Into the jungle: Hills, Plantations and an elephant

December 2015

Finally, after almost two weeks and a course of antibiotics I started to feel better. Then of course Torsten felt sick for a couple of days but in the end we did manage to leave Tawau at some point. It was nice taking it slow for a while and I enjoyed getting to know the town. A few times we’ve been invited for food or drinks just out of the blue but overall people were a bit more reserved (while still very friendly) than over the border in Indonesia. It was relaxing not to be in the centre of attention all the time. But now we both felt antsy to get going.

We had decided to go inland once more to avoid the busier and more touristy coastal road. And thus the Kalabakan road awaited us and would lead us over many a hills and show us what cycling in the jungle is really like. There would be some towns in the beginning but then a  rather empty stretch of more than 100k. We didn’t have anything like that since Australia! On the first day we took it slow as Torsten was still recovering and cycled a mere 30k to Tawau Hills National Park. A lot of the National Parks in Borneo, Malaysia, offer accommodation and camping space, so we planned on hiking a little bit and camping for the night.


When we first got there we were joined by about 200 locals enjoying the picnic area for their Sunday picnic. But as soon as we started hiking it thinned out quickly. We discovered mosses and ferns and huge ants…



We got surprised by a heavy rainstorm and were soaked in the matter of a few minutes. For the first time in weeks we actually felt a bit cold and warmed up in these warm springs:

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And then it was just s short hike back to our camp site in a soccer field:



The next morning marked the first of many to come where we actually managed to start cycling with the first light. We had planned on doing that for a long time as it kept getting hotter. Now in Borneo the humidity was also a major factor which finally made us getting up earlier. And oh, cycling in the morning hours was pure bliss! Climbing hills was easy and I loved the breeze of cool air while coasting downhill.


We were in for some wildlife surprises today: It started with a beautiful moth on the toilet building of our camp site…


…and right after this sign…


…Torsten actually spotted an elephant in a plantation! I’ve read that they move into the palm oil plantations as their natural forest habitat gets smaller and smaller with all the logging. Still, it was pretty amazing seeing one in the “wild” without a zoo or anything. Over a few minutes we had a cloud of about 20 locals around us who stopped their cars to see what we were looking at. So I guess elephant sightings are not that common here!


For the rest of the day we had beautiful views over hilly plantation land accompanied by comfortable roads.

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The cycling got a bit more challenging though. While we enjoyed that breeze in the morning hours there was absolutely no wind later. Only the scorching sun and high humidity. So this is when we really got to know the most important feature of the Kalabakan Road: Apart from one 20k stretch some time in the end it was just never flat. And by that I really mean n e v e r. It was Up and Down or Up Up Down or Up Up Up Up Down Down Up Down Up Up. You get the picture.


During noon we found a little pagoda and I took a long nap. The heat exhausts my body in a very special way.


After that we cycled on, wondered about crass signs in palm oil plantations and finally found a place to camp at the Rest House in Kalabakan. It was a long day.


Nevertheless we got up early the next day and cycled on. The morning hours were beautiful again and the morning sun spread a warm light around us.


Today we left the plantations and finally cycled through forest. There was more shade on the road which felt great. Also we noticed a big difference sound wise. There seems to be a lot more insect life in the forest. Also a LOT of monkeys but they are usually too far away to catch with my little camera.


When it got hot we found a stream which made a perfect picnic place. And it was even deep enough to swim in and thus marked about the only time of day when I felt entirely comfortable.


After that we basically cycled up and down hills in the jungle. The ‘jungle’ triggers these wild and exotic images and yes, that may partly be true. The forest around us was a 100 shades of green, lush and overgrown. It was just beautiful. Often we would hear a swooshing sound and then see a monkey flying through the trees. We listened to birds in the distance and the loud singing of cicadas. Of course the forest is so dense that you wouldn’t see an elephant 5 metres away from you as there is too much green in the way. So our elephant spotting yesterday was quite lucky indeed.

After Kalabakan we barely encountered any traffic except for the palm oil and logging trucks with the very friendly drivers. That was fortunate as the gradients kept getting steeper today and we had a lot of 10+% ones. So we could mostly make use of the whole road and cycle up in switchbacks. It was still over the top exhausting. The uphills were long and steep and I usually had to stop a few times to rest and give my body a break. Hopefully there would be a patch of shade to bring my body temperature down a bit but if not I would just stand in the scorching sun and try to catch my breath.


Keeping the spirit high under these conditions was quite the task. But then we were once again rewarded in the highest possible way: When we had researched the road we found an Organic Farm in the middle of nowhere and thought we would just ask to camp there. And that’s what we did. The manager was very friendly and even offered us a room to stay in.


