Ramadan Ride

Changing motorcycle tyres in the tropics sucks. Even though Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, may not be the most humid city in SE Asia, daily temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius and windless days make it a veritable sauna. Under the fluorescent lights of an underground car park, my clothes cling to me like I’ve just stepped out of a river. The water bottles given to me by one of the buildings residents are quickly emptied as sweat pools on the concrete and collects in the hollows of the wheel hub. If the bearings fail early, I’ll know why. Spooning the Mitas E09 Dakar onto the rear is physically draining but riding Kemensah without it would be impossible.

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The following morning, I wobble my way on half inflated rubber to the service station across the road to top up the tyres after I ran out of steam pumping them up the night before. Valve caps removed and air hose in place, the machine reads 8psi and releases a loud hiss of air. 6psi. hiss. 4psi. beepbeepbeep “Err”. You’re kidding me, I think. The front tyre is now completely flat. Probably just a valve core issue. I try the rear tyre to prove to myself that the machine is working and the fix will be simple. It isn’t. Now both tyres are flat. Closer inspection reveals a deep slice in the hose near the outlet that is letting out both the air in my tyres and the air from the compressor. Evidently some small minded morons idea of a joke. Fortunately, I’m slightly smarter than a moron and manage to repair the slice with electrical tape before airing up and heading off.

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The ride out to the north of the city limits is quick and uneventful. Its Hari Raya Eid al Fitir, the holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan, and a large portion of the cities population has left to go back to their families’ villages. This leaves the city streets empty while the nations highways become some of the worlds longest parking lots. The place I’m headed for, Kemensah, is about as far removed from the chaos of the highways as one can get while still remaining within a stones throw of the CBD. Spoken in hushed tones by members of the motorcycle community, Kemensah is essentially a hiking trail that loops around the northern part of Klang Gates Dam, a drinking water reservoir whose catchment area is one of the last isolated pieces of old growth rainforest in the state. Unmaintained and undisturbed, it’s considered to be one of the toughest rides near to Kuala Lumpur by the local motorcycle community, normally only suited to bikes of the 250cc and below variety.

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Knowing this, I approached the ride with a health dose of scepticism about how successful I might be completing the 20km trail on a 650cc machine, the largest to have been taken in. to add to the challenge I would be doing it alone, the local boys already busy with family commitments during the public holidays. Normally I wouldn’t try a new-to-me trail that is so notoriously difficult, but a recent dry spell in the countries’ capital meant that I had the best possible chance of getting somewhere on the trail. Waiting another day could mean an afternoon of rain which could destroy any hope of making it through.

After finding the trailhead I switched to ‘low range gearing’ (swapping the 16 tooth front sprocket out for a 14 tooth sprocket) in preparation for the expected technical challenges ahead. The first part of the trail is simple; a sandy base made up of quartz pebbles under an open forest canopy provides plenty of traction and flat terrain lulls one into a false sense of confidence. Then all in one brisk motion, Honda cubs can be found parked by the trailside (you can tell jungle tracks are going to be tough when Honda cubs, the veritable king of the jungle, don’t even bother proceeding) the trail swings around to the left and climbs imposingly. The grade of the hill is steep enough to appear as though it climbs directly into the tree canopy that now casts heavy shadows over the trail. But the slope is all bluff; the climb is up the longest quartz ridge in the world, the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge. Its imposing appearance is quashed by the exceptional traction that the eroded gravel under the tyres provides.


I can’t help thinking, if this is as hard as it gets, I’ll be done within an hour or so, no problems. Kemensah is only warming up though. The slope known Rocket Hill gives the first real taste of why the track has such a terrible reputation. The grippy surface of the quartz ridge is now a distant memory, having given way to a sombre grey clay that fills tyre voids. In a testament to its toughness, the track splits into separate paths as it climbs up the short incline. Two paths to the left look old and abandoned. Ferns growing in the washed out ruts under a tangle of fallen leaves and tree branches make the steeper right hand tracks the only viable option. Tyres set into the shallow ruts, I take it easy on the first section, up and around a tight left hand bend, the rear tyre already spinning, only to be confronted with a tangle of tree roots embedded in the mud across the rut. Hoping momentum will carry me through, I open the throttle, but there’s no acceleration to be had on the muddy slope. The front wheel jumps sideways over the roots but the rear can only spin, no amount of throttle or weighting the rear of the bike makes any difference. In the end, it takes three attempts to crest the hill where I stop to catch my breath next to the hills namesake, a large tropical tree, its buttressed roots giving it the appearance of a rocket ship.


