East Timor – Indonesia – Malaysia – Singapore
After the third bounce I opened my eyes and looked out of the aeroplane window. “I’m in the wrong country!” was my first thought as I looked out upon four military helicopters adjacent to a temporary army camp surrounded by a tall wall topped with razor wire and machine gun towers – one of which was flying a skull & crossbones flag. The camp itself was set against a backdrop of large leafed jungle foliage and I thought I’d landed in Vietnam in the mid 60’s. I hadn’t of course, I was in Dili, East Timor or Timor Leste to give it its correct title.
I took a taxi (complete with smashed windscreen) to a huge house near the Dili beach hotel where my hostess was Tracy Morgan – A Welsh (don’t hold it against her) solicitor (or that!). With seven years in Timor Leste under her belt she knew the place well and, since the closure of the British Embassy had become warden to the islands British contingent. Short on stature but huge in character, one of Tracy’s pastimes was organizing the local pub quiz. I joined them one evening but with questions that would have made many a Mastermind contestant scratch their heads I kept quiet and supped my beer. Her talents were many but all were superseded by her sticky date & walnut pudding – unbelievable.
I walked into town past the docks and the ship carrying my bike, my nostrils filled with the unforgettable odor of festering rubbish, rotting veg and stagnant water. Pavements were, at best, sketchy in daylight hours but strictly off limits after dark as gaping holes left by missing storm drain covers promised to swallow men whole in the dimly lit streets. Welcome back to Asia!
Dili was full of UN and NGO 4×4’s – and I mean full. The car park outside the government building had a row of government registered 4×4’s any Toyota dealer would have been proud of. There were UN police, Portuguese police, Aussie and Kiwi soldiers along with the local police and army – all well armed.
I found the SDV office (my shipping contact) easily, and having had my Carnet stamped at the dockside Customs office on the way into town all I had to do was pay the U$76 local charges and wait for someone to take me to the storage yard. After an initial “Ooooo”, when they opened the container to find my bike right at the front, the guys there were very helpful and quickly unloaded the full container. They made light work of breaking the crate open and helping me to reassemble ‘Lady P’. Back at the house I fitted the new oxygen sensor (AU$350 – Ouch!) which I’d collected from Performance Motorcycles PO box en-route to Darwin airport. Lady P sounded much crisper when I fired her up and I was soon to learn that her stunning mpg was back to normal. Phew!
Into the country
After three nights in Dili I headed south and into the hills. As I climbed out of town, past the ‘Displaced Peoples camps’ I rapidly gained altitude and was afforded great views back across Dili and out to sea.. In town I’d found the drivers chilled, polite and safe, indeed the worst driving (and only speeding) was that of the UN and other NGO’s. The further I rode inland the quieter the roads became.
In the small village of Maubisse at an altitude of 1550m, I took a room in Sara’s guesthouse. I spent the evening outdoors playing table tennis and drinking tea with my neighbors (UN policemen from the Philippines) and their colleagues from Nepal and Sri Lanka. We were joined by five young lads belonging to the owner and his extended family. They were very funny, with one in particular being particularly cheeky. The policemen told me that the majority of their work was seminars to train the recently formed local police service, particularly in investigation techniques. There was very little crime in Timor Leste so they said.
The following morning I continued south crossing a pass at 1869m. I remembered one of the guys last night saying to take the left fork after the pass but it didn’t look right, A road gang confirmed I was on the right road and so I continued. After what appeared to be years of neglect, the road was in desperate need of the attention it was slowly receiving and I followed it as it descended into a valley of traditionally built houses with views to the mountains beyond. I stopped to take some photos but no sooner had I done so my bike belched out a pool of steaming coolant; something she’d never done before. I could see no sign of where the leak had come from so after letting her cool down I topped up the radiator from my Camelback and altered my plans. There was precious little traffic on this road and what there was would only decrease as I headed further south. Not knowing whether the coolant incident would turn out to be an isolated one or turn into something more sinister I decided to retrace my route towards Dili. At least if the fault escalated I would be able to flag down a truck and get a lift back to civilization. As it was the fault never occurred again but it was the start of a still unresolved problem of overheating at altitude. I can sit in traffic at sea level in 35ºC temperatures without a problem, but climb above 1500m and despite a 10ºC drop in ambient temperature the temp warning light will illuminate and the fan will run. It’s even happened when descending from altitude!
The road was lined with people selling firewood as I followed it along the coast east from Dili. Trees were sparse as I looked towards the backdrop of mountains and I wondered how long the cutting/selling/burning of the trees could be sustained. The green lushness of this morning had given way to bleached grass and dry rice fields then unusual rock formations that reminded me of Montenegro. I eventually spent the night on the coast in the little village of Com. I was looking forward to my dinner of chicken curry but whilst the flavor was good I failed to find a single piece of edible chicken in it.
Off the beaten track
The following mornings climb out of Com was steep and narrow but led me through a few settlements littered with traditional houses. Once again I was a spaceman, an alien, and people stopped dead in their tracks, jaws agape as I rode by. Waving was my polite way of greeting all who stood to watch and it was almost always met with a smile and a wave in return. Children came racing out from everywhere waving as though their lives depended on it; women chewing beetlenut would break out in broad grins that made them look like Batman’s Joker; only the chickens ran for their lives!
I was on the back road to Lospalos and soon the tarmac came to an abrupt halt though the track continued in a series of dirt and stony trails. Up here on the high ground I passed many tombs who’s crosses were adorned with bulls skulls; testament to the country’s animistic past. The view towards Lospalos was that of the English Lake District. Green fields and forests rose and fell sharply, overshadowed by tall ridgelines in turn overshadowed by dark rain clouds. I had intended on visiting Tutuala and Jacko Island away to the east but knowing the roads there would have been adversely affected by the rain I could have easily got stuck out there. I decided instead to give them a miss and head on through Illomar and on to Viqueque.
The tarmac became more and more broken as I left Lospalos, until eventually it vanished. The track continued on through many hamlets where the isolation along with the houses reminded me of northern Cambodia and Laos. Most houses were built with a bamboo frame in-filled with woven reed panels and stood on short stilts; the wealthier ones sported four courses of concrete block below the paneling. There was no grass and the hard packed dirt surface raised whirlwind like dust clouds whenever the wind picked up. The people were proud though and the hamlets were well kept and showed no sign of litter; perhaps because there was no sign either of any shops. I guess that with no visitors there was no need for signs or shop fronts as everyone who lived there knew who sold what and from where.
I didn’t realize I’d passed Illomar until I came to a dead end at a river. The guys there indicated I needed to ride around to another crossing point and following their gesticulations I took the next track to another dead end. I remembered passing a compound of some sort (probably linked to the construction of the many new bridges I’d encountered) and here they pointed me to the correct road, 100m back along the track I’d ridden in on. This ‘road’ weaved its way up and down through the jungle until it brought me to by far the longest of the new bridges; so long in fact, it was still under construction!
A track to my left led me through the trees to the water’s edge and I rode out onto the exposed stony bank in the middle of the river. The exit to the far bank wasn’t clear until I spotted two construction workers waving to me. It was then that I spotted short lengths of red tape flying from steel stakes hammered into the riverbed, marking the route across. Although stony, there didn’t appear to be anything to catch me out but after my last encounter with a water crossing (in the Bungle Bungles) I wasn’t best pleased with the situation. Fortunately though I rode across without incident and followed the track back into the jungle. Shortly afterwards I found myself following the track along the beach for several hundred metres before returning to the jungle. Now I’ve seen a few roads during this trip but that was a new one on me.
