Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Cherating, Malaysia – Singapore, Day 321 – 331, 1 – 8 March, 2009

Cherating, Malaysia – Singapore

Day 321 – 331

1 – 8 March, 2009

568km

Total: 33,073km

Soundtrack:

‘Almost With You’ – The Church

‘The Final Countdown’ – Europe

‘Where Are You Now?’ – The Audreys

‘Not Far To Go’ – Silver Ray

‘Chaos In The Heat’ – Bill Laswell

‘Bridge To The South’ – Julian Joseph

‘Southbound Pachyderm’ – Primus

SK: Our last two nights in Malaysia were spent out of towns and on the beaches of the South China Sea. The upside was little traffic, no obnoxious hoons hanging out of car windows impolitely acknowledging the presence of foreign women, and no negotiating surprise one-way streets and blocked roads. The downside was … well, there wasn’t one.

Cherating was a typical sleepy holiday town, scattered with resorts, and with a main road bordered by shops with gaily-coloured Hawaiian-type shirts and batik dresses flying like kites in the breeze. Clichéd, yes, but at least this was off-season, and the town wasn’t crowded.

We settled at a place located right on the beach, but oddly with a cyclone fence separating the lawn from the sand. Some large tides (or visitors) had at some stage decided that this barrier was anomalous for a beach resort, and pushed a section over, enabling access to the water. Carefully clambering over the fence, we wandered down the beach in search of lunch. One of the seaside restaurants beckoned with promises of squid and fish, and we found ourselves eating in the company of a gang of Harley riders. Loud, cheerful and friendly, but dressed head to toe in black leather, we felt for them in the midday heat of monsoonal Malaysia. But image is not everything, and it was a relief to finally see bikers dressed in long pants that provided protection from asphalt rather than the more traditional shorts and thongs that the locals favoured.

Camped close by were various other international tourists who were also travelling by road. Being so close to Australia, we were too jealous to engage these visitors with EU plates on their modified campers and trucks in travel conversations. Only six sleeps to Australia. Maddy and Raffy were excited, and asked repeatedly for confirmation of the whens and wheres for the next week, whereas we were in denial, trying not to think that the overseas leg of our trip was fast drawing to a close. 

We wanted our last night in Malaysia to be special. Our last stop was Mersing and we scoured our guidebook for an appropriate last resort. We pulled up at one promising place, but after Raffy and I trawled the property looking for signs of life and finding none, we were back in the car for a second go.

With delight we pulled up at the Teluk Iskandar Inn.  We were the only guests there, and our hosts Ibrahim and Kamariah made us most welcome. Their place, which comprised a fabulous tropical house and some lovely guest rooms, sat atop a hill that sloped gently to the sea. We went exploring to the water’s edge, and came across some trees with gaudy flowers. On closer examination, these flowers were plastic bags caught up in the branches. Ibrahim explained that during the monsoon, the debris from the river that travels through nearby Mersing is flushed down the coast and is washed up all along the sand. In another few weeks, the winds will change, the beach will be cleaned by hand and will stay pristine until the next monsoon. Maddy and Raffy, well aware and indignant of the problems of beach rubbish in Thailand, were cross that yet again there was this tangible consequence of littering and the scourge of plastic bags.

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(Pic: Plastic rubbish trees, Mersing, Malaysia)

DB: Perhaps unsurprisingly, a wave of regret and nostalgia came over me. This was it – the final drive overseas was upon us, and I desperately wished we would wake up and discover that we had to change course and head towards somewhere that was not home, and was overcome with melancholy. Typically, Maddy tried to save the day by asking me what my top three things about going home were. I got two – people, like family and friends, and our home – and then ran out of ideas. Not a good sign.

Still, Mersing was a nice relax after yet another day in the saddle contending with Malaysian death wish drivers. One particular young male (duh!) scallywag on a tiny, tricked up scooter insisted on not only riding way over the speed limit, but overtaking on the inside where there was no road to ride. Wearing nothing more that a T-shirt, shorts and thongs, he seemed to revel in sneaking up on cars and trucks via their blind-spot and nosing in front of them, all the while dodging various obstacles. Sliding up on our inside, he gave us a big grin – and then hit the grass verge. His eyes nearly popped out of his head as he attempted to keep the scooter upright. The road was already slippery thanks to a recent tropical deluge – the grass offering even less traction than usual. I hit the brakes and gave him some tarmac, and away he screamed, like a maniacal mosquito, harassing more drivers up the road. By the time we got to Mersing we, thankfully, were not confronted with the debris and carnage of boy and bike bits scattered across the landscape, but I don’t really have much confidence in him making it to middle age.