Beyond rocket hill, the trail darkens under a dense canopy of leaves that blocks out the sun and provides the perfect conditions for a section of mud-holes. Some are deep enough to swallow the 21” front wheel whole, others let off a foul stench as the rear wheel churns up the rotting vegetation within. Again, the trail splits into a multitude of paths that wind their way through the trees, some leading to deeper holes than others, making line choice critical to avoid becoming permanently stuck

From the swampy section the trail begins to descend long hills, furrowed with multiple parallel ruts deep enough that riding with my feet on the pegs is no longer an option. One hill follows another and although they aren’t particularly difficult to ride, paddling with my feet up near the height of the base gasket begins to wear on thigh muscles. Slow speeds mean that by the time I’ve reached the Klang River, I’m drenched in sweat, both the bike and I overheating. We cool off in the clear water that flows between the spokes of the bike before it turns brown as it collects filth from the streets of Kuala Lumpur further downstream. My legs begin to cramp and I begin to wonder if I should press on into the unknown or return along a path already familiar to me. The GPS shows less than 10km to go so I proceed cautiously, goggles now swinging flaccidly from my neck after fogging to the point irrelevance.


Crossing the Klang River marks the beginning of what can only be described as river-lands. The trail is increasingly bisected by shallow streams with stony or sandy bottoms, no two the same. The dense jungle that the streams wend their way through makes it difficult to tell if this is a single watercourse or several smaller streams all following their own paths. Regardless of the details, it would be beautiful here if it weren’t for all my concentration being focused on counteracting the exhaustion that has now set in. every part of my body is working overtime; arms make constant adjustments to the handlebars, hands are clenched and unclenched on the controls, eyes dart from stone, to hanging vine, to tree root, to mud, to fallen tree and back to stone while my brain processes seemingly infinite obstacles.


The trail is beginning to wear me down. My legs have gone into survival mode, no longer able to stand for every obstacle, only lethargically supporting me for the ones that that necessitate the extra control afforded while on the footpegs. One such place is the carcass of a large tree fallen across the elbows of a river. With no way around, small logs have been stacked on the approach side to make the two foot step up more manageable but its still an intimidating hurdle. Continuing means attacking it head on, lightening the front wheel and letting legs and suspension work together to absorb the impact of the log and of landing back on the trail on the other side. Weak legs and arms mean my attempt is neither pretty or graceful, but I stay on two wheels and can only look forward now.

The rest of the trail becomes a blur of fallen logs, violent dips into deep creek beds, copses of sharp bamboo protruding from the trailside and hills I know are a one-way trip. Now unable to ride back the way I came, if I come up against anything too difficult it will be a long walk home without the bike. After resting for a while in a shallow, stony river bed in an attempt to reduce the cramping in my arms and hands that make it feel as though someone else has control of my body, I attack the final sections all the while keeping an eye on the GPS as it arduously counts down the final kilometres.


A deep washed out climb with a large tree fallen across the top provides for a moment of comic relief from what has become a painful desire to reach sealed roads again. After easing the bike underneath, the handlebars scraping on the trunk, I lay my torso flat on the seat so I can pass under. My hands cramp again. I can’t control the throttle or the clutch. The bike stalls, slides back on the slope and wedges my head between the tree above and the handlebars below. To top it off, I’ve pushed the kill switch with my helmet so the bike won’t restart once I’ve regained control over my hands. With my head firmly stuck in place it takes a moment or two to figure out what’s happened, and find the right buttons from this position but I’m moving again in no time.

With the end of the trail in sight, small specks of rain dampen any excitement I may have about actually making it to the end. As they say, it’s not over until the fat lady sings. Rounding one of the last bends the trail end in a sheer cliff where a housing development is encroaching on the jungle. With little warning and concentration fading, I’m just happy to have stopped before hitting the metal bar across the trail at the cliffs edge. Id later learn that other riders haven’t been so lucky in the past, one having mad it past the gate and sustaining serious injuries after falling. The alternative track is a long slippery hill that I’m too exhausted to scout before tipping the front wheel over the edge. Halfway down, a tree branch blocks the trail. I park the bike in gear on the slope but it quickly rolls off the side stand, the rear wheel sliding forward on the slippery surface. With no other options, I leave the bike laying prone in the mud while I clear the final obstacle before sliding back into civilisation again. The potholed roads of Kuala Lumpur have never felt so simple to ride.

