Two of the toughest bike travelers I know, Salva and Adam, both good friends of mine, met in Sulawesi in 2009 and together they embarked on a journey that both described as unforgettable, not only for its outermost beauty, but also for the difficulty and intensity of the journey. When I consulted Adam about the possibility of doing such this ourselves, he said: "The ride through Kalimantan (which he had also recommended) is indeed hard, but the ride through the jungle in Sulawesi is actually extreme". If that had come from someone who has no clue about traveling by bicycle, I would not have payed much attention. However, a comment like this, coming from such an experienced cycle traveler like him had to be taken seriously. Before the time finally came, hardly a day went by without thinking whether it'd be possible for us to do this jungle stretch, I was even unable to catch sleep easily! I wasn't really worried about myself, after all it wouldn't be my first nor my last extreme journey but I wasn't really sure whether Julia was already prepared for such an extreme endeavor. However, Julia and I are very much alike in one particular thing: even when we are not sure if we can or cannot pull something off, we both like to take the shot anyway and go into it to put ourselves to test, even if that means we'll be cursing the whole way due to the strong adversity, because having failed to do so, the thirst for adventure and the need to push our limits, wouldn't allow us to keep living at ease if at least we hadn't tried it . It would mean keeping on living with the unbearable thought of not having tried and the countless "what would've happened if's ...." that would come along with them, this is a very heavy burden and believe me, it is really annoying, you just can't get over it. The road was there. It was just a we-do-it-or-not question. After all, there were only 120 km or so. Finally, by an unanimous decision, the answer was YES! and f**k it was worth it!
The first two days
After spending our last night on the west coast of the lake, there were only 30 km left until reaching the detour to Gimpu through the jungle. We did not know what to expect or how hard it was going to be, but the one thing we did know was that we had an extra difficulty that Adam and Salva hadn't had : we were undertaking this stretch during the rainy season. The rain and mud would worsen the conditions of the trails and there even was the risk of not being able to complete the journey altogether. It is important to know that once we set off for this, we had no other alternative to reach Palu, the only possibility would be to backtrack all the way, but given the difficulty of the trail and how hard it would be, that was simply not an option. We reached the detour at the northwest corner of the lake just before noon and from that moment onwards, the odyssey began. The asphalt disappeared completely , the trail became a sea of stones, mud, holes and craters on some brutal slopes. In my years of traveling by bicycle I had never ridden on slopes this steep , they were so steep that we abruptly gained altitude in no time. When the road was straight, I was literally "suffering" for every kilo I was carrying; 75kg with water and food. Every push on the pedal, meant using all the strength my muscles could give me, but cycling is primarily an aerobic exercise. Using force hurts, exhausts , disarms and rapidly suffocates. We could barely ride at some miserable 3.3 km/h. What's more, we had to do an incredible amount of effort with the arms to keep the handlebars straight and not fall between the stones. Our bodies sweated like never before and we had to stop every few meters to catch our breath.
When reaching the curves, the slope became so steep that together with the rolling stones it was literally impossible to pedal through. We had to get off and push the bikes, but on such terrible terrain and with such heavy load on the bike, at the time of pushing up, the strength itself would make the feet sink in the stones, we would lose control of the bikes and we would slide down several meters bellow. The more we climbed up, the more stunning the views of the lake were, but our mood and our physical conditions were severely affected. All this even made reluctant to stop and pull out my 2 kg camera out of its bag to take pictures. Even if I wanted to, the mere thought of the effort it would take to hold the bike still while shooting was completely demotivating, let alone the inability to compose a proper photograph. Throughout this section, I only took photos with my iPod or with my GoPro.
The scenery around was simply stunning: deep jungle. This first part of the journey was leading us to the secluded Bada Valley, for that reason, we only saw 2 or 3 trucks along the whole way. When we came across some of them completely stuck in the mud, it was easy to realize that no matter how hard it would be for us, we had it way better than these guys. These brave and experienced drivers, had passed us early in the morning and had seen us pushing our bikes through the stony slopes sweating and suffering. I think they felt sorry for us. But just a few hours hours later, we reached a place where the roles changed. Now we were the ones feeling pity for them; they were completely stuck in the mud deep down in 2-3 meters ditches.
As if all this hadn't been enough, once we reached the mountain top, we began the long and sharp descent to the valley. The downhill was as steep and rough as the uphill, making that part of the journey extremely dangerous. We were pushing our brakes to the limit. The strength needed at this point was such that it made the hands's tendons hurt. The slope was so steep, that the rear wheel was at times sliding from side to side through the rolling stones making extremely hard to keep under control. There was no other possibility than to push the brakes as hard as possible and let the bike slide slowly and be as concentrated as possible in order to not lose control. At times, I tried to use my feet to gain some balance, but it was useless, I slipped between the stones as if I was on an ice rink. Falling here would mean rolling down out of control for who knows how long.
