Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

Blogging since 2003. Thank you for reading :))

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Solo in Borneo

Mar distance: 726 km

Thu 18 - Wed 24 Mar 10
Brunei and Sarawak, 611 km

Lost among the familiar
Day 1: Thu 18 Mar, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) to Muara to BSB, 71 km. As I get off the aircraft, a big white man looks at my hand-carry and asks if I'm cycling. "Will there be headwinds," he asks. I know the answer is "yes" - the wind knocks at least 5 km/h off my speed. It doesn't help that I get lost a bit getting out of town, using a tourist map where some roads are unnamed.

Some parts of town look like home: the colour and design of road signs and pedestrian crossing buttons look the same. It's as if Brunei and Singapore bought things in bulk. After all, the currencies are interchangeable and the time zone are identical. But out of town, the scene looks Malaysian. Narrow, quiet roads wind up and down short, sharp slopes. By the time I get to Muara, I barely have time to snap a few photos, pump up my too-soft tyres and harness to beat sun down hands down.

It's harrowing to go back the same narrow roads into town, I try something else. Triangulation of road signs, compass bearing and map put me on the scenic route back into town. I'm shaken out of my reverie when I realise I'm lost in town. I stop at the sultan's palace (which has 1,788 rooms) to ask for directions (bigger than Vatican Palace, presumably those who work there need a good sense of place). As it turns out, I missed a little turn; just 300m more and I would've been there. Nightstop: Le Gallery Suites Hotel

Day 2: Fri 19 Mar, Bandar Seri Begawan to Kuala Belait, 112 km. My recce on foot last evening ensured there's no fumbling this morning as I "go west, young man'. Only that I'm not as young as I was. Or is it that hard work means no training except on weekends - piddling 50 km rides. Or is it a double whammy - no youth and no training?

A shadow flits past me. It's a bird with seemingly metre-long wingspan. It glides ahead, perhaps at 30 km/h effortlessly, wings barely moving while my legs and heart pump away. Some guys on heavy bikes roar past. They toot and flash their thumbs up as they pass. The Brunei army is out too, building sand-bagged positions at various points along the road. At one point, some attempt to put out brush fire by beating the flames with branches. That's a firefight. I too have my fires to fight. If I'd a Blackberry, I'd have stopped to fire off some emails I composed in my head. And my ass feels aflame too, which affects how many hours I can ride before taking a break. 

This is a weird road, a highway that narrows into brushes with death. The air brakes of trucks behind me sound like wings of angels of mercy. The drivers are humane. If these were Singapore drivers, I may need the lives of nine cats. There's just one close call: roadworks that take up half the road. To pass, cycle facing on-coming traffic. To avoid being caught among a truck just behind me, the huge hole in front of me and turning right into on-coming traffic, I make a split second decision to avoid them all by going off road to my left.

When I reach town, I ask a local where the bus station is. She points one direction. I ask another the same question, she points the same direction. Somehow, I go the opposite way and somehow, I find the bus station and the hotel I'm looking for. I gotta figure out how i figured that one out. 

At the hotel, I get some work done. Not just the usual bicycle inspection/maintenance like digging glass out of tyres (so much for kevlar) but office work - a first on any of my expeditions. Nightstop: Hotel Sentosa

Mired in Miri - not
Day 3: Sat 20 Mar, Kuala Belait to Miri, Sarawak, 55 km. Getting to Miri has been challenging, according to Leon Whiteley who's gone before me. Sign posting is not to Sarawak but to an "obscure" town. That would be Sungei Tujoh (thanks to advice from Hj Sofian). There's no need to take the ferry to Sungai Teraban. Cars thunder past me on the narrow road. Alongside, lilies float placidly in a monsoon drain.

In my ride across the length of western Brunei, I've seen a handful of "commuter" cyclists. As I cross the border and the Asean Bridge (which ferry boatmen might've rued), no one bothers to question me or make me pay toll. The Malaysian road past immigration is twice the width of the Brunei road, but narrows until Miri, the second largest city in Sarawak. It is a maze of flyovers and traffic circuses. I stop several times to check my map and find myself in a cheap hotel with a decent review in a travel guide. Things have changed since then. The walls have patches of grey and paint peels off the ceiling. But the sheets are sort of white and the smell is tolerable. Nightstop: Palace Inn

Caved in
Day 4: Sun 21 Mar, Miri-Bekenu-Miri, Sarawak, 114 km. Today is 'no alarm clock' day. I awake at 0730 after 9.5 hours' sleep. That's what holidays are for. It's nice to make up for work-related sleep deficit.