Not long after, I turned inland and uphill, quickly gaining 300m in altitude. It had been raining and the ground was slick. I was struggling for traction on the steep hillside and eventually I fell in a particularly rutted section right in the middle of a small village. Help was soon at hand though as what seemed like the whole village turned out to see what was going on. Picking up Lady P was easy thanks to all the help but turning her round was a different story that involved much slipping and sweating. I took the opportunity to ask if I was on the right road – I wasn’t. The right road was back at the bottom of the hill which given the conditions I wasn’t keen on descending. Riding 10m was enough realize I had no control over either steering or braking thanks to my tyres being clogged with mud. I lowered the pressures and tried again, thankfully with a little more control. I had a few sketchy moments and was worried about falling off and wiping out a group of locals but as I approached the steepest section I was relieved to see the track covered with some sort of all-weather surface. Soon enough I was safely at the bottom and from this direction the track I should have taken became obvious.
The only map of Timor Leste I could find was a free one from a travel agent in Dili but it had no scale and the ‘roads’ in the south had no signs. I was navigating by comparing the shape of my GPS track to the shape of the road on the map. Unfortunately for me there were two section of road on the south coast that were the same shape but without a scale I had thought I was in one place but was in fact at the other.
Eventually I made it to Viqueque where I spent the night. Leaving the following morning though proved difficult. Despite asking for directions several times, I must have ridden through town half a dozen times before eventually being shown the right way by a Portuguese NGO. The Philippino policeman I’d played table tennis with had said the road from Viqueque to Suai was good – my arse! Ok, it did have its good bits but it also had potholes, no surface at all, dried rutted tracks from the wet sand, stones, rocks, river crossings and at one point cut logs filled a void in a bridge.
I wasn’t sure whether or not there was an international border at Suai or not but I decided to have a look anyway. Some maps showed roads leading to the border but others didn’t. I rode out of Suai following my nose and was just contemplating turning around when I came across the border. All was looking good until I discovered there were no Customs officers there to stamp my Carnet and that their office in Suai would be closed by the time I returned. The Immigration officer gave me directions to a cheap ‘Losman’ in town as the only other place to stay had become way overpriced thanks to its regular UN patronage.
At the Customs office in town the following morning I had to wait as the officer in charge had overslept but was the only one who had the keys for the cabinet containing the rubber stamps. After that I left Timor Leste easy enough but on the Indonesian side neither the Immigration nor Customs officers had arrived so I sat around for another hour.
I had thoroughly enjoyed Timor Leste. The people were smiling, friendly and helpful and the landscape a total contrast to Australia. The ridgeline running through the centre of the country seeming to divide it into two different climates and certainly when I was there the north had a Mediterranean climate whereas the south was far damper and more tropical. I had been lucky to encounter only a little light rain in the south as I think the ‘roads’ would be impassable after heavy rain. The altitude too had surprised me, having crossed a pass at 1869m but it will be the friendliness of the people and the remoteness of the south east that will stick in my memory the most. Such were the roads here that my moving average speed was a mere 33km/h.
Prior to my arrival I would never have considered Indonesia prosperous, but after Timor Leste that’s exactly how it looked. Not only were there shops but the shelves were stocked and people had money in their pockets. There were cars to and many motorcycles.
In Betun I spotted an ATM but it wasn’t linked to the VISA system and I was told to go to the post office but when I got there was told they didn’t exchange money. In the post office I met a retired schoolteacher who told me where I could exchange money and he pointed the way to a building across some wasteland. Once outside I was none the wiser until another guy who’d been in the Post Office appeared and led me into a hardware cum food store run by a Chinese family. I’d never have guessed that where I was meant to go. With cash in my pocket I could now buy fuel and so rode to the fuel station where it seemed I required ‘Premium’, though nobody was quite sure. I was quickly surrounded by smiling helpful faces and soon a 25ltr drum appeared and 10ltrs were measured out and poured into my tank. I rode out of town heading for the port town of Kupang and on the way passed a protest rally that appeared to be something to do with the ‘Lopo’ (traditional houses). The Government consider them unhygienic and are trying to outlaw them, much to the disgust of many who still live in them. All the protestors wore traditional dress and carried an effigy of a Lopo but it was all peaceful. It was a colourful ride as the road was lined with multi-coloured flags to celebrate the forthcoming Independence Day celebrations.
At Halliulik I stopped to photograph a monument in the middle of the road and was immediately mobbed by kids, most of them hawkers. I bought some deep fried banana for 1k Rupiah (5 English pence) from the first one to reach me which seemed to keep them all happy. As soon as I pulled my camera out they clambered all over the monument smiling and waving.
I eventually made it to Kupang, home of the ‘bling’ Bemos. Whilst looking for somewhere to stay, a local pulled up on his motorbike and led me to where I was looking for. I spent the evening with Penny, an English girl who’d travelled from home in Devon to here in West Timor by train, bus and boat – no aeroplanes. We ate on the night market where her experience in Indonesia showed as she described every dish on offer. I settled for Gado-Gado: steamed vegetables in a peanut sauce served with rice.
The following morning I went in search of sea sickness pills. The ferry I took that afternoon was the first of seven needed to get me through Indonesia to Malaysia and at 13hours it was also the longest. I got lucky at the second chemist where the Chinese owner spoke good English and produced exactly what I wanted and I returned to the hotel well before lunch. The ferry wasn’t due to leave until 1600 but I’d been advised to arrive before 1200 which I did, only to learn I couldn’t buy a ticket until 1400. After wandering around taking photos and eating lunch I was waved to the ticket counter at 1330 and with very little hassle, purchased a ticket and boarded the ferry with none of the anticipated hassle. I changed out of my riding gear, covered Lady P with my tarp to protect her from the salt spray on the open sided ferry and climbed the stairs to the passenger deck. I’d been told that it got quite cold on deck overnight so made my way inside to the equivalent of ‘economy plus’ where I took a seat by an open window (knowing people would smoke). With the ferry not due to sail for another few hours it soon filled up with hawkers selling sunglasses, mats, food, drink etc. Little by little passengers replaced hawkers and we eventually set sail at 1630. No sooner had we left port than the steward appeared to check tickets. I stared out of the window avoiding eye contact. Not only was I the only westerner on the boat, I was also the hardest one to get to given the seating arrangement. Once I’d thought enough time had passed I looked round to find he had indeed left and I could settle into the ‘entertainment’. For the first hour or so this was Indonesian pop videos. Melancholic sounds I can only describe as ‘music to slit your wrists to’. Then the films started with that great family favourite ‘Rambo 4’. I eventually dozed off, awoke during ‘The Incredible Hulk’, dozed off again and finally awoke during some cheesy martial arts film. We eventually docked at 0700 and by the time I’d put on my riding gear the ferry had not only emptied but was already filling with vans and I had to battle my way off to avoid returning to Kupang!
