Sabah Tea Plantation, Sabah
I fly into Kota Kinabalu and find myself in a dusk downpour, for an hour or so of bombing disused access roads on the Sabah Tea Plantation before the light fades completely. With me are local survival guru and adventure junkie Simon Amos, and his super-fit riding accomplice Ronnie.
To the tune of tropical thunder and strobe-lit by lightning, we revel in the welcome cool of the highland air – we are 1,000m above sea level – and its enervating rain. Dodging the deeper potholes, we weave a line between old vehicle tracks that flow like rivers. Then, suddenly, we’re lost. Without a phone to use to call for advice, and with night maybe fifteen minutes away, we face a fork in the road. To the left, in the direction of the plantation, is head-high growth; to the right is clear road. Simon’s spidey sense kicks in. I second his instinct, Ronnie backs us up, and we slog off into the overgrown unknown. “I see tea!” cries Simon a short while later, “tea!” We’re home free.
Before long, we’re chilling over dinner with the fourth of our party, Sly, at the plantation’s casual, open-walled cafe, discussing the Plantation Cup race, stalled for the last couple of years due to a cocktail of funding issues and mismanagement. We are to overnight in the plantation’s longhouse, built in the style favoured by the area’s Rungus tribe. Lightning flashes on the horizon. We collect on the verandah and chatter into the night about bikes, mud, jungle and how the three fit together so well.
Kiulu Valley, Sabah
Mist zigzags between the serried ridges before us, as the first workers arrive on the plantation. Bleary-eyed as we are, Simon’s insistence on a pre-cock’s crow wake-up was well worth it. After a fortifying fried noodle breakfast, it’s into the pick-up for the ride up to the first departure point of the day – the summit of an ever-so-steep descent into a village-studded valley. The drop is all the more thrilling for the yawning thigh-deep concrete drain running along the inside line as we snake down the mountainside, towards the valley floor, and some of the most delicious singletrack possible.
The reason there’s such good singletrack in the valley bottoms is because – even in 2009 and even just an hour by road from the nearest city – many villages here are connected only by narrow trails, suitable only for foot, wheelbarrow or mountain bike. There’s nothing sculpted for riders here of course, but the numerous fords, and strategically placed rocks, roots and logs might have you believing otherwise. For the next hour, we take in what Simon believes is the best that Borneo has to offer: grassed crosscountry sections lead us through villages where we attract bemused smiles and waves from the locals; chicken-wire suspension bridges over 10m drops dare us to try the single wooden plank down the centre to guide our rubber; and connecting everything is all that lovely singletrack. It’s technical and frenetic, and brilliantly fun. There’s oodles of this stuff in Sabah – Simon says he hardly ever rides the same route twice – and best of all, you’ll most often find a small shop at trail’s end, with an ice-cold 100 Plus isotonic or soft drink at the ready.
Then comes more descent: balancing irresistibly fast sections with tricky weaving between rocks, ruts and sinkholes, all the way into the town of Kiulu where, loud with adrenaline, we find Sly slumped, snoring open-mouthed, in the pick-up, door open and all.
Lower Crocker Range, Sabah
After a night at Simon’s pad in Kota Kinabalu, the guys take me for a two-and-a-half-hour pre-flight stretch. At least, that’s what they called it. I called it less printable things, by the time we were done.
We start about 45 minutes’ drive east of Kota Kinabalu in the foothills of the Crocker Range. The region is known as Papar, and is an agricultural area crisscrossed by a web of village roads. There’s no need for a set route as virtually
all of them loop back to a main road. The lowlands are best ridden early or late in the day as the dirt roads can be blisteringly hot and blindingly bright. As it is, the sun is the hottest I’ve experienced in Sabah: an intensely thick heat, in the high thirties. I’m yearning for the slightest let-up in humidity as we dart along, seared by the sun when we break from cover.
Having watched Simon, Sly and Ronnie battle it out over a few torturous uphill sprints, I give it a go myself. My muscles are warm, I’ve been riding for three days and I’m in top shape, or so I think. I do finish ahead of the pack, but I’m redlining, overheating. In such humidity, sweat doesn’t evaporate, and heatstroke can quickly follow. I’m jittery, can’t think straight, and I struggle to some shade to recoup. Simon tells me I’m far from the first to underestimate the conditions. Eventually, I recover but we’re short of time so we head back downhill and join up with some blacktop back to the pick-up. A stop at a kampung store grants us a last bout of giggling, waving village kids and a final round of 100 Pluses.
Heatstroke or no heatstroke, I know I’ll be pining for Borneo, all the way back to temperate, unmuddy Melbourne.
Simon Amos runs Fieldskills, which does remote expedition support and runs specialised rafting, riding and trekking adventures for travellers.
Tel: (60-198) 312 759,
Malcolm Jitam runs Outdoor Treks, which arranges biking, hiking and climbing trips,
particularly in the highlands.
Tel: (60-128) 886 460,
Written by the brave Andrew Harris