We cooked some dinner and couldn’t have been happier about having a place to stay when the heaviest rain started 10 minutes after we arrived. We talked away the evening with Tony, the manager, found out more about the farm and were then invited to stay another day.


In exchange for some help we got rice and fresh organic vegetables and thus had our first lettuce-cucumber salad in months! It’s absolutely not that I don’t like local food, but sometimes a little taste from home goes a long way.



We climbed up a fantastic tree house about 20 metres high and marvelled about the built in toilet and the fantastic views over the farm from up there.



We helped getting rid of weeds for a few hours and I was absolutely humbled by the hard work and the people doing it every day.


Once again I know deep down that all the exhausting cycling is worth it when we discover places like these.

Oh and look who said hi! A bit scary…


On the next day we had about 90k to cycle until we would get to a small town with hopefully a place to camp. We got up early, had breakfast and cycled off. and cycled through the muddy drive (from all that heavy rain) up to the main road  and almost instantly got stuck. The 500m to the main road took us about 15 minutes and then we needed about 30 minutes to get all the mud off the tyres and brakes. And there we were, once again drenched in sweat.


So after that slow start we finally cycled off when it already got hot.



With the never ending sun and many steep hills we got to Sapulut after about 8 hours later. With my body shaking from exhaustion the food in the restaurant never tasted so good and the coffees were amazing. We sat there for about an hour and relaxed before we got on to find a place to sleep. Being as tired as I was, I just wanted to find a bit of grass ANYWHERE and crash. Preferably with a bit of water around to wash. So we asked around but weren’t really that successful. Then one of the locals suggested we try asking at the nearby church.


We asked how nearby exactly and he said just down the road, maybe about 10 minutes with the bicycle. Do you know about that thing how never to trust motorists when it comes to distances and tiny things like elevation? Yep, that’s a thing.


Long story short, the very helpful local showed us the way on his scooter and soon we turned away from the main road, cycled down all the way to the river valley on a gravel road (all of which we would have to cycle up again tomorrow).


And that’s when I completely lost it. Somewhere in my mind I was aware of the fact that the guy was being nice and going out of his way to help us. But I was so utterly exhausted that I didn’t care about that at all any more. As we kept going downhill and then over a few more hills along the bumpy road I started to cry and curse and simply wanted to quit right there and then. When some dogs started to chase after me I rethought that option but overall it wasn’t my finest hour.


When we finally got to the church (me after pushing up a few hills) the nicest family was – of course – waiting for us and welcomed us into their home. It was incredible. They must have noticed my lack of composure but it didn’t matter. They were so absolutely kind, warm and welcoming, showed us to a room, to the kitchen and the bathrooms. We talked a little bit, made plans for breakfast and then they left us to relax. When the rain started and thunder growled in the distance I slowly started to regain my composure and thought to myself that this couldn’t have been more perfect. Somehow it always turns out well in the end.



The next two days were slow ones. Before leaving we had a beautiful breakfast with the family, got to know each other a little and in the end I couldn’t thank them enough. As they were going to drive the road up to the market anyway they took our luggage to the main road. That meant that cycling uphill was fun and didn’t take long at all. We looked around at the market, got a few snacks and said good-bye.


Over the next two days we didn’t cycle as much, had longer breaks and I found it increasingly hard to keep up the motivation.


There was one 20k flat stretch but apart from that another hill always came up and I knew that it was time for rest.


In addition to that Torsten’s achilles tendon started to hurt which is why we contacted our warmshowers host in Tenom. We planned on cycling the last 40k to Tenom very slowly or hitching a lift but when she offered to come get us in her pickup truck. And when I saw all the remaining hills we still would have had to cover I didn’t mind one bit.


So cycling the Kalabakan road was again a compilation of the most diverse things and feelings: Bliss in the morning, beautiful nature, friendly and helpful people but also relentless heat and humidity, steep gradients and an overall feeling of exhaustion. What stays is once more that someone will always be there when you need it the most. And for that I am so so grateful.

To stare or not to stare


As we’re waiting to embark on our PELNI boat towards Makassar, my friend Lia and I have the following conversation:
Lia asks: “So, in your culture, is it not normal to stare?”
Me: “Erm, why?”
Lia: “Well, I watched some movies and sometimes when someone stares at a person, that person says ‘what are you looking at?’.

