The End of Asia! (Part 1)

Our days in Asia were slowly but surely running out whilst up ahead, Australia beckoned. Ahead of us lay a thrilling a volcano-lined road that threaded the island of Flores to reach the small port of Larantuka. From there a twice weekly ferry ran to Kupang in West Timor, where we could ride overland to reach Dili, capital of East Timor and ship the bikes on to Oz; alternatively we could backtrack all the way to Bali to find a shipper there. For several weeks we had been gathering quotes from various agencies and to be honest none of them looked either attractive or reliable. SDV offered the most logical choice; a container ship direct from Dili to Darwin supposedly taking only three days. Yet four riders who we’d met at HU had waited over 5-weeks for their bikes and faced horrible frustrations and delays, topped with escalating charges, throughout the entire process so we saw nothing there to recommend their services. We also obtained a reasonable quote from a company in Bali but an online search revealed more dissatisfied customers with costs eventually doubling the quotation price. To be honest, we didn’t really want to backtrack either. Our bikes are once again showing signs of wear and tear from the ride through Indonesia, with rear tyres now shot and needing immediate replacement in Australia. That left us with ANL. They sail the triangular Darwin-DiliSingapore route, which takes a little longer than the more direct route but they came with several good overlander recommendations and it meant we could continue on to explore the two islands of Flores and Timor and, of course, reach the end of Asia!

In Labuan Bajo, the comfie Surya hotel proved to be one of those nodal points in travel where you meet, mingle and part with friends old and new. We bade farewell to Tom and Phil, who were headed back west and met up with Thomas Brandt, a young German rider from Rostock, also headed west on his KTM 690 and Jason Kind, a stubbled, bean-pole of an English cyclist from Hastings who had covered a lot of the same ground as us using pedal power.   We have met quite a few cyclists and find a lot in common with them as fellow travellers; like us they carry a little self-sufficient world on two wheels and are fully exposed to the elements with the added encumbrance of powering their journey using their own legs, yielding a journey travelled at a much slower speed but with the advantage that they will see so much more. It’s not a mode of transport I would personally consider for the same reason I’ll never model dresses on a catwalk; I just don’t have the legs for it…

The ride through the island of Flores proved to be simply spectacular. The road from Labuan Bajo climbed up and into a mountainous hinterland, a sinuous slash of sexy tarmac that occasionally dropped into plains of rice-fields before coiling off once more into highland territory rendered breathtakingly beautiful by blasts of bamboo forest. We stopped at a little Warung (local café / food vendor) for some lunch, in the seaside town of Borong, where we met Jason pedaling along, enjoying a stretch of straight and level road. It had taken him four-days to cycle what we covered that morning and his legs were feeling it.

Our target for the day was the mountain town of Bawang and the ride just got better and better as we left coastal plains and climbed high into cloud forested mountains. Now and again the cloud would drift apart, offering sneaky-peaks of nearby volcanoes or treetop terrain running all the way to crystal blue waters back at the coast. We were both feeling fairly cold by the time we pulled into town to find our preferred hotel fully booked and a couple of alternatives asking lofty prices for mediocre accommodation. We were rescued by the Hotel Korina where we met Brian, Brad and Shorty, a trio of Aussies from Tasmania touring the island on rented motorcycles who became first date beer-buddies and then a bunch of good friends after a few lively evenings in the bar.

The landscape had definitely been changing as we rode east through Indonesia. I started reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘The Malay Archipelago.’ Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, co-publishing papers on the subject with Darwin. Wallace had travelled previously in the Amazon but famously made a number of startling observations about the bio-geographic diversity in the Malay Archipelago where he travelled between 1854 and 1862, including the definition of what became known as the Wallace Line. This line identifies and associates the wildlife and plants on the island of Bali and everything west of there with Asiatic origins, whilst everything on the island of Lombok and onwards east has a pronounced Australian origin. It is quite fantastic as the two islands are only 22-miles apart and it was the bird life that gave him his first clues to the delineation. In Bali he found species of woodpecker, kingfisher and pheasant, birds that are endemic to Asia from India to Indonesia all the way east to Bali and Borneo, while across the Lombok Strait he suddenly found himself in the world of the cockatoo and the eucalyptus. Amazingly the birds have failed to migrate across this short stretch of water loosely suggesting that the islands down to Bali were previously connected to the Asiatic landmass and therefore populated by flora and fauna from that point of origin, whereas the lands to the east of Lombok have obvious associations with Australia.

The traditional village of Bena, a short ride from Bawang, felt like neither Asia nor Australia. The road fooled around the base of the pointy-coned volcano of Inerie that provided an otherworldly backdrop to the morning.   The twisting single-track ribbon took us on through more majestic cathedrals of bamboo and by the time we arrived at the village our bodies were fully sated with joyous endorphins that can only be delivered by slowly riding a motorcycle through a stunning landscape. We abandoned the bikes at a small carpark and walked the short trail into Bena itself. That location, with the ever present backdrop of Inerie, one moment all skirted by cloud, the next all lifted to reveal its splendorous peak, reminded us we were right up against an active volcano, a smoking gun capable of instant obliteration. We mooched through the tall thatched-roof village houses, sited around an elongated common of dirt all ringed by a dry-stone wall. In the centre henges of tall burial stones stood, somewhat Neolithic in appearance and here and there marked with the sign of the cross; folks on Flores are predominantly Christian. It was still early in the morning and there was an air of peace and tranquility about the place. A few women fretted at their looms making scarves and wraps for tourists. The detailing on the wooden house frames showed images of horses and boats and here there horned animal skulls adorned the façade. It all felt a bit weird, as we seemed to be so far from plains or sea in this Conan-Doyle-Lost-World-complete-with-smouldering-volcano-on-your-doorstep. Or maybe we had drifted on to a stage set from Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, a place inhabited surely by the Riders of the Rohan, but again that incongruity with never a harness nor horse in sight. Whatever; it was magical.

Another day, another ride… More cloud forest dropped us into the high mountains and Moni, where we hoped to visit Kelimutu National Park and its three-cratered volcano. We got absolutely drenched on the last few miles into Moni itself as the hide-and-seek game we’d played with the rain that morning finally ended in defeat as the heavens opened on a mud-drenched road. “Nearly there so hardly worth stopping to don the wetsuits” proved to be the wrong tactic for todays play with the weather and we looked like we’d dressed in blotting paper as we pulled into the Sylvestre homestay. The weather really socked in for the next day with the main street outside looking more navigable by boat than bike so we settled in for a soggy siege and hoped the weather would clear to allow us access to the mountain. Our plight was alleviated somewhat by Sylvestres, which proved to be a little haven for sleeps complemented by brilliant eats at the nearby Mopi’s restaurant.

Next morning dawned bright and beautiful and the corrugated roofs over the town were jewelled silver from the rain of yesterday as we set off on the two bikes to ascend Kelimutu. We had been warned that the first mile or two were slathered in mud from a recent landslide. It proved to be as bad as it sounded with heavy earth-moving machinery on site to try and clear the way, although this seemed to principally involve spreading the mud everywhere. With our worn rear tyres, this was not fun although they did hold better than anticipated and we were soon through and riding high on the mountain albeit with one eye on the weather as bands of low cloud suggested more rain was not so far away. At the summit we were rewarded after a brief hike with cloud-shrouded views of the three craters. Each lake is a different colour, the reason for which is unknown; the acid-filled lakes are inert and dead and the only plausible explanation seems to be that the chemistry of each lake changes from time to time resulting in colour changes. Two of the lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Youth) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and were reported as being green and red respectively. Today both appeared as slightly differing shades of turquoise. The third lake, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of the Old People) was supposed to be blue but had assumed a horrid dark brown colour. Local legend has it that the spirits of the recently deceased travel to the lakes and are greeted by gatekeepers who judge and consign them to one of the lakes depending on their age and how well they behaved when alive with all the baddies sent to the Bewitched lake. I really hoped I did not perish on the mountain today; by the end of our visit, my spirit was totally confused by which lake was which and what colour they were supposed to be.

We left the rains and Moni for a ride to the north coast of the island, spending a few days in one last decent hotel in Maumere, marking time for a few days until the Friday boat on to Timor. A final ride took us to Larantuka where we checked in to the Lestori hotel, basic and clean but one of the noisiest places we’ve stayed on the entire trip. Bass undertones and horrid treble screeches emanated from a nearby karaoke that ran all night and was still going strong at 6am. To this cacophony add one rooster, staked to a pole just outside our door who cock-a-doodle-doo’d the whole night through, a pet/cage bird with a sort of piercing wolf-whistle and to cap it all the guys in the room next door were up a 4am taking a slosh in a bucket shower and vociferously clearing their throats in a rasping noise that sounded like a heavy box being dragged across a wooden floor.

We made our way bleary-eyed to the ferry where we crashed out on the upper deck as she finally set sail an hour late at 1pm. It was the weekend before the end of Ramadan and a time when Moslems all over the world head for home to celebrate Eid. Consequently the boat was packed and we’d been advised to grab a bunk below decks before the ship left harbour. This was ill advice as the bunks were all stacked together and the compartment more resembled some horrid slave-ship with bodies crammed into every nook, space and cranny, totally devoid of any idea of personal space. We camped out on the upper deck, happy for some open space and a healthy jollop of fresh air to relish the spectacular views of Flores as it sank slowly under the horizon in our wake. Mid-way, Dolphins and flying fish frolicked around our vessel as she plodded across the vast ocean to take us safely if somewhat late into Timor and the end of Asia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 1 – Flores

Way of the Dragon!

“Here!!!… Here!!!… Here!!!…. Go!!! Go!!! Go!!!” the skipper of the Nurwati yelled, jabbing manically towards the sea with an outthrust boney finger, urging us all overboard quickly…   Perched on the prow of the boat, where for the past ten minutes he had been scanning the seabed for something, he had clearly now located his target… “That’s a lot of exclamation marks” I thought as I shuffled across the deck on my butt like an up ended clown in flippers struggling to get my mask on. Then, over the side and into a world of deepest blue… A sudden moment of disorientation as I adjusted to breathing through the snorkel… I shivered slightly at the cooling effect of the sea on sun-warmed skin. Adjusting my vision I looked down to see what all the fuss was about and “what the…!!!!!!!!!” The exclamation marks floated off to the surface like tiny air bubbles, expletives quickly drowned as I beheld something the size of a billiard table wafting across the carpet of coral below: a Manta Ray, maybe 2-metres across, moving slowly and with grace right beneath our fins. Our trip to the Komodo Islands had once again proven to be rich pickings for wildlife encounters and there would be many more to come…

The Nurwati was hewn from local timbers and painted bright white with a deck of minty-mouthwash green. She was long and narrow in the beam with a clackety-clack engine mounted below deck, just aft of amidships. Slatted benches ran along both sides of the deck with a small serving table in the middle, from which some very tasty repasts would be served. She had a rudimentary upper deck too for sunbathing with an awning at the rear providing a bit of shade. An icebox full of beer and some good company and we were all set for a good time. Setting out from Labuan Bajo early in the morning, it took a few hours to putt-putt our way to the island of Rinca, first stop on our Komodo tour. Sitting on the boat I pondered the previous days that brought here us from Horizons Unlimited in Sumbawa

An easy day’s ride took us to the little town of Bima towards the eastern end of Sumbawa on beautiful empty roads through this majestic island. Along the way we picked up our old buddy Phil Stubbs and later met Tom Curtis (of postie-bike fame) at the hotel in Bima, all of us headed for Flores with Komodo in our sights. This eastern end of the islands was reminiscent of the Western Isles at home with vast landscapes of sea, mountain, rolling marshland and staggering skies, all of it deserted and amazing biking country. Next morning we rode on to Sape where we would catch the 8-hour ferry to Flores, next island in the chain. We dumped the bikes at the hotel and took a stroll along the narrow causeway of a town. There is a lot of, what I guess would be considered, poverty in this part of Indonesia. Far removed from any city life and influence, people are living from hand to mouth by subsistence farming or fishing. There was a lot of squalor in Sape with many people living on top of their own refuse as there is just no infrastructure to remove it. The rubbish and litter is so incongruous with the beautiful location but folk seemed mostly happy and were, without exception, very friendly and eager to engage in a chat.

Maritime activity was everywhere from fishing nets laid out to dry to large-scale boat construction on slipways between houses laid out in a herringbone configuration along the causeway. Stopping to nosey at a small crew working on a large vessel we were eagerly invited onboard to check out the construction. We picked our way through a timber yard, where the raw material for the boat was stored and out onto a flimsy jetty to clamber aboard the hulk. Her keel of around 70-feet in length, had been laid on some stone pilings and work had commenced installing the cross beams and building the hull outwards on each side. The guys were forming the wooden parts by hand with a chainsaw, electric planer and more basic mallet and chisel. A lot of the parts were pinned together with stout wooden dowels and metal tie bars were used for the crucial load bearing parts. There was a total absence of drawings or plans and it seemed like the entire project was being executed according to the shipwright’s eye. Later we boarded a more complete vessel in the process of having her cabins and accommodations finished using the same processes; everything constructed and finished by hand to create a sea-going vessel of some beauty.

