The Penny Drops

Looking back now, I realise what was missing from our route across the ‘States and come to think of it, since Southeast Asia – it was the ancient history.
From our outset we traveled across Europe progressing through, for us, more alien countries reaching a climax in India or perhaps Sumatra. Once in Australia much of the awe and wonder was lost. Having spent nearly 8 months in New World countries it has been quite an awakening to return to ancient history again. Even though we both spent part of the trip reading Guns, Germs & Steel , and other interesting works, the impact is greatest when the past is physically present.
Cycling down through Australia we weren’t wowed by Victoriana. Frequently there was just a plaque notifying us that some Victorian house had once been there. It’s simply far too plentiful in our own home town. There was a rare nod to the Aborigines ancient cultural history – an occasional sign informed the reader of the importance of a site or even once or twice a museum, but there was little evidence left by these societies. Neither of us can even recall any rock or cave paintings in Oz, although we’d seen them in India and the USA.
The celebrated – by some – Captain James Cook made several appearances on plaques and information boards. The town Seventeen Seventy is even named to commemorate his historic landing date, but that brings us into New World history. It’s interesting for sure, but not as awesome as Romans, Mughals or King Midas.
Equally in the USA, the Wild West was thrillingly different with, vast space, saguaro cacti, cowboy hats, boots, belts, team roping and the occasional fort or Spanish Mission. The 19th C forts in the west defended settlers from Indians while as we reached the southern coast it was the 18th C French and Brits who were the problem for the Spaniards.  But as we cycled further east, in Gid’s words, ‘It’s the same dish with a few different spices.’ The fabric and cultural background was similar to our normal home lives. A few cliff dwellings in the desert hills hinted at more ancient cultures, but weren’t actually, so old.
Lots of places were delightful, NASA in Houston, New Orleans with its hip culture and wrought ironwork balconies a la Francais, the Keys with the island hopping despite large areas of hurricane damage around the Marathon area , the Everglades with its wonderful wildlife, Miami Beach with its 1920-30s Art Deco and bronzed beauties, to name a few.
But now in Lisbon we are back to ancient history in every direction you look – starting with bronze age,  stone walls and mosaics from the Roman times, 400 year old tiles still adorning some houses, ancient narrow cobbled lanes winding up and down hills, a city center rebuilt after the great earthquake in 1755 . A Moorish castle, with breath taking views in every direction, built over ancient remains which were then rediscovered in 1938, providing yet another turn in history.  Our cameras are drawn, cocked and firing every which way.
To be fair we did visit one monastery and chapel in Goliad, Southern Texas, dating from around 1700, and in the deep south there are wooden shacks which housed the cotton pickers and workers for other local industries but wooden shacks aren’t going to last centuries. It had never really dawned on me how rich Europe’s history, and Asia’s is, in comparison with the New World.
Yet for all the fascination and wonder of these ancient cities and palaces, I – this time Gid – think back also to the wide open plains and wide open country towns of Australia and the USA – and find these Iberian cities claustrophobic. It’s wonderful everything is close together and walkable via tiny lanes and steps. But one can’t take two steps without swerving around an old buffer or a fashionista or wandering tourists, there’s people everywhere, never mind the tiny, uneven sidewalks. Where do they build anything new? Why are all the rooms so small? I think home is going to feel exactly the same. Oh dear. Should I emigrate, or at least, move to Northumberland, the least densely populated county in England, with only 62 people per square kilometre, and Roman remains?

Yeeh-Ha ! More Western Adventures

Cycling through Arizona and New Mexico has been a bundle of surprises.
The Wild West seeps out of every corner with frequent sightings of Stetson hats shading a rough hewn face, cowboy boots, and decorated belts holding up the faded denims. Straight out of the Western movies holsters and leather chapps are readily available too. Out on the street, the soundtrack is in Español and V8 rumbles..
We had to make a short visit back to the UK, for which we booked flights from Phoenix. This gave us a little spare time before Phoenix. So just before Thanksgiving, we pitched up in Wickenburg, treating ourselves to a motel. On wandering into town, after spending  hours in the fine museum, we discovered we were in the world capital of Team Roping. And, oh dear, rather a lot of souvenir or western gear shops. All closed of course, so we extended our stay. After a curious camping stove cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and a comfy night’s rest, we hit both the town’s attractions. As we’d read online, “heeling” proved a lot harder than “heading”. Well, a steers horns are a fine hook to lasso, whereas it’s hind feet definitely point the wrong way. Maybe half the teams managed both.  Saguaro cactuses adding to the Wild West feel.

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Dotted between Fort this and Fort that are Indian reservations. The Navajo reservation was followed by Hopi reservation and then came the Apache reservation. The latter is probably the biggest reservation we’ve been through. They are quite notable for their lack of development. But unlike the Australian aborigines the Native North American Indians have held on to some of their sacred sites and banned mining on their land. They do run a few casinos though. If you want to see the historical life of these original Americans, you have to visit a museum.
Cycling down through the Tonto Basin we came across the Tonto National Monument Cave Dwellings. Abandoned in about 1450 AD the Apache Indians were the original suspects for driving the occupants out but current opinion is that the Apaches didn’t arrive in the area until 1500 AD.  A little later we cycled over a double peak to reach the Gila Cliff Dwellings set in the Upper Gila River valley.  Claimed to be 80% original it gave a fascinating insight into Indian life back in period around1270 where again, for a relatively short time – approximately 30 years – the cliff dwellings were home to a community. In both cases it’s nothing like “cavemen”: The inhabitants built their usual adobe (mud brick) buildings inside the caves – shady and defensible places –  it seems a sensible thing to do.
Our distances are, as always, influenced by where the next shower is. Here, we are finding that progress is slow with small distances between accommodation or camp grounds followed by unmanageable distances to the next one. Neither of us are that keen on wild camping. We’ve done it a number of times and are always fretful about the prospect of being disturbed; on one occasion receiving advice that we shouldn’t contemplate wild camping in this area as the local reservation residents are prone to excessive drinking and unruly behaviour.  But sometimes we have to stick the tent where we’ve got to. It is, at least, often common and legal, until we reach Texas.
Warmshowers has been a fabulous organization providing a means by which to contact local people who will offer a free bed to touring cyclists. Often, they’re touring cyclists themselves, or were. Making arrangements is naturally a bit hit and miss, but it’s great to have a shower, share a meal or two, natter or go out, and retire to a comfy bed.
Our Safford Warm Showers hosts Hal and Jay filled us in on a lot of local history, and took us on a jeep tour of mountain back roads south of Pima. In an area steeped with history we saw where the Apaches ambushed a wagon train, and where the local Mormon settlers robbed the pay wagon crossing the pass from the south.
The landscapes have been delightful. Sweeping views held in with mountain peaks, at times volcanoes. Blue skies dappled or streaked with white cloud formations provide contrast to the expansive desert and savanna. The desert and mountain plants can be lovely red, whites and purples, beside the expected yellow and green. It looks especially dramatic in low afternoon sun. The short days of winter do make it easier to grab dramatic photos, but they also limit available cycling time, clamping down with dark and cold.

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The temperature has fluctuated radically. Whizzing down the California coast we were frequently nudging into the 30s. We were repeatedly told the temperature was high for this time of year. Further tales suggesting this winter was to be a mild one were warmly accepted. Then, wallop; up a few mountains and the temperature dropped radically. By the time we reached New Mexico’s Gila Cave Dwellings, we’d been over 2267m or 7440 feet. So it was chilly as well as dramatic. One morning, crawling out of the tent greeted us with -5C degrees. On another it was -3C but each time it rose to 20C/70F odd by lunchtime. Then came the big freeze -13 degrees Celsius (9F). My water bottle, filled with fresh water indoors, rattled a couple of hours later when I rather rashly tried to have a drink. I’d already had problems with condensation freezing on the inside of my glasses forcing me to scrape it off in order to see the road ahead. The forecast threatened 2 inches of snow in the first few hours leading to decisions to be made – sit tight, despite our dwindling food supplies, or try to bum a ride out.
Well, the snow came and we sat tight for a couple of days helped out on the food front by our cabin hostess Bonnie who kindly cleared out the depths of her freezer for us, coming up with unwanted meat items as she’s vegetarian. The weather warmed up as forecast, and our escape was to divert down south, off the official route, to avoid the highest mountainous passes and the prospect of more snow.  We end with a rare huge-progress day. From Faywood to Las Cruces was a 143km blast, dropping 365m, pretty evenly, with a tailwind. For a day we believed we were fast! The next day, we crossed the New Mexico/Texas border, marking the one-third point of our USA journey, and a big culture change.

Down and Out

(The day before this post we showed most of our Australia photos separately, here)

On a whistle stop tour of Brisbane we saw, nestled between the gleaming glass, chrome and concrete monoliths, red brick relics of bygone times. Churches and municipal buildings that document the Victorian birth of many of these towns. Staying in Sydney a little bit longer we delved beneath the high rise towers to find rows of terrace houses, churches, and curious institutes. That, together with the numerous parks, gave the place a spacious feel despite the flyover, and tunnel being built, to cope with the volume of traffic. Melbourne, with intimate lanes where eateries spread out across the road and waiters dance between pedestrians, also feels spacious with wide roads that accommodate tram lines, cycle lanes and cars. A pleasant mix of the old and new that have plenty of space to blend. And some very British (but better) public provision of toilets, benches, parks etc.



But it hasn’t been the history or lack of it that has been an inspiration in Australia but the abundance of wildlife; multitudes of marsupials that we’ve never seen before. The dazzling variety of birds swooping about, deafening at times. Flying foxes, echidna, wallabies and kangaroos, hump back whales and the occasional sighting of our immigrant friends rabbit, stoat and weasel. We finally, days before leaving, after many hours cycling with our necks craned up, genuinely saw a koala in the wild. We’d already visited Raymond Island’s koala tourist trek to tick that box, but it was awesome to see one snoozing in a mainland tree.


Having travelled for many months through Asia and South East Asia where, in rural areas especially, traditional methods of fishing and farming were still very evident, I was keen to see aspects of indigenous people, but we’ve had to seek out aboriginie heritage centres to get a view of their past, present and future. Sydney Museum spelt out the conflict and massacres that took place between the invading whites and the aboriginal people, while Rockhampton cultural centre and Melbourne Museum focused on the traditional way of life. The pride of the indigenous people was evident with videos showing younger generations learning traditional skills.



