The Lucky Loop

Bikers in SE Asia all have their own personal motorcycling holy grails. For some, it’s about getting both of the “Kilo Zero” certificates from Indonesia’s most easterly and westerly points, Papua and Pulau We respectively, for others it’s completing the Blowpipe Run, a 1300km endurance ride from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, completed within 24hrs. The more adventurous might try something like circumnavigating Borneo Island or tackling the Ho Chi Mihn trail through Laos and Cambodia. But if there’s one ride that almost all motorcyclists in SE Asia know of, its Thailand’s 1000 corners, or the even longer 1800 corners, that both run from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Unfortunately, Thailand is a bit of a long way to go for a weekend run along a windy road, so when I was lucky enough to get a BMW S1000R, I had to start looking a little closer to Kuala Lumpur.

Over the past year or so testing bikes for local magazines in Malaysia, I’ve naturally gone out exploring on them looking for something other than the standard highway runs that seem so popular of a weekend. As I discover more back roads, a loop just north of the city has been slowly emerging from the jungle. While 68+8+55+66+68=888 seems like some pretty messed up math coming from an engineer, this formula explains why this loop is so good. The left side of the equation consists of national road numbers while the right hand side is how many corners are present in the 260km stretch of road mostly empty road that they make up. And the best part: there’s a hot spring at the end.

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Starting in Gombak, on the northern limits of Kuala Lumpur, Highway 68 snakes its way up a mountain pass, past the bamboo huts of the aboriginal people living there, as it parallels the straighter and far more boring Karak Highway all the way to Bentong and the number 8 national road. 7km outside Bentong, the loop turns left onto what is only listed as “unnamed road” on Google Maps, but leads to the twisty highway 55 that runs up Fraser Hill. A quick loop of the narrow, one-way, 148 road to the clock tower at the summit, then its back down the western side of the ranges before heading back south towards KL. Thankfully B66 takes you up and over the infamous Genting Highlands, with a spin up to the top and back down to highway 68 again. For those that are in need of sleep, you can turn back to Gombak at this point, but for those that need a few more turns to finish the day, head towards Bentong again for a quick stop in at the hot springs that you passed on the first lap. After a long soak, its back up and over the old Highway 68, into Gombak and home again. I know that it would make more sense to do the loop in reverse, not having to do Highway 68 over and over again, but then you’d probably only do 844 corners, and we all know how unlucky that number is (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, see Note 1 at the bottom).

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While the road surfaces aren’t always perfect and guaranteed to keep you on your toes more often that some of us might like, you can be rest assured that there will be someone to scrape you off the road if you do go down. The number of times I’ve had people stop to ask if I’m ok when setting up some a camera by the roadside is not only comforting, but somewhat of a surprise after coming from the city, where people are more likely to only slow down to get a photo of you bleeding to death than to help.

The S1000R is the perfect bike for this kind of ride, its higher MX style bars and more relaxed footpegs location give a bit more of an upright and far more comfortable riding position than those ridiculous sports bikes that people seem to think make good road bikes. The seat was good for the 6 hrs or so I took to play on it, exploring side roads and other places it really isn’t designed for. The ride is beautiful, super easy to control and the engine provides a solid amount of torque that comes on smoothly, allowing you to be as lazy as you want on gear changes through corners, while 160hp give some extra power to let loose when you want to get a little silly.

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The backroads are not only more fun than the highway but have better views too. Looking down over the Karak Hwy

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So theres no need for Malaysians to go all the way to Thailand to get their fix of corners; there’s plenty in their own back yard.

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The very fast and easy to ride S1000R

Note 1: so why the lucky loop? The roads that make up this loop run through what are predominantly chines owned lands, from Resorts World Genting to the individual landholders that farm the lower slopes. Even Frasers hill even has a history that goes back to the days of communist emergency when Sir Henry Gurney, then British High Commissioner, was assassinated by communist guerrillas while driving up the mountain. As a result the British then raided the Chinese settlement of Kampung Baharu Teras on the eastern side of Frasier Hill. For those not ofay with Chinese culture, the number 8 sounds similar to the Chinese word for “prosper/wealth”, hence with 888 corners, the loop could be nothing but lucky (additionally, the number 4 sounds like the same word for “death”).

Note 2: the number of corners may not be exactly 888 and there are some of them that are located in small towns where more sensible speeds are required. Regardless, there are still well over 850 corners on the loop, which is more than enough to leave your upper body exhausted and ready for a long soak in the hot springs at the end.

Wheel Woes

For some time now my DR, Emily, has been feeling a little ‘off’. I first noticed it way back in Kalimantan, a slight wobble in the steering that became increasingly uncomfortable while leaning the bike through turns. My first thought was a flat front tire, but checking the pressure in the dirt by the side of the road revealed the opposite. The Indonesian habit of testing tire pressures by pushing on them is wildly inaccurate, and far from being soft, mine was now tight as a drum at 50psi.

Even back to a more sensible pressure, the feeling never completely went away. It was some time before I decided to lean forward over the handlebars and try to see what was going on in front at speed. As the tarmac sped below me it quickly became apparent what was happening. From my position directly above, I watched the front tire violently flicking out to one side every revolution which had me stopped on the side of the road very quickly to check for broken spokes. After some rudimentary measurements of the wheel alignment by holding a stick against the forks while spinning the rear wheel indicated that it was almost 15mm out of alignment in some places.

Normally that would be a game changer, but I figured that is had probably been running like that for longer than I knew about, so why not run it a little longer. I did another 2 or 3000km before I getting the chance to take a serious look at it, albeit with frequent checking of the condition of the spokes along the way. When I did finally get the tire off and decide to take the plunge into straightening it myself, I found I had no need to worry about the spokes loosening up. With over 100 000km on them now, many were completely seized into position and with the DR650 being rare as hens teeth in SE Asia, chances of Suzuki Malaysia stocking spare nipples and spokes ranged between none and fuck-all so I began searching elsewhere.

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One of the old spokes; despite being all bent out of shape and rusty, the nipples required vice grips to get them off which destroyed many of them in the process

Asking online if anyone knew where I might find someone that has spare spokes and nipples in Kuala Lumpur resulted a few well-intentioned but ultimately impractical responses (bike shops here have plenty of spares for the 17” scooter wheels, but 21” wheels are still somewhat of a rarity). Even the one small off-road shop I was recommended didn’t know where the spokes and nipples for his custom wheels came from, and seemed rather uninterested in going out of his way to help solve my little issue. My final resort was Kawasaki, which, due to tax exemptions on many of their models, are relatively plentiful throughout Malaysia. The frustration of my search was finally rewarded by the awesome guys behind the service counter at Kawasaki, who, even after I told them the sample spoke I’d handed them came from a different make of motorcycle, spent a good 15 minutes going through their storeroom in search of something suitable. The eventually found it in the spokes from a KLX250 front wheel, and at $3 each they were the right price too.

With the new spokes slightly larger in diameter and a little longer, not to mention a lot more shiny than my current spokes, it became evident that replacing the full set would be the best option for maintaining proper tension through all spokes, and it would look better too. While the idea of realignment was scary enough, being faced with the prospect of a full rebuild, something I’ve never done before, and on a bike that is supposed to take me around the world, was terrifying. Should they break, The idea of trying to find replacement spokes in the middle of nowhere doesn’t appeal to me, not to mention the though of what might happen if the front wheel fails completely at speed.

