Indonesian Moon

“Landing a Seaplane inside the Rinjani Volcano is equivalent to
Indonesia landing a Man on the Moon.”

      Rinjani is an active volcano that built the island of Lombok along the Indonesian fault. I think that is a realistic way of looking at the role of a volcano. When anyone mentions Rinjani they always say it is on the island of Lombok. Wrong. The island is on the volcano and consequently on the tectonic plate fault line that has spawned the longest and most active line of volcanic reactions on earth. Everybody who lives on the island of Lombok owes their existence and their livelihood to the volcano. The inevitable if irregular eruptions not only created the land they stand on, but also enrich the soil for a bountiful harvest. With the tropical rains that fall on the island come the lush emerald green forests and terraced rice fields that symbolize this exotic region of Indonesia.

     Ying and Yang, good and evil, life and death, and all the other polar opposites best describe the condition of living on Lombok or within the vicinity of any other volcano for that matter. Shaken by the sporadic and unpredictable eruptions, it’s no wonder that the people of Lombok worship the spirit of the fiery inverted-cone shaped mountain. They celebrate its very existence and are careful not to enrage the spirits in charge. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t spit into the wind. And don’t tug on Superman’s cape.
      I don’t think I could live like that. Always tip toeing around your creator. Always being a quiet good little boy as not to wake your step-dad. Always offering to light the alter candles. Forever throwing white rice, green banana leaves, and saffron coloured flowers into the abyss. Although I took out my Grandma’s garbage on a regular basis, I was always the one to rise to the challenges of our neighbourhood. For example, I led the raid on old man Apsit’s garden. Not just because he had the best garden around, but mostly because he guarded it so jealousy. He basically told us we were not allowed to go there. Mistake.
      What is so tempting about the 12,296 ft Rinjani volcano, however, is that somewhere in the distant past an enormous explosion tore off the top of the 15,000 ft volcano and left a gaping crater large enough to place a small city within. With thousands of years of tropical rain the vast crater basin now holds the large beautiful Segara Anak Lake whose surface sits at about 6,300 ft elevation above sea level. Both the Balinese and the Muslim Sasak of Lombok Island make a pilgrimage to toss ritual rice and goldfish into the clear mountain waters. At the risk of appearing irreverent I will say that this scared lake was begging for a bushpilot to pay homage.

      Lake Segara Anak is about five km long and three km wide with a 200 year old secondary cone protruding out of the east end. Adding to the expansive feeling of grandeur the surrounding crater rim extends upward another three to four thousand feet to create a continuous enclosure looking so much like a crumbled wall of an ancient Roman coliseum. The only exception is where the initial explosion, or later erosion, created a narrow gap in the north end. Here the excess rainwater flows out forming a waterfalls and a river that flows to the sea.
      The normal way of getting to this wondrous lake and for that matter to the volcano peak is to hike up. Time magazine did a feature on this particular climb in 2001 and declared it to be difficult, treacherous, and extremely worthwhile. The adventure is akin to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, but tougher. It takes two days of slogging up a tropical rainforest trail complete with heat, insects, thieving monkeys, and washed out footpaths. On the morning of the second night you awake early to make the rim at sunrise. Here you can view the lake at its most serene before the inevitable mountain top clouds form to cover the basin for the remainder of the day. If you want you can hike down nearly 3,000 feet to the lakeside campsite, but few hikers do. Even fewer actually make it to the 12,296 foot summit.

      Despite being considered “worthwhile” it is also considered dangerous. 11 people have died making this climb in the last five years and 10 have died in the last three years alone. You have to be in very good tropically acclimatized condition to even make the rim in relative safety. The idea then of hiking down to the lake and back up again puts most hikers off, despite what they might have thought before they left base camp in the village below.
      I had no intention of making the hike into this timeless abyss. Not when I can have 675 horses pull me up. In fact with 675 horses I could have pulled up Nero and his chariot at well. Yes, I consider myself the decadent explorer. With two bottles of water, a dozen morning fresh donuts from the Dunkin Donuts shop at the airport, and the Pilot Operating Handbook, I started off to conquer the “coliseum.”
      This was booked as a training flight with Alex, one of the Indonesian pilots that I was training on the amphib Caravan. When I told him to flight plan us for a Rinjani over-flight and when I jumped in the Captains seat, he knew immediately what I was up to. To his credit, however, he did not ask. It was one of my early morning spur of the moment decisions that I did not wish to discuss with anyone least they attempt to talk me out of “it.” “It” being what ever I am going to do that I am really not supposed to be doing. I hate busy bodies that place logic and reason in front of everything and spoil the magic of the moment by making me realize the futility or wickedness of the pending act. Especially if they are in a position of authority, for instance, my boss or the director of civil aviation.
      Just in case you are thinking that I am totally lacking in respect for authority I must mention that I did have the “go ahead” to attempt a landing on the lake in Rinjani. The authorization went something like this:
      “You know John we have been thinking about this landing for some time. Of the last three pilots we hired as consultants, one said it was outright impossible, one said it was most likely possible, but foolish, and the third said it was possible, but he wouldn’t try. We would sure like your opinion, as you would be the most experienced of any of them. When you get a chance see if you couldn’t give it a go.”

Article and Images by John S Goulet

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Last modified on June 15, 2006 .
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