South Seas Serendipity…

The bus dropped us off with our bags at the downtown stop at 7am on a Saturday morning. We’d flown in on a very cramped Jetstar flight from Melbourne for a visa run, planning to spend four nights in the city. Once off the bus, the piquant smell of stale piss assailed our nostrils as Friday-night partygoers had evidently relieved themselves en masse on the streets. Our initial impressions were further dented at the sight of an inebriated man actually pissing in the street, urinating at a tree rather than up against it, wobbling around with his penis in his hand spaying the pavement and doing that weird ‘dance of the drunks’ with one foot firmly planted, the other stomping on invisible frogs that were scattered all around and only he could see. We moved on to quickly find our shoebox hotel and were relieved when the friendly receptionist informed us we could have the room immediately and not have to wait until 2pm, the official check-in time. Not exactly the kind of image you’d conjure up at the mention of ‘New Zealand’ as a travel destination. You tend to think more of snowy peaks and pinnacles rather than pissheads and pricks but thankfully it was not an image that would endure and was quickly replaced by more pleasant associations with these islands. Welcome to Auckland! Our four days flew by and, in spite of the odd blustery shower, we had a good look around exploring the quaint harbour area and taking a ferry trip over to Devonport.

Still, it was not certain that we would make it to New Zealand with the bikes. Fast approaching two and a half years on the road, our finances we starting to feel the strain. We had some alarming quotes to ship the bikes there from Oz and also had to consider onward shipment to the Americas to get home… Finally a more sensible quote arrived from specialist vehicle shipper GT Logistics, recommended by our buddy Tom Curtis from HU Indonesia. In fact they proved to be the best shipper we have used to date, responding promptly and efficiently to all our communications and everything happened like they said it would with no nasty surprises. New Zealand was back on the Itinerary!

Our third Christmas on the road was spent in the fold of our lovely family in Melbourne. Having returned from Tasmania, the plan was to have a lazy, relaxing run up to Christmas and then have a leisurely time preparing the bikes for shipping sometime in January. This was quickly turned on its head when GT requested we deliver the bikes to the Port of Melbourne before 30th December. A frantic week ensued, dismantling and cleaning the bikes, wary lest we fail another quarantine inspection. The bikes travelled to Auckland by RoRo ferry (so no expensive crating) and the only fly in the ointment was that we couldn’t send any luggage with them, only empty unlocked panniers. However we managed to secure some cheap flights with Air New Zealand that came with a generous baggage allowance and a couple of cheap kit bags from K-Mart sorted that problem.   Suddenly, amid a frantic rush to say goodbyes to family and friends in Melbourne, our time in Australia was all over. We had good news before we left too… GT are an accredited MPI Inspection facility (NZ Quarantine) and they had inspected and cleared the bikes so they would be ready for collection when we arrived.

Our cheap tent that we’d paid $70 AUD, from the Australian outdoor chain Anaconda, was a slight concern, as you must declare all camping and outdoor equipment for inspection on arrival in NZ. We cleaned the tent and had another look at the poles, which were bent causing the tent to lose shape. We called in to see Anaconda, thinking we could at least replace the poles but they gave us a new tent, an upgraded model for a few extra dollars. This was great news as we could present NZ Quarantine with a brand new, unused tent. In the end the arrivals procedure in Auckland was all very straightforward and we were out of the airport in about half an hour and off to the nearby Ramarama campsite.

With the bikes released we had to do a ‘Warranty of Fitness’ check and pay for road registration. This was again straightforward but the check found a dodgy wheel bearing on my front wheel. Given that we’d just replaced Maggie’s in Tasmania, we had the bearing changed by MR Motorcycles in Pukehohe, another great bike shop that gave us fantastic service. When we went back to Vehicle Inspection to get the work checked, we met a fellow overlander Kerry Davison who kindly treated us to a delicious and memorable lamb shank dinner and would prove a useful contact in the land of the Kiwi. From our base at Ramarama we planned our route to explore the northerly extremes of the north island. Question was did we go Waimauku, Waipu, Whangarai, Waitangi, Whangaroa to reach Whatuwhiwhi or should we go via Kawakawa, Kaikohe, Kerikeri and Kaitaia? Yes, we were in for a shower of fun with vowels here, which, coming from ‘Norn Iron’ where we flatten the things, didn’t bode well when asking for directions or telling people where we’d been.

