MICK COOPES drags a bicycle through the wilds of Toraja, South Sulawesi.
We left the west coast fishing port of Polewali pre-dawn, armed with more enthusiasm than common sense. A trio of cycling nuts - Rieks, an entomologist and part-time adventurer, Ian, engineer and sports fanatic, and myself, expedition chef and hopelessly inadequate linguist. We had stacked up on sweet biscuits, canned herring, and cooked rice, eggs and veges wrapped in banana leaves.
Several days later we left the Mamasa River and started climbing. Narrowing to the head of the valley northeastwards, the road deteriorated into a four-wheel drive farce. Fully loaded, our 30 kilogram road bikes made even pushing on the rock-strewn path a struggle. All afternoon we sweated, swore and swerved our way up through the primary jungle.
Unable to reach the summit pass, we camped mid-track at 1600 metres under our mozzie nets. A cool white mist rolled in to envelop the forest. We sat up talking about a confrontation with the anoa - a deer-like buffalo with small horns and a big territorial aggression. An occasional lone traveller padded by us during the night, on that most common means of conveyance, the rubber thong.
At the top next morning we found an ancient truck and hut, abandoned by the colonial Dutch before World War II. On the descent we realised how lucky we had been thus far. The track was so appalling I had to disassemble my bike to get it over gullies. It took over four hours to travel five kilometres, losing several hundred metres elevation. The views were stunning. At last we arrived - at Ibu Theresa's Ave Maria Homestay. The walls were awash with icons. She was keen to have us stay. Much of her income depends on passing travellers. We were slightly deflated to hear about two Belgian girls who had come this way on bicycles three years earlier. Two days later we limped into the market town of Tandung. Ian had had enough of the humidity and the canned herring. We pooled our meagre funds to buy him a jeep ride out to Makale. For Rieks and I, the afternoon was an ordeal of mud, outrageously steep inclines and chewed out jeep tracks. Other travellers walked behind mountain ponies.
Later Ian, looking white in the face, passed us, squeezed into an ancient Toyota with half a dozen Torajans, their goats and baskets. His bike sat on the roof of the lurching, labouring rust bucket. Mud is probably the worst thing you can do to a bicycle. The chain and wheels got so badly clogged that all moving parts would cease to function. But as we approached town, the road 'improved', and we enjoyed a butt-jarring clatter down-hill. We rode into the beautiful regional capital elated, filthy, unshaven, and with torn saddle bags and twisted rack mounts. Rieks' rear rim, which he had bought cheap from a Chinese becak owner in Pare Pare, was disintegrating. And there was Ian, looking cool and relaxed, freshly shaven, a coke in one hand, toasted jaffle in the other. He called out from the verandah: 'So look what the cats dragged in!'.
Michael Coopes comes from Brisbane. He has ridden many thousands of kilometres around Australia.