And so another chapter draws to a close. Peninsular Malaysia has been our home on and off for almost 8 of the last 18 months. We’ve sweated along busy highways; camped in palm oil plantations; eaten our fill of nasi lemak and char kuay teow; dived the crystal waters around Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Tioman; marvelled at Malaysia’s diverse cultural heritage (evidenced most memorably at Hari Raya, Thaipusam and Chinese New Year); and been welcomed into the hearts and homes of people from many different backgrounds.
However, during our time here there’s been one thing that we’ve never come to terms with: the heat. Until now it’s been sufficient to put us off attempting any significant climbs, but in George Town we decided to ‘man up’ and finish our time in Peninsular Malaysia on a literal high by making our way back to KL via the Cameron Highlands.
Things got off to an excellent start when we left Georgetown as we bumped into another cyclist heading our way. Jerry is from the UK and since retirement has been ‘cycling round the world in stages’, i.e. as and when he can get permission from his wife to head off for another few months. We invited him to join us for the night at our friends’ house in Simpang Ampat, and to our delight he agreed. He was easy-going company on the road and his tales of touring in India made it sound much less overwhelming than we’d previously assumed…perhaps we’ll add it to our ever-growing list.
After the usual entertaining time with the Myers family we spun back through Taiping (thanks Amanda) and on through Ipoh whereupon we got an early night in preparation for a pre-dawn start on the climb from Sungai Pulai up to Kampung Raja in the Highlands. We didn’t think it possible but if anything Malaysians are even friendlier at dawn than during the rest of the day: the number of people who wished us well as they rode past on their motorbikes was astonishing. As the sun climbed higher so did we; pedalling our stalwart and sweaty way onwards and upwards. After 10km or so a speedy roadie gave a cheery shout as he zipped easily by…jealous? Us? Well, yeah, just a bit. He was followed by a couple of guys on mtbs and then another roadie, who stayed with us for a chat. Ernest is Malaysian and lives in Ipoh but had been to school in Northern Ireland, near to where Keith went to school. Small world huh?
Our conversation was cut short when the gradient ramped up from 3 to 8%. Ernest twiddled away whilst we heaved and grunted and strained at the pedals. It wasn’t long before we waved him goodbye and fell back to suffer in private. Thankfully the steeper stretch didn’t last too long (in hindsight) and our reward when it levelled off a bit was the sight of Ernest waiting for us, along with the other roadie who’d gone up ahead (Quentin). They had stopped at a cafe where they bought us a coffee, and we were soon joined by Quentin’s wife Catherine. Apparently they do this climb most weekends. Chapeau!
Despite the good company we couldn’t relax for long – we’d only done 15 of the 50km climb and needed to get quite a bit higher before the sun got much hotter – so it was back to heaving on the pedals. With the steep section behind us we settled into an easy rhythm and began to actually enjoy the climb: not too much traffic, decent road surface, moderate gradient, a fair bit of shade and some beautiful views out over forest-clad hillside….and not a single oil palm in sight! By the time the sun hit its zenith we were sufficiently well advanced up the hill to enjoy, if not cool air, at least manageably hot instead of debilitating temperatures.
If you’re planning on doing this climb then take plenty of snacks and water. There are no towns between Sugai Pulai and Kampung Raja, and, after leaving Ernest & co at the cafe at around 15km, we saw nothing but the occasional listless Orang Asli (literally “original people”) women selling honey on the roadside, until several hours later when what looked like a temporary builders’ shelter hove into view. Drawing alongside we realised it was a cafe. The walls were a ramshackle patchwork of salvaged bits of corrugated iron and plywood, but the proprietor and other diners were friendly and, whilst the menu was limited (unless you wanted 3-in-1 coffee ,of which there were no fewer than nine different varieties!), the char kuay teow noodles tasted pretty damn fine….and there was even a pretty little fishpond out front!
