Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thin Air and not so Fat Tires - Bromo Day 5 "Freewheeling to Malang."

Bromo, the best workout ever for your leg muscles!

For once I woke up at 530am, not by choice really. Last night's party music resumed at 4am, and the resident Rooster got the morning off! I supposed if one has to rent sound equipment for 2-3 days, may as well enjoy it as much as possible. Perfectly understandable. I was dreaming of having breakfast in bed but that was going to stay a dream as the guesthouse owner who assumed we (& all his guests) were vegetarians, was probably still fast asleep.

It was fun to see everyone gathered in our hut all rugged up but in the highest spirits. At last I had a chance to see the sunrise and it was a sight to behold. It was special to just watch the day begin together. However with the music thundering on, it really put us in the mood....  the mood to leave!

When it was daylight, we packed up and got on our MTBs. Today promised to be a most exciting ride - 40km of downhill all the way to Malang. With empty stomachs, we said goodbye to Ngadas and began our descend. After all, the only energy we needed were our fingers to press the brakes. It was fun following 2 tourists going down too on their scooter, and they were holding us back!

Christoph and I just took our time to cruise downhill as we just wanted the moment to last. We were not in any hurry. It was our last day in the highlands. Also, the roads going down was also pretty rough and we have been pretty badly shaken for a few days already. The bad roads somehow jolted my Topeak multi-tool out of the pannier but it was a good thing Christoph behind me, could pick it up.

The gang stopped at the waterfall point where we regrouped and refueled. As expected, the only thing available were a couple of roadside Warungs selling instant hot drinks (choose your sachets) and instant noodles. But we were soon going to be in Malang, where good food await so we didn't mind it one bit.

From here onwards, it was an easy 30+ km downhill on good roads and after all the hard climbing, it was our sweet reward. Big smiles were evident everywhere and we were all happy as Larry. One thing that must be said about descending downhills safely is that it requires strict discipline and constantly planning an "escape" route. Zipping down so quickly with great exhilaration at 40-50km/h, one must always be prepared for the inevitable and for unexpected chicken, child or car that suddenly pop into your path. Also, it is important to maintain a comfortable distance from the other cyclist in case of any emergency maneuvers required. It was heartening to see George turn on his 1000w flashing headlight for visibility and we were like some police outriders!  I thank God that we all arrived down the foot hills in one piece despite some hair raising moments.

We were welcome instantly by the blanket of humidity and it was time to peel away our layers for the hot tropical weather. Chris our resident navigation guru led us through the heavy traffic towards Malang city and he did it as though he lived here, all with his GPS embedded in his head. In the city, Joni bid us farewell as she went off to stay with her friend.

Our destination was the very comfortable Kertanegera Premium Guest House and it didn't disappoint. After surviving in rather basic quarters, the 3 star hotel felt like a 5 star one and the first thing we appreciated was the bike friendliness. The rooms too were absolutely amazing and for the price we paid of US$40 a night, it was unbelievable. I was so glad we were going to be here for 3 nights.

After settling in and a good shower, we wasted no time exploring Malang. This is a historical town that prides itself as an educational hub of Java as there are many universities located here. Compared to other cities in Java, Malang is considered cool and many Europeans settled here during the colonial Dutch times. This is reflected in the many historical and heritage buildings dotting the city, and earned it the nickname the Little Switzerland of Java.

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Having a population of 800,000 plus a sizable Chinese living there meant many great eateries that abound. We had a celebration dinner at a wonderful Indonesian restaurant cum museum and that was very special, especially meeting up with Joni's friend, Thea.

One particular trademark in Malang is the handmade noodles and that was the first place we went for our meals. Now I know why our dear Sonny decided against spending the last night up with us in Ngadas!

Besides good eats, it was great to end our Bromo ride in Malang simply because of the many wonderful bike shops that sold stuff up to half of what we pay for in Singapore. Needless to say we all contributed significantly to the economy. Once again, trust Chris to know the exact location of these shops and he even knew one bike shop owner since the 1990s!

Our stay in Malang was made all the more special because of our wonderful host Sonny who had to work, look after his family and yet sacrifice his personal time to make sure we were well looked after. He even made sure we enjoyed a lovely Sunday ride the next day with his Ijen Cycling Club to the hills and that was most memorable.

We are also indebted to Sonny for taking all the trouble to arrange for our bikes and ourselves to be ferried 120km safely to Surabaya where we caught our flight home.

So from all of us - George, Chris, KC, Christoph, Joni and I, we want to thank you so much Sonny for making our Bromo trip one that we will always remember for a long long time. We look forward to riding with you again real soon. Meanwhile, God bless you and your 2 lovely gals!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Thin Air and not so Fat Tires - Bromo Day 4 "The hardest 21km ride ever!"

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Why is it I'm always the last to rise? Well, at least I have Christoph my wake up late buddy to keep me company. Delightfully, there was no rush to leave the retreat as it was oh so comfortable. The freshness of the morning air was apparent as we walked out once again for breakfast at Fatimah with the sun warming things up so nicely. I knew it was going to be a glorious day for more reasons than one. It was hard to leave the retreat but we had to press on towards Ngadas, a fair distance away eventually.

Getting out of Tosani was hard work as we had to climb out of the valley and it didn't help that our muscles were still asleep. We were briefly distracted by a bike shop in town with a calvary of seasoned roadies.

Today was special. I was able to climb exceptionally well much to my surprise and that meant I finally got acclimatized. It made all the difference when the air intake and the cylinders are in top working order and I actually enjoyed going up.  Some of the inclines were really challenging and yes, we had to get off to "walk with our bikes" when even tagging failed.

The luckier one among us got to be pushed by resident shepherd and mountain goat, Sonny and we were all lamenting why this VIP service was so exclusive. But later we discovered it had something to do with a fruit from the Biblical book of Genesis.

With climbs meant downhills too and we had some short bursts of high speeds and that was truly exhilarating as they were always on smooth paved roads. Unfortunately, the party ended all too soon and we had to take a left turn off towards Jemplang on trails and broken paths once again.  Sonny seemed the only one who was smiling!

By now I was dreaming of a good front suspension fork because going off road with a rigid fork meant a most jarring and uncomfortable experience. The vibration caused fatigue and speed was limited. Nonetheless, I learn very quickly how to use our body as the "suspension" and managed. We had no choice!

That said, sometimes going through the off beaten tracks pays off handsomely and for this route, it was certainly the case. There was not a soul in sight and the surroundings were breathtaking. It was magic seeing the green rawness of the country as we bounced along on our steeds.

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We were right smack into the heartlands of the farming community and that meant a first hand experience into how life is lived there. Not one tourist around except us and a sprinkle of locals. 

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It was amazing to see women walking slowly on these tracks with heavy loads of firewood on their backs. And mind you, with a smile too! Life is indeed harsh.

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The next sector of our ride proved harrowing. We had arrived at the edge of the mountain side and had to skirt along the ridge line on very narrow and sandy paths towards Jemplang. The frustration was having to really crank hard to overcome the soft sand on granny and maintaining some speed so that we can balance the bike. Like a cruel joke, soft sand at times become jagged rocks!

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 The paths are narrow and at some stages, the drop off is a long way down. A parachute would be rather useful here. Also, leaning too much to the right meant our right pedal grinded into the side embankment, which was frustrating. It took lots of focus, concentration and determination and that really sapped my energy. All those power gels and bars came in very useful indeed.

It didn't help that a bunch of cross country motorbikes appeared out of nowhere and we had to jump out of their path to make way for these noisy hurling missiles. Their loud exhausts and fumes really spoiled the tranquility of the place, and we were not impressed. We were glad this was our only encounter with them.

On the brighter side, the weather was absolutely lovely at a cool 22c and the scenery magnifique! We could see Bromo from where we are, together with all the other mountains and the sand crater which was absolutely majestic. Truly venturing on the paths less travelled is the way to go!

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It was good of George who led most of the way here to initiate many rest stops so that we could all regroup as we were spread out thin. This must be a piece of cake for the military man as it would be part of another day in the office but for us civilians, it was a tough hike. At one stage, we wondered if we could call in for Helicopter evacuation but alas our mobile phones had no signal. 

When we eventually came out of the ridge line, we were all so relieved and thankful that our bikes survived the extreme torture and made it in one piece sans a few minor cuts and bruises. It felt like the end of a full marathon and most important was that we completed it as a team.

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Arriving at the cross junction of Jemplang, we wasted no time to head for the Warungs for some much needed refreshments. Christoph, being German, wanted to celebrate it so much with beer and was willing to settle for luke warm beer. Despite that, it really tasted pretty good and I guess everything is relative to the situation.

As there was nothing really much to eat, we settled on pan fried Tofus but despite our tiredness and hunger, I can't say it was well received by all. I suppose that is the price to pay for remoteness and we all look forward to having a hot cooked dinner later at Ngadas. 

It was also getting chilly so we all decked up in preparation for the adrenaline rush excitedly. This last leg was an easy downhill run to Ngadas, perhaps only 3 km or so and the inclines were steep. It was a refreshing 50km/h blast from trudging at 5km/h a few hours ago through the valleys and that plastered a permanent smile on our faces.

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Chris, the expert researcher, had sought out our accommodation for the night - 2 quaint wooden bungalows with views to die in Ngadas. Though it won't win any awards from the Tourism Authorities, think serious rustic and all will be well. A photographer/hiker from the Philippines have captured his experience here. The caretaker though was not the friendliest bloke in town but in all things, you win some and you lose some. 

Chris, Christoph and I shared a hut while George, KC and Joni took the other. It was here that sadly Sonny bid us farewell and rode off home 50km to Malang into the sunset. Perhaps he knew something we didn't! I was rather worried as the blankets were rather thin and the wooden walls even thinner, so we were prepared for one cold night. 

The toilet too was so basic that we all decided that if we had to pee at night, it was best to just let it out from the balcony with the caveat not to contaminate our precious bikes parked there.

We had unexpected company for dinner that night. A couple from France had just grinded their way up from Malang and bumped into Sonny on his way down. He directed them to find us and it was strange at first to talk to someone who knows so much about us! 

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We admired their fortitude in riding normal city bikes up these bad roads and felt sorry for them as they planned to cross the sand dessert on skinny 700c tires. Nevertheless, we had a great time sharing adventures and they had traversed over almost all of Java. We chatted over a most simple dinner of rice, fried egg, potato cutlet, crackers and sambal. With all the lovely fresh veggies grown there, we were served none. And there was no meat too!

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So much for the hot delicious meal we anticipated but good ole Chris to the rescue when he brought out his Australian John West Chilli Tuna and Beef Jerky to share, coupled with Mars chocolate bar for dessert.  At least hot tea eventually came and that with the warmest of company was very nice through a very cold evening. 

As we retired in our beds, we had unwelcome piped in music that came from the neighbours. Loud mix of Indonesian pop/Hindu religious music! There were some sort of celebration going on up there and that ran till 1030pm. What a way to end this day, and later to our horror, to wake up to.

Reflecting back, this must have been the toughest day of our adventure in every sense. Torturing ride, poor food, "bed time" music and a cold room but would we do it again? Absolutely yes!