"A weekend cycling trip through the Riau Islands finds an expectant father losing himself for two days on near-deserted islands and narrowly escaping a fate worse than death - luckily, he was able to stop the bartender on Pulau Moro from setting up the bloody karaoke machine."
It started out smoothly enough, on a much-welcomed bright Saturday morning in the midst of a spectacularly wet rainy season. Ostensibly, my four friends and I were embarking on a two day cycling weekend in the Riaus, a group of islands due south of Singapore. What I was really doing was indulging in one last "guys weekend" before assuming the responsibilities of imminent fatherhood. In the process, I got lost, saw some beautiful landscapes, had fun and discovered I could get sore in places on my body that were heretofore undiscovered.
There is a certain joy in seeing Singapore from the sea, as so many have done throughout history. We forget, skipping along the expressway from Changi Airport to our homes, that we live in a sea-bound port city. Heading out through the shipping lanes into Indonesian waters, I felt like we were delving into the real world of Southeast Asia, rougher hewn and more directly felt. It was also great to get away.
Our "Trans-Island Adventure Cruise," run by Riau Island Adventures, was to transfer us by fishing boat from island to island, dropping us off at one end and collecting us, sweaty and sore after we cycled across, at the other. Our trusty expat guide Evan, who came fully equipped with Aussie-tinted Bahasa and a map of the Riau Archipelago on his T-shirt, led us through these various escapades.
Due to the period in Indonesia's recent past known as Confrontation, the Indonesian government restricted general access to outsiders to the islands in the Riau Archipelago. With the exception of Batam, and parts of Bintan and Karimun islands, the area is as rural and isolated as the deepest interior of anywhwere in Indonesia - which translates into exceptional scenery, very friendly kampung folk and lovely, uninterrupted landscapes.
Our fishing boat pulled up alongside a jetty on Pulau Pemping, and Island Adventures' staff hauled up our mountain bikes. The jetty creaked and swayed with our weight, as we rolled along its length to the kampung at the shore, clunking over the missing planks. Chickens scattered and kids came rushing out to see what must have seemed to be an extraordinary sight; six foreigners, some in tight cycling shorts, others swaddled in protective layers of clothing, all smelling of suntan lotion and the weekend's first beer, and all setting off across their little island, only just to get the other side.
The trails vary from island to island, from easy concrete footpaths to very rough and muddy, fit-for-mountain-goat climbs. This one was an easy route, though each of us tested the veracity of our earlier boasts of fitness. I was panting and covered with sweat, but the trail took us up and over several beautiful hills and treated us to some exceptional views - thankfully,the sightseeing distracted me from the paint in my butt. The air was clean, the scenery incredible, and Singapore, well, Singapore was far away.
The most enjoyable part of the trip was cruising through the sleepy kampungs, noting the easy-going manner of the locals, offering "Selamat Pagi" ("Good Morning") to a million smiling kids calling out from the houses on stilts, or stopping off for a water break in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the amazing absence of sound.
The boat was waiting at another jetty on the other side, like a promise fulfilled. Quick work was made of more water and cold Tiger and we were soon off to another island. While we cruised, we ate an excellent Indonesian lunch, prepared on board by the best local cooks money can hire.
We stopped on the way for a swim on an idyllic sliver of beach at the tip of Pulau Combol. The midday sun was scorching, but one of the group, Duncan, insisted on being photographed on the white sand. He was returning to the U.S. for a Christmas visit in a week's time and wanted to taunt his snow-bound coterie of friends and family. Nothing worse than kicking them when they're down.
I went snorkeling alone, out toward the end of the beach, and suddenly got very excited when I came across an encrusted Chinese pottery shard half buried in the sand. I knew that the whole area was considered a safe harbour for storms during the monsoon season. As well, the Riau Islands were smack in the middle of the ancient trading routes running from China to India. I thought I must have stumbled onto the wreck of a Chinese junk, and I got so excited, I came up sputtering swallowed water. None of my friends were around to share my discovery, so I went down again, trepidaciously turning a corner of rock to get a better look.
I found myself hovering over an underwater refuse dump. To my dismay, the sea floor was littered with a disgusting mess of broken bottles, old tires, used car batteries, and, yes, old crockery. My treasure-hunter fantasy crushed, I skittered out of the water in a panic and walked back to the boat. Other casualties (besides my hopes of gold and glory) included a kiss from a jellyfish, a snap from the claws of a large-ish hermit crab who apparently didn't like being poked at, and Duncan getting too much sun.
