I was more terrified of cycling through Singapore than I was of giving birth. Big call I know, but the mere thought of muscling my way through Singapore’s surging sea of oversized vehicles with my four-year-old balancing on the back of my fully-laden touring bike left me in a cold sweat. We had planned on kickstarting our cycle touring adventure by departing Singapore on a Sunday, reputedly the quietest day on the streets. In the end my nerves couldn’t hold out so we packed up and pushed off on Saturday at first light.
As with most fears in life, mine were totally unfounded. We breezed through the city without a hitch, joining a stream of sporty cyclists headed into shady East Coast Park. Past people practicing Tai Chi and yoga, we shared Singapore’s best cycleway with joggers and dog walkers for a blissful three-hour ride to the Changi Ferry Terminal. This was to be the departure point for our 30-minute, boat-tripping border hop into Malaysia’s Tanjung Belungkor.
With time to kill before boarding the ferry, we cycled on to Changi Village and the famously good hawker pavilion to devour platefuls of curry and rice washed down with hot kopi and watermelon juice. Once across the Malaysian border we turned east, bound for what we hoped would be a scenic beach haven at Desaru. But before we found out, there were hot hills to conquer and a 7km-stretch of manic highway where roadworks forced us to teeter on the very edge of a skinny, shoulder-free road, dicing with enormous, impatient trucks laden with palm fruit as we huffed and puffed uphill.
By the time we finally set our sights on the sea, our hearts sunk. Desaru was nothing more than a short strip of luxury hotels with not a guesthouse or homestay in sight. Grappling with our next move as the sun went down, a local girl stopped on her motorbike and directed us back along our route to a couple of budget hotels at nearby Bandar Penawar.
We were totally spent by the time we pulled into town and worried for Maya who had endured an extremely long, hot day in 40-degree heat and was ready for food and bed. To then find out that both hotels were full, left us totally gutted. When you are cycle touring, you can’t easily nip 20 or 30km into the next town, as it was suggested. I then remembered a story I had read online. Someone cycle touring through Malaysia had pitched their tent on a school sports field when there was nowhere else to stay, so we questioned a local who sent us back up the hill (again).
Standing at the gates of the town’s sports school, we pleaded our case to a couple of security guards. In the end, it was the sight of little Maya wide-eyed on the back of my bike at 6pm at night that finally won them over. Minutes later when the school’s swimming coach pulled up, he offered us his office for the night.
It was a tiny concrete room beside the swimming pool, but we couldn’t have been more grateful for it. Once we had rolled out our camp mats, turned on the fans and jumped into the school’s wet edge swimming pool, the day’s troubles floated away. Thankfully oblivious to the drama, Maya considered our night swim to be the ultimate thrill. When our new favourite coach appeared soon after with a kettle, we boiled some water, cut open a plastic water bottle to soak our emergency noodles and laid out a picnic of apples, nuts, muesli bars and peanut butter sandwiches – much to Maya’s delight (not a veggie in sight). Then we passed out from sheer exhaustion.
The next morning the coach drove David to a local store for supplies of drinking water and tins of iced coffee and strawberry milk. We picked wildflowers and played with Maya in the playground until it was time to get our bikes back on the road. When we had left Singapore, fearful of just surviving the city’s morning traffic, there was no way of knowing how difficult our first day cycle touring would become. We could not have anticipated how steep the hills, how extreme the heat or how frightening our battle with the highway trucks would be. But above all, we never dreamed that we’d be without a place to stay when darkness fell or that the kindness of strangers would rescue us.