Climbing up to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands is a magical experience, yet its true and final dark spell is rarely cast on passing cyclists.
Personally, there’s something truly gripping about the Cameron Highlands, a jungle-clad mountain area in the heart of peninsular (West) Malaysia. This misty and deeply green high ground of extreme contrasts was where it all begun for me some 16 years ago; the ride that led me to a life in Southeast Asia.
On my very first day in Southeast Asia the destination was Cameron Highlands, where arrived to shoot a feature for a major cycling magazine. The story was all about riding the climb to Cameron’s, which had reached global cycling prominence thanks to the Tour de Langkawi, and it was then billed as the longest climb in pro bike racing.
All in, the climb that featured in the race then was a just few barriers length short of 56km in distance, an unspeakably long grind from the blistering Equatorial heat of Malaysia’s lowlands to the mist chilled clean air of this moody hill station.
The climb officially starts at 49 meters above sea levels in Tapah Road and then winds like a very long snake through dense jungle to reach the race finish line in the second and most popular of the staggered hill towns of Tanah Rata, which sits at 1,411 meters high.
It’s hardly the highest of altitudes, but if you can imagine climbing that distance through the humidity, with just one short downhill respite, only to face a 14 per cent grade towards the summit, then you'll understand its reputation.
Back then this old main road was the only link between the Highlands and the steamy and busy lowlands. Many of the less tropical produce you find throughout Malaysia is grown in these cooler climes. Trucks ply the road with little relent each morning and evening, meaning that riding uphill is best done in the searing mid day heat.
I’ve come to love the sound and feel of the jungle over the years, and every slow and sweat drenched pedal rev of this limb screeches with unseen and mysterious jungle sounds. It’s so deafening at times that it strangely feels silent.
For most of the way, you’ll see nothing but jungle. Every few minutes you’ll pass by a small roadside shack selling local home-grown delights, which are offered up by native Orang Asli people, the original indigenous inhabitants of West Malaysia, who mostly now live in rudimentary villages within the highland areas.
About 14km from the summit you drop down slightly to Ringlet, the lowest and perhaps most industrious of the highland towns. Old Landrover’s left over from the colonial days rule the roost, and can be seen ferrying fresh produce from almost every side road around town.
Strawberries, orchids, and tea are the most prized commodities, and from here on up you will pass by spectacular greenly carpeted tea gardens.
The Highlands were first formally “discovered” in 1885 by Sir William Cameron, hence their name. They became a cool retreat for heat-weary colonials and provided an ideal climate for growing their more favoured vegetables and produce.
These days the Highlands still produce huge amounts of tea, fruit and vegetables. The colonials are long gone and have now been replaced by tourists who flock hear year-round to take in the amazing scenery.
Whereas the race finish line is in Tanah Rata the road actually continues to climb, and with a vengeance. The next town along this road is Brinchang, with the road very steep, which then winds on up to the apparent summit - by a cluster of hotels near the Honey Bee Farm.
If you take the narrow left turn just over the top, the road twists through the lushly green Boh Tea plantation and then veers left along a rough and narrow road. Few people pass this way (other than in small tour jeeps), and it’s easy to see why.
This is the climb to Gunung Brinchang, which at 2,032 meters high is the highest accessible point in West Malaysia. The first few kilometres are awe inspiring and breath taking, in every possible way. Shortly after this is where the climb truly begins. It’s just about 6km in all, but it’s rough and relentlessly steep, and you will need very low gears to crack the back of this beast.
Over the years I’d returned time and again to the Highlands, yet this was the first time I’d ever dared to make a date with this particular devil. At times I did stop and slump over the bars at the roadside to question if it was really all worth it; but eventually, I did reach the summit.
Sadly it was completely mist-shrouded, and even from the viewpoint I could see nothing more than a dense fog, but I had finally managed to reach the roof of the Highlands on a bike.
Several years ago a new highway was constructed to the Highlands. The road starts from Simpang Pulai, (just south of Ipoh) and then climbs along a well-surfaced and open road around the northern flank of the mountains. The views on this route are bigger and the climb is slightly longer and steeper; although for me, the old way is still the best.
That said, with this option also crossing the backbone of the Highlands (to Gua Musang) you can now pin together four potential road ascents to Cameron Highlands (the road south from Ringlet is also now well surfaced), making for a quadruple bypass of a highland fling.