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A KLX250 spoke above one of the more intact DR spokes

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So after watching as many videos about wheel building as I could online (I’d like to say here that the majority of videos online make it look about 1000 times easier than it actually is), I drilled out the spoke holes in the rim to fit the new nipples, cut a couple of millimetres off each spoke and added some extra threads to them with a modified die and proceeded to lace my first wheel. The first attempt went well, right up until the fine-tuning stage, at which point everything fell apart. With some spokes too tight, others too loose and the wheel out of alignment in every way possible I deciding that starting from scratch was the best option. The second attempt proved to be even worse, as I laced it up completely wrong, something I didn’t even know was possible to do. The third attempt had it laced together properly and with a bit of time and patience, I even managed to get the final adjustments made correctly. After a lot of tightening one side and loosening the corresponding side, everything was tight and as straight as a rim that has seen its fair share of beatings can be.

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Slow start with the spokes in the wrong orientation at this point

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So far it’s done over 1000km and no problems, no loose spokes, and it looks and feels like a new wheel when riding. Hopefully it continues to hold up over the next how-ever-many kilometres there are between here and Iceland.

Important things I learnt about building wheels (apart from what’s already available in the tutorials online):

  • Take photos before you begin. This is good advice for whenever you do mechanical work for the first time as it gives you a reference point to work back towards and can help prevent the confusion that I had when putting the wheel back together.
  • Take each step very slowly. This is the probably the most important thing to remember when building a wheel for the first time. Even the smallest miss adjustment when repeated on multiple spokes can add up to large inaccuracies in the final alignment.
  • Constantly check your work. After sticking to the small adjustments rule, checking the overall alignment after each adjustment will make sure you don’t get too far off course.
  • Remember to check it again after riding. The spokes can settle into place a little after being banged around on the road for a while which will inevitably loosen them. Its best to regularly check them after each ride and even during long rides to make sure there are no “teething” problems.

1000 Days

On 5th July I passed a milestone in this journey. It marked 1000 days since I said goodbye to my parents in Wollongong, Australia and began heading north with a motorcycle full of everything I owned and a head full of everything I’d been dreaming of. Since that day a lot has changed. Unlike a lot of people that ride motorcycles long distances, instead of sending lots of things home I seem to accumulated more while my dreams have changed too. Gone are the plans that once filled my days with the hope of adventure to come, now replaced with the acceptance that life is better off unplanned and that right now is the adventure.

For the past 12 months I’ve been based in and around Kuala Lumpur as I try to organise my affairs, and life has been, at times, a case of the same shit, different bucket. The adventure has definitely slowed down and while not as exciting as riding through the jungle on an unknown road that leads to who-knows-where, it remains an adventure all the same. A big part of what keeps things exciting are the people that I get to meet from every different background, bringing with them different cultures and ideas from every corner of the globe, a lot of them destroying what I think I know about the world in a good way.

Now, I’m not really superstitious, but I sometimes like to do little rituals “just in case”. One thing I get worried about are milestones along this trip and making sure that I don’t sit around doing nothing on those day, lest I incur the wrath of the God of Adventure and he sets the God of A Normal Boring Life onto me, bringing bad luck to all future adventures. Thankfully, a good friend here organised a BMW S1000R for the day which I took for a spin around what I’m now calling The Lucky Loop, which people who care about good roads to ride in SE Asia can read about here.

I finished the day watching the documentary Why We Ride that really should have been called Why Americans Ride, and only reinforces the old notion that the US of A thinks they really are the centre of the universe. Thankfully I had some lovely imported beers to numb the pain of watching it, eventually falling asleep slightly drunk and with muscles still aching from the ride. A good day all round and a good sign for the future adventures too.

Not Forgotten

I feel I should clear up any misconception here about the trip, in particular a lack of recent adventures with my beloved Emily. Over the past 12 months, circumstances have allowed me the opportunity to play with what are arguably some of the most advanced and powerful production motorcycles in the world. While I do love riding these bikes and sometimes miss them, particularly while crawling along a highway with Emily fully loaded, as soon as the tarmac ends, there is no other bike in the world that I would want to be on. There are no fancy plastics I need to worry about breaking, no miniature computers that I have no means of fixing, no fancy electronics that do half the riding for me, and even fully loaded she still weighs less than most modern adventure bikes. She’s slow, simple, underpowered, and basic but when she’s tractoring her way up a rutted out, slippery hill or spinning the rear wheel relentlessly through deep sand or crossing waist deep rivers, that’s when I remember how much I love this bike. As nice and refined as those other bikes can be, I wouldn’t trade my DR in for all the horsepower, electronics and other fancy, electronic crap in the world. Honestly, why pay three times the price of a DR650 for a bike that makes 120Hp, only to have it all underutilised because traction control is kicking in?

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Theres no other bike that I’d rather be dumping in the mud

 

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Fancy bikes aren’t a prerequisite for getting to places like this

Bali Redux

My previous visit to Bali was, to be honest, a bit shit. Despite having an awesome group of friends from around the world staying in the same budget hotel for the 6 weeks I was camped there, waiting for spare parts and repairing the bike, I came away with the impression that Bali is not ‘Indonesia’. Being trapped in and around Kuta with an unreliable motorcycle was the problem, not Bali. Coming out of the sparsely populated parts of eastern Indonesia, where most people still live a largely subsistence lifestyles and foreigners are few and far between, hotels costing up to 200 times what I’d been paying elsewhere and the immaculately paved Legian Street that clashes with the semi chaotic traffic weaving along it, felt like some kind of dreamscape. Presiding over everything are the golden arches of the infamous fast-food chain that acts as more of a safe haven to most foreigners than foreign embassies. Needless to say, I left Bali with a rather sour taste in my mouth.

Now, I like to believe that most things in the world are good, whether it be people, cultures or places. While it’s not always the case, I usually try to give the world a fair opportunity to prove its ‘goodness’ to me. So when the opportunity came up to go back to Bali again, I said, “fuck it, why not”.

This time things would be a little simpler though; no more big motorcycles, or half a tonne of gear to carry around. Just 7 days on a rented Honda Vario 125cc scooter, two up with a small backpack each. This meant camera gear needed to be downsized too. So any drop in quality of the photos I am now blaming on having only a 50mm prime lens for the DSLR and my phone camera.

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Even the toolkit got downsized on this trip

Naturally our first stop was Kuta, as that’s where aeroplane land, and it was quickly back to the same old, same old; drunk Australians stumbling down the narrow Jalan Poppies 1 and 2, or entire families wearing Bintang singlets on their 27th family holiday to Bali. Once we cleared the 2hr long line at immigration (a new experience for me as I’d only ever come in via ferry previously) and were out of the recently renovated, and admittedly quite beautiful airport, I couldn’t help but smile at the familiar sights and smells of Indonesia. We only spent one night in Kuta to stock up on supplies; a map, a scooter and a couple of beers with some old friends, one of which happens to build the fastest Harleys in SE Asia. My travelling companion for the trip was also more than happy to move on after we discovered that my level of acceptable accommodation was somewhat below what she was comfortable with. From here on in it was fancy hotels for everyone!

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The view from one of the hotels that I didn’t choose

Heading north, we began to find that a lot of places we wanted to visit were closed as we had inadvertently arrived at the start of the 10 day long Hindu festivals of Galungan and Kuningan celebrating the triumph of good over evil. While disappointing that so many places were closed for the holiday, the benefit was that the Balinese were out in force, riding scooters in full traditional dress, bringing offerings and prayers to the many temples that are a dominant feature of rural Bali. Even the smallest village has at least one ornate stone and brick Hindu temple, which, due to the celebrations, were all were freshly decorated with red, yellow and white parasols, each colour with its own significance. Most houses also have their own personal shrine, usually decorated with yellow lengths of cloth to bring wisdom and prosperity, while affording the shrine a certain amount of protection from evil spirits.

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With flowers playing such a prominent role in Balinese religious practices, flower farms are a common sight

The celebrations weren’t just restricted to the temples though. Many of the streets were lined with long, arching lengths of bamboo, known as Penjor, decorated with young coconut leaves intricately folded into complex shapes and patterns. Small shrines with offerings of fruit, rice, flowers, traditional cakes and Chinese coins are attached near the base of the bamboo pole, while more decorative coconut leaf origami hangs above the narrow roads like chandeliers. The Hindu majority population is out in force too as they “balik kampong” (go back to their village) by scooter to visit family for the holiday, oversizes hiking packs on their backs, or dressed in full traditional garb as they carry offerings to the nearby temples.

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Penjor lining the street of a small village in the foothills of one of Bali’s northern volcanos

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Some groups of devotees visiting the temples are large, they cause a higher than usual level of traffic chaos in the surrounding streets on their way to a fro. Everyone wears the traditional Payas Madya; a folded headband (Udeng or Destar, symbolising the need to control thought) and collared shirt in white with a traditional batik sarong wrapped around the waist for the men, while the women are dressed beautifully in sheer lace blouses (kebaya) over a wide sash wound around the body from the hips to the chest (a sabuk) while another sash (senteng) pulls the kebaya in tight at the waist.

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A Balinese woman wearing traditional Payas Madya adds her offering to the growing pile of Canang Sari

Temple entrances are piled high with offerings of Canang Sari (which translates to “the essence of beautiful purpose”) that are square containers of folded coconut palm leaves, filled with betel leaf, lime, gambier, tobacco and betel nuts to represent the three incarnations of the Hindu gods. Roses, jasmine, frangipanis and orchids are laid on top and oriented with the points of the compass add colour to the offering, while the sweet smell of incense sticks waft throughout the streets of Bali. Beyond the piles of Canang Sari, sit stone temple guards; demons carved from black volcanic rock, wrapped in black and white chequered cloth to represent balance in the world; good and evil, men and women, light and dark and all dualism in general. The temples themselves are made of the same stone, so readily available in Indonesia with its positioning in the ring of fire, and are beautiful complexes with older foundations of red handmade bricks still visible beneath the roofs of tightly bundled, black palm fibres that keep the monsoonal rains from damaging intricately carved and painted woodwork structures.

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A stone demon guards the entrance to Pura Besakih

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Most temples are amazing to visit, like Pura Panarajon, which sits atop a mountain and provides views of the valley below when not obscured by low clouds. An unplanned visit there found it full of devotees, all super friendly, happy to answer even the dumbest questions or just spend time with us in return for a little politeness and respect. In the open courtyard, an abridged version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana took place, accompanied by live gamelan music. While Hanuman defeats Ravana, temple guards explain the significance of wearing flowers behind the ear and sticking grains of rice to the forehead or neck; flowers symbolising sincerity and purity, only to be worn when a good mood, and rice as a blessing from the gods. With the temple rising above our backs on terraces carved into the mountain and ancient stories re-enacted in front of us against a backdrop of white clouds drifting silently above the valley below, the importance of religion in the lives of the Balinese becomes evident. As the demon Ravana chases spectators, groups of children scatter, running over each other as they flee in terror to the safety of their mothers sarongs where they wipe clean tear stained cheeks; this man dressed in a mask and faux fingernails may as well have been a real demon as far as they were concerned.

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Two Balinese boys watch an abridged version of the Ramayana

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Unfortunately, the tourist influx to the island has tainted other temples, in particular Pura Besakih, or The Mother Temple, the most important temple in Bali, perched on the southern slopes of Mt Agung, which is itself believed to be a replica (or even fragment, depending on who you talk to) of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe in Hindu belief. A visit to this most holy of places is far from spiritual. It starts with the entrance fee that all vehicles pay, which is ok. Young girls renting compulsory sarongs at the entrance then try to charge more than the price of a new sarong. Being led around by an official temple guide is nice and kind of informative, but looses its charm when his voluntary services include demanding a voluntary donation as you’re leaving. While that sounds fair, donating the equivalent of an average Indonesians daily wage was countered by “Oh, is that all? The other Australians donated a lot more than that. I think you should too”. Then the kids at the front gate try to fleece you of a little more money for the flowers that they “gifted” to you on your way in. relative to the cost of living in Indonesia, Pura Besakih quickly becomes an expensive place to visit. Combined with the attitude of entitlement displayed there that is in stark contrast to the hospitable nature of Indonesians in general, the experience of visiting a 2000 year old site is somewhat ruined. On the other hand, when almost 75% of the 110 000 visitors its gets every year are rich foreigners, you can’t really blame the locals for trying to get a little extra out of our fat wallets, but I know I wont be returning there anytime soon.

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A family group prays together at Pura Besakih

On the subject of places to avoid, Tanah Lot, while being more regulated and less prone to overpriced services and hidden costs, is still super overcrowded and kind of unattractive. Despite being somewhat unique, the busloads of visitors squealing about the waves and taking 4 million selfies ruins any atmosphere that the temple might have. If you really feel the need for a temple fix, best to search for lesser known and in slightly more remote temples.

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Pura Tanah Lot in all its touristy glory

Back on the roads, the Indonesians continue to do their chaotic yet super polite driving thing, which is quite comfortable to ride in once you get used to it. The most dangerous thing on the roads are probably the Indonesian girls dressed in their Payas Madya, riding side-saddle on the back of a scooter on what passes for a road in some parts of Indonesia. Distracting can only begin to describe these girls as beautiful smiles flash beneath almond shaped eyes and high cheekbones as we pass them on winding mountain roads as the landscape alternates between the deep green of terraced rice paddies, wooden villages, darkened from weathering and thick sections of jungle. The Indonesian men do their best to impress too, usually by carrying loads that break the laws of physics on the back of their little scooters and making it look completely natural.

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Making a delivery of tyres or doing some hardcore long distance riding?

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The tourist trail leads us to Lovina Beach and its infamous dolphin pod. I’ve been lucky enough to swim and surf with dolphins while growing up in Australia so I wasn’t as interested in dolphins as much as I was the fancy hotel that we stayed in, but it was one of the must see sights for my travel companion. The great big pool, massive air conditioned room and restaurant only metres from the water was almost good enough that I could get used to it, as long as someone else was paying. The dolphin tour was pretty straight forward, starting spectacularly at 5am, as we walked out of the room, past the pool, through the empty restaurant and down onto the beach where a 6m long fibreglass canoe with bamboo outriggers was lightly beached on the black volcanic sand. Heading out into the broad bay in the predawn glow, the odd piece of rubbish floated by us in the smooth, steely grey water as we chatted with the captain, a young Balinese man squatting on the back of the boat, one hand on controlling the outboard motor as his eyes scanned the horizon for signs of the ocean-bound mammals. Clouds just beyond the horizon in the east turn the rising sun into beams of light overhead but are soon forgotten as the pod is spotted for the first time. The small outboard engine screams frantically as we weave between the only other boats on the water; more canoes, the same design as our, but filled cast nets, rods, handlines and high-powered lights hanging over the side of the boat to attract squid by night.

