The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



Oct 04, 2014

In Review: IRONMAN Malaysia 2014

58 countries, 1397 athletes, 3.9km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run, testosterone, adrenaline, blood, sweat, tears, and last but definitely not the least, vomit.


The Outdoor Journal

The Ironman triathlon, aka one of the most grueling one-day sporting events in the world, took place in Langkawi Malaysia on September 27th, 2014. Dating back to 1977, the Ironman triathlons take place all over the world and this year, it was aesthetically located within a cluster of tropical islands in a quaint beach town.


The largest international triathlon hosted by Malaysia and the island of Langkawi, TOJ editors Madhuri Chowdhury and Himraj Soin checked it out to see what all the fuss was about. Covering the race from start to finish was nothing short of overwhelmingly humbling, but also a bit of a herculean task, inspiring the young journalists to perhaps compete (in the distant future) in what they thought to be a self-destructive, masochistic, and inexplicably impressive race.

The days leading up to Ironman Malaysia included practice swims, briefings, transition tours, and a whole lot of merchandise shopping. The town was painted with colorfully decked out athletes biking, running, swimming, and eating what seemed to be all the carbohydrates ever produced in the little island. With an amalgamated atmosphere of gaiety, apprehension, nerves, and pure adrenaline-induced excitement, not to mention intervals of rain showers and strong sunshine, the weekend was off to a promising start. The Ironman race, we found, wasn’t just an event, it was a lifestyle, and those who choose to be a part of it seldom turned back. With a cult following of professional and amateur athletes, with many months and years of training, to be a part of this wasn’t just hardcore, it was much more than that. It was a prestigious honor to participate in the event, to be a part of this brand, and most of all, to finish and achieve a whole different level of self-fulfillment and betterment.

Malaysia was the largest country to be represented with 247 athletes with Singapore a close second, with 202 athletes. Japan was the third largest with 180 athletes and international athletes made up 83% of the list. The youngest athlete was 20 years old and the oldest was 77 years old. Ironman Malaysia was off to a promising, diverse, adrenaline-filled start.

On Race Day we headed to the yacht club in darkness. The usually vibrant streets of Langkawi were ominously cordoned off, guarded by volunteers with walkie -talkies. We were hustled into two boats with other journalists in shiny vests and sailed towards the swim start point as the sun rose. The pro athlete’s were in the water first, shortly followed by another wave of potential Ironman-finishers. The rolling start ensured a smooth flow of athletes, