I’m not normally a jungle person.

Pedaling through places with steamy equatorial climates—Guyana, Gabon, Borneo—ranks just above biking through China’s factory belts or on Southern California’s 8-lane freeways.

Jungles scare me.  The thick tangles of vegetation feel forbidding.  The constant buzz of insects somehow threatening.  And the rainforest canopy so thick overhead slightly menacing.  My body slick with sweat adds to the sense of  venturing into a wild and untamed place.

So it was with a tinge of trepidation that I pedaled out of Tanjungselor, in East Kalimantan.  The Indonesian part of Borneo promised to be far more adventurous than what we’d experienced in Sabah and Sarawak—Malaysia’s share of the island (the world’s third largest —I’ll remind you—lest you’re wondering why we’re still biking around Borneo).

Not unusually, we weren’t quite sure what lay ahead.  Cycle Laos or Cambodia or even Indonesia’s more popular islands such as Java or Bali and a google search will come back with loads of results.  Not the case with Borneo.  The only information we’d been able to scrounge up  came from LP’s thorntree forum.  A guy named Robin had this to say:

…the sun is intense and the roads are almost never flat, in fact there are no real hills or climbs but the road is forever steep up and down, up and down, up and down so it makes for some tough riding.

Robin was right about those ups and downs.  The ABSOLUTE steepest hills I have ever encountered.  No photo can really convey how menacing those climbs really are.  Tears spilled more than once.  We’d zig-zag our way up to give our knees a little relief.  But when a palm oil truck is barreling down on you from above, it’s time to dart out of the way.  Starting back up again is one of the toughest things I’ve done in all 6 years of cycling.

Here’s how cycling East Kalimantan has panned out so far:

The road started out nice and smooth, which was good given the steepness of the climbs.
Fun going down, but pretty damn scary after a rain shower. I always brake which means Eric beats me to the top of the next hill. I reckon I end up expending around 20% more effort than he does.
We were thankful to find this church on the outskirts of town. The pastor welcomed us in, we pitched up in the sanctuary and his wife cooked up the vegetables we had in our bags.  I was much too exhausted to even think about preparing a meal.

After a grueling day getting to Berau, this amazing sunrise the following day gave us a little inspiration to keep on pedaling.
Not much was open early on a Sunday morning. We did find this mobile motorcycle shop where we stocked up on a few vegetables and some donuts.

Notice the hand gesture…Eric’s trying to find out how steep the roads ahead are. They were steep. Way too steep for fully loaded bikes. The road was rough too. Huge stones. We accepted a lift for the last few kilometers into a small settlement.

When we stopped for the night in this East Kalimantan village around 100 kilometers from Berau a small crowd quickly gathered. We pitched our tent on somebody’s doorstep and enjoyed a relatively peaceful night’s sleep. No electricity in this areas means locals use noisy generators. All.Night.Long. The albino guy on the motorbike is the local English teacher.

We’ve rarely had such a streak of bad luck with punctures as we did in East Kalimantan. Whenever somebody on a motorbike stopped to gawk, Eric quickly pressed them into service finding punctures and pumping up the tire. All happily obliged.

The owners of this roadside restaurant catering to truckers graciously invited us to pitch the tent in the dining area. Not exactly a peaceful night’s rest. In spite of the road being dangerous, windy and rutted, trucks continued to pass all night long. Once it got dark the generator kicked in adding to the racket.

I just love these outdoor showers. Nothing better than washing away the day’s grime in a cool stream. This one was just below the main road and not too private. I stripped down anyway.

More of the same the following day. Steep hills, rough roads and a few smooth sections and lots and lots of punctures. We were getting fed up with biking Borneo.

At first, this shy boy hid when we stopped for a break at a tiny roadside restaurant. Slowly he got up the nerve to check out the foreigners on bikes. By the end of the meal he was tossing around his ball, the novelty of cycle tourists in remote places already have worn off.
Near Wahau, we came acroos this Dayak village on the banks of the Kedang Kepala River. These people are off to feed the pigs, a daily ritual. The pigs are isolated on the far side of the river. Each morning locals cross to feed “their” pigs, who apparently know exactly who their master is. A rather hygienic way to do pig farming. Much nicer than when the animals just roam around the village routing in the garbage.

Blame it on the cheap Chinese-made inner tubes…punctures every few kilometers was too much to handle combined with the heat, humidity and rough roads.

A sense of solidarity on Borneo’s rough roads. These truckers stop to help and we eventually hitch a lift. Something I do not regret in the least.

Heavy rains slowed us down and we couldn’t quite make it all the way to the city of Bontang. We ended up spending the night at this roadside restaurant. A great spot and they turned off the generator at midnight, so we got a few hours of peace and quiet.
Finally we made it to our couchsurfing host in Bontang. We were thoroughly exhausted and decided to take a few days off the bike. This snail soup was just one course of the lovely meal that awaited us at Dian and Niki’s place.

Final Verdict

Looking back at all these photos, I’m struck by the beauty of the landscapes and kindness of the people.  I’m still not a jungle person.  But I have to say Borneo has been quite an adventure.

And fun, in spite of all the suffering.

Type II fun, as blog reader Gili Rosenberg would call it.   The kind you don’t enjoy at the time, only in retrospect.

“You don’t have to be having fun to have fun,” as they say.

Another 1,000+  kilometers to go in Borneo!  Then we’ll hop a ferry to Java and continue down the archipelago exploring Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and East Timor before we catch a flight to Australia on 11 September.  Looking forward to some Type I fun.

What KIND of fun?

Gili Rosenberg and his fellow adventurers at the Vancouver Varsity Outdoor Club define types of fun like this:

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

Any thoughts on how much of each type of fun you have while bike touring?

Into the jungle: biking Borneo gets better (and worse!)

3 thoughts on “Into the jungle: biking Borneo gets better (and worse!)

  • July 3, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    I love the definitions of “fun”. I vary between Type II and Type I most days.

    That snail soup looks interesting. Not sure I could handle it. How did you eat the snails – suck them out of the shells?

    • July 4, 2012 at 12:21 AM

      Hey Sheila,
      If you’re not veering into category III much of the time bike touring must suit you. As for the snails, they’ve got tiny little forks for the job, and maybe some sucking. I didn’t actually give them a try. Stuck to the plentiful veggies.

  • July 6, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Spectacular stuff! Absolutely love the photos, especially the one of you fixing the flat tyre. Moving out to Borneo (Kuching, Sarawak) myself pretty soon, will have to fix up a bike tour or two while I am out there.


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