Mosaics were on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum



We’ve also had conversations with many Australians, and learnt more that way. I was going to write that having in-depth discussions in English is also a novelty, after so long. But we met adept English speakers in India, Thailand and Singapore. Perhaps the difference is our willingness, maybe also the locals’ too, to discuss difficult issues.

While combine harvesters, trains and trucks have replaced Asia’s scythes, oxen and carts in Queensland’s sugar cane production, if any aboriginal people have managed to cling onto traditional ways of life it will be way out in the dry centre and west, well hidden from tourists like us. That’s one thing I suppose about the sort of life presented in books like “Walkabout” – it creates an association between aboriginal life and harsh land, whereas one thing that’s now clear to us is that the best of that life was in the good lands, such as we’ve been through, that our invaders nicked for farming.


It isn’t difficult to see how conflict has arisen as European values of exploiting the land with intensive and commercial farming, logging or miners culling the land before moving on are in direct conflict with aboriginal beliefs and practises that sustained flora and fauna. The land being ‘sacred’ – look after the land and the land will look after you.

Koalas, one iconic Australian animal, are doomed if the current rate of deforestation continues. 15 years, we were told, until loss of habit will result in no more koalas in the wild. Aborigines, however, made tree bark canoes from trees where, in time, the bark grows back, just one example of where they use the environment without destroying it.


The history of the aboriginal peoples connection with the land is displayed on information boards at key locations that explain the importance of each site often stating that it had been significant sight for 40000, 50000 or 60000 years. Never do they tell of the 200 hundred years it took to destroy it.

Of course, said “European” values didn’t just affect the Australian Aboriginals, this was the era of the Scottish Highlands clearances, Irish potato famine, Napoleon and Bismark invading everywhere, and colonies. Brutish dog-eat-dog behaviour at all levels. But in the British Empire, it does seem the Australian Aboriginals were uniquely ignored, politically, as in the other new lands, the indigenous population was formally recognised – although still shot, infected, or driven out. In Australia, the indigenous population were explicitly not people but listed as fauna until 1967. Yes, Nineteen. The image of aboriginal people in a line depicting Australian fauna at Sydney Museum has, in very recent years, been removed.

Whilst the east coast has certainly got it’s fair share of hills to pedal up and down which by the end of a day is knackering, the coastal views are breathing taking. Endless expanses of golden or white beaches as far as the eye can see. Red cliffs, Clifton Sea Bridge and numerous bays with blue sea contrasted by ripples of waves were highlights along the way. As we moved south into Victoria, the land became greener and more convoluted.


‘Git ou’ the waaay”. It took a moment or two for me to decipher this advice growled at us from a vehicle as it passed, but it was one of the least offensive we’ve received. Australia has been the first country were there has been occasional direct hostility towards us as cyclists, as well as a lot of truly dreadful passing. We’d read about this, and especially the road trains, online. It does seem that a lot of Aussie drivers, especially truckers, would rather trust to luck on blind bends, than ease off the loud pedal. Aussie truckers are probably the near-worst drivers we’ve encountered, after Indian bus drivers and their Indonesian colleagues. The notorious road trains didn’t seem especially bad, probably because they’re only on relatively empty roads with few bends.

One of the problems, we think, is over ambitious claims or misconceptions about the cycle tracks which may lead car drivers to consider that we are well provided for. Well, provided for we are by: disjointed, frequently poorly maintained, unsignposted and, at roundabouts in Cairns, the outright dangerous positioning of a cyclist should we use it. Sometimes we can use the hard shoulder, but it doesn’t always exist, and oftimes seems to have been deliberately ruined with road features placed down the centre of it. The concept of cycle tracks is a good one but they have to prove useful to cyclists. In the city of Newcastle they were, but elsewhere a lot of the facilities, as in England, had an air of local authority quota filling, and especially, almost no direction signs. Locals only, perhaps. But further south in Victoria, a series of rail trails have made very pleasant and productive traffic free cycling. Overall, in terms of road safety and comfort, most things improved steadily as we worked our way south.

Much more pleasantly memorable are the many helpful, friendly and very supportive folk who have stopped on their way, to give us gratefully received advice on better routes or attractions in the area. One such lady had us back track half a kilometer, head this way then that until we found an old mining road. It was right where the map displayed it but had failed to list it as a cycle track and too many such dirt roads aren’t suitable for our narrow tyres. Gebber Road, as it was called, was a good quality dirt road that took us through beautiful woodland (with numerous sightings of goanna, and a fine snake), past fields and mangrove swamps before emerging, several hours later along another small coastal road on our way to Tea Gardens (yes, that’s its name).

Yet more memorable are the folks we’ve stayed with, from Warm Showers, friends of friends, and folk we met on the road. Always interesting to talk to, too. Nick, Andrew, Mitch & Tanya, Grant, Bernie, Tony & Laurelle, Kirsten & Warwick – thank you all.