I smile and respond that it is – in all my cultures – indeed not very polite or even common to stare at a person. And come to think of it – this is one of the local habits I have been trying to get used to in the last months. Torsten and I noticed quite early that a lot of people watch us doing all sorts of things. Things like trying to lean the bicycles against a lamp post or buying some fruit or even just drinking coffee or eating something. So not the most exciting things in life you might say. As I wasn’t really used to being watched that much, I felt a bit uncomfortable at times. Growing up  I was taught not to look at someone for long because that would be impolite.


Given that we were travelling through a lot of small villages and the people were probably not used to seeing many heavily loaded touring cyclists sweating their way along those roads I reasoned with myself that we were quite an unusual sight and people would naturally be curious. So over the course of our journey in Indonesia I learned to get used to being looked at a lot and – for the most part – to be fine with it. Except for those moments when I am very tired or exhausted I now usually don’t mind someone watching me while fixing my bike, having coffee or figuring out where to go.


And then I had this conversation with Lia which made me think about the whole deal more consciously. Our talk was followed by an experience on the boat ride to Makassar: On said boat a lot of passengers, including us, sat on deck to pass the time. And since there is not a whole lot to do on an overnight boat journey, most of us sat there, talking sometimes, but mostly just watching things happening. And then, suddenly it hit me: There was a man renewing the deck floor and manufacturing wooden nails to fix the deck. And he wasn’t alone: there were about 15 people standing in a close circle around him and watching him do his work. They didn’t engage in conversation with him, they just looked at him. Stared at him you might say.

Except that I’m now hesitant to use that word because I no longer think that it is appropriate. “Staring” has that negative connotation of being impolite which doesn’t seem to apply here. Looking at someone for a prolonged period of time is not necessarily impolite in this context and it took the conversation with Lia and the realisation that we weren’t the only ones being looked at to understand. A lot of the time that’s just what people do here. It might be to pass the time or because what they see is unusual or because there is nothing else to do. And additionally of course, because it is not necessarily considered impolite.


This is what I value so much about travelling: It took me some time to understand and I did feel uncomfortable in the process but then I learned something about other ways. While I don’t believe travelling and learning naturally go hand in hand, I do think, once you’re willing to be curious and look further than your initial feeling of discomfort, you might be in for a surprise. I can now say that I am way less insecure about doing what I want to do while someone watches me. And I don’t mean that in a “I am watching you” kind of way. I no longer question someone’s politeness or his motives but rather confront him or her with a smile or a ‘Hello’ or I just look back. For once that’s just so much more comfortable than before. And who knows, you might just gain a few new friends in the process!


Sick in Tawau: On unwritten rules


After stopping in Nunukan for a couple of days and accidentally overstaying our Indonesian Visa (we should know better by now than to trust boat schedules on a board), we finally arrive in Tawau, Borneo. Our first days in Malaysia are partly amazing and partly just very quiet. Food wise we are in heaven: Suddenly there are so many different tastes and spices, something that we missed quite a bit in the last months. We indulge in Indian food, mostly bread with dhal and curry. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. YUM!


On other news I’ve been fighting with a slight cold since we cycled out of Makassar and unfortunately that has turned into a fully grown bronchitis by now. I’m coughing my lungs out and feel slightly tired all the time. When our neighbour from next door comes over to bring me some of her old cough medicine I know that it must be quite loud, too.


So I make use of our nice little hostel room: I drink about 3-4 liters of tea every day, lie in bed and watch a LOT of TV shows. While Torsten is somewhere working, I sometimes venture out to get food or medicine or just walk around a bit. And somehow this is just what I need: having a bit of time to get used to a new place.


While I don’t think that everything changes when you cross a border, Malaysia has still a few new things to discover / deal with. One of those things – and for cyclists maybe the most important thing of all – is always food. And by that I mean food choices, availability, prices and so on. Yesterday we were at a restaurant for coffee and I saw that they have Mee Goreng Tauhu (Noodles with Tofu). When I later went back there to have lunch I was informed that they only make noodles for breakfast. So I went to another restaurant and asked for noodles and what do you know – noodles seem to be a breakfast dish here. At least in the small and simple restaurants that we usually go to.


It’s small and simple things and unwritten rules like that which are quite important for us to discover. It’s not necessarily a Malaysian thing though, it might just be the city or a certain area. In the Indonesian city of Ruteng for example most everything seemed to be closed by 8 pm. On the contrary in many other areas in Indonesia people seem to pour out on the streets after it gets dark and get together to eat and drink and meet family and friends.


Another example is Martabak – a kind of crepe which usually has an egg vegetable filling and is fried in oil. Very delicious! When we wanted to buy that dish in Mataram on Lombok, every single roadside stand (and we saw about 20 of them) exclusively made that dish with meat. Before and after that city, Martabak would in 99% of all cases be vegetarian. So setting your mind on a specific kind of food at a specific time of day you might just be in for a lot of surprises!


