Lest we Forget

A month or so ago I found myself back in a small part of Malaysia so secluded that most Malaysians don’t even know it exists. Bario is a small enclave of longhouses inhabited by the Kelabit tribe who are part of the Orang Ulu people of Borneo. Tucked away in the far reaches of the jungle, the Kelabit highlands is such a beautiful and serene part of the world that its difficult to imagine that it has such a violent history.

Surrounded by people that farm rice, still hunt in the jungle using blowpipes from time to time and know more about the jungle than any botanist, I couldn’t be more removed from Australia, let alone WW2. But standing on the remains of an old grass runway, bordered by empty rice fields whose still waters reflect the surrounding mountain ranges, there is an unquestionable link, and he’s standing right in front of me. Jack Tredrea, an elderly man wearing a blue corduroy jacket that looks 2 sizes too big for his diminutive frame reminds me of my grandfather, his straight back and the finish of a gentleman belies his 95 years of life. However, the red beret perched on a head of snow-white hair and the string of medals pinned to the left breast of his jacket hint at something far more grandiose than just another gentlemanly grandfather.

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Jack being greeted by the Kelabit of Bario, 70 years to the day after he parachuted into what was only know as headhunter territory, 25th March, 2015

Jack is the sole surviving member of Z Special Unit, a clandestine Australian military force who carried out 81 covert operations during WW2 against Japanese forces in the South West Pacific. Their unit was so secretive that the members were forced to sign a secrets act that would even keep individual members from knowing what other members of the team had been through for 30 years after the Japanese surrender. Secrecy was of the utmost importance considering the incredibly high levels of risk that Z Special Unit operations entailed, which generally ended in sublime success or catastrophic disaster.

Operation Semut (which translates to Operation Ant)was one of their more successful operations that centred on the interior jungles of Borneo, specifically Bario. While there has been very little official information released on Operation Semut, some of the members have in the past opened up about their activities in the jungle and Jack is one of them. After spending 12 months on Frasier Island training and learning the Malay language, Jack and the rest of his team were handed a cyanide pill and a parachute before boarding a B24 Liberator headed for the Borneo high country. The only thing they knew of their destination was that fierce headhunting tribes and Japanese Imperial forces supposedly inhabited it.

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A photo of Jack in his younger days as a member of Z Special Force. Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-30/jack-tredrea/5707824

With heavy cloud cover on the morning of 25th of March 1945 obscuring their drop zone, Jack’s team, led by the Brit Tom Harrison, took a ‘best guess’ and ended up landing a couple of mountain ranges away from Bario, their intended destination. Thankfully the Kelabit people whose land they had arrived in from the sky were more interested in helping them fight the Japanese than in taking their heads. Previous encounters between the Japanese forces and Kelabit had been violent, so when Jack’s team offered to train the local population in the use of modern weapons and gruella warfare, they became willing students.

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A photograph showing an airdrop of supplies being flown into the Kelabit Highlands to support Z Special Force during WW2. Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-30/z-special-unit/5707832

During their time in and around Bario, Z Special Unit would train some 2000 of the Orang Ulu people of the high country to fight the Japanese. Jack spent 7 months stationed there, living and fighting alongside some of the most capable jungle warriors in the world, who would often resort to the more silent but equally lethal sumpit, or blowpipe, during skirmishes despite the availability of modern rifles. The members of Z Special Unit even learnt to go barefoot in the jungle, so as to not alert the Japanese to their presence by leaving boot prints in the soft mud while on reconnaissance missions in the jungle. And with the Japanese penchant for decapitating prisoners, Z Special Force had very few qualms about allowing for the return of that most ancient of Orang Ulu traditions, headhunting.

Operation Semut was largely a success and on his return to Australia, after spending three and a half months in and out of hospital being treated for Hookworm, Malaria and Amoebic Dysentery, Jack went back to work as a tailor. He would return again to Bario multiple times over the next decades, to see old friends and even replace some of the military medals that had been lost after they were given to the Kelabit fighters. When I met him there in 2015 it was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his initial landing.

To see this elderly Australian gentleman standing in the midst of people from a culture so far removed from his own as to be unrecognisable, and yet still be remembered fondly and respected by the children and wives of the men he fought alongside 70 years ago, stirred within me something I’ve never felt before. A sense of pride for being able to associate myself with a man like Jack. It was a strange moment for me as I consider nationalists to be right up there with religious extremists for the damage that they cause to society, but there it was, a sense of pride that I could associate myself with an Australian like Jack.

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Jack poses with members of the Kelabit community during a memorial service in Bario, 25th March, 2015

Since leaving Australia I’ve felt nothing but embarrassment for the stories that come out of the country, as unprovoked attacks on religious minorities increase while our spineless monkey of a prime minister mumbles his way through press conferences, occasionally throwing out the threat of physical violence to leaders of other countries. Current happenings have left me with little desire to return or even associate myself with being Australian. Yet seeing Jack, thousands of kilometres from home amongst friends of different racial backgrounds whom he risked his life for in the time of the White Australia policy, I couldn’t help but think that this is what the ANZACs fought for; a fair go for everyone, regardless of their racial or religious background.

While Australians used to be renowned for their “she’ll be right” attitude and the idea of a fair go for all, these days we are better known abroad as a mob of drunken racists, after events like the Cronulla riots and Reclaim Australia Rally made headlines around the world. So as long as throngs of drunken, loud Australians continue to wander the streets of tourist hotspots like Kuta in Bali, or apply the sense of mateship we always talk of to only select groups, we will continue to be seen in a negative light. So, this ANZAC day, try to spare a few moments not just for the Australians that have been lost in past wars, but also for what we seem to have lost as a nation in the past decades.

 

For those in Australia, there are a number of memorials for the members of Z Special Unit:

  • The esplanade in Cairns, Queensland has a memorial stone and plaque.
  • Commemorative plaques have been placed on each lamppost on the new jetty at Garden Island, Rockingham, Western Australia.
  • The MV Krait, originally used as part of an operation to sink Japanese ships moored in Singapore harbour is now part of the Australian War Memorial collection and is currently on loan to the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney. Over the course of the war, the 70-foot wooden-hulled boat was involved in sinking more shipping than any other ship in the Australian navy.

 

Books that have more information on the operations of Z Special Unit:

“Silent Feet: The History of ‘Z’ Special Operations 1942-45”, by G.B. Courtney, 1992, ISBN 0 646 12903 1

“Operation Semut 1.: ‘Z’ Special Unit’s Secret War” compiled by Bob Long, 1989, ISBN 0 908021 10 0

 

Giving Something Back – Flooded In

For the backstory on what we were doing in the jungle in the first place, have a look here.