We’ve had plenty of moments where we’ve felt we weren’t going to cover the distance from Cairns to Melbourne within our three month visa. But, we’ve made it with time to spare managing to see many chosen sights along the way, and as so often, learning at least a little about the land, its wildlife, and its people.



Down Under

Tears welled up in my eyes as I sat on the promenade bench gazing out towards the sea, seagulls waiting expectantly. It could have been home.



We were like kids in a candy store picking out lunch as old favorites competed for our attention – coleslaw, hummus, fresh rolls, all there ready and waiting.
Our fabulous warm showers host, Nick, eased us back into civilization with his bachelor pad where his no clutter policy didn’t extend to the workshop.



Sunrise yoga on the beach

Following on from bike servicing, back servicing and a fantastic Barrier Reef dive trip we finally made a move where the sunshine state once again propelled us back home with three days of grey skies and drizzle.  Our must see list dwindled: tree kangaroos that come out in the sunshine, cassowaries in the car park “just” 4 km away down a now mud track and platypus where we arrived at the camping book-in point four minutes too late. Rules is rules, I just apply them was the retort from the proprietor who showed no compassionate interpretation of them on this dismal day. Even the omnipresent kangaroos were nowhere to be seen. But the trail of unfortunate road kill victims enticed a splendid assortment of birds of prey down to the bitumen as we pedalled our way along. Low density woodland and grass scrub providing grazing for beef cattle and a few horses too.


Grassy verges need a ‘keep off’ warning sign as we learnt the hard way. A 12 metre shortcut across a grassy verge resulted in 20 min removing thorns from my tyres together with the rather predictable two slow punctures I fixed later. Down the road  we became aware of another local hazard. Thankfully it is our helmets that testify to the magpies’ dive bombing habits. It also explains a local fashion of alien looking bike helmets with tie-wraps poking out of the top.


Having spent several days cycling through the Atherton Tablelands we headed back down to the coastal road. Not so remote as we cycle down south, we hope, but towns and roadhouses are still few and far between. As you’d expect the major highway is generally flatter but the traffic has increased considerably. You get used to the traffic, one blog article states.


At one campsite Gid came back from the shower with a spring in his step to declare that John, a grey nomad from a couple of vans down the park, had offered to show us on the map where we could get onto smaller roads by the coast. We tried in vain to find the place starting with Bene… something on our Queensland map. John joined us a little later spreading his ancient torn maps on the table where his accumulated notes told of adventures past. There he said, pointing to a town on the map just above Sydney. That’s the town; there’s the road. That’s good too, he enthused moving his finger down a bit. A little hilly though, helpfully writing hilly on the map. He added a few more notes as he continued down the coast explains the features as he went. Very kindly, he left his maps with us but we couldn’t help giggling that our hoped for escape from the main highways was six or seven weeks away and in a different state.

Wind lifted the shirts off our backs as we sailed past the Whitsunday Islands, pedal pushing all the way. A stab of regret shot through me as I visualized the tall ship, Solway Lass, that had been highly recommended as the perfect way to cruise between the National Park islands. Reality struck home. Firstly, it was stunningly expensive for budget conscious cyclists. Secondly, we’d only just got going and were very aware of time constraints. Thirdly, should we need another reason, I’d been extremely nauseous on our one day reef trip despite having taken sea sick pills.

Hotels with the occasional 3* luxury are a thing of the past. Now we’re scouting the electronic devices for camp sites, free if possible, with the latest ‘3* luxury’ being paid for sites with a shower. Aged backs grumble at our crawl-in tent. Ground level cooking, eating and packing all take their toll at the end of a day in the saddle. Campsite camaraderie, where spare food and water are readily offered and simple exchanges of a few words, are now deeper conversations.  Another factor eating away at our time constraints as the grey nomads are only too happy to wile away a bit of time and keen to share adventures.


We’ve taken a while to get our heads round distances and the endless kilometers of nothing. Towns sprawl out with scrub land between single storey homes, dead-end roads lead out back, well worn wooden buildings and old Queenslander homes adding a touch of history along the way.

It’s around 3,700km from Cairns to Melbourne, by the coastal route. Let’s hope we don’t find it too tiring…_CTF5272-1

Java – The Pictures

Strange – Our overriding memory of Java is the unpleasant major road conditions. But the photos tell a different story. There’s plenty good in Java, but probably a bicycle isn’t the most reassuring mode of transport to pick for it.

On The Road in Java

Horse and Smoke Dance

This was pure luck! Somewhere in mid-Java, we’d managed to escape the manic main road for an hour or two. In a small village, we chanced upon this event in a little roadside space. It was just villagers and a few passers-by, as far as we know, so we weren’t invisible ourselves!


Borobudur – Ancient Buddhist Temples

Before Java became Islamic, there was a major Buddhist complex here. Abandoned for centuries, and somewhat vandalised, it was “rediscovered” and restored relatively recently. Apparently the carvings showing saucy Buddhists have been covered over during the restoration.

Prambanan – Ancient Hindu Temples

Before Java became Islamic, there was a big Hindu civilisation on the island. Whereas Bali has remained mostly Hindu, this temple complex on Java was long abandoned.

Prambanan – The Umbrellas

More Java Photos by Clare

More Java Photos by Gid


Short Ferry Crossing to Bali


Sumatran Struggles – Beaten?