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A Short History of the Meriam Buluh (Bamboo Cannons)

The tropical sun makes it impossible to sleep any later than midday, so after a cold shower we don the traditional Hari Raya attire of baju melayu, although I opt for a helmet over the more traditional cylindrical songkok, before jumping on the bikes parked out on the carefully manicured lawns of the Kampung Talang Masjid. We then begin the tradition of visiting the open houses of various friends in the village, eating ketupat (sticky rice wrapped into triangular coconut leaf parcels and then steamed) served with smokey beef, chicken and goat satay cooked over a charcoal fire, rendang (a heavily spiced and melt-in-your-mouth tender beef or chicken coconut curry), buriyani rice (saffron-infused rice spiced with cardamom, cloves and star anise) and lemang (sticky rice in fresh coconut milk cooked in banana leaf-lined lengths of bamboo over an open fire), wishing everyone a happy Hari Raya Eid al-Fitr and then eating some more. The rest of the afternoon we spend speeding through the narrow winding roads of the village, between traditional stilted wooden houses, many of which are now abandoned, the intricate woodwork left to rot as cheaper brick and mortar houses become more popular, only slowing down to pass the occasional car or grab at the bright red and yellow rambutans, easily spotted against the deep green foliage that hang heavy from the branches of the village trees. At the house of Uncle Dek Ar (all elderly people are given the title of uncle or aunt in Malaysia, regardless of relationship to them) we stayed a little longer, partially due to swollen stomachs that wouldn’t fit any more food, but mostly to hear the history of the Meriam Buluh. Farhan had never heard the story either and many of the younger generation were excited to learn about the history, more and more of them arriving at Uncle Dek Ars home as he and other elders recounted the history that had been told to them by their fathers.


Lemang being cooked over a wood fire

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The traditions of Meriam Buluh are now over 140 years old, dating back to a time when the area had no name other than Ber Talang, a term used for the process of clearing virgin jungle in preparation for farming (the area would later adopt the name of Kamupung Talang, before being sub divided into smaller villages) and living in the area was far more dangerous. The first families that migrated to the area around the 1870s lived long and dangerous walks from each other through jungles inhabited by tigers, leopards and highly territorial elephants. This became a very real problem when tradition dictated that on the eve of Eid al-Fitr the resident Muslims should hold open houses and visit each other, just as we had done the night before. Their solution came in the form of termite mounds that were abundant enough in the area that each house had one reasonably close by. Before Hari Raya, a mound would have a horizontal tube hollowed out in the side of them that led to the centre of the mound where it would intersect with a second, smaller vertical tube hollowed out from the top of the mound. On the eve of Eid al-Fitr a string of Panjut Pelita (kerosene fuelled tea lights made from small stubs of bamboo) would be hung on wooden stands or made from lengths of bamboo, hung horizontally and filled with kerosene from small holes drilled into them that the wicks would protrude from to illuminate the path between the house and the Meriam Tanah (ground cannon) as the original cannons were known. An old coconut shell filled with minyak tanah (kerosene), heated over a fire until fumes could be seen emitting from the surface of the liquid would then be inserted into the horizontal cavity within the termite mound and the mound entrances sealed off. After the minyak tanah fumes were given some time to accumulate, the top cover is removed and a naked flame applied to the opening. The subsequent explosion was believed to frighten off any wild animals in the area, allowing locals to wander through the jungle, illuminating the path with dried palm leaves whose fronds were bundled together to ensure a longer burn to their neighbours. With the termite mounds able to be used multiple times, another explosion would be let off for the return journey too.


Empty packets of calcium carbide lay at the base of a cannon with the modern day Kertus (vessel that holds the calcium carbide and water mixture)  in the background


An original Kertus (vessel that holds the calcium carbide and water mixture) recycled from an old artillery shell. A lot of the young men from the area end up serving in the Malaysian Artillery regiments when they’re old enough

As the population of the area grew and the village was renamed Kampung Talang, termite mounds became scarcer, as did the tigers and elephants that first inspired the use of the Meriam Tanah. Eventually they were longer a necessity, but the practice of firing off cannons on the eve of h Eid al-Fitr continued on regardless. Lengths of bamboo, easier to source and modify for use as a cannon became popular to replace a dwindling supply of termite mounds and inspired the more popular name of Meriam Buluh, which has stuck even to this day (although the locals of Kampunag Talang will still correct you on the correct terminology if used for the modern day steel cannons). With the introduction of calcium carbide by the British colonialists the cannons became even easier to create, but the added expense saw children from Kampung Talang going from door to door, collecting donations for the materials, a practice that continues to this day. The 1970s saw the first iron piping used for the cannons, repurposed old water pumping pipes taken from the nearby Perak river. While only 3 lenghs of the 2” pipes were available at the time, they solved the labour intensive problem of bamboos inability to only withstand one use before needing to be discarded. As Kampung Talung grew over the years, the cannons grew in size too and gunner teams multiplied as the village was further divided into smaller districts until it became the night long spectacle that it is today and so ingrained in the local culture that the police turn a blind eye to the illegality of the events going on within earshot of their station.