An eight-hour RO-RO ferry crossing deposited us in Flores, where the small town of Labuan Bajo proved to be a delightful stop-off to organise our trip to Komodo. The place is like a pirate hideaway; dirty, dusty, yet full of energy with narrow streets winding and spilling up the hillsides around the harbour. We battled our way through rush-hour motos and mini-vans to reach the Surya Hotel, our home for the next week or so. Supping a beer at the rooftop bar of the Bajo Taco, a great Mexican eatery that became our local haunt, a splendid view ran away over red-rusted rooftops down to the bay where a myriad of small vessels were anchored against a backdrop of jeweled islands set in a sapphire sea emphasizing the notion that this was indeed some Indonesian Tortuga. Maybe a pirate crew would be just the thing considering our next quest was to set out to see some dragons…

Komodo Dragons are to be found (unsurprisingly) in Komodo National Park, a raft of some twenty-six small islets clustered around the three larger isles of Padar, Rinca and Komodo itself.  The surrounding waters contain some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth hence encounters with Manta Rays and a paint-box full of tropical fish was guaranteed. The park is located in the Sape Strait, the channel of sea between Flores and Sumbawa that we had already crossed on the ferry to get here. The strait is also a junction of the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The seabeds of the two oceans vary in height by several hundred metres so the flow of waters from the north to south during tidal exchanges creates some of the strongest currents in the world making these potentially dangerous waters for any small boat.

We arranged a two-day cruise aboard the aforementioned vessel, the Nurwati, with its crew of three, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English but made up for this in copious quantities of smiles and good food for the duration. We coasted along the isle of Rinca and turned into a small inlet where we disembarked for our first dragon encounter. The Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizard, at around three metres in length and weighing in at over 70 kg. Unknown to the West and science until 1912 they are known locally by the natives as Ora, which means “land crocodile”. Komodos are an ambush predator, basically lounging around looking dim and docile until some unsuspecting beast (or person) wanders up too close. Then they can sprint with vicious rapidity and are equipped with a fine set of teeth and claws to rend any prey in proper dragon style. Our guides informed us how they can take down deer and even huge Water Buffalo as they don’t need a quick or clean kill. It was believed that their bite was laden with a cocktail of deadly bacteria such that even if the prey escaped it would soon die from the poisoning effects of the saliva in the wound. However it has recently been discovered that the dragons actually possess true venom glands in the lower jaw that inject an anti-coagulating poison that causes tissue damage and slow paralysis resulting in an excruciating death. Even if you get away after being bitten, they just wait till you die from your wounds and then move in for a feast. Easy-peasy given that they can detect carrion at ranges of up to two miles and can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one sitting.

Almost immediately on entering the park visitor centre on Rinca we saw our first dragons. They were certainly big but didn’t seem all that menacing and I got the impression that they were loitering around the bins to see what leftovers they could scavenge. Our visitor group was protected by a couple of park guides armed with cleft sticks; apparently the beasts are easily deterred by a rap on the head but to be honest it wasn’t something I wanted to put to the test. You see they do take people! In the past forty years over thirty people have been bitten with five recorded deaths. A few weeks before we visited a Singaporean tourist made the headlines when he was savaged by a dragon. He had been so intent on photographing one docile beast that he failed to register another animal that sneaked round behind him and he was badly bitten on the leg. Luckily it was a smaller dragon and he was evacuated to hospital in Labuan Bajo where they were able to save the leg.

Our visit continued as we set off for the island of Komodo itself on a voyage rounding Padar island. It’s funny but the islands themselves were draconiform in appearance, resembling green-backed monsters with folds in the landscape looking like overlapping scale and plate and here and there a headland that rose out of the water like some giant sleeping head. On Komodo the best encounter came on a short hike to Sulphurea Hill when we found our progress blocked by a beast on the trail. I greeted the dragon with an appropriate ‘My! What big claws you have!” He was enormous but again looked dozy and none too threatening. The guides made ready with their sticks as we clambered around the monster, giving him as wide a berth as possible and then stopped to get some photos. He sat there unmoving with a somewhat disconcerting Mona Lisa smile. Beady black eyes flickered with base intelligence, assuredly observing everything that was going on. Like the Mona Lisa I was certain his gaze followed me as I changed position to get a better shot. I watched him watching me and then it dawned on me… In our group I was the oldest male. I had a dodgy leg that also made me the slowest of the bunch in any event involving flight. I figured the dragon had clocked all this and given the opportunity would cut me out of the herd for dinner… Then it dawned on me… I was… I was prey!!!

We slept on deck that evening on thin mattresses after another sumptuous dinner. Never mind it was the same menu as lunch, it was all eagerly woofed after our day on the islands. But Komodo held one final and very special treat for us before the day was through. Overhead, squadrons of Flying Foxes were setting out for the night on a flypast across the bay where we were anchored.   There were literally hundreds of them flying in perfect formation, wave upon wave like ghostly squadrons of night bombers, all chirping and squeaking as they flew to nocturnal feeding grounds elsewhere on the isles on the soft whoosh of leathery wings. It was a special moment and one we will treasure for the rest of our days; we came here to see dragons and now were entreated to a performance by yet more marvelous and mystical creatures.

The second day of our Komodo tour started with a short but utterly spectacular hike along the dragon-back spine of Padar Island. The island is made up from several overlapping craters that have eroded to form an assemblage of serenely beautiful bays fringed with golden sands that run down to lapis-lazulian seas giving the impression of the crash-site of a huge butterfly on the ocean. The hilltops are dusted in khaki scrub grasslands and everywhere the horizon is a smash and dash hash-up of Komodo Islands. Later, snorkeling with Neptune’s treasure-box of tropical fish and of course that Manta Ray encounter, which ended in a ballet performance by five of the beasts. It’s hard to gasp with a snorkel stuffed in your gob but we somehow managed!

So that was Komodo… a place that will linger in our hearts and memories as one of the highlights of this life. On our Pan-American trip we had the good fortune to visit Galapagos and gasp at the treasures of another wildlife paradise. We thought then that such an experience could not possibly be equaled… it couldn’t possibly, could it?… until today… here… now… in Komodo.

One for your bucket list!

The gallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Way of the Dragon!

 

 

 

Profile of an Adventurer: HU Indonesia 2017…

We left Bromo with a spring in our step, revitalised and full of marvel at yet another of these surprises that our wonderful planet lays on from time to time. Our final halt in East Java was at the ferry port of Ketapang, which doubled as our base to explore yet another volcano; Ijen Crater. This entailed a 1am pick up to drive up into the mountains for a guided 3am hike along the crater trail to catch the sunrise. Ijen is famous as one of only two places on the planet where you can witness a very peculiar and somewhat eerie blue sulphur-light, visible only in the pre-dawn hours (the other is in Iceland). The volcano also hosts an active sulphur mine and the stench is so bad that the guides issue you with gas masks for when the wind blows up from the crater. The lights failed to live up to the hype as recent activity had closed off access to the crater itself and although we did see the blue lights, they looked like someone waving a torch at you in the dark from the far end of a foggy football stadium.   The crater lake itself was clad with a drape of thick cloud which lifted but momentarily in the dawn, offering ghostly views of this ghastly slash in the landscape. We found a perch in the early dawn to watch the sulphur miners begin their day’s work, climbing down into the crater area to chip out chunks of the yellow rock. There was a hierarchy to their travail with the older more experienced miners licensed to barrow their spoils down the mountain, whilst the new-starters had to port hefty loads on their bare backs, an immensely physical and time consuming graft for which they are paid a pittance.

An hour on the ferry took us to Bali, most renowned isle of the entire Indonesian archipelago and perhaps the very notion of an ultra-exotic tropical paradise. The ride along the north coast was pretty enough but the climb over the mountains to reach the pretty ville of Ubud proved to be a chore as we negotiated a never-ending column of excruciatingly slow buses and trucks on winding lanes and suddenly we were back in the congestion of West Java. We did find homely accommodation in Ubud and Mags signed up for a fortnight of classes at the famous Yoga Barn, while I spent some time fettling the bikes, in particular finally repairing a leaking fuel pump on my bike. The Starbucks in Ubud is probably one of the prettiest in the world. Word has it that the royal family of Ubud developed a taste for their brew and consequently they are the only big multi-national fast food outlet to be granted a license to operate in town. Their premises overlook a palatial Lotus garden where you can sip your latte whilst watching devotees make their daily offerings.

It took very little to persuade us to swop Bali for less congested Lombok, via a 5-hour ferry ride and we immediately relished the slower pace of life there.   We abandoned the bikes in Senggigi for a weekend on the promised tropical paradise islet of Gili Air for a spot of snorkeling. Even better was the snorkeling on the small islets off Sekotong, in southwest Lombok, where the reef is a lot less damaged by the idiotic practice of dynamite fishing practiced around Gili Air. Every dip became a beautiful immersion into a universe of tropical fish all competing with one another for the most garish colour scheme. Gili Kedis was memorable as the smallest island we’ve ever been on, literally a few palm trees and a small hut seemingly made of driftwood selling cold drinks and snacks, an idyllic spot to be ‘Robinson Crusoed’ for a few hours.

One of things I love most about this kind of travel is how your day can start out as one thing and then transform into something completely different… We had to travel into Mataram, capital of Lombok, for another visa extension involving a lot of form filling and hanging around in a government office. We took a walk outside to grab a coffee from a little street vendor and were invited by a bunch of customers to join them at a table. Engang resembled a slightly shorter and younger Morgan Freeman but with the same big grin and gravelly voice as the famous American actor. We sat a while chatting about our trip and he in turn told us about the delights of his vegetable garden and how he loved to work the land. “So what are you doing in the city?” we asked. “Oh the garden is just a hobby,” he replied. “I work over there, in the school.” He pointed to a squat lime-green coloured building, which had thousands of scooters and small motorcycles parked out front. “I am a teacher; English,” he explained. That day Engangs class gained two impromptu class assistants as we were introduced to a room full of 14 and 15-year olds and regaled them for half an hour with stories from our life on the road. It was an immensely rewarding experience and emphasised how the best thing you can give to children is neither money nor material things; it is your time.

All too soon we were on another ferry, this time from Lombok to the next island in the chain, Sumbawa, for a remarkable event; the first ever ‘Horizons Unlimited’ rally to be held in Indonesia. For non-overlanders, ‘Horizons Unlimited’ or ‘HU’ is an online resource for those of us with a passion for seeing the world on motorcycles. It dates back to 1997 when two Canadians, Grant and Susan Johnson, had just completed an epic round the world trip on their bike. At the end of their ride, they had amassed an enormous amount of information on overlanding by bike, everything from preparing for the ride to vaccination requirements to shipping your bike between continents to customs formalities at various borders. They decided to share this data in hope of inspiring and assisting others considering trips of their own and so HU was born! Back then, the Internet was an up and coming thing and an ideal platform for what has become a two-wheel overland resource as others added their experiences until today it is the first port of call for all queries on overlanding by bike.

There is another side to HU and that is the rallies. What started out as a few friends gathering in someone’s garden to talk about travels on their bikes over a beer and a barbeque has grown into national events with the HU meeting in the UK regularly attracting hundreds of overlanders. The events have grown to include a range of presentations where riders can share their experiences and practical skills from the road and the invitation has been extended to other overlanders from cyclists and 4-wheelers to kayakers and boat travellers. When we heard that Indonesia was planning it’s first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting we decided it would be one not to miss…

The event was organised by Jeffrey Polnaja, the first Indonesian to ride around the world on a motorcycle and the location was the Kencana Beach Resort on the island of Sumbawa next in the archipelago after Lombok. It would be a happy collision of riders from the west heading east with those from the east heading west, all leveled by a great bunch of local riders seeking inspiration and knowledge of the world beyond. People had ridden in from Austria, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and of course from all over Indonesia. A smattering of Americans flew in too along with the guest of honour, the redoubtable Ted Simon, author of the superlative motorcycle travel book; Jupiters Travels, a man who could rightly claim the title of granddaddy to all of this. It was an outstanding weekend. Aside from the travellers presentations we had a traditional welcoming ceremony involving the Mayor of Sumbawa Besar and splendid local dance troop, all very colourful and wherein the male visitors were honoured by the gift of a local headdress. The setting was just divine too especially at dawn and dusk when Maggie ran her first ever ‘Beach Yoga.

So who are these overlanders, these perhaps perceived unbalanced individuals who shun ‘normal life’ to take to the road? A bunch of rich kids / silver-beard retirees on the latest sixteen grand BMW 1200GS Adventure bikes, armoured for the road with all the catalog accessories costing almost as much again as the bare bike and sporting thousand pound Gore-Tex jackets? That’s certainly what the marketing folk would have you believe you need to tackle this ‘lifestyle’ but bear in mind all they are interested in is selling you an image and it’s something they do very well as these days the ‘adventure bike market’ is one of the largest sectors in the motorcycle industry. To answer this question it’s better if I introduce you to some of the riders we met at the event so, in no particular order, please meet…

Noortje Nijkamp (Nora) and Johannes Weissborn (JJ), from Den Haag, Holland and Vienna, Austria respectively are a delightful young couple brought together by a life on the road and have been riding from home in Europe to reach Bali and the end of their trip, with a final diversion to Sumbawa for HU. Nora has a 650 Suzuki V-Strom and JJ has a KTM 950. Nora has compiled an amazing V-Blog of her trip and I can heartily recommend perusing the fantastic episodes on Adventurism TV, her very own YouTube channel.

