Rolling with the cabbages
135km Gua Musang to Tanah Rata
First, a confession. Today we were rescued by a vegetable truck. Yes, a vegetable truck. So we didn’t actually cycle all that distance. We got halfway and put up the white flag. Now that we’ve bared our souls, here’s what happened…
The day actually started quite well, with a top notch breakfast of rice, topped with a multitude of curries. Squid, chicken, mutton. Delicious! We can hear ‘eewwwww’ sounds out there at the thought of squid curry to start the day instead of cornflakes but the Malaysians do a fine squid curry and we didn’t intend to pass up a chance at another serving.
Stomachs full, we stopped at the market for emergency provisions in case we needed to camp and headed out. We knew the last part of the day would entail a few climbs but we were hoping for easier times at the beginning. It wasn’t to be and we barely got past the first junction when not one but three killer climbs presented themselves.
We weren’t even sure we were on the right road – it didn’t match our map at all – and more mountains were ahead so we stopped at a cafe for verification. “Cameron Highlands?” we said to the men sipping their tea. They burst into laughter with a look that said yes, but are you crazy? Their hands started moving in all kinds of wild up and down motions that only mean one thing: there are big hills ahead.
At least we were going the right way. “No problem,” we said confidently, smiling as we rode off. It wasn’t a problem for the first 30km or so. There was even a brief shady stretch through palm oil plantations but sometime around noon and a few dozen hills later we hit a wall.
It was hot. It was too hot. It was sweltering in fact with the sun reflecting off the hot asphalt. There was no shady grass to lay on so we attached our tarp to the guardrail and a banana tree, stretching it over a drainage ditch, and huddled down to wait out the worst of the midday sun.
Around 2pm we ventured out from under the tarp, ready for a second attempt. We got precisely 500 meters before Friedel’s back tire sprung a leak. Another half hour later and it was third time lucky, or so we hoped. The hills weren’t in a mood to cooperate though and they just kept on coming. “What? Another hill?” we said to each other incredulously. This phrase returned often but soon lengthened to include a few other words we won’t repeat here.
The whole time, the landscape was desolate. Plenty of cars passed but there were no villages, no cafes, no mosques. Nothing. When we spotted a dragon fruit plantation around 4pm we didn’t have to think twice to stop and ask for water.
“Is there anything ahead?” we asked. We fully expected something soon. No journey in Southeast Asia so far has been quite so empty for us. The slender, young man laughed nervously. Maybe he didn’t understand. We tried again. “Cafe? Restaurant? In 20km?” we asked again. There was a pause. “Nothing!” came the reply. Nothing? “Nothing!” he repeated for emphasis.
He wasn’t wrong. We struggled on a little further, first downhill for a few kilometers, then uphill just as far as we’d descended. We did this at least twice more, searching for a camping spot but finding little aside from the steep jungle slopes. We were ecstatic when we spotted a logging camp and people at the end of a bridge in the next dip. Without properly assessing the situation, we rushed up and asked if we could put our tent somewhere in the camp. Then we realised they were all teenagers and they were all smoking drugs.
Not good. There wasn’t a responsible or lucid adult to be found anywhere.
Now we were at the bottom of a valley with light fading and about 10 high teenagers bent on following us on their motorbikes. They weren’t harassing us but they weren’t making us comfortable either and even though we now had a flat piece of land, we didn’t feel at ease putting up the tent. Added to this was the uncertainty about what was ahead. Even if we camped, would we have enough food to see us through to the next restaurant or store? We’d only prepared for one supper and breakfast. And would there be water for the remaining 60km? And would our legs carry us through another gruelling day of climbing?
We decided it was time to call it a day. Even the best poker player has to know when to fold and this was our time. Happily, it wasn’t difficult to find a good samaritan. The second truck we flagged down stopped on a dime and three friendly fellows were only too happy to put us and our bikes in the back as they returned to the Cameron Highlands.
From the back of the vegetable truck, we listened to the engine grind as the truck wound impossibly higher into the hills. It’s hard to judge these things from a car, but from what we saw, we are sure the second day would have been harder than the first and we were quickly reassured that we’d made the right decision.
We did a good job picking a driver too. He fed us samples when we stopped at a vegetable stand and refused any payment when we finally disembarked from the back. Instead he gave us a card for his restaurant and of course we were only too happy to try out his family cooking. When we turned up to eat, his wife insisted on giving us a discount. We felt it really should have been the other way around, with us giving her a tip!
When we had a chance to relax after the meal and reflect on the day, we realised this was yet another instance where we got in a tight bind and someone kind appeared to help us out. It was another of those moments where we really felt the world is indeed a far more wonderful place than it often gets credit for being.