I  try to understand things like that in retrospect and think about how Mataram as a big city might just be richer and meat might be more available. Ruteng on the other hand is high up in the mountains and might be too cold (in a relative sense) to hang out outside in the evening and therefore shut down its shops earlier.

For our daily (cycling) life that means that a lot of small things change all the time. Sometimes I understand why, sometimes I wonder, sometimes I never find out what it’s about. Sometimes the changes seem to be relevant in a certain city or for a specific group of people, for an area or even for a country. You never really know before though. And you never stop stumbling across those unwritten rules.

At the moment I enjoy having a lot of time finding out about life and food in Tawau, Borneo. And so I get better albeit slowly. After almost two weeks I’m finally fit enough to leave Tawau and take on the Kalabakan Road. Off we go, into the (Palm Oil) jungle!

All that matters: good food, ideas and people


After a mere 20hour boat journey we were dropped in the port of Makassar, Sulawesi. I was a fair bit nervous before embarking on the boat as I’ve read a few too many horror stories about travelling on the big Indonesian PELNI boats with bicycles. But not to worry: Instead of going with the flow or even trying to get a good place we let all the others go ahead. At the end we somehow carried our bicycles up a few stairs which undoubtetly wasn’t too much fun but also over in a few minutes. Our bicycles remained intact, we got beds and I really enjoyed staring out at the sea and doing nothing all day long.


So, Makassar. Oh it was different here! After mostly riding alongside scooters on the previous Indonesian Islands I was a bit overwhelmed by all the big cars and the traffic jam which they caused. To be fair it was our biggest city in a long time.


At the same time I really liked our now urban surroundings. I can’t really say if I prefer rural areas or cities. Cycling is of course way more relaxed in the country side. The people there seem to be more open towards meeting other people in our experience. But then again, sometimes I need to be in cities. To feel the different vibe, to experience different subcultures and styles of living.

We looked up our host’s address and hopped on our bicycles for a quick ride to his house. We didn’t really know what to expect.


Back on Flores we met Andri, a fellow touring cyclist from Indonesia. He was really nice and relaxed and we would have loved going together for a while. Unfortunately he was going in the opposite direction. But on hearing that we would go to Makassar he contacted his friend Donny and asked him to host us.

We found the address easily and were greated by Maret, Donny’s wife and invited into their beautiful cafe. In the matter of a few minutes I was in heaven!


Maret and Donny run a small cafe together and are interested in making tasty and healthy food with real ingredients. No MSG and nothing artificial here. So we sat down, enjoyed bubbly juicy and flavourful drinks and marvelled at our surroundings.


Donny was just giving an English class, there were book cases lining the walls and there was an oven!


We haven’t really seen an oven since Australia, so I had high hopes for one or two baking sessions in the next few days…


My hopes did more than come true. We tasted a lot of Maret’s home made bread and her absolutely awesome veggie burger, we cycled around Makassar and as usual in cities tried to get one or the other thing accomplished.


We finally found all the ingredients to bake Apfelstrudel-Muffins and I made about 50 of them.


In between all of that we talked a lot with Maret and Donny. About good food, about their idea and their way of running the cafe and about living in Makassar / Indonesia.


Donny spent several years of his life in the US which made it particularly interesting for us in the way that he gained different perspectives on living while he was abroad. On his return opening the cafe was a way for him to be more himself. He is also a big outdoors enthusiast and we talked a lot about hiking and living in the outdoors.


Maret had a different career before working with food and I admire her willingness to learn all about good ingredients and try and error until it works. On top of that there were three kids running around, mostly looked after by Donny. I am incredibly thankful for our stay with you guys and the open and learning atmosphere that you create. That is something I am taking home with me and something that I hope to (re)create one day.


Unfortunately our visa was running out and so we cycled on. In two days our next boat would leave from Pare Pare about 150km away. Just when we left I felt that I was getting sick but oh well, the boat wouldn’t wait for us.


So off we went, on the thankfully very flat road north.





We marvelled at the beautiful houses that reminded me of the houses in Queensland, Australia (maybe except for the last one).


We ate a lot more mangoes, went to a cinema without cinema in Pare Pare, did a lot of selfies with locals and were spontaneously invited to lunch.



We both would have liked to have more time in Sulawesi and go further up north. But Borneo was waiting just around the corner!

Cycling magnificence on Flores

p1130716When I think of Flores words like majestic and magnificent come to mind. The ocean against the backdrop of grand mountains covered in lush green are a unique sight to be seen. Maybe it is even more special to us given that cycling on this island was for sure the most exhausting cycling we have ever done. 9320 meters of ascent in 531km is not something to take on lightly, at least not for me. Basically you cycle up to about 1000m and then coast all the way down again only to repeat the process a few times.

