Malaysia to Singapore to Malaysia
After driving for exactly four months, our big day was finally here. We were now just a few hours drive to the border, a few hours from the goal that we’d been aiming for. It was strange packing the bikes for the last time, knowing that this was our last day of riding. After this, there was still some more admin to do, a ride down to the docks, no doubt, but as far as our journey was concerned, we would be done by the end of the day. We have travelled 22,200 km, across 17 countries and three continents in these past 123 days. We have slept in beds in 64 different towns, once on the side of a Pakistani highway, the floor of an Ethiopian bar another, on the deck of a ship, inside a Turkish bus while the snow and icy air brought the surrounding temperatures to minus twelve degrees, in the back of a truck wedged beneath four motorcycles, on an airport floor, on a unbearably long train ride in 45 degree temperatures, and three times in tents when alternative lodging could not be found. We have had days of no food and days of plentiful generosity. We have experienced over 17 flat tyres, eight broken shock absorbers, snapped clutch and choke cables, re-welded a shock attachment and clutch pedal, jump-, push- and tow-started bikes on countless occasions when the batteries have failed, replaced an entire battery, replenished the acid when it’s run dry on us, tinkled with engines and carburettors….and in fact, just so much more! What a phenomenal privilege.
We took our time loading up, chatting with the bikers from the festival, and trying to soak in the moment. We had a couple more quotes we were waiting for, and e-mails to send, and so it was only after 11:00 that we were on our way. The driving was easy, but our heads were a whirl of thoughts and emotions. By lunchtime, we had reached the Malaysian border, efficiency to the extreme. In fact, we weren’t even required to present any paperwork, and we had to chase up the officials to find out where to get our carnets processed. When I managed to find the office, I had to show the young official there how to fill them in, and show her which parts she needed to keep. And with that, we were free to go. It was quite a distance to get to the Singapore side, but after driving along a stretch of highway, we turned a corner and there was the bridge leading over the channel, and on the other side: Singapore. We drove slowly across, and stopped underneath the “Welcome to Singapore” sign to get one last round of photos. And then we were driving through to the immigration desk.
Right from the get-go, it was clear that while Singapore may be very regimented and bureaucratic, this was by no means a sign of efficiency. Shan and Kath had even been warned to dispose of their chewing gum before entering, as chewing gum was an offense that could earn you a stiff fine if you were caught. “I’m not sure if they’ll confiscate it if it’s already in your mouth” the custom official kindly warned, “but maybe. Definitely any that you have loose”. After being directed to two closed booths, we finally managed to find one able to help us. We filled in our arrival cards, and with a minimum of fuss, we were through, and headed towards customs, bearing our carnets.
That was when the problems started. Upon presenting the customs official with the documents, he gave us a dubious look, and asked us for our third party insurance. Now this is pretty standard in many countries, and there is always a place to get it at the border. But not in Singapore, baby. It seems that one has to either take a bus through into the city (which we were not allowed to do, as we had to stay with our bikes), or one had to find a broker in Malaysia somewhere to organize it.
On top of that, there was another document required, called an International Circulation Permit (ICP). True to form, this could also not be obtained at the border, but should have been obtained before arrival. Before we had left South Africa, we had spoken to the AA to make sure that we had all our documents for each country in order. They assured us that only the carnet was required (and a subsequent e-mail apologizing profusely for this oversight was about as helpful as a PowerPoint presentation at a conference for the blind).
And Singapore being Singapore, there was nothing we could do. At any other border post we would have been able to make a plan, but here, inflexible bureaucracy is the name of the game. We pleaded, we begged, John and Dad even screamed (but seriously, they actually screamed – personal mental highlight for me) but nothing. And so with that, we had no choice but to turn around and make our way back to Malaysia. To add insult to injury, they even demanded that we pay $1 each for crossing the bridge, some sort of toll. It is difficult to explain the frustration that we felt at that point. To have worked so hard, gone through so much, all the punctures, the broken shock absorbers, the late night truck drives with the bikes strapped to the back, the terrible roads, the hungry days, and freezing cold nights, only to be turned away right at the end was quite devastating.