Children finish off the scraps of calcium carbide that they can gather together the night after the main celebrations, practicing for when they are old enough to man the main cannons for a night


The gunners pack away their cannons after a long night of firing for another year

With the arrival of more of Uncle Dek Ars friends, the rest of the afternoon was spent talking about the games that used to be play during Hari Raya, re-enactments of the way they used to deliver kueh (sweets and biscuits) to their neighbours during the day, slapping a pair of banana leaf stems on the bare dirt in front of the house before sprinting off into the jungle. The recipients of the kwey would be in close pursuit, a handful of charcoal at the ready that would be smeared on the face of the deliverer if caught. As the influence of the Chinese on the area increased, the banana stems were replaced with firecrackers before fading into the memories of the elderly. As the men reminisced at the many traditional games that have been lost over the years such as Cakur Ayam (a game played with two short lengths of wood as a bat and ball that has various stages of difficulty only attainable if you pass the preceding stages) or Buluh Bedil (small bamboo canons that used air pressure to fire a projectile at you opponent, now replaced by kids firing fireworks at each other from the back of motorcycles) to great peels of laughter, a sense of pride spread though those assembled as they calculated that Farhan and his fellow gunners were the 6th generation to carry on the traditions of the Meriam Buluh.


Uncle Dek Ar (far right) and his childhood friends and grandson

My departure from Kampung Talang was punctuated by promises to come back and admissions that if I hadn’t been so stubbornly curious about the history of the celebrations, the knowledge would have passed away with the older generations. Sitting by a clear river flowing from the jungle that evening somewhere north east of Kampung Talang, eating a durian given to me by an Orang Asli (Malaysia’s aboriginal people) man earlier in the day and sipping at my bag of ketum (an illegal drink with mild opiate like effects), I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that merely asking the right questions had brought about a little extra pride to the people of Kampung Talang for their traditions, despite the illegality of the whole event. As I drifted off to sleep in my tent that night, the ketum removing any concern I had earlier about the risk of roaming elephants herds in the night, I wondered about the future Hari Raya celebrations in Kampung Tulang, concerned that it may go the same way as so many other parts of Malaysian history and tradition, buried or destroyed in favour of a poorly defined and profits driven form of development. Hopefully the sound of the cannons continues to scare off any would be predators to this proud and longstanding tradition so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Ramadan and the Illegal Bamboo Cannons

There’s mud seeping into my shoes. I could try to find a dryer part of the field but it feels safer here. Besides, the sea of recently cut padi (rice) stalks that stretch out into the night obscure the ground, making movement a gamble that lands me in even deeper mud. A single flash of yellow, close to the ground and distant pierces the moonless night, distracting me from my sinking feeling and I begin to count the seconds in silence; 1, 2, 3… then the crack and rumble of a distant explosion races across the empty rice fields, washing over me with such force that it brings a small smile to my face like a child under the supervision of an uncle being allowed to do something that their parents would never allow. As the sound of the first explosion returns to me from the nearby hills, echoing into the night, a second flash of light, followed by its own crack and rumble, then a third and a fourth, the 12th and final explosion echoing into the darkness. Slightly off to my left, the stillness of the night is torn asunder for an instant as a cacophony of fire erupts, illuminating the overhanging palm trees at the edge of the fields. The sound reaches me quicker this time, the source of this bouquet of fire close enough that its force can be felt in my chest before it echoes out into the hills too. Moments later, a command is given in a foreign language and 12 burning torches are raised high above the heads of young men where they cast flickering shadows on their young faces and illuminate long lengths of cast iron pipe angled towards the sky that each of them straddles. There’s a moment of silence before, as one, they thrust the burning torch tips towards the end of the pipe embedded into the ground in front of them and all hell breaks loose. This time there is no delay between the light and the sound. The heavy pipes shudder and shake the ground as the fields around us are illuminated for 100m or more as the black sky is filled with fire. The sound is not so much heard as it is felt, the shockwaves of the explosions seemingly strong enough to my shake brain and every other internal organ, leaving me in a world of silence as my ears recoil from the onslaught only to yield to a ringing sound that only I can hear and which continues long after the echoes from the mountains and cheers from the gunner crews have subsided. These are the Meriam Buluh, the bamboo cannons of Kuala Kangsar.


