Brutal Indonesia: Cycle Touring Sulawesi On Folding Bikes

This is a guest post by Marco Ferrarese. I met Marco on the road last year in Armenia and knew a fellow free spirit when I saw one. Turns out his back catalogue of adventures is fascinating, and he’s a damn fine writer too. So when I heard he was off on his first unplanned bike trip – on a folding bike across Sulawesi – and since we’ve been on the subject of cycle touring in southeast Asia recently, I invited him to tell us about it here.

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“I… can… do… it!!!”

Even my thoughts were exhausted. I was pushing up the umpteenth hill, which had come after yet another mountain, in an interminable series of harsh slopes I had to endure on my short bike tour of central Sulawesi: a very hard place for a biker’s maiden voyage.

The day before, as I started cycling from the small town of Ampana, the landing point for most travellers bound for the Togian Islands, I had seen a huge poster advertising a “Tour De Central Celebes”. The route I’d decided to take was the same chosen to host an international cycling race just a couple weeks before. Days later, a local told me that an American cyclist had puked midway, stopping for the day as the ride was too tough.

It became clear as I pushed on my tiny foldable pedals, inching my way up the umpteenth bend, that this wasn’t the best place for a total cycle touring newbie. Especially a total newbie on a tiny folding bicycle.

Why cycling in Indonesia, of all things?

Let me rewind and tell you a bit about myself. I am Marco Ferrarese, a travel writer, and I’ve spent 10 years living, studying and researching in Asia. “Travel writer” sounds quite pompous and fancy, for sure, but among my modest achievements I do have bylines in the Guardian, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, Nikkei Asian Review, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and more airline magazines that I can remember.

I’ve lived in Southeast Asia, on the beautiful and historically rich island of Penang in Malaysia, for a decade. I pour some of that knowledge in a series of guidebooks to Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, which I co-author for the Rough Guides, one of the world’s leading travel publishers.

My wife, Malaysian-Chinese photographer Kit Yeng Chan, was on another folding bike. Kit and I have travelled together for the best part of the above mentioned decade, before we married last year. Since meeting her in 2008, we have visited more than 30 countries together, overlanding from Asia to Europe twice. We have always travelled by hitchhiking or using trains and public transport.

Cycle touring has been at the back of our minds for years, but for one reason or another – i.e. carrying expensive photography gear on assignment – we never really decided to do it. I, like many others I guess, stumbled upon Tom’s three steps to cycling around the world and totally loved the simplistic attitude. As a former metalpunk guitarist and cockroach Asia Old Hand, it was exactly what I had been doing for a decade, sans the bike.

I was lucky enough to cross paths with Tom last year in Armenia as Kit and I journeyed from Iran to Italy overland to get married. After meeting up, my desire for cycle touring grew stronger and stronger. On the eve of yet another research trip – this time to ride a Phinisi live-aboard boat across the eastern Indonesian islands – we decided to do it.

We bought two 14-speed, 20″-wheel folding bikes… and that was it, because we didn’t even have the time to find helmets, let alone panniers. We got some bungee cords, a sun hat in place of a helmet, a few big plastic bags (that’s waterproofing for the real adventurer), and off we went. We thought that, with a bit of willpower and figuring out things as we went, touring on folding bikes should be totally possible. And besides the bloody Sulawesi mountains, it sure was.

Cycling in remote Sulawesi: some important basics

Think of Indonesia and images of Bali’s trash-cluttered beaches or Java’s horrible traffic and mind-boggling temples may come to mind. Sulawesi is an entirely different kind of beast.

Possibly the oddest-shaped island in the world, as it looks like a letter ‘K’ with a very long upper arm, Sulawesi’s beauty is the fact it’s well off the tourist radar. Its people are the most welcoming blend of Christians – particularly in the northern region of Manado – and Muslims, and you won’t find many English speakers here. The good thing is that basic Bahasa Indonesia is pretty easy to master, and you’ll be able to communicate simply in no time. A little bit of language here goes a very long way, and you’ll have a much better experience.

Sulawesi’s nature and topography are its second perk: mountains spread from the centre all over the island, nestling almost all the way to the coasts – which are endless, pristine, and uncontaminated. Hundreds of kilometres of perfect coves, beaches and offshore islands, palm-fringed and inviting, wait for you round all corners. Throw in some endemic monkeys, such as the Macaca Nigra (remember the monkey selfie? Yes, that one) and plenty of birds, and you get a timeless Southeast Asian experience. Forget the 7/11s, clean bedsheets and Wi-Fi: this is another world.

The part of Sulawesi we cycled, starting in Ampana and proceeding 200km south along the western side of Poso Lake, Indonesia’s third-biggest, has recently recovered from a religious inter-ethnic conflict, which came to an end in 2011. It’s safe again now, but the reputation doesn’t attract many travellers, who usually zoom from famous Tanah Toraja to Ampana and jump on the first boat to the Togian islands. Big mistake, for the Poso region may as well be the hidden gem in Sulawesi’s crown.