A blue plastic sheet sinks gently into the sand bank, weighed down by a small mountain of rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and even some bright yellow 20L containers filled with petrol. Sand is sprayed across the food by the boots of someone running past, dragging another plastic sheet across the food as they go. Twisting around to the north from the seat of my mud covered motorcycle, beyond the 30m expanse of muddied water, churned into white peaks over the rocks and what remains of the bridge that once stood 6m above the water surface, up above the mountain on the opposite bank, now scarred by landslides and topped with copses of bamboo and dense tropical trees that sway in the wind reveals a black sky advancing on us. An intermittent “tack, tack, tack” from the plastic sheets mimics the almost calming sound I can hear inside my helmet as the first small rain drops fall from the sky. Any sense of peace is quickly forgotten about in the frantic commotion of the people around me. Road distances in the jungle are variable, measured in hours instead of kilometres. When the rain comes, the distance between villages can be 10 times what it is on dry roads, and the distance between basecamp and us is about to become immeasurable.

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Parked at the edge of the final river as small drops of rain begin to fall

24hrs prior to the rain starting, I’m sitting in basecamp, the late in the afternoon sun filtering through the trees. I’ve arrived before most to the convoy, having ridden during the day due to a lack of headlights. I’m not the only motorcyclist in camp for long though. Almost all at once, 28 motorcycles and their riders roll into camp, all Orang Asli on small bikes and covered in mud. Making friends is easy, my bike Emily doing most of the talking as a small group gather around the machine that almost comes up to their shoulders. Chatting with them, we learn that they set out at 7am that morning and have been battling landslides, broken bridges and deep mud, along roads that only the small cub chai motorcycles can access, for 12 hours to reach us. On goo roads the same ride takes them 2.5hrs. With the sun now setting and 12hrs of riding through terrain that we cant breach under their belts, arrangements are made for them to have dinner with us in basecamp that night before they set up a temporary shelter for the night nearby in the jungle.

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The light-trails of the Temair motorcyclists as they head out of our basecamp to find a suitable place to sleep for the night

By 6am the next morning, everyone in basecamp is up, preparing breakfast and packing vehicles with food when the 28 bikes all come putting back from their night in the jungle. The small bikes become first priority, packages of food and other basic essentials taken from the storehouse are prepared while the Temiar share breakfast with us before strapping the food on with strips of old motorcycle inner-tube and starting the 12hr return journey together. Once again, the small bikes prove themselves to be the king of the jungle; able to duck under fallen trees, carried across deep mud and supported by the simplest of bamboo bridges, they make anything else look over engineered, overweight and excessive by comparison.

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With the storehouse now overflowing after having 4 trucks from Kuala Lumpur full of aid unload over Friday night and Saturday morning, it was essential that the 4×4 vehicles get loaded and back out into to as many villages as we could reach. Despite the morning dew making the roads and bypass tracks around the fallen bridges exceptionally slippery, we made good time, reaching the impassable river from the previous week within 2 hrs, a quarter f the time it took on the first week. Arriving at the river we were met by a small group of Orang Asli from the next village beyond the river who were already busy cutting down trees with machetes and either floating them down the river or carrying them into place as they began the construction of a log bridge, substantial enough to allow 4 wheeled access in anticipation of our trucks. We were pleasantly surprised as there is no one that we would rather help more than people who are willing to work so hard to help themselves. Axes were unloaded from the vehicles and winches used to drag the necessary long, heavy trees out of the jungle which are more and more difficult to find with the logging, both legal and illegal, that goes on in the area. Standing knee deep in mud and swinging an axe in 36 degree Celsius heat is difficult enough without the added effort of running from the tree as it begins its slow fall through the canopy of vines and smaller trees.

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At the peak of the flooding, the deck of this bridge was under 4m of water

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During the bridge building, two other vehicles arrive from a separate NGO, also there to deliver aid to those that need it. The drivers are known to some of those in our group and we are all there for the same purpose, so we band together, binding the logs with old motorcycle chains and guiding each other’s vehicles across. Emily got extra special attention with the Temair boys coming to her aid to get us across the narrow slippery logs without falling into the gaps between.

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Wading out through the mud in search of trees big enough to support the weight of the 4×4 vehicles on the nearby river crossing

The 10km after the bridge towards Tohoi, the road shys away from the river and the flood damage is less pronounced. There is still the odd landslide across the road and one section where the road has washed away into a 6m pit, leaving just enough room for the 4x4s to get past if they drop their wheels into the muddy gutter on the far side of the washout. There’s still enough mud to make uphill sections on the bike interesting at times and the biggest mud hole we have found yet hasn’t changed; 200m of light brown muck that sticks to the vehicles and me like concrete. Dropping into the deepest section submerges the lower half of the bike, interfering with the chain which cries out in protest with a series of loud “clunks” as it skips a few teeth on the sprocket. I feel every tooth skipped and cringe at the damage it must be doing to the chain and wheel bearings.

Beyond the fallen power lines that scrape over my helmet as I pass and up the rutted hills, Tohoi lies nestled in a wide and shallow valley hemmed in against a muddy river by secondary growth rainforest, the loggers having long since stripped this area of any valuable timber. The Temair people here live in single story buildings made of wood or concrete, spread out over 2 or 3 square km. While their preference is for the stilted wooden structures, the concrete boxes are newer, last longer and are free despite being far less comfortable in the tropical heat. At the sound of the engines, the residents com out to greet us, adults staring curiously from doors and windows while children are less bashful, running right up to the road, wide grins lighting up the dark skin of their faces and arms extended, hopeful of a high-5 as we pass by.

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One of the 4×4 vehicles ascends a rutted hill through a recent landslide with downed power lines in the foreground

The goal for today is to get to the bridge beyond Tohoi, which is reported to be impassable by the locals, but is yet to be seen by outsiders. After dropping off the doctor that we brought in with the group at Tohoi to make an assessment of the and hand out some basic medications that he had brought along with him, we continued the final 3 km to the former bridge site.

Standing on the bank of the river, scoured clean by the floodwaters, it becomes apparent that we will be going no farther anytime soon. The only sign that there was ever a bridge here are a few stacked tree trunks that used to serve as the bridge foundations and short section of decking, now partially submerged in the swirling water rushing by some 6 metres below us. A man from the next village on the other side of the river yells that the only way across is to go back downstream and take a boat where the waters are calmer. Our conversation is cut short by the first light drops of rainfall and he retreats to a makeshift shelter constructed up on the hill opposite our position.

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A couple of weeks ago, a steel bridge spanned this stretch of river. The large beams now lay below the rapids

We quickly decide that a small sand bank formed by the floodwaters in the shelter of a large landslide obscuring our view upstream is a good location to drop the supplies that both our groups are transporting. With the small patch of sky visible through the tree topped mountains quickly darkening, the urgency of the group increases notably. This may seem odd to those that have never had to drive on a jungle track in the rain, after all, its just a little rain right? Surely it would take a couple of days to make the track truly impassable? One of the unique things about the jungles in Malaysia and Borneo is the amount of change that half an hours rain can bring. Rain here is not like rain in other parts of the world, its either valves fully open, or nothing at all. It can be completely dry in one location while 100m down the road there is a torrential downpour; its an odd sensation to transition from a location without rain into a wall of water falling from the sky within the space of 20m. Then there’s the soil, which is like a sponge for any kind of moisture and can evolve from a dry, grippy surface to being nearly impossible to walk on flat sections in a fraction of a second.

Needless to say, being the only vehicle on two wheels, it was all I could do to remain calm. As soon as the vehicles are unloaded, my helmet is on and I’m covering as much ground as I can before the roads turn to a greasy steel plate. I don’t get much further than Tohoi before the real rain begins, drops of water so large that they form baseball sized wet patches wherever they land. Its not long before the road becomes speckled with Temair people heading back home, either sliding both feet along the ground as they try to keep their small bikes upright or walking, shoes in hand, bare feet offering superior grip on the slick road surface than any manmade boot. While its difficult to imagine living in and dealing with such arduous conditions on a regular basis, everyone I see has a smile and brief wave (brief because riding one handed in these conditions is difficult even on a small bike) ready for the idiot on the bike that’s too big.

The mud either fills the voids in the off-road tyres or the hard pack soil simply provides no traction at all as I slip my way up one hill and down another, finally getting an unexpected respite at the top of a hill where a small group of Tohoi residents had gathered. It turned out they were the same guys that helped us to put he bridge together earlier on in the day, now heading home in a trailer towed by a tractor. The reason no one was in the trailer at that time was to try to reduce the load on the tractor as it spun its enormous wheels in a vain attempt to get up the hill, blocking the road in the process. After 20 minutes sitting in the pouring rain watching the tractor reverse down the hill and try again and again while the soaking wet passengers threw stones in under the tyres, a triumphant cheer was let out as the vehicle finally crested the hill. Those that hadn’t opted to start walking the 6km back to Tohoi clambering back into the trailer for the slow ride home as the rest of our convoy caught up with me after stopping to collect our doctor from Tohio where he had found an almost epidemic of skin infections and diarrhoea.

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Waiting for the road to be cleared of the temporarily stranded tractor

The 200 metre long mud hole was a little deeper on the way out, the consistency less dense but the bullet like raindrops still left deep impressions in the surface. The chain only skipped 2 teeth this time as I passed through and it should have marked the final serious challenge before the bridge we had constructed earlier in the day. But no one expected the waterfall.

Riding at the front of the group, I was the first to round a downhill bend in the track, only to be confronted with a torrent of milky brown water surging across the track and off the side, foaming as it cascaded into the gully below and out of sight through the trees. I was initially confused, thinking surely we were on the wrong track; 1hr ago there was no water across the road here, only a small stream that drained through a hollow tree trunk that served as a culvert buried in the road surface. I didn’t have to ride across this did I? With the amount of rain that had fallen, the small creek had become a river, swollen further by the confluence of runoff from an old logging track and another smaller stream. I’d never seen water running so fast or so deep across a road before. Was there even a road underneath all that water anymore?

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My first thought was “that’s interesting” followed closely by “f*ck this”

After staring, frozen in horror for what seemed like forever, I decided that if we were going to cross then it had best be walked first. Even with the water barely up to my knee, I could feel my boot sliding on the small stones and slimy hard-pack mud underneath. I already had serious doubts about getting the bike across without ending in the gully below, potentially pinned under the water by 160kg of steel and rubber. But before I had time to mull it over for too long, one of the 4WDs eased into the torrent, quickly making a dash for the other side before too much water could pile up against the upstream side of the vehicle. Not wanting to be left behind, I prepared to cross too, lining the bike up on the upstream side of the crossing, as far from the cascades as possible. While the 4x4s made it look easy, my heart was pounding. Dropping the front wheel into the depths, it moved sideways almost instantly and I froze. I changed my mind but physically couldn’t back out. A plan was hatched to tie a rope around the bike, using it as part winch, part safety line in the event that the bike was swept away and with the water level rising ever higher, knots were hastily tied around the front forks.

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Frozen in place. I really didn’t want to be here right now

With 4 men on the far side of the river holding the rope, I stare wide eyed across the narrow stretch of fast moving water as we count down to the big moment. Those holding the rope start pulling at the same time as I gently let the clutch out, just enough to not waste time in the water but not so much that the rear wheel spins. Any loss of traction now and there will be no stopping the bike from being swept downstream towards the edge. With the water is up over the axles, I can feel the front slide a little and the rear moves even more, taking me with it as I hang half off the bike, letting it move around underneath me to keep it upright. All I can hear are the shouts of “PULL PULL PULL!!” from those on the end of the rope above the roar of the foaming waterfall to my right that feels uncomfortably close. With eyes trained on the far bank, lungs frozen and heart racing, my white knuckles twist the throttle a little more and momentum does the rest. I’m through. There’s still water swirling around my ankles but the worst is over for me and I can begin to breathe again, laughing nervously as we untie the rope and straighten the bike out. The water is high enough now that even one of the 4x4s is shifted sideways as they cross after me. Whatever lies in front of us, there is no going back the way we just came.

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With the rain still falling and the water rising, it was now or never

Up through a ravine where the full width of the road has become a caramel coloured waterfall and around a few more bends brings us to the ridgeline above our makeshift log bridge. From a distance its difficult to see if the river level has risen but I can glimpse the log bridge and hope rises that we will get out of here and back to some dry clothes and big hot meal for dinner. Rolling down the muddy slope, I can see that the water has come up, but both sections of bridge are still in place, although no longer clear of the water. Then the unthinkable happens. Just as I rolled to a stop, not 10m from the waters edge, both sections of bridge lift up and began to float down the swollen river. All I can do is pull out my camera and try to film the final moments as any hope of getting out of here today is washed away along with the two bundles of logs in front of me and the realisations sets in that it is going to be a cold, wet night in the jungle.

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This short, slippery, uphill section was quite a bit of fun and even pretty after making it through the waterfall

Once the rest of the convoy arrives, the two Temair boys getting a lift back to their village with us decide that they aren’t going to hang around in the jungle overnight, preferring instead to sleep in their own beds. So, as the light fades they hike off into the dense undergrowth, carrying handwritten notes sealed in plastic bags to protect them from the rain that is still falling destined for basecamp. It takes take them a little over 3 hours to reach basecamp where our notes were delivered and vehicles packed with provisions in preparation for an early morning rescue mission the next day, rain and deteriorating road conditions making any rescue attempt too dangerous by night.

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There was a bridge there about 5 minutes before this photo was taken

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The local boys tying the tangled remains of the bridge off in the hope that we could retrieve it the next morning

Back at the river, we had found ourselves little a flat point in the road, large enough to string a small tarp up between the vehicles to keep dry warm up somewhat. 15m above the river level down below, we should have been safe from any rising waters overnight, but grass flattened from the Christmas flooding on either side of the road told a different story. So we spent the night rationing instant noodles and tending to a small fire built on flat stones to keep it out of the mud, almost impossible to keep going due to a lack of dry wood while keeping an eye on the rainfall, lest it intensify and force us onto even higher ground.

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Breaking camp on the road early in the morning

As the only one without a soft seat to sleep in and being soaked to the bone, I had the privilege of shivering my way through the night on the steel tray of one of the 4x4s and have never welcomed the dawn with greater exuberance. The morning was both rainless and sunless, a heavy blanket of mist over the jungle obscuring the morning sun and the track in both directions. Down at the river, the water level had dropped from the previous night so we began the task of recovering the bridge from where we had tied it the night before after it got tangled amongst some tree roots. Half an hour of wrestling it upstream against the still strong current and it was back in position, although the river was still too high for it to be usable. An alternative yet undesirable means of crossing was found in a tangle of logs, trees and power lines on the far bank; the perfect winching point for those vehicles with winches to drag themselves through the fast flowing water. The others would drag those without through the river, and Emily would end up riding in the tray of one of the 4x4s, the water too deep and strong now for any motorcycle to cross.

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With the water still too deep for the log bridge to be reinstalled, fording was the only option but it was still too deep and the current too strong for the bike

One by one, the 4x4s forded the river, largely without drama despite one of the tie down ropes on the bike almost snapping, and the only vehicle without a snorkel sucking in water to the engine, requiring two other vehicles to winch it back onto dry land. Halfway through getting all the vehicles across, a rescue convoy from basecamp arrived, having dealt with their own ordeal on the rain-damaged roads to get to us. It had taken them 4 hrs to cover what took us 2 hrs only 24hrs ago. With clean, dry clothes and, in the very welcome Malaysian tradition, lots of food, the rescue convoy was a sight for sore eyes and it was with a sense of achievement that all three convoys headed for basecamp together. The broken bridges and muddy tracks seemed almost welcoming after the ordeals of the previous day, as the vehicles were winched through and over each obstacle as a single team, before the two groups retired to their separate basecamps before packing up and heading for home and work the next day.

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A nice place for a rest after a long couple of days in the jungle

Giving Something Back – Into the Unknown

The events leading up to the activities that have consumed the better part of my life at the beginning of 2015 have been a long and winding path lined with the kindness of strangers, chance encounters and, as I would soon learn, plenty of politics and showboating. But first a little history.

Malaysia’s political scene is as complex as it is controversial and, as such, not worth spending much time on here, as anything less than a full run down of the ins-and-outs of the inter-ethnic relationships of the country would surely do it a discredit and only lead to more confusion. What I will focus on is the Orang Asli, the “Original People”; Malaysia’s often forgotten aboriginal minority. Over the centuries, the threat of slavery has pushed the Orang Asli further into the interior of peninsular Malaysia, Malay raiding parties killing all the grown men of a village and taking women and children captive, who were then sold off or given to local rulers or chieftains to gain favour. Despite the practice being officially banned in 1884, it continued into the early parts of the 20th century.

In more recent times, as modernisation has gripped the country, land encroachment through clear fell logging practices and palm and rubber plantations, both legal and illegal, has further threatened to destroy not only their livelihoods but their culture too. Between 2000 and 2012 Malaysia lost just under 14% of is total forest cover, which equates to the highest rate of deforestation in the world. To make matters worse, only about 17% of the Orang Asli villages are gazetted as Orang Asli area or reserves. The remaining 83% have no rights over the ancestral land that they occupy and rely on to live, the Malaysian government treating them as tenants-at-will.

Entire villages are regularly dispossessed of their land, the government repurposing it for favour of palm oil estates, dams and golf courses. The land that most visitors first step onto when they arrive in Malaysia at the international airport was once the hunting grounds of the Temuan people. With the only form of income for many of the Orang Asli being the sale of jungle commodities such as honey, rottan, bamboo and raw latex from personal plantations, logging has a major impact on their way of life. The government has even removed any obligations from itself to pay compensation for these dispossessions or allocate alternative sites for those affected, which, in many cases has inadvertently forced the Orang Asli from a cashless society into the wider Malaysian economy, albeit as peasants.

Despite their situation, rarely have I found a group of people that have been so open and hospitable in accommodating me as I’ve ventured into some of the more remote areas of Malaysia. Despite insisting that I have my own tent and food, I’ve never been told I can camp in their villages, only that I can stay in their houses, share what food they have, and on occasion, join them fishing, hunting or even getting drunk at 6am as we plant rice on the sides of mountains. I learn far more during these interactions than they intend to teach, which only makes it harder to leave without feeling like I’m able to give a lot in return.

So when friends in Kuala lumpur started to put together a plan to help out some of the Orang Asli villages that were in need after serious flooding in late December 2014, I jumped at the chance to be able to give something back to the communities that have already given me so much. This is the story of the Malaysian Elite Disaster Rescue Forces (MEDRF), specifically the Elite 4×4 Search and Rescue Squad branch and their effort to bring some relief and even save the lives of the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia.

 Preface

In the days leading up to Christmas 2014, several members of MEDRF received worrying phone calls from members of the Temiar group of Orang Asli who inhabit the jungles nearby Gua Musang in the interior of peninsular Malaysia. Heavy rainfall leading to cold temperatures resulting in numerous sick children was the first sign that trouble was brewing for the dozens of Temiar villages in the area. On The 21st December a report that came through that the Betis River, along which many of the tamir villages are located, was dangerously swollen. That was the last contact we had with the Temiar people.

Over the next few days, social media was awash with light hearted photos of flooding along the east coast of peninsular Malaysia; shots of people wading through waist deep water in towns, generally smiling for the camera were interspersed with comical pictures, like that of a scooter perched on the roof of a house in an attempt to save it from some minor flooding. The full extent of the disaster wouldn’t become apparent until 2 or 3 days later as those from the affected areas were evacuated into areas that still had telecommunication systems intact. Pictures began to filter through of entire towns under 4m of water, homes that had been demolished or simply lifted from their foundations and dumped elsewhere, sometimes onto their sides or roofs. Those that experienced it were describing the flood as an inland tsunami that didn’t just come and go, but stayed for days on end.

