealed road to the summit, with a viewing platform over the caldera. No wonder the volcano goddess Anjani has been grumbling of late.

Irpan scoffs at the idea. “It’s difficult enough for us to manage to keep the walking treks clear, how can they keep a road operating? Who will pay for it? It will never happen.”

He has a point. As I sit in the hillside village of Sembalun Lawang, the ground trembles and there is an ominous subterranean rumbling from the volcano. Rock falls and lava flows are common in this unstable terrain, and a cheaply constructed road to the summit for coach tourists would be temporary at best. It also threatens Rinjani’s international drawcard of an eco-friendly three-day trek through the mountain forests and bare magma slopes in the freezing temperatures before dawn for one of the most amazing sunrise vistas in southeast Asia.

In Sembalun Lawang, a Sasak hostel owner has enlivened our electricity-less night by calling on his powers as son of a local shaman. He conjures up the goddess Anjani to the village for a chat. Anjani’s spirit arrives and possesses a young woman in our gathering and the queen of the underworld announces her next eruption will not be killing anyone. She is relatively happy for the time being.

Lombok’s international airport will open this year and Tourism Indonesia, which has recently announced its Visit Lombok-Sumbawa 2012 campaign, will be relieved to hear that news.

The RTMB is hoping to continue and expand its thriving initiatives as a blueprint for Indonesian ecotourism. Its success is obvious when comparing the Rinjani climbing experience with the Mt Bromo crowds. And when living with one of the most active volcanoes in the world, it is probably wise to keep Anjani on side.

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