The next island, Pulau Sugi, featured a more advanced trail, which meant that we were into some serious exercise. We started by carrying our bikes up a steep embankment, and then we pushed along paths that led through a thick rainforest jungle. It had rained the night before, so the trails were pocketed with puddles of soupy mud and standing water. This was when it got to be really fun. We had to build up enough speed to get ourselves through the particularly sticky bits without tumbling off or careening into each other. By the end of the day, after going through so much mud from so many different spots, I ended up looking like a muck-hued Jackson Pollock painting, with spots and spats of mud adorning the canvas of my lower half.
Evan mentioned that some of these islands had not been visited by outsiders since World War II. Stopping for a water break in the heart of Sugi, in the middle of a rubber plantation, I believed him. I took photos of what looked like a Medieval, hand-powered rubber press and looked over sheets of rubber drying in the sun. Small Chinese shrines lay enfolded in the arms of the jungle, just down the path from overgrown Muslim burial grounds. Meter-long black iguanas scattered from the sunny footpaths as we sped in and out of the glade. Canopies of banana and palm leaves made most of the biking cool and shady, but we were happy for the hats we wore. The sun came crashing down on the open trails, and we quickly went through the water bottles on our bikes. By the time we reached the other side, we were more than ready for a shower and a snooze.
Dinner was a feast of roast fish, sambal prawns, fried rice and extremely delicious, sun-ripened pineapple. The boat had cruised across to Pulau Moro, and we moored off the main town's only jetty. We ate our meal as the sun went down, and our munching was accompanied by the haunting warble of the final call to prayer for the day for the island's Muslims. Evan suggested that we visit Moro's finest establishment, a Chinese restaurant/bar/karaoke place for drinks. Like sailors on leave, we swaggered into this tiny town of maybe 400 people. There were no cars on the island, but plenty of energetic men competed for our attention to get us to ride in their becaks, or trishaws. Given that the town ran out after only 200 meters, we decided to continue swaggering instead. Few visit Moro, and it seemed that the entire population of townsfolk came out of their homes and shops along the dark main street to see us measure its length. We entered a long, narrow Chinese establishment, went through a store front, down a stock room alley, up a set of stairs and finally emerged into a main dining/singing/drinking area. We asked for some music, then quickly countermanded our request, as they had begun to set up preparations for karaoke. We called for beer, and they promptly hauled up two full cases of Heineken and a bucket of ice. "Ada bir dingin?" ("Do you have cold beer?") merely produced puzzled expressions, so we decided to forgo hygiene rather than drink warm beer.
Later, back on the boat, we told rounds of jokes and listened to the sounds of the kampung before making our own bedtime preparations and lying down next to each other on the deck atop comfortable foam mats. It was quite a bit like camping, except we were on a boat, so we all regressed into teenage sleepover mode, and the jokes continued, along with whispered conversations, until we all fell into a deep, dead sleep.
The next day's activities followed a similar pattern, except that we got lost as we cycled across Pulau Moro. Evan led us astray; he had not been to this island in some time, and he was feeling his way along the various trails, looking for a specific path. We climbed great hills and then delighted in the descent, hot-dogging our way down, only to discover that we had taken a wrong turn and had ended up on the doorstep of a lonely and isolated fishing family's hut. At another point, we turned a corner to discover ourselves in the middle of an active sand quarry, and we had to dodge dump trucks and drag our tires out of the trucks' ruts. Once we got to the other side of the quarry, we stopped for a cold drink at a dusty little place called the Love Disco Bar. The "manager" sent someone off on a motorcycle for ice. While we waited, we sat around a rough-hewn picnic table and provided hapless entertainment to the 10 young Indonesian women who were lounging about, applying make-up, eating bits of cake and preparing for the shift change at the quarry.
It was over too soon, and we were bundled off through Indonesian immigration, saddle-sore and sweaty. The envelope of our lives in Singapore re-opened as we crossed the water. Work, family, my impending fatherhood - each had briefly been put away for the weekend, but now it was time for life to resume. The weekend was a triumph of good weather and great friends, but, to be honest, it still hurts when I sit down.