Our snail’s pace and a midday snooze on a bamboo platform (a direct consequence of the pre-dawn start) meant it was now well into the afternoon. Re-fuelled, we saddled up and laboured on. As climbs go it was surprisingly enjoyable, but you know, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, so when we topped out and began the descent into Kampung Raja we were starting to discuss our options for the night. After 1500m of steady climbing our legs were feeling pretty tired, but prior research (backed up by our questioning of locals when we got to Raja) suggested there were no hotels before Brinchang. It was cool enough to camp comfortably, but did we really want to get our nice dry tent damp again? But then again, did we really want to do another 500m of ascent (in the dark) to the known hotels in Brinchang, 15km away? Thankfully the dilemma resolved itself when we spotted a shabby sign pointing down an alleyway with the promise of a hotel – oh yeah! It was hard to find (just a small hand-printed note pinned on a shuttered-up archway marked its location) but after asking around a lady appeared and we got a good bed for the night. Sometimes it’s the smallest triumphs that make your day.
Despite our serendipitous hotel find, we have to admit that our first impression of the Cameron Highlands wasn’t particularly favourable. After the beautiful forest views on the climb we’d turned into the Highlands proper and immediately had been confronted by acre upon acre of plastic tunnels. Not pretty. The moderate temperatures (15-25 degrees) and well-drained, fertile soil mean that agriculture is the Cameron Highland’s main source of income. Tea plantations, strawberry farms, apiaries and temperate vegetable farms prevail; with each promoting its wares at tackily decorated (think giant concrete or fibreglass strawberries) visitor centres. It reminded us of the Isle of Wight…only somehow not as nice.
After starting the morning with some more descending, the climb between Raja and Brinchang came as a lung-burstingly steep intrusion (and made us very glad we hadn’t attempted it on tired legs the night before), but it was only a relatively small part of the 20km jaunt along to Tanah Rata so entirely do-able. With time on our side we broke the day up with a stop at an apiary where we chatted for some time with David, a construction law specialist from the UK, who was squeezing in a bit of sightseeing into his KL lecture tour. The apiary had lots of hives, a lot of honey and bee-themed merchandise, but sadly not much information on beekeeping.
Disappointment levels notched up further when we finally got to Tanah Rata and discovered that the Mossy Forest (which we were very keen to see) was not actually near Tanah Rata as our Malaysian tourism app had suggested, but was back up a turn-off near the bee farm and then a further 10km up a very steep, badly surfaced road. Disgruntled we settled for a quick tramp along one of the local trails, and discovered that away from the intensive agriculture the forest is as diverse and beautiful as we could have wished for. Perhaps the Highlands were not going to be a let-down after all.
Determined to see the Mossy Forest we booked on a tour the next morning, and it was the best thing we could have done. We started off at a butterfly farm (which also had various interesting beetles, some arachnids and scorpions, snakes, lizards, frogs and even a few small, cute and furries), and then proceeded by Land Rover up the aforementioned steep and badly surfaced track to Gunung Brinchang, which, at 2000m, affords panoramic views of the Highlands (which turned out to be far less littered with plastic tunnels than the view from the road had belied).
Our excellent guide then took us into the ancient Mossy Forest and pointed out which plants can be used as insect repellents and which make good muscle rubs, and then left us to wander at our leisure past the end of the boardwalk and onto a preternaturally gnarly forest trail. More than 700 species of plants grow in the Cameron Highlands. Thick moss drapes every bough; orchids and vines compete for space with lichens, bromeliads and prehistoric fern trees; it’s a botanist’s wet dream. We passed a handful of other tourists on the boardwalk, but had the nature trail to ourselves and felt suitably adventurous scrambling around contorted roots and twisted branches in search of elusive pitcher plants.
Returning along the boardwalk we found our guide chatting with another and joined their conversation for a while before heading down to the tea plantation. Unfortunately it was the one day of the week when the tea factory is closed, but we could still enjoy the views and also the company of our guide. His parents had been tea-pickers and he’d been born and raised in the highlands. Gazing across the plantation he told us wistfully “These hills are covered in my footprints; left from when I was a child.” It was an unexpected glimpse into someone else’s life and felt like a very personal and special gift.