Mike and Shannon Mills (www.smboilerworks.com), a lively couple from Seattle, USA on Suzuki DR650s also at the end of their trip, which has taken them over the past three years through the Americas, across Europe and Asia and down to Jakarta where they will ship back to the Americas. They are proof that overlanding on a motorcycle holds part of the secret of eternal youth…

Blasius Ediprana, a charming young man from Bandung, Java, Indonesia, called into HU in the middle of a two and a half month tour of the Indonesian islands on his Indian Pulsar 150cc bike.

Andy Dukes from UK. It has taken us almost two years to reach this point of our travels. Andy did the same journey in three months on his BMW F800GS! His mission is to ride around the world while competing in a series of marathons, one on each continent. He flew in to be at HU for the first few days and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to run in the marathon there, a brutal event given the high temperatures and humidity; finished it too in less than 4.5 hours! Check out Andy’s blog at www.themarathonride.com.

Faizal Sukree from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew in for the event and is an accomplished motorcyclist who has completed an epic round the world ride on his BMW F800GS.

Kevin Bärtschi, a gentle young man from Frutigen, Switzerland, riding his KTM 690 to Australia.  Check out Kevin’s travels (for German readers) at @knastbrostravel

Joe Hambrook, a Park Ranger from New Zealand, has spent the past year riding towards home from the UK on his Suzuki DR650. Click here for Joe’s Blog.

Phil Stubbs from Essex, UK, who we met in my last post, was also here on his locally procured 225cc Yamaha Scorpio enjoying his slow ride round Indonesia.

Silvia Walti and Thomas Gentsch are riding their respective Yamaha XT660 and BMW F800GS from home in Zurich, Switzerland to Australia. We already met in KL at Sonny’s Cycles, then again in Bali and have been comparing notes on our routes ever since. Click here to access Silvia and Thomas Blog (for German readers)

Iif Brillianto from Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia came to HU on his 250cc Suzuki cruiser. Like Blasius above Iif is currently touring his homeland and popped in to say hello.

Nicole Stavro Espinosa from California, USA flew in to present her slideshow on a recent trip in East Africa. She is currently planning a RTW in a Ural sidecar outfit so she can bring her two kids along.

Josh Johnson from Darwin, Australia. Another ‘starter’, Josh is in the early days of his trip to circle the globe on his Honda Africa Twin.

Anita Yusof from Ipoh, Malaysia. Anita was the first Malaysian woman to ride a motorcycle around the world. Her bike? A 150cc Yamaha, which proved to be a fitting mount for her Global Dream Ride.

Jeff de Wispelaere flew in from Denver, Colorado, USA especially to be at this inaugural HU Indonesia, which held a special place in his heart as his family came from here.

Steve Campbell, originally from Victoria, Australia arrived on his Kawasaki KLX150 from his current base in Lombok to regale us in the evenings with highly entertaining tales of his overlanding through Asia back in the 1970’s.

And on to three young lads…Liam Della from Perth Australia (gone-postal.com), Matt Booth from Yorkshire, England (@OilyRagAdventures) and Tom Curtis from London, England (www.tomcurtis.world). All three are set on riding their individual 1970’s vintage Honda CT110’s (better known to the outside world as 110cc Australian ‘Postie bikes’ a derivative of the ubiquitous Honda C50 / 70 / 90 family) from Australia / New Zealand to the UK. They started out independently and then met along the way to converge on HU. Their bikes are fitted with homemade panniers / saddlebags and riding kit consists of a motley selection of outdoor gear / hiking boots and flip-flops but it all has a function, it all works and these riders are living proof that you don’t need a huge budget and top of the range machines /gear to be an adventure motorcyclist.  In fact this last statement can probably be applied to most of the riders here, where smaller / older machines seem to be the preference, bikes that are simple and easily repairable on the road. The key message here is it doesn’t matter what you ride, just get out and do it!

Almost last (but not least), our gallant host Jeffrey Polnaja. Jeffrey spent 9 years riding 820,000km just about everywhere you can around planet Earth on his BMW 1150GS – check out www.rideforpeace.net. With HU Indonesia 2017 he simply wanted to extend the wonderful hospitality he had partaken on his travels to fellow overlanders in his home country. Aided by his beautiful wife Maya and young daughter Kirana, they hosted a superb event that will forever linger as a highlight in the lives it touched over the four days in Sumbawa. On behalf of everyone who attended, thank you!

At the end of the event a crowd of us took a boat for a day trip to the spectacular island of Moyo. This is a real backwater of Indonesia offering two precious commodities; real desert-island beauty coupled with remote privacy attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Princess Diana as a holiday retreat. On landing we rented a fleet of motor scooter taxis to take us on an adventure ride to the beautiful waterfalls at Mato Jito and later took a hike to the falls at Diwu mba’I where we were entertained by the local kids diving in off a rope swing. Paradise just got better that day.

I will finish now with one final introduction to another of the local riders we met at HU. Raditya Eka, from Bandung, Java, arrived on his Harley Davidson and entertained us with well made videos of his various rides through Indonesia. I can think of no better way of signing off for this time than the following video compiled by Eka covering HU Indonesia 2017. Enjoy! Please click here to view: Eka’s HU Video

In addition to the various links above, there are two photo galleries for this post that can be accessed by clicking the following links:

  1. Ijen, Bali and Lombok
  2. Horizons Unlimited, Indonesia 2017

 

And Now For Something Completely Spectacular…

Early next morning the deluge had departed leaving a blue sky full of puffball clouds and the air a tad humid. Around the hotel carpark, the block paving had largely dried out but here and there large puddles attested to the volume of rain on the previous day. Our hotel room looked like an explosion in a flag factory with sodden garments draped all over the furniture to dry them out. As related in the previous episode, our day of near-death encounters with heavy lorries and broken roads had ended in a monsoon storm that drove us off the road and seeking the succour of a cosy hotel. On top of that, having overcome the dead battery in Sumatra, we now had a busted spoke on Maggie’s bike causing a horrid front-end wobble. Looking back at these mechanical problems, at the time they seem like mini-disasters, but invariably involve the trip taking off at some unexpected tangent with a rush of delightful encounters and new friends. So it was to be in this case but not just yet…

A short ride took us to Borobodur, our abandoned destination from the day before. Here we had the delightful experience of actually turning a FaceBook friendship into a real one when, by pure coincidence, veteran SE Asia tourer Phil Stubbs wandered into the hotel we’d just checked into. Phil hails from Essex in the UK and had flown out to Indonesia where he bought a little 225cc Yamaha Scorpio, a perfect vehicle for touring the islands. We had corresponded on various issues on FaceBook, neither of us realising how close we were to one another in the real world.  Next day we trotted off to see the sights of Borobodur itself, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the 9th Century, it occupies a most majestic setting against a lush jungle backdrop. The architecture resembles a huge wedding cake consisting of nine stacked platforms topped by a central dome all rendered in dark grey volcanic Andesite. The temple is detailed with 2,672 relief panels, houses 504 Buddha statues and the central dome at the pinnacle is surrounded by a further 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa weirdly resembling a troop of serene and smiling Daleks. Pilgrims worship in Borobudur by following the trail of staircases and corridors that ascend all the way to the top with the various levels representing each stage of enlightenment in Buddhist cosmology. The entire complex was lost to history, hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle until 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, was appointed governor of Java. He took great interest in the history of the island, which was certainly piqued when he heard stories of a lost mega-temple buried deep in the interior. Unable to make the discovery himself he sent the Dutch engineer H.C. Cornelius to investigate and he in turn found Borobodur.

The city of Yogyakarta would be our home for the next week or so. We found solace in the beautiful tree shaded garden of the Puri Pangeran Hotel, an ideal base to explore the city. Jeffrey Polnaja, a man with more contacts than an octopus playing drums, recommended a visit to see brothers Lulut and Yayak Wahyudi to solve our wheel problem. Travelling by bike, of necessity you will engage with many motorcycle repair shops but we never encountered anything that quite approached Retro Custom Cycles. Pulling up in the forecourt we were greeted by a huge smile and a warm handshake from Lulut himself. The entrance was home to a huge candy red American Dodge car and a coffee bar where, over an excellent Kopi Susu, we explained our latest mechanical mishaps. With Yayak and one of the lead mechanics fussing over the bike, the offending wheel was soon removed and sent for correction. While we were waiting we took a tour of the shop…

Race-flag chequered tiled flooring was home to a beautiful Harley chop and further back an old WLA Harley was being fettered for a customer. But it was out back in the cavernous workshops that the real treasures lay. Out of a palette of raw rusting ironwork, motorcycles were being handcrafted. Standard was binned and unique designs were given life in this Orc forge where rod, bar and plate were chopped, formed and welded to create machines of heavenly beauty. On a wall a row of brightly painted petrol tanks hung like teacups on a dresser, teardrop canvases of most beautiful line and symmetry. A new-model Harley, recognizable only from its engine, was having new bodywork hand made from aluminium, one of the technicians tinkering each piece into shape, final-forming it into body-jewelry that would later be burnished brilliant as armour for a road knight’s mount. Tour finished, we sat out front waiting for the wheel to return. A kitchen door opened and the mother of the family, a fine lady and beautiful hostess, kept appearing with fresh-cooked morsels for us to try, in case we were hungry. Then the wheel returned; a new spoke had been fabricated from a heavy-duty motocross item. A bent spoke had also been straightened and the wheel was trued; our latest batch of problems was put to rest.

In Yogyakarta we organised our first visa extensions and visited the grand palace of Kraton, actually a walled royal city within the big city and an easy stroll from the hotel. We also rode out to visit the Buddhist temple complex at Prambanan. Set in a splurge of greenery, Prambanan felt like the ultimate ‘walk in the park’ with a collection of four individual temple sites spread across several acres of gracious gardens and we contentedly lost ourselves within the tranquil setting for an afternoon. Riding east from Yogyakarta, the traffic finally began to ease as we left the horrid congestion of West Java well and truly in our wake. Roads now wound along paddy-field valleys taking us back into the mountains to a one-night stop in the city of Malang, springboard for what would prove to be one of our finest ever motorcycle adventures ever and that ‘something completely spectacular’ as promised in the header for this post…

Sleep… sleep… sleep… I am riding across an arena of slate grey sand enclosed by a coliseum curtain of sheer rock. I think I’m standing up on the footpegs; I can feel the bike slalom occasionally as the sand gives way but am reassured as the back tyre bites in and regains firmer ground. I glance in my mirror to check on Maggie; I know she hates this soft stuff but all I can make out from the recess of her helmet is the flash of a huge wide grin as her tyres spew little puffs of grey matter in her wake. None of this makes sense but then most dreams never do. A veil of cloud wafts down from the bluff and drapes a gossamer cloak across our path. We ride on and enter a ghost world, a road to hell lined with tussocks of spikey grass that point to nowhere, only tell us there is no way out. I glance back to see a phantom horseman ride across our trail and disappear off into the gloom. Both sky and horizon have vanished and we are two lost souls. Stopping, we kill the engines and dismount. There is no sound but the whisper of the wind and the tink, tink, tink of cooling metal from the bikes. The cloud parts briefly to reveal a glimpse of the squat form of an ancient temple some way off in the distance. It appears to be made of some black material and is festooned with pointed turrets. When I awake will this all rapidly fade leaving me just titillating fragments in the dawn from this otherworldly encounter?   As I survey our predicament I realise this is not a dream; this is Bromo and we have just ridden onto the crater floor of a very active volcano.

We left Malang and were soon ascending narrow mountain roads that led us up over the 2000 metre mark into volcano country. The mountains were magnificent but we began to suspect that yet again our GPS had led us up a blind draw as it seemed our base to explore Bromo, lay somewhat bafflingly on the opposite side of the mountain. We finally arrived at a gateway to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, where the rangers explained that to get to our destination we simply had to cross the crater! And so we descended a sharp series of hairpins that dropped us onto the Segara Wedi, the Sea of Sand, that carpets the crater floor and into a world like nothing we’ve ever encountered. We paused a while to ponder the way across and survey the stupendous landscape before us. The crater is about 10km in diameter and within the encircling walls is a little green jelly-mould of the conical Mount Batok. Next to this is the low, jagged and blasted caldera of Bromo itself, not so spectacular yet easily identifiable from the plume of sulphurous gases ascending to the heavens. Finally, nestled at the foot of both, is the Pura Luhur Poten Hindu temple, a low sprawl that looks like some forlorn outpost from a Mad Max movie.

You would think it highly unlikely that you could get lost in what is essentially a big circle yet that is indeed what happened. Riding across the sand flats for several kilometers, we were utterly blown away at the realisation that we were actually riding across the crater of an active volcano. Then realisation dawned that there seemed to be no obvious exit route back up to the rim. The blanket of cloud came rolling in reducing visibility to a few metres in all directions so we stopped and a mild wave of panic set in, a normal reaction I guess when you are so suddenly disoriented… Eventually a pair of headlights loomed out of the murk, a Land Rover whom we flagged down for directions. The driver explained that we had overshot and missed the exit completely. It proved difficult to spot, even in normal visibility, as the road was hidden behind a screen of trees and bushes but fortunately the cloud lifted enough to allow us to take a bearing and make our escape.