A double posting tonight – you might have missed Sumatra continued – Photos?
Sumatra is the toughest place we’ve been on this trip. We’ve given it our best shot, but after a month, we’re still a week from the ferry to Java. Legs are aching from the endless very steep hills, and skin is blotchy and spotty from the endless sweating and humidity. It’s time to take an easier path. I wrote that on a Jakarta-bound air conditioned bus.
Its tough because of the hills. After Toba, we made our way south, along the volcanic spine, for a way, before going West, so as to benefit from the coastal lowlands. Well, they are low, but they ain’t flat. For much of it, spurs or ridges extend to the sea. They’re only 100m or so high, and the coast road takes them in endless savage little hills. In the heat and humidity, we can’t climb fast, or without cooling breaks; progress is sometimes demoralisingly slow. Two of our last three cycling days gained only 60 and 52km, little over half our average. And there was a rest day in between two of them! On our last day of cycling in Sumatra, we were a week later than our planned crossing to Java, with 500 hilly kilometres to go. By 4pm we were still 40km short of the day’s target. Then, on a narrow bridge, this big bus had to wait behind us to overtake (nb: a technique unknown to Java’s bus drivers). We turned and signed “bikes in bus” to the driver. It worked! We covered the 40km to Krui in comfort. Well, sort of comfort, as the road remained the same bumpy corkscrew we’d struggled on. There we rested a day, and sorted ourselves onto the next day’s bus to Jakarta. That recovered one lost week, by skipping roughly 500km. I guess I should add as a postscript that we didn’t cycle east Sumatra, which the maps suggest is flat and swampy, and might have been easier, but less scenic.
Pictures of hills – oddly, we have lots…
It’s tough because of the heat and humidity. Shortly after starting, every day, we were soaked in sweat. Towards the end of Sumatra’s big hills, Clare started to suffer from heat rash. All day pedalling hard, then often sleeping in hot, stuffy rooms, was too much for her skin. Gid later showed some signs of this too, but generally coped a bit better, perhaps cooled by his stylish Bukittingi haircut or just baring a silver cyclists chest with shirt flapping in the wind. No wonder the girlies are all in fits of giggles. Clare bought some cotton clothing hoping it would be cooler even if not designed for cycling. It seemed to be working… The rash not getting worse.
Err, no pictures of the sweat and rashes, sorry.
Accommodation was difficult at times. Once out of the highlands, it’s way too hot to camp, especially in our rainproof, but poorly ventilated Scandinavian tent, as there’s rarely much breeze. Hotels and guest houses are usually good value, often offering AC, but thinly spread, though not so thin as  OSM and Google suggest. Although we’d agreed not to try for big distances, often mapped accommodation is over 100km apart, and not always do we find somewhere unmapped. We have new words – Penginapan, for lodging house; Losmen for inn. Rarely in electronic maps, these can be found in smaller towns. Even towns not on the map but deduced from a road junction – some surprisingly big towns show up that way. We’ve been taken in by locals, which was a great experience, but a hot, sticky night, fully clad, in a communal room. Once we crashed out in the utility block of the local police station, which isn’t uncommon for Sumatra cycle tourists. I reckon if you can stand the heat, you could sleep free most nights. If you can’t, fan cooled rooms start at little over $10, air-con from maybe $15, so long as you can find a decent sized town. We always aimed for aircon, for a night’s sleep and dry skin, although we didn’t always get it. It’s the best option to dry out laundry overnight – we’re only using two sets of clothes. Finally, aircon’d places have most vents closed, whereas the traditional method of staying cool is maximum ventilation; this means there’s many fewer mozzies in an aircon room.
One afternoon, we were pulled over by a roving Warm Showers scooter patrol. Mati offered us free accommodation pretty much exactly where we were heading. How cool is that? Well pretty cool, as it was a kind of substantial beach hut, with the best overnight breeze, and a very well aimed fan. A shame we were keen to press on, it would have made a nice beach break. There’s a fair number of Warm Showers hosts in Indonesia, it’s got to be a great option if you sleep OK in the heat.
No pictures of hotels, either…
Talking of beaches, we did see some surf, and some surf dudes, on the west coast. The best action is supposed to be out on the western islands. The coast we saw looked attractive for some surfers and maybe sea kayak too, but perhaps tricky, for sea kayak landings.
Though tough, Sumatra is a very rewarding place to tour. 2,300km long by the shortest road route, the mountain views are stunning, the rainforest, even roadside, is full of lush greenery and noisy beasties. The agricultural areas range from fascinating and colourful gardens and paddy fields to duller palm plantations. Some tourists find the palm oil plantations depressing, mostly as they often represent torn up rainforest. But they’re not so bad to cycle in. Sumatra is big, but it’s always had a modest population and limited development, so there’s not much history to see, it’s more the landscapes and the people there now that are the “sights”.
They are not all the same people – we see different cultures as we roll struggle through, but always the people are friendly. Each day is spent grinning and greeting. Clare realised she’d been wearing a fixed grin for 30 minutes passing through some town, so many folk wanted to wave and call. As usual after a couple of months in a country, we got up to a shamefully poor vocabulary of maybe 20 words of Indonesian. It was enough, with gestures, and a few Indonesians speaking English (“Hello” is the same, and all Indonesians know “yes”, “no” and “selfie”). I guess there are about the same number of selfie stops as India, but here it’s mostly girls. And very giggly ones too, at least two per scooter.
With fairly heavily loaded road orientated bikes, and limited time, we stayed mostly on minor main roads. Like in most hilly regions, the minor roads rarely joined up to provide alternative routes. But away from Medan and its horrible road to Berestagi, traffic was light. We were there mostly in June: Monsoon downpours happened at times, but most days were dry.
A self-inflicted accidental challenge was that we left the Christian region around Lake Toba at about the start of Ramadan. Thereafter, roadside eateries were shut all day, we had to make very boring picnics from the small supermarkets. And there was a bit of a feeling of it being somewhat impolite to drink or eat in public. But we had to, as finding roadside  privacy proved as impossible as in India. The degree of fasting rigor varied as we travelled, some regions appearing more devout than others. It was a relief when it ended, by that time we were in Java.
Our final thoughts on Sumatra differ. Clare was thoroughly fed up with it by the end. The endless hills, and their brutal steepness, the enforced distances to hunt aircon, the problems with food, the heat, and the frequently off-road experience when we avoided the highway, was all too much. Gideon is more positive, but thinks to get a great tour there, we’d need a bit more youth and/or heat tolerance, a lot less baggage, fatter tyres and maybe suspension, and stronger legs. Oh and maybe three months, just for Sumatra, not Indonesia.
Clare claims North Java is flat, find out if it really is in the next blog!

