Montani Semper Liberi

By Jane Mountain | May 28, 2014

14,595 km so far.

I always experience low-level anxiety before we embark on a big hill climb. If the elevation profile is to be believed, today’s will be a killer.

Pretty much up the entire way, Ipoh to Tanah Rata.

Pretty much up the entire way, Ipoh to Tanah Rata.

We’ve certainly done rides with greater elevation gain over the course of the day, but we think this is probably the longest consistent climb we’ve ever tackled. There are 50 km of up to start the day, then a tiny break, and another 10 km climb just to polish things off.

We’ve certainly never done a climb like this in the unbearably humid heat we’ve been experiencing the last few days.

Cycling Is Sexy

To make matters worse, I have developed some exciting red lumps on the back of my left thigh. They are as itchy as crap and get swollen and inflamed when any fabric rubs against them.

The glamour of cycle touring is never-ending.

From what I can discover online, this is pretty common for cyclists, especially in places with hot, humid weather. I think it’s a symptom of sweat glands becoming blocked, which was a relief, since I was previously imagining some squirmy parasite laying its eggs deep inside my dermis.

(Don’t miss: Our guide to everything you need to know before bike touring Malaysia)

The cure for these annoying boils? Reduce friction, stop the activity that caused them, and stay out of the heat.


Instead, I wore my thinnest, shortest shorts, in hopes of allowing constant airflow onto the affected area and eliminating any fabric rubbing on my leg. It seemed to work, too, in case you’re afflicted with a similar problem.

Go Soak Your Head

After a few kilometres of flat through the busy town and outskirts of Ipoh, we turn off onto our road for the day. The climb is slow in coming, and gentle enough to begin with. In fact, at the beginning there are as many flat sections and downhills as there are uphills. Still, we are slick with sweat, our clothes soaked through, before we hit the 25 km mark.

Along the roadside, we spot a man and his son filling water jugs at a couple of plastic pipes coming out of the hillside.

The only water available on the way up, Cameron Highlands.

The only water available on the way up, Cameron Highlands.

We stop, and I hold the bikes while Stephen soaks his shirt and both of our head scarves (we’re not wearing helmets for the uphill today) with the cold mountain water.

Stephen brings a bottle of water over to me and I gingerly pour the icy liquid over my arms and shoulders.

It is so cold I can barely pour out half the bottle. I hand the half-empty bottle back to Stephen so he can go refill it. Instead, he dumps the remaining contents over my head.

That’s chilly! I’m glad he did it though, because I didn’t have the guts, but I would be thankful for the cool wetness of my shirt and shorts in the stretch to come.

After about 10 more kilometres struggling slowly upwards, we stop for a snack break. I slice up the huge juicy mango we bought last night in town. It is the perfect treat.

I am already feeling exhausted, with sore legs and pounding heart, and we’re only a quarter of the way through our day. It feel like we’ve already done some significant climbing, but when Stephen checks our altitude, it reads 200 m! Our summit is at 1628 m.

This is deeply depressing news.

A Chill In The Air

We slap on our headphones and get moving. Around 30 km, the climb starts to steepen, and each kilometre seems interminable. The roadside markers, which appear every kilometre, slip by about as quickly as a snail crawling upstream through molasses, helping to reinforce just how slow our progress is.

If you need wind chimes for your climb, better get them here.

If you need wind chimes for your climb, better get them here.

Fortunately, the higher we go, the better the views become too, so I distract myself by gazing at the dense jungle spreading out across the valley floor below us.

Jungle hugs the road, Cameron Highlands.

Jungle hugs the road, Cameron Highlands.

I try to count the different shades of green, but there are so many the task soon becomes impossible.

50 shades of green, at least, Cameron Highlands.

50 shades of green, at least, Cameron Highlands.

Altitude brings another welcome change: a cool breeze. We know that it is supposed to be around 20C in Tanah Rata, the town we’re heading towards. If this is true, it will be the coolest temperature we’ve experienced in 4 months. Bring it on.

With the breeze comes clouds, and the sky darkens and darkens as we go up. I am loving the feeling of being a little cold, shivering in my soaked clothes. I worry that if it starts to rain, I will be genuinely cold. Will I need a jacket? I can’t even remember where my jacket is, or what it looks like.

After a while, the grey clouds loom so menacingly, I realise that rain is no longer a matter of if, but when.

Storm rolling in, Cameron Highlands.

Storm rolling in, Cameron Highlands.

I’m hoping it will hold off for a little while longer.

The Challengers

All the while we just keep going up and up and up. My spin teacher used to tell us to crank up the tension on our bikes and imagine we were riding through thick gluey mud.

This is exactly what it feels like as I push up the hill with my fatigued legs. I can feel my panniers and my hips dragging the bike backwards, down the hill. At moments the bike feels so heavy, I half expect to turn around and find Stephen hanging onto my back rack, treating himself to a free ride.

I reflect that I have never in my life been more fit and prepared for the challenge we are facing today. It is unlikely I will ever in my life reach this level of readiness again. This is my moment. This thought helps my mental state a lot. Still, my lungs are ready to burst and my legs just don’t understand why the hell I am doing this.