Back at the Malaysian border, the officials were extremely sympathetic and helpful, and cancelled our departure stamp. Maybe it was a kind of emotional shock setting in, but we actually were in pretty good spirits heading back through, cheering on the myriad bikes that streamed back across the border as Malaysian workers returned from Singapore. Shan even managed to high-five a fellow rider as they drove next to each other along the highway. We were later told that 100 000 bikes crossed through each day, and none of the people we saw ever stopped to go through any paperwork at all, no sign of a passport anywhere.
We made our way to the closest border town and found a hotel. We unloaded our bikes and dumped the bags in the room. It was a pretty subdued supper that we ate in our rooms. From here on out, it will just be a question of looking for the best way of getting the bikes back to SA, either trying to sort out the paperwork and getting them into Singapore, or finding a way to ship them from Malaysia
And so that was that. We decided that since we had been stamped through immigration, we had technically arrived in Singapore, but it was hardly the grand entry we had anticipated. Whichever way you looked at it though, we had done it: we had driven our bikes from Cape Town to Singapore, and now it was time to start setting our sights on home again.
We were now basically one night away from reaching Singapore, and so we planned to get as far as we could that day, in order to minimize our travel time tomorrow. Although we had originally intended to get an early start, that fell by the wayside a bit as we tried to make final plans with Mat about shipping arrangements. Eventually, close to 10:00, we were on the road again. From here, the road made its gradual descent back down the plains below, but today we were having to navigate roads that were far more crowded then yesterday. If anything, the bends in the roads were even sharper, and overtaking became a bit of a nightmare. After five minutes of this, Kath, who has been riding on the back of my bike, was already starting to feel a bit nauseous with all the braking, quick bursts of speed and the relentless corners. The vegetation on either side of the road was still dense and verdant, and as we descended, we could feel the humidity building once more. Along the way, we passed small villages of hill tribes that still eked a living, far from the bustle of the big cities.
After a couple of hours of this driving, we were finally back on the straight road. After a drinks break just outside of Kuala Lumpur, we said goodbye to our French travelling companion, and headed South on the highway. About about an hour later, we pulled off for petrol, and noticed a group of riders on vintage bikes, many of them completely dressed the part in half-helmets, goggles, leather jackets and bandanas. When we went over to chat to them, they told us that they were all on their way to a big vintage bike festival that was being held at Port Dickson, which was actually one of the options that we had discussed as a destination for the day. After conferring amongst ourselves, we decided to make our way to the hotel where the festival was happening.
Port Dickson was probably less than 100 km from where we were, and on these highways, we found ourselves outside the Glory Beach Hotel in under an hour. Half of the parking lot had been given over to the festival, and the bikers were everywhere. Our heavily laden beasts drew admiring stares as we pulled up, and despite the fairly plush look of the hotel, we managed to get an entire apartment for a pretty decent price. From the 11th floor, we had a stunning view of jungle on the one side, and the island studded ocean on the other. Even better, we could see a large swimming pool down below us, although it seems that the kids had claimed the one with the water slide for themselves, the treacherous curs. Within five minutes, we were in the water (t-shirt and shorted up, as per the customs), grateful for a chance to cool off, while around us, guys and girls huddled in their respective groups, with some of the ladies even sporting lycra headscarves in the pool. As the sun began to set, I left to go and watch the sunset from the balcony of our apartment, while the girls stayed to play piggy-in-the-middle with a group of delighted Malaysian guys. The sunset was breath-taking, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Some mysterious combination of clouds and sunlight made it seem as if drops of oil had been spilled across the sky forming rainbow bubbles in the clouds. In all my years of studying physics, I’ve never heard of a phenomenon like this, and I drank it in as the light dripped colours across the sky.
That evening, we ate at the hotel, a decent buffet spread, and then spent time wandering amongst the bikes, chatting to some of the riders, and admiring the vintage machines, some of them over fifty years old, and looking fantastic (the bike, not the bikers). Shan and Kath were roped in for multiple rounds of photos straddling the backs of the various biker’s respective machines. After a couple of rounds of walking the stalls, we returned back to the room to get ready for our final day of riding. With any luck, tomorrow would be the last time that we would have to pack our bikes!