Sumatra continued – Photos

Clare in the Town


Clare in a Paddy



Clare on the Beach

Clare in the Quarry



Heading south – Malaysia

Along the jungle road and across the Malaysian border and we’ve left behind Thailand’s hotpants, obesity crisis and nasal sing song, where intonation is everything. The differences are sudden and quite stark.


The Malaysians often wear more, especially the ladies, dressed head to foot in something voluminous and Islamically modest. Many men wear little pill caps, as we’ve seen before in the ‘stans’ and a few places in India. It’s not universal though – there are still shirtless men in rural areas, and hotpants in towns. Malaysia is a predominantly Moslem country, compared to Buddhist Thailand, although as we saw later it has very substantial non-moslem minorities. There are many mosques, but also numerous Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian Hindu temples and some churches.

On the road, Thailand’s population of 8 motorbikes and 2 pickups in every 10 vehicles is replaced, unfortunately, with a more European mix: lots of cars. It makes the roads feel a lot more cramped and dangerous, although the driving is nothing to complain about.

Trying to avoid the main roads has lead to some delightful routes along minor coastal roads and weaving across the plentiful lanes dissecting the numerous and expansive paddy fields; water monitors to the left, water monitors to the right.  Occasionally one has scampered ahead of us before taking the plunge.

As we progressed south it became more difficult to avoid the ‘principle highways’ full of roaring traffic especially as we were all squeezed between the mountains and around the many inlets and rivers.  At one point, two of our three electronic navigation devices said, ‘No’, to a way across the river avoiding a main road but clearly showed there is a passage. At lunch we quizzed a local guy who spoke reasonable English but he was not interested in the idea of a river crossing. Nothing on the other side except palm plantations, he said, and was clearly in favour of the main road up and round the inlet.

An inner glow welled up inside me, on the other side is a palm plantation: small lanes, no traffic, trees for cover. It couldn’t be better! But did a ferry exist, as there evidently wasn’t a bridge? We set off with our fingers crossed. 1.5 km wasn’t too far to go to find out. As we rounded the corner onto the waters edge the ramp on the other side was clearly visible. Flapping arms directed us further along the road where we came upon an opening between workshops and boat houses. Initially it didn’t look too promising but tucked in at the edge of this broad, rope-strewn slipway was a rickety jetty with a short, dumpy, roof topped boat with a section cut out of its side – the ferry. In a jiff we’d jiggled the bikes across the random, ill fitting planks of the gang way, through the hole onto the ferry, to the amusement of the folks already on board with their small motorbikes lined up ready to go.

There’s a lot of unhappiness worldwide about the way the rainforests are being cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations. Malaysia is a prime example. The same comments probably apply to the old rubber plantations too, and coconut palms. But although they’re undiverse compared to rainforest, they’re not so bleak. Other plants and trees crowd the edges of tracks and irrigation ditches, we see monitors, monkeys and squirrels. Brahminy kites and crested serpent eagles patrol the treetops, while purple herons and kingfishers line the ditches.

After all our careful planning the South Westerly monsoon has come as a bit of a surprise. Cycling in it has thrown up new challenges. We’ve always attempted to set off early each morning but regularly fail (Gideon sez that’s not a new game, we played it with sea kayaks too).  Now there is further motivation. Not infrequently, as the day progresses the black thunder clouds chase us along the roads, the rumbling of thunder close behind, snapping at our heels. The first drops of rain quickly develop into rigid rods beating down upon our backs. Heads low peering forwards as we spy for somewhere to cower; we’ve been remarkably lucky at finding shelter. Mindful of the time however, eventually we have to grit our teeth and set off again. Cars whizz past through newly formed pools and suddenly we’re wearing them. It’s warm of course, but the soggy shorts chafe.  Bikes gears and brakes pick up destructive grit and grime.