Aside from unpronounceable place names the ride north was simply beautiful on roads lined with millions of little yellow flowers through rolling hill country, real ‘shire’ land and it’s no surprise that the Hobbiton movie set is based on the North Island. New Zealand is another motorcyclist’s paradise. About the same size as the UK, where we share our living space with a whopping 65 million people, the population here is a tiny 4.5 million, with 1.5 million living around Auckland, the biggest city, so once free of the metropolis we reached another new nirvana on this trip. We spent a few days at Paihai and Russell on the beautiful Bay of Islands, enjoying a spot of ‘Tramping’ (as Kiwi’s call hiking) along the coast. Then more idyllic roads deposited us in Whatuwhiwhi (the ‘Wh’ sound is pronounced ‘f’ so it’s ‘Fatufifi’, which makes it less of a mouthful) our base for a ride up to Cape Reinga, the extreme tip of the North Island reached by a winding causeway route and the ride to the tip punctuated by blustery winds that gave the bikes a good slapping but kept us on our toes. The Cape itself was very beautiful, the place where the Tasman Sea meets the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of eddies and currents. We also visited the immense sand dunes at Te Paki and had a tramp in the soft stuff with views over nearby 90-Mile Beach.

We were all set for a leisurely ride down the west coast to visit the thermal features in Rotorua and possibly tramp the Tongariro Crossing near Lake Taupo. From there we planned to abandon the rest of the North Island and go directly for the south to see the wonders there before the summer ran out. We’d do the rest of the North Island on our way back to Auckland, our point of final departure from NZ. But the fates had other things in store for us… Some of the best times in our travels have been born out of apparent catastrophe, when the wheels came off the wagon and we were pitched headlong into an unanticipated bout of problem solving, nearly always laced with rich encounters with wonderful strangers and with some utterly unexpected but delicious outcomes. Looking back afterwards you can see a sort of lovely serendipity in it all, where the series of unplanned and apparently unconnected events string together to ultimately enrich the overall travel experience in ways you couldn’t possibly plan or foresee.

We packed up and parted the great little campsite at Whatuwhiwhi, where we’d made friends with staff, neighbours and local residents. They’re a friendly lot the Kiwis and, as we were soon to find, a rather caring lot too. With a short backwards wave, we set out on the day’s ride climbing up the steep hill from the campsite. About 2km down the road, I opened the throttle and my bike suddenly died with a bubba-bubba-bubba-pop! I pulled in the clutch and freewheeled to a halt at the bottom of a dip in the road. She refused to restart to the point where I gave up lest I flatten the battery. It felt like she was being starved of fuel so I unpacked the bike and set to performing a roadside investigation that revealed I had a spark, a working fuel pump that was delivering petrol but somehow no go in the bike. We ferried all the kit back to the campsite and then pushed the bike out of the dip to freewheel down the hill, where again she refused to even bump start. We spent an afternoon swapping components with Maggie’s bike but couldn’t find the problem.

Enter ‘Blackie’; a weather-scorched, wiry Kiwi retiree sporting a drover’s hat, who lives here permanently in an old bus that proudly sports the route destination ‘DILIGAF.’ Turns out he’s a fellow motorcyclist too and wandered over to see if he could help. He advised that the nearest support would be in Kaitaia and recommended ‘Kaitaia Auto Electrics’ to get the wiring and components checked out. We called in to see the owner, Chris Broughton, who explained he was up to his neck in work but agreed to let us use a corner of his workshop to strip the bike and then he’d be on call to check out various items on request. Getting the bike there was no problem as Blackie had already organised a trailer to take us over the following morning.

Leaving Whatuwhiwhi for the second time was really sad as the staff and fellow campers had all been over to see if they could help to the point where it felt a little like home. Blackie trailered the bike to the shop and then took Maggie on to nearby Ahipura with our luggage to the campsite there, as it was closer to the shop. We spent the rest of the day running diagnostics and it wasn’t until the afternoon that we found a dodgy relay in the electrics. With a new relay fitted, the bike started but was running rough, which we attributed to a low-charged battery. After an overnight charge she started up but was surging and stalling at any sort of high revs and we now decided that it was a possible fuel contamination issue. We said farewell to Chris and his crew at the Auto Electrics shop, a real gentleman who had helped us get back on the road.

At the new campsite, we dismantled the fuel delivery system and cleaned a lot of dirt in the throttle body assembly, which probably wasn’t helping things and settled down for the night in our tent. We awoke in the early hours to the pitter-patter of raindrops that soon escalated into a heavy downpour. Morning came with no respite to the wet weather other than the fact that our little emplacement was slowly filling into a nice pond. We’d also left some little ventilation flaps open allowing our new tent to leak somewhat! We ran to the camp kitchen and, over a late breakfast, decided things were getting too soggy for further camping so we booked into a little cabin on site. We worriedly observed our new tents performance in the bad weather as the wind administered a good slapping while it floated in its little pond, moored there seemingly by the tent pegs. It didn’t seem any more robust than the old tent we’d used in Australia. While these tents were fine in calm / dry weather it was clear that we would suffer badly in this tent in any kind of wind / wet weather, which New Zealand would most certainly have on tap for the future…

That evening we met our cabin neighbours, two lovely English roses, Em & Em (Emily and Emma) from Nottingham and shared a wine or two on the porch while we chatted about our respective travels. They were on an eleven-month trip through Asia, Australia, NZ and their next stop was South America. Like us the girls had declined camping in the foul weather. We told them the story of our cheapo Australian tent, its bendy tent-poles and the likelihood of it surviving any bad weather in NZ. “Why don’t you take ours?” said Em… “Yes!” agreed Em, “We leave New Zealand next week and aren’t planning on camping in South America. We need to dump the tent anyway so it would be great to see it go to a good home.” And so we acquired a rather splendid Vango Pulsar 300 tent thanks to this lovely act of charity from Em2.

Sitting now writing this up in the camp kitchen at another site further south, it is lashing outside as I ponder these twists of fate. When the bike stalled and refused to restart it seemed such a catastrophe as a pleasant day of riding and sightseeing turned into a dismal retreat and what proved to be a fruitless effort to find any fault. But then meeting delightful new friends in Blackie and Chris, the move to Ahipura, meeting a pair of angels in Em and Em and acquiring our new canvas; none of that would have happened had the day gone to plan. I look across to see our new home, a little green tent, a magnificent outpost standing there stalwart against the rain and it raises a smile that everything inside is safe and dry as this story comes to an end for now.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, the Far North.

 

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Red Heart

HMAS Courage, the latest addition to the proud Royal Australian Navy, finally cornered the pirate-vessel up the Todd River after a long and harrowing sea-chase. It is amazing we still have piracy in these modern times and every modern navy is pledged to action wherever their presence is discovered.   The hunt was on and the modern frigate closed up for action as weapons officers armed guns and missile systems, ready for the final showdown. In comparison, the pirate resembled nothing more than a shoddy collection of lo-tech sticks and string yet they were determined not to give in without a fight. You can imagine the horror onboard Courage as they rounded a bend in the river to confront not one but two adversaries… As weapons trained on the pirate ship a second sail appeared out of the mist; a fully armed Viking longship intent on raising hell with all comers.

No, not a computer game, but the finale of the Henley on Todd Regatta, held every year on the Todd River, Alice Springs, a place about as far as you can get from the sea as anywhere on the planet. Now in its 56th year (same age as me!) the regatta is another of those fine Australian institutions where something fundamental, such as a total lack of water in a river, will not deter the execution of as a fine boating event as ever took place. The Regatta has only ever been cancelled once in 1996 due to water in the river from unseasonal rain. The day started with a splendid street parade – a sort of entry of the gladiators and then with crews and spectators gathered along the river we had a welcome address from the Commodore, fresh from the deck of his moored up HQ, the infamous paddle steamer “Pistil Dawn”. The day was packed with a full programme ranging from yacht racing to rowing fours and there was even a yellow submarine. The races were highly entertaining, the lightweight ‘vessels’ being simply picked up and propelled by leg power along the sandy bed to round the buoy and sail back to the start-line. Other events included sand shoveling, tug-of-war, a ‘budgie smuggler’s’ race for blokes in tight fitting Speedo’s and a series of foot races for the little nippers so everyone could join in. It all culminated in that grand finale; the spectacular shoot out between the three local Rotary Clubs who had constructed splendid motorised battleboats, complete with powder-blasting pyrotechnics and water cannon. The winner was decided by the highest decibel recorded for the loudest applause from the audience: the Vikings carried the day due to a mix of splendid costumery and a slight edge on the level of madness generated compared to the pirate and navy boats.

It was with a degree of sadness that we packed the bikes to leave Dave Wright’s place and Darwin. Staying with Dave had been a superb introduction to Australia but we were fully primed and ready for the road. We started with a short ride to Litchfield National Park and the fabulous Wangi Falls, a huge waterhole fed by twin spouts of the falls, all surrounded by a simple paradise of lush tropical vegetation. It was our first taste of the real Outback; bush country life alternating between dusty danders along winding trails in the heat and delicious dips at the cascades. The area is festooned with termite mounds; everything from spectacular cathedral mounds, built over centuries, to marvelous magnetic termite mounds. These two dimensional structures are built by a translucent species of mite that is sensitive to heat exposure so they build across a north-south axis to minimize the solar heat effects. An info-board told how scientists messed around with the magnetic field to deliberately offset the north-south polarity on one mound; the termites simply adjusted the building to follow what they thought was the correct polarity.

Having spent the last eighteen months riding in Asia, with congested narrow winding roads, sometimes in deplorable condition and where journeys were reckoned in time taken rather than the actual distance to cover, it was something of a relief to find ourselves in wide open spaces barreling down roads straight as a rifle with nothing in sight for miles bar the odd roadhouse. Riding was adjusted to keep an eye on those distances as there isn’t much in between and fuel / water stops have to be given some thought. It is very relaxed riding with few threats; little in the way of traffic, other then the odd road-train nor obstruction or even bends to think about. We turned off the intercom to save battery life and also because, in this environment, there was little to comment on. This condition induces a certain state of meditative nirvana, with the mind just churning along to the tune of the bike in the wind, where thoughts can tumble like weeds and be allowed to drift carelessly off until we no longer had a care in the world. And every night under canvas, skies darkened velvety black by 7pm, brilliantly jeweled by a billion stars and the light dusting trail of the Milky Way. If it’s black by night then the days are an outrage colour from the azure blue of the sky to the ruddy rouge desert as we lunged ever on into the red heart of Oz. Suddenly a city; Alice Springs, something of an oasis after many long days of desert overlanding and hick-town overnight. Even better there’s that Regatta on at the weekend so first class entertainment before we plunge on to see the Red Heart itself; Uluru.

Uluru is, first and foremost, simply and utterly magnificent. Crossing the flat, barren landscapes suddenly these red outcrops spring up on the horizon like surfacing submarines. First Mount Conner on the road into the National Park, then Uluru itself and finally the spectacle of the Olgas. To be honest I was prepared to be underwhelmed as it all just seemed like red rocks in the desert – albeit very big ones; what could be amazing about that? Yet walking the 11km perimeter track around Uluru presented an ever-changing spectacle of light, colour and texture, all radiating redness against that brilliant blue sky. Up close Uluru looks like the shot-peened carapace of an upturned vessel, maybe even one that crashed from another planet, with smooth lines that have melted and flowed straight into the surrounding desert. This up-turned hull even resounded with a hollow metallic ring as we tested its surface with a rap from our knuckles. In other sections the face appeared to have been machined away by Mother Nature to reveal inclusions that resembled cross-sectioned channels of a huge monolithic brain.

Another day, another hike: Kata Tjuta or the Olgas – a nearby collection of red rocks appearing as a series of huge but distinct boulders on the horizon accessible via the Valley of the Winds hiking trail that reduced us to a pair of leprechauns treading some fantastic sci-fi kingdom. The entrance to the trail was guarded by a huge formation that looked like a beached and ossified Russian submarine. The 7.4 km path then meandered through and amongst the big rocks and again that natural display of sol et lumiere had necks craning in every direction to take it all in. There is something of a sense of enrichment or even empowerment to be gained from wandering in wondrous terrain. It blanches both soul and spirit and leaves one feeling incredibly humble and uplifted.