I wasn’t sure if I would manage that or even more important – if I would like it at all. Our progress was slow, especially on the first climb when the gradient was often so steep that we needed to stand in the saddle to not to loose our momentum. Combine that with the heat and a general lack of shade and our cycle-days/rest-days ratio began to change. Usually we cycle for a few days and then take a couple of rest days. Not so on Flores. After the big climbs we stayed in the cooler mountain cities such as Ruteng and Bajawa and also in Ende on the coast for a two nights each. Resting our muscles was priority number one.


But – and that is a big one – the views were something else. After cycling through Sumbawa’s arid lands it was pure bliss to be surrounded by lush green rice paddies and forests again.


One day we hid out under a not very rainproof roof during a storm and loved the rain and even the feeling of being cold. It all seems to turn around the longer we cycle in South East Asia. In Germany we longed for sunny days and warm weather and would make sure to stay in the sun as long as possible. Here we long for clouds and rain and the feeling of being cold. You can always wear more clothes but if you’re hot there’s not a lot you can do with the idea of cycling through the area.


So we loved being at a higher altitude for the cooler temperatures which gave our bodies much needed rest. We also finally got to camp again without feeling like being in a sauna. As it got dark we looked for a suitable spot to pitch our tent but as usual in Flores it was either pretty steep or inhabited land. So we asked a family if we could camp on their land about 50k before Ruteng and they happily agreed with the biggest smile on their faces. It was a fun evening with lots of make-do conversations in Bahasa Indonesia where we tried to explain our trip and show our tent and bags. We shared our coffee and it all was amazingly familiar: camping out in nature in between mountains reminded me a lot of our time in New Zealand and I’m very much looking forward to colder climates and more (comfortable) camping.


In Ruteng we stopped for some pancakes on the road side after climbing up. In the matter of seconds I was surrounded by at least 20 kids who were over the top excited about that sweaty red-faced cyclist sharing their lunch time snack idea. It was very cute and just a little bit overwhelming at the same time. While we were waiting someone offered us a coffee with our pancakes and who are we to say no to Flores grown and roasted coffee! Thinking he would show us to a cafe we followed him down some back roads and were soon sitting inside his living room.


Priscilla and her dad invited us to coffee, opened their heart and home to us and told us about their lives. Within minutes we went from climbing uphill and being exhausted to sharing stories and learning about family life in Ruteng. I cannot praise and value experiences like these  enough: they make me forget all the uphills in an instant.


A few days later we stopped for a while to talk to some travellers on a motorbike. As usual a small crowd gathered around us when a friend of ours called and in the midst of all that another guy appeared and invited us to stay with him and his family for the night – turned out he’s a fellow Couchsurfer! I had a hard time juggling the phone call and about three more people talking to me but then we happily accepted the invitation.


And oh – it was one of the most beautiful experiences so far! We were heartily welcomed by Victor’s parents, we talked with and without words and I had tears in my eyes when I listened to Victor’s dad telling us that he couldn’t offer much but that he was so happy to share it with us. I can’t put in words how grateful I am for moments like that. We didn’t share most of our language, but Victor translated a little and I just felt entirely comfortable with them all. For their smiles, for their openness towards us, for their willingness to share their food and space. This is all we need anyway.



As Flores was either sea level or mountains we decided to also spend a night at Pantai Koka, a small beach about 80k before Maumere.


With swimming, snorkelling and interesting conversations with fellow overland traveller Chantal we rested our muscles for the last leg on Flores.


As we came closer to Maumere I hard an increasingly hard time motivating myself to go on. After all the climbing I just wanted to be done. So reaching Maumere (from where we would take a boat to Sulawesi) felt amazing. I was looking forward to a few days without cycling and especially without the prospect of having to go up another mountain afterwards.


Staying with Lia and her beautiful family was just the right medicine. Lia is an english teacher which made communication very easy and we had so many interesting conversations about life on Flores, about her studies, the difficulty of finding work and so much more.



Her mum cooked some of the best Indonesian food we tasted so far and once again I am so grateful for getting a glimpse of their life as we cycle along.



So Flores really had it all: it was jaw-droppingly beautiful, it was hot and even a little bit cold sometimes, it was challenging and exhausting and all of that was forgotten when we met it’s people. I cannot recommend cycling there enough!


But for us it was already time to get moving again – the KM. Umsini was waiting in the harbour and would bring us towards Sulawesi!