Why indeed? It’s a question that runs through my head like a mantra, repeating with every pedal stroke. Why why why why why…

I love that humans are willing to take on challenges purely for the sake of a challenge. Sure, we could have just ridden the couple hundred flat kilometres to Kuala Lumpur. Or, we could have hopped on a bus. Instead, here we are, pushing ourselves to our limits, just to see what will happen.

Still smiling after all these miles, Cameron Highlands.

Still smiling after all these miles, Cameron Highlands.

As cars whip by us, many passengers and drivers unroll their windows to cheer us on. They smile and thumbs-up and yell encouragements. Then they roll up their windows and sit back in the relaxing comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles.

They are duly impressed, but I doubt most of them really understand what it is like to do something like this. They don’t know how much focus and commitment is required, how much pain there is to be tolerated, how much drive you need not to just give up and wave down the next pick-up truck that passes.

We are pleasantly surprised to find a touristy cafe and farm visitor centre near the top of the first peak. We’d thought we’d have to ride on into the town about 10 km further on to get fed. The cafe specialises in outrageous ice cream deserts, but we find that once we’ve finished our lunches, both of us are too tired to contemplate ordering anything else. To pass up ice cream, I must be truly on my last legs.

Plus, it’s getting late, the clouds are moving in. We are past halfway, but nowhere near the end.

Scarred, Scarred For Life

A would-be blissful descent into the town of Kampung Raja is marred by the knowledge that we still have 10 km of climbing to do on the other side. We’ve read on Crazy Guy On A Bike that the last hill is by far the worst of the entire day.

The hillsides are scarred (scarred for life) with greenhouses growing strawberries and vegetables in places that once would have been immaculate rainforest. It is a depressing sight.

No more jungle, just farms, Cameron Highlands.

No more jungle, just farms, Cameron Highlands.

We suspect there is little to no regulation protecting these lands or limiting the chemicals and pollution that these farms create. Malaysia’s rain forests have been devastated by agriculture (mostly palm oil plantations), and this is just one more reminder of the destruction.

As we enter Kampung Raja it starts to rain, so we take refuge under a convenience-store awning. I sit on the curb, my head resting on my knees, knowing I could fall asleep right now if only I had a slightly softer seat. We want to wait out the rain, but it doesn’t show any signs of stopping and it’s already 5pm, so we have to push on.

Stephen’s note: On our way out of town I spot another cycle tourist sheltering from the rain in a bus shelter. This is the first cyclist we have seen since Phnom Penh. Danny is the first Canadian cyclist we have met in 14 months. He has a tent and is planning on waiting out the rain and camping in the local park. Drop us a line Danny, and maybe we can meet up along the road to KL.

Do You Want To Go Higher?

The internet rumours turn out to be true:

The last hill of the day is a killer.

There are no more pleasant flat stretches or restful downhills, no more gradual gradients. It’s just a disheartening slog upwards. And it’s the steepest we’ve seen all day. The road has disintegrated into a cracked and bumpy narrow strip, with no shoulder and plenty of agricultural trucks rumbling up and down.

After a year, we round a bend where I think the summit might be. First I am overjoyed, then I see a huge hill looming in front of us. I’m literally not sure I can make it. But what is the other option?

If you’re riding this way, the top doesn’t come until you see the Copthorne Hotel, so don’t expect it any sooner. If you really want to reward yourself for a job well done, book yourself in for a night of luxury at the Copthorne! You’d probably get some looks, rolling up soaked in sweat and doused in mud at the front door of this fancy place.

Being poor, our great reward is the short descent into Tanah Rata. The paving smooths out after the peak and the curvy downhill is a joy to ride, even in the rain.

Soundtrack: Sivert Høyem, Endless Love | Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room | NO, El Prado | Willoughby, Midnight Morning | Liam Finn, The Nihilist | Paul Simon, Graceland | Arcade Fire, Reflektor | Boys & Girls – a mix tape c. 1995  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.


  1. Comment by Geoff

    Geoff June 1, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Tremendous effort. Raw reading. Well done both!

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane June 1, 2014 at 11:36 pm

      Thanks Geoff. The reading wasn’t the only thing that was raw after that long day :).

  2. Comment by lani

    lani May 31, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    proud of yous!! oh i hurt thinking of it. good for yous.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane June 1, 2014 at 11:36 pm

      Thanks! You should try it sometime, though there are lots of more rewarding hills I could recommend for you.

  3. Comment by Diane

    Diane May 31, 2014 at 7:49 am

    So well written Jane. I could feel the pain. And I was so relieved to hear that you made it safely to the top! Bravo.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane June 1, 2014 at 11:35 pm

      Thanks Diane! Luckily we recover from the pain quickly, and it’s only a couple of days until we think “hey, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

  4. Comment by Scot

    Scot May 31, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Nice job making it to the top! That is something no one can ever take away from you. And that you will never have to do again.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane June 1, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      Thanks Scot. It always makes it a little easier when you know it’s a one-time thing.

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