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One of the houses in a nearby village. Photo courtesy of Jason Ho

MEDRF were in the thick of it early on, their 4×4 vehicles loaded with food and clean water some of the first to enter the Gua Musang township once the landslides had been cleared by heavy machinery and bridges that sat 10m above the normal river levels emerged from the receding floodwaters. Dropping their cargo off in town, they proceeded towards the villages that we had lost contact with 5 days prior, situated along the Betis River. The villages lining the tarred section of road gave some indication of what was to come; houses that hadn’t been swept away and smashed against trees were filled with the same fine, silt-like mud that covered the roads, while the buckled and twisted side rails of those bridges that had survived the force of the water and debris it carried were intertwined with lengths of bamboo and palm fronds. The riverbank stood scoured of all but the largest trees, whose branches were draped with pieces of clothing and tattered plastic in a myriad of colours, replacing the foliage that had been stripped from them by the ferocity of the water.

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All that is left of the housed along the riverbanks is a jumble of house parts and personal belongings

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The bridge at the intersection to our area of focus

Once the tar ended and the dirt roads began, the situation only got worse. Where the road hadn’t been washed away completely or buried by landslides, mud 12” deep in places made the going treacherously slippery. 3km from where the tar ended they encountered the first of the broken log bridges, while the damage in the villages was more than enough to make the decision to return to Kuala Lumpur and begin organising a far more substantial relief effort.

For the final few days of 2014, MEDRF committed themselves to raising funds, collecting donations and organising a group of willing volunteers who could donate not only time but also vehicles capable of handling the unknown conditions that we would be heading into on the 1st January 2015. My new years eve was spent in the basement of an apartment block changing tyres on the bike to something more suited to the mud we expected to find.

2nd January, 2015

Despite warnings of other food aid convoys being robbed of their aid on the 300km route from Kuala Lumpur to Gua Musang, the most exciting part of the journey was watching the 12 4WDs rolling from side to side through the corners on suspension straining under the combined 3.5 tonnes of food and water they carried. Before we had a chance to add our load to the 10 tonnes that were already stockpiled in basecamp, over 200 Orang Asli from 9 nearby villages had come out of the jungle in search of food and water, some on foot but the majority on 100cc motorcycles. They brought with them stories from beyond the reach of any 4-wheeled vehicle, of bridges either damaged or destroyed and roads washed into the rivers or made impassable by landslides.

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With fuel availability questionable, every chance to refuel was taken

Others told of the nearby townspeople who were now holding the Orang Asli to ransom over the price of basic necessities despite the same townspeople now having easy access to plenty of food and water. One man told of how he had ridden for a full day from his jungle home along the destroyed roads with RM50 to buy rice for his family, only to find out that he didn’t have enough to buy both rice and the petrol he required to get back home. 5kg of rice was being sold for RM40 (normally RM15) and 1.5L of petrol for RM15 (normally RM3). He settled for the petrol and a single serving of instant noodles for RM10 (normally RM3). News of our arrival spread and we soon had a steady stream of small bikes and riders arriving, their name and village recorded before being sent off with packages of rice, oil, tinned sardines and water strapped to their mud encrusted bikes with lengths of old inner tubes.

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One of the first Temiar people to receive food aid from our Elite 4×4 group

After spending a cold night on a stretcher under a plastic tarp stretched out above us, while village dogs wandered amongst us through the night, we awoke to a heavy mist blanketing the jungle, muffling the sound of roosters crowing in the dull predawn glow. Simple breakfasts with coffee and tea were consumed while the groups’ leaders briefed everyone on the situation as we knew it before loading the vehicles with supplies as the tropical sun began to burn off the mist. Rolling out onto the main track, the sound of the mud sucking and popping at the tread of the oversized tyres is only interrupted when the convoy stops to speak with the locals staying in the semi-permanent bamboo and wooden structures, hidden amongst the trees on the hillside next to the track. On the motorcycle, I continued to the site of the village they left behind where only a small group of women remain, squatting on their heels amongst a tangle of broken bamboo and driftwood in front of the only source of clear water left in the village; a plastic pipe emerging from the 6” of mud that blanks everything from riverbank to the road and beyond. While they wash what few possessions they have salvaged from the muddied ruins of their homes, younger children rummage about the wreckage in search of clothing that they hang to dry; the mud being easier to shake out when its dried than wash out while it’s still wet.

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Mist blankets the camp in the morning as everyone prepares for the unknown conditions ahead

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Any land close to the rivers was stripped are and covered in a thick layer of silty mud

Any land close to the rivers was stripped are and covered in a thick layer of silty mud

The first of the log bridges slows the group down, but with a little guidance and careful wheel placement everyone makes it across the few remaining logs, despite parts the surface crumbling into he gaps between. Of the second bridge, only two logs remain, one of them sloping downwards at a 30-degree angle, while the bank on the other side is now 45 degrees of slippery clay and has dropped 6 feet lower than the road surface. This is now a motorcycle only bridge, and the search begins for an alternative route. Thankfully an elderly local that is hitching a ride with us back to his village after walking some 30km out to us, indicates that there is a bypass track up through the oil palm plantation on hills to the west. The track is seldom used though, the condition unknown and, as with all palm oil plantations, the route confusing with multiple sidetracks that often lead nowhere.

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One of the drivers guides another driver across the first of the damaged bridges

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With the bikes greater manoeuvrability, we use it to scout ahead on the trails in an attempt to keep the convoy from getting into a situation that requires reversing all the vehicles back out, one by one. I have to start thinking like a car now, as what I consider an easy section of road, those with two-wheel track can easily come unstuck on. Deep washed out ruts easily navigable on two wheels but creating some havoc on 4. While this tactic works well for a while, one section of unused track shows the bikes weakness; slippery clay. A mild incline overgrown with grass on top of a layer of fine, sticky clay clogs the rear wheel and tyre tread with mud to the point that even getting off the bike and pushing while accelerating goes nowhere. I abandon the bike and walk the rest of the track, confirming that it’s passable for the 4x4s before radioing back to them to proceed. The physical strain of trying to get the bike up the slope and the ensuing walk in the 36 degree heat sees me sitting by the side of the track, stripped of riding gear and drinking plenty of water, trying to cool down as the convoy passes, each vehicle spinning all four wheels as they scramble up the slope. Well equipped vehicles and skilled drivers see everyone through and back out onto the main road while I go in search of a more tractable route, better suited to my one wheel drive vehicle.

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Heading back down the slippery slope. Despite the best attempts of the driver, the shallow ruts were too slippery for the vehicle to move aside for, forcing me to lay against the embankment to let them pass before wrestling the bike back onto the track again. Photo courtesy Alison Murugesu

Less than a kilometre on the main track and the convoy is halted again, this time the remains of a large tree sprawled across the track blocks our path. While chainsaws are unpacked from the vehicles we realise this tree wasn’t from here and the intensity of the flooding begins to reveal itself. This 40m length of tree, with the entire root system missing and no branches smaller than 12” in diameter remaining, has been torn form the riverbank and washed downstream, deposited by receding flood waters on top of a slight rise in the track, some 10m above the river that runs alongside.

