Several years after my first attempt of riding a motorcycle around , I was finally able to pull it off. One participant on this motorcycle tour was an Italian, Salvatore Pizzo. He was an excellent motorcycle rider who one year ago, just for fun, tagged along on his motorcycle behind the entire Paris-Dakar Rally without any support or sponsorship of any kind. So for Salvatore, ASIAN MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURES Trans- Expedition was a piece of cake.
We spent one night on this motorcycle tour in an Iban longhouse. It would have been two nights but our canoe capsized getting there and we lost most of our belongings, but this is material for another story.
The Ibans entertained us that night with ancestral songs and dance, and a display of their traditional fighting technique. But Salvatore is a 4th degree black-belt and gave the Ibans a karate demonstration that made their eyes pop out. Salvatore later told me he had to tone down his display because he was afraid he would put his foot right through their flimsy bamboo flooring. He had additional trouble with his demonstration because he had already drunk around 20 shots of their home-made rice wine.
There are much safer places to go for a motorcycle tour than , but few nearly as exciting. Complicating preparations for this first-ever Trans- Motorcycle Expedition was an utter lack of reliable road information, because this data simply did not exist. And this is because roadways in hardly exist. Completely by accident we did discover one absolutely heavenly road, perhaps the most glorious in all of Asia, but another road we stumbled upon had to be designed in hell.
One of the more unpleasant hazards of a trip to the world’s third largest island is some of the fauna, like the tiny fish that swims up a warm urine stream if you relieve yourself immersed in a river. Inevitably, they get stuck on their bladder-ward journey with their fin spines pointing backwards and their removal is agonizing.
There are other nasties, like over a thousand species of parasitic worms and 166 varieties of serpents, including both the largest poisonous and non-poisonous snake in the world. Mosquitoes have a drink-or-die attitude and leeches are abundant. Luckily, the last headhunters retired around 30 years ago because if they snatched you they would use your skull as a marriage present and your scrotum as a tobacco pouch.
Then there are the things you can’t see, like malaria, dysentery, yellow and dengue fever, cholera, typhoid, rabies, and hepatitis, to mention a few. Nick yourself shaving and a few days later your jaw may fall off.
These were only some of our concerns as we set out on ‘s first-ever circumnavigation by motorcycle. Happily we experienced none of the above, but we did suffer our fair share of mishaps before arriving back in Kota Kinabalu twenty-five days after starting out.
On only our second day of riding, the lone female member of our motorcycle tour expedition, Gudrun Merkle, a beyond-Rubenesque German Frau, on a sealed and empty road, drove her motorcycle straight into the side of a mountain. Right off the bat we had a broken motorcycle and a broken person to lug around for the next month. Luckily, neither one was seriously damaged, just badly bruised.
Located at the bottom of Sabah, Malaysia, is a town called Tawau. All roads end there and the lone water segment of our tour began. We had to cruise around a lobe of the Sulawesi Sea on a craft called a jongkong. These inter-island traders, just large enough to hold our four motorcycles and us, are little changed from Rajah Brooke’s days except for the Japanese outboard in lieu of a sail. The voyage was actually quite pleasant if you could ignore the facts that pirates are still active in these waters and that our boat had no compass, chart, radio, running lights, or insurance.
Three hours later on Nunukan Island (5 extra points to anyone who can find Nunukan on a map), our convoy was a big hit with everyone except the Indonesian Customs officials. These bureaucrats relish giving migraines to paperwork-generating adventure tour groups like ours. But our permission letter from the governor of East Kalimantan worked even better than extra-strength Tylenol. Not ready to quit without a proper fight, they delayed us for 6 hours the next morning because the chief who had to affix his seal on the documents could not be located. Nunukan is not the sort of place where anyone can go missing for even ten minutes.
For the next 10 hours, guided solely by his mental map, our captain wandered through a labyrinth of indistinguishable mangrove channels in the Sesayap River Delta. As darkness fell, the mangrove trees started sparkling brighter than any Christmas tree from the tens of thousands of courting fireflies nesting in their branches. We arrived on terra firma in Tanjung Selor late at night.
If ever a road is built from here back to Tawau, this two-day sea cruise would be reduced to a two-hour drive. But roads in Kalimantan are too much to ask for, or are too much to handle, as we were soon to discover.