I left the ferry a Larantuka and followed the road west towards Maumere and took a dirt track down to the beach where I spent a few days in a bamboo beach hut at Sunset Cottages. It was meant to be a lazy few days but I met two Australian women, Michelle and Carol and ended up joining them on an ascent of the active volcano Gunning Egon. Not only did it dominate the area but it had blown out a huge cloud of ash just three months previously. The lower slope was easy walking but as we approached what looked like a wide couloir we saw it had in fact been blown out in a previous eruption. Here the trail had all but vanished under the recent layer of ash making it not only hard to follow but loose and hard to walk on. It was worth the effort though and after passing a descending group of Spaniards we arrived at the top from where a short traverse led to the volcano rim. Off to one side two small but roaring craters billowed sulphurous smoke into the sky whilst the centre was a sea of ‘crazy paving’ in dried mud. It was to be the first of several Volcanoes I climbed in Indonesia.
I rode on through Flores, the road twisting and climbing through jungle and around the volcanoes that dominate the landscape. I spent a few nights in Moni from where I visited the coloured volcanic lakes of Kelimutu. I left my guesthouse long before dawn in order to watch the sunrise over the crater only to have the main beam of my headlight blow as I rode down the track (dip beam had blown in Timor Leste). Having got up at 0300 I wasn’t turning round and so made the most of the almost full moon to illuminate my way to the summit. I was first to arrive but just as I did so a local guy arrived on foot, bearing a rucksack of flasks full of hot tea to sell to tourists. What time had he left home I wondered?
Dungeons and Dragons
Again I rode on through Flores, past rice fields and volcanoes to the coastal town of Labuanbajo. With the guesthouses on the sea side of the road being built on stilts and those on the opposite side being built up the hillside it wasn’t easy to find somewhere with safe parking. Eventually I settled on the Bajo Beach Hotel which sounds rather posh but my room was in fact a narrow dungeon with one small window up against the high ceiling. I could however park Lady P inside and that was what swung the deal.
Being a solo traveler there was a pain in the arse. My reason for going was to see the legendary Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat. They’re only found on the islands of Komodo and Rinca but neither are served by passenger ferry – only charter boats. Although negotiable to a certain degree these are set up for groups of up to 8 sharing the price. My best hope seemed to be to find a group I could join but as most people travelled here specifically to dive and/or visit the islands their groups were either full or they were a couple. I thought I’d found the ultimate solution when I met a guy who said I could load my bike onto the boat that visited Rinca, Komodo and the top snorkeling spots before sailing around Sumbawa (where I’d been told there was little of interest) and on to Lombok over 4 days and 3 nights. I visited the boat in question and met the captain. He showed me where we could lash my bike down but said we would have to await high tide at around midnight to get her on board. I paid a deposit and agreed to meet the crew at midnight. Some hours later, returning from the internet café, I bumped into the guy to whom I’d paid my deposit. He was most apologetic but said the captain had visited my hotel to see my bike for himself and upon doing so had thrown his hands in the air in disbelief exclaiming it was not possible. Bugger! I eventually got to Rinca on a day trip and saw several Komodo Dragon’s lumbering around near the visitors centre and several more during a 2hr trek. Having wanted to see them since childhood it had been worth the effort.
Two more ferries and a day’s ride across Sumbawa took me to Lombok. The first thing to hit me as I rolled off the ferry was the increase population. The islands so far had been quiet by comparison and I could see I’d have to up my awareness on the busy roads. I rode south to Kuta where I took the last of three bungalows at Lamancha Homestay (as recommended by Tim Walker in Darwin). It was a great spot 5mins from the beach and where I could park Lady P right in front of my room. I spent a few days relaxing, chatting with the owner Jum and his wife and fitted a new set of steering head bearings in their son’s bicycle. All too soon it was time to move on. Indonesia is a big place but travel was slow and I still had many things I wanted to see. My 60 day visa was ticking…
I took the most potholed road I’d ever ridden to the fishing village of Awang before working my way north to the beautiful Sembalun Valley, accessed by a high pass on the flanks of Gunnung Rinjani. Visibility on the southern approach was limited by low cloud but as I reached the summit so I broke through the cloud to blue sky and a terrific view down the valley to Sembalun itself. The clouds covering Rinjani though didn’t budge and I never did get to see the peak. I descended to the coast and followed the road west spending a few days at the lovely Sonya Homestay in Senggigi before catching the ferry to Bali (4½hrs) from Mataran. Once again I was surprised at the choice of film for a daytime crossing. A Jean Claude van Damme film that included a long scene of a guy being tortured and eventually mutilated with a battery drill!
I had planned to spend the night in the port town of Padangbai but the turning into the town centre was blocked by trucks queuing for the ferry and I missed it. Soon I was on the road to Candidassa and as I entered town I spotted a sign for Ari Homestay. Overlooking the sea it had a garage underneath and sported a sign saying ‘Includes free BIG breakfast’. Tio, the lady of the house looked over the balcony and gave me a big smile and a ‘thumbs up’ – this was the place for me. Tio said I was the third overlander to stay in as many years, the most recent being Peter, the Englishman who’s bike I’d seen in Alice Springs. As promised, Garry (Tio’s Australian husband) served up a cracking breakfast of mixed omelette, fried potatoes, toast & honey, melon and tea – bloody great. It was the best breakfast I’d eaten since leaving Darwin. I had intended on staying only one night but Garry said he had cable TV and that I could watch the Moto GP from Misano that evening. With an invitation like that and another of his breakfasts to look forward to, I was going nowhere! Bali was vibrant. With the majority of the population being Hindu, the island is full of temples and shrines and when I visited the streets were adorned with huge decorations to celebrate New Year. Bamboo poles decorated with flowers reached 10m into the air from either side of the roads and were joined in the middle to form arches. The local temple in Candidasa saw a regular flow of locals in traditional Balinese dress bearing gifts and food for the many hours they spent there. I spent the day wandering around soaking up the atmosphere before indulging in a pizza with a German couple also staying at Ari Homestay.
The following day after another of Garry’s cracking breakfasts I moved on to Amed on the east coast where I spent a few days snorkeling in Jemeluk Bay. From there I followed the coast west, quickly climbing away from the tourist area to where the poverty became apparent. Tiny houses sat amongst ploughed fields where every inch of land was farmed, ploughs were pulled by bullocks and young boys raced along the streets pulling toy trucks cleverly made from discarded oil bottles.
In Amalpura I inadvertently found myself riding the wrong way down a one way street. As I got to the end I very nearly had a head on with a policeman on a motorcycle coming the other way. His mouth was agape in his open faced helmet and he had both feet on the floor as he braked and tried to avoid me. Avoid him I did and raced off along an adjacent street in the hope he didn’t chase me. In the time it would have taken for him to regain his composure I’d made my escape. The signposting though was often so bad that this wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, time I rode the wrong way along a one way street.
A 1½hr ferry ride took me from Gilimanuk (Bali) to Banyuwangi (Java). I was heading for the volcano that is Gunning Igen but it took some finding. Despite being told the names of the villages to ride through, many road junctions had signs missing and the roads themselves were too small to appear on my map. My GPS showed me riding around in several circles and I was on the verge of giving up for the day when I came across a checkpoint where it was confirmed I was on the right road. At Pos Paltuding I was shocked to learn that not only did they want 100k Rupiah (U$11) for a room, but that it was a shithole worth 20k at a push. Not only that, but there were no facilities and no breakfast. I asked about camping and was told I could pitch my tent behind the ‘visitors centre’ which they opened up for me to park Lady P inside. I then went to pay the National Park entry fee and out came the calculator – 15k park entry, 25k camping, 5k parking, the cheeky f…..! I had no choice but to pay. The next nearest accommodation was 13km away and I would be getting up at 0400 to climb the volcano. I ate alone in the café where the only food available was Pot Noodle and biscuits and after eating my gormét dinner I retired to my tent. It was only 8pm but the temperature had already dropped to 12ºC though it felt much colder, having not experienced temperatures below 26ºC for the past few weeks.
