Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Perth a-calling...

Pic fm Perth Australia Tourist Guide

Its the school hols in a couple of days here in Spore and we are booked to Perth, Western Australia. This is perhaps the prettiest small city Down Under. Situated by the world's finest beaches with the Swan River meandering through the well laid out city, Perth offers s-p-a-c-e that liberates couped-up Singaporeans.

And for the cyclists, Perth is heaven. Blessed with mild weather, plenty of sunshine, endless bike tracks, flattish terrain unlike Sydney or Melbourne, plus *bicycle friendly public transport system, what more can the cyclists ask for?

This was home for me a decade ago, and it may very well be so again...

*Transperth welcomes bicycles on our trains, because we recognise the contribution cyclists make towards a cleaner and healthier community and environment.
Passengers with fold-up bicycles are permitted to travel at any time on train services as long as the bicycles are contained within a carry bag - sounds like the perfect job description for the Brompton or Tikit!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Going Dutch in Padang

Still running after all these years

Cosy lobby of Batang Arau Hotel

Breakfast - huge bowl of exotic fruits, bread, jams & French butter!

Incredible load carrying capacity in the streets of Padang

Our "short" detour to see some prehistoric Menhirs turned out to be a long almost Trans-Sumatran drive of 80km through narrow rough roads across mountain ranges that became stone tracks and on some parts, even covered with muddy water. I had to muster all the skills I picked up in a 4WD course in Australia years ago and used them on our humble rental 1.3 fully loaded FWD MPV. We nearly ran out of fuel and were fortunate to pass some make shift kiosks.

The menhir site was situated in a remote village and was a tinge disappointing. Scattered stones, small and not very significant. But friendships are forged through challenging circumstances and I experienced that thanks to my very sporting travel companions who placed (or misplaced) their trust in me.

We had to rush back to Minang Intl Airport as Ira, Eddy and Abi had a 6pm flight and time was tighter by the minute. It didn't help that we encountered heavy Sumatra storms on the road but that could not prevent us from stopping for a Durian break 30km from the airport. Still, Ira et al made it, 50 mins before their flight!

Batang Arau Boutique Hotel, Padang, circa 1908 was a former Dutch bank now fully restored. This was our final night and we deserved a little pampering. What looked like an old godown building by the river was totally different inside. Its like being teleported into Europe in the early 1930s. Black and white tiles, high ceilings, period furniture, spiral stairway, spacious balconies and the attentive service by well trained staff truly impressed. The cool Pinacolada welcome drink certainly did its job.

The coastal city of Padang is typical Indonesian - hot, humid, noisy, crowded and traffic clogged. Any thoughts of unfurling the Carry Me for an exploratory ride was put to rest. An evening walk in search for dinner brought us into the heart of Chinatown. Two plates of fried Padang noodles with Es Durian for dessert did the trick to charm us a little towards being more charitable in a seemingly hostile environment.

Still, retiring into "Europe" for the evening and chatting over a cold, large bottle of Bintang just by the lazy river in candle light (yes, the power went out again) was exceptional. Going Dutch in Padang could not be more satisfying. In the infamous words of Arnold Schwartz, "I'll be back!"

The European Batang Arau Hotel along the river

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sleeping in the shadow of Harau Cliffs

Fish farms = poor swimming spots

Arlen's 7km north of town

100k Chalets w stunning views & ...

Paradise beaches

Goodbye Maninjau!

Hello Harau...

Woken by the usual 5am call to prayer at the nearby mosque, we decided to cycle 7km north to Arlen's, a much talked about resort. The attraction was a nice beach, away from the many fish farms surrounding Maninjau town. We had a great breakfast of omelete and pancakes at Cafe 44 by the lake before doing an easy ride to Arlen's. Indeed, the beach was so nice and I had to have a plunge into the cool waters. It was marvellicious!

We drove back up to Bt Tinggi for a sate and noodle lunch and headed for the Rafflesia Flower sanctuary 12km away. This flower is the world's biggest spanning 2m in diameter and also the smelliest. Unfortunately, the heavens poured buckets and we could not do the 30 min trek into the jungle. Unperturbed, we continued to our destination 50km away, the Harau Valley.

The Harau Valley is a relatively untouristed park where level rice fields give way to 100m high spectacular cliffs. Many waterfalls and pools abound and it is a rock climber's paradise. We stayed at Echo homestay, a beautiful and simple wood and stone resort sandwiched between the cliffs on top of a small hill. It is delightfully cool and the sounds of gibbons, monkeys and other wildlife offer a cacophony of natural music. Alan, a passionate Orchid grower, was like a child in a candy store with so many different species available for sale at the waterfall.

Echo Homestay
As good as it gets!

With no modern distractions and yet another power failure, it meant an early night. I had no trouble falling asleep in such a serene environment. It was magical to drift into unconsciousness between the shadows of the Harau Cliffs.

The mortley "campers" at Harau Valley

In love with Lake Maninjau

Have bike will travel - to see glorious sunsets & more

44 crazy bends - could be fun on the right bicycle!
Lush green ricefields everywhere

Ira's extended family in Maninjau - Latifa, the sweetest little gal!
The spice of life
We started early at 0730 and drove on meandering country roads carving through rolling hills and emerald green rice fields. Its an easy 38km to Danau Maninjau and the famous 44 hairpin descents came all too soon. It was almost like a step by step introduction to the beauty of the 8 x 17km crater lake. Tempted to take the Carry Me out to cycle down, prudence reminded that small wheels and rough roads are not good companions. Much smaller than Toba, some say Maninjau is more stunning. I concur.
The first order of the day was to see Ira's "Mak Tua" (Elder Aunt) who is a retired Doctor living in Maninjau. She lives there with her daughter's family in a kampong house. Their hospitality was gentle and warm as per all the Minang people I met. This being a Wed was market day and we headed straight there. Bustling with fresh produce, fish and meat, it was truly a meeting point for the villagers. Mak Tua seemed to know everyone and the respect she received impressed. Her finely horne skill in durian selection saw us having a delicious morning feast. As the ferry across the lake was made obsolete due to the new roads build, we took a delightful drive around Maninjau.

Ira & Mak Tua bonding over shellfish
The plan to do a short hike was scuttled due to the recent spotting of a tiger in the vicinity. It had eaten a cow and we weren't sure if that had been fully digested. We visited a museum of a famous Minang Writer Prof Dr ?. The museum is managed by his distinguished nephew and overlooks the beautiful lake. Lunch was at a park within the Hydro Electric station and I enjoyed a dish of small fried fish with egg, covered with the chillies and spices, among many other fiery dishes.

We took many breaks covering the 70km circumference. Ira visited a brand new mosque for afternoon prayers and we also stopped for a calcium fix. Shell fish boiled in salted vegetable is a "pick me up" for the locals. I regretted not trying as my stomach was still getting accustom to Minang fare.

Maninjau shell-fish for your daily calcium fix!

Hotel Mutiara, a lovely newish hotel at the lake's edge was our abode for the night. The very spritely manager, Renel, welcomed us warmly and gave us a room with a priceless view of the lake and mountains. The golden sunset was absolutely glorious! Dinner at Bagoes Cafe (means very good) proved rewarding with its ambience and delicious rendang. Jack, the friendly owner, also did his rendition of Hotel California on his guitar and that was a fitting "dessert".
Help, I've fallen in love with this enchanting lake! Don't know when I will be able to shake off Maninjau-tis. Sigh...

Crystal clear waters teeming with fish!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Up up & away to Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra

Jam Gadang - icon of Bukit Tinggi
Sianox Canyon

Rain. Usually not welcome when travelling but it was a blessing this trip. It somehow did the trick when we left Singapore for a one hr flight to Padang, Sumatra. Largely blues skies. Little haze. Upon landing at the newly completed Minang Intl Airport, we made our way 70km up to Bukit Tinggi, the cool hill resort of Western Sumatra via a shared taxi at 60,000 rp each.

Leaving the humidity to be 950m above sea level, it was like arriving in natural aircon, set at 22c. Nice! No wonder the Dutch made this their base and so did the Japanese during WW2. This busy market centre of the Minang Highlands is where the produce of the lush green fertile valleys are gathered and traded. For a smallish town, it boasts of large markets especially near Jam Gadang (Clock Tower), built by the Dutch in 1920s as a gift to their Queen. After independence, its roof was changed to the Minangkabau style - sharp pointed bull horn style. All sorts of crafts, clothes, jewellery, shoes, food, spices on sale make for a shopper's paradise.

We checked into Hotel Sumatera, an old Dutch style house which has seen better days. 175,000rp was the going rate for a European style spacious room with a stunning view of the still active Singgalang Volcano. For such little $, the early morning calls to prayer from competing mosques and regular power failures were easily overlooked. Alan and I hopped on a Bendi (horse drawn carriage) to the Sianok Canyon for glorious sunset views. Panorama Park was where the Japanese army through forced labour dugged a series of impressive tunnels in the hills. 150 steps down into the tunnel was easy but going up wasn't.

It was nice to meet Ira Ramawati, a warm Minang lady who I befriended on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, for dinner. She and her friends were travelling the region and graciously invited us along. My first taste of the world renown Padang food was delightfully memorable. More than ten spicy dishes were laid out before us and indeed, variety IS the spice of life.

Being in the midst of clouds high up in Bt Tinggi was the perfect start to a Minangkabau adventure. Rain or no rain...
Majestic Singgalang Volcano
*The Minangkabaus are a most interesting cultural group in Western Sumatra. Matrilineal as a society, property and wealth are passed down through the female kin. At 7, a boy leaves his home to spend time in a Surau and to learn independence and life skills. This tradition of "Merantau" has helped the Minangkabau men to be extremely successful, shrewed & skilled people. No wonder many are famous poets, thinkers, novelists, educators & politicians. The first President of Singapore, Yusof Ishak, was Minangkabau.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A hazy shade of pale in Sumatra

The thickening haze that is darkening the skies over parts of Sumatra has disrupted flight schedules at the airports in Padang and Palembang.

Local stations of the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG) have issued warnings about the thickening haze, caused by the forest fires that have broken out in several places in South Sumatra, Jambi and Riau over the past few days.

The haze in Padang has exceeded the acceptable level and is therefore dangerous for the human respiratory system, Amarizal, head of information and observation at the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG) Tabing Station in West Sumatra, warned Thursday.

Jakarta Post - 9 Aug 08

Its disconcerting to read about the haze when I'll be heading to Padang/Bukit Tinggi next week. No doubt I got an unbeatable US$60 return flight with Tiger Air, but wearing a face mask and cycling is not exactly the best combination. Its still a couple of days but I'm praying and hoping it'll be alright. Perhaps the rains will come soon to clear the haze a bit.

I still don't understand why people cannot take care of this beautiful world that has been given for us to enjoy! Meanwhile, its comforting to know that He who holds everything in His hands, is always in control, in His own perfect time.
Corrinne May, S'porean composer and singer, captures this truth so nicely...

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens Ecc 3:1

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Lobsters anyone?

Meet the "Fork-less" - Giant Halfway

Testing my new Topeak Touring system on an old Brompton. British WW2 Machine Gun bunker

Impressive brand new Immigration Building at Tg Pengilih, Johor

Big Pat on plush Big Apples

Idyllic coastal views - note huge container ships on horizon

Local competition on the road
My Perth friends, Pat & Justina's visit once again provided the perfect reason to do an overseas day ride to Sungei Rengit, South Malaysia. A one hour ferry ride saw 8 of us foldies arrive in the spanking new impressive Immigration Building at Pengerrang. What a surprise welcome we got when the Malaysian Tourism people were there, all excited to see us and insisted on our group photo. Who knows, we may very well be famous one day in some tourism brochure?
It was truly a Folder Meet. 4 Dahons, Giant Halfway, Brompton, Tikit and a Birdy Monocoque made for a delightful melange. I've done this 17km coastal ride too many times but I never get tired of it. Blessed with cloudy skies, breezy winds, empty roads, quaint villages and great company, the day was memorable.
Our target was a Lobster lunch for which Sungei Rengit is famous for. We ate at Beautiful Village Seafood Restaurant and the Black Pepper Lobster was delicious beyond description. Together with 6 other courses and drinks, it worked out to be US$15 each. Very reasonable indeed considering the lobster made up 2/3 of the total bill, with an auspicious red table cloth included.

Black Pepper delights
We are planning an over-nighter next month which will coincide with the Pasar Malam (night markets). Lobsters anyone?
* Every 4th and 18th are Pasar Malam days. Plenty of local fare and shopping.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Roadie vs Dahon shoot out

Pic courtesy of Ultraman, Dahon Forum Spore -

Roadies are faster - but by how much?

Its been a while since I joined the Dahon boys for a ride. They do this 100km Century ride EVERY Sunday. Talk about commitment. I'm not much of an early riser but today, I made a Herculean effort to ride off at 0540. 2 motivators really. One was to test my new Schwalbe Marathon Racer tires fitted on my Speed Pro. Secondly, a chance to see if the Dahons could hold a candle to 3 roadie friends riding pretty high end bikes.

It seemed to me what was touted as an "Easy Ride" was simply the juicy lure to get people to join in. Put 13 guys together buzzing with testosterone - you get a potent mix of alpha male competitiveness brewing. I will bet Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory probably was inspired during an all men group bicycle ride.
Riding in the cool, crisp morning air with zero traffic made for a lightning ride. Flying at 30kmh most times, we reached our rendezvous point 20km away 15 mins before time. Was surprised to see so many bikes out there at that unearthly time, perhaps 70-80 riders! Cycling is very much alive in Singapore.

The Dahon boys finally zip in at 0710. Gathered together, it was a formidable sight to have so many Speed Pros bunched together. After the obligatory photo shot, the race began. This was a 4-5km sprint along Mandai Road. As expected, the roadies zoomed ahead with the 2 top Dahon riders nipping at their chain. Their average was about 35-40kmh which was way too fast for me. I managed to max 51kmh on a downslope, lower than my 63kmh achieved on my Stelvio race tires. Bummer!

At the finishing point, the first 2 Dahon Speed Pros ridden by Nuclear Heng and Piston Leg Paul was only 20 secs behind. Which is not bad for a 20" wheel bike you can board a bus/train, store inconspicuously in a small apartment or car boot So the roadies won as expected but the foldies' candle was certainly burning brightly too.

Fun as it was, I think I rather be touring at a real easy pace. Getting too old for this and its too darn early !!! But then again, its starting to get addictive. I just may be there for the next ride.
I posted this topic "Foldies vs Roadies" on Bike Forums and it attracted a lively discussion. Seems many here feel foldies are nearly there or even just as fast as the roadies. Maybe I should post this on the roadie forum and see what happens...