Motorcycling in Borneo
June 24, 2014
Saddle up for a full-throttle motorcycle tour of the wild island’s untamed terrain. Story and photos by Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
Published on Jun 23, 2014
The very name of the place, Borneo, evokes images of sweat-soaked explorers hacking paths through the jungle, of headhunters, orangutans, and pygmy elephants and rhinos. My vision of this untouched island may have been dated, but for years I’d dreamed of exploring Borneo on two wheels—navigating through a land steeped in mystery and intrigue where I’d motorcycle through waterfalls, follow fire trails to remote mountain villages and discover sleepy river towns. Now, I’m spending a weekend making that dream a reality, riding from Kota Kinabalu to the northern tip of Borneo with Bryan Wade, a former British motocross champion who, for the past eight years, has made a mission of showing his adopted island home to motorbike enthusiasts on a fleet of Aprilia 650cc trail bikes.
The open road
Gray Steel, as I dubbed my Aprilia, roars with approval as I drop her into third gear, lean ever-so-slightly to the left, and shoot up along a sweeping incline of the Kimanis Bypass. A former logging route crossing the Crocker Range—a mountainous spine capped by Mt. Kinabalu, one of the mightiest peaks in all of Southeast Asia—it has the look and feel of something out of the French Alps and flips my preconception of Borneo on its head. Upwards it climbs like a phoenix through thickly forested ridges, where the relentless, steaming heat of the lowland dissipates into cool highland breezes that blow clouds and mist across the road over the rooftop of the world.
Some of Borneo’s trees are centuries old
After coasting down the southern face of the Crocker we charge into a valley carpeted with rice fields. The heat returns with a vengeance; Bryan suggests we counter it with swim at a little waterfall that lies at the end of the road. There, I park by a hut and we set off on a short walk through the jungle to a freshwater swimming pool fed by a 10-meter-high cascade. I nearly hiss with delight as I jump in for a swim, gazing at the beauty of some of the 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 types of trees found in what is one of the world’s oldest rain forests.
Catch of the day
“This is Slalom,” Bryan says later as we come to another intersection that snakes down an uninterrupted 38-kilometer-long series of S bends, swerves and tangles of switchbacks. At its conclusion, it drops us onto a four-lane highway that leads all the way to Kudat, the northernmost town in Borneo, where we stop at a Chinese restaurant for a few bowls of spicy pork noodles and walk it off with a stroll to Kudat’s dockside fish market. The atmosphere is electric, though it’s the hawkers that make the memory gold—hardworking, friendly folk who gladly pose, beaming for photos even though they’re well aware we’re not buying anything.
The last leg of the day takes us down a gravel track hugging a palm fringed coast. Bryan’s rear tire kicks up a cloud of dust as he races off, creating a long gray plume in his wake. An hour later we arrive at a parking lot on the headland at the very tip of Borneo, a lonely outpost where the sun melts into a blood-red horizon. “For me the attraction of Borneo is the diversity in the terrain,” Bryan says. “If you’re really quick, there’s all the Formula 1-type slaloms you could ever wish for. If you want to go off-road, there are equivalent gravel routes on all our tours, or we can take you into the jungle and get up to your knees in mud. When you add up all the elements, Borneo really is the ultimate biker’s paradise.”
The “Alps” of Southeast Asia
After spending a day burning rubber on asphalt and dirt, I’ve seen enough to know Bryan is right—this truly is one of the world’s great motorbike touring destinations. But with only one day left, there’s no time to wax lyrical. There’s too much road left to ride. Borneo Biking Adventures; +61 13 552 7313; borneobikingadventures.com; guided motorbike tours of Sabah including airport transfers, bike insurance and fuel RM700 a day. Accommodation options range from RM150 to RM450, including breakfast and laundry.