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The tree that had been washed downstream and the post flood level of the river

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A few hundred metres beyond the fallen tree, another log bridge is impassable with deep holes at either end and obvious movement of the structure, large logs now sticking out at odd angles. The time it would take to make repairs had the convoy headed into the hills and palm oil plantations again. With large palm fronds obscuring the slippery track ahead, small landslides crept up on the convoy quickly but only a minor annoyance compared to the steep, deeply rutted uphill section we were to face. After one of the lead vehicles became stuck on the hill, a group of plantation workers that had been following our convoy worked hard to level the road surface with hand tools while suitable winching points were found amongst the trunks of the palm trees. The drivers of the 4WDs transporting the plantation workers decided to turn back at this point.

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One of the drivers tackling the tracks through the palm oil plantations after the track had been repaired

With signs of heat exhaustion showing, it felt like heaven back on the main track to click the bike up into 2nd gear and get some cool air flowing over my skin that was pumping sweat out faster than I could take water in. The bliss only lasted was short lived as we came upon a depression in the track, submerged during the flooding and now filled with 12” of concrete like mud, slowly solidifying in the tropical sun. At over 200m long, it was a mud hole to be reckoned with, parts of it partially set hard, just like concrete, making pushing through it impossible for the first vehicle. Even with the momentum of a 2.5T truck, 4 wheel drive and diff-locks, the winch was the only option to get through. With a set of wheel tracks forged through the mud, the others could follow relatively easily.

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Following the wheel tracks of the 4WDs through one of the mud holes. Photo courtesy David Stewart

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Again, the good surface of the track doesn’t last long as we roll through more isolated villages, stopping to get names and numbers in each one before sliding across one more mud plain left behind by the flooding and arriving on the banks of the Peralong River. Waist deep and fast flowing, the caramel coloured span of water had a distinct lack of a bridge spanning it. Additionally, a lack of winch points on the far bank meant this would be as far as we would get today; a total of 10km from basecamp that had taken us a full 8hrs. Watching some of the more intrepid Orang Asli cross the water in a crook of the river on a small bamboo bridge bound together with vines, we noticed the 1.5m diameter logs we had parked next to. Although they had only been moved a few hundred metres by the flood waters, they had been floated high enough to get tangled up in the power lines, where they now lay in a tangled mess next to us.

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Locally sourced solutions

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Although difficult to see, the logs on the left are tangled up in the only powerlines in the area, washed into them by the floodwaters

With the light fading and no headlights on the bike, I headed back to basecamp ahead of the rest of the convoy, navigating the three broken bridges like the locals were in order to make it back before total darkness. The slippery logs and narrow margin for error with the time pressure of the earth’s rotation made for a nerve-wracking ride. The first bridge providing a challenge in the form of a log angled at 30 degrees across the track that formed the entry to the rest of the bridge. With a 1 foot drop off and absolutely no hope of getting any traction on the muddy wooden cylinder, the only choice was to get it over and done with quickly, speed my only ally in limiting the amount of sideways movement of the tyres. Avoiding the large hole to my right, landed on the deck of the bridge, wrestling the bike vertical again before spinning the rear wheel as I roll slowly between the other holes in the bridge surface.

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The local “cub chai” motorcycles are arguably the most versatile vehicle for the jungle

The second bridge is the 45-degree mud bank, sloping down to two logs angled at 30 degrees back towards the opposite bank. With both feet on the ground and the engine switched off so I could use the clutch as a rear brake, I inch the front wheel over the edge of the bank. With both wheels in the ruts made by the small bikes of the Orang Asli, the only thing keeping me from ending up in the river 3m below the collapsed logs, is the wide tyres getting caught up in the narrow rut. I only start breathing again once both wheels are firmly on the slippery wooden remain of the bridge, but stops again as the rear wheel starts spinning and sliding towards the abyss as it looses traction on a buried stick. With the logs only wide enough to get one foot down, there is no way to get off the bike and push. Thankfully two of the locals turn up and help me out, even if it is just to get the bridge cleared so they can continue on their way.

The third and final bridge has been repaired by the locals using dozens of lengths of bamboo, perfectly suited for motorcycles and I make it back with half an hour of daylight to spare. Those in the 4WDs on the other hand still need to take their time through the bridge bypass tracks ad even stop at one bridge to make rudimentary repairs, saving them the hassle of tackling the rough and slippery palm estate tracks in the dark. Its well after dark before high powered lights filter through the tress, announcing the arrival of the main convoy before engines were shut down and tales recounted of the days adventures, interrupted only by spoons loaded with dinner food.

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Local bridge repairs, more than strong enough for an oversized vehicle like Emily

 

3rd January, 2015

After a slightly warmer nights rest than the previous one, clear skies the next morning that revealed a camp full of vehicles plastered with mud. A quick breakfast of the Malaysian favourite, nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk served with small dried and salted fish, roasted peanuts, and a spicy sambal sauce was all the time we gave ourselves before loading the trucks up with over 2 tonnes of food and other necessities from the basecamp store.

Even with the trucks heavily loaded, the trip to the same river takes a fraction of the time, now that the broken bridge bypass routes are mapped and parts of the road cleared and rebuilt. We even have time to stop at one of the bridges to make good on our promise to provide chainsaw fuel and oil to some men attempting basic repairs on the bridges. We stay to help to get the wooden planks cut from a fallen tree into position so the 4WDs can avoid the long and risky bypass track. Crossing the wooden planks spanning a 2m deep mud hole at the far side of the bridge on 2 wheels is less than appealing, so I opt for the solitude and firm but slippery mud of the bypass route, meeting up with the main convoy further down the track.

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Carving new bridge planks from locally sourced trees

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Back at the Peralong River, a crowd of Orang Asli from Kampung Tohoi, the next village beyond the river, have gathered in anticipation of our arrival, a hand written note passed from us to one of Tohois’ residents the previous evening having found its destinations overnight. One man stands out from the Orang Asli, a large imposing ethnic Indian, skin darker than the locals surrounding him telling of a life lived outdoors. He turns out to be the manager of a rubber plantation a little further down the road. He and his equipment that survived the floods have ben trapped on the far side of the river along with the Temiar people, and despite his stern expression and unsmiling face as he surveys the bridge the Orang Asli use to get their small bikes across the narrow stretch of water, Bala as we would later know him, readily volunteers his men and equipment for the relief effort, sending one of his boys off in their tractor to retrieve a large trailer from the village.