Eventually we found ourselves on a smooth and relatively quiet road that skirted the South China Sea that took us through the now dwindling rainforest and past a few bored monkeys. Fuel-hungry Malaysia maintains a program of bulldozing rainforest and replanting palms for oil. Over the next couple of days the landscape would become a sea of palm fronds surrounding large, unsightly refineries. This is the last time we would slide through populated areas whose main roads weren’t tributes to multinational fast food and hotel chains, and more’s the pity. After waiting at a few intersections in Mersing where the red lights lasted ten minutes or so, for no apparent reason, we found the Teluk Iskandar Inn and took a deep, meditative breath.

Getting closer to Johor Bahru the traffic (and perhaps the drivers) became thicker and more precarious. Negotiating the traffic now was less a slalom and more akin to steering a kayak through treacherous, rushing rapids. Right-turn lanes used uniformly as a sneaky way to bypass other cars waiting in line at red lights, with cars indignantly cutting off others when the lights change. I had perhaps foolishly thought that driving in a familiar country, and having so much more experience of negotiating more congested and perilous roads, would make things easier, and a couple of times I was a bit casual in my approach. I still felt exhausted after such drives.

Complicating matters was that universal penchant for changing road numbers, apparently at a whim. There must be an international confederation of bitter and twisted local government employees who get their jollies by switching numbers, like we used to do as kids with petrol station prices. One minute we were happily motoring down the number 3 highway, and all of a sudden it became the 2, which our map said went to Kuala Lumpur. We didn’t want to go to Kuala Lumpur. We had no business being there, and those gleaming twin tributes to a petrochemical’s phallus envy would just have to also deal with our absence. A couple of times we doubled-back, choosing a different fork in the road that at least initially sent us in the right direction according to our compass, but usually making things worse. Accidentally tootling into an army base got us some raised eyebrows, but eventually we trusted our instincts and the highway numbers became relatively irrelevant. 

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(Pic: The old and the new, Malaysia)

The roads became wider and sometime featured extra lanes, but they don’t necessarily make it any safer. Rounding a bend, a slow, belching truck hogging the outside lane almost begs you to brake hard, like a pub drunk pointing to his chin, to see if you can stop in time before ploughing into its ample rear end, or swerve into the inside lane and hope you don’t get gobbled up by something larger, more unwieldy and carefree that’s lurking in your blind spot.

SK: Our last day in Malaysia day started serenely with a delicious breakfast under the trees with the sea laid out before us in all its plastic refuse decorated glory. A straightforward drive into Johor Bahru (known locally as JB), the Malaysian border town, was made fraught by a deluge that had visibility right down, and wipers right up. This about matched our moods, still counting the ‘lasts’. Last day’s drive overseas; last non-English speaking country; last border crossing before Australia and so on.

DB: Singapore struts about with chest out in full knowledge that they do things differently. Nothing more so than the process required to legally drive on Singapore roads. To do so, you need a sticker. It’s a nice sticker – looks rather attractive. But to get the sticker you need to go into Singapore and make the necessary arrangements. Only trouble is (and you can see this coming, eh?) you can’t drive into Singapore to get the sticker, because you need the sticker to drive into Singapore. We guessed that this process was designed explicitly to deter those pesky Malaysians from cruising in and clogging up Singapore’s pristine and most orderly roads, but many of them were coming across the border anyway, so who knows. At any rate, it is therefore necessary to abandon a car in Malaysia, go into Singapore, somehow, do what needs to be done, go back into Malaysia, hope that a) your car is still there, b) it is not up on blocks and c) all your stuff is where you left it, and drive back into Singapore. What this makes for is an expensive, interminably boring, frustrating and lengthy jaunt of a couple of kilometres and back – for a sticker. Did I mention it’s a nice sticker?

