After about 3 kms from the junction, the road started to inch upward, slowly but surely. The sound of Rahim crackling his "Yee ha", enjoying the gradient filled the air. My gears were slowly changing to the granny and the heart rate increased with every pedal, tackling the gradient. I glanced at my Polar ever so often to ensure I was in my safe zone. Reaching my own set limit of 175 bpm, I dismounted and pushed. This action slowed down both the heart rate and the speed. I cannot have the best of both worlds.
From the GPS reading provided by GPS KC, we reached the first peak after about 6 kms of huffing and puffing and pushing. It was about 330 metres of climbing over the 6 kms. By this time, the cyclists were no longer bunched together. The stronger ones were ahead while the non mountain-lovers like me would be at the rear. I was at one time alone when I saw an empty pick-up van. I thumbed for a lift and it stopped. It was roughly a very short 2km ride to the first peak. Not realizing there were many more peaks up ahead, I thanked the driver to stop. He was telling me something in Thai which I did not understand. Later I realized that he must be telling me there were many other peaks further ahead and that I should just continue to "ride" with him on his pickup. But I disembarked. The driver must be gleefully telling me "it's your choice!"
At this first peak, it was an exhilarating 2kms downhill and I told myself that the worst was over. Enjoying the fast cool wind in the face on this downhill, it was to be a very shortlived joy. A small uphill welcomed me and as I cleared this uphill, I saw a village at the valley with another upswing of the gradient. I stopped to capture this new challenge.
Our group congregrated at the only sundry shop at this village. We almost "sapu bersih" whatever was in the shop - mineral waters, buns, crackers. I was sure this roaring business would never come ever so often to this sundry shop. I walloped two buns, drank as much water as I should and filled up the water bottles and bought some spare buns to bring along. By this time, I was anticipating the possibility of a hard time ahead. The sun was already setting. The group of MTB's we met told us of several more kilometres of hills before we reached the final peak which would take us 22kms of free-wheeling downhill. A great promise indeed but how many more kilometres of uphill was rather vague.
Right from the start at the village, I started pushing. A few cycled on, zigzagging to reduce the gradient. Soon, we were again seperated into a few smaller groups. The gradient was taking its toll.
As the sun was slowly sinking, a pickup truck was sympathetic to our three gutsy ladies Wendy, Alia and Siew Ping. The pickup, with all women inside, picked up our 3 ladies. I managed to tumpang my panniers as there was no space for a 4th bike. The 3 ladies proceeded on to our final destination Phrao, with the task of securing us the night-stop.
Soon, dusk was approaching fast.
Together at the rear with me were GPS KC, YB BOH, AZMAR and ALAUDDIN. It was also getting cold and we were geting hungry. In between us, Azmar had a half-tin sardine and I had 1 bun to share amongst the 5 of us. We shared. We were now preparing for the long dark journey, uncertain of what could lie ahead.
We decided we should bunch together and pushed as a group. The jungles were fringing both sides of the road. Earlier, vehicles zoomed past us. None stopped and some were already fully laden. As the night got darker, less vehicles were zooming by. We continued our push. Occasionally the full moon would appear through the thick foliage to light the road. Otherwise, we could only see as far as our bike lights could shine. But we knew the road was still uphill. The batteries on my torchlight was already half-dead. Being an early-bird, I was not really prepared for a night ride. Tonight would be different.
While we huffed and puffed, our minds must have gone to our 3 ladies who by now should be safely in Phrao. We didn't know what had happened to the other cyclists up ahead - Don and Rahim, who were last seen riding together. There was also Caroline with another cyclist. They were strong riders but they too would be caught in the dark.
In my mind, we were now seperated in 3 groups, ours being the rear party. There was no mobile connection in this hill and therefore unable to communicate with the group upfront or with the ladies in the pickup.
Much later, Don told me he was not with Rahim as Rahim had gone ahead. Being alone as darkness was falling, he had made the right decision to hitch the ride on a pickup. It was easy as there was space for a bike and one passenger. He was brought to the Police Station at Phrao where he met our three ladies who had arrived earlier.
Unknown to us, our 3 ladies in the pickup were very much aware of the continuing uphill after they were picked up. They made the right decision, helped by the pickup owner, to seek assistance at Phrao Police Station for us. Unknown to us too, the Thai Police was already on the way to pick us all up.
It was about 9pm, still uphill pushing and puffing when we saw a light up ahead around a bend. Jokingly I recalled saying "it's the rescue". Then we saw the flashing of the siren light and pleasantly saw a Thai Police logo on the pickup door. All hands automatically shot up to stop the pickup. Then we saw Siew Ping in the pickup. What a great relief. Rescue was there.
Quickly, helped by the 2 police-officers, we were already putting the bikes up on the pickup. Great. Space just enough for the bikes. No way could we squeze in. Prayers answered. Almost at the same time, we saw a vehicle light approaching from behind. Stopped by the Police, the pickup certainly had to stop. A few exchanges between the Police and the owner, they agreed to ferry us to Phrao, in the canopied rear of the pickup.
We stumbled in, reliefed that the ordeal was nearly over. However, in the cramped condition of the covered pick-up, it had to be another experience. The driver could have been a retired rally driver as he roared on the twisty road. We were swayed from side to side. I almost threw up.
Even in our dizziness, we realized that the road was still going up and up. If we had not been picked up, we would still be somewhere in these hills well past mid-night. When the pickup finally reached the last peak, it was roaring downhill at what we felt was a fast speed. We were burping frequently, to release air from our system. When the vehicle stopped, it was another great relief.
Soon another pickup stopped. In the pickup was Rahim and Caroline and their bikes. We did a head count, again relieved that everyone were now accounted for. Next destination was to proceed to Phrao Police Station to sort out our accomodation and makan. One of the pickups belonged to the resort owner. Packed food was ordered. It was already well past mid-night. Tired and hungry, we were then transported to the Amdoi Resort for a well-deserved rest.
Perhaps the right phrase would be "looking up". Back home, GPS KC produced the drawing of the terrain we went through from our branch-off point at Wiang Pa Pao (the yellow marker on extreme left). The Village in the valley is the yellow marker in the middle of the chart. The last yellow marker on the right is the police pick-up point. Beyond that, the road was still climbing.
The picture below provided corresponding view of the mountain range in the background, with the uphill slope visible even from the distance.
The Thai cyclist we met earlier was very correct when he said "Phrao...tall...tall...". Would we have done it had we known the terrain beforehand? The 11 cyclists would have their respective answers. I did not solicit for any answers. It wasn't necessary. We were glad we went through the challenge safely.
Our cycling ladies of Alia, Wendy and Siew Ping who had the foresight of seeking help.
Above all, words alone would not be sufficient to express our gratitude and thanks to the Phrao Police personnels who came to the rescue. I will personally write a note of thanks on behalf of the group.
Ultimately, it's always the charm of its people that draws visitors to Thailand. Insyallah, this would not be my last cycling trip to Thailand.
Khap Pun Kaap!