The Gerik Loop
Gerik is a small town in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Malaysia. It is, in my opinion, home to some of the best roti prata in Malaysia if not the world, and scene of one of the most memorable motorcycle accidents I’ve ever been involved in.
Roti prata by the way, is a thick rice flour pancake, stretched, flipped and scorched to perfection on a ghee-covered slab of burning hot steel by sweating, swarthy men with wrists like wire rope, then served with tangy fish gravy and a massive mug of way too sugary tea. Utter bliss.
But bliss in Gerik that particular weekend was only partly due to the food. The town is also the finish line of the famous Gerik Loop. Some of the best biking roads in Malaysia radiate from Gerik. It is the touchpad for hours of swooping, jaw-dropping, mountain-climbing, speed limit and vehicle-free, cloud piercing and valley-racing riding the like of which boring Euro-alpine adventure motorcyclists could never imagine. It is biking heaven defined, and we were there.
We had arrived in the Cameron Highlands the day before, after about 550kms of mostly tedious and very sweaty highway from Singapore. Then, just before Tapah, we had swung off up the deliciously twisty Route 59 into the hills, following the road the Brits used to take to escape the tropic heat in cutesy black-and-white bungalows at Tanah Rata.
The road up to Tanah Rata is decently surfaced, narrow, unpredictable of user behaviour (packs of racing mopeds, stopped trucks on hairpins, kids playing soccer in the road etc etc) and likely to be monsooned on at any time. Perfect for honing rusty biking skills and preparing us for The Loop. We took moderate risks, gawped at the views, and arrived at our hillside villa in Tanah Rata. There, colonial-style, we drank tea on the lawn, munched jam scones, sipped OJ on the balcony and looked at the map.
The next day’s route swooped off into the mountains towards a town called Gua Musang along the most bizarrely situated multi-lane highway you can imagine. Complete with gravity-defying viaducts and cliffside-clinging curves it rivals anything the Amalfi Coast or the Øresund Bridge can offer. But it carries almost no traffic at all as it snakes pointlessly from nowhere to nowhere else on the other side of the mountains, and it just cries out to be used by motorcycles. Used vigorously.
It is what the unkind could call a pork-barrel highway, but we didn’t care. The sheer joy of using two lanes of perfect, smooth, empty two-lane concrete to slice though jaw-dropping scenery at 160+kph while cranked right over on a sinuously delicious route between jungle-topped mountains is hard to beat. We almost turned round and did it again. But the further seductions of the Gerik Loop were calling. We pushed on.
Heading north for the junction hamlet of Jeli, we slowed a little and delighted in narrow, twisty roads. Our route wound through a landscape that had probably changed little in the last 100 years. Rubber plantations, banana trees, swinging monkeys and roadside nasi goreng stalls all rolled past as we cruised in a tight, smiling group down a road fit for sahibs — apart from when Steve nearly smashed into the back of me in a moment of eye-bulging inattention.
At one tea and nasi goreng stop Melvin, who had been admiring my Yamaha as I left him for dust on the highway in the sky, asked if he could swap bikes with me. I said sure — he was on a Honda VFR which is famous for its smooth and relaxed ride. I hopped off my Fazer, and we set off up the road towards Jeli.
I was impressed with Melvin’s VFR. It was so creamy and refined I immersed myself in bend-threading, cruising through hamlets and relaxing on fragrant jungle-flanked straights for 70 easy kilometres. Myself and Steve arrived at Jeli way before the main group who had apparently fallen back behind us because we were such slick, smooth yet rapid riders.
Then the rest of the group, including Melvin on my bike, rolled into the petrol station forecourt where we were waiting for them. They looked a bit sheepish — we assumed it was because we had ridden so much faster than they had. But when we walked over to the bunch, I noticed my bike (on the side I couldn’t initially see) was festooned with black duct tape. Slowly I realised most of the bodywork was actually being held together with duct tape.
Melvin, presumably bemused by the sheer power of my bike, had gunned it into a corner, over a ditch, into a plantation, and partially through a tree. How he wasn’t hurt was a miracle. The bike was a bit the worse for wear though — hence all the duct tape. One headlight was aiming at the moon, the handlebars were undecided on what exactly indicated straight ahead, and the rear brake was on indefinite leave. Luckily it was still rideable. However, I told Melvin there was no way I was riding it the next 300km back to Tanah Rata; I would stick with his un-violated VFR thank you very much. We rode (slowly) out of Jeli.
The next stretch, the NR4 to Gerik itself, is one that, if you get even the slightest opportunity, you should take. We rode through cloud-carpeted rainforests, over dams across stunning emerald lakes, past clods of elephant poop, up, down, swooping and whooping at the joy of being alive and on bikes amongst some of the most amazing scenery on some of the best roads in the world. All of nature smiled its indifferent yet gob-smacking beauty at us. We stopped only for food, fuel, to check the duct tape was still holding my bike together, and to dive partly clothed and shouting into a forest river alongside screaming, splashing kids. It was one of those days; life-affirming only comes close to describing it. We all felt like we had been sprinkled with magic dust.
Our journey back to Tanah Rata from Gerik was livened briefly by a pack of local lads on racy Suzuki 750s and Hayabusas, artfully kitted out in shorts and flip-flops, who decided to burn us off because they knew the road better than we did.
But a challenge is a challenge to any biker. We rode as a pack of hunting dogs runs: close, fast and utterly intent on the chase. We ran them down, passed and dusted them, then slowed down into town just to show them we didn’t really need to try that hard. Ha!
We had one last stop for tea, but it was getting dark by then. We had already done over 400km and there was at least another hour to ride. By this time I had taken pity on Melvin and was back on my Yamaha, without a rear brake and with one headlight illuminating the trees overhead. Melvin rode with me, keeping, I suspected, an eye on my crippled bike.
He needn’t have. We rode up into the mountains together, along twisty, narrow, pitch-black roads with lord-knows-what jungle animals ready to jump out from behind palm trees or drop out of hanging vines onto us — but we were mesmerised and held by that road. It knew us, and we trusted it.
Melvin and I didn’t ride back to Tanah Rata, we flowed. We swung fast up the damp, wriggling tarmac over hills, through mini-canyons, across bridges and down valleys we couldn’t see, but with absolute confidence in our bikes, their grip and our senses. We got back to the villa about 20 minutes before the rest of the group, all of them with working brakes and lights — and couldn’t explain how we had done it. Athletes talk about being in the zone; that night we felt like we had been swallowed by the zone.
There was nothing more to do but walk up the street under clouds of buzzing moths to the Indian stall and order a double serve of roti prata, extra curry sauce please. It wasn’t quite up to the Gerik standard, but it was close.
What a day. The memory of that ride will never fade …