SK: Our plan in JB was straightforward (!): we would find secure parking for the truck, Raffy and I would bus or taxi through the Malaysian border into Singapore (immigration and customs stamp out/stamp in), make our way to the Automobile Association of Singapore located in the city centre and obtain the International Circulation Permit which enables us to drive our foreign registered vehicle in Singapore. (But which of course is not available at the border, which necessitates this elaborate plan.) We would then return through the border (stamp in/ stamp out) into Malaysia, meet up with Danny and Maddy – the second time we were in different countries – then all of us and Truckie would cross together (stamp stamp stamp and the exit stamp for the Carnet) from Malaysia into Singapore, and at this side of the border have our Carnet stamped in and purchase an Autopass. (Which of course we need to enable us to drive on the toll roads.) Finally we would drive to Toa Payoh, and collapse in the welcoming arms of our friends Debbie, Russel, Ezra and Ruby. Simple.

And our day did go to plan, but it was a long day, and by the end I had had enough of the bureaucracy that came with Singapore. Having already spent four hours travelling between two countries in search of permits, waiting the 40 minutes for the Autopass and being asked by four different people for paperwork which I had already presented, and having officious uniformed drones lecture me on the process which I knew verbatim already from last time obliterated the remnants of my patience. 

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(Pic: The truck gets washed – for the second time in two days – in Singapore)

DB: Maddy and I spent the afternoon trawling generic shopping malls and a few of the roads around in between downpours. All shopping malls are brain-numbingly tedious, but there is something even more disturbing when explicitly Western franchises attempt to temp rather unwestern customers. The Kenny Rogers Grill seemed at once alien and empty. We both recognised that this would be a final opportunity to experience Malaysian fare, but we were also anxious about Sandy and Raffy’s travails in and out of Singapore, and getting the truck through the morass of customs.

And, once again, no matter how over-officious and seemingly superfluous the process, and no matter how many references at international borders about terrorism, drugs or even people-smuggling, the entire contents of our truck remained entirely irrelevant and ignored. At airports I have to take off my boots and my belt, remove my nail-clippers from my carry-on luggage and have my lip-balm examined by a suspicious sentinel, but a truck full of anything and everything seems to be acceptable. Go figure.

Sandy’s patience was approaching meltdown, and so at one stage the inner revolutionary took hold and she went and stood with no apparent purpose under a sign that proclaimed “No Loitering.” That’ll learn ’em, comrade!

SK: By the way, we needed to purchase another Autopass as our previous one had been snaffled by immigration on the way out of Singapore eleven months ago, despite the fact that it is valid for five years and we were returning. But enough of the gripes. We were here. Through the border. Into Singapore. Our last country. Five sleeps to Australia. AAAUUUGGGGGGGGGHHH!

Our time in Singapore passed quickly. We washed the car twice in anticipation of strict Australian quarantine controls, repacked the car, went through more paperwork hoops for export, (back to the Automobile Association for stamps and twice to the shipping company) spent time with our hosts and friends, DRER, swam, shopped, ate, and then the car was sealed in a container, and we were at the airport. Subtly, each plane is different, so they say. Next stop, Darwin.  

DB: As previously noted, high-rise life in Singapore is a novelty in and of itself. Thousands of people living in relatively close quarters and sharing public space, but not really interacting, has its own attractions and hindrances. Couple this with Singapore’s zealous approach to law and order and things can get interesting.

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(Pic: Maddy & Ruby go for a splash, Singapore)

Parking in the grounds of DRER’s condo required conferences, high-level diplomatic negotiations, summits and paperwork that would rival a United Nations standing committee. Deb had worked tirelessly, again, to ensure we had permission to sully the condo’s grace and grandeur with a grotty four-wheel-drive, and it was touch and go for a while whether we would be allowed. We required new paperwork every morning before 8am and it was made known by the security guards that they were indeed doing us a huge favour, whatever that was. They were on to us, and we better not step out of line, bucko, or there’ll be hell to pay.

That was until Mr Manager noticed the stickers on the truck and its exotic registration plate. All of a sudden the red carpet was officially out. We were celebrities! Mr Manager, the bloke in charge of the entire condo country club, made a point of saying hi to us, made a point of telling us he spent a whole evening reading our blog, and circumvented the enormous paper trail that would ordinarily have provided the opportunity for an over-excited security guard to have the truck towed to naughty vehicle hell had the documentation not been up to scratch. We were happy for our new-found star status to rub off on our hosts who, when wanting to reserve one of the outdoor barbeques (imagine the red tape!) but were initially told that due to garden works they were unavailable, Mr Manager stepped in with a wink and a grin and magically made it all possible.

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(Pic: Danny slots the truck into a shipping container for the last time, Singapore)

Delivering our truck for its sea voyage to Darwin was immeasurably more straightforward than the reverse procedure last time we were here eleven months ago. Then, we not only had to travel to a more remote port, and spent hours on a wild goose-chase for the right location within the port, but discovered that our car stereo had been unceremoniously snatched. This time the port was closer to town, far more orderly and the truck was to be sealed in a shipping container instead of the rather dodgy ‘lift on/lift off’ method.

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(Pic: Slowly but surely, Singapore)

The men assisting us with this version were somewhat interested in who we were and what we were doing, but it was the rather rotund worker who had me worried. It was his job to tie the truck down in the container, which is fine, except once the truck is actually in the container there is only a few centimetres of space between the truck doors and the steel walls of the container. Even I – not universally known for any extraneous girth at the best of times – have trouble getting in and out, but this bloke insisted on guiding me into the container and effectively being cornered once the truck was in. His workmates joked that he would need to remain in the container for the duration, and that I’ll see him again right there when we open the container in Darwin. But no, not to be outdone, he tied the front of the truck down in the dark, and then slowly slithered up the side of the truck to the open air and sunshine. An automobile has never had a more penetrating polish.

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(Pic: Dock worker recovering from the escape from the container, Singapore)

And there it was: the last shipping container, the final Carnet stamp out of a country, the ultimate flight on this trip (although, truth be known, Jetstar really ain’t no ‘ultimate’). We were ticking off milestones like an over-enthusiastic shopper with a cross-referenced shopping list spreadsheet.

Singapore provided us with an evening sound and light show storm send-off that rattled the light globes and flooded the roads. The air was alive and dancing before our eyes, cleansed by raindrops the size of footballs. As we didn’t need to drive in it we relished the exuberance of nature. Bring it on.

Trawling airports must be one of the most brain-numbing activities in the modern world. After taking advantage of some favourable duty-free shopping, we were left with dodging vehicles that ordinarily would be used by people less mobile to get around, but here used as tow trucks for the hundreds of luggage trolleys discarded at gate lounges, and smiling apologetically to those unfortunate students sentenced to selling credit card deals from cardboard displays.

Jetstar gave us all the ‘G’day!’ and ‘Ow’s it goin’? vernacular we could ask for, and then some, but gave us nothing else. We missed out on the freebie bottles of water because, it turns out, the trolley dollies don’t actually hand them to you, you need to get off your limp patoutie and get it yourself – until they run out. I read an article recently about an airline considering charging for the use of the bathroom. Go for it, I say – and maybe UNICEF will get more than they bargained for when rummaging around for change. We declined the headphones – five bucks and you have to hand them back at the end of the flight – and settled in for our triumphant yet apprehensive return to Australia.

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5 Comments»

  Jacqui wrote @

Dear Danny,Sandy, Maddy & Raffy,
I have enjoyed reading about your adventure very much I guess by now you are on home ground and perhaps having a catch up with the Faines.
I will miss my weekly read, and look forward to perhaps a book with more photos in the near future.
It has been a great armchair trip for me
Thankyou

  wally wrote @

Hi D S M R It was nice to see you all and I know we will get together real soon, because I have so many question to ask you all. Speak to you soon have a happy and kosher pesach Love to all the families Wally & Eleanor.

  Hilary wrote @

all those last chances for you, and i guess this is my last chance to append a comment. something of a sad blog , this one, with a sense of the doors to the world closing behind you as you headed towards the ports. what a wondrous, unique and life-changing experience this has been.
good to see you danny – and my best to you all with the reacclimatisation process.
love
hilary

  Deb wrote @

Hi guys… it has taken me this long to look at the ‘last’ leg of the journey, but where are the last bits??? I want to know everyones 3 best countries and what you were thinking on that big last drive…. and please, please keep it going… I for one am interested in your day to day life in Melbourne… So whats the next big plan? Next song by the Clash? – ‘Should I stay or should I go’…

  NafNeecyncfox wrote @

cool sitename man)))


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