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Early morning search for dolphins

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Looking west

As the one man crews of these working boats are packing up for the day, two other tourist laden boats join us in the chase, and despite my apprehension about doing touristy things, the small size of the crowd on the water is relaxing. The sun, now a golden orb rising above the clouds in the east, casts long, yellow shadows across the north coast of Bali, as bluish smoke rises from early morning fires amongst the treed volcanic slopes. The small waves on the calm ocean catch the suns rays, like hot sparks appearing momentarily on the surface of the sea, as sleek grey bodies rise suddenly up out of the dark water, only to slide back beneath the waves with barely a splash, adding a touch of beautiful unpredictability to an otherwise still landscape. Completely lost in the moment, I barely even realise that more and more tourist filled outriggers are amassing, their occupants seemingly more intent on pointing cheap cameras at, than enjoying the scene. In no time we have gone from a small handful of boats to more than 50, all jockeying for position whenever the dolphins make an appearance, the sound of poorly maintained outboard motors drowning out everything else. The magic of those private early morning sightings is soon gone, so we opt to head back to dry land before the experience is spoiled altogether. As we motor away from the larger fleet that turn like a herd of panicked sheep towards the next dolphin sighting, I can’t help but be concerned about the effect of having that many boats on the dolphins natural instincts.

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The first pod of dolphins breaks the surface of the water near Lovina Beach

By this stage I had been deemed unfit to make decisions on matters concerning accommodation, so I was tasked with planning the route, and seeing as this wasn’t my bike and good roads bore me, I began looking for routes made up of only the smallest lines on the map. While this strategy usually results in reaching some of the most interesting places, it also leads to some interesting predicaments. Such was the case with a small loop that runs along the side of a volcano, a necessary detour to avoid a lot of boring trunk road. Despite being marked on the map as being the same quality as the tarred roads, it quickly deteriorated into a track paved with rough volcanic rock, which gave way to red soil turned to slippery clay by the rain. Sheltering in a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere, we had a homemade coffee while deciding whether or no to continue, as a coffee roasting contraption made of an electric motor running through a couple of old bicycle wheel reduction gears slowly rotating a hand made steel drum, filled with locally grown coffee beans over a wood fire hummed and rattled away in the background. I was impressed enough that I bought half a kilogram of ground coffee from them for $2 (which I happen to be drinking as I write this).

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A home made coffee roasting machine

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While deliberating on whether we should proceed or not, a group of motocross rider came flying past the shack, off-road tires kicking up mud as they went, obviously a challenge to see if we could follow, so we mounted up, determined to show them that you don’t need knobby tyres and long travel suspension to have fun! The prospect of ever seeing those guys again was soon forgotten about as the little tyres started slipping and sliding around all over the place and I became rather thankful that the locals living high up on that volcano had taken the time to lay down narrow concrete paths up the steepest of the hills we were about to encounter. Without them there would have been a lot more walking and pushing of the little automatic scooter and muddying of boots.

Out of the mud and back onto rough, stony roads that were wonderfully tractable, we took a moment to rest our battered arses; one thing the little Honda was lacking is suspension travel. We soon got talking with a group of elderly women, busily separating harvested rice grains from their brown stalks on a dry rice terrace near the road. Initially the conversation was a little one sided, the ladies somewhat uncertain of our intents or reason for being in an area that sees little to no tourist traffic. In an attempt to break the ice I asked them about the bags of rice they were filling, how much they weigh and how they manage to carry the 40kg back to the house. On their head, of course was the response. It seemed incredulous that these little old ladies could manage 40kg on their heads, so I offered to carry one myself. Naturally they said yes; after all, who doesn’t want to see a white man in Bali doing some work for a change, and it would be one less bag that they have to carry too.

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A woman sorts rice from the husk in a roadside rice paddy

It turns out 40kg is a lot of weight to sit on your head, so I opted for not breaking my neck, carrying it instead on my shoulder towards the little house they had directed me to while they all laughed. Closer to the opening in the high, vine covered fence surrounding the cottage, I spied another old couple, both of them bare from the waist up, the wife drawing water from a well while her husband looked at me in surprise. I paused briefly, not knowing if my presence was welcomed, my western sense of decency telling me that a half naked lady means they may not be prepared for visitors. Frozen in the entrance to their little cottage, with a heavy bag of rice on one shoulder, I waited for the scolding I was about to receive from her husband and expected her to run off covering herself in the process. It was with a mix of shock and relief when the two of them started laughing along with the others in the field, clapping her hands and coming over to show me where to put it. The old couple even followed me back out into the field to stand bare breasted in the rice fields, laughing along with the other women. I had become something other than the standard run-of-the-mill tourist, interested only in taking photos and buying trinkets. They became a part of traditional Balinese culture that now only survives in small, isolated pockets of the island, amongst an older generation of women who grew up in a time before the western ideal of modesty was introduced. Standing there in the fields, so comfortable and naturally was a beautiful thing to see and upsetting that parts of the culture are being lost and forgotten.

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40Kg bags of rice  usually carried on the head of the women surrounding me

The highlight of this little adventure, as always, was a long way from the fancy hotels and hordes of tourists. It wasn’t even riding between the roots of an ancient fig tree or riding on Bali’s new bypass road/bridge; it was Gunung Batur, an active volcano in north of the island, just to the west of Mt. Agung. Apart from the standard draw card of being a spectacular place to watch the sun rise over Lombok from, Mt Batur has a few other surprises. Off the main road, it’s a steep and crumbling track littered with loose sand and stone that leads down from the west rim of the outer crater into the sand sea that leads to the foot of the smaller inner crater. The road skirts around to the south through the black sands, gradually getting squeezed between the jagged, uneven black wall of a solidified lava and the sheer outer crater wall. Eventually the road is forced up into the barren lava field where otherworldly structures, thrust up from when the stone was still molten, fill the horizon from the east to the west, dwarfed only by the immense face of the outer crater to the south and the looming presence of the smoking Mt Batur to the north that dominates the landscape. Despite the well marked track, a complete lack of life and the accompanying silence that blankets the lava flow gives a sense of total isolation.

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Riding the little honda through the most recent lava flow on Bali that appeared in 1968

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Further east, the volcano holds a morbid surprise near the village of Trunyan, a village now partially flooded after the most recent earthquake caused the level of the crater lake to rise by over 2 metres. Accessible only by boat, a small wooden pontoon floats in front of an opening in the forest on the steep slopes of the outer crater. Amongst the undergrowth sits a large tree that is the focus of the local beliefs; that it can absorb the smell of the rotting corpses laying on the bare soil nearby. Regardless of what the locals believe, there is a definite stench in the air that emanates from amongst the household items and kitchen utensils spilling from woven baskets scattered across the forest floor. It’s probably not as bad as what I imagine a rotting human corpse to smell like, but its still no rose garden (and besides, I probably smell worse after a few days on the bike without a proper shower).

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With only enough space for 10 deceased bodies at the site, old remains are cleared on an as-required basis; the oldest skeletons, having been picked clean of flesh, are unceremoniously raked off to the side to join the growing pile of bones that have begun to form a retaining wall of sorts on the sloping ground. The skulls, some with blackened, leathery skin still clinging in places, are meticulously stacked one atop the other on a wide stone alter. Closer inspection of the loosely woven bamboo tents that cover the rotting bodies reveals photographs hung near the feet of the corpses which have been wrapped in blankets, leaving only their heads exposed.

