Posts Tagged With: cycling

Mountain biking down an active volcano in Ecuador

At 5897 metres above sea level Cotopaxi, in Ecuador, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Visible from Quito on a clear day, the majestic monolith dominates the skyline from miles around. Its perfect cone and snow-capped peak make it the most stunningly beautiful of all Ecuador’s volcanoes. A popular challenge is to attempt to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi. Beginning from the Refugio at the height of 4800 metres, the brave climbers trudge through deep snow drifts and fight against debilitating altitude in their battle to reach the top. Whilst it is obviously massively rewarding for those who do succeed, the combination of the altitude and the notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that surround Cotopaxi mean that success is far from guaranteed. Unfortunately, many climbers return to Quito disappointed, having had their attempts thwarted. An interesting alternative for those who fancy a bit of adventure, but don’t want to go to the top of the mountain, is to mountain bike down it instead. Having already biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road” a couple of months previously, this was definitely a challenge that I wanted to undertake!

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The Biking Dutchman was established in 1991 and has been running day trips down Cotopaxi ever since. It is easy to see why the company’s success has endured; the ride is utterly exhilarating. The minibuses leave Quito at 7am and make their way to the national park, eventually stopping 4500 metres up the mountain. From here the views of the mountain are breathtaking and provide wonderful photo opportunities. After a safety briefing, we tentatively began our descent. The first 8 kilometres of the ride were all downhill, on a frightening gradient, and we achieved some truly phenomenal speeds. Whilst the ride is suitable for most ability levels, I wouldn’t really recommend it to complete beginners as the bikes were basic and only had front wheel suspension. This meant that maintaining balance was a tricky proposition. I think my knuckles were white from gripping the handlebars so hard! Thankfully, I made it through this stretch with only a couple of minor falls.

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When the descent has been completed the ride slows down and takes on a more sedate nature. After the rush of going downhill and holding on for dear life, it was pleasant to actually do some pedalling and take time to appreciate the bewitching lunar landscape. The massive boulders that have been spewed from the volcano in its moments of fury make for particularly compelling viewing.

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Once we had eaten a delicious, and much needed, home-made lunch, we embarked on the final section of the ride. This took us across barren grasslands before plunging through lush pine forests. Pedalling across the grasslands and having to continually change gears was torturous. However, once we headed into the forest, all the effort seemed worthwhile. Here it was possible to really put my foot down, and get some serious speed up, flying over rocks and through puddles in the process. The speeds were comparable to further up the mountain but without the same fear factor, making this my favourite section of the ride. Finally, after four hours of hard riding, we reached the end point. Many of us felt seriously battered and bruised. None of us said that we didn’t enjoy every single minute of it.

TRAVEL TIPS

The trip is competitively priced at $55 per person. This includes lunch and transport to and from the national park. It doesn’t include the $10 entrance fee to the national park. Check out the Biking Dutchman’s website at http://www.bikingdutchman.com/

Disclaimer: This is an old article which I wrote eight years ago for a sadly now defunct paper called “The Ecuador Reporter.” I’ve updated the article so all price information is current, but please don’t blame me if anything else is out of date!

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Categories: Ecuador, Mountain biking down Cotopaxi, South America, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another side of Penang

As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.DSCF6038

Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.

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From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.

After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.

For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.

It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.

TRAVEL TIPS

The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/explorebalikpulau?fref=ts or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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