Bintan, the Indonesian isle a stone’s throw away, just south of the equator from our trail starved uban jungle, is purportedly a haven for MTB, or so claims our guides from Base Camp. They are holding a supposedly MTB centric Adventure Race (AR in their lingo) out of Bintan Resorts, the overpriced establishments on the north shore of the island that someone once said was Singapore’s Suzhou of resorts. Togoparts is the main media partner of the event and to be fair to the sponsors, organizers, and of course the masses that will read this article, we had to check out these claims. Base Camp was going to bring us on a ménage de a trios, a threesome bike trek and kayak tour of their race route, sans rope elements. This was going to end at Nirwana Gardens Hotel, the official resort for the Bintan Coconut blast.We met our guide from Base Camp at the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. Ian our guide was riding a real beat up 95’ GT LTS which he never maintained. He managed Base Camp and was involved in a few different AR projects every time. This guy lives and breathes AR and he knows virtually everybody in the local adventure scene. We’d be taking the 8am ferry to Bintan and we would get there before eight Indonesian time, assisted by the magic of traveling across time zones. This means we have the whole day to ride, which beats the commute times required of Malaysian destinations. Magic indeed.
Comings & Goings
On the ferry, I quizzed him more on Bintan. “So why are you doing this for Bintan Resorts? Aren’t they a bit overpriced?” I fired straight. “Well the place has got potential, it just has to be sold right.” He answered before going into a rhetorical diatribe of how he thinks Bintan is divided into three authorities, namely the Singapore Government, the Indonesian Government and some rich businessman landowner near Tanjung Pinang. All three keep to themselves and have some high and heady plans to turn the place into a Bali-esque resort destination. “What about the problem of security and Bintan’s ill-repute as a haven for Singaporean Ah Pek’s looking for cheap sex?” I fired another tough question. He answered that Bintan Resorts was virtually mini Singapore and the auxiliary police force even did the under car bomb screenings with the little “mirror trolleys” at all major entry points. Many of the resort managers were retired SAFt officers and they could probably organize their own little militia to fight terrorist. Outside in “cowboy country” was a different ball game, generally the people are friendly but riots did break out in the past. “They keep telling me to beware of the dark skinned Indonesians from Flores but I can’t seem to remember seeing any.” He quipped. With regards to the world’s oldest profession he said it was very contained in a secluded squatter style colony away from tourist eyes. The problem was killing the demand more than containing the supply however. “You hear too much BS, better to see for yourself, I can bring you there but I’m married to Jesus” He ended.
The boat did get to the island before eight. We cleared customs and immigrations in a jiffy and the first stop we would make was for the Pujasera, the local hawker center, “Welcome back to Singapore.” Ian declared as we rode into a town center not far from the ferry terminal. Tucked into a cluster of single storey dorm buildings was a HDB style hawker center, complete with an exact replica of a HDB playground. Heck! even the hawkers had ABC cleanliness gradings. We got a couple of cheap 20 cent ice teas and sat down to Pow wow the ride, whipping out a google map of the area, he traced out the race route. Apparently he did not care if his race route would be disclosed because he knew no one could find it. “It’s not like woodcutter’s or BT”. “Over here there are so many trailheads, so many junctions, so many possibilities of getting lost that even I get lost!” he said it well. I did have consolation that he had a trick looking GPS unit mounted on his handlebar. It probably cost more than his beat up bike.
Nat Geo Riding
First up was the ride on what he called the tombstone trail, the single track Ian claimed would put you in the grave. We had a few miles of straightness before hanging a right off the main resort trunk road (certain details omitted for secrecy) to grind up a little knoll. “Let’s hope this is worth it.”
We got off road at the hill top and the next thing I knew, we were cruising down a rutted downhill vehicle track through shrub land. He cut left onto a downhill single track, which probably was the motorcross race route he mentioned judging by the drops and “V” channels cut by water flowing down. It resembled stretches of woodcutter’s trail and it made for tricky riding. Where water flows, it pools as well, and once we hit a lower gradient, we had to cross a marsh, and then a stream, and then a marsh. “National Geographic Riding” they call it. This was distinctly different from any ride in Singapore and Malaysia without a doubt. The water depth was shallow and rideable, after all we had dry weather on our side. Not so come race day in end October when the monsoons would start. The flats turned into a rubber forest, and then back again into “Nat Geo” territory. This time we had grip assistance from narrow tree trunks laid perpendicular to the trail to form some sort of platform beneath the water. Blessings turned into curses when the trunks switched directions under the murky water, going parallel instead of cross wise. Both tires slipped instantly at high speed and I flew straight into the water. There goes the shoes and the clothes in one single action. Apparently there was a reason why Ian stopped to push his bike.