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Skulls of the deceased stacked nearby fresh bodies. Our guides relatives were emplaced here but he didn’t know which remains were theirs

Behind the open slats of the bamboo tents, the bloated and sagging face of somebodies loved one, lips now peeled back over yellowing teeth, while lichen turning the once brown skin a mottled patchwork of green and white while sunken eyes stare blankly at the forest canopy. This cemetery is for those who are married and that die of natural causes, but is only one of three open-air cemeteries that the residents of Trunyan get buried in; the others are reserved for those that meet a violent or unnatural death or for children and unmarried adults.

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The corpse of a woman laid to rest 3.5 weeks before this photo was taken

And so ended my reconciliation adventure in Bali, which I flew away from with a sense of regret at not having more time to explore, a stark contrast to the last time, when I was happy to just be gone. Its nice to find that parts of Bali are still relatively unexplored and undamaged by the influx of demanding, selfish tourists that Kuta other parts of the island have experienced. It also showed that bigger is not always better when it comes to bikes; the little Honda was so much more nimble, fuel efficient and far less physically demanding than a large bike that I’d recommend to anyone overlanding through Indonesia to park up that monstrosity of an overlander that you might have, and rent a small bike for $5-$7/day. You’ll probably save yourself that much in petrol and tire wear anyway, and have a lot more fun to boot.

The Privileged Few: Riding the 1290 Super Duke at Sepang

KTM has always been a brand beyond my means; both financially and performance wise. But when news got round that there was the opportunity to ride their new 1290 Super Duke around Sepang and for free, I made sure all the right strings were pulled in the political landscape that is the Malaysian media, and booked myself a slot for what would turn out to be an overcast Saturday morning.

Thankfully the rain held off as I was already nervous over the Superdukes spec sheet; 189kg, 180hp and 144Nm read to me like a well thought out plan for sliding on your back with an upside down motorcycle laying on top of you down pit lane. Thankfully KTM brought out the boffins from Austria to explain to everyone how they turned an essentially un-rideable beast into something even mere mortals can manage. The ABS and traction control are all well and good and with enough time on the bike I could learn to live without them. The little part about restricting the power to 30% for the first 6% of throttle opening however was what I was looking for to dull the need to pee in my leathers before going out on the track.

First sighting up in the members lounge above pit lane

First sighting up in the members lounge above pit lane

Down in the pits a lineup of new black and orange machines was headed by two R designated models that no one was brave enough to do anything but look at, so the Austrian guys and Jeremy McWilliams took them out to play while the rest of us got acquainted with the stock models. When I said the bike were new, I mean straight-off-the-showroom-floor new; there was even a funny red light that would come on at 6500rpm, too early for a shift light and no where near the 10 000rpm redline. Later we found out was the run-in shift light, that gets reset to the ideal rpm of about 8500 at the first service. It was subsequentially ignored for the rest of the day.

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Powerparts equipped 1290 waiting in the pits

Terrifying

Terrifying

New bikes also meant new tires and the Dunlop SportSmart 2, developed with the Super Duke in mind, still had that glossy finish from the manufacturing process that quietly and maliciously whispers “I’m not going to let you anywhere near the full potential of this tire, in fact I think ill dump you on your arse so It looks like you have no idea what your doing” (which is somewhat true and why I wear a full face helmet, because it hides the near constant look of fear and surprise on my face as I ride). Despite reassurances from the Austrians that the tires would come good after only one lap, I remained unconvinced and rode tentatively for at least 1.5 laps before boredom kicked in and I remembered that wasn’t my bike. Opening the throttle up, it seems the Austrians were right, there’s no tom-foolery from the tires at all. In fact, they track like they are on rails and as the lap count increased, so did the speed and lean angles and still they did everything asked of them from the torquy engine, albeit under the close supervision of traction control.

Some pretty serious lean angle on the slicks

Some pretty serious lean angle on the slicks

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Only the sidewall remained unused on the rear tires

In a straight line, where the speed-monkeys shine, everything is nice and comfortable. Despite a more upright seating position than other similar street nakeds, the ergonomics still allow for some chin-on-the-tank-and-elbows-tucked-in stream lining down the straight as the little numbers in front of you climb to 240km/hr with no hint of wobble from the damped steering. Braking performance into the corners is a no brainer with 2 x 320mm discs being clamped down on by Brembo monoblock 4 piston calipers, while the slipper clutch prevents the rear from locking on even the most aggressive downshifts (and if that’s not enough there’s a 240mm rear disc with a 2 piston Brembo caliper out the back for even more stopping power). Feeling at the lever is fine enough to brake into the turns smoothly and evenly, without upsetting the front suspension and steering geometry unexpectedly.

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Brembo and WP front and rear

Rake angle feels neutral with a slight lean towards the aggressive side of things, but the bike maintains smooth lines through the bends with very little hint that it wants to stand up or lay down any more than you will let it, in part thanks to the stiffness of the chrome-moly trellis frame. WP USD forks and monoshock keep the bike from diving too hard under brakes and squatting under acceleration respectively, which all adds up to effortless corning which lets you get on with the task of working out what to do with the front wheel as it points towards the sky in sync with the rpm while accelerating out of the corner.

I could only get photos of the wheelies at the start of the straight because anywhere else and he was moving too fast

I could only get photos of the wheelies at the start of the straight because anywhere else and he was moving too fast

With the weather remaining fine and temperature at a balmy 32 degrees C, the only comfortable place to be wearing racing leathers was out on the track with the wind in your hair (or beard, whatever you’re rocking). As my confidence increased, the bike did a more than capable job of keeping up with my riding skill, the brakes only getting better as they warmed up and the reality of how freely the engine revs finally sinking in. F1 inspired, near skirtless, 108mm diameter pistons weight in at less than 500g, reducing the reciprocating mass and allowing for very quick throttle response. My only real concern after getting off the bike was that the parts of the bike that I could feel momentarily scraping the track surface at times turned out to be the engine cover on the right hand side. I guess I need to learn to put a knee down.

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Race designed pistons

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Here you can just see where the engine cover scraped through turn 1

Thankfully the testing was over before confidence overtook ability, but not before Jeremy McWilliams waited for me to catch p to him so he could pull a wheelie all the way down the back straight while I chased him at 200km/hr. So after a quick ride on the powerparts equipped R model that comes with full titanium exhaust that not only gives the Super Duke an exhaust note more suited to bike of this pedigree but also adds an additional 14hp, upgraded rear suspension that is 12mm longer than stock, increasing the fork rake angle for more aggressive turning and expensive carbon fiber engine covers that protect your engine cases as you scrape them through the corners, I peeled off the tape hiding all the BMW logos from my borrowed race suit (duct tape was a bad idea as it took all the BMW logos off too when I removed it, and so my run of bad luck with BMW gear continues) and screwed the visor back onto my Arai XD3 (I learnt the hard way that at about 200km/hr the XD3s visor will either tear your head off backwards as it catches the wind or simply fold down over the visor and blind you until you slow down again), jumped on my DR650 with its massive 100mm bore and full 34hp and putted my way back home for a shower.

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Another strike against me from BMW

The only thing that remains now is to tackle the streets of Malaysia with it to see if it’s more than just a thoroughbred race bike.