Next day we hiked down into the crater from the hostel town of Cemoro Lawang. The views over Bromo crater and Mount Batok from the rim in clear weather were simply breathtaking. Horsemen, looking like fierce nomads on their stocky little ponies, offered tourist rides up to the crater itself and jeep safaris were taking folk across the caldera. We declined these to walk across the floor of the crater, a hike that was every bit as exciting as yesterdays ride. From the temple we picked up a trail that led to a series of steps that marked the final ascent of Bromo itself. The views on up to the summit, then the panorama across the crater to the rim and over to the adjacent Mount Batok were beyond equal in all of our travels to date. We had truly attained something completely spectacular, yet all of this visual hyperbole was nothing compared to what happened next. The summit was circled by a narrow path making an ideal perch to sit and appreciate the internals of the volcano itself. The view was somewhat occluded by the clouds of steam belching forth but other senses now heightened as noses twitched at the stinky sulphur and, most spectacular of all, we felt the acoustics of the volcano rumbling. I say ‘felt’ rather than ‘heard’ as deep base notes resonated our very chest cavities, shaking us to the core. Slow brains processed all of these inputs and realisation dawned that we were listening to the actual sound of the internal workings of planet Earth, our home. It was a humbling experience, leaving one feeling so insignificant in the overall scheme of things yet standing in total awe of this beautiful and natural world. Bromo was completely spectacular and we will remember and treasure these days for the rest of our lives.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: East Java

Wild Sumatran Roads: The Ride to Java…

Bukit Lawang and its Orangutan; all-round piece of pretty poetical paradise. We found excellent accommodation here in the home of Hans, a German, who had self-built a series of beautiful little lodges complete with hammocks out front. A fascinating man, every encounter yielded a bounty of stories about life in Indonesia. In 2004 he had found a little Eden for his family in a secluded cove just outside Bandar Aceh, part of a little beach community. On Boxing Day 2004 he’d just had breakfast on his veranda, overlooking the ocean, when suddenly the sea disappeared. The tide simply went out as if the ocean was draining down some huge plughole someplace way off the coast. He grabbed his wife and daughter and they fled for high ground warning neighbouring villagers to do the same. He watched in horror as instead the locals ran to the beach; the outgoing seas had left little pools full of stranded fish and people were running to take advantage of the unexpected bounty. Of course the sea was coming back, not as an incoming tide but as a Tsunami. Hans and his family reached high ground but his home and everything in it along with the entire community he’d lived in was completely destroyed. The wave came as a rolling wall, an incredible 30m (100ft) high and swept all before it leaving some 200,000 dead and missing and another half million displaced persons like Hans.   They eventually made it back to his wife’s family in Medan and subsequently rebuilt their lives, moving to Bukit Lawang.

Our travels in Indonesia were teaching us we had a long way to go on bad roads to get through the big islands of Sumatra and then Java. Retracing the route back to Berastagi, we rode around the northwest crater rim of Lake Toba for a one-nighter in Parapat. The mountain road to the South and East was one of the worst of the trip. Grandly titled as the ‘Trans-Sumatran Highway’ again this was B-road hell with sections through towns and villages badly mangled or muddy and everything delayed by slow moving trucks that seemed barely capable of 20mph on the downhill. Now and again all progress was by a toppled truck that had been loaded high, then slipped a wheel into a ditch and turned turtle. Yet the poor roads were amply compensated by the lush mountain scenery all around and paddyfield foregrounds populated by barelegged farmers sporting coolie hats. The idyll was rendered complete by occasional flocks of white egrets flitting across the scene and it was on this road that we finally crossed the equator, our first ever road crossing from north to south.

On to the Southern Hemisphere then, where our first stop was Bukittingi, a bustling little market-town with a huge canyon right on its doorstep. Bukittingi was also the Japanese HQ during their occupation in WW2 and we explored tunnels built by slave labour overlooking the canyon. Another day and a ride out to see the spectacular Harau Valley billed as the ‘Indonesian Yosemite’, not so grand maybe but stunning all the same. Beyond Harau lay Kelok 9, an insane highway construction into the mountains full of racetrack-width elevated hairpins, bridges and super highway so incongruous with the roads in the rest of Sumatra. Riding it was like a drive-it-yourself rollercoaster; a thrilling, grin-guaranteed run quite unlike any other road in the world and a definite must for all bikers.

From Bukittingi we set forth into more mountain country bypassing another stupendous volcanic crater lake to reach the city of Sungai Penuh. It was not to be. Just beyond the lake we took a short break at a gas station. On restarting, Maggie heard an audible pop and her bike died, the battery clearly suffering some traumatic incident. On inspection its case had blistered and distorted and a trip around the village shops on the back of a petrol-attendants scooter failed to yield a replacement. It is very touching, looking back on these mishaps, at how people just stopped what they were doing, took an interest in our problem and then mucked in to help. As it happened there was a battery shop across the road. The guy there reckoned that our AGM battery (a sealed, maintenance free unit) had dried out. He broke the seal and reactivated the battery with some acid and put it on charge for a couple of hours allowing us to become a roadside attraction as folk came from near and far to have a photograph with the crazy motards! Another beautiful aspect of travelling in Indonesia is the many encounters with children. They are all keen to practice their English and approach us with a respectful request to do so. It’s a beautiful way to engage with kids as we learn about where they live, their hopes, their aspirations and a small way for us to pay back the hospitality and kindness we have had thrust upon us in Indonesia.

With the battery recharged we limped on to Padang, a city on the coast and spent the next day in a fruitless search for a replacement. The problem is our bikes use a fairly heavy-duty battery compared to local machines.   Our motorcycles have 650cc single cylinders, which require a hefty charge to turn them over in the mornings, and we could find nothing suitable in the city even with a local helper tagging along. In the end the reactivated battery seemed to be holding a charge, although its capacity and performance was clearly compromised, so we figured the bike would run OK once started. In this manner we limped through the remaining 900-miles of Sumatra, reaching the mountain town of Sungai Penuh and then another spectacular mountain ride to Bengkulu along the southern coast. These days were fraught with occasional bad road sections on a sick bike and we decided to keep going with no stops for coffee or lunch lest we get stranded in the middle of nowhere with an expired battery. Each day the battery died a little more until finally, on reaching the surf camps of Krui, jump leads were required to get her started. That final ride took us on a snake of a road over jungle-crested ridges and into the city of Bandar Lampung where the battery finally expired outside the Kurnai Perdana hotel.

A lesson learned on the road is that ‘Rescuers’ come in all shapes and forms. We asked at reception if they could call a few shops we’d found on the Internet to source a battery. Dali, a young bellhop, volunteered to take me around on the back of his scooter and, in the third shop, we final found a battery that would fit. It had a slightly lower performance rating but we figured this would only be a problem for cold starts or if the bike was left standing, neither of which are a concern in our current environment. Once fitted, the bike fired up like a nymphomaniac on HRT with big smiles all around the hotel crew who had gathered to watch the resurrection.

And so it was time to leave the stunning island of Sumatra. We boarded the RORO ferry to Java with a somewhat heavy heart and plonked ourselves down on the open deck to enjoy a cooling sea breeze and the savour the volcanic peaks of Sumatra as they receded into the distance and into our past… Our reverie was interrupted by a summons to the bridge where a bunch of smiling officers and engineers bade us enter… “Would you like to drive the boat for a bit?” they asked as the captain vacated his seat allowing Maggie to take the helm. As you can imagine, we rode off the ferry to begin the next leg of this journey with crazy loon smiles on our faces.

Java is the powerhouse of Indonesia. Appreciably smaller than Sumatra, Java contains over 60% of the population of all of Indonesia and that makes it the most densely populated island on the planet! We had been in contact with Jeffrey Polnaja, organiser of the first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia due to take place this May and where we are proud to present a slideshow or two on our travels. Jeffrey had advised avoiding the north and central roads across Java, as they are one huge logjam, especially around the capital city of Jakarta. Our first stop was the city of Bogor a mere 95 miles from the ferry, yet it took us nearly six-hours to cover this. Part of the route was mangled backroads, one of those ‘GPS shortcuts’ that utterly failed to account for the road conditions and had us slipping and sliding through chocolate-mud highstreets choked with traffic. Then we reached Bogor, a place we soon termed ‘Bugger’ for it’s traffic, where it took us over an hour and a half to cover the last eleven-miles, inch-worming through the dense gridlock. There wasn’t even room for filtering as every avenue was choked with a colloid suspension of small bikes. We read later that, with a population of several hundred thousand people residing in an area of about 20 km2, central Bogor is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire planet! It all made for tiresome riding, as progress was slow with constantly kicking up and down lower gears and arms aching from overuse of clutch and brake. To be fair the driving is mostly respectful and folk generally give way and show courtesy to one another so we never really felt threatened from other road users. Had this been India, it would simply have been carnage.

For all the traffic mayhem, Bogor was a pleasant city and a refreshing change from Wild Sumatra. In colonial times the city was named Buitenzorg (literally “without a care” in Dutch!) and served as the summer residence of the Governor-General of Dutch East Indies. There is a huge botanical garden in the centre that made for an amiable days’ stroll off the bikes. We took Jeffrey’s advice and cut through tea covered mountains to the coast, where we had been granted kind use of a splendid beach villa for a few days at the little fishing resort of Runcabuaya. This was just what we needed as our bikes and kit had taken something of a battering on the coastal ride south through Sumatra where everything had been covered in a film of sticky salt-spray that bonded with dust, dirt and diesel particles to make it all thoroughly filthy and a tad smelly to boot if I’m honest. We temporarily transformed the villa into a gypsy encampment with fluttering laundry flapping in the ocean breeze. The bikes too had a thorough cleaning and it was during this process that I discovered first a broken pannier frame bolt on my bike and then, more seriously, a broken spoke in the front wheel of Maggie’s bike; the roads in Indonesia were certainly taking their toll on our trusty machines. The bolt was replaced with a spare from the small stock we carry but the spoke was more troublesome as BMW use spokes, that feed straight through the wheel hub, whereas most other bikes have a bent attachment so finding a replacement would be a challenge. It also explained the wobble that had set in to the steering at 40mph on Maggie’s bike.

Runcabuaya was a great place to eat seafood from a plate-sized BBQ Raya fish to an order of Udang (prawns), which turned into a plate full of mouth-watering small red lobsters, split lengthwise to expose a soft, juicy forkable flesh all served in a savoury sweet and sour sauce (a steal too @£6 for two!). Our next destination was the ancient Buddhist temple complex at the imposing sounding town of Borobodur but our attempt to reach there led to one of the most scary rides of the entire trip to date… We left the haven of our lovely beach villa for a lively ride along the coast on improving roads. We saw Chinese, lift-type, fishing nets along the river estuaries and more of the verdant paddyfields lined with coconut palms that would give Ireland a run for its money in any ‘forty shades of green’ competition. We covered over half the distance in good time, with just under a hundred miles to complete in the afternoon, when it all went horribly wrong. First another GPS shortcut had us riding a dried out mud-track that was like a half-plowed minefield with bomb-blast potholes and concerns about that front wheel with the busted spoke. It was only four miles but seemed to take an eternity until we were back on solid ground. Then we hit the roadworks…

There was a tailback of maybe twenty or so cars and trucks and we followed some small bikes, filtering to the front where we were presented with a lane of completely dug up road section alongside another lane comprising a new section of raised concrete road. There was nothing coming so we followed a procession of scooters up onto the new highway. In hindsight this is perhaps the stupidest thing I have ever done on a motorcycle. It was all very well for a kilometer or so until we met a few cars coming the other way. With our fat-ass panniers we slowed down and the cars moved over so we easily passed one another. Then a minibus and a small truck; again we were able to pass but now the margin for manoeuvre was smaller. Still we were nearly there but you can imagine the horror as I heard the roar of a hefty diesel and a belch of thick black smoke that announced the oncoming arrival of a huge blue lorry. I stopped as close to the edge of the road as I could as he moved over and started to pass. My offside pannier was hanging over the edge of the road, now become a precipice and my left foot was down such that I could feel the side of the drop with my sole.

Contact! He nudged my right-side pannier with his side-rails pushing the bike over. The raised concrete section was about two feet above ground level so if I toppled over now I had a long way to fall with the bike coming down on top of me and probably breaking an arm / shoulder if not my neck! I shouted at the driver and he stopped as I managed to tease the bike forwards to eventually get by, only to see another truck looming ahead. Fortunately there was an earthen ramp down off the section and I made my escape. I jumped off the bike, adrenaline flushing though my body, in time to see Maggie now in contact with the first lorry. I don’t know how she did it but she dismounted and with the help of some locals was propping the bike up against the side of the lorry, which was in firm contact and ready to topple the bike; had she stayed in the saddle it would have been the end of her! I ran back and together we managed to manhandle the bike along the side of the lorry and then off the road altogether. Five minutes later the traffic cleared and we were able to finish the section without further hazard. The local people who lived along the road were lovely, inviting us into their homes for tea after surviving our mishap!