The stress during these slopes was very high, but after a couple of hours the path became relatively more enjoyable, both the quality of the road and slopes became much better. There were even a few meters long of asphalted fragments . We continued all the way downhill for several hours and at the end of the second day, we had in front of us the spectacular Bada Valley: an isolated, very difficult to access place whose inhabitants live entirely off agriculture. The valley has two very small villages: Bomba and Gintu. These two desas are surrounded by spectacular mountains and large rice plantations so labored and tidy that it looks as though the whole place had been completely carpeted. People are quiet and slow-paced, smiling, they live in their own little heaven. Streets are miraculously paved, houses are tidily painted and they have their own church and school. Children play around on the streets and they are the only ones who with their infantile impertinence break the silence of this oasis. We successfully ended the first leg of the journey, but that was just the beginning, for the road ended right there. From now on, there was only one way left to reach Gimpu, riding across the jungle. The mere thought of going back through the road we had just finished gave me chills up my spine, it was not an option, now we had to continue till the end.
The last two days
The people of Gintu looked strangely at us in the morning when we asked directions to find our way to Gimpu. They probably thought we were totally crazy but still they would tell us: -the way to Gimpu is there or there- but "there" was nothing more than thick jungle. Before going all the way to Gimpu, we took a small detour to find a prehistoric archaeological relic, one of the many that are scattered throughout the Bada Valley and its surroundings. This one is called Palindo and we wasted at least an hour and a half looking for it because they all are off the tracks and hidden. We finally found it : a phallus shaped stone coming out of flat ground, with eyes, nose and mouth perfectly carved, of about 3 meters tall holding its penis and testicles. Interesting, but pretty dumb, almost caricaturesque. We were there for something else.
After asking farmers around for a while, we finally found what would be the "road" to Gimpu, a diabolical mud trail between 20 and 40cm wide, completely swalloed by the jungle at times. Riding through this trail became such an experience that only by remembering it while writing this gives me the goosebumps. We had crossed the jungle in Kalimantan and it had been certainly impressive, but the dimensions of the road somehow created a distance between us riding and the jungle around. This trail had dissolved the boundaries and distances. It was so narrow that the bushes, wild plants and branches scratched our legs and arms while riding and pushing our bikes. Trees of 30 to 40 meters tall, shaped this wonderful natural "roof" protecting us from the brutal tropical sun. Nature embraced us in a cooler though deeply humid environment, filled with wet-soil and tropical plants' scents.
Now, the jungle had swallowed us, and we had to find the way out. Eventually, some villagers would pass with their motorcycles, but they were counted with the fingers of half a hand. We were totally alone, the sounds of the jungle with who knows how many millions of bugs and insects, invaded our senses sweetening our ride. We moved along with trouble but with the fascination and the embezzlement of two children in a world of unimaginable fantasies, feeling the elixir of adrenaline gushing from the guts, flowing through our veins. At times, the trail went up and down smoothly and it was a pleasure to cycle on it, but once we reached the climbs, the steep slopes began and we had to get off and push, sliding on the mud in a space so reduced that only the bike fit, and we would have to find a solid piece of ground on which to step on in order to be able to exert some pressure and be able to push the bike forward while trying not to fall into the steep ravines, dense in branches, shrubs and vines. We had to constantly sort out the thick trunks of fallen trees along the trail, tightly filtering through the minute gaps that were left between the trunk and the wall of the mountain. Not even an hour had passed since we had left the last village, Tuare, that the jungle had already begun to carve its memories on our legs and arms by scratching and cutting the skin open.
Time passed by and we could feel the harshness of every kilometer ridden, the exhaustion of every muscle, the feeling of being away from civilization, being in an environment that is so overwhelming, so wild, you could feel the solitude, the wilderness. Such extreme beauty yet such extreme harshness. The singing of hundreds of birds in unison, the sometimes deafening buzzing of the cicadas, giant butterflies fluttering all around us, the largest I had ever seen in my life, about the size of my hand , the countless species of plants and trees, we were surrounded by an environment as untamed as sublime. Take the wrong step and a bug of unpredictable poisons could end up tangled around your head.
However, throughout the day, we could not imagine what would come in the early afternoon when suddenly the sky turned black, the light in the forest faded and the terrifying sounds of the thunders made the chest shake . It started to rain in a way that at times one could only compare it to standing under a waterfall, the trail became a nightmare of where we easily got swamped, losing complete control of the bicycle. After a while the water began to flow through the trail as a river out of control. On the slopes, we had to push with the chest pressed against the handlebar with our legs buried in mud up to the calf.
It rained and it rained violently one, two, three hours, night was starting to fall and there was not even a square meter to camp and we still had many kilometers to go before reaching the village of Moa. It was right there, when at about 6 pm while it was still pouring, it was almost completely dark and we were completely soaked, the Palu river roared tens of meters below and there was completely nothing but jungle all around, that we spotted a hut on the shore, which probably served some loggers from Moa. At that very moment I thought I believed in miracles. It was empty and we could take refuge there. As night fell, the whole environment became absolute black, pitch black, one could not see a thing. We lit a fire, we cooked some rice, the rain had finally started to faint and we could hear the sound of the river flowing and the last drops of rain falling, the accumulated water filtering between the plants and the grooves that were formed in the mud. There, after having cycled and pushed 25km in about 9 hours, we collapsed on a bed made of bamboo rods.
The next day was radiant. There were about 27 km left to reach Gimpu and given the experience of the previous day we had to leave very early. Shortly after leaving the hut we reached the remote village of Moa, lost in the middle of the jungle, with its few houses and just 90 inhabitants. It is surrounded by cacao plantations and local people dry its beans at the front of their houses, they later pick them up carefully inspect one by one separating the good from the bad.
Even when seeing a few villagers here and there, Moa rather felt like a ghost town, very quiet, very silent. Even its people seemed quite introverted. When they saw us, they remained mostly silent, watching us as two aliens stopping by. Children shyly whispered things to each other . It was hard to communicate because they had their own dialect and spoke little or no Indonesian at all.
Just ten meters out of the village and we were back in the jungle. To my happy surprise I had wonderful company for the first couple of kilometers. Moa's little children followed me and helped me to push the bike along the trail, they weren't loud as it's almost always the case with children, the completely opposite, they would shyly smile and remained silent. It seemed unreal but their joint effort helped me a lot.
The trail went again very deep into the jungle but it this time was even warmer than the day before, the atmosphere was denser and more humid. At times the trail became a stream of stones that served to divert streams of water coming from higher up in the mountains, we had to walk on water. The solitude of the forest was magical, beams of sunlight filtered through the tops of the trees and plants with very few actually reaching the ground. For several kilometers, we went through deep jungle walking on the improvised stream of water. To the sides, the vegetation was so thick that it formed like wall of plants higher than us
The heat and humidity became unbearable and although the downpour of the day before had helped me a lot to get rid of the strong body odors generated in the earlier days, today I couldn't even hardly breath near myself. The slopes became even more difficult, the trail became more like a narrow deep ditch now and the bike would sink in the mud and get completely stuck, having to shake it and shake it to finally pull it out. In the most difficult moments of mud and steepness we had to help each other out to push the bikes, the weight of the bikes and the slippery slopes made it impossible to find solid ground, we would simply slide down unpredictably.
On the descents, it was very easy to fall and roll and scratch our bodies all around. Going through such a trail, was becoming journey of epic dimensions. After noon and right before I triggered an ecological disaster with my ineffable odors, the sky turned black and unleashed its fury once again, raining with violence upon us. Henceforth, only the stoicism and willingness to complete the journey motivated us to keep going. The mud had taken its toll on the bikes. At that point, I remembered the stories of my friend Mantu crossing a remote part of Yunnan, telling me that his brakes literally ground themselves in minutes because of the the mud. We had still 10 km of very steep ups and downs ahead, and my bike was completely out of brakes, and I had no more spares. Julia's disc-brakes turned out to be the worst nightmare now that they were mostly destroyed as well, she had some pads left on the front disc and was able to manage better than me. I had to push the bike uphill under the rain sliding like in an ice skating ring, but now, it was even worse to descend on foot, since I had to make an incredible effort to contain the 75kg of the bike, trying not to be dragged by it. I've never done so much physical effort with the torso and arms since I had begun to travel by bicycle. The road leveled just before reaching the cocoa plantations on the outskirts of Gimpu, finding those first few settlements felt like reaching the Garden of Eden. Finally, civilization. The last descend to Gimpu was a road in good condition which incidentally made things quite tough for me, since the bicycle fully loaded was around 12 kg heavier than my current body weight. We arrived at the small town of Gimpu late in the afternoon after dark and it was still raining. we were extremely exhausted, the marks left on our bodies resembled those of a fight with 25 furious cats. I had tendinitis in both my hands and my Achilles tendon, but we had an inner peace and happiness that felt like hundreds of butterflies dancing in the chest. It's that wonderful tingle that makes the body rejoice with pleasure, tickling all over, it feels like electricity. Shortly after looking around for a place to sleep, we were received at the Salvation Army church, where they gave us an incredible place to sleep and above all, fed us lots and lots of food.
We felt the jungle like never before, was as extreme as wonderful, one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It got recorded in our bodies and traced in our senses. It was one of those moments in life where one is able to get over his own limitations, and there is nothing better than the vanishing of our limits and arrive once again at the same beautiful conclusion: The limits are IMAGINARY, they are as real as we want them to be in our minds, limits have no intrinsic reality. It is our own responsibility to get rid of our limitations, because when we think there is one, it is actually not a real one. As the motto that drives my life since the day I got very high in the Himalayas of Nepal some 12 years ago says: "There is more in each of us than we know".