The Meriam Buluh fire into the night sky over a freshly harvested rice field


Fire trails from the gunners torches mx with the muzzle flash of the cannons

For two years I’d heard whispers and rumours, second or third hand information, from people who had never seen it for themselves, of the spectacle that is Meriam Buluh. Up until a week ago, all I could garner was that it involved homemade canons crafted from lengths of bamboo but information on where or when it happened was scarce. A week out from the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, another piece of the puzzle came across my newsfeed on social media; Kuala Kangsar, north of Malaysia’s capital, would host the biggest display of these illegal cannons on the eve of Hari Raya Eid al-Fitr, to mark the end of Ramadan. After spending a few days frantically replacing wheel bearings and tyres on the bike, I was riding through the hills north of Kuala Lumpur, loaded lightly with camera, a change of clothes and tent headed for the seat of royalty in the state of Perak. Being the eve of the biggest public holiday in the Malaysian calendar, the winding back roads through the country become the only sensible option, the old two lane highways avoiding the gridlocked north-south highway and despite getting tailgated and intentionally run off the road while still close to KL, they are still the safer option.


Kuala Kangsars ornate mosque shimmers against a backdrop of rundown laneways

Rolling into Kuala Kangsar, one could be forgiven for thinking its just another small Malaysian town, not the seat of the Sultan of the Malaysian state of Perak. The only thing that the locals are prouder of than the royal palace up on the hill and its nearby traditional wooden counterpart (constructed entirely without nails), is the first ever rubber tree planted in Malaysia that still stands 138 after being years after being sown in the town, or perhaps the excessive number of KFCs they have (theres 3?). Like most regional areas of Malaysia though, the people are friendly and a quick succession of inquiries in the local language and a few terrible cups of coffee later, I find myself riding through the black sticky mud of a recently harvested rice field in the village of Kampung Talang Masjid. A young local guy, Farhan and his young nephew who have taken me under their wing are leading me out though flattened rice stalks to a what looks like a series of football goalposts constructed from rough hewn logs driven into the muddy substrate, lined up end to end. Long lengths of cast iron pipe as thick as my thigh and brightly painted point towards the sky, one end embedded in the mud of the rice fields, the other resting on the top bar of the goalpost structure. Farhan introduces me to the rest of his team of young gunners who are too busy or shy making final preparations to their staging area to pay much mind to a foreigner. A few words sputtered out in Malay and attentions are quickly diverted, resulting in approximately 1 million photos taken in the space of half an hour that leaves me with a host of new friends and cheeks that ache from holding a smile for so long. We repeat this another 6 times as Farhan leads me through the maze of single lane roads that make up the village from one cannon emplacement to another. With 6 villages represented by individual banks of cannons (team K-LO from Kubur Talang Hilir (Farhans team), Superman from Talang Masjid Serai, Talang Masjid Tongak, Talang Cangkat Darat, Talang Cangkat Anak Darat and team Kabu from Talang Hulu Kabu) there are 72 homemade cannons in total and 6 million photo requests.


The boys of team K-LO


One final posed shot before getting down to business

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As the sun sets, illuminating wisps of thin lazy clouds in hues of orange and pink, the rice fields slowly empty of people, I’m left alone as the second last call for Ramadan prayers floats quietly across the empty fields. A reverent silence settles over the village that makes me keep Emily’s RPM low in an attempt to minimise any disturbance on my way back to Farhan’s family house to meet his mother and sisters. Unbeknownst to me, negotiations have already been made for me to stay in their spare room, saving me from a night in the tent that id agreed to pitch nearby to the cannons. Farhan is concerned that sleep in the tent could be impossible though, as the orang putih (white man) has no idea of the magnitude of what is to come later in the evening. At the moment there are more important matters to worry about, like buka puasa (the daily breaking of the fast), and I’m pointed in the direction of one of the local cub chais, a 125cc scooter that constantly has me fumbling for a non-existent clutch, but is far more suitable to running between the nearby homes of Farhan’s friends and family, as we (repeatedly) break our/his fast. We aren’t the only ones looking forward to a meal and soon enough the streets are filled with locals visiting each other, all stuff ourselves to the point that I wonder if we shouldn’t be adding more preload to the suspension of our bikes. The final call to prayer for the night saves us from any more polite refusals to eat as it filters through the night and we return to the cannons waiting patiently for us in the darkness.