In hindsight it was clearly a stupid thing to do but traffic control was lacking; they just assumed any bike could squeeze on by. To cap it all, the sky up ahead bruised to black and we rode on into a deluge of super monsoon that drove almost everything off the road. We donned waterproofs but it rained with such intensity we could barely see more than a few yards ahead. After a few miles we spied the warm glowing lights of a roadside hotel and abandoned the day to the weather. Borobodur could wait…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: On to Java

 

 

Volcano / Supervolcano: Sumatra

I don’t think I ever sat down to write at such a breathtaking location as this; Lake Toba, deep in the very heart of the emerald island of Sumatra. I am sitting at the bottom of the garden of the Gokhon Guesthouse in a little pavilion, my eye taking in a full 180 of the far shore in utter tranquility, the only sound that of the little twitter birds in the palms above that wave ever-so-softly in the breeze. You can take your Garda, your Tahoe, your Windermere, and even majestic Atitlan; at this moment, none of them can possibly compare to where I am seated right now… I might well have just found paradise. And yet on this very spot many moons ago all life on the entire planet was almost extinguished for Toba is the in-filled crater of a huge supervolcano.

For all that we loved our time in Malaysia travelling there was ever so easy. Decent infrastructure, big wide roads with hard shoulders, clear signs and markings and almost everyone spoke really good English. They even had Tesco’s, for Pete’s sake… talk about home from home! That all changed the moment we arrived at Port Klang to ship to Indonesia. There is no car-ferry, just a little covered-in motor launch that carries maybe a hundred or so foot-passengers on the 5-hour run across the Straits of Malacca to Tanjung Balai in Sumatra. Some of the boats are slightly larger and can squeeze a bike or two on board for the trip. We called the lovely Sherlee Ong at Atlantic Jetstar Ferry to arrange when the next suitable boat would sail and on the appointed day bade final farewell to Kuala Lumpur. Each bike then had to be unloaded and all bags and panniers X-Rayed, airport check-in style, then reload, ride the short distance to the boat, unload yet again to permit the bikes to be manhandled down a series of steps and through the side doors onto the boat. Fortunately there were plenty of little helpers and each bike was soon onboard and secured to a handrail outside the toilet.

All this time we provided the chief source of entertainment for our co-passengers. No sooner had we sat down than requests for selfies started from a bunch of vivacious smiling ladies, our ‘Welcome to Indonesia’ party! The trip itself was remarkably fast and smooth, the motor-launch speeding across a tabletop flatness of glistening ocean. Snug in a row of four comfy chairs with all our kit, we contemplated the new land ahead… The largest island archipelago in the world, Indonesia consists of some 17,000 islands. We plan to hop our way down the chain starting in Sumatra, then Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, finally reaching East Timor, from where we’ll ship to Australia. 17,000 islands – that’s one for every Rupiah that equates to £1; yes a trip to the ATM would make us instant multi-millionaires with a million Indonesian Rupiah being yours for only sixty quid. Aside from everything now costing thousands, the main problem with the currency is that the largest available note is 100,000 Rupiah (@ £6) with coins down to the seemingly ridiculous amount of 100 Rupiah = £0.006. My wallet has never before been stuffed with such a wad of cash.

The boat slowed for the final part of the crossing, taking us up a jungly river estuary the colour of cold milk-coffee and choked with fishing boats large and small, all of them made from wood. The larger vessels looked like so many dismasted galleons, their barrel shaped hulls leaning drunkenly against each other along the muddy shore. Unloading was a reverse of loading with another X-Ray process but again a hoard of smiling friendly people assisted us manhandling the bikes out through the door and then I had the fun of riding up a rickety wooden jetty to gain the customs post. Within an hour we were efficiently stamped in, loaded up and then out loose on the streets of Tanjung Balai and one of the most startling ‘culture shocked’ arrivals we have ever experienced…

It was Saturday evening with the sun headed to roost casting a warm peachy glow on the potholed mud strip that passes for the main street through town. The street was lined with wooden shacks the same colour as the street and we picked a slow wobbly line threading through the potholes. The entire gamut of fishy stinks pervaded, from mouth-watering fried morsels on sale from street-vendor carts to rotten-knicker whiffs of fish gut and offal from monger stalls. And everywhere people… trudging and hauling, yelling and selling, shouting and laughing; all the bustle of this busy fish-town at the close of play. After squeaky clean and modern Malaysia this might all have seemed a somewhat imposing, even threatening, environment yet while it may have been raw and a little wild, it was certainly neither of these things. It was the people that gave life to the drudgery, all of them smiling at us, waving our slow procession along with shouts of ‘Hey mister’, ‘What is your name?’ and simple ‘Hellos’, greetings we are sure to hear in Rupiah sized quantities for the duration of our stay through these islands. We asked for directions to the only hotel in town and the customs guys had told us to head several kilometers along the mainstreet and turn right at the Green Mosque. The problem was there were several ‘Green Mosques’; we turned off at the wrong one and were soon speeding unto countryside on an ever-narrowing lane. We stopped to get corrections from some kids on scooters and were soon back on track to the hotel. That ride was one of the most intense immersions into a new culture anywhere and we relished it over some rice and chicken.

In the morning we set off for Lake Toba. The road improved but remained narrow and was choked with traffic making for slow progress and taking us 6-hours to cover 130 miles. Indonesia is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet and comes with a rural infrastructure that simply cannot cope. At best it is like riding on ‘B’ Roads at home if you can imagine all the traffic of a major road like London’s M25 diverted along the same route. Lesson number one is that you cannot judge journeys in Indonesia by distance alone; they must be reckoned solely by the time it will take to get there. To pot-holed roads add dilapidated diesel trucks scrimping along at sub-20mph speeds, occasional break-downs that become massive log-jams and then pour in millions of little scooters and home made tuk-tuks to fill any remaining space. The road eventually emptied as we headed into the country leaving us some peace at last to enjoy a thrilling descent from the crater rim, zigzagging down jungle roads with jaw-dropping views of heaven over the treetops towards the lake. We reached Parapat on the lakeshore at 2pm and were delighted to see the ferry across the lake would leave at 2:30. We were the first ones there… in fact we were the only ones there, for a while at least, but after about 15-minutes a few cars and small trucks appeared and we chatted to the new arrivals, learning how timetables don’t really mean much here, a fact that was underlined by the eventual departure of the 14:30 ferry at 17:40.

The ferry delivered us in an hour across that sublime lake to the bustling little ville of Tomok on the island of Samosir and another 4 miles took us on to Tuk Tuk, where I started this narrative. 75,000 years ago, we definitely would not have wanted to be here as that was when Toba, the super-volcano, erupted; the largest explosion on Earth in the last 25 million years. The eruption deposited a layer of ash 150mm thick over all Southern Asia; at one site in central India, the ash has been measured at up to 6-metres thick. The net effect was to plunge the entire planet into one long winter with as global temperatures fell dramatically. The Toba eruption also had cataclysmic consequences for population of the planet killing most humans living at that time leaving only a residue of people in central/east Africa and some in India from whom we are all descended today.

Over the eons the enormous crater filled with water to form an elongated lake measuring 100km x 30km. The island of Samosir rose from its depths and is home to the Batak people. You immediately know you are in Batak country by the dramatic change in architecture with the sudden appearance of Batak houses with their steeply pitched saddleback roofing bearing insanely pointed fore and aft peaks. The gable ends are beautifully rendered with characteristic carvings and motifs all painted in traditional black, white and red and the net appearance is that of an utterly marooned treasure galleon waiting for the tide to come in and reclaim it. It all has a somewhat Polynesian feel to it and reminds us we are now departed from mainland Asia. In their past the Bataks had a reputation for cannibalism. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, studied the Batak in his travels here and commented on the practice noting “It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work,” and that for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.” Thankfully today the Batak people are mainly Christian however some traditional practices survive such as the reburial of the dead after some time in little ossuaries that are found all over the area. The Batak believe that the dead occupy a status similar to the social position they held in life so that a rich and powerful individual remains influential after death, and their status can be elevated if the family holds a reburial ceremony.

With all this geographical and cultural awe on our doorstep Tuk Tuk became our home for the next week as we explored the island. The Gokhon Guesthouse was a portal to some fine eating at the nearby Popy’s and Jenny’s restaurants, dining on lake fish with delicious sambals and rice. We also were introduced to Gado-Gado (literally mix-mix) a mélange of freshly cooked vegetables adorned with a fragrant peanut sate sauce. Breakfast at Popy’s took even a plain omelet to another level arriving stuffed with carrot and cabbage that would fill you to the gills for the day ahead.

From ancient people and supervolcanoes we moved on to visit a real live volcano; Sibayak, reachable by a 4-hour hike from the bustling little town of Berastagi. Along the way we espied neighbouring Sinabung, a far more active beast. A substantial eruption in 2010 forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people from the vicinity and last May a pyroclastic burp killed seven individuals caught on its slopes. Through binoculars we could see entire forests on its flanks reduced to a dead diorama of matchsticks. We walked on to reach the crater of our own volcano spotting birds and monkeys along the way. The summit was spectacular and well worth the hike; an acid filled lake surrounded by yellow-gash fumaroles spewing sulphurous belches into the air and feeling very unworldly, reminding us on what a fragile crust we all tread. On the way down we spotted something small and furry moving in the boulders. It was a rat desperately foraging for food in the stone field and he remained totally oblivious to our presence. As we approached the reason for his lack of caution became clear; he was totally blind, probably caused by the sulphurous environment in which he lives and his eye sockets were closed and crusted over by the burning acid. It was probably one of the most incredible little wildlife encounters in all of our travels. We just marveled that, in spite of this disability, this little rat was apparently surviving up here.

Sumatra was stealing our hearts. With the little roads and the slow progress it reminded us of ‘Ireland when we were growing up’, where all journeys took ages to get anywhere but were filled with marvels along the way, something that has now been totally obliterated by motorway travel. We rode on ever deteriorating roads into another jungle land to reach the riverside village of Bukit Lawang for another very special wildlife encounter. We needed a guide to enter the dark vastness of the Gunung Leuser National Park, crossing the rope-bridge over the river and entering a rubber plantation that skirts the jungle. Here a silver-spiked, punky-monkey clambered down to see us. He was a cutesy Thomas Leaf monkey and politely accepted the gift of a banana from our guide. We left the plantation trees for a mud track into the jungle, climbing ridges and dropping into valleys for the next couple of hours before spotting what we came all this way to see…

First up in the trees, some violent movement and then a flash of cinnamon hair in the darkness. Leng, our guide, bade us wait and disappeared off up the trail for several minutes. After several suspenseful minutes he reappeared around a bend in the path with Jackie, a fully-grown female Orangutan, in tow. She had a baby clung to her chest and walked straight up to me and took hold of my forearm. Her hand was enormous, easily clamping my forearm in her leathery grip. I tried to draw my arm away but she held firm and I had the distinct impression that she had the ability to break my arm in two in a single motion had she wished. It was mildly terrifying yet marvelous all at the same time. I crouched down and she sat contentedly beside me until Leng produced some fruit to distract her away. A few more tour groups appeared along with another of Jackie’s offspring, a cute youngster who set himself up in a small tree in our midst accepting bananas for photographs and a precious chance to observe these incredible animals up close. I should explain here that the Orangutan here are not fully wild but originate from a rescue and rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang that released injured or recovered pet Orangutan back to the wild. They have had such dependency on humans that they will never truly return to the wild, identifying approaching people with free food and guaranteeing a local industry in tour-guided wildlife walks.

At the end of this day Sumatra had well and truly taken full possession of our hearts. It is simply one of the wildest, most beautiful paradises we have ever come across in all our travels and if this is our gateway to Indonesia, then we are in for some amazing days ahead.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Volcano / Supervolcano – Sumatra

 

 

 

Twelve Kingfishers and a Cobra…

The title of this piece sounds like a splendid beer order on a curry night back home, a beautiful thing to behold indeed, yet this title was granted by something far more wondrous than a round of alcoholic beverages but I am getting ahead of myself… First, rewind to a sun-dappled day riding the coast road north under a sapphire blaze sky. Stop after an hour or so to woof down a couple of Roti Chenai, our second breakfast of the day, promising ourselves it will do us for lunch knowing full well we’ll probably be tempted in a few hours time by the waft of some other roadside vendor… Overeating is a common problem in Malaysia where some folk eat up to six meals a day and it is so easy to join in. The bikes are purring along, all clean and tidy after our month-long stop in Melaka; it’s a good day to be alive. The road leaves the coast to serpent crawl through mile after mile of palm oil plantation, the trees waving to us as we speed along like a convention of green-team cheerleaders. Then a stretch of major carriageway drops us into the suburbia of KL: Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. It is the middle of the afternoon, a good time to arrive in the big smoke for traffic and the journey is effortless with big carriageways delivering us right to the doorstep of the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was a delightful find; 3-star room at 2-star off-season prices and everything in the city within easy monorail / walking distance. From hawker-stalls on Jalan Alor to the Indonesian Embassy where we are granted 60-day visas (with up to 4 x 30 day extensions granting us up to 6-months there should we need it) to the atmospheric Chinatown and Little India. We decline the £4 a head hotel breakfast for a plate of that mouthwatering morning staple, Nasi Lemak, across the street; a measly £3 for the pair of us including white coffees lashed with evaporated milk that taste like mugs of melted caramel. KL quickly wins a place in our hearts as our favourite city in South-East Asia, easily outshining both Bangkok and Singapore. It’s a big city with a small town feel and it’s denizens really go out of their way to make a traveller welcome. The city is host to a delightful mix of old and new; grandiose colonial-era civic buildings around Merdeka Square, with its cricket style pavilion in the heart of the city, mingle with modern from the ‘donut on a needle’ KL Tower to the utterly dazzling Petronas twin towers while here and there, mosque and a minaret mish-mash with shrine, church and temple. A Sunday train ride takes us out to see Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine on the northern edge of the city sculpted out of a curtain of limestone rock.