Free Land for All
Wet but not weary, we climbed up a small slope into a rubber forest and then stopped at the site that would give this trail it’s nickname. Two graves, looking freshly dug, sat forlornly in the middle of the rubber forest. No tombstones anywhere though. “You can be a squatter anywhere in a third world country, even when you kick the bucket ” Ian retorted. From that landmark on, it was mostly rubber forest fringing the southern edge of the Bintan Resorts reservoir, which looked on the map like a bird’s foot stamped onto the green plain. We could feel the presence of the water’s edge even if we could not see it. The trail went up and down easy, past a rubber tapper’s hut before we climbed a slope towards a bare patch overlooking the water. Somehow it felt like the Australian desert, not just because of the barren red earth, but also the feeling of an expanse much larger than the jungle we get in Singapore.
From the reservoir viewpoint, we tackled a steep downhill with weird, hard and rounded bumps of soil before we climbed again and reached the tip of one of the reservoir fingers. There was a path to the other bank, going across depression that used to be underwater until the reservoir receded. We rode across and it started to climb uphill all the way on the other bank, a seemingly never ending climb compared to Singapore’s mole hills. At the base of the first descent from the long climb, Ian made a sudden U-turn cutting onto a trail that was barely there, or so I thought. Many of these track were barely trafficked and loosely frequented by fishermen who would rather walk than scooter through, this one he picked was akin to a poacher’s trail. He went ahead full speed right into the brush, sniffing out a traill which popped in and out of sight. The trail was nondescript except for a stretch that afforded us a glimpse of Gunung Bintan, a 300m high mount down south. Standing alone in the horizon, It certainly looked more impressive than Bukit Timah. “Wonder if we can ride it?” I thought. The trail carried on pass a small patch of forest, uphills and downhills, before we hit the halfway point on a wide dirt track. A bunch of tattered colored flags was all that marked the junction. “Leftovers from the motorcross” our guide remarked.
The next part was pretty straightforward, more riding through brush following an overgrown trail up a hill, trying to figure out the best line to take as the wheels acted in lawnmower mode. This was part of the old road (road here in kampungville means dirt track) that linked the Bintan Lagoon Resorts area with the main Tanjung Pinang Trunk road. Abandoned since the resorts started ten years ago, The jungle reclaimed it somewhere near the reservoir according to our guide. This time, more trail nose was required as there seemed to be multiple tracks going in the same
direction, all through the same patch of Lallang brush. We hit the hill top and had a break because it was blazing hot. Here in Bintan, heat was the number one enemy and electrolytes and plenty of water are your fellow soldiers. We could see the communications tower that we rode past when we started early in the morning. It seemed so close but yet so far. Clipping in, we started a descent into rubber forest. It was cruising downhill through rubber till we hit the first Kampung nestled in some sort of valley between two ridges. It was really idyllic to have a little house out there in the secluded valley surrounded by rubber trees, and us tourists on wheels seemed alien to the few villagers that we rode past. This was their little Shangri-La hidden from the resorts. The trail here was sheltered by rubber trees, giving us much of a respite from the blazing heat that we encounteredor earlier on. But our respite was short lived when it started to climb up along a ridgeline straight into the merciless sun. It was hot but the view riding along the ridge was magnifique, with the green rolling hills and ridges around us clearly visble as we made the ascent. This woujld be the last stretch of the single track loop in the race and it would certainly be fulfilling to those who could make it this far. Better cherish it while it was there. Once we hit tarmac, the finale was a massive killer road climb that never seemed to end.
We cleared the long uphill, got back onto the main resort trunk road and headed east to the reservoir recreational area. Somebody didn’t inform the boatmen we had booked the boats for the recce, and our watercraft were already skippered away by a bunch of Korean tourist. It only proves that Murphy is the law around these parts. We headed straight for Club Med for the icing on the cake, the long coasteering leg. There were no girls in Bikinis to greet us at the famous resort, apparently we had to use the deserted beach that could only be accessed via a service road through club med. From then on it would be an hour or more of rugged deserted coastline facing the South China Sea smack on. The beach was indeed pretty, just as depicted in the resort brochures. But here, there were absolutely no tourists to share the beach with, just miles of solitude in white sand and rock.
To the inexperienced adventure racing wannabe(me) who hasn’t exactly figured out ropes or rocks, coasteering was a crash course in the latter. Coasteering is a mix of rock scrambling, beach running, wading, swimming and whatever works best to go from A to B on “beach”. This particular Bintan beach was littered with huge white round boulders, with no clear path to take. All you could do was hop skip jump your way through this boulder garden. Absolute trust in your footing and balance was mandatory gear in this ball game. Every path you took required you to look, see, think, even feel on the move. Ian was making short work of the coasteering, literally flying through sections where the fastest way was just to jump wide stretches. Although the beach was brilliant, with crystal clear water and the jungle touching the sea, I was overloaded by the multitude of possibilities and dangers. My head was a melee of doubtful neurons, postulating whether this way was faster or that, and whether my feet would hold on that darker colored rock. After some demonstration with explanation from the maestro on route finding (white rock ok, brown ok, black absolutely slippery) I was able to make some headway through the mess. We soon hit a stretch Ian called boulder haven, a bunch of pretty rock arranged almost Stonehenge style by the sea.