The Red Heart had one more thrill in store as we mounted up to head back north and east towards the coast; Kings Canyon. A 100-mile spur road took us to a splendid little campground, our base for a few days exploring an entirely different take on the red-rock of these heartlands. Here a river had made some impressive cuttings into blushed salmon terrain that, from the air, resembled a huge tray-bake, where wind and water had invaded the cross-cuts to erode the ‘bakes’ into a fantastic series of beehive-shaped monticules. The rim-trail was one of the best day hikes of the entire trip starting with a steep and torturous ascent up a series of natural stairs, softly coloured like honeycomb, to attain the rim and then a couple of hours meandering through a landscape of pure wonder. At the far end a man-made stairway descended back to the canyon for a side trip to visit the aptly named Garden of Eden, ending in a watering hole lined with splendid tropical plants and feathered with yet more examples of bewildering Australian birdlife.

Our visit to the Australian heartland was marred, if only slightly, by two incidents of thievery, one a mindless act of theft, the second an attempted theft that resulted in a beautiful wildlife encounter. The first was at Uluru resort campground where some scumbag stole our lightweight travel towels from the laundry lines. These items were 15-years old and had given faithful service through all of our big trips. Even although they were a little faded and washed-out we were saddened that someone had decided to appropriate them for their own use and it has made us watchful over the rest of our gear, something we’ve not really had to do for a long time.  The second incident was at Kings Canyon, where we left a bag of rubbish in the porch of our tent after lunch. We were lying reading with the tent doors open when a little doggy head reached round and attempted to snatch the rubbish bag. It was our first encounter up close with an Australian dingo.

The heartlands proved to be extremely cold at night as the desert readily yielded up the heat of the day. Add to that 500 metres of altitude and nighttime temperatures dropped to just above freezing. Our summer tent and sleeping bags were barely adequate and we found ourselves rummaging in amongst thermal kit for the first time in ages. Days to get in and now days to get out as we retraced the ride back to Alice Springs and on up to Tennant Creek, where the road ran east to Townsville on the coast. This took us through hundreds of miles of empty flat landscape to the mining town of Mount Isa, which proved to be more of a ‘mine and a town’; with the town but a slight appendage to the huge ‘Mount Isa Mines’, one of the most productive single mines in the world for lead, silver, copper and zinc extraction. Then on through a surrogate Surrey of places with names like Richmond, Croydon and Hughenden.

The chain and sprocket kits on the bikes were now showing signs of terminal decline. We managed to find one replacement kit in Alice Springs and fitted it to Maggie’s bike (thanks to the fantastic help from all the folks at Desert Edge Motorcycles) but now, nearing the coast, the chain on my bike was on really on its last legs. We finally made it to Townsville and the delightful Rowes Bay Beachfront campsite, a much-needed stop to sort out that chain and plan our tour of Australia’s East Coast. In the site we met two local retirees, Terry and Kay, who had travelled all of ten minutes from home in their camper van after winning a two-night stay in the park in a local raffle. They immediately took us under their wing, inviting us to spend a night at their beautiful homestay and directing us to R.H.D. Classic Supplies and Services to get that chain sorted.

Pulling in to the little industrial unit we found ourselves in a yard full of Harleys and wondering had we come to the wrong place. We’d just taken our helmets off when we were greeted by a lovely lady with a ready smile who instantly bade us a hearty welcome… “Wow you guys have come a long way! What can we do for you?” …and so we met Spanner, proprietress of RHD. We explained that we needed a chain and sprocket kit for my bike. She apologised that the best she could do was tomorrow after getting the kit by express airmail… and me thinking we could be stuck here for a week or so ordering parts in. Next day the parts were there as promised and a little corner was cleared for us in the busy workshop, so the chain could be fitted to the bike. I can think of no better way to wind up this post than with expressing a hearty thanks to mechanics Lance and Bruce and of course Spanner for the sterling service, help and welcome we received at RHD. Now I wish I could be treated like this in more bike shops back home, no longer feeling like a walking wallet just in for an extraction. We left Townsville once again under smooth transmission, ready now for that coast!

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

 

 

 

 

 

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