Monday, 23 April 2012

Rain and shine

2nd - 4th April 2012
Kuala KohChiku AringGua MusangMoonriver lodge
3305km – 3483km

There are a whole load of really amazing things about cycle touring through Asia. Staggering around in the dark in a storm trying to rescue a soggy tent ain't one of them. The few days riding from Taman Negara to the Cameron Highlands were all pretty hard going actually. It all started with us getting distracted by a cat, as so many things in life are.

We were fantastically disorganised the day we left Taman Negara, slowly munching breakfast while engaging the park cat in a meow-off. As a result of all this dallying about we didn't get going until the sun had stationed itself way up and cranked the heat into the mid thirties. Those steep tracks through the plantations had been hard enough riding a week earlier, tackling them immediately after breakfast was a serious struggle and it took us until the early afternoon to get back onto the main road heading west.

As the afternoon wore on, and we trundled through more oil palm lanes, rain clouds gathered above us and burst just after 4pm. Boy did they burst. All of a sudden we were cycling underwater, with a constant whooooosh of rain belting down. Our poor old waterproof jackets just can't hack that kind of weather and within minutes we were both saturated. Not much we could do about it either since there was nowhere to take shelter, so we just kept on pedalling, spitting water as we went.

Finally we arrived in a small town with a little warung. It was late, an hour away from night, and we had fallen about 40km short of the town we had been aiming for. The place in which we'd wound up was completely devoid of hotels, camping would have been hydrocide in this weather, but luckily for us one of the diners ran a homestay just up the road. We'd never stayed in a proper homestay before so we weren't sure what to expect. We imagined paying through the nose to sleep in someone's spare bed, but we had very little choice in the matter so we followed him up the road. As we rounded the corner into his drive we found ourselves on very familiar ground.
It was a fish farm.

This was the third time we'd stayed in or around a fish farm on this trip. We haven't turned in for the night in any chicken coops, we haven't lain our heads near any bullock paddocks. But three large scale fish farms. There's something fishy goin--- oh god no that's awful.

The guest rooms were standing in a row outside the house, and differed in no way whatever to hostel rooms. Bed, bathroom, towels. Sorted. The guy was really nice though, he gave us a discount which brought the price down to that of an average hotel room. Not only that, but he drove us out to a warung for dinnner where we ate nasi goreng and watched an ultra-violent Thai martial art film alongside a bunch of ten year olds. We slept safe and dry, and set out really early the next morning.

There was one last town between us and the Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang, an industrial centre tucked amongst chunky vertical limestone formations. After that there was nothing for 120km and we needed to stock up on food, water, and sun cream. Gua Musang was a funny place with its mix of scenic beauty and weird, intense individuals.

A policeman blew his whistle and forced us over to the side of the road, apparently just so he could have a chat about whether we liked Gua Musang or not. Later, when Liv was in the pharmacy, a guy got off his motorbike and proceeded to show me his machete scars and ask me in an increasingly loud voice if I thought it was “fair”. I didn't have the time, or the courage to point out that it was impossible for me to make any such judgement based on this fragmentary piece of evidence, so instead I just shook my head and repeated feeble, appalled monosyllables like an old lady listening to gossip at the butchers. As soon as Liv came back we left, quickly, and headed out of town towards Highway 185.
Kuala Koh - Chiku Aring - Gua Musang - Moonriver lodge

Oh Bullocks

Hills lay piled ahead on the horizon, semi-circular shades of green beneath a vibrant blue sky. The quiet road bobbed up and down pleasantly, working us up into a bit of a sweat but easing into downhill before it got too much like hard work. It was just lovely.

As we dipped down another descent into a shady grove of palm oil I saw that Liv had stopped and was pointing ahead. Ah yes, what a lovely view. Even these oil palms looked lush and beautiful under such a rich sky. But that was not why we had stopped. Ahead of us and on either side of the road was a herd of our arch nemesis, the cows.

Since our run-in with the night time packs in Bali, we'd honed our tactics at dealing with dogs a treat. Simply dismounting and walking whenever a dog started chasing us had been enough to defuse every barky dog situation since. The reasoning goes that dogs see some animals whizzing past and their primal instincts kick in and they give chase. A walking human doesn't excite them, and they leave us alone.

Maybe cows' minds worked similarly. Maybe seeing two human beings gliding along a stone track at great speed is as disturbing to them as it would be for us to see two sun bears abseiling down from the jungle canopy. Maybe if we got off and walked they wouldn't get so freaked out and stampede like they had done last week. Maybe.

The herd was scattered along the road for fifty metres or so, some lying down flicking their tails, others stood around staring blankly, perhaps contemplating the transcendental nature of the universe. With not a little apprehension we began to walk our bikes straight towards them.

