May 22nd, 2017 in Sydney, Australia
Approaching the border, it started to dawn on us; this was the beginning of the end. We were about to enter the last “real” country on this trip. This was going to be our sprint to the finish line. After this, we would be done. We would have succeeded in what we set out to do and as this occurs, we will have it no more.
This emotional duality is probably unavoidable but, nevertheless, something that became clearer and clearer as we aired our feelings of restlessness, accomplishment, ease and unrest, all at the same time… But we were not there yet; we still had another three weeks of cycling in front of us, three weeks of Malaysia.
With Malaysia being our last “full-size” country to cross (Singapore doesn't count as it's more of a big city than a country as such) we kind of felt like we needed to make the most of it and cram in as much as possible. Also, after more than two months of flat and easy cycling throughout Southeast Asia, it was high time to get off the beaten track and climb a mountain pass or two. If nothing else, to remind ourselves once again, that this used to be an adventure and that we actually accomplished something during the year that soon had passed.
But as we crossed the border, the climbing of mountains would have to wait. We had heard of a shortcut that would completely bypass the first Malaysian climb. But to reach it, we first had to turn onto a small overgrown trail. After riding through the dense forest for a while, the trail took shape once again and we found ourselves in the middle of some kind of military base. Shortly after, we arrived at what seemed to be an old abandoned picnic park and here we found what we were looking for. By the other end of the park, an underground river had carved open a cave, cutting straight through the mountain. So after lifting our bikes over the gates we could easily ride our bikes on a solid wooden walkway, straight through the cave and out on the other side. Best shortcut ever!
A couple of days later we reached our first Malaysian rest stop, George Town, located on the island of Penang. We stayed a couple of days, exploring the city's murals and cozy cafés. Many of the towns in Malaysia have this almost derelict vibe to them. Landmarks and buildings seem to have been build with great care and ambition at the time, only to later be completely neglected and run down. This was particularly noticeable in George Town, which greeted us with a sense of both history and culture wrapped together in what can best be described as a hipster's wet dream.
After roaming the narrow streets of George Town for a couple of days, it was time for our last real challenge. Pointing our bikes inlands, we took aim for Cameron Highlands and a detour that, for the coming week, would take us through the much less dense Malaysian countryside and up unto higher ground.
We had a total climb of about 3 000 meters in front of us, spread out over a couple of days. It might have been the fact that we'd been riding mostly on flat roads for the last couple of months or it might have been the heat and humidity; whatever the reason, it didn't take long until we could feel the climb in our entire body.
Road signs along the climb suggested we might run into wild elephants but as it turned out, the only wild animal distracting us from the never-ending climb, was monkeys swinging between treetops and skimming across the road.
And with higher altitudes and afternoon rain came a noticeable drop in temperature. Before we reached the top, the weather could even be described as chilli! After months of tropical heat, this was nothing short of wonderful.
So even if it was knackering, this detour was definitely the right decision. With limited access to both food and hotels, things felt like an adventure again. With continuous climbing, while melting away in the midday sun, we felt like it was us against the terrain, man against nature, Bear Ginstrup and Robin Grills.
At one point, there wasn't even a fully functioning road/bridge, just rickety narrow wooden crossings connecting to what was left of the original bridge.
And yes, we did curse our choice of route more than once during this week of detouring. But in the back of our minds, we were pretty happy and satisfied. Happy we weren't stuck on the coastal highway and satisfied with ourselves that we'd made one last effort… before the end.
Rolling down the other side, towards Melaka, we had one final night of camping. After consulting the local authorities we pitch our beloved (but way too hot) red tent on a football field adjacent to a school in the middle of a village. The village was distinctly Chinese with a Buddhist temple and all the signs in hànzì. Malaysia has a wide range of different ethnicities spread out in little villages like this one. We loved how the different groups seemed to coexist (mostly) peacefully in Malaysia but as we were quite done with Chinese cuisine we tended to favor the Indian villages and food stalls.
A day or two before we reached Melaka, we finally came around and tried the (Musang King) Durian fruit. It really is like nothing else and we're struggling to agree on a fair description. Turning to the internet for inspiration we came across this quote on the Durian fruit wikipedia page:
“... its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.”
That might be a bit harsh; we would be more inclined to describe it as a really creamy (but strange tasting) avocado and maybe just skip trying to describe its smell. Either way, it's definitely an acquired taste.
Once in Once in Melaka we did our best to stock up on goods, getting ready for our "normal" lives that was peeking at us from over the horizon. Neither of us have ever been particular good at shopping and the combination of always having to carry what you buy and the fact that we've gotten used to wearing the same clothes and not caring about our appearances for the larger part of a year now, definitely haven't made us any better... Lucky for us, Melaka had plenty of bars and cafés where we could gather our strengths.
From Melaka to the border town of Johor Bahru it was only two days of cycling. But unfortunately, this was two days of mind-numbing peddling through uninspiring landscape. But maybe it's good to end like this. This way, maybe we don't miss it to much...or have the idea to do it all again...