By 0440 the following morning I was walking up the volcano. Along the way I ‘chatted’ with several locals carrying their reed baskets the 3km to the rim from where they would descend to the lakeside a further 1km inside. There they load 70-80kg of sulphur into their baskets for the return journey. The initial 3km was wide but steep and loose in places. The 1km to the lake though was a different story.
A steep, narrow, loose rocky trail wove its way down to the lake and was not an easy walk unladen. These guys made the journey twice daily, switching their loads from shoulder to shoulder as they went. Sound hard? I haven’t mentioned the sulphur clouds billowing from the blowholes at the lakeside yet. If the breeze is taking the clouds out over the lake the effect isn’t too bad but if it blows towards shore then breathing becomes impossible and visibility is reduced to zero. Your throat and lungs burn and your eyes water until the breeze takes the cloud back across the lake. I walked down to the lakeside to meet the guys working there and was invited to pick up a basket load. Two baskets are joined by a flat bamboo handle and placed on two oil drums. Squatting underneath it as though doing ‘squats’ in the gym I stood up lifting the 70-80kg load. I tried walking forwards but had little control over where I stepped. Their task seemed hard enough as an onlooker but after lifting a load, having a sulphur cloud blown in my face and walking the trail I wondered by just how many years this occupation reduced their lives.
My next destination was another volcano: Gunnung Bromo in the NP of the same name. As Java’s (if not Indonesia’s) biggest natural attraction it did not disappoint. I arose at 0500 to the most vibrant red sunrise I’ve ever witnessed and rode along the volcanoes rim to find a good viewpoint across its interior. The outer rim spans 12km and stands 100m or so above the floor of sand from which rise the jellymould like Gunning Batok and the still smoking Gunnung Bromo itself. On the morning I was there the sand floor was covered in mist giving the impression that Batok and Bromo were protruding from the sea. It was a stunning site made more so by the fact the previous afternoon’s low cloud had completely enveloped the view and I’d had no preview. It was like seeing the curtain raised at a premiere.
I finally left the volcanoes of the east behind me and rode on towards Yogyakarta experiencing the true Java as I did. Java is the heart of Indonesia and is not only home to the capital Jakarta but also to 145million Indonesians – all on an island half the size of the UK (pop approx 56million). It was madness, the nearest I’ve been to India without being in India.
Dusk came as I rode into Yogyakarta and concerned that I still had no headlight was pleased to find my way easily to the Sosrowijayan area of town. The homestay I’d been recommended was full and so made do with another around a series of alleyways behind. With Lady P safely locked away behind big steel gates next to my hotel I wandered out into the street to find some dinner. I ate in the ‘Superman’ restaurant where there was nothing ‘super’ about the food but the beer was cold and the F1 from Spa Francochamps was about to start on their TV. For once a F1 race worth watching, with rain affecting the final laps and Hamilton doing what he does best – race; not pussying around for a finish. I spent a few days in Yogya, marveling at the phenomenal number of motorbikes (Thailand & Malaysia don’t come close!), avoiding the many hawkers and using it as a base to visit the beautiful Hindu temple complex of Brambahan. Unfortunately though, several of the main temples were closed for renovation work following the 2006 earthquake. I was disappointed, but after meeting an Indian from Varanasi (India) who’d travelled here especially to visit one particular temple that was twinned with one in his home town, my disappointment paled into insignificance.
My next stop was another temple; Indonesia’s finest – Borobudur. Built in the 8th & 9th centuries, the monument was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone, starting in the everyday world and spiralling up to nirvana – the Buddhist heaven. At the base of the monument is a series of reliefs representing a world dominated by passion and desire, where the good are rewarded by reincarnation as a higher form of life, while the evil are punished by a lowlier reincarnation.
Into the hills
Every inch of land on the climb up to the Dieng Plateau at 2000m had been cultivated. Even the most impossible shapes and angles had been made use of and the number of people working in the fields was immense. I had planned on staying in Dieng Village overnight but the weather put me off and I rode on. Shortly after 1600 I found a hotel with a courtyard and therefore safe parking. It was only after I’d seen a few other guests depart that I realized it was used as a knocking shop. It was also be the first of several nights I was to be visited by the police. Curious as to a single male travelling alone, every visit started and finished the same way. Show my Passport, explain where I’d come from and where I was going. Then explain the big picture of my journey. The list of countries I’ve visited on Lady P’s screen worked particularly well in breaking the ice in those situations and soon there were smiles of amazement and I was wished a safe onward journey.
At Bandung, Java’s second city, I headed for the ring road only to stop at the toll booth and be told “Sorry, no motorcycles!” Instead I battled my way through the cities one way systems for 2hrs; my brain feeling like a ‘boil-in-the-bag’ meal as I sat overheating in the copious traffic. Eventually I emerged from the sprawling mass and rode on via the tea plantations of Puncak Pass to the city of Bogor and Firman Pension, where I found Tim Hobins bike parked in the courtyard. After a shower I walked to the ‘world class’ botanical gardens where, a whistle caught my attention and I turned to find Tim sitting in the pavilion restaurant. He’d already seen much of the park so after a chat we went our separate ways, arranging to meet later for dinner. The park had many spectacular trees but for me the highlight was watching monitor lizards swim across the lake to an island where they fed on the eggs of unlucky nesting birds.
The following morning was my last on Java and I rode out through the suburbs and headed for Merek where I took my last ferry (2hrs) between Indonesian islands as I crossed to Sumatra. In the small town of Kalianda I struggled to find a cheap room and after visiting all three hotels I ended up back where I started and had an early night in preparation for what I knew would be a long day ahead. And Bloody Hell!! What a day it was! Up at 0530 and riding by 0600 my first thought was ‘Where is everybody?’ After the madness that was Java it seemed there was nobody here and by comparison there wasn’t. Sumatra is the worlds 6th largest island; 4 times the size of Java and home to just a quarter of the population.