The sands in the hourglass marking our time in Malaysia are slowly running out and we have one final trip to make before it all ends. We wanted to cut across the peninsular to see something of the east coast, looping north and returning via the central highlands for a hike or two in Taman Negara National Park to give us a feel for the interior. The monsoon season prevented us from visiting earlier, but the rains are now ending and we travelled in the hope that the weather may have eased enough to let us see the place. It would also be a superb opportunity for our first attempt to film part of our trip. We have always been reluctant to video our travels for a number of reasons, chiefly, that your trip can easily turn into one big movie shoot with all the attendant frustrations and hassles of catching the right footage. From the expense of buying decent camera equipment, the masses of computer memory required for movie footage as opposed to stills and finally the inordinate amounts of time spent editing the movies, splicing in soundtracks etc, and you lose a heck of a lot of travel time making what will probably be a mediocre home-movie at best. Back in Melaka our little Panasonic Lumix camera died after many years of sterling service and, seeking a suitable replacement, my eye was drawn to a fantastic deal on an SJ4000; a little ‘Go-Pro clone’ that came with a fantastic array of accessories with a freebie selfie-stick and memory card all thrown in. A few YouTube reviews convinced us to go for it; if successful we could use all the accessories on a more expensive Go-Pro while at the same time it wasn’t such a big expenditure if it ultimately proved unsuccessful.

A fantastic sunlit dawn provided the scene for the inaugural video; “The Leprechauns Leaving of Kuala Lumpur”. With the camera mounted on top of my helmet we set off catching the sleepy-eyed city as it woke from a Saturday night. Dust motes twirled through the crepuscular rays as the sunrise crept around skyscrapers filling canyons of streets with golden light. Mopeds buzzed around my front wheel giving some feel to what it’s like ride through an Asian metropolis and then the towers hove into view. First the KL, spire first, peeking over a curtain of high-rise blocks. The road skirted the buildings revealing the entire height of the needle from stem to tip, all sited atop the jungled garden that laps around its base. The road wound on beneath the monorail into a futuristic cityscape, all glass, concrete and steel, the route lined with spectacular palms and banyans with the tendril roots of the latter trailing down from lofty branches to remind the viewer that these are equatorial climes. Suddenly the Petronas Towers hove into view. I gasped at the beauty of these jeweled icons, their stainless carapace sparkling all diamante and reflecting laser beam lights of pure sunshine in all directions. Traffic lights ahead changed to red and I sat awhile jabbering excitedly on the intercom to Mags, enthralled that my directorial debut was yielding such fantastic material. This was just superb! What a start to the day!

The lights changed and the road led us away from the excitement into more mundane suburbs. The cool morning breeze wafted across my face as we gathered a bit of speed on the link road to the motorway out of town. Better drop the flip front of the helmet then… At this point I should explain to the non-motorcycling reader, Maggie and I are using what are known as ‘flip-front’ helmets for this trip. They look like a full-face crash helmet only the entire chin piece can be raised like a medieval knight would raise his visor after the joust. Flip-front helmets are just great for slow speed riding around town so you can enjoy the benefits of a cool breeze just like this morning… except that this morning I have a new video camera mounted on top of my helmet that is supposedly capturing fantastic footage of the metropolis… Later when I downloaded the movie, you guessed it… about 40 minutes of flip-front, totally obscuring every shot. No towers, no trees, no sparkles just a crappy piece of white plastic proceeding vaguely along some road.

The highway across the country to Kuantan was some compensation for my failed cinematography and surely one of the great rides of Malaysia; the E8, a staggering, slaloming, super-wide motorway into the mountains full of fast bends and stunning scenery. Then the slower coastal road delivered us to the surfer beaches at Cherating for a couple of nights at a mostly vacant resort. It is still too early in the season and we had lashings of rain and stormy seas dictating an earlier than planned ride on up to Kuala Terengganu. On the surface Terengganu didn’t seem to have a lot to offer, especially when dappled dull by grey skies, but this is Malaysia and the friendly and welcoming people here simply make anything seem great. Our hostess at the ‘Titi Villa’ (…stop sniggering at the back there!) delivered a bountiful supply of home cooked food to our door at least once a day, delicious repasts ranging from lightly curried Malay pasta to a fragrant fall-apart fish platter that tasted like the catch of the day basted in a curried bisque.

Sadly we learned that the heavy rain had destroyed our intended route up through the central highlands to Taman Negara, incurring a 60-mile detour to the north to circumvent the blocked road. Rain induced landslides had destroyed several roads in the area with some loss of life, including the tragic tale in the local paper of a schoolteacher whose car veered into a collapsed drainage ditch. The car was wedged in the ditch and, unable to open the doors, she called her husband on her mobile as the car filled with water. He rushed to the scene only to retrieve her drowned body.

Fortunately the sun was now shining as we rode into the Malaysian heartland and made our way to Kuala Tahan, where the road ends at the broad reach of the Kelantan River across which was the gateway to the park (you will have noticed the word ‘Kuala’ appearing in quite a few Malay place names; it means ‘place were two rivers meet’). But let’s not go there just yet… That road ran like a liquorish bootlace through palm plantation chased all the way by telegraph poles, their sagging lines adorned with clothes-peg arrays of beautiful little swallows. Now and again they descended to chase along the road in front of us turning our slow ride into a real zippity-do-da-day. Then a tracer-round of electric blue flashed by; a Kingfisher, most beautiful of birds, had joined the fun! We rolled off and watched as he alighted on the lines up ahead, heads swiveling like mechanical owls unable to take our eyes off him. Back home in the UK most of our native wildlife is fairly drab and muted in colour. One exception is the Kingfisher, most elusive and tiniest of birds and we have glimpsed flashes of these little streaks of blue maybe four or five times in our lives. So you can imagine our delight at this encounter on the bike, even better to see him perched on the telegraph wire allowing a good look at him. We rode on; another Kingfisher on the other side of the road, a while later yet another and then a pair of them watching us ride by, then another and another until we had counted a round dozen providing a spectacular avian honour-guard for the day.  Indeed our Kingfishers were appropriately bright jewels to stud what was for us the crowning beauty of all Malaysia; Taman Negara National Park.

Kuala Tahan, service town for the park, was something of a sleepy outpost backed on to the river, a collection of a few shady guesthouses, eateries and package tour companies offering everything from day trips to jungle expeditions into the park. Down by the river a number of floating restaurants lined the banks. At the far end one of them hung suspended from the trees high up on the bank, like Dorothy’s house from the Wizard of Oz, marooned when the river flooded a few years back. We spent days in the park, wandering muddy jungle trails (after all the recent rain) and climbing up to try the canopy walk, a run of rope-ladder and netting constructions that take you high up into the trees, rendered utterly frightening by the ricketiness of it all.  We saw monkeys, more Kingfishers, heard rather than saw a racket of Hornbills up in the canopy above and gawked at a splendid Brahminy Eagle circling the riverbanks. On our final hike, we were making our way back to the ferry back to town when we bumped into a couple of locals walking in the opposite direction. They were stopped and frantically gestured for us to halt! keep quiet! stay back! and take care! The guy made a sinuous motion with his arm and pointed into some bushes at the side of the trail. He then uttered one word “Cobra!” If we were unsure of his gestures that word put the fear of god into us and made us obey… After a few moments we cautiously crept along the path, eyes glued to the bushes where the snake was last observed. Peering into the gloom we spied a small clearing into which a one-metre length of chalybeous serpent unraveled his length to move rapidly away from us into the more dense undergrowth. Back at the park interpretive centre we identified our snake as a fully-grown Monocellate or Monocled Cobra and, whilst the snake is extremely venomous with the additional ability to spit its venom, they will only strike when cornered and prefer to evade contact as had happened today. It was another beautiful encounter and one that will ensure that Taman Negara remains a special place in our travels.

And so our time in Malaysia was drawing to a close. We rode back to Kuala Lumpur, stopping off to see yet more spectacular birds around the old hill station at Fraser’s Hill on the way. The sign on the way into town bills this as Malaysia’s Little England and indeed it feels like we are in the Lake District, if you can imagine Cumbria surrounded by jungle. Back in KL we replaced the waterpump on Maggie’s bike for the second time on the trip, the task made easier this time by the use of the facilities at Sunny Cycles, in our books the number one motorcycle dealer on the planet! Sunny is a fellow overlander and was very sympathetic to our needs, immediately offering floor space in his workshop to complete the repairs and then taking us all out for lunch. Then it was time for the ferry to Sumatra and bid farewell to Malaysia after nearly seven months here (including the month long stop in Singapore), the longest we have spent in any country on our travels to date. Malaysia is a magical place, not so much for the beauty of the country but for the kindness and hospitality of the Malaysian people who we will forever after hold dear to our hearts. But up ahead the monsoon is clearing and it is time to proceed to our next destination… Indonesia!

The gallery for this article may be accessed by clicking the following link: Last Days in Malaysia

Back to Malaysia

Leaving Singapore, we were turning our backs on some of the best days of the trip. It had been fantastic living with Azra and getting involved with the Free Food For All Charity. Azra and Nico had already gone on a short vacation so that sad goodbye was at least over us yet it was still quite a wrench as we packed the bikes and rode to the border and another encounter with the wrong side of the ‘hedgehog’ (see last post).   Given the mass migration of two-wheelers that takes place every day at this frontier, there are custom booths for motorcycles at the border with a toll-type office on one side and then a knee high kerb on the other. Once committed on our laden mules, we were stuck in a one-way track, with no possibility of dismounting as there was simply no way to prop the bike to get off. I went first with the passports, to get them stamped and Maggie could then follow on through.

I moved forward, retrieved the passports from down the front of my jacket and slid them through the mouse-hole in the window. The frumpy girl on duty tutted and lifted each of them by the corner, like they were a pair of dead mice and frowned ‘what’s this?’ I explained the second passport was my wife’s who was just behind. She opened one of the passports, Maggie’s; ‘and who is this?’

‘I just explained, it belongs to my wife’… another tut.

‘Give it to her.’ She flung the passport back at me. I looked around. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

‘I’ll just set it here’ I said leaving the passport on the counter to the side of the mouse-hole. Another tut, this one louder. Maggie was listening to my end of this over the intercom. ‘Hey! Be patient. She’s just doing her job.’ ‘OK missy,’ I whispered back. ‘Can’t wait till it’s your turn…’

Troglodyte customs lady was flicking through my passport. ‘When did you enter Singapore?’

‘About a month ago?’ I replied, ‘the date is stamped in the passport.’ I sensed she was now looking for some reason to delay us. I really couldn’t see the point, as we just needed to stamp out and leave. She sat there in her air-conditioned booth, picked up the phone and made several calls, discussing something about my passport, while I sat outside slowly stewing in the rising heat off my engine. After about ten minutes of this, she stamped the passport and returned it with a dismissive wave. I moved on through the booth and waited for Maggie. A few minutes and she was stamped and through but her face was like thunder. “Ignorant cow! What was all that about?” she said as we sorted the carnets for stamping out. “I have no idea my dear. Just a minion flexing her pathetic power.” The contrast when we crossed back to Malaysia was incredible. Smiling officers, efficiently checking our documents, before granting us a 90-day visa, giving us directions to the carnet office and dismissing us with a singsong “enjoy your ride in Malaysia!”

The customs office, where the carnets were processed…

Singapore – a pointed finger instructed us to leave the carnets in the in-tray, then we were shooed away by a flick of the officer’s fingertips with ne’er a ‘good morning’ or any such pleasantry dispatched. Trying to find the office, we had been wandering around outside. When Maggie got up to go find the loo, the officer snapped ‘where are you going?’ Maggie explained she needed to find a bathroom. ‘Must be escorted!’ and a lady auxiliary marched with her to the bathroom and waited outside.

Malaysia – seats were cleared and provided and we were asked if we needed some water while the officers recorded our details, stamped the carnets and asked us about our journey. It was all done in a few minutes attended over a bevvy of beaming smiles that cost nothing but were priceless to receive.

We rode to the UNESCO world heritage city of Malacca, where we spent Christmas and the New Year. We had found a great deal on a Condo and spent a month mooching around this charming little city. Malacca is a layer cake of Malaysia’s colonial past; founded by the Portuguese, taken by the Dutch and finally handed over to the British after the Napoleonic wars, it was soon eclipsed as a trading post by Singapore one hundred miles to the south and George Town up in the north. Spices brought the Europeans to these coasts with Nutmeg, Mace and Cloves passing through from their sources in Indonesia. Then white gold followed by black gold and finally today; orange gold. The ‘white gold’ was tin, found in abundance on the Malay peninsular. International demand rose steadily in the nineteenth century due to the application of tinplate in the modern canned food industry (why we refer today to a ‘tin’ of beans, the biscuit tin, etc). By the end of the 19th century, Malayan tin exports supplied just over half of the world output with Singapore now a major centre for refining the ore.