The distance to Tohoi from the Peralong River is only 10km, but the tractor is slow and takes over 2 hrs to return, so with the help of the Temiar we begin unloading the vehicles and carrying the food across the bamboo and logs in preparation of the arrival of the tractor-trailer. While we wait in the shade of a fallen tree, the locals begin to tell us of what the situation is like in Tohoi who have fared better than some other villages. Only 5 houses and a handful of school buildings being damaged, but being cut off from the rest of the country for a week had forced them to survive on a diet of boiled and grilled tapioca and water. Dry firewood is in such short supply that they have resorted to burning their own rubber trees, one of their few sources of income. While cleaning up after our lunch of instant noodles in a cup, the conditions in which the Temiar live really hit home when one of the girls from Tohoi asks if she could have our used cups, our rubbish, wanting to use them for drinking cups back in the village.

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The flood damaged houses in Kampung Tohoi

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A couple of school aged residents of Tohoi pose for a photo in-front of their closed school

When the tractor-trailer does finally arrive, it is quickly loaded up by the Temiars before starting the long haul to Tohoi. Some of the team follow along to oversee the distribution of food, riding in the tray of one of Bala’s Toyota Hilux’s. Despite the relatively easy nature of the road out to the village, we still stop to fit chains to the rear tyres in order to successfully navigate the steeper hills and the longest mud hole to date, deep enough that Balas other tractor is bogged halfway through while the concrete-like slop blocks the radiator of the Hilux, causing the vehicle to overheat until it can be washed out.

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Fitting “mud chains” to the rear wheels of the Hilux in order to get through the worst of the mud

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Loading the tractor-trailer with 2 tonnes of aid

While we wait for the tractor to catch us up in Tohoi, a quick assessment is made with the help of the village elders of the damage to the village and plans are made for future aid missions to the area. After unloading the tractor-trailer, we head back out to our own vehicles in the Hilux and onwards to basecamp to settle down for the night. The next day it was an half exhausted group of people that left basecamp to make one more delivery as far as we could on the jungle tracks before heading back to tarred roads for the drive/ride home, the majority of the unpaid volunteers starting their 9-5 jobs and small private businesses the next day. After washing the mud off the vehicles, to ensure the damage it caused remained minimal, everyone arrived home safely, well after midnight on Monday morning, before starting the first working week of 2015.

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Unloading the tractor-trailer in Tohoi

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The wooden decking on this bridge was swept clean off and replaced with large pieces of driftwood as the floodwaters receded

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Giving Something Back

NOTE: this post will not likely be updated after its initial publication. For more up to date information on the situation, the relief effort and how and where to donate please go HERE.

I don’t do this often, but it has happened before and I’ll start this off by being as up front with everyone as I can. I’m about to ask you to trust me with your hard earned money again.

I don’t think there is a single person that has traveled overland around the world and not been offered the most amazing amount of hospitality by people far less privileged than us. I know I’ve had it happen more than a few times and when all you have with you is a motorcycle, a tent, a camera and a bag of rice, getting a full meal and a warm, dry place to sleep given to you by a complete stranger can often mean more than a free night in a 5 star hotel. That these same people never ask anything in return can sometimes make the handful of dopey smiles and pieces of broken conversation with them feel like your new friendship is a little unbalanced. What follows is my attempt to give something back to those that have little but give a lot in what has become their time of need.

Recently, Malaysia has had some pretty intense weather, namely rain and more of it that you can probably imagine. This has resulted in some parts of the country essentially becoming the new Atlantis. Over the past few days more and more reports have been filtering in from all over the place of bridges washed away, roads collapsing under landslides and rivers that have risen well over 20m in depth that have submerged entire villages. Seeing the photos of some of the places that I’ve visited in less wet times, it’s difficult to comprehend where so much water can come from in such a short period of time.

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An orang asli village as it was when I visited earlier in 2014

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The same village on 26th December 2014

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Of those affected, Malaysia’s aboriginal people (know here as the orang asli or ‘original people’) have been hit the hardest. Most of them still live a subsistence life, depending on the jungles surrounding them for everything from basic food to building materials to saleable items for the small amount of cash income that they need. During good weather, access to their villages can at times be challenging, but after the recent rains they are dealing with downed trees and destroyed bridges, not to mention the mud that makes getting anywhere a challenge for even the best equipped vehicles. Like many aboriginal peoples of the world, the orang asli aren’t exactly treated well by the powers that be; they are often considered squatters on land that they have occupied for centuries and in some cases aren’t even considered full Malaysian citizens. While discussion of these politically charged topics can be saved for another time, the point is that the flooding has only added to the hardship that these communities already deal with.

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Thankfully I’ve come into contact with a group known as the Malaysia Elite Disaster Rescue Force who are putting together a relief effort set to begin 1st January 2015. As a result I’ll be following between 6 to 8 4WD vehicles and a couple of small trucks to a place known as Gua Musang where we will slog our way into the jungle to deliver much needed food, water and other basic supplies as well as doing what we can to get these isolated communities on the way to being back on their feet again. We will need to be fully self sufficient for 4 days, carrying enough fuel, food and water for 800km into what is essentially a disaster zone. Initial reports from these areas have indicated that phone coverage, sewerage, running water and power have all been knocked out by the flooding. While things will be rough for us, its already even worse for those living there. In one village of 250 houses, only 8 have been left undamaged by the flood waters, with the average water level reaching the rooftops.

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The Malaysia Elite Disaster Rescue Force on a reconnaissance mission to one of the worst affected orang asli

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Over the next couple of days I’ll be stocking up on food and supplies, fitting knobbie tyres to the bike and giving it a general once over to make sure that I make it both in and out again in one piece. While I’m getting my hands dirty in preparation, it would be amazing if you could sacrifice the cost of a few beers and send the money this way to help a community clean the mud from their few belongings or alternatively add to the following list of necessities:

1. Mineral water
2. Instant cup noodles
3. Biscuits
4. Baby milk powder
5. 3 in1 Milo, coffee & tea
6. Canned food with pull-up lids (they do not have can openers)
7. Baby Diapers
8. Sanitary pads
9. Rice
10. Cooking oil

For those of you in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that would like to donate anything from the above list personally, they can be dropped off to either:

31 Jalan Setiabistari Bukit Damansara

OR

MEDRF 4×4 ELITE SQUAD CENTER
3-GM, Jalan Perdana 6/8, Pandan Perdana, 55300 Kuala Lumpur
03-92009844

OR get in contact with

Stiven Sim 0192283871
Britman Siew 0162081860
KC CHIA 0122018020

 

For those wishing to send a handful of change from overseas, you can do it one of two ways. You can send it to me via paypal (robert.c.armstrong@hotmail.com) and I’ll make sure it gets passed on to the guys in charge of the operation, or send it to their bank account directly at

Standard Chartered
Account No: 312 194 9494 84
Account Name: Tan Kong Yoke
The bank SWIFT Code for international transfers is SCBLMYKXXXX

Even a few dollars goes a long way here in Malaysia, so if you’ve got some spare change send it over and let me know on this page if you have any problems with transfers so I can try to chase down the issue.