The road is narrow, winding and hilly. How hilly? At one point, I go downhill at 55.3 km/h without pedaling. I run low on water. The road goes downhill so why am I going at 20 km/h? Headwinds plus calorie depletion. I stop, eat a muesli bar, ride. Then come across a rest stop with only one cooked food stall. And a petrol station where there's a big fridge full of cold air but no drinks to sell. I want to ride to Niah Caves but cave in; it's just too far away. The road signs indicate I might not make it there and back before nightfall. So I head for a town not on my map called Bekenu. I intend to ride there then U-turn but see a strange sight: signboards pointing to Miri in opposite directions.

At Bekenu (how I like these nice little towns - they have character) I have an ice-cold drink and don't U-turn. Turns out I'm on the scenic route. The headwind is still there but the hills are fewer. If only I found this route earlier; the tailwind might've carried me to Niah. It's been tough: a twinge of pain shoots up above my right knee now and then. Cycling isn't just about leg power. It needs mental strength and butts of steel. I start the day with Boney M playing in my brain (because I pass a bakery "Ma Baker"). For the return leg, it's Led Zepplin and Journey.

Headstrong headwind
Day 5: Mon 22 Mar, Miri to Kuala Belait, 69 km. I like cycling on shoulder-width road shoulders compared to the palm-sized ones. On the two-lane road, metal monsters hurtle against the traffic flow and into my safety zone as they overtake slower traffic. When they see me plodding along, they may veer away from me, or just plunge headlong without wavering to whip past me. Might is right. I tire fast as I head north, first contending with the Miri Monday morning masses on the road. When I am clear of town, the north wind knocks 8 to 10 km/h off my speed. But the distance is short and I make it to KB with more than enough time to recce the next day's route out of town. I sure don't want to head back to Bandar Seri Begawan on palm-width road shoulders.

I'm glad I don't know the future. Tomorrow will be burning hot, with a headwind. When I know the future, I don't look forward to it. But at least, there'll be another hotel at the end of the ride. Preparing for the future is different. This morning, I notice my cyclocomputer shows 0 km/h. Flat battery. Yesterday, it was the transmitter, today it's the receiver. I'm prepared not scared, I've two spare batteries.

The hotel is the most expensive on this trip; at B$98, it is about 2x as expensive as Le Gallery Suites. But it is super clean, has free internet, Singapore newspaper, kettle and tea. And Grohe / American Standard sanitary ware. Round the corner is a Thai restaurant with aircon and all-you-can-eat for B$5. Enjoy the little things in life, including curling up with Sunday newspapers on a Monday. Nightstop: Hotel Sentosa

Contrarian approach
Day 6: Tue 23 Mar, Kuala Belait to BSB, 138 km. I'm off at 8am after an extra serving of toast. I know I'm going to get toasted by the sun on the narrow, high-traffic roads. I take the side roads to oil town Seria. There's a procession of traffic as people head to work but they don't speed through the residential area.

After three hours in the saddle with only photo breaks, I stop. Because I miss a turn. Where's the sign that points to Tutong? When this town disappears from the milestones I'm in trouble. I back track on the grass verge against the flow of traffic - and there's the town. I lunch at a chicken rice restaurant. There's no sign of the proprietor but lunch is chopped and served by the waitress. Unlike past expeditions where I sit out the noonday sun, I top up my gut and head for the road. What's the rush, I don't know. I'm on holiday. I also don't know why there's a missing sign at the junction I'd passed, because further on there's a huge sign. I stick to the Muara-Tutong Highway, with truck-wide shoulder and two lanes heading my way. Who would've thought it's safer on this major road than little Jalan Tutong. Nightstop: Le Gallery Suites Hotel

Bonus ride
Day 7: Wed 24 Mar, BSB, 52 km.
I usually don’t cycle on the last day of a trip. Today I do, because my flight is at 6 pm and I’d arranged (after asking another hotel staff) for extended, late checkout. At 3 pm instead of 1. I sprint as fast as I can in the rush hour, which is worse than it sounds since this is a country of less than 400,000 people. Each household has an average of, if I recall correctly, three cars. When there’s no personal income tax, and education and health are free, there’s more disposable income. I ride to the playground of the super rich: Jerudong Polo Club and then Empire Hotel & Country Club. The latter cost USD1.1b (as a comparison, Petronas Towers cost USD1.9b). Then, I go where fun is free by the sea: Pantai Jerudong and Pantai Tungku.

I'm back in ample time to pack at leisure and make final repairs to my experienced cardboard bike box which I bought in Thailand, veteran of Cambodia, Timor Leste and now Borneo. My bicycle, when not ridden, is as ungainly as a turtle out of water, ungainly and slow. When ridden, my bike slices through the air, swift as a bird, agile as a fish, savouring the freedom of wide open spaces.


Yusmi said...

nice trip.....
the experience from trip and adventure is unique memories...

Horseman said...

Hi Yusmi, yes, nice place, nice trip, nice memories.

thanks for reading :)