Our first stop was at Georgetown, a UNESCO listed ex-colonial town on Penang island. Penang was British long before Malaysia’s sultanates fell under the control of the East India Co. or the empire. The island was nominally uninhabited when the sultan offered it, in 1786, to the East India Company in exchange for protection from Siam (which the EIC failed to provide). The EIC brought in a lot of South Indian labour, whose descendants are still running microcosms of India all over the state, and attracted a lot of Chinese, who to this day are the largest ethnic group in Georgetown. It seems quite often in Malaysia that the ethnic mix, and therefore culture, in the cities, is quite different from the country, which is more Malay, and more Islamic.

Whilst I found it fascinating that in such a small area it was possible to find half a dozen architectural styles of shop-houses spanning 300 years it was the clan jetties that captured my imagination most. From cargo landing jetties to the addition of cargo stores to workers shelters to family/clan residences in a little over a hundred years. Built on stilts at the waters edge they cunningly avoid the land tax. Today they sit at the base of immaculate white towering sky scrapers making an awkward mix between old and new. Each clan jetty traces its origins – and the origins of its inhabitants – to a particular province/region in China.

Alas, while on a bus up the coast of Penang, thieves struck, and Gideon’s phone and bank card were stolen. Gideon spent the next couple of hours using Clare’s phone to lock out the old one, change passwords, and call the bank. It was easy enough to replace the phone nearby, and there was little data on it that wasn’t stored online. A new bank card was ordered, which, thankfully, Hailey sent out to our planned Singapore stop. The only ongoing difficulty after a few days was the loss of the UK SIM card, which unfortunately being Vodafone, meant hours and hours of meaningless and useless “customer service” before establishing that probably it couldn’t be replaced without visiting their shops in the UK. The other loss was the really nice phone case I’d made myself – the new phone has to make do with a batik souvenir one, helpfully modified by a little India tailor.

From Georgetown south along the west coast, the Malaysian peninsula is populated and urbanised.  The lengthways hills limit the small road options. Little gems like Pontian Kecil,  which still encapsulate the Malaysian seafaring and fishing heritage, are few and far between, without unwanted detours. Still, it was our choice, to avoid the hilly Cameron Highlands in the middle, and if we hadn’t wanted to see the cities, the quieter east coast was available. So the cycling latterly has been a bit crap, even though Malaysian drivers are generally slower and more considerate than British ones.

Our second stop in Malaysia was the capital, Kuala Lumpur. With over 7 million souls in its greater area, it is around the 50th biggest city in the world. We’ve increasingly been using Travelfish for city information, as it’s helpfully concise. In this case, it directed us to Chinatown, where we easily found a cheap and comfy hotel.  When we strode out in the morning, we stumbled over a good selection of the city’s sights.

British Empire architects seem to have enjoyed themselves with Mughal styles and motifs. These Edwardian low rises are now at the foot of steel and glass towers, many of which, again, refer to Islamic forms. Weaving around the buildings is a modern throng of international people appearing from busy roads, pavements, metro system, monorail. The heat outdoors under the sun is intense, but tall buildings provide shade; shops, malls, hotels and up-market restaurants compete to impress with their sophisticated air conditioning.

Melaka (Malacca) was our final stop in Malaysia. Unlike our other halts, it seemed single-mindedly a tourist town, and little else. Being the weekend it was crowded with tourists from KL and Singapore, pushing the already high prices up a notch or two. A one day dash was sufficient to see yet more notable houses of worship, China town, the Jonker Walk night market and, from multiple other choices, we ventured into the maritime museum. A smaller version of Nelson’s Victory provided the setting for an informative trail through the passage of time in Malaysian sea faring.

Some very pretty cycle rickshaws in Melaka, each with a sound and light show.

After Malaysia, to the city-state of Singapore, a simple bridge/border crossing, no visa complications, and one of the wealthiest places in the world.


Thailand was initially, following on from our route across the ‘Stan’s’, India and Myanmar, extraordinarily ordinary.