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Infrastructure all through the country has been all but wiped out

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A Very Malaysian Experience

Malaysia is, at times, ridiculously difficult to get things done in. What follows is a recount of a 24hr period during which I attempted to travel 200km to the north of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur for a movie shoot I was asked to be in (yes I’ve been doing some very bad acting to supplement my income recently). While it isn’t always this bad, series of events like this no longer surprise me either.

Thursday 2nd October

3:00pm: Receive a message saying that I need to be in Ipoh, some 200km away from Kuala Lumpur, at 9am tomorrow for a movie shoot. After a little back and forth with the agent, a car was organised to take the actors and me there later that afternoon. A guy called Kenny G (not his real name, but the idea of road-tripping with a sax player following me around sounds good) with more details.

5:00pm: Still no word from Kenny G, so I message him and we arrange to meet at KL Sentral train station at 9pm.

6:30pm: I leave the house trying to make it to a friends farewell dinner at 7pm before heading to KL Sentral station.

7:30pm: The train is delayed; I’m still at the local station and already late for dinner. When the train does arrive, it’s full, and some arseholes bag occupies the only seat available, so I sit on it. The owner is too engrossed in his game of Candy Crush to notice.

7:45pm: Kenny G calls and changes the station he wants to meet at. This adds another two trains and 30 minutes travel time to my trip, making getting to the farewell dinner impossible.

8:00pm: Arrive at KL Sentral station and spend 10 minutes trying to work out which combination of the KTM, LRT, ERT, Monorail, KLIA transit and express trains I need to take to get to the new rendezvous point.

8:20pm: On the first of my two new trains, Kenny G calls to change train stations again. Thankfully it’s on the same line as the one I’m currently on so not a big deal.

9:00pm: Meet Kenny G busking for loose change in the car park of the train station. He packs up his saxophone and we proceed to the nearby bus terminal.

9:20pm: Kenny has forgotten it’s one of the biggest Muslim holidays in Malaysia so all busses heading north are sold out. We’re told that there’s a small chance that the central bus depot may have seats available so we take another train to the central bus depot.

10:00pm: Arrive at the central bus depot to discover there is only one seat going to shoot location.

10:10pm: After some discussion, we decide I will take the one seat while Kenny G, will catch a bus in the morning. Unfortunately, in the past 10 minutes the final seat has already been sold. We manage to find one other seller that has two seats on a bus going close to where we want. Between finding this out and making the decision to buy them, the seller realises that he doesn’t actually have any seats for sale.

10:30pm: We find another person selling tickets on the final bus that leaves at 11:30pm and can drop us close to where we want to be. As the production company is paying for the tickets, we get the ticket salesman to add an extra RM20 to each of the tickets receipts.

10:45pm: With seats confirmed, we go and eat dinner at the mamak (Muslim Indian) restaurant across the road where Kenny G apologises about the bus situation while trying to keep his long, permed locks out of his rice. He tells me the reason he forgot about the holiday is he doesn’t feel a part of Malaysia as a result of the racial politics played out here.

11:15pm: We are sitting back in the bus depot waiting for the bus while a half crazy, half drunk local swaggers around yelling at everyone to get out.

Friday 3rd October

12:15am: The bus is officially late. Security kicks us out of the depot and we have to wait in the basement where the busses arrive.

12:30am: Some people get selected to fill empty seats on other busses. Mostly good looking women. We continue to wait.

1:30am: Security kicks us out of the bus depot and onto the street where we are assured that there is still a bus coming.

1:50am: We have covered exactly 0km when I find out I’m supposed to be on set at 6am and am yet to have any sleep. I give in and lay down on the sidewalk to sleep. A young local wearing the traditional Malay hat known as a songkok sits near me and begins watching K-pop music clips on his phone with the intensity that a fat man watches an accident between a McDonalds and KFC truck. Being a good Muslim I can only assume he’s a dance student, interested in the choreography of the routines.

3:00am: Kenny G wakes me up in a rush, urgently telling me to follow him and takes off across the now empty streets at a run. There is an unlicensed van waiting for us, but we need to get to it before the authorities see us.

3:10am: We speed away from the bus depot before stopping in a small side street where everyone on-board pays an additional fee for the illegal nature of our transport. We are told that if stopped by police, we have to say we are all on tour and heading to the same location, not balik kampung (going back home for the holidays). I try to sleep but a walrus of a man next to me seems terrified that he will choke on his marsbar, so he masticates it incessantly for half an hour with as much noise as humanly possible to let everyone know that he’s doing it right. When he’s done eating, he lets everyone listen to how well attached he teeth are by sucking on them to get at the last of the chocolate. Sleep is a long time coming.

4:45am: For some reason the driver seems to pull into every petrol station he can find, never stopping for anything, just driving through, kind of like he’s looking for the cheapest petrol despite petrol prices here bing regulated by the government. On one of regular petrol station yours, a loud bang is heard, kind of like an engine sump connecting heavily with the top of a speed hump when you go over it too quickly in a lowered car. The driver pretends nothing happened and continues on, only stopping when a few of us in the back start to make some noise. Exiting the van, it turns out the front right suspension has broken, the van now taking on a lowered appearance on one corner.

5:00am: The van is declared unrepairable and with no more vans available, we all get back in, continuing along the highway a lot slower and bumpier than before.

6:00am: Kenny G and I are dropped on side of the highway and left to walk up the exit ramp while the van continues on its slow crawl towards the Thai border, another 350km away.

7:00am: I’m woken up form my clean piece of concrete near the highway exit toll booths by Kenny G. Two very sleepy production crew members collect us and take to set where there is coffee, food, coffee, makeup, a little more food, coffee, wardrobe and coffee. I read the script for the very first time as I condemn myself to stage 2 diabetes with my 8th cup of sugar that has a little hot water and coffee mixed in for flavour.

8:00am: Shooting begins and I spend the next hour talking down to and yelling at some some Indians that I met about 5 minutes ago.

9:00am: My scene is done and I apologise profusely to everyone for being such a dick for the past hour.

10:00am: I’m dropped at the nearest train station only to find all the Tickets sold out until the 11:40 train.

11:40am: Board the train and kick some guy out of my seat. He sits next to me for a while before deciding my shoulders are too big for the narrow seats, so he excuses himself to go to the toilet and I never see him again.

*memory gap here as I quickly passed out*

3:00pm: Train arrives in Kuala Lumpur a full 1.5hrs later than scheduled and exactly 24hrs since this little adventure started.

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