The first 120km was newly laid tarmac as was much of the day – albeit with some pretty poor sections in between. Jesus did it rain though – 4 times, and each time soaking me to the skin. The first time was just as I was leaving Bandar Lampung. I didn’t even have a chance to stop and don my Goretex liner before it pissed down. And I mean pissed down. Traffic slowed to a crawl and wipers were set to warp factor 7. I’d just started dry out when it rained again. I’d all but dried out after my second soaking when it rained for a third time. Getting a soaking wasn’t so bad, it was the missed opportunity to take photos along the way that I was most disappointed about. I passed through many immaculate villages of old Malay style houses – wooden structures on stilts with storage below. I hadn’t even begun to dry out when it rained for a fourth time and was still raining when I reached a hotel in Lubuk Linggau. It was Sunday 14th September and I decided to splash out on a room with a TV in order to watch the MotoGP from Indianapolis. After ensuring the hotel had the Metro TV channel I paid double the most I’d previously paid in Indonesia and still felt guilty as I stood at reception, water pouring from my riding suit. Every trip I made through the lobby I passed a porter mopping up the floor from my previous trip. Once unloaded, I tried to tune the TV into Metro TV but without success. A guy was sent to tune the TV; still without success. Pissed off, I decided to have a soak in the bath only to find there was no hot water – what had I paid this extra money for? I could have found a place for a third of the price without TV or hot water. I complained and was offered a 10% discount – “You’re having a laugh mate” just didn’t translate and I ended up ‘downgrading?’ to a room that was 25% cheaper. Had it not been still been pissing down outside I’d have found another hotel. Everything was soaked, including my new passport and the contents of my wallet and so with everything spread out around the room to dry, I borrowed an umbrella and walked to the local truck stop for dinner. Back at the hotel I’d just settled into writing my diary when the local army chief turned up to ‘talk’ to me. I could tell by his facial expressions that the ‘translator’ was doing a poor job but by now it had stopped raining and I took him outside to see the list on Lady P’s screen. With the Chief satisfied I retired to my bed, it had been a long day.
The following day I reached Bukittinggi and checked into the Rajawali Hotel. A tiny guesthouse, recommended by Tim Walker and owned by Ullrich, (a 64yr old German) and his Indonesian wife. I took a room on the top floor that led out onto a roof terrace and once again laid all my kit out to dry. I’d been better prepared for the day’s rain but I still had a fair bit of wet kit.
I met Jacob, 27 yr old American on his way home to the States after spending 2½ years working for the Peace Corp in Uganda. He’d lived in Sumatra for 9 yrs as a kid (his dad works for Chevron) and had come to visit old friends.
Ramadan was in full swing and had been for two weeks only here they seemed particularly keen. The Imam would wake everyone up at 0300 by chanting ‘Eat,eat,eat’ in Arabic over the loudspeakers from the Mosque (audible across the whole town). If he stopped talking he would start again at 0445 to tell everyone to stop eating as sunrise was imminent. At 1800 he would start talking again and at 1821 (sunset) an air-raid siren would sound to indicate it was ok to eat again. As the siren sounded so the street vendors, who’d spent the afternoon setting up, were swamped with hungry locals and the tourists would hang around to await a place at a table. Sometimes the Imam would leave the mic open and broadcast what sounded like a committee meeting and Sunday evenings was definitely ‘open mic’ day. All the kids got to have a go and it sounded like Fame Academy outtakes. It certainly was a unique Mosque.
Jacob and I met most nights to await the air-raid siren and on one occasion he rented a scooter to join me on one of Ullrich’s mystery tours.
Ullrich’s hobby for the past two years had been preparing his own GPS map of Sumatra and during my six days there he plotted me several ‘tracks’ and uploaded them to my GPS for me to follow. His knowledge of the region took me along many roads and dirt tracks that didn’t appear on any of my maps. One day took me through valleys and gorges, past waterfalls and many traditional style Minangkabau houses with their unique buffalo horned roofs. Another took me to the viewpoint over Lake Manintau and to the road where 45 hairpin bends wound their way down to the lakeside. Along the way were many great looking restaurants overlooking the lake but due to Ramadan all were closed.
I’d spent longer than planned in Bukitinggi thanks to the enjoyable company of both Ullrich and Jacob but I still had a couple of things I particularly wanted to do and see so I bid them farewell and was on the road at 0620 – destination Tuk Tuk, Danau (Lake) Toba.
Immediately I knew it would be a long day. Twisty mountain roads, often potholed, made for slow progress and despite the lack of traffic I was only just keeping my average speed above 50km/h. With a 650km day ahead of me I would be lucky to get to Tuk Tuk even if I rode non-stop. The day had started cloudy, almost cleared then clouded over again, and so the pattern went. I kept an eye out for somewhere to eat but everything was closed. Around lunchtime it pissed down and in doing so caught me out a treat. Within minutes I was soaked and then it rained harder and as my jacket became saturated until I felt the trickle of water run down my groin that preceded total saturation. The rain continued, but thanks to the low level of traffic I managed to keep my speed up, thereby keeping my visor relatively clear. Ullrich had made me a GPS track to follow and it took me (according to my map) away from the main road at Padangsidempuan, via Sarulla, to rejoin the main road at Tarutung. Had the weather been fine this would have been a very scenic route but at an altitude of 1000m cloud and rain not only restricted the views but it was rather cold. Not only that but in several places the road was being rebuilt. Once again the lack of traffic was my friend and I could keep up my momentum along these muddy sections, not wanting to stop given my bald tyres. More frustratingly though, was that I’d entered the predominantly Christian region of the incredibly friendly Bakak people (I’ve never seen so many churches) where once again roadside restaurants were open. Some food and a hot drink would have been welcome but I didn’t want to sit around in my saturated clothing, neither did I relish the thought of getting back on my bike afterwards.
As the rain stopped, so I could point one arm at a time at the ground, letting the water run out of my jacket. Slowly I began to dry out but as I contemplated stopping so I got another soaking. As I began to dry out a second time I couldn’t regain any body temperature and so stopped to change my base layer and don my goretex liner. This made a huge difference and slowly I regained some warmth. I rode on further north but as I rolled into the fuel station at Doloksanggul it pissed down yet again. Sheltering from the rain I bought a few doughnuts from a guy who’d pulled up behind me at the pump riding a sidecar outfit decked out for selling cakes.
The rain finally dwindled just short of Tele and the descent to Samosir Island on Danau Toba. The view was stunning. The verdant volcanic mountainside contrasted against the black sky and in the gullies of ancient lava flows so waterfalls raged. It was a volcanic Fjordland. Photogenic. But with rain still in the air my camera stayed in its bag. The road that switch backed down to the lake was under repair and I had to wait as JCB’s loaded tippers full with landslide debris. I rode north around the island, passing many traditional houses eventually stopping at Barbara Guesthouse 10km or so north of Tuk Tuk. Billy and Trish had not only recommended the place but given me some photos of them with the two local girls that ran the place, Barbara and Jojo. Unfortunately they were full due to a 3 day teachers conference but I promised to return with their photos. I rode on to Tuk Tuk where there was an abundance of accommodation and chose the Merlyn Guesthouse where I was shown to a large double room overlooking the lake. It even had hot water, HOT WATER! That was a first in Indonesia and what a day to find it. I’d been in the saddle for 11hrs and soaked to the skin twice. What price such luxury – U$6.50!
After drying out all my kit (again), I spent a few days riding around the island, eating the best fruit salad’s I’ve ever eaten (Pineapple, papaya, banana, avocado and ground coconut) and chatting with a few of the local girls in the restaurants along the way. I visited Barbara and Jojo to pass on Billy and Trish’s photos and took a few of my own.
Continuing north, more rain and potholes saw me to the hamlet of Gurah, across the river from the Ketambe International Researh Station. I’d come here specifically to trek in the jungle around Ketambe in the hope of spotting Orang Utangs in the wild. Being the only tourist I had my pick of guesthouses and chose the Pondok Wisata where I met Manser who was both manager and guide. His quote of 400k/day for trekking seemed steep to me and so I set about making further enquires in the village. I soon found it to be a closed shop though, with nobody wanting poach another guesthouse’s guests – I couldn’t even get a quote. I returned to the Pondok where Manser and I haggled over the price, eventually settling on 300k/day.