Much of the scenery could have been back in Sussex; fields dotted with trees, some ploughed others left to scrub land. A few oxen, occasional sugar cane fields and the odd palm tree marked it as different. The homes and shops were frequently brick built. The shacks, when they existed, were now a more up market version of log cabins rather than the flimsy woven bamboo affairs frequently seen in Myanmar. Actually, we haven’t seen much bamboo growing, perhaps that’s why?
There is also no evidence of a national or historical costume. Way back we have seen traditions that have marked the different nations: the occasionally worn Lederhosen in Germany, shoes with curled up toes right back in Vienna, scull caps – square, Uzbekistan, scull caps round, Kazakhstan,  tall felt hats – Kyrgyzstan or buzzbeee style hats –  Karakalpakstan, and saris in India of course.
Having just crossed the border from Myanmar, where more men than women wore long wrap around skirts called longees, it was a surprise to see in Thailand we’re back to western clothes and hair styles. If there’s a national costume, it seems to be the mini-skirt, at least for the ladies.
And the road traffic features fewer local oddities as seen in the ‘stans, India and Myanmar. On the wide main roads mostly modern vehicles travel at developed world speeds, unlike their western neighbours.
We knew that Thailand is more Westernised than its western neighbours but it felt rather disappointing. Although it is nice to dive into the frequent 7-11 or Tesco Lotus for chocolate milk shake and other goodies.
Gradually, like opening a Pandora’s box, we’ve uncovered Thailand’s unique delights.
Keen to keep off the main roads, we’ve, as often, relied upon the Garmin to weave us a route along the minor roads. At times this has lead to the occasional dirt track which has so far been well compacted and manageable. We drew the line at the ‘path’ where a narrow trail led off across the grass next to a field and luckily found an alternative track. (After all these month’s I’ve finally learnt how to scroll between visual maps on the Garmin and step by step written directions so we can now check out what delights our route has in store and reject  ‘bad track’ options.)
It’s been along these minor roads that we’ve discovered Thailand’s delights. After crossing the border we were, as in India, in the midst of the sugar cane harvest. Then pineapple farms were a nice surprise followed by waterways where wooden longtail boats power past less sophisticated shacks bringing home the reality that economic development hasn’t reached every corner of Thailand.
Oh yes – another reason it’s a bit familiar – as you can see in a lot of these pictures, around week #3 in Thailand,  April got rather cloudy and rainy. In a way, that was a relief, as it wasn’t so hot and we could go further and faster. Air-con rooms meant we dried out overnight. But after a few days the heavy rain showers got tedious, and certainly the bikes’ gears and brakes didn’t appreciate them. 
Coconut palm plantations were another delight where we wove our way through small lanes between furrowed waterways densely planted with palm trees. The tall palms cut out the light giving it a real jungle feel with lots of birds calling from the under growth.  Homes are dotted amongst them where people busily welded machetes chopping off the husks and splitting the coconuts – milk one way , flesh another.
Markets, many floating in this maze of water ways, also have a few treasures. Frogs, half gutted of course, chickens feet, fresh or on the café menu, pig’s trotters or whole face if you’re feeling hungry, together with a large assortment of fish and shell fish, are now all available.
As well as the above we now have salt farms and fish farms. The latter in an array of inland lakes or with fishing huts out in the estuary, which add a different take on farming. Some we think may be shellfish or crayfish as the dug out pits whilst aeriated are quite shallow.
As we have cycled further south the dominant crop is coconut.  Unlike Myanmar where bamboo ladders were used to climb the tall trunks, here our primate cousins are exploited as it’s monkeys who agilely bound up the lofty heights. A bit of chewing, a bit of twisting and down thumps another husk while the owner, looking on, makes a few encouraging noises from the ground.
These harvesting teams travel about in style; monkeys are pillion passengers, in the shopping baskets or on the side-cars of motorbikes. It’s not the dog peering out of the utility trucks, monkeys are keen to see where they are going. On these rural roads the traffic is less like home – everyone seems to ride a small motorbike, almost all commercial traffic is in pickups, and there are the distinctive Thai open sidecars with a fringe on top.
The wildlife has also taken off. In Myanmar even the trekking guides carry catapults, so the wildlife needs to keep its head down. Thailand doesn’t seem to have that problem – and has many national parks – so we’ve seen a lot more. Also, now in southern Thailand, we’re definitely in a different ecosystem – tropical rainforest – even if a lot of it is replaced with monoculture palm or pineapple plantations and hotels. More about wildlife in the birds and beasties log (update coming soon).


Cheap As Chips?

A tiny blog posting – a Micropost!

I thought it would be interesting to see how the countries we pass through compare economically. Thanks to Wikipedia, it’s pretty easy.

Here’s a chart showing the Per Capita Income in each country we’ve passed through, or hope to pass through.


And here’s the same chart, adjusted for the cost of living in each country (called Purchasing Power Parity, or  PPP).


PPP seems to have the effect of making the people in middle-income states better off. And Singapore.

We can even divide one by the other, to give us a rough Cost of Living Cycling. However, this is a bit rubbish, as in most of Europe, costs were kept down by camping. From about Bulgaria/Romania onwards, it felt a bit insecure rough camping, and hot – we really appreciated the comfort of a shower, so mostly stayed in guesthouses and cheap hotels. In tourist cities, that was often pretty cheap, but out on the road, I would guess that it very often was close to $20/night for a room for the two of us, irrespective of country. So far the most expensive nights have been Uzbekistan ($70 for a yurt), India (~$70 for a tent, ~$40 for a palace (really it was, gorgeous)), and Myanmar ($50 at two of the hotels, trading on scarcity). Not normally regarded as high-cost locations. The Caspian Sea ferry was also an expensive night, but did cover a fair bit of ground as we slept. The Tajikistan Toyota Tour was by far our most expensive week, but wasn’t exactly integral to the trip. And it didn’t include the (cheap) guesthouses!


Turkey, Uzbekistan and India have been most costly for souvenirs, not because of prices, but because of the wonderful handicrafts, and their availability, and perhaps more stop days, and maybe the timing of Christmas.

End of micropost!

(Note to self – master spreadsheet stored on cloud, in case plans change!)