Inside the Belly of the Beast

Inside the Belly of the Beast

 

Three days of Dance and Destruction

Part 3 of 3

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A towering 43m high statue of Lord Murugan stands sentinel over the crowds that slowly filter through the temporary markets erected at the caves for the festival. Everything from wooden, hand carved household furniture and utensils to miniature statues of Lord Murugan and smaller versions of the pushpa kavadi, for devotees that have come unprepared, can be found for sale. Here, the value of having a group of helpers becomes apparent, as they maintain a clear area around the devotees from the crowds that press in from all sides, as an average of 13 000 people per hour attempt to climb the 272 stairs to the cave temple. If walking barefoot on a road surface that can get to 60 degrees centigrade with metal piercings in various locations wasn’t enough, devotees now face a 45 minute wait in line, caused by the bottle neck that is the red and white staircase, now completely obscured by a slow moving sea of pilgrims that surge upwards in fits and starts.

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Th stairs leading up to the cave temple; devotees going up on the left, those bearing kavadi in the centre and everyone coming down on the right. Before the lane system was installed, this staircase was probably the most chaotic place in the world during Thaipusam

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At the base of the stairs, temple volunteers use shovels to remove the piles of shoes left behind by devotees, while offerings are burnt at the base of the stairs despite the protests of the Rela (community police) who check the passports of potentially illegal immigrants. Here, the groups of musicians return to the riverside in search of more kavadi bearers that require their services, recorded traditional music taking over for the ascent up the stairs. With the effect of the live drumming diminished, trances are no so intense and fatigue takes over, the devotees taking more frequent breaks, while the crowd passing by them on the stairs chant “Vel! Vel!” louder and with greater intensity. The chanting works and the processions continue upwards, past the nurses and firemen stationed halfway up, who, in-between feeding the resident monkeys in order to keep them from attacking the crowd for food, are almost constantly retrieving devotees that succumb to the combined heat of the tropical sun and confines of the slow moving, stifling crowd.

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The view from the base of the 272 stairs leading up to the cave temple

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Volunteers retrieve a devotee that has succumb to the overbearing heat on the tightly packed staircase

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A welcome reprieve from the heat can be found inside the caves, where those that have crawled up the stairs on all fours finally stand, while parents carrying newborn babies in saffron coloured slings, suspended from sugar cane stalks hold them in their arms again. Inside the caves, volunteers wearing only sarongs and strings of the Rudraksha seed around their necks, their bodies decorated in holy ash and red and orange powder oversee the temples. With the long hours and time taken to walk up and down the stairs, these volunteers opt to live inside the cave for up to 5 days during the festival in makeshift accommodation as. Now devotees come out of their trance as they present their offerings to the temple priest, and remove their kadavi and piercings. The milk is poured and the juice of the fruits squeezed over a statue of Lord Murugan, while flower wreaths are hung from his neck, as prayers, written on small, folded pieces of paper, are handed to the temple priests. In the furthest reaches of the cave, a temple bathed in the light that filters down through the caverns open roof, contains hundreds of small yellow wax candles in hand made clay bowls, lit by devotees to carry prayers to the gods, while the smashed coconut husks litter the floor in front of statues of the other Hindu gods present.

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Devotees rest in the coolness of the cave interior while others make the final push up to the open roofed chamber in the back of the cave system

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A couple of local Hindu children pose after lighting small candles inside the cave temple

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As night falls the number of devotees only increases, the cooler weather far more attractive than the heat of the day, and the sunset brings with it pushpa kavadi lit with hundreds of LEDs, powered by motorcycle batteries, while devotees carrying clay pots lit aflame dot the crowd as fireworks crack overhead in the night sky. Although the official celebrations last for 3 days, a steady stream of devotees can bee seen for 4 or 5 days, as some people attempt to beat the crowds, by attending the temples outside of the official period, which ends with the return of the chariot carrying Muruagan’s effigy to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur. As the slow moving procession adds its fair share of chaos to the Malaysian capitals’ already congested traffic, I sit down, exhausted after climbing the temple stairs 8 times in the past 4 days, for one final free vegetarian meal as the chaos around me continues along without showing any sign of slowing down.

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A devotee of the Shudra (peasant) caste carries a pot of burning coals

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Three days of Dance and Destruction

Part 2 of 3

Opposite the kitchens, across the small body of slowly moving, muddy green water known as the Batu River, an open, concreted space nestled in the spiral of the overpass serves as the location for puja (prayer rituals). Puja is an important part of Thaipusam and for many begins with men, women and children having their heads shaved bald in one of the many nearby stalls, where men wielding open blade razors try to entice passers-by to partake in their services. Freshly shaved heads are then coated with saffron paste as an offering to Lord Murugan, which dries quickly in the tropical heat to a pale yellow powder.

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A man has his head shaved in preparation for puja, near the Batu River, Kuala Lumpur

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Traditionally, devotees would bath in the waters of the Batu River, in much the same way they might bathe in the Indian Ganges, and sacrifice chickens or goats before donning their respective kavadi. These days, animal sacrifice has been banned and bathing in the heavily polluted river poses serious health concerns, devotees opting to use the nearby showers that run constantly for the duration of the festival. With animal sacrifices now banned, offerings once reserved for those of the most respected and privileged Brahmin castes, have now been adopted by members of the lower caste groups. Various fruits, incense and burning karpooram camphor laurel (a waxy substance form the camphor tree) placed on a banana leaf are either left on the banks of the river, or floated downstream, while the dried husk of coconuts are lit aflame and the coconut rotated in a circular motion to ward off evil spirits that might seek to posses kavadi bearers, before being smashed open on the ground as a further offering.

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Devotees wash under permanently placed showers on the banks of the Batu River, which is now too polluted to bathe in

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A father ties the sarong for his young son as they prepare to perform the kavadi ritual together

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Towering above the heads of the mixed crowd of priests, devotees and their families, are the kavadi, circular structures made of steel and aluminium hoops adorned with flags, flower wreaths, and dense forests of peacock feathers imported from India, and topped with small umbrellas to protect the statues and effigies of Lord Murugan and other Hindu deities that reside within. Circles of musicians-for-hire beat drums, sing and chant through megaphones as they vie for the attention of men and women performing puja. The combination of sound, smell, colour and the religious significance of the festival put devotees into a trance like state, individuals in the crowd letting out guttural screams or breaking into dance as as they prepare to don the pushpa kavadi (flower kavadi), that can weight up to 30kg. While many of these pushpa kavadi include small, light chains attached to hooks embedded into he skin of the devotee, more serious acts of self mutilation are happening at nearby shrines devoted to lord Murugan and Shiva.

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A man preparing himself mentally for the walk from Batu River to the cave temple bears a flower kavadi on his shoulders and scale model of Lord Murugans spear pierced through his cheeks

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A group of musician for hire beat out traditional Hindi songs as they advertise their services to devotees preparing to perform the kavadi ritual

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A Hindu priest wrapped in a saffron sarong with a regal red shawl with gold embroidery hung over his shoulders and necklace of Rudraksha seeds (the tears of Shiva) hanging from his neck, has been standing in front of the shrine for hours now. He induces trances for devotees of the lower casts, begining by reciting prayers that call the chosen god to enter the devotees’ body to guide them through the journey to the cave temple. With his hands washed in lemon water, the priest applies holy ash made from bunt cow dung to the devotees’ body, while a bindi (red spot of kumkum) is applied to the devotees’ brow to signify strength. The intensity of the nearby musicians increases to a frenetic pace as and the surrounding crowd presses in, chanting “Vel! Vel! Vetri vel!” (Spear! Spear! Glorious spear).