One last hint regarding Sulawesi’s food: it’s generally tasty and cheap, but, like eastern Indonesian food in general, it relies heavily on rice and fish. If you are a vegetarian you may have a bit of a hard time finding different options rather than the same tempe (a crunchy soy bean derivate, very delicious) and kailan (local green veggies) every day.

Pros of cycling in central Sulawesi

  1. The biggest plus has got to be the friendly people who are genuinely curious about foreigners, and are always ready to help. We cycled for five days and, even having camping equipment, we always ended up staying with locals. Either we slept in their homes or camped in their gardens, they always had some food and drinks to offer. Which doesn’t mean you should come prepared to exploit the people of Sulawesi, rather that you can be more relaxed in terms of carrying provisions, for hospitality here is very genuine.
  2. Again, speaking a bit of the language is helpful to open more of the doors. We found most people of all age groups to be very curious about us, and open to share what they had. Make sure that, whenever you enter a village, you visit the ‘kepala desa’ (village chief) and explain your intentions. Most of the time, you will be automatically invited to pitch your tent or stay in a local home. If you travel as an unmarried couple, I believe it pays to say you are married, especially in those Muslim villages that may shun you if you don’t. Best keep any Western pride at home and respect local sensitivities.
  3. Point one also means that food is available in most villages en route, and you will never cycle for more than 20km without some sign of civilisation.
  4. There are more ‘bengkel’ than food shops. ‘Bengkel’ are motorcycle workshops, and we used them all the time to check and fix the bikes. I had three punctures, and each time, one of these shops fixed it quickly for a mere 5,000 to 10,000 Rupiahs (0.30 to 0.60 USD). Again, people are friendly, and will go out of their way to make sure you and your vehicle are safe and sound.

Cons of cycling in central Sulawesi

  1. It’s very hot. You will have to start as early as possible and stop by midday, or you’ll risk heatstroke. Sunset comes early at around 6 to 6:30 pm, meaning that riding time is limited to a minimum, unless you scoot out of bed at 5 am like most locals.
  2. The roads are quite well maintained, but turn into gravel the more you proceed around the lake itself.
  3. There are no bicycle shops outside of Manado and Makassar, both hundreds of kilometres away.
  4. You will not learn anything about fixing and maintaining your bike, because people will do it for you!

Cycle touring with folding bicycles

Call me a wuss because I only cycled 200km and then put the bike on top of a shared taxi to get to the next stop. In my defence, I’m pushing 40, and although I’m modestly fit, the terrain of Sulawesi is harsh. We never started this trip with the obsession that we had to cycle every inch of the way – we just wanted to have a good time, trying something we never tried before.

But it turned out that, besides having 10kg of luggage strapped with flimsy cords on top of the rear rack, a 20″-wheel folding bike can do the job quite happily. The bikes (Exitway March and Nevada models) felt quite sturdy, were easy enough to tighten up when the joints felt wobbly, and most important, folded in less than 10 seconds. This last part impressed us as much as the locals.

Also, locals had never seen a folding bike before, and this added to our killer surprise effect. The local kids would follow us on their cranky little bikes as far as the remotest limits of their villages. Village headmen would look at our rides with faces so pitiful; the next thing we knew their wives were coming with hot food and drinks. And the coffee is delicious over there. And of course it was very easy to fold the bikes and transport them on the many boats we took prior to reaching Sulawesi.

Because of pure physics, a folding bike usually means fewer gears, and less mileage because of smaller wheels. I am convinced that, if I’d had a regular touring bike, the task of knocking off those mountain passes would have been more merciful.

But the key, as I anticipated earlier, was embracing flexibility more than anything else: we started our trip in Makassar, took a 4-day ferry ride all the way to West Papua, and from there hopped on the Phinisi back to the Moluccas. There was so much water in between the land we explored that a regular touring bike would have been a pain in the neck to lug around.

In conclusion

We would have been able to continue on the folding bikes much further if we had had more time and preferably better gear – at the very least a pair of proper panniers. Tying the luggage to the rear rack every morning was such a sweaty waste of time. We will test the folders again in peninsular Malaysia, on pretty flat terrain, to see how far they can actually take us on less taxing road conditions.

Until then, my final message is that I vouch for doing whatever we set our minds to, rather than argue over the superiority of regular or folding bikes. I don’t care, to be honest. I feel fortunate enough to have decided to go, and tested first hand that Tom’s suggestion works: just get a bike and go, and figure out the rest later. Sulawesi proved to be a perfect place, because regardless of the steep terrain, the human element was always there to help.

As for myself, I think that by now, I may be able to change an inner tube – but not like an Indonesian mechanic, oh no. They do it without taking the wheel off, and there’s no way a loser writer like myself will ever master that skill.

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