Tin mining brought considerable prosperity to the country but it was clearly a non-renewable resource so it was with incredible good fortune that, in the early twentieth century, Malaysia’s ‘Black Gold’ came to the fore when demand for rubber as a raw material escalated for new industries in the West, notably to supply tyres for the blossoming automobile industry. Rubber originated from the output of scattered trees growing wild in the jungles of South America, an arrangement that offered poor yields. So, in the 1870s, the British government organized the transport of specimens of the tree Hevea Brasiliensis from Brazil to colonies in the East, notably Ceylon and Singapore, where the trees flourished and within the five years it took the initial batch of trees to mature the rubber boom began and fortunes were made. By 1921, Malaysian Peninsular rubber plantations covered an area of around 1.34 million acres, and accounted for some 50% percent of the total world production. As a result of this boom, rubber quickly surpassed tin as Malaysia’s main export product, a position that it was to hold until 1980.

Both of these industries were to have a massive impact on the population of Malaysia. The indigenous Malay people were few in numbers and scattered in villages across the country. Many were descendants of Arab traders who brought Islam to the region and introduced the Sultanates that are still present in the Federation of Malay states today. Yet these new industries needed manpower, both for the open cast tin mines and for the rubber plantations, where the process of bleeding the trees and collecting the latex run-off was very time-consuming and labour intensive. This manpower would be provided by a rush of Indian and Chinese immigrants, who flocked to Malaysia to satisfy the demand and whose descendants make up a huge proportion of the population today. All of this industry made a massive impact on infrastructure with a good road and rail network implemented to move product around.

Today riding, through Malaysia, this entire environment has largely disappeared. There are a few scars left on the landscape from the tin mines but the rubber trees are almost totally gone as the ‘white’ and ‘black’ have been replaced by ‘orange’ gold; palm oil. Vast tracts of the countryside are totally given over to palm tree plantations, which cover a staggering 77% of agricultural area in the country, making Malaysia the world’s second-largest producer of the world’s most common vegetable oil (after Indonesia). Since the 1980’s palm oil has become one of the world’s most versatile raw materials and palm oil based ingredients are found in approximately 50% of products on our supermarket shelves ranging from simple cooking oil and margarine to lipstick and soap.

Malaysians today, be they of Malay, Chinese or Indian descent, are some of the friendliest people in the world. They are mildly inquisitive, without being intrusive and keen to offer help at the first sign of confusion or hesitation. Yet we have suffered a rather curious confusion over our accents, which has left the pair of us baffled. Now we are no strangers to misunderstandings of the North Irish tongue, most notably in the French phrase for explaining where we come from; ‘Nous sommes de Irlande du Nord.’   At school I was taught to pronounce this as ‘Nou som de Ear-lawned du Nord’. I spent two hours in a campsite in Avignon one evening listening to a guy who, on hearing where I was from, told me how he had visited my country and loved it, especially the waterways and the flowers.  Now there’s me thinking ‘gosh the Newry canal isn’t that impressive but has clearly left an impression here’ and ‘he must have visited at the 12th July to see all the orange lilies.’ He went on and on and what could I do but agree? It was only about an hour later when he started talking about windmills and how flat the place was that the penny dropped and I discovered that to the French ear ‘Ear-lawned’ sounds remarkably like ‘Ol-lawned,’ which is of course Holland.

Yet here in Malaysia the latest confusion concerns the numbers ‘two’ and ‘three.’ Even speaking in our harshest ‘Norn’ Irish’ accents we find it amazing that the word ‘tu’ in the Ulster vernacular could sound anyway remotely like the word ‘three.’ The first occasion happened when we ordered ‘two’ cups of tea and ‘three’ arrived. ‘I thought you said three,’ explained the lass as she took the extra cup away… Then, shopping for some contact lenses, both of us clearly heard the young lady quote a price of two hundred and seventy Ringgits (the Malay currency). Seemed a reasonable deal only to be shown a bill for three hundred and seventy at the till, which suddenly made the lenses very expensive and we declined with a little embarrassment. It has happened five or six times now to the point where we spell the number out each time to avoid confusion.

Monsoon is upon us although we have only yet seen a few heavy showers arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We made a few exploratory trips on the bikes along the coast to Cape Rachado and on to Port Dickson. The coastline is fairly developed and not particularly scenic but the halts for white coffee and the odd Nasi Lemak have made it a fond memory. Our condo became a little haven with a few hawker stalls just outside the door complemented by a brilliant fishmonger stall, where the owners and customers have competed to show us how to select the best, fresh, seafood. Our table has been finely adorned with juicy prawns, succulent squid and seared seabass several times a week. We found contentment in wandering Malaccan streets and the fine riverfront with yet more of those fantastic wall murals endemic to Malaysia. We mooched shops stuffed with Santas and Snowmen in the windows just like home only we were clad in shorts and flip-flops rather than parkas and welly-boots. Supping a beer at a pavement table outside the splendid ‘Geographer’s Café’, we listened to Christian Christmas carols played in a Buddhist bar (in the heart of Chinatown) in this Moslem country. What a mélange of race, colour and culture… It was some compensation for missing friends and family over the festive season, which is never an easy time to be away from home.

2017 ushered a move to the big smoke; the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. After Bangkok and Singapore it wasn’t a place we looked forward to but duty called, as we needed to organise visas for Indonesia at the embassy there. And once again Malaysia would provide yet another delightful surprise in one of the most easy-going, laid-back big cities we have ever visited but that will have to wait for next time…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: ‘Back to Malaysia’

Singapore – Feeding the Five Thousand…

Singapore; we were in! Ermmmm… except not just yet… Passports and carnets all stamped: check. Fully road legal with 28-days insurance and ICP (costing almost $300 each @ exchange rate of $1.7 SGP = £1): check. Now just one more thing; we needed an Autopass card @$12. This is a sort of credit card that covers road tax and grants the holder 10-days free access to Singapore’s roads but then accumulates a $4-per-day charge thereafter. It was starting to feel like someone had snicked the corner of my wallet leaving me wandering around customs bleeding cash…

“So that’s it?” we asked, “After Autopass we’re free to go?”

“No; still need ERP,” was the reply.

ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) is a congestion-charge (on top of the road tax) for accessing certain busy central areas. The system works off gantry-mounted cameras that read car number plates and charge accordingly. The penalties for ERP infractions are severe; $70 fine per gantry. It’s OK for cars as you can pay this with the Autopass but for bikes (with no standard front number plate) you need to mount an electronic unit @$125 rental deposit + $5 daily usage charge + all accumulated ERP charges. They were talking about finding units and getting someone to wire them onto the bike! At this point we declined; we confirmed the route to our Workaway was ‘ERP free’ and decided to just hide the bikes for the duration of our stay on the island. Packing our documents away to finally leave the border, I checked the passports and noted that the newly inserted immigration card bore the legend “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPOREAN LAW.” As the closing act on a stressful border crossing it all seemed so aggressive, unnecessary and unwelcoming.

Motorcycling in Singapore proved to be about as exciting as riding around Birmingham except all confined on an island. The ride to Azra’s house took us through a mess of conurbation and traffic with nothing much to look at other than repeat visions of high-rise tenement blocks, shopping malls sploshed in the familiar heraldry of the big chains, industrial units and a plopped-on-top spaghetti mess of carriageway. I was sure I had seen this landscape before… A few days later, riding around on the impressive MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system, it struck me; this is surely a prototype for one of the Mega-Cities from Judge Dredd in the 2000AD comics. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, where the planet has been reduced to a nuclear wasteland, people are confined in huge Mega-Cities where space is at a premium and the only way to build is up; Singapore with its Mega-Bloks and Malls! To put this in perspective, the islands of Singapore cover a miniscule land area of only 720 km2, yet have a whopping population of 5.4 million people. To give you an idea of how cram-packed that is our homeland, Northern Ireland, covers an area of 14,000 km2 with a population of around 1.8 million (that’s almost twenty times bigger with only a third of the population). Even other big cities like London have nowhere near this population density. Another startling fact is that the increase in Singapore’s population has been relatively recent. In 1980 the population was just under 2.5 million souls. By 2000 it had reached 4 million and now this… A March 2016 article in the Economist, comparing cost of living indices, rated Singapore as the most expensive place to live on the planet for the third year running, topping Zurich / Hong Kong, Geneva, Paris, London and New York who hold 2nd – 6th places respectively.

So far I’m not painting a very good picture of Singapore, a muss of fuss and hassle, unfriendly border bureaucracy and petty rules with whopping fines; overcrowding and congestion with nothing much to look at and premium prices for everything thrown in. But Singapore had one supremely redeeming feature that would end our recent purgatory and reward us with some of the finest travel experiences of this trip to date; its people. Singapore, you see, is rather like a hedgehog; all the pricks are on the outside…

The GPS took us to the east of the island where we pulled up outside Azra’s town house in a rather pleasant leafy suburb. Her father, Afandi, greeted us with the breaking news of the day; Donald Trump had won the US Presidency. We hoped against hope that this was some silly Malay joke but sadly it was true; the muppet with the mop was in. Then we met Tin-Tin, the Indonesian maid, who showed us to our ample room at the top of the three-storey house. Later Azra with Nicholas, her Belgian husband, returned from work to bid us a very warm and smiley welcome to their house with apologies for not being there earlier to greet us. Their three children, Danish, Leah and Luc joined us for a tasty pasta dinner and we had a pleasant evening discussing our Workaway roles.

Azra works as general manager for a local charity called Free Food For All and next day we met the members of the board. The gentle Faiz, the experienced and kindly Karim and the chief and founder himself: Nizar, a great big bear of a man with a heart of corn. The meeting, in true Malay fashion, was conducted over a vast mound of food in a café in one of the tenement blocks where the charity had a lot of beneficiaries. Outside a horrific monsoon storm brought a deluge of rain with violent smacks of thunder and whiteout sheets of lightning. With introductions made, we sat down to ‘just-a-snack’ of Murtabak and some ‘John’s Bread’– delicious variants of stuffed hot roti breads. We’d already eaten lunch but this was too delicious to pass on so we found ourselves tearing into the steaming bread with everyone else as we learned the whys and wherefores of Free Food For All.

Most expensive place to live on the planet…? Why would anyone need ‘free food’ here? Well, as we all know, lives change and people suddenly find themselves in dire straits. A partner walks out, you get fired… made redundant; you are diagnosed with a long-term illness and cannot work. Suddenly there is a clutter of young mouths to feed with no money coming in. One of the first things to suffer is food and nutrition, as the household budget is drastically restricted. That’s where the charity comes in. To start they provide a decent cooked meal once a day to qualified beneficiaries, removing at a stroke the worry of where that next dinner is coming from. But this is just the start. The free food is an inroad to other services, including counseling and planning services, to help get the beneficiary back on track, into employment and helping them to once again become a contributor to society. To date FFFA has delivered over 200,000 cooked meals to members of all communities across Singapore and, we can vouch, they are dong a sterling job.

Our first activity was a forthcoming “Meal for a Meal” event where individuals purchase a $10 lamb biryani as part of a 2-for-1 deal, providing a free dinner to a beneficiary. The target was to sell 5000 Biryanis in a day and a caterer was onboard to cook the food. Many individuals had already pledged to take dinners and we spent several days on the phone securing donations and chatting with chirpy Singaporeans. It seemed that people were happy to make an event of the occasion, organising ‘Biryani parties’ with friends and families, whilst others placed substantial orders and simply gave it all away to the beneficiaries. Then came the weekend of the epic cookout. Kick-off was 7pm Friday evening in the public meeting space in the Chai Chee tenement block, with over twenty huge cauldrons set up on industrial sized gas burners. Marinating meat was set to stew and rice was washed and cleaned before mixing with vegetables and spices. Steaming cauldrons were stirred with oars, the entire set resembling the giant’s kitchen from Jack and the Beanstalk. Cooking continued throughout the night and by early morning everything was ready.

A legion of volunteers had arrived to undertake the logistics of feeding this five thousand. The area was a hive of frenetic activity and we willingly threw ourselves into every aspect of it. The production line was soon rolling with containers loaded up with rice, a serving of meat and a jollop of sauce, lids on, all labeled up, container sealed and then stacked. Stacks were then boxed into area orders and couriers dispatched for delivery all over the island. The air hung rich with the smell of good food, high notes of cinnamon, cardamom and curry leaf, wafting from the rich gravy that was lovingly ladled into each serving. I stopped for a moment to contemplate how on earth our travels had led us to this point and realised there was another gravy going on today; a gravy of community and humanity. Scanning the scene before me I noted beautiful smiling Malay and Indian Moslems, ladies in hijab, working side by side with grinning Chinese, Buddhist, Christians and Atheists all towards one end; to give someone less fortunate a decent dinner.  There was no demarcation, no us and them, just us… all of us, doing this act of kindness, right here and now. I never felt so alive in my life and a look across at Maggie in a throng of willing hands round a table, busy sorting the next orders, told me she was feeling the same elation. By 3pm, after an exhausting night and day we were all sold out; the five thousand had been fed!

