Six months from now we’ll be 8,000 kilometers south of the equator somewhere on the South Island of New Zealand. I imagine us gathered around a roaring campfire swapping tales with fellow cyclists. Sooner or later the talk will turn to routes.
“You guys biked all around Borneo? Wow! Must have been amazing.”
“Yeah, pretty amazing,” I’ll agree, launching into a lengthy description of Borneo’s many merits.
First of all, you’ve got the mist-shrouded mountains of the Crocker range. Also known as the Spine of Sabah, this thickly-forested region culminates in Mount Kinabalu at a height of 4,095.2 m (13,436 ft).
“Yeah, it’s a real workout,” I’ll boast. “The climbs almost killed me, but gazing out over the peaks at sunrise….that –THAT--made it all worthwhile. Some of the best scenery in Southeast Asia.”
And the roads, you ask?
Awesome. Smooth as silk most of the time. Hardly any traffic. Feels like you’ve got the entire wild island to yourself.
Adventure? Sure, sure. Plenty of backroads to explore. Just choose a track and ramble off for a two-wheeled trek to a Dayak village.
What about getting close to nature?
In Borneo, my friend, you’re surrounded by it. We’re talking thick tropical jungle filled with brightly colored birds and exotic snakes, a place of fierce rivers and friendly orangutans.
How about the locals?
Some of the nicest people on the planet. Forget about checking into a hotel for the night. Just roll up to any church or school and you can be certain of a warm welcome and spot to spend the night. No hassles, no rip-offs, just a lot of friendly folks who seldom see tourists.
Give it six months and several thousand kilometers and that—I’m fairly certain—is the version of Borneo that will have taken hold in my consciousness.
But TODAY, ask me about biking Borneo and here’s what “reality” looks like.
“You guys are biking all around Borneo? Wow! Must be amazing.”
“Amazing? Yeah, right…perhaps for palm-oil plantation aficionados,” I’ll sneer, launching into a rant about the 1,001 reasons why Borneo is the least pleasant place on the planet for cycle touring.
“First of all,” I’ll groan, “the climbs almost gave me a coronary—we’re talking 10 %--14% even 16% grades. Imagine biking that kind of slope in 90% humidity with the sun radiating from above. Cycling Borneo SUCKS! The suffering is something like doing Bikram yoga in a sauna for eight hours straight."
The Roads? Narrow, no shoulder and clogged with 18-wheelers carting away palm-oil and the last of the hardwood forests. We’re talking hundreds of close-calls with these behemoths each time we venture onto Borneo’s risky roads. As much fun as playing Russian roulette.
Adventure? On BORNEO? You’re kidding, right? I know, I now, the very name BORNEO brings to mind headhunters and deep dark forests shrouded in mystery. But times have changed since the British and Dutch set up trading ports back in the 1800’s. If you want adventure you’ll have to hook up with a guide and trek for days into the last vestiges of pristine rainforest. Most of the island has been chain-sawed away to make room for palm-oil plantations.
The view from the saddle will be that of a barren land consisting of vast blocks of palms. Miles and miles and miles of biological deserts. Almost total decimation on some parts of Borneo, all in the pursuit of palm oil. Give that a thought the next time you bite into a Kit Kat, scarf down some Pringles or pig out on a frozen pizza. Palm oil has worked its way into all types of processed foods, even some granola bars are laced with palm oil.
As for nature—palm oil plantations (as far as I can tell) are not a natural environment for any living creature apart from laborers shipped in from poorer neighboring countries(think Indonesians and Filipinos). Orangutans and other indigenous species now squeeze into various protected areas and reserves. Unless road kill qualifies as wildlife, you’re not going to see much fauna while biking Borneo.
That brings us to the locals. No need--in this case--for amnesia to kick in. Whether it’s the friendly pastor at the Methodist church in Lahad Datu who offers a spare room for the night, the locals in Kota Kinabatangan who lead us to a neighborhood house under renovation which we can call home for the night or the obliging police officers in Ngabang who put us up at the station for the night, the Borneans are hospitable almost to a fault.
So there it is. One island. Two realities. And a clear-cut case supporting the need for collective amnesia.
Without the fine effects of outright forgetting, glossing over and editing the past, we’d all curl up in front of the TV after our first encounter with headwinds, killer hills, maniacal traffic or thousands of miles of palm oil plantations.
We’d never recover from the agony of almost getting blown away while pedaling across Patagonia, the suffering induced by those long stretches of nothingness through the Sahara and the Gobi and we’d surely never get over the lung- scorching, thigh-wrenching torture of climbing the highlands of Guatemala, Ethiopia or Borneo.
Looking back, I remember Patagonia as a place of turquoise lakes and pristine beauty. The Sahara, I recall, had a magical element to it, enormous dunes and star-filled skies that went on forever. The only memory I conjure up from those climbs in Ethiopia and Guatemala is the elation that swept over me as I summited the hill and swooped down below.
Amnesia: a cyclist’s best friend.