Pain is so close to pleasure — and terror a mere heartbeat away from sublime beauty

SB felt a draught on the back of his neck and turned around. The rear door of the van had worked itself loose. It was now flapping freely, exposing the compartment where our luggage was stored. Some of the bags were missing, having tumbled out of the back. And we hadn’t even started our hike.

Our journey had begun some eight hours earlier at Padang, the hot, bustling capital of West Sumatra, best known for nasi padang — rice served with pre-cooked dishes and fiery condiments. The journey had taken us to the highlands, dense with forests and tea plantations, past the tranquil lake of Danau Atas, into the lowlands with quiet villages and through a heavy rainstorm that flooded the already rutted road in parts, and finally to the village of Kersik Tuo.

There are seven of us, city dwellers who sometimes crave freedom from the connected, digital world, taking a journey of self-discovery in the outdoors. Our objective is to climb Gunung Kerinci, at 3,805m above sea level, the highest volcano in Indonesia.

Kersik Tuo has a population of a few thousand, mainly employed in the tea, vegetable and cinnamon plantations that dot the highlands. I was told that every day, trucks laden with vegetable produce are transported to the province of Lampung in southern Sumatra, loaded onto a ferry to Java and finally arrive at the markets of Jakarta. We are fortunate that the people of Kersik Tuo consider it a disgrace to take another person’s possessions and so, we manage to recover the lost luggage, waiting on porches and by the roadside, a little muddier and worn from the adventure but, mercifully, intact.

Gunung Kerinci is sublimely beautiful, rising above the rolling tea plantations. It has a deceptively placid air, yet the next morning, when we step into the forest at the foot of the mountain, the wildness asserts itself. The path, a broken tangle of tree roots and mud, wends its way into the green maze, dappled with sunlight struggling to penetrate the canopy far above.

Early in the hike, there is a mighty hooting and echoing in the canopy, followed by the appearance of a handsome, black-handed gibbon on a branch high above us, an alpha male asserting his displeasure at our presence in his territory.

Slowly at first, and then increasingly steeply, the path climbs into the incandescent green light of the forest, which drips with moisture. I pause in wonder when the scene opens onto a panorama of unbroken, moss-draped trees with mist rising like a ghostly hand.

There are other hikers with their guides and porters along the way and the friendly exchanges of fellow travellers on a shared journey. If I tarry long enough, I could lose my way in the majestic forest; it is dangerous to loiter, for the line between imagination and reality can become blurred.

The air is moist and cool, the light green and misty. The mud is thick and slimy in many places, as if a herd of careless elephants had trampled through the verdant forest, and there are sections where the path is covered by brown water. It is gritty mud, for this is volcanic soil, dark and fertile.

By early afternoon, we establish a camp, a comfortable cocoon nestled in a hollow of the forest on the mountainside, a little more than 3,000m above sea level. The weather is mild and we are dry. There is litter aplenty along the trail and mounds of mouldering debris strewn by climbers who had come to paradise and left more than footprints.

We start off too late the next morning to catch the first blush of daylight, but slowly, the dark forest around us lightens and I switch off my head-mounted torch to focus on climbing the steep, deeply eroded trough that is the trail towards the summit. We break our journey above the treeline, E above a foamy sea of clouds that crash silently against the immovable mountain.

This is Shelter 3, with a colourful assortment of tents, while above is only stony rock and the path that wends upwards, along a ridge, onto another and up a steep spine until, craning our heads upwards, we can see the summit far above.

Above the mossy, low scrub, the path turns stony. The footing is firmer, yet the sharp stones can shift and give way suddenly. There are deep, eroded gullies and other hikers on their way up or down, but the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the air crisp and crystalline. It is a good moment to be alive.

We climb, each of us lost in our thoughts, carrying on a monologue of raspy breathing while inexorably, the distant summit approaches, one step at a time. Every now and then, I pause and am awakened from my reverie by the stark scene of cloud-flecked blue sky and barren, stone-strewn rock. My companions are strung out behind me, each having adjusted to his or her own natural pace.

Sometimes, when the mist rises in great sheets to blanket the path in white, hikers stumble and get lost along this trackless path. I pass by a couple of markers in memory of those who had succumbed on the way — one of them from hypothermia at this very spot.

I hear shouts of encouragement from above and raising my head, find myself at the summit — a narrow, flat ridge with a small cairn of stones to mark the highest point. The Indonesian flag flutters in the wind. A hiker asks me about the tissue wrapped around my fingers, which I bloodied in a fall. He takes out a plaster from his rucksack, cuts out a section and carefully bandages my torn digits. I recognise him from the night before, when he had tarried at our campsite in the rain. I had given him a hot drink and some food — now I was experiencing one of life’s odd quirks of instant payback.

We are at the highest point on the rim of the caldera. Just steps away is the massive black maw of the volcano, a terrifying, vertiginous drop of several hundred metres down pitiless rock into the crater below, from which a steady stream of sulphurous smoke emanates.

The pleasure of achievement can only come from the pain of the ascent, and terror and beauty coexist just metres from each other. Around me is limitless blue sky and the world of mortal men spread out far below.

The day is clear enough for me to see, in the distance, Tasik Tujuh, the highest lake in Southeast Asia, surrounded by seven mountains. My companions join me at the summit — Crystal, followed by Megan and the others — all bound by the heady sense of a moment too precious not to savour. SB had brought along a Malaysian flag and, irrespective of our political inclinations, we plant the flag pole proudly into the ground.

The descent is harder than the ascent. The soil could shift and a tumble on the sharp stony slope could be dangerous. A few bruises and scrapes later, I am back at the treeline, chatting with the porters who are waiting for their guests. With the others, I descend the terribly eroded gully to our camp for a quick lunch. The mist is rising like a fist around us, the condensation falling like gentle rain.

I understand why porters and guides wear galoshes for the muddy path as we slip and slide our way down the lower slope. The sky is dull and it begins to rain, turning gullies into streams. Leaves sparkle with water, a steady roar rises all around us and the path glistens in the crepuscular light of the deepening gloom. Yet, it is like a cleansing farewell, a completeness of the experience.

The rain has stopped when we emerge from the forest and the air is cool and clean. We walk past vegetable gardens, cinnamon trees and little rivulets to our waiting van. We bundle into our transport, wet, tired and hungry, yet sated with a sense of achievement and contentment. I turn around. There are newly formed waterfalls coursing down the sides of Gunung Kerinci and it is completely unhidden by the clouds, a dark, magnificent silhouette in the pink light at the end of the day.

Lee Yu Kit is a travel writer who enjoys the finer things in life

This article appeared in Issue 792 (Aug 14) of The Edge Singapore.