We awoke in Tanjung Selor to find a lovely river town with a backdrop of heavily-forested and cloud-shrouded mountains. Two kilometers outside town, the pavement ended and the jungle began. The road we were driving was partly graveled and partly dirt, and to make matters interesting, partly wet from an intense morning downpour.
This hilly terrain had lots of curves, and at the bottom of every valley was a shaky wooden bridge over a river. There wasn’t much growing alongside this road due to heavy lumbering activity, but two or three ridgelines over, the jungle looked dense and untouched. All day long, we passed not one sign of habituation except for a couple of temporary logging camps, and we saw only 9 other vehicles. 130 kilometers and six hours later, we reached our night’s lodging in Tanjung Redeb.
Our general direction from here veered to the southwest on the only kind of road around?a logging road?which was today cutting through seriously mountainous terrain. Forever in front of us was a winding, chocolate-brown trail seemingly leading to infinity. Mud puddles pool up in all the depressions, making traction tricky. Driving off-road here is like an all-day wrestling match as we constantly battle the terrain and our 650cc dual-purpose motorcycles.
Frequent breaks are necessary for rider and machine, and at one random rest stop, in the tree canopy above us, was a wild orangutan. We must have spooked him, for ever so slowly?which for an orangutan is full-speed?he shimmied herky-jerky down the tree trunk and lumbered away into the forest underbrush. Right after that, our mechanic, Mohazar bin Mohamad Zain, had to brake hard for a bearded pig. Birds the colors of the rainbow zipped through the trees. We were deep into the rainforest and it looked to be a healthy one.
Today again we see practically no signs of human activity, and at noon, we pop down into a beautiful valley carved out by the raging Wahau River. Both banks were packed with magnificent primary jungle. Peering up and down this river valley was one of the wildest, rawest, and most untouched vistas anyone of us had ever witnessed.
Today’s ride was fantastic, perhaps the most beautiful in my motorcycling career. And without towns, villages, or landmarks to gauge progress by, it seemed as if we were riding forever without ever getting anywhere. One corner of the jungle looked remarkably similar to any other corner, and there was always more of the same around the next curve. But this was jungle I never got tired of looking at.
In the afternoon, a troop of monkeys scampered in front of Salvatore Pizzo’s bike. Distracted by such a disarming sight, Salvatore lost his concentration and fell, slightly separating his shoulder. We limped into Muara Wahau, the only town anywhere, and checked into their only lodging facility, a losman–the Indonesian equivalent of a fleabag hotel. We weren’t complaining though, because the only other alternative was pitching tents.
We summoned the village Bomoh, or spirit doctor, who was skilled in massage, and put him to work on Salvatore’s shoulder and Gudrun’s knee. Salvatore’s shoulder seemed to improve, but Gudrun’s leg swelled up grotesquely the next morning.
The next day we broke out of the jungle and drove to Botong, a coastal town on the Makkassar Straits almost directly on top of the equator. Here the dirt road finally ended and blessed pavement began.
This quadrant of has three main industries: oil, coal, and lumber, and three main cities have arisen to tap these resources: Samarinda, Balikpapan, and Banjarmasin. A sealed road system, of sorts, links the three together. This segment of the tour went smoothly and in relative comfort, except for one 200-kilometer stretch into Banjarmasin that we dubbed the “Road from Hell”.
This nightmare thoroughfare was a narrow, two-lane job, built across a swampy landscape, with several small bridges per kilometer. Each short but steep span had a large lip on both sides, forcing everyone to slow severely down to take the bumps. The road snaked through countless small towns and villages, and was congested with every kind of vehicle invented by man, including huge, over-wide oxen carts that were being used as mobile sundry shops.
Thrown into this mix were thousands of dump trucks in every state of disrepair, loaded to the gills with coal, and belching out thick, noxious clouds of diesel exhaust. They clumped up together in convoys making it nearly impossible to pass, as an equal number of coal trucks were lumbering, empty, in the opposite direction, heading back to the mines for a refill.
It was impossible for us on our bikes to sit behind these creeping lorries and travel in slow motion. But there was hardly any pieces of open road for us to pass them on. So we picked them off, one by one, in a devilish game of hop-scotch?one mistake and we were history. When we finally arrived after dark in Banjarmasin, our faces were black from the soot, except for our eyeballs–they were blood red and falling out of our heads from fatigue. I never was so happy to stop riding a motorcycle in my life and never had a more urgent craving for an ice cold beer.
West of Banjarmasin is the swampy, low-lying province of Central Kalimantan with two cities of note: Palangkaraya, and Pangkalanbun. The 700-kilometer connecting road is mostly under construction, with the finished product being anyone’s guess and decades away from completion. It will be a welcome edition too because as the road stands now, this stretch is another horror.
Palangkaraya is perhaps the cleanest, tidiest, and most spacious city in Indonesia. Being the hometown of Sukharno, Indonesia’s first and founding president, has a lot to do with this.
Our luck ends as we hit our first significant rain. On one particularly slimy, under-construction section, the tire treads on all three bikes clogged up and we all fell down simultaneously. We can hardly walk on the muck, let alone drive. It would be hours of waiting in the middle of nowhere for the roadway to dry, or we could hail a passing lorry for a lift over the sloppy section. Not much of a choice here.
So technically, we failed to drive all the way around ?we left out this one, 10-kilometer stretch. But we did have to sit on our motorcycles in the rear of the bucking truck to keep them from falling, and holding onto the railing with on hand was a hundred times more fatiguing than any bit of driving.
The next day brings more trouble when we re-enter the mountains and hit more wet weather. The forests of northwest Central Kalimantan were damaged from the Great Fire of ’97, and what didn’t burn had been clear-cut. Add rain, and this is perfect mud generating conditions and zero fun for motorcyclists. With afternoon thunderstorms brewing all around, we sought refuge in a logging camp instead of Sandai, our intended destination.
We were warmly welcomed in Logging Camp Seliku, as visitors of any sort are as rare as snowflakes. The supervisors were able to speak quite good English, and told us all about what life was like in a lumber camp. That night we were hit by another cabin-shaking thunderstorm.
We awoke the next morning to a tape of an appropriate song, “Summer Wind”, by Frank Sinatra and the cawing of a pet hornbill, named Corporal, who ate with us at the breakfast table.
Progress was again horrible. We fell countless times in the thick ooze, falling far short of Sandai once more, and spent another night in another logging camp a mere 185 kilometers farther upcountry.
By the next day the terrain dried up somewhat, and we rode like mad trying to get out of Central and West Kalimantan and into Sarawak, East Malaysia. We would have made it, too, except that it was a Sunday and the customs office at the border closed early. That night, in another fleabag hotel, we toted up our riding figures. We conquered over 1,600 kilometers of dirt out of a grand total of 3,700 kilometer since we left Kota Kinabalu.
The lack of sealed roads in Kalimantan is the primary reason behind the paucity of commercial development in this region. Over half of all the inter-city and inter-provincial roads in Kalimantan are still dirt or jungle trails. There is simply no practical way to travel overland throughout Kalimantan, and this is what is handcuffing the economy and the welfare of the local citizens.
is an extremely rich region with valuable resources like lumber, coal, minerals, oil palm production. Probably many more commodities will come to light after future explorations. But as it stands now, a road is built only if there is a resource that needs exporting, plundering, more like it, and that is the extent of infrastructure development in Kalimantan. The powers that be have only built roads to exploit the riches, with no regard for the citizen’s needs who are living there. A few decent roadways would jumpstart this fertile and resource- rich region like no other stimulus you could propose.
Money is there, but it is being extracted. Some of it should remain for the development.
East Malaysia marked for us the “beginning of civilization”, and in Kuching we picked up the fifth member of our expedition, Nils Klepp. Nils had wisely skipped the rough and tumble Kalimantan section only to join us for the paved roadways of Sarawak, Brunei, and Sabah.
All our hard work was over, and we spent the remainder of the trip visiting Ibans in their longhouses, exploring the extraordinary Mulu Caves, photographing the splendid palaces and mosques in Brunei, and watching the nesting of giant sea turtles on Selingan Island. By the time we returned to Kota Kinabalu, we had ridden over 6,000 kilometers on a trip that will never be forgotten.