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A preist of Vishnu waits to give blessing to devotees preparing to bear kavadi

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As the combination of sounds, the smell of the incense, the intense red, yellow and orange colours and the religious significance of the festival all combine, the devotees’ consciousness is altered. His eyes glaze over, a slice of lime placed in his mouth and the piercing begins. Apples, oranges, limes, small pots of milk, tiny bells, lotus flowers and even whole coconuts are attached to needle sharp hooks that are threaded into the skin of the devotees back by the dozen, while other devotees have scaled down models of lord Muragan’s spear pushed through cheeks, tongue or forehead, depending on their caste. Others are obliged to wear large steel hooks, speared through the skin of their back and attached to ropes held by relatives of the devotee, or attached to chariots that must be towed nearly one kilometre to the caves. While most devotees are well prepared for puja, some don’t fall into the trance quite so readily and react to the physical pain, one woman instinctively attempting to draw her tongue back into her mouth as the spear is pushed through, only making her situation worse.

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A devotee has a model of Lord Murugans spear pushed through his tongue

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A woman recoils in pain, the spear through her tongue preventing her from drawing it back inside her mouth

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A devotee making the trek to the cave temple with a particularly heavy spear piercing his cheeks

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Music plays a key role in carrying out the kavadi as music is considered to be of divine origins; Shiva played dhamaru (drums), Krishna played venu (flute), and Saraswati, the goddess of learning, played the veena (lute). As a result, devotees are accompanied from the riverside by their hired musicians, whose drumming assists in maintaining the sate of trances required to complete the walk. Following the kavadi bearers are family members, who provide water and small seats for those bearing kavadi as they stop occasionally along the journey to rest or stare wildly into the crowd of spectators or perform kavadi cavadee attam, a dance in worship of Lord Murugan, during which they dance and spin on the spot, the large shoulder mounted pushpa kavadi bouncing around their heads, peacock feathers swaying to the sound of ankle mounted bells and chants of “Vel! Vel! Vetri Vel!”.

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View Part 3 of 3 HERE

BACK to Part 1

Three days of Dance and Destruction

Part 1 of 3

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A woman has water poured on her in an attempt to keep her body cool as she rolls across the 60*C ground as part of the Thaipusam celebrations, Batu Caves, Malaysia

The glow of the early morning sun filters down through the gaps in the spiralling overpass above the heads of hundreds of people that loosely form a line stretching down the road and through an intersection, before disappearing out of sight. This is Kuala Lumpur, or more specifically, Batu Caves on the northern outskirts of Malaysia’s largest city, a place where foreigners are easy to come by and rarely warrant a second glance. On this occasion however, I’m a tiny, if not taller than average, white, western clad island amidst a sea of dark skinned faces dressed in sarees and sarongs, which makes me slightly more fascinating than usual, particularly to the foreign Indian workers that make up a good portion of the labour work force here.

Conversations with new friends in the line are silenced by the appearance of a skinny man of Indian decent that walks in fits and starts past the line of onlookers. Barefoot and dressed only in a specially tied sarong, a thick garland of red and white flowers swing from his neck erratically with his stuttered steps that ring like sleigh bells due to his salangai (leather ankle straps with brass bells sewn in). With arms spread wide and fingers splayed, his wide eyes stare wildly as he scans the crowd. His tongue drips blood red saliva that falls to the ground to the ground as he wobbles his head in a very typical Indian fashion. Passing beyond us, he reveals his back, covered in white ash and pierced in several places by sharpened steel hooks attached to ropes. Another man walking behind him holds the other ends of the ropes in a tidy bunch and keeps them tight as the first man leans forward at an unnatural angle, straining against the bonds sunk into and deforming the skin on his back into a myriad of unnatural peaks. Following closely is group of men banging on drums of varying designs, while another chants and yells thorough a megaphone, a necessary part of maintaining the state of trance enabling the half naked man to continue functioning, despite the mutilation of his body.

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A man of the Shudra (pesant) caste bear a ratham kavadi (blood burden) as part of his devotional obligations

This is Thaipusam, the largest celebration for Hindus in Malaysia and an annual festival of faith and forgiveness. Held in the Tamil month of Thaimatham, it falls between January 14 to February 14 and begins on the day of a full moon, known as pusam. While celebrations are held worldwide, Malaysia’s Batu Caves lays claim to the biggest and most famous, attracting over 1 million worshipers during the course of the three-day festival.

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With the festival ongoing for 3-5 days, some devotees and volunteers move into temporary shelters erected either at the base of or inside the cave temple to avoid the heavily congested traffic and problems associated with inadequate parking

Thaipusam is the commemoration of the triumph of Murugan, son of Shiva and the god of war, over the demon Surapadma, who was split into two by Murugan’s holy vel (spear). One part of Surapadma became a rooster, and the other a peacock, hence the prominence of peacock feathers in many of the kadavi rituals performed. While the first kavadi (burden) was two hills balanced on a pole carried by Idumban to the south of India in order to get a blessing from Lord Murugan, these days it can take the form of a number of different devotional practices, all designed to free devotees from bad energy, provide forgiveness or give thanks for blessings already granted in life.

Although Batu caves is the epicentre of the festival, it begins more modestly in peoples homes and temples, where musicians begin practicing up to 6 months in advance, and devotees begin purification rites between 45 and 30 days (depending on who you ask) prior to the festival. These rites included fasting, during which only one vegetarian meal per day is eaten, prayers every day, abstaining from sex, observing mounam (silence) as much as possible, and self imposed hardships such as sleeping on the bare floor. First time devotees may even seek the guidance of a guru before the festival for trance training sessions.

The main celebrations are commenced some 13 kilometres from Batu Caves, inside the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, where a gaudy, silver plated chariot decorated by hundreds of small lights, stands tall above the crowd as it awaits a golden statue of Lord Murugan – the lord of dance and destruction. With the idol in place, the chariot begins its slow procession towards Batu Caves at 10pm, a full 2hrs earlier than scheduled which leaves many devotees rushing in order to catch up. As the chariot is slowly towed out of China Town, the saffron clad devotees that dominate the crowd pass garlands of flowers to the priests riding on the chariot while tourists slowly filter back to their hostels and hotels. Security and safety is maintained by a red bus filled riot police following closely behind, while men with long lengths of bamboo leapfrog ahead of the crowd to lift low slung electrical wiring out of the way of the 7m tall chariot.

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The chariot awaiting an effigy of Lord Murugan in front of the Sri Maha Maraiamman Temple

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A Hindu man offers prayers inside the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple

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Fifteen and a half hours later, the chariot arrives at the base of the staircase leading up to the temple at Batu Caves, where weary devotees who have walked the full length of the procession barefoot, now ascend the 272 stairs to offer prayer to the effigies of Hindu gods located at the top, before heading back to the city centre to collect their shoes left there the night before. Many of those that didn’t follow the chariot are now standing in line with me under the overpass, as we wait to enter the temporary kitchens. On the other side of the crudely erected plywood wall, volunteers stand between long rows of plastic chairs set at makeshift wooden tables, waiting to serve free vegetarian meals to anyone that wants it, regardless of race, religion or social status. With over 1 million people expected at the festival over the next 3 days, the kitchen has been scaled-up to epic proportions. Two men armed with what look like boat oars stand at each of the 3 oversized woks, whose simmering contents fill the air with the smell of vegetable curry’s in varying hues of red, orange and yellows. Steam wafts from six-foot tall stainless steel cylinders that continuously cook rice while volunteers sitting at long tables cut up mountains of vegetables in preparation for the next round of curries. While the chefs in the kitchen use buckets and other oversized implements to handle the food, visitors are expected to use their hands, and for the next three days the kitchen ensures no one leaves with anything less than a full stomach.