Next up was to cut through a waist high Lallang field on a stretch of headland jutting out to sea. Instead of going around the rocks, the uphill detour probably saved half an hour or so, but there was barely any track to follow. Just a general bearing westwards to a tree in the distance. The lallang field was in “bloom” and we waded through a sea of white furry Lallang cattails like in the “Gladiator”. It was a breathtaking place, like those summer meadows in temperate climes, except now we had the sea crashing into the rocks to add some drama to the romance with nature.
Apparently the lone tree marked the edge of the field at a slope, and we tumbled down what was a steep track onto a rockless beach that stretched some ways west. I trudged past happy that there were no speed bump boulders here to negotiate, only a beached backed up by a field sitting in a valley fringed by low hills. The headland we crossed earlier encircled the field on the east side and another ridge bounded the west edge. This was indeed a perfect place to park a beach resort. Too bad no buyers.
Heading west we hit rock again to my dismay, but the rocks were brief and we were led to wade across a shallow stretch of coast. The shin high water was easy to ford, except there were sponges, anemones, sea cucumbers, and hard coral to avoid. With the training route cleared earlier, the next stretch of rock was a major test, with boulders bigger, gaps wider, drops deeper, and adrenaline always higher. Ian had to give a bit more assists here, pointing out where we could avoid an Aaron Ralston (The guy who cut his own arm off when he got stucj between a rock and a hard place).
What rewarded us after the big boulder test was a stretch of low seaside cliff flat enough to run on. It was like a balcony walk along the South China Sea. From there, the end was near and we could see the remains of the old jetty that marked the point to turn inland. That inland track would lead us past a house, between two “lakes” which probably used to be a sand quarry, and up through a short moonscape stretch of sand formations cut by water, and down a track that would lead all the way back to the reservoir.
That little hike seemed to take forever now that I was almost spent. Apparently coasteering had it’s visual rewards and mental pains. We reached the main trunk road and decided to hitch a ride back to Club Med. A good idea considering we were only two third through the whole loop.
Heaven Gardens & Korean Chicks
Back on bike, everything was randy dandy. We sped past the reservoir and headed for Nirwana Gardens off road, turning onto a wide flat vehicle track that led to Kampung Baru, one of the old Kampungs that was spared from the developers bulldozer. Kampung Baru led to the rear gate of the Angsana Golf course. Our steeds managed to avoid the mirror trolleys of the security men at the Banyan Tree / Angsana checkpoint (not that there was any undercarriage anyway) and soon we were home free in Nirwana Gardens Land, the official race resort for the coconut blast. Mr Maniac race director had a final card up his sleeve, which was a treacherous hike a bike up a steep, treacherous hill slope to the traverse point. Apparently the race director was hell bent on making the trip memorable, with the bike becoming a total bane as we grabbed ropes, fought slippery slopes, and rested on saplings that offered a respite from the climbing. Totally sapped at this stage, my sweet little Ti bike seemed to weigh a ton.
We made it up to the top of the hill with too much effort. This hill overlooked an old quarry with a canyon of sorts down below. Our trip was sans ropes so we were spared the vertical stuff, except going down the access road which Ian sadistically skipped. Nirwana means heaven in bahasa, and that was proper for what seemed like an endless adventure. Our efforts were totally rewarded at the hotel, not by the welcome dancers at the lobby, but by the sight of Korean girls frolicking at the pool in bikinis that would put any K-drama to shame. There was heaven too at the coffee house where a buffet spread awaited us, compliments of the hotel. Everything seems like heaven when you go though hell week in one day doesn’t it.
We had covered sixty over kilometers, rode marvelous single track, scrambled a breathtaking stretch of coastline, hiked an impossible hill with bikes, and reached the heaven of beach resorts. This race course indeed blasted the limits of my endurance, but it’s a real eye opener in terms of terrain, course design as well as hospitality. There is no doubt that the AR crowd would have a blast of a time in this race, if they rode mountain bikes.
To sign up for the Bintan Coconut Blast, visit http://www.coconutblast.com
Tel: (+65) 7737000
Fax: (+65) 67751077
Race Director : Ian Ng (aka Ian) 97856170
Route Director : Su Junjie (aka JJ) 98257940
Technical Director : Jasmine Low (aka Ah Boy) 93834601
To sign up for the Togoparts Bintan Mass Ride on the 29th Oct 2006 (Sunday) register at: