I was up early and keen to hit the road out of Brunei. Maybe another day or two would have let me see some sights but the pressure was mounting. I didn’t really get a nice impression of Brunei and I wasn’t going to use up my dwindling time and cash seeing more of it. Surprisingly, I get a lot more enjoyment from hitting the road and simply riding than I do from forcing myself to see sights I’m not interested in.
My paperwork that let’s me import the bike into new countries (Carnet de Passage) has an end date, and it’s in 8 weeks. By then I have to be in Australia or I’m crossing borders illegally. It can be extended but that can take up to 2 weeks. That would mean getting a longer visa for Indonesia to wait for that, not an easy task and expensive in itself. My money is also draining out of me, I think I’ve got enough to last me until Australia, but an extra 2 weeks in Jakarta waiting for extensions is going to put that in jeopardy. The easy solution to all these things is just to hit the road, which also happens to be my favourite thing to do. Even after all this time on the bike there’s nothing that pleases me more than just jumping on the bike with no responsibility other than to ride.
An uneventful border crossing back into Malaysia and an uneventful highway got me to my planned stop for the night at about 3pm, and it didn’t look like much. I hadn’t been sure what to expect of the road and planned 3 days to get to Kuching. Now I was early, but feeling good and keen to get a move on so I hit the road again. The map said there wasn’t much ahead for the next 3 hours of road, just one tiny town. I have a weird confidence about these things now: just hit the road, it will all sort itself out. Fuel, food and a bed, they all tend to show up.
It really didn’t sort itself out; it just went downhill. I got soaked to the bone through my “waterproof” gear. I discovered that my phone, wallet and passport were soaked in my “waterproof” tank bag when my phone suddenly stopped playing music. The one town on the map also didn’t help matters. There were no obvious hotels and when I started asking around was pointed to a dirty second floor apartment above some stores that was already full. When I mentioned to the owner of the 3rd and final hotel in town that the others were full, he laughed heartily and said “Sibu!”. Yeh fuck you too. Sibu is another 90 minutes away and it’s already dark and pouring with rain.
Well, I signed myself up for this little adventure when I decided to just “hit the road and it’ll work itself out”. Back to the road. Days like this make you question your own judgment. I was tiptoeing the bike along in the rain, an inch of water on the road reducing grip of the tyres to nothing, rivers of mud running off of the frequent construction zones on the side of the road causing me to pucker up every few minutes with little slips and slides. Visibility was basically zero as headlights illuminate the endless stream of water on my steamed up visor. I was pissed off, cursing myself like Muttley in my helmet.
I rolled into Sibu in the dark to find yet more full hotels. My only options being dire rooms falling apart on busy streets, or luxury expensive hotels. Expensive room with aircon it is, about 3 times more than I’d usually pay. I left all my clothes hanging over the furniture with the AC on “super dry” and headed out for dinner. I bought a kilo of rice at the supermarket and dumped my phone in it in an attempt to dry its soggy innards and slept like a log in my plush queen bed, maybe it’s not all so bad.
Not being used to fancy hotels I hung around a little longer than I usually would. Just watching BBC news on the TV, mesmerised by the very BBC accent. I packed up with a weird determination. It was a hard day yesterday, it got to me and I felt like I’d failed somehow in not weathering what the day had thrown at me. If I knuckled down I could make it to Kuching today, saving a day off my plan. Achieving this, I knew, would somehow offset my failures of yesterday. Or something like that.
With no rain my mood steadily improved all morning, reaching a peak and bringing back to my senses at lunch time. I was sitting munching away on unidentifiable curry and rice when a guy slid over and introduced himself. He was taking the same single road from Sibu to Kuching and had seen me repeatedly, I’d overtake him then stop for a break and he’d overtake me. He’d lived in the UK for 5 years and we had a good long chat about London and the UK, and Kuching where he was living now. He gave me his number for when I arrived and a bunch of tips for places to eat, to fix the bike and get a nights sleep. All vital tips now I don’t have a phone. A 30 minute conversation like that restored me, just by the kindness of strangers and the random chances of travelling; just as easily as a few hours of rain had turned me sour.
Into the city with torrential rain and no phone meant I was searching the old fashioned way, jumping from hostel to hostel, drawing maps on scraps of paper following recommendations and hanging out chatting to wait out the harsher rain. I ended up in a proper tourist hostel, the biggest in town, something I would usually heavily avoid. With only a few people staying there it ended up cosy instead of faceless though. Within an hour I was caught up on my laundry, my good food intake, and had planned some maintenance for the bike. I figured I could take a day off here, a bit of rest and some good maintenance before crossing the Indonesian border and into the more remote part of Borneo.
The last few days the engine had been rattling a bit. I was worried about it but it seemed to only be when it was cold then it went away. It hadn’t happened before but it certainly isn’t uncommon for bikes, just not really for a bike of Donkey’s age or engine type. I found a garage from a recommendation from a passing biker who spotted my GB plate and stopped for a chat (always the best advice). When I pulled up it wasn’t much more than a shop front though and nobody spoke much English. I got an oil change and fixed up a couple of other things easy enough but decided this wasn’t the time to delve into the engine.
I headed back to the hostel for the afternoon and rewarded myself with an afternoon off. 30 minutes later I was riding back across town cursing myself. I was being an idiot putting off. I was just scared of opening the engine up and what I might find, as soon as I admitted that to myself I knew I should do it. I’m heading into Indonesian Borneo and very much the middle of nowhere, I’m in a big modern city with bike mechanics and traveller friendly people. This is the perfect place for stuff like this, get it done.
As it turned out. It was a VERY good idea to check it. With their very little English and lots of gesturing I managed to communicate to the mechanic that I wanted to open up the side of the engine and check the alternator with his help. We leaned the bike against the wall so no oil would fall out when we removed the cover and used some bricks as chocks on the wheels. The mechanic gathered returned with the tools we’d need and just by looking at his selection I could tell we were totally on the same page even without a shared language. Some scrap gasket paper, some sealer, a few bars of metal for prying the cover off and a lot of rags.
We managed to get the engine cover off, hot as it was, and a very important bolt greeted us, flapping around in its mounting, entirely loose. The noise I’d been hearing was the bolt bouncing off the spinning magnet attached the engine. Pretty engine explode’y type problem. I had been extremely lucky, and extremely dumb in ignoring it. The bolt had been shaved almost half way down it’s head. Thankfully, the magnet it was rubbing against had also caught all (hopefully) the metal shavings that came off, being magnetic, instead of them being sucked into the engine and destroying it.
I slapped my head in disbelief and thanked every travel god that the engine hadn’t just imploded 2 days ago in the middle of nowhere. The mechanic and his mates got such a laugh out of my botched engine that they didn’t even want to charge me. I gave them about £20 and thanked them a million times for the help. I could head into Indonesia with a lot more confidence now, even if I might have destroyed my engine’s long life by running it with metal shavings in there. It would last through Australia at least.
I got back to hostel with a big sigh of relief and a sense of achievement that let me grab a coffee and chill out in the lounge on the laptop. A quick regular check of my finances was a bit grim, as usual, but got worse when I realised there was a bunch of stuff I didn’t recognise. Ferry trips in Malaysia I hadn’t taken and hostels in Penang for the wrong dates. Shit, someone copied my card. There’s no way they were mistakes, they went back for about 4 weeks of small transactions.
I knew I’d have to cancel the card but it’s my only real travel card, all my backups have very steep fees. I headed to the ATM and drew out about £800. An absolute fortune here. It would only last me about a month though. To carry anymore was a huge risk. The next month I’d be catching boats through Indonesia, some overnight and leaving my bike and luggage unattended.
I’m fortunate enough to have a Mum and Dad that could bail and get cash to me through Western Union or something similar in an emergency so I knew I wasn’t going to be left selling my underwear and begging on the streets of Indonesian Borneo. Calling the bank and getting the card cancelled was easy enough and they would refund the £100 worth of fraud I’d found. They’d post me a new card to my address in the UK but getting this to me in Indonesia wouldn’t be simple.
Short of a crash this is about the worst thing that can happen on a trip like mine, your cash flow get’s cut off, yet within an hour it was solved and I had 3 backup plans. The internet and privilege makes everything easy from anywhere. It was something I would have to keep a close eye on, travelling with a big wad of cash that slowly depletes is certainly different, but if something happened getting emergency cash wouldn’t be too difficult.
Since Donkey had been chilling on the street outside the hostel he’d been spotted by a few local bikers and travellers. They’d come in and chat occasionally and give me some good tips. Most of them pointed me to Alex Wong, he’s a local guy who’s done some big trips travelling on bikes and owns a restaurant in town. He invited me over for dinner & drinks in his place that evening.
It was an incredible place. Filled with motorcycles and cars, some even still currently on long travel trips, being stored temporarily in his restaurant alongside tables. Collections of classic helmets filled displays and even a Formula 3 car mounted on the wall.
Alex is an amazing guy, so many stories to tell including being in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show and heading into the Jungle for a few days with him. We chatted all night about travel and motorcycles and his stories, joined by Jimmie who I’d met a few days before at lunch, the guy who chatted with me picked me up out of my slump.
I returned to the hostel, well fed and watered. My room had been filled with an extra 4 arrivals, all from the English Midlands and one of them only a few miles from where I grew up. They were all on their first trips, fresh out of college, thinking they were in the wildest of wilderness here in modern Kuching. Bless.
Tomorrow it was time to finally enter Indonesia.
09/06/18 – 11/06/18