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Volunteers pose for a photo while they await the opening of temporary kitchens that provide free vegetarian meals to devotees and visitors

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Cooking vegetarian curries on an industrial scale in order to feed over 1 million expected visitors

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View Part 2 of 3 HERE

Electronic Inconveniences

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The photo above is what a computer looks like when it’s broken. The photo below is what one look like when its not (I know the hard drive is missing in both). And that’s what I hate about electronics, in cameras, home appliances and particularly on motorcycles. More often than not, when it does break, its impossible to tell what’s wrong using your own senses. When something mechanical breaks, sight and touch is usually enough to diagnose the problem. When something electrical breaks, you’re dependant on someone else who has access to expensive diagnostic equipment, which is almost non-existent in most parts of the world. Yes, you can get it in major cities, but major cities don’t make up most of the world. So, despite all the luxuries that come with a bike packing an on-board super computer, I’ll stick with the bare bones simplicity of my Suzuki until such time as I feel like travelling by making a direct line for major cities along major highways.

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Now that I have that off my chest, it’s also my excuse for the site going quiet for so long over the xmas and new years period. But rest assured I’ve still been busy with broken spokes and designing a more durable headlight bracket taking up most of my time. In fact, not having the distraction of a laptop and the www has probably made me more productive than ever over the past 2 weeks or so. So expect a new update to come soon from my new motherboard and all new editing and word processing software (I found the pirate software shop in Kuala Lumpur last week so I’m all kitted out now :D)

A Little Fun on a Little Track

Hanging out in Kuala Lumpur and contributing to one of the local magazines has put me in touch with a wider audience within the local motorcycle community. Lately, that has meant spending a lot of time at a local go-kart track that is also regularly used as a race track for smaller displacement motorcycle racing.

MiniGP Testing

MiniGP bike on the go kart track

MiniGP bike on the go kart track

When I got a message to come and take a look at some tire testing that was going on at Elite Speedway (along the Elite Highway, Kuala Lumpur) I had no idea what I was in for. After navigating my way off the highway, through a petrol station and behind the Malaysian Road Safety building (the embodiment of the joke that is the Malaysian traffic) I finally arrive at the track, and no I wasn’t lost, this is the only access to the track and isn’t sign boarded at all, which is fairly common in Asia. It took me 45 minutes to get to this point after initially missing the exit while trying to avoid a driver doing 50km/hr faster than everyone else on the highway and cutting in and out of traffic through all three lanes, then having to ride another 15 minutes down the highway before finding an exit that would allow for a couple of illegal U turns to get back to where I started. Then the road that google maps had indicated was the quickest way in didn’t exist, so 15 minutes and some more illegal riding later I was pulling into the speedway car park.

The pros giving the bikes a solid workout

The pros giving the bikes a solid workout

The bikes are little Chinese made, full fairing bikes with 125cc single cylinder motors that put out a massive 9.5hp. The test tires have been spooned onto the tiny 12” wheels and the bikes given to the test riders to give them a flogging around the 1km long track. The bikes are being promoted as a stepping-stone from pit bikes up into full fairing racing on larger bikes for kids from about ages 9 through 16 yrs old. Once I had a few shots sorted out I was even given a ride on them and despite my oversized and inflexible frame making it a bit of a contortionist act to ride the things, they were a lot of fun to throw around the track.

Yours truly having a bit of a go

Yours truly having a bit of a go

I kept finding that my boots would scrape because i couldn't get my feet in tight enough

I kept finding that my boots would scrape because i couldn’t get my feet in tight enough

KTM 390 and 690 Launch

KTM is always a brand that has fascinated me but been either too unreliable, heavy or just expensive for me to have had anything to do with them. So when KTM announced they were hosting a track day I cancelled everything else to make sure that I was able to attend and throw a leg over the new 390 and 690 Dukes.

A couple of the test bikes for the day

A couple of the test bikes for the day

The 390 is a great little bike that putting out 44hp from its relatively small engine and it was great fun to throw around on the track, but my big fat frame may well have been overtaxing the stock bike somewhat. Acceleration was good but hardly exciting, edge of your seat type of stuff and the suspension had a tendency to dive under braking which would change the steering geometry and cause the bike to unexpectedly dive into corners or stand up while exiting them. Stiffer springs would be the quick fix to this little annoyance and then you could end up with a very fun little bike to ride around town on or take to a local track like this one. Throttle and brake response are crisp and smooth while it turns into corners beautifully (as long as you leave the front brake alone) enough to drag the pegs through just about any corner in no time. Just try not to have too much fun or you’ll end up scraping a hole in the exhaust header pipe too.

The 390 dragging pegs all the way through

The 390 dragging pegs all the way through

Although the 390 was a definite draw card, the real reason I was there was for the chance to try out the 690 engine. I’ve been reading a lot about the KTM 690 Adventure as an almost perfect adventure bike platform with its 150kg wet weight (the same as my Suzuki DR650) and a massive (no joking this time) 68hp that is almost double the stock DR650 output. Presently the 690 adventure isn’t available in Malaysia due to the unfortunate fact that any bike over 130kg is such a handful in the mud that dominates the off-road scene here, that after 1 hour of wresting it up the slipperiest hills in the world, you will want to leave it in the jungle and walk out. So the 690 Duke is the closest I can get to what the Adventure might be like. And it’s amazing.

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The seating position on the 690 Duke is a lot more open and comfortable for my 6’2” height than the 390 and the suspension better suited for my 90kgs. The engine is a work of art; at least in the way it performs. Its kind of ugly to look at but that’s all forgotten about after the same crisp throttle response as on the 390 launches the bike forward out of corners, the torquey engine popping the front wheel up slightly even in 3rd if the clutch is dropped a little hard. It has the same sharp turn in characteristics as the 390 but there is something about the geometry (road clearance and/or peg height) that makes it a little harder to get the pegs to kiss the pavement.

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The stock tires fitted to the first 690 I rode (yes I liked it so much I took it out twice) are more than sticky enough to get it all the way down to peg scraping angles, but a second bike fitted with more touring oriented tires for a much bigger bike never really got up to temperature, and despite being able to feel the back end letting go under acceleration out of the corners, I still pushed it harder (I blame the bike, it made me want to go faster) until I inevitably low-sided. Thankfully it was low speed and damage to both me and the bike were minimal; me with a grazed knee and a hole in the back pocket of my only jeans while the bike faired even better with some gravel rash on the handguard, busted shift lever pivot spring and some small scratches on the rear swingarm; surprisingly little damage for a street bike and definitely better crashability than other plastic coated offering from other brands.

Just after crashing

Just after crashing

Now all I want to see is a 390 Adventure released onto the market. 140kg, 44hp, lots of front and rear suspension, 18” rear and 21” front wheels would make for a beautiful machine to throw into some sticky, greasy jungle mud.