“But sir, it is a very long walk!”
“Don’t worry about, I’ll be fine!” I let off a charming and confident smile. I turn down the offer of a lift in one of the guide’s mountain jeeps. After all, what challenge could a little Indonesian volcano present? I do have experience of course; I’ve done Ben Nevis and the Scottish highlands; trekked halfway across the Andes; ascended the Alps, and bounded around the Lake District many a time, always back for happy hour. The guidebook advises four hours to reach the summit to view the sunrise – three should be sufficient. I pull by rucksack on, and set off up the both at a cracking pace, the guide gently shaking his head behind me.
I easily wave away the first motorcycle rider who passes and offers me a lift for a little less than 80p. The second one is harder, but still I wave him aside. I remind myself that the first half hour of a walk is always the hardest. As I pause for breath, the crater wall of the volcano looms above me: a trail of jeep lights show the route to the top. It’s a long way up.
The hill is unrelenting. I bend over, panting heavily, promising myself this will be my last break for a while. It won’t be. The jeeps stream past, their occupants staring at me, alone on the road, like some curiosity. For the sake of appearances, I take a few strides, waving cheerily at the jeep people. They seem unconvinced, so I double over wheezing again. I have realised, too late unfortunately, that my numerous mountaineering exploits happened, for the most part, over a year ago. Perhaps I misremembered the ease of my previous attempts? Or maybe the year of university living, of proverbial port and cigars, has taken its toll. Yes, that would be it. I can just see the seventeen year old me bounding ahead, wind in his hair, laughing at my efforts.
I trudge steadily on. The water is gone. I reach what the guide described as ‘the hard bit’ (the previous two hours being ‘easy’). I clamber up a vertical rock face, then stumble, parched across the dirt above like some man lost in the desert. “Horse mister?”, comes a voice from the darkness. I manage a breathless no. Another 100 metres “Horse? Very far to the top.” The horse salesman nods earnestly. My firm refusal manifests itself as a weak, wordless flop of the hand. A few hundred paces, another eternity of endless, aching, torturous pain.
“Horse?” Bent over double. The third temptation comes. I stand in breathless agony for a minute or so. Finally, one faltering foot goes in front of the other. I can’t even manage a refusal. I remind myself that this man (and his horse) don’t just won’t my money. They want my pride. Most of all, they want to take the immense moral superiority I hold over all those fucks who took the jeep the the top.
It’s been four hours. The first licks of sunrise are on the horizon. Desperate not to miss the holy grail of the mountain, I redouble my efforts to a slow shuffle. I am kept going by the thought of the bar tonight – not only the cold beer, but the right to casually toss off “Oh no. I walked up.”, and enjoy the amazed glances ad adoring gazes of my fellow travellers.
“Angus?” I look up. Marie – an acquaintance from the day before. “Hurry up! The sun’s coming up!” I look up at her expectant face. I stand tall, and stride up the last few metres like a conquering hero. A conquering hero whose left foot gives way on the last step, leaving him lying on his back, head lolling to one side, tongue out. Marie casually looks away. Finally, I find the strength to lift my head to see the view. Probably worth it.