I spent the next 2 days in the jungle with my guide, Abu. We spotted a young Fire snake early on the first day but other than a few distant Long-tail Macaws the rest of the morning was quiet. We cooked lunch on an open fire by a river before stripping to the waist to cross it. Soon after we spotted movement in a tree and saw debris falling from it. An Orang Utang was breaking off pieces of a dead tree to feed on the termites inside. When he finally moved off we were able to follow him to a certain degree and it wasn’t long before he made himself clearly visible a mere 10m away. He was a magnificent sight and we managed to stay close for half an hour or so before he swung away though the trees and out of site. We made camp on an elevated section above the river and adjacent to a hot spring and after much searching, I managed to find a spot in the water where the river and hot spring mixed to a bearable temperature. Here I soaked for a good half hour whilst Abu prepared dinner. It was the closest I’d come to a bath in 18 months and I reveled in it. It soothed my body after days of riding in the rain and it soothed my ears; boy, could Abu talk!
We managed to eat and wash-up before the rain came and forced us into an early night. We watched the lightning over the next ridge and soon it was raining hard. The tent roof leaked and I knew were in for a long night. I was relatively comfortable in my sleeping bag but Abu hadn’t brought one. Once the rain stopped and the chill of the early hours set in he left the tent to sleep on the hot rocks surrounding the spring.
After breakfast we walked on amongst the magnificent Banyan trees but there were no more Orang Utang’s to be seen. Back in Gurah I was still the only tourist in the village and I wondered how long it would be before confidence in the region grew and the tourists returned. Pine forests and river valleys appeared as I rode further north. But for the destruction left by the logging trade it would have looked Alpine.
I spent a night in a hotel at Tapaktuan overlooking the lake where a missing window pane gave the mosquito’s free access to my room and drove me insane. After a poor night’s sleep I arose early once again and followed the road to the coast at Bireuen where I picked up the main road to Banda Aceh. I’d hoped to stay in Banda but all the hotels I tried were full. I was directed to the Losman where I waited an age for someone to arrive but even after a snack and a chat with a local shopkeeper nobody showed up. I couldn’t wait and risk having to ride out of town should the place be full and so I reluctantly headed south.
Having been destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami, I’d heard many differing accounts of the roads current condition. There was only one way to find out and that was to attempt it for myself. It wasn’t long before I encountered my first obstacle. Three steel reinforcing plates normally found shoring up trench sides were submerged under 30cm of water and replaced a missing bridge. Further south I had to take three make-shift ferries to cross rivers where the bridges were yet to be replaced. Two of the ferries consisted of platforms mounted onto two boats and as such were fairly stable. The other was a collection of oil drums strapped together, topped with a rickety timber platform approx 4m sq and powered by an outboard motor. The jetty to board it was no better and I didn’t want to stop on it and put my foot through one of its many holes. Instead I hung back, awaiting the ferry’s arrival before riding on. What I hadn’t banked on were all the locals riding around me to fill the jetty and therefore the ferry. With everyone aboard and the ferry seemingly full, the operator signaled for me to ride aboard. I pointed at the full deck and shrugged my shoulders at which point he got everyone to move closer together thereby making room for me. I rode aboard just squeezing into the gap. Nobody had noticed but the ferry’s platform had overlapped the jetty’s and we struggled to power away. As we broke free so the ferry tipped up 30º and we all nearly fell off. Shocked faces grabbed at each other and when we stopped bopping about we settled into a 30º lurch and eased across the water. It was my 300kg of course, loaded onto one side that had caused near catastrophe and I along with all the others were glad to get back on terra firma.
I wasn’t far from where the Tsunami had first struck land and I marveled at how well Mother Nature had healed her scars. Indeed it was the road reconstruction that seemed to have caused the most damage. In places the new road was three times wider than the one it replaced. Huge cuttings had been made through the hills and cliffs reminding me immediately of Laos and the destruction of the landscape by the Chinese road builders. Only later as I approached Calang did I see unrepaired destruction. Hundreds of tree stumps protruded from the inland waters like the half empty reservoirs of Tasmania, only this time I didn’t see tree stumps; in my minds eye I saw only tombstones. This was ‘ground zero’ and a third of the population here lost their lives.
Feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic I took no photos and rode on into town. I took a room in the only hotel and walked out to find dinner. It took me a while to find somewhere to eat as the first few places I encountered weren’t the friendly establishments I’d become accustomed to. Instead I was treated with indifference and I couldn’t help but wonder whether they’d become jaded towards foreigners given the high number of foreign aid workers in the region.
Continuing south I rode past many new housing construction sites. Many were lived in but there were whole ‘estates’ that were uninhabited and nobody was working on them. I hoped it was because of Ramadan. As I approached Meulaboh I noticed the paint had fallen off of many of the houses and the guttering hung from many more. These houses must have been the first to be built but were still no more than 4 years old. Meulaboh lost a third of its population in the Tsunami – a staggering 40,000 people – when waves 15m high swept 5km inland. Looking at these houses I couldn’t help but think their troubles were far from over.
Derelict buildings lined the roadside and many were still lived in despite appearing near to collapse. Some were shored up with timber, others covered with tarpaulins. Yet again it was pouring with rain and I was glad to get to Tapaktuan and find somewhere to stay. Not that that was easy. All three Losmens in town claimed to be full and I was lucky to come across the Catherine Hotel. Their tariff was way too high but as the only guest in the recently opened hotel they were open to negotiation.
The following day was September 30th: Last day of Ramadan. Thank the Lord for that! I had all but fasted myself that past 3 weeks, and not by choice. My trousers were hanging off me, but for no longer – the following day I would eat breakfast! Whilst Ramadan was set to end, the rain wasn’t and I spent another day in the pissing rain riding the 360km to Berestagi. Soon after leaving the state of Aceh I returned to the Christian region and stopped for lunch. The dish was the same as on the few other occasions I stopped amongst the churches – very hot spicy pork cooked with an inch of fat that you held whilst gnawing off the meat. In the afternoons torrential rain I managed to misread the map and overshot Berestagi. It was only when I recalled Berastagi to be a hill town and I was descending rapidly, did I realize my mistake. I turned around and took a room in the rather lovely Wisma Sibayak Guesthouse where the staff insisted I push my dripping wet motorcycle through the restaurant to park it in the courtyard outside my room.
I met Till, a German lad staying in the room next to mine and together we walked into town where we ate grilled fish on one of the many stalls. It was good to have some conversation again as I hadn’t seen another ‘foreigner’ since leaving Tuk Tuk a week earlier.
The following day, Friday 3rd October was my last days ride in Indonesia. With no vehicular ferry operating between Sumatra and Malaysia I rode to the docks at Belawan in search of a certain Mr Monte, who’s name had come up on Horizons Unlimited with regard to shipping to Malaysia. After asking around, someone said to follow them back to town where he would call Mr Monte. He jumped into his taxi van accompanied by a local policeman and I followed them to a parking area in the main street adjacent to the railway line, across which stood a small café. I accompanied the policeman to the café and drank tea whilst waiting for news. Soon after a message arrived that Mr Monte would arrive in an hour. Minutes later a guy sat down in front of me without introducing himself and started talking about shipping. He said today was not possible, maybe tomorrow and that Mr Monte wasn’t coming. He then wanted me to buy him a beer as we were ‘friends’. “Friends” I said, I don’t even know your name, buy your own beer! He did buy his own beer and soon became loud and obnoxious. Eventually he left and all eyes in the café turned to me. I looked out the door shaking my head and giving the thumbs down. “No good” I said. They all roared with laughter and repeated “No, good, no good”.