Several of the smaller cows heaved themselves to their feet and eyed us uncertainly. A patter of hooves came from off to one side, but most of the animals stayed put, monitoring us closely. As long as the majority weren't spooked it seemed like the situation would remain under control. Stampedes, it seems, are a democratic affair.

We were about half way there when we noticed the massive bull stood ahead of us. Now, I know that intense situations can lead the mind to exaggerate things (Blockey & Dent 2012; On the confusion of rats and bears in Taman Negara) so I'm somewhat averse to describing this animal in any detail, but it was almost certainly the biggest bull in the world, with thick muscular shoulders like granite cliffs and lance-like horns that twinkled forebodingly in the afternoon sun. This was the daddy of the herd, and if he got startled then the rest of the herd wouldn't be far behind. Conversely if he got too bold he would be quite capable of squashing us flat if he fancied.

He followed us with his black-ball eye as we past within a metre of him. Despite a couple of the animals galloping a few paces our strategy seemed to be working, but by Theseus it was tense. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park when everybody has to stay perfectly still so the T-rex can't see them. It was exactly like that, but we had to walk calmly forward with bicycles instead, and there were cows instead of dinosaurs. Similar anyway.

We made it to a safe distance, then hopped on our bikes and hurried off up the road.

Wash Out

After all the time spent trying to find sun cream and creeping past the herd of cows we didn't get very far that day either, and pulled over a couple of hours before dark. There was a little track that led off the road to a patch of wasteland scattered with tall grass that seemed like an ideal spot to pitch a tent. We got to work right away, and even had time to set up our tarpaulin as a bonus porch so we could sit somewhere dry while we ate our dinner. We could see dark clouds moving in as the sun went down you see, and we were expecting a bit of rain.

Examining the damage the next morning.
What we hadn't banked on was the flooding. The ground was rock solid beneath our feet, and as soon as the storm broke it began to flood. Before we had even finished eating our meal the ground had flooded and was spilling over the collar of our waterproof groundsheet and soaking our beds. We sprang into action, whipping out all the pegs and untying the tarpaulin as fast as we could.

With two corners each we shuffled around in the pitch black in a torrential downpour, trying to find a safe bit of ground to set it up again. Second place we tried was covered in broken glass. Third place was kind of clear and seemed high enough to avoid anything but the worst flooding, but the ground was of a tough chewy consistency, like tarmac, and the pegs would only go in a couple of centimetres and only after an enormous amount of effort.

Throughout the night the pegs pinged back out, one at a time, and gently lay the outer tent cover over the inner, killing its ability to remain waterproof. So we lay there in a damp tent, under damp bedsheets, with cold drops of water plopping onto our unhappy faces as lightning exploded in the sky outside and the rain beat down like high volume TV static. On the plus side, it wasn't too hot in the tent that night and we managed to get a few hours sleep.

Tropical weather is nothing if not predictable, and although the storm didn't clear until the morning we knew that within a couple of hours the weather would be scorching again. Sure enough, by midday it was way too hot for us to ride, so we pulled over and hung all our gear out to dry. Despite our ordeal we were still well stocked with water and food, so our optimism was still there, it was just a little bit soggy round the edges.

The heat lingered. We tried taking off again at 2pm, but after 5 minutes our heads got fuzzy so we found some more shade and lay there on a blanket by the side of the highway for another hour. This stop and go continued for several hours, until our trusty friends the storm clouds moved in to take the edge off things, and were even so good as to not start raining on us.

Cream of the crop

As the late afternoon light softened into dusk we came upon a hillside of plastic greenhouse sheets of the type used in industrial scale agriculture. Small villages lay at the foot of the hill, but there were no guest houses here. We weren't going to make it into the highlands that day either. It was late, there was still 30km and a steep, long climb in order to get there.

After a while scoping around the foot of the hills we finally came upon a sign pointing out a lodge not too far away. It was just in time too, for as we hauled our bikes up the pebble drive the stars were emerging onto the clear indigo sky.
Misha and her friend, very friendly
and excellent cooks.

The lodge was a clean looking complex set in a rich garden of organic vegetables and herbs with potting sheds and ponds dotted around the perimeter. Misha, the owner, welcomed us and sat us down. She had some bad news. The rooms were only for paying participants of their organic living courses, and had to be booked way in advance. Our faces dropped.

But hope was not lost. Misha told us that she had experienced some amazing acts of kindness when she had gone backpacking after university, and she felt it was time to repay a few of them. We splashed around in the pool while she organised a room for us, gave it to us at a fraction of its cost, and threw in quite possibly the best meal we've had on our trip so far. Sweet and sour chicken, soup, rice, vegetables, fresh orange. We collapsed into bed utterly exhausted, but with a steady hum of contentment in our belly that comes from fresh sheets and great hospitality at the end of hard day's ride. Yes there was going to be a lot of uphill pedalling the next day, but for the time being we were snug, and safe, and.... slee...p... zzzzzz.
Thank you and goodnight.

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