The sun sets over the cannons of Talang Masjid Tongak


Breaking fast in one of the family homes

With Faran manning one of the cannons, we are one of the first to arrive and I’m given a safety briefing that consists of “don’t get too close to the canons until you’re used to them”. I politely agree not to stand directly behind them but can’t help but think I’m being babied; after all, I used to handle high explosives in a previous job so how bad could it be? With the conclusion of prayers, the captain of team K-LO gives the command, the gunners removing a hollow steel casing slightly larger than a can of tinned beans, but with much thicker walls from the end of their cannon, deposits a measured amount of what is know locally as carbide (calcium carbide, used locally as fertiliser in banana plantations) along with water drawn from nearby barrels. As the concoction hisses and fizzes, the casing is reinserted back into the end of the cannon closest the ground, while the gunners straddle the cannons backwards as a cholok, a length of wood dipped in a mixture of diesel and petrol, is set aflame. With choloks held high above the gunners heads, the captain gives a second command, gunners remove their fingers from the touch hole only to be replaced with the burning end of the choloks and a barrage of artificial thunder and lightning is unleashed directly in front of me, making the preceding fireworks displays sound like the clapping of hands and party poppers. Farhans safety briefing now makes sense although the biggest risk to new comers is probably only one of soiled underwear.


Faran (far left) lets off his cannon


One of the gunner teams letting off a barrage as seen from across the rice fields

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With the first barrage unleashed, the festivities have officially started and the other teams, hidden in the darkness, respond to team K-LO as distant flashes of light followed at varying intervals by the crack of cannon fire ring out across the fields. For the next 11 hours, teams fire off barrage after barrage into the night sky, creating clouds of smoke that glow orange in the muzzle flash of the guns and the street lights as it floats above the heads of thousands of out-of-town visitors who wader about between the different teams, buying food and drinks from local vendors like Farhans sisters, who make a tidy profit on the night. Standing next to the cannons I cant help but think that this must be what its like to live in a war zone, easily imagining the constant explosions quickly wearing on a man nerves. I’m about to dismiss this thought as naïve, wars likely bing far worse than this, when I notice the only other foreigner I meet through night. Sam introduces himself as a Syrian, now living in Malaysia for the past 3 years after he fled his home country as a refugee. Before fleeing, he had fought with rebel forces against the Bashar al-Assad regime, right up until the point when his wife and children were killed when a government airstrike killed them in their home. With nothing left to fight for, he moved to Malaysia with his elderly mother soon after. This was also his first time witnessing the Meriam Buluh since arriving in Malaysia, the sound of the cannons so reminiscent to that of the sound of tank fire that his memories of Syria have prevented him from attending until now. Watching as his whole body involuntary jerks and his face scrunches up each time a cannon is fired its obvious that he’s still not entirely comfortable with the spectacle. His new Malaysian family notices too and offers to take him home after only a short time.


A photo from one of the Ramadan markets in Kuala Lumpur. Ironically, food is an important part of the fasting month

When midnight rolls around the cannons have been firing constantly for 3hrs and the mood is festive, as groups of locals, young and old wander about while children run freely between them, occasionally stopping to practicing their dynamite fishing skills with firecrackers in irrigation drains. By 3am, the same children are in bed and the crowd has thinned significantly, but the canons haven’t missed a beat. As the sky begins to lighten at 6am, only the gunner crews are left in the field, fuelled by a mix of coffee, cigarettes and Redbull which they down with fervour during the dawn prayers, the only break in cannon fire they take during the whole night, and one which the roosters take full advantage of to be heard crowing before the drum of cannon fire drowns them out again. Finally, with the sun sitting just above the tops of broad leaf tropical trees on the eastern horizon, one by one the cannons go silent and a deafening silence settles on the rice fields wile the crews trudge exhaustedly or sit with slumped shoulders on motorcycles, as they make their way back home to sleep for the first time in 24hrs.


A crowd of locals, drawn in from the neighbouring cities watches the action


Team K-LO lets off another barrage as the first light of day begins to fill the sky


Local kids playing with fireworks


The sun rises over the jungle on a new day as the cannons are finally silenced

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Locally sourced solutions


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.


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.

mnb v

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.


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.


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.


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.


Unloading the tractor-trailer in Tohoi


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.


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


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.


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


3-GM, Jalan Perdana 6/8, Pandan Perdana, 55300 Kuala Lumpur

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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.