Throughout all of this the policeman remained at my side and gestured for me to stay. Two hours passed and still no Mr Monte. One of the guys in the café phoned him and passed the phone to me but I struggled to understand him. All talk was of me staying overnight and meeting him the following morning. I tried to explain that Customs would not be open on Saturday and that I needed to clear Customs today if I were to get Lady P aboard Sunday night’s timber ship to Penang. The one true thing Mr Arrogant had said was that there was only one ship sailing to Penang that week. I didn’t let on but my visa was due to expire the following Friday and it was imperative I got Lady P aboard that ship.
Just as I’d resigned myself to waiting overnight so Mr Monte arrived. He made a phone call to check when the next ship was sailing and another to get a price. 1.2 milion Rupiah was expensive – Claudio (who I met in Oz) had paid 850k just a few months earlier. Another phone call was made and a final offer of 1.1 million was made – take it or leave it. I had no choice but to take it. All the shipping agents had remained closed following the previous two days holidays and I had no other contacts. We took Lady P to a warehouse at the docks and I quickly unloaded what I would need whilst she was in transit. After ensuring everything was locked and ready for transit I returned to the café on the back of a scooter. Here I waited a further 2 hrs until 1700 when Mr Monte had arranged for me to visit the customs office. I was collected by the guy from the warehouse and taken to the Customs office where I met the boss. I’d been led to believe he’d come in from home especially to clear my bike but I found him sitting behind his desk, working through paperwork with a clerk. He was an affable man and quickly signed and stamped my carnet, adding “Indonesian Customs no problem. Stamp, stamp. No problem, no pay”. It was then that the penny dropped. “So why have I paid this man 550k for Customs ‘fees’ then?” I said, pointing to the warehouse guy. A brief exchange took place in Indonesian but I decided not to pursue the issue. Failing to get both Lady P and myself out of the country before my visa expired would have cost me far more. We returned to the café where I provided Mr Monte with a copy of my passport before he took me to a local bus and instructed the driver to drop me at my chosen guesthouse, the Pondok Wisata Angel.
The following morning Mr Monte brought my Bill of Lading to the guesthouse as promised. I spent a long weekend in Medan as I couldn’t get a ferry to Penang until the Tuesday.
Indonesia is so diverse it’s hard to sum up. Every island had its own character, climate landscape, ethnic group,religion etc. It’s a huge place and my 60 day visa meant I was constantly moving. Indeed, the longest I stayed anywhere was my 6 days in Bukittingi. I’d ridden a surprising 9500km since arriving in Dili.
Back in Malaysia
I arrived after dark to yet more rain and walked to SD Guesthouse in Love Lane where I’d had such a memorable time with Danny, Maarten, Ilse, Steven and Marlouse. I was taken aback when the funny Chinaman that runs the place asked after my bike, Danny and the others. It had been 18 months since I was last there.
The following day I took the passenger ferry across to the mainland and walked to the port at Butterworth where I collected Lady P, and the day after that I visited the local BMW dealer. It was a branch of Autobavaria, the dealer Danny and I had opened shortly after we’d left. At the dealership I met the sales manager Lim, who couldn’t have been more helpful. Having been involved in the local bike trade for over 40 years, he knew everybody. He was well aware of the needs of an overland traveler, rode a Yamaha Teneré himself and had met the legendary Helge Pederson whilst riding through China in the late ‘80’s.
Over the following days he arranged for tyres to be brought up from Singapore as all the local dealers were out of stock and collected both engine and fork oil in my favoured brand – Motul. I bought steering head bearings from his local supplier at his discounted rate and he arranged with workshop manager for me to use the workshop. Once again I ordered spare parts and once again the order got cocked up (remember the saga of Danny’s water pump parts), much to the embarrassment of Lim. When I mentioned going to the MotoGP at Sepang Lim added me to the BMW owners club list. This would entitle me to a pair of half price ticket, designated parking and BMW hospitality. I was even taken to dinner at a Chinese restaurant where there specialty was making their own noodles in full view of the restaurant.
Tim Hobin, who’d arrived from Sumatra a week after me had ridden ahead to KL and I joined him there once my bike was ready in Penang.
MotoGP – Sepang
On the morning of theMotoGP we rode to Autobavaria, the BMW dealer at Shah Alam. Jeffri, the young mechanic who’d put me up and looked after me following last year’s parts order cock-up met me with a surprised smile. I’d been unable to contact him via email and he was pleasantly surprised to see me, as was Garry the workshop manager. They whisked us off to the staff canteen for breakfast whilst we awaited the arrival of the other riders. Once everyone was ready we rode in convoy to the circuit where we had reserved parking opposite the main gate.
We’d not been there long when it poured with rain and we took shelter in the BMW hospitality tent where we made use of our free beer vouchers. Qualifying was fantastic, one of the best sessions I can remember. Afterwards we got directions to a cheap local hotel but arrived to find they had no parking. To cut a long story short we ended up unloading what we needed and riding 2km down the road to the police station where we parked the bikes overnight. We took a taxi back to the hotel easily enough but finding one the next morning was not so easy. Eventually we made it to the circuit in time for MotoGP warm-up and afterwards visited the BMW tent again where I met Lim, Jeffri and Garry. I was the last time I would see them as I left directly after the race to ride to Malacca. Incidentally, Rossi won but the race was boring.
The process for getting into Singapore with your own vehicle is unique. First you have to buy insurance in Malaysia. Then leaving you vehicle in Malaysia, take public transport to the AA office in Singapore. After checking your insurance, the AA authenticate your Carnet and issue an International Driving Permit (SG$10.70) for the duration of your insurance. You then return to Malaysia, collect your vehicle and present yourself at the border where your Carnet is stamped and you buy a compulsory Autopass (SG$10). You are still not eligible to use the toll roads though.
I found an insurance company in Johor Baru and by lunchtime had purchased a policy for 4 days and rode on to the border. Many Malaysians had warned me about a recent spate of bike thefts in JB and advised against leaving my bike there. I decided instead that I could exit Malaysia, park my bike at Singapore Immigration/Customs and take public transport from there – WRONG!
Imagine the look of horror on my face when the Malaysia Customs officer tore the export counterfoil out of my Carnet to reveal not a fresh page ready for presentation at Singapore Customs, but an administration page for the RAC to complete upon its return to the UK!. I’d managed to miscount the pages in the Carnet and had dropped myself right in it. I had no choice but to approach Singapore Customs and see what they said.
