A secret garden south of no man's land

Perlis passed in a procession of sun browned paddy fields. Irrigation channels became quiet tracks to traverse Malaysia's smallest and most northerly state. The capital Kangar slipped by without a sideways glance as I rushed towards my 26th border crossing.

A lake in the far north provided a less parched landscape in which to pause as the road gently rose to meet the border hills. The sun, climbing less delicately, sent me scuttling in search of shade. The few trees venturing above head-height all seemed to shelter ant nests making cool comfort elusive.

I resorted to trespassing in a conference center-come-youth club-come-corporate retreat. A porch's tiled floor provided all I needed to lay down and siesta. I woke to find a concerned custodian peering seemingly unsure whether to be alarmed or amused. Together we decided on amused and shared some of my biscuits before I remounted.

There was a reason for such indelicate haste. Word had reached me that between the Malay and Thai borders there was space enough for a discrete cyclist to spend the night.

No. Man's. Land.

Let that phrase percolate for a moment. It was these three words that had fired my imagination sufficiently to have me haring north with such single-mindedness.

The prospect of a night between trenches may not appeal to all, but to a homeless traveler living out of his tent the allure was real.  My phones offline wikipedia informed me that the term can be traced back to the Doomsday Book: "an areas of unowned land outside London's walls." The laws of church & fiefdom did not reach there. An unclaimed place where no man's legal and cultural expectations intrude. A wild, uncivilised place.

The in-between place is somewhere that I have romanticised before but No Man's Land has, in contrast to marginal ones, the capacity to reveal what human activity usually covers. Where the Todesstreifen once separated East and West Germany now stands a  'Green Belt.'

"Characterised by an exceptional wealth of species and habitats, most of which are now endangered, representing a system of interlocked biotopes of national importance."

A similar process of bloom following political bust can be seen in Cyprus's buffer zone.

The classic example of this phenomena is the DMZ across the Korean Peninsular. A quick perusal of google earth reveals an abrupt end to Seoul's sprawl, replaced by a ribbon of green running NE away from the 38th parallel.

Tall tails of Tigers, extinct on the peninsular for 90 years, coexist with more concrete reports of a biodiversity thriving in our species absence.

So I was enthralled by the idea of spending some time wrapped in this ultimate conceptual escape from the polity and dominion of man.

Ahead of schedule for my rendezvous with the unowned I rolled into the small town of Kaki Bukit, where a brown sign caught my eye. In the lexicon of Malay road signage brown means 'of interest to tourists' and this one pointed to Gua Kelam. A mere 3k away I happily opted to detour and find what was there to be found.

I found a pleasant park with a trickling river and an unmanned but grand visitor center filled with esoteric plaques about mining. Quite satisfied with my detour I sat on a bench, ate some water melon and readied myself to push on.

Loitering nearby, two Australians hitchhikers loudly struck up conversation:

'Have you seen the cave up the river mate?'
No I haven't.
'There's free camping on the other side.'

The cave ran for almost 400 meters and immediately became the oddest place I have ridden.

Plans change and I was already well on the way to forgetting about no man's land as I rolled through the cool subterranean highway. But the real treat lay in what the cave concealed.

Emerging into a steep sided bowl valley I had stumbled into a page from the adventure books I loved as a tween.

I half expected to see pterodactyls swooping above the cool green canopy. I made do with whoops of Langurs and the fluttering of impossibly large butterflies.

The gently burbling river that had carved the cave here offered a Monet inspired spot to cool off. 

Having squared away my kit I explored the surroundings, following a steep stairway up the imposing valley side hoping for a vantage point to capture the hidden, contained feeling of Gua Kelam.

Instead the track led to a different cave mouth. The day had so far been characterised by accidentally embraced destinations and so this felt rather appropriate.

A sign announced that the cave was off limits but curiosity had the better of me. The initial caverns were large, smooth limestone, much expanded from its natural state. The echoing void of a once working mine-shaft. After ten minutes of walking it was clear that the network was rather more expansive than I had initially imagined with numerous branches, left and right. The cave had once been well maintained with metal walk ways and wooden rafters. Rather than head back, I scribbled a hasty map so I wouldn't lose my way, and set about methodically investigating each branch.

Long stretches of nothing were enlivened by objects resolving out of the darkness: A burnt out control panel, unidentifiable pieces of old machinery and what looked, in the spluttering light from my head-torch, to be a hanging noose.

I was not alone

A solitary giant cave cricket with its foot long antenna eyed me blindly 

After much wandering I found an intriguing barred door at one branches end

[Surely root rather than branch would be a more appropriate term?]

The unutterably bad video above is included only to demonstrate quite how dark it was.

Descending the passage narrowed, forcing me to bend double, then slip and slide down a steeply graded metal ramp before eventually reaching a hole through which a ladder descended into unfathomable depths.

Depths being the operative word as running water gurgled below too deep for my head torch to illuminate.

With some trepidation I descended the rungs

Another awful video mostly consisting of blackness.

I was rewarded by a flooded tunnel along which ran a long abandoned narrow gauge railway line.

Tunnel exploration continued to thrill as I systematically penetrated the gloom.

I initially mistook this fungi spire for a gargantuan spiders nest.

Running the length of a two meter wooden beam it was colossal and all the more wonderful for the contrast between it and the cave's apparent sterility 

Eventually rejoining what I had dubbed the main tunnel on my rudimentary map I found a more recently disused railway line and a less rudimentary map mounted on a platform. Taking my bearings I found myself at the half way point of a tunnel running right through the mountain. Once used to bring miners and later visitors into the complex I was tempted to follow the railway tunnel to the other-side but the low ceiling likely meant an hours scrabbling bent double so instead I tuned back and headed for the surface.

It was nearing dusk outside and as I approached the exit bats were beginning to mill.

I met up with the Australians and spent the evening playing cards and enjoying the company. They had arrived from Langkawi, an island famed for its beautiful beaches and duty free, loaded down with gin. I enjoyed that too and woke the next morning to realize it had been to excess. 

Feeling worse for wear I decided to stay on a day and join the Australians in a spot of the rock climbing that had brought them to Gua Kelim.

I confined myself to the easy lower slopes and on seeing them both descend sporting painful stings from territorial hornets I was pleased to have done so. 

The afternoon was spent more in my element walking the valley and scrambling its sides to better admire its abundant fauna.

After an evening pointedly avoided alcoholic beverages the night was enlivened by the arrival of  a group of university freshmen who proceeded to engage in a curious combination of judo, prayer revival and team bonding. A less than quiet activity involving frequent roars of enthusiasm which provoked a trouserless AM visit from me to request a reduction in decibel level.

Despite the interrupted nights sleep dawn found me snaking up a small access road which crept out of the valleys rear allowing me to rendezvous with the R15 without backtracking.

My reward was soft morning light with which to look back on Gua Kelam hiding just to the left of the cone hill.

So it was that I left behind the land of lah where four languages melt together with one glorious catch all suffix. A multi ethnic, multi religion land of delectable fusion cuisine crowded with urban moped commuters nonchalantly reversing their jackets and rural riders sporting five meter sickle tipped palm oil lances. A place still occasionally dotted by charming kampongs with wooden houses proudly displaying Malay flags. A land of butterflies, monkeys, kingfishers and reptilian roadkill.

A last glimpse back into Malaysia

Overview: 1 days riding: circa 60km
                 1 rest day

* routes are made using googlemaps autocomplete. Accuracy may be less than perfect

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