Hikers were able to start descending the mountain Monday after guides discovered an alternate route that was unaffected by the landslides (Photo: AFP)
More than 500 hikers and guides stranded by landslides on an Indonesian mountain after an earthquake have returned to safety, with some recalling their terror when tonnes of rock cascaded down.
The shallow 6.4-magnitude quake, which struck early Sunday on Lombok island and was followed by scores of aftershocks, triggered major landslides on Mount Rinjani, blocking the hiking routes that criss-cross it.
Some 800 trekkers and their guides were on the mountain when the quake struck including citizens from the United States, France, the Netherlands, Thailand, Germany and 21 other countries, according to search and rescue officials.
Hundreds managed to find a way down on Sunday and over 500 more reached safety Monday night.
While most were able to pick their way down the mountain on foot, at least three arrived at Sembalun village on the lower slopes by helicopter, according to officials.
Some returned with harrowing tales of being caught out by the quake, which killed 17 people across the holiday island including one on the mountain.
Australian hiker Stanley Yu said the ground began to shake about 20 minutes after his group reached Rinjani’s peak.
"The earthquake lasted about 10-20 seconds. After that everybody was rushing down," he told AFP.
"On the way down there was another earthquake and that made everyone panic -- it was pretty scary."
One Thai tourist, who reached the foot of the mountain Tuesday morning, felt the ground shake beneath her sleeping bag.
"I felt the earth move... and thought 'Huh? What’s happening?'" she said.
"I got out of my bed and then I saw a landslide (with) rocks falling down."
A male friend said he watched parts of Rinjani's slopes collapse.
"The whole mountain, rocks, fell down -- I was a bit afraid," he said.
'Tired but in good condition'
The remaining 500 or so hikers were able to start climbing down on Monday after guides discovered an alternate route that was unaffected by the landslides.
The last three trekkers -- two porters and a guide -- are expected to arrive at the base of the mountain by 7pm local time, said Agus Hendra Sanjaya, a spokesman for the search and rescue agency on the island's main city of Mataram.
"We have searched the (Rinjani) area, there are no more hikers," he told AFP.
"We started this morning at 6am and will continue to monitor the situation for the next three days from our base at the foot of the mountain in Sembalun."
Most of the trekkers reached the base of the mountain by late Monday evening, according to I Gusti Lanang Wiswananda, another spokesman from the Mataram search and rescue agency.
"They were all tired but in good condition and were checked by our medical teams on the ground upon arrival," he told AFP.
Helicopters and search teams had been deployed to scour the mountain's slopes and drop food supplies for those stranded on it.
Thousands of buildings were destroyed across Lombok, including a health clinic.
National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said more than 220 people suffered serious injuries.
A Malaysian tourist was among the dead, with another six citizens injured, the foreign ministry in Kuala Lumpur has said.
A total of 7,593 people are staying in temporary shelters, according to officials.
The 3,726-metre (12,224-feet) Rinjani is the second-highest volcano in Indonesia and a favourite among sightseers.
Its hiking trails were closed following the quake due to fear of further landslides.
The epicentre of the earthquake was 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Mataram, far from the main tourist spots on the south and west of the island.
The initial tremor was followed by two strong secondary quakes and more than 100 aftershocks.