Once across the bridge to Singapore I took the motorcycle lane only to find it too narrow. My panniers bounced off the lane markers and I punctured my 5l waterbottle. The lane took me to a passport and thumb print recognition (for locals) and I was stuck so I parked Lady P and went in search of help. After many phone calls I was escorted to where I should have been and stamped into Singapore. Then I asked about my Carnet and that threw them completely. More phone calls were made, Customs officers came and went and my Carnet was taken away. After what seemed like an age it was returned and I was told I would not be allowed to enter Singapore. I waited whilst they wrote a letter explaining my refused entry to the Malaysian authorities and returned to Malaysia. At Immigration I handed over my passport and the letter and was escorted to an interview office. Once I explained that the problem was not me but my motorcycle they stamped me back in. I thought this was what the letter was supposed to have explained but it turned out to be a standard rejection form with a tick in the box next to ‘Does not meet current Immigration requirements’! I then explained myself to Customs and they didn’t have a clue what to do. The boss was summonsed and I explained again. He summonsed his boss and I explained again. Eventually I was taken to see their boss (How many bosses were there??!!) and explained yet again. It was too early to phone the RAC in the UK but this boss seemed to think the AA in Singapore would be able to help me. But where could I leave Lady P? I wasn’t allowed to take her into Malaysia and they had nowhere to store her, nor did they want any responsibility for her. Eventually he agreed to let me park her on the pavement outside his office whilst I travelled to Singapore. I quickly changed out of my riding gear and presented myself at Malaysian Immigration for an exit stamp. The letter was still in my passport and so again I was escorted to an office to explain myself. Once they were satisfied I took a bus to Singapore where I had to tick ‘yes’ in the box ‘Have you ever been refused entry to Singapore’. Off to the interview room again where once again I explained my situation and showed them my Carnet. They cleared me from their system and said that in future there was no need to tick that box and I left, taking another bus to the MRT (Metro) station. On the platform a sign said journey time to Somerset, (my destination) was 39mins. It was already 1640 and I still had to walk to the AA from Somerset (though I didn’t know in what direction). I exited Somerset to find a map on the wall and quickly set off to River Valley Road where I arrived just in time to hear the key turn in the lock. Nooooooo!!!!
Just then the security guard arrived and seeing my desperation showed me to the back entrance. Once inside the news was no better. There was nothing they could do. I would have to phone the UK.
I set off to find an internet café and phoned Paul Gowan at the RAC. To my astonishment he answered the phone. That is unheard of. Being the main man for Carnets in the UK he is an extremely busy notoriously hard to get hold of. He explained that a Carnet could not have pages added and that the only way out of my dilemma was for him to issue me a new one (£120) which he could do immediately and have it sent by courier that afternoon (2 days -£43). I had no choice but to agree and had him send it to the RAC in Singapore.
I was relieved but my troubles weren’t over. Back at Malaysian Customs the shift had changed any nobody knew anything of my story. Once again I explained my situation to one boss and then the next. Eventually I got to speak to the big boss and knowing that my Carnet was linked to a bond agreed to let me take my bike to a hotel in Johor Baru provided I leave my old Carnet and a copy of my passport as security. It would be returned to me when I presented my new Carnet.
It was now 2100 and dark. Given the warnings about parking my bike in JB I rode away from the port and found a hotel with secure parking and a security guard. It was 5 times the price I was used to paying and the receptionist asked for an imprint of my credit card. I handed it over only for it to be refused – ‘Refer to issuing bank’. I couldn’t believe it, and reluctantly used my debit card.
The following day I called Nationwide to enquire as to the problem. “Ahhh” they said, “Was yours a Comic Relief card?” (Charity). It was. “Our agreement with Comic Relief has expired and so we’ve cancelled all the cards – we did send you a letter!” I was fuming. They’d have known the duration of the Contract at the time of signing. Why issue cards with an expiry date 6 months later? Wankers. They said they could send me a new one but I didn’t know where I’d be in three days time. They initially agreed to send it to the British Embassy in Singapore but when I couldn’t provide a personal contact number they refused to do that. “Sorry sir. We can’t help you” – Goodbye.
I tracked my new carnet online and two days later I got up early, loaded Lady P and returned to the AA in Singapore. To my relief my Carnet was there waiting for me but there was an issue with my insurance. Given the delay in entering the country it only had one day left to run. I explained that by the end of the following day my bike would be in a warehouse on the docks but they weren’t convinced. They seemed to think it needed to be covered by insurance until the day Customs stamped it exported. That was ridiculous. What bearing did road traffic insurance have over a crate in a warehouse? Eventually they conceded, authenticated my Carnet and issued me an IDP.
I returned to JB, collected Lady P, cleared Malaysian Immigration and collected my old Carnet from Customs. I took the CAR lane into Singapore, had my Carnet stamped and an Autopass issued. Finally, after three days and two pages worth of passport entry/exit stamps I was in Singapore. And the worst of it? It was all my own fault. Why? Because I couldn’t count to 5!!
I rode straight to the Performance Motors, the BMW dealer, and found Chris, the workshop manager. Lim at BMW in Penang had recommended I speak to him after their diagnostic machine failed to recognize Lady P. There was a software update for the engine management system designed to help poor starting, especially from cold. This was a problem I’d encountered throughout the trip and one that I knew would be a real issue in South America. Chris was incredibly helpful and after explaining my lack of time etc he said to leave Lady P with them overnight and they’d see to her in the morning. This also resolved my second problem – finding somewhere with secure parking in Singapore.
I took a taxi to McKenzie guesthouse on the edge of Little India where I took a small windowless room for SG$22. After dinner I walked around many other guesthouses but soon realized I already found the cheapest by far.
When I returned to Performance Motors the next morning they’d just finished the software update. Brian, the mechanic who’d done the work, dug me out a few spare headlight bulbs and also gave me as many tie-down straps as I wanted for crating my bike. What price for such service? Nothing. Free. BMW might not always get it right but they certainly know how to look after their travelers.
I rode straight to the dockside warehouse as I’d arranged the previous evening. I met Richard and gave him dimensions for the crate which he said he would have made overnight and I took everything I’d need whilst Lady P was at sea back to the guesthouse. I returned the following morning, packed her into the crate and that was that. All being well, the next time I would see her would be in Valparaiso, Chile. I took a bus to the shipping agents office where I was shocked to find they didn’t accept credit cards. But this is Singapore, worldwide shipping hub and centre of banking and commerce. Danny and I paid for our shipping with a credit card in Kathmandu!
Eventually everything to do with shipping was complete and I could relax and enjoy Singapore; except I couldn’t because it was so bloody hot & humid – 98%!. Had it not been for the fact that my friend Jez and his family were stopping over for two days en-route to Australia, I would have returned to Malaysia. I waited a week for Jez to arrive during which time I met up with James and Chris, two friends of my sister and her boyfriend who’d left Jersey to work here. They took me out for a few several beers and showed me around. They were good company, thanks guys.
It was great to see my friends Jez, Jane and daughter Faith but my day and an evening with them passed all too quickly and before I knew it I was on a plane to Bangkok.
Thailand – pt.3!
I walked into Mini House guesthouse on Soi Rambuttri where I’d stayed with Danny, Maarten, Ilse, Tim and Tracy almost 2 years ago only to have the lady that runs the place ask where my bike was!
Two days later I was back at the airport, this time bound for Jersey (Channel Islands) via Bahrain and Paris. It was considerably cheaper to fly to Chile via Europe and so with Lady P at sea for 5-6 weeks, I took the opportunity to spend an early Christmas with my sister Michele and partner Paul. I filled my boots with all the things I hadn’t seen and won’t see for ages – French bread, good cheese, mince pies, stolen. Mmmmm….Christmas! My svelte figure post Ramadan is but a memory!