The rest of our Workaway time in Singapore was spent helping draft web content for the charity. We also helped to cook a barbeque in a children’s orphanage, reciprocating help with some friends of Azras who had been in the thick of it at the Biryani cookout. We learned (while chatting over the coals at the barbeque) that the event was simply organised by a bunch of old school-friends who decided that instead of holding an annual reunion, they would cook a treat for a bunch of orphans. It was such a simple and beautiful consideration and once again we felt privileged to encounter the great spirit of community that exists in Singapore.

It’s so funny but with the overcrowding and population density noted above you would expect a fair degree of chaos and disorder to reign here. Journey into the mega-blocks and you wouldn’t be surprised to find slums, graffiti, maybe burned-out cars and trash piles everywhere all of this a veneer for a seedy life filled with crime, petty and serious, a place where decent people hide unseen for the most part. But Singapore is nothing of the sort. We visited one of the blocks with Azra and all of these things are notable by their absence; there is no trash, no graffiti, no slum. My guess is that the only way to live in such a packed environment is to have strict rules (such as we experienced trying to enter the country) and for everyone to stand by them, with stringent penalties enforced for all infractions, such as transgressing the ERP gantries (we later noted a ‘no fishing’ sign in the Marina Bay area with warning of a $3000 fine for transgression!) Any relaxation, any permission to just do what you like, would simply lead to chaos. But more than that, such an environment seems to breed a caring community such as we had witnessed in our charity work here, where everyone is ready to pitch in and either contribute or participate. Free Food For All certainly gave us food for thought.

Our bikes sat in Azra’s yard unused but certainly not uncared for. We needed replacement tyres and some of our riding gear was in need of some attention. We put out a call for recommendations on Facebook, which was answered by two fellow bikers, YemPaul Antonio and Elmy Ahmad. They turned up on their off day to drive us around town to source tyres, gloves and other bits and pieces. Again, in true Malay fashion, they introduced themselves with smiles and the stock question, “have you eaten yet?” We had learned by now that there is no negative answer to this question and a huge nosh-up lunch ensued.

Considering all the kindness and hospitality we had bestowed upon us during our stay in Singapore and indeed participated in, it came as no surprise to learn that Singapore ranks as the 22nd happiest country in the world and No.1 in SE Asia, according to the World Happiness Report 2016 published by the ‘Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations’ (the same report identifies Denmark as the happiest place to live out of a total of some 165 nations). We can attest that that ranking is well warranted. Singapore had been a tough nut to crack but the filling proved to be both delicious and nutritious in every way! It had been hard to get in; now it would be even harder to walk away…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Singapore

 

 

‘Singapore – Cannot!’

“Sorry Singapore cannot. You go back M’laysia,” said the smiling customs officer, a slightly chubby chappie. A quick scan of his nametag disclosed that we were dealing with (and I kid you not) Mr. Wee. The obvious question arose… was he taking the piss? This morning was fast unraveling into a right nightmare at what was proving to be the most horrific border crossing yet in accessing over sixty countries around the globe. In principal the formalities for entering Singapore are the same for anywhere else; you get your passport stamped ‘in’ for immigration and then proceed to customs where the ‘Carnet de Passage’ gets stamped, to permit access for the bikes. Some countries require vehicle insurance and sometimes vehicle permits with everything more or less procurable at the border. Normally we try to arrive early to fill in the necessary forms and allow for possible delays but generally the business can be conducted in anything from thirty minutes to a couple of hours, but not Singapore, oh no, this was going to take a couple of days.

We were up with the birdies and outside the hotel in Johor Bahru (JB in local parlance), Malaysia, loading the bikes by the dawn’s early light. Panniers on, bags strapped secure across seat and tank, water bottles full, check out of the hotel and a final farewell wave to the charming Malaysian staff. Ten-minute ride to the Woodlands border crossing, an exit stamp in the passport from Malaysian immigration where we explained we also needed to process our carnets. The guy vaguely waved us on to customs somewhere up ahead. 8am; so far, so good… The air was buzzing with the sound of small motorcycles whizzing through on the daily commute from JB, where living is cheap and easy, to Singapore where it’s… well… not. We filtered into a steady stream of 2-wheelers, missed the pull-in for customs (it wasn’t marked) and, before we knew it, were out on the causeway over the Johor Straits headed for Singapore ‘unstamped’. We joined hundreds of little bikes all headed one way using the filter lane especially for ‘Motosikal’ and it was impossible to turn back. The road widened on the approach to the imposing Singaporean frontier post that looked like the control tower of a beached aircraft carrier and then split, offering the choice of one of four marshaling yards, each stuffed to capacity with little bikes seeking access to the island. Thousands upon thousands of bikes were backed up and slowly edging forward, feet down, towards some invisible portal way in the distance.

This was one of nature’s great migrations… Forget your David Attenborough ‘Wildebeest hordes on the plains of Africa’; forget the bison herds of bygone days or the great salmon runs in the Americas. We learned later that anything from seventy to one hundred thousand small bikes cross the border every day! It was the one occasion when arriving early at a border crossing was actually a very bad idea. On a day that was pre-destined to go down the pan, we followed one of the streams into yard No.2 and were immediately packed into the crush. Suddenly a customs guy appeared from god knows where and informed us of our error. “You have to turn back! Yard No.3! This one for locals with autopass.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he cleared the way for us to make a somewhat precarious U-turn amidst thousands of turned heads watching the two idiots on the monster bikes wobble our way out and on to Yard No.3, where we were immediately encased in a similar throng to the one we just left. This was the immigrant yard, mostly Philippinos, Indonesians, Tamils and many from Myanmar, they make this crossing every single day to perform all manner of tasks in Singapore. In the momentary silence, dust motes twirled in the sunlight above the herd. I have never seen such a collection of patient folk, everyone calmly waiting their turn. Thankfully the sun was still low in the sky and we were afforded some shade from its equatorial heat. No horns parped (can you imagine if this was in India?), indeed engines were switched off and folk were calmly catching up with events on their mobile phones or sitting with hands draped across handlebars in silent contemplation of the day ahead. Here and there a newspaper was sprawled across a bike and every now and again there would be a spasm of movement as we all lurched forward.

We contemplated Singapore up ahead. It was reputedly a mega-clean, no-nonsense, hi-tech metropolis; modern success story and jewel of SE Asia. It had history too from the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, who recognised the strategic significance of its harbour as the essential trade hub for this part of the world, through to the infamous WW2 surrender – the biggest single defeat in the history of British arms when 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to an Japanese force of only 30,000. We had also contacted a fabulous ‘Workaway,’ corresponding with a lovely lady called Azra, who needed help with a free food charity, providing food for those in need through forthcoming charity events that would happen while we were there. We had been in two minds as to whether to bring the bikes at all having been warned that accessing Singapore could be complex and expensive but we planned to stay for a month and had also been warned that JB, the Malaysian mega-city on the other side of the straits, was a hotbed of crime (including bike thefts) so we decided to bring them anyway.

Finally we arrived at a small customs booth where we explained that we needed to go back to Malaysia to have our carnets stamped. Our passports were confiscated and we were told to move on through into a yet another holding area. Here another officer snapped at us to move the bikes across the yard to the offices. We started the bikes to ride across and he went ballistic, yelling at us to turn them off immediately and insisting that we must push them across. He then demanded the keys to both bikes; I have no idea what he thought we might attempt, as any further progress was obviously impossible. With keys and passports now confiscated we were marched into the office where we explained our predicament.

We sat around for nearly two hours while dozens of customs officer milled about doing bugger all. Outside the mass exodus of morning rush hour had subsided, the flow of little bikes had stopped, the big yards were closed and silence reigned over the post. Mags asked for the nearest toilet. “Are you sure?” is not a terribly reassuring reply… The toilet was a portakabin affair, the portakabin no more than a dust cover over a place of filth and excrement instantly dispelling one of the myths that Singapore was some ultra-clean haven. Eventually the necessary paperwork was dispensed and we were escorted through a gate by some armed officers and returned back over the causeway to Malaysia, where we quickly found the correct office, aided by the ever so helpful customs people and had the carnets stamped all correctly to show the bikes had now left the country. Back across the causeway, back to Singapore. Now, rush-hour over, we filtered to a small customs booth where we where our passports were stamped for a 90-day stay; great stuff… Now for the Carnets and our encounter with Mr. Wee. We were directed to the LTA office (Land Transport Agency) and explained we needed to process our Carnets. Two middle-aged ladies manning the desk were ever so friendly and explained they had to call in someone from Customs. Oh! and if we didn’t have the right documents they would send us back. “Polish couple tried same-same last week… No have insurance, no have ICP. Send’em straightback M’laysia.”

By now we were grown accustomed to listening to the corruptions known as Minglish (Malay English and now Singlish; the Singapore variant). Sometimes it just sounds like bad ‘Benny Hill’ Chinese that raises a smirk, but it also has a way of simplifying entire sentences into one of two words… ‘Can’ and ‘Cannot’. In the UK we are terribly polite. The answer to the question “Could I possibly borrow your newspaper” will invariably be something like “of course you can, no problem at all. Just let me tidy it up a little for you and there you are. I’ve finished with it anyway so just bin it when you’re done.” In Minglish this response would simply be abbreviated to one-word, one-syllable; ‘Can.’ It is a staggering application of brevity, the more so devastating for us when Mr. Wee arrived and looked at our carnets, shook his head and said another word; ‘Cannot’.

“Sorry?” we gasped “why not”.

“You need Insurance and ICP (Internal Circulation Permit) from Singapore AA”.

“Yes we understand that but can we get these here?”

“No. You must go AA Singapore. Get documents!”

“OK then can we can leave the bikes, get a taxi to the AA and get sorted? We’ll only be an hour or two at the most…”

“Cannot”

“Whynot”

“Leave bikes here one hour, bikes get clamped. Very serious problem” he frowned.

“Sorry Singapore, cannot. You go back M’laysia.”

“What, are you crazy? Why do we need to go back there? We just left the place. We just need insurance and ICP. We’re not trying to take our bikes in without the correct documents.”

“Cannot. You go back!”

By now I was close to totally losing it. Mr. Wee really was taking the piss and was sending us back. I threatened him that if we went back we would strike Singapore off our list of countries to visit on our ‘World Tour’ and just stay in Malaysia. Singapore didn’t know what it would be missing if it dared turn us away… OK, a rather pathetic threat, I’ll give you, but all I could come up with in that moment of rage, short of stamping my feet, shaking my fists and throwing a paddy. “You go. Come Singapore by taxi, get correct documents, go back M’laysia, get bikes. Then we let you in.” We were dismissed. A typed ‘rejection note’ was raised for the Malay authorities, our passports were stamped out of Singapore and a posse of armed contract security police arrived to escort us off sovereign territory.

“Push bikes all-way back,” the unsmiling, slightly plump, lady sergeant in charge said.

“How far?”

“Maybe 1km, maybe 2. No ride bikes. Cannot.”

Now Mags lost it and point blank refused. When they looked at the loaded bikes they realised what they were asking us to do. A compromise was reached…

“Wait here…” Half an hour later a trio of expensive looking mountain bikes in customs livery appeared and they saddled up to escort us back once more. It was a fair way but certainly not one or two kilometers. A section of barrier was removed and we once more exited Singapore and went back to Malaysia. Beaten.

We were both hopping mad at the intransigence and ludicrous stance taken by Singapore customs. It was all exacerbated by the fact that most of the staff had been overly officious, impolite and downright rude in the transactions. We were being sent back for not having two documents we could only obtain once we were in Singapore! In the time we had been messed around, we could easily have collected the damned documents and returned to gain lawful entry. We decided that if Malaysia granted us new 90-day visas we would forget about Singapore forever. We would be devastated at missing the Workaway for sure, but if we couldn’t even get into the country…?

It was now well into the afternoon but the nightmare continued. On reviewing the Singapore reject note, Malaysian customs decided we could only stay until our previous 90-day visa expired… the next day!!! Then we had to fly home or to another country for a month before we could return. “But what about the bikes?” They didn’t know. We had one day. We spent over seven hours up to our necks in bullshit border shenanigans today and were mentally and emotionally exhausted. A sleepless night followed as we contemplated our position. In the end we decided that the only sane option was to go back to Singapore.

4am alarm for a 5am taxi pick-up. The taxi whizzed us through customs where we were again granted a 90-day stay and dropped us off at the AA Singapore office just as they opened. We coughed up $225 for 28 day’s insurance per bike and $60 each for the ICP (@1.7 SGP dollars to the pound). Another taxi back to Malaysia (where they forgot about yesterday and now gave us new 90-day visas!!!), pick up the bikes and finally head back to Singapore. Mr. Wee was smiling as he came in to the office to greet us. He surveyed the mighty ensemble of documents arrayed across the table for two little motorcycles. “Everything now good”, he declared. “Singapore… Can go.” It took another grueling twelve hours today but we got the desired result; Singapore was go!

To be continued…