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.”

Misty mountains in Borneo.
Killer climbs, but oh so beautiful!

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.

Silky smooth and so fun to ride.

Adventure? Sure, sure.  Plenty of backroads to explore.  Just choose a track and ramble off for a two-wheeled trek to a Dayak village.

Cycling the backroads of Borneo.
Village kids having a great time skinny dipping in Sabah.

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.

Locals having a communal morning bath in Sabah.

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.

Another Reality

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."

14%! They don't build 'em much steeper than that!

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.

A fair chance of getting flattened if you spend too much time on Borneo's busy roads.

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.

Alright, I know all these endless palm oil plantations might look rather pleasant to the untrained eye, but trust me, thousands of kilometers of mono-culture does not make for pleasant cycling.

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.

Not quite roadkill, but well on its way.

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.

A fine spot to pitch the tent for the night! A roof is essential since Borneo says heavy rainfall year round.

What's reality?

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.

Maybe biking Borneo's not so bad after all!

Am I the only one suffering from cyclists' amnesia?

Dual Reality: cyclists and a culture of collective amnesia

14 thoughts on “Dual Reality: cyclists and a culture of collective amnesia

    • July 2, 2012 at 3:14 AM

      Borneo for another 1,000 kilometers or so, then on to Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, East Timor and on to Australia. Flight booked for 11 September–seats were a real bargain on that particular day.

  • June 18, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    Dear Amaya,
    This article is completely right!!! We cyclists, all suffer from cyclists’ amnesia…or if we want to put it a more positive way, we are all “blessed” with it, and that’s why we continue to cycle again and again in every possible place our bikes lead us to. 😉

  • June 18, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    Great article (including the sobering mentions of palm oil plantations and deforestation). For me, the amnesia extends beyond cycling to any form of human-powered travel. Higher highs, and lower lows. The lowest lows become good stories with time and the drudgery in the middle is edited from memory – until that deja vu moment when you encounter similar drudgery again!

  • June 20, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    No offence (!! ha ha !!) but are you sure you don’t secretly love those palm oil plantations? 🙂 Are. they not the highlight of your trip so far?…

    • July 2, 2012 at 3:18 AM

      Cycling past palm oil plantations ranks right up there with biking through China’s mega cities and pedaling across Kansas.

  • June 28, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Well written Amaya. So true but it’s important as well not to forget all the bad an make conscious decisions in the way we live our lives and goods we choose to consume. The palm oil plantations are exactly that is this case, not supporting the industry is one of the few take homes. You have the unique perspective to see the world go by right in front of you.

    Keep it up!

  • June 28, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    Hi Guys

    When you get to the south island of new Zealand we would love to have you to stay if you head our way – (Glenorchy). If your after any advice or if we can help out in any way just send us an email

    Happy pedaling

    Matt & Kate
    from NZ

    • July 2, 2012 at 3:34 AM

      Thanks for the invite, Matt! There’s a good chance we’ll pop in at your place.

  • June 28, 2012 at 9:21 PM

    Nicely written, I like the contrast between reality as we (you) perceive it at the time, and reality as we look back at it, when thinking back.

    What you describe is what I would call “type II fun”. You see, in the Varsity Outdoor Club (Vancouver, Canada) we have defined three basic types of fun:

    Type I fun – the normal definition of fun, you enjoy it at the time, and later in retrospect
    Type II fun – you don’t enjoy it at the time, but enjoy it in retrospect. Of this it has been said: “you don’t have to be having fun to have fun”, if that makes sense to you…
    Type III fun – you don’t enjoy it at the time, and don’t enjoy it in retrospect

    Often times trips that include some type II fun are more memorable than others and make up a good story (although not always).

    • July 2, 2012 at 3:32 AM

      Based on those definitions, bicycle touring for me breaks down like this:

      Type I fun 30% of the time (those rare days–or parts of the day– when the weather is perfect, the folks are friendly and the scenery is amazing),

      Type II Fun 30% of the time (rain, headwinds, steep climbs, rough roads, serious physical challenges but looking back on it you had a pretty cool adventure)

      Type III Fun 40% of the time (dull scenery, more of the same, heavy traffic, too hot, too cold, too tired, too hungry). I’m probably tuned out of my surroundings and listening to a podcast–which in fact IS fun, but has nothing to do with the fact that I’m cycling.

  • July 13, 2012 at 1:22 AM

    Without amnesia, you’d never complete your journey. The adrenaline high is good for making us forget though, isn’t it.

  • November 2, 2015 at 12:01 PM

    Hey! Great article. I can understand some of the things you are talking about – endless steep climbs in the heat, but, amazing views and experiences. I have just finished cycling (in the distinctly gentler and easier) Yunnan province in China, and almost collapsed from the endless steep climbs and descents. But, I loved it too.. 🙂

    I am looking for a 1-2 month detour on my cycle trip from Holland to Australia, and I would love to cycle on Borneo and maybe Sulewesi and the Philippines. Your article has made me excited to cycle on Borneo. Thanks for sharing!! 🙂 Any tips and ideas would be great! Have you got a map of your routes?

    All the best!!


    • November 5, 2015 at 6:09 AM

      Our favorite part of the Philippines were the mountains of northern Luzon. I personally hope to never EVER return to Borneo–twice was enough. I think Sulawesi is more of what people imagine Borneo to be. I’d spend time there on the northern route of Sulawesi.


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