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Published: Saturday December 28, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday December 28, 2013 MYT 9:33:23 AM

Of muscles and flip-flops

During this Christmas season, we remember the unsung heroes of mountain-trekking: the guides and porters. In this case, we look at the heart-felt service they provide at Gunung Rinjani on Lombok island, Indonesia.

WE deck out in full (almost winter!) gear and hiking boots; they wear T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.

We carry (only) our own water and snacks in hi-tech ergonomic backpacks; they carry food, water, firewood, camping gear and all the belongings of the entire entourage using nothing more than baskets (attached to bamboo poles) balanced over their shoulders like huge dumbbells.

These are the indomitable, indefatigable guides and porters of Gunung Rinjani, an active volcano on Lombok island, Indonesia.

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The porters have to carry all the food, water, firewood, camping gear and other stuff for the entire group using only baskets attached to bamboo poles.

Men of the mountain: The porters have to carry all the food, water, firewood, camping gear and other stuff for the entire group using only baskets attached to bamboo poles.

We share high quality tents between two or three hikers and still complain about being crammed; all seven of them spend their nights under one makeshift tent that is neither windproof nor rainproof.

Despite these obvious differences in luxuries and inadequacies, we climb up and down the mountain at snail’s pace but they traverse the trails like mountain goats.

With throbbing veins on their calves and tanned skin from constant sunburn, their extraordinary strength and agility puts even the fittest of us hikers to shame. Yet with all their burdens, they smile and greet every hiker they meet and strive to provide five-star service for their customers.

An honest living on their second home

With its summit towering 3,726m above sea level, Gunung Rinjani is the pride of the locals and a second home to the many guides and porters who earn a living helping trekkers tackle the mountain.

Farming is the main economic activity for most locals, but income is dependent on the wet and dry seasons.

“Farming alone is not enough to support my family,” said hiking guide Jack, who stopped schooling after completing high school. “On the other hand, it is also very difficult to get other jobs in Lombok as a certain education level is required. So I became a hiking guide because I wanted to do something other than farming, and also to practise my English skills.”

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Guides and porters on Rinjani are trained not only for mountain rescue but for camp cooking too.

Guides and porters on Rinjani are trained not only for mountain rescue but for camp cooking too.

After three months of intensive training, Jack officially took on the role as a guide with his company, the Rinjani Trekking Club in Senggigi.

Farming complements trekking in the yearly calendar, as the peak tourist season from May to September is the dry season, while the wet season (for farming) runs from November to March (though the weather on Lombok is not as wet as in Bali).

During peak season, guides and porters can climb Rinjani up to twice a week, and with each trek taking three or four days, they end up spending almost every day on the mountain, which they fondly call their second home.

“Sometimes I stay on the mountain even longer than in my own house,” reflects Mu Lan, who climbs Rinjani more than 50 times in a year as a porter. “It feels awkward if I were to be away and not see my mountain home for a long time.”

Guests are king

With huge calluses on their shoulders accumulated from years of carrying heavy loads, this proud group of Lombok men endure pain and strain with every step they take. However, their love for the mountain and passion for their job drive them to go beyond physical boundaries in their daily routine.

The Indonesian culture of “Tamu adalah raja (Guests are king)” further adds to their hospitality towards hikers under their care.

From cooking nourishing meals to setting up special tents for the toilets, our porters deliver impeccable service, even becoming a source of motivation throughout our four-day hike.

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Guides with heavy loads and mere flip-flops helping hikers in hi-tech shoes down a tricky path at Rinjani.

Guides with heavy loads and mere flip-flops helping hikers in hi-tech shoes down a tricky path at
Rinjani.

Despite carrying loads of over 40kg each, they are always far ahead of us. This is not because of their impatience in waiting for their slow-moving customers, but to ensure that the moment we reach a designated rest stop, piping hot meals can be readily served.

First to wake up, last to sleep, guides and porters are always alert to our needs and requests. Without fail, the question, “Excuse me, coffee or tea?” greet us every morning after we awake from our slumber.

The porters don’t speak much English but their calm demeanour and warm smiles exude a sense of warmth and security. Their funny antics and jokes help lift our morale, especially when the climb gets tough.

As quiet as they may seem, when we sit down and chat with them, they are generous in sharing invaluable insights and stories about their job and beloved mountain.

Dedication and passion

With only thin jackets or sarongs wrapped over their shoulders, these strong men are a closely knit group, all with the same passion to showcase the breathtaking beauty of Rinjani to tourists.

Porters and guides are trained in cooking, mountain search-and-rescue, environmental awareness and customer service. A few months before our trek, our guide Jack was the hero in single-handedly rescuing a hiker who accidentally slid down the side of the mountain. Such is his dedication to the job that he is willing to risk his life to save another.

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Despite carrying loads of over 40 kilos each, the super-fit porters often race ahead so that hot meals are prepared when hikers arrive at camp sites.

Despite carrying loads of over 40 kilos each, the super-fit porters often race ahead so that hot meals are prepared when hikers arrive at camp sites.

Our porters hail from all over Lombok island and they work for a number of trekking operators. The youngest porter in our group is 21 years old while the oldest is 38. They generally do not stop hiking until their bodies can no longer take the toil of regular hikes up and down the mountain.

However, the money they earn is comparatively better than for other odd jobs in the region. A porter earns between 100,000 rupiah (RM27) and 150,000 rupiah (RM40) per hiking day, excluding tips from hikers.

The greatest job satisfaction these hardworking guardian angels get is when hikers are full of praise for their beloved Rinjani and are appreciative of their efforts throughout the journey.

As the trip came to an end, our guide and porters formed a line and gave each of us a farewell and appreciative handshake before heading home to spend precious time with their families. Very soon, they would welcome a new group of hikers and do the trek all over again.

We may just be a few ordinary customers of the thousands they have led throughout the years, but to us, Jack and his six porters will always be remembered as the ones who made our first Rinjani experience much more colourful and memorable.

This story is written as a tribute to all the guides and porters of Gunung Rinjani, who carry out their unique job with pure dedication and sincere concern towards hikers.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Trekking, Mountain Climbing, Hiking, Rinjani

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