Instead of driving us back to Tanah Rata our guide dropped us in Brinchang and directed us to the start of another trail, so after lunch we set off along trails 2, 3 and 5. Once we established which was the correct path that the rather misleading sign was meant to be pointing at (the steps up the left hand side of the temple) the trail was easy to follow and well signed….and a really good work out. Just how we like to spend our ‘rest day’.
So, our final verdict on the Cameron Highlands? It’s well worth the climb.
The next day we dropped down past Ringlet to Sungai Koyan: beautiful scenery and very little traffic but a rolling road instead of the anticipated steady descent which made the 90+km much harder than we’d expected and made us wish we’d set off before midday, especially as the only hotel (which was in fact a homestay) in Sungai Koyan tried to charge us three times what we’d paid in George Town, causing us to take exception and camp in a palm oil plantation instead. Oh, and our gear cable broke that day on a completely shadeless stretch of hot tarmac, but at least it wasn’t too big a job to bung the spare one in.
Sungai Koyan to Bentong was another hot day on rolling roads. The traffic was heavier too. At one point we were just about to remount the Pino after a rest stop when a lorry heavily laden with cut lengths of hardwood rumbled past…and shed a solid 2 foot chunk of 4 by 4 as it went. We didn’t see how close it actually came to us but it landed and rolled to a halt just ahead of the Pino and could have caused us considerable damage had it hit us. Mind you, we can’t do much to mitigate against mishaps like that so there’s little point dwelling on them.
Like the mad dogs we are we pushed on through the midday heat in an attempt to get to an air-conditioned hotel room as early as possible. We were beginning to flag, fantasizing about a cold drink, so pulled into what looked like a little cafe attached to a car wash, but the fridge full of cold drinks was a mirage: in reality a cabinet full of car shampoo. Unable to go any further we sat in a panting, sweaty heap under the car wash canopy until the guys took pity on us and brought over some iced tea.
We knew there was a 600m climb the next day over from Bentong to KL so made sure we had an early start. Skirting alongside the expressway our road was tranquil and verdant with very little traffic. The gradient was, for the most part, nice and easy, and it was another pleasant climb…until we approached the summit. That final kilometre is best not dwelt upon.
And then it was over. An easy roll down the other side brought us back into KL, our journey’s end….or at least the end of our journey in Peninsular Malaysia.
We spent a night with our friends Angie and Yuen, celebrating the end of Chinese New Year with them, and then relocated across the city to Damansara Perdana where we are staying in the empty apartment of another friend (Annie).
We fly to Indonesia early tomorrow morning so are now in the throes of dismantling the Pino, finishing this blog, catching up on a few repairs, and packing.
As usual things never go quite to plan when we have a deadline, and the Samsung tablet we bought a few months ago has developed some battery problems so we had to detour through central KL yesterday and drop it off at the Samsung service centre. They’ve replaced the battery and motherboard and it seems to be working OK now, but it meant that yesterday evening was spent setting up all the apps again.
A combination of being disorganised and then finding extra chores to do (like fixing the tablet) has meant we haven’t done much research on Indonesia yet (we don’t even know where the airport is in relation to Jakarta for instance)…but I expect it’ll all work out, things usually do.
Oh, and one final little mention – we have a new travelling companion! In fact he’s been with us for a few weeks but hasn’t made it into the blog until now. You may recall we started our trip in April 2011 with Meerkat sitting proudly on the front of the Pino’s boom. He shared our adventures until April 2014 when he suddenly disappeared, missing in action in Thailand (chasing lady boys?). We tried to come to terms with our loss, but that little empty space at the front of the boom haunted us. So thanks to the marvels of the internet and a little space in my mum’s hand luggage when we met her in China back in January, Meerkat’s Cousin has joined the Threewheeling team.