Biking through Borneo

It might be brutal on the body, the words agony and excruciating no understatement, but carving up  rural dirt roads on a well-used mountain bike pedals a rather unexpected turn of events into action. Words by Ryan Auberson-Walsh

Over two days in July I attempted to carve up around 70km of regional links to a number of disconnected Bornean towns by means of bus, bike and boot. Let it be said, however, that it’s a region of Asia which encompasses every facet of the simple life that ‘ruffians’ Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie would deem untameable.

Detached from the wider world by walls of dense ancient jungle that limit a community’s movement to walking, unless they willingly drive over several mountains to reach the nearest grocery store, adventure company Bike Borneo have packaged up the local life in the Malaysian state of Sabah and successfully sold it to daredevils and fitness-junkies alike.

Unbeknownst to us non-Olympians however is that a large proportion of the severely steep and rocky inclines are almost unsurpassable, lest you bust a lung or die trying. This might be the kind of adventure Lance Armstrong deems a cinch compared to the Tour de France, but for people like myself who barely know how to do a push-up, cycling over mountaintops sounds worse than white-water rafting down the river Styx for all eternity.

To be fair, I was completely aware of the distance I would be undertaking for the sake of exploration and exercise (I’m still convinced that a look into the mirror pre-departure was what got me in the mood initially). However, it didn’t exactly dawn on me just how difficult the task was until I was pedalling first-gear more than 500 metres uphill, heaven most certainly within reach if I were forty years older and diagnosed with an ill-fated heart condition.

Mt. KinabaluMt. Kinabalu

Undertaking the journey was certainly a challenge.

There was blood (I managed to snag my useless limbs in the spikes of the tyres numerous times), sweat and tears – mostly in response to high humidity and temperatures soaring above 35 degrees celsius. What I didn’t see coming my way were the moments of utter magic; for despite every minute of wishing my legs would go numb and the pain would no longer be unbearable, I knew that this battle with my bicycle placed me in a position of the world that was still, in comparison to mainland Asia, largely unexplored.

Gesturing the word ‘Borneo’ in conversation conjures up vivid imagery of the planet’s most exotic and mysterious jungle creatures. From our ginger brethren the orang-utan (they share about 97 per cent of their DNA with humans), gentle pygmy elephants and rarely-seen clouded leopards, the world’s third-largest island puts the ‘wild’ in wildlife.

Sadly few of them can be found outside denser jungles, but we were ‘lucky’ enough to see some other beasts: a sunbathing cobra (who I almost killed with my bicycle), a mud-covered water buffalo (which we actually thought was a small boulder) and a lot of livestock (note that I find most bovine utterly terrifying).

Moovin' with pedal power in BorneoMoovin’ with pedal power in Borneo

Any fears, irrational or not, could be cast aside when reflecting on the quality of our trip. Chatting with smiling schoolchildren who only knew a few English phrases and swimming with tiny river fish in refreshing streams were highly memorable moments. The views of Mt. Kinabalu and of the terraced rice fields were postcard-perfect, and tasting durian and laughing about whether or not it smelt worse than before we had an evening shower was one of the funniest moments of my overall trip.

Our tour guides Michael and Jeffrey were clearly to thank, catering to every need – and by that I refer to a chocolate bar and energy drink every hour “for electrolytes” or something. Come evening time at our village home stay, they made sure the fridge was generously stocked with beer, my suspicion that they were prepping the kitchen for the gaggle of (three) Australians about to complain about taking too much of a battering.

bravely accepted a two-day challenge and managed to survive, learning more about the Bornean culture in two days than I could from any internet search or library visit, but even though it was some while ago, I’m still confident that my aching tush won’t be mounting a bicycle come this Summer.

Bike Borneo offer a range of tours, from day trips to three-day tours, with prices set between 245 and 1500 ringgit per person. They tailor all trips to your experience level.

Air Asia offers daily flights to Kota Kinabalu. Bike Borneo offer airport pickup and return, as well as hotel transfers.

Originally published online at Posse, 05/11/2014

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6 Comments

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  1. Beautiful! It would be super great to bike through countryside. I need to check out that Bike Borneo since I will visit South East Asia this summer 2015 and of course pass by Malaysia 🙂

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  2. That’s an awesome experience.

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    • Ryan Auberson-Walsh January 29, 2015 — 7:04 pm

      It certainly was! I highly recommend it if you’re ever in the area! 🙂

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      • I’m flying to KK in 2 weeks but bringing my bike won’t work on the transport side here (timing) so I will be on more of a standard backpacking trip. I might be doing a 2 week bike trip in Bali a few months later. You see a country from a much different viewpoint when you have your own transport and can stop whenever you want (vs a bus for example). And the slower the transport is the better.

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      • Ryan Auberson-Walsh February 1, 2015 — 7:47 pm

        Biking in Bali is also incredibly fun! I did it around the Ubud area and it was such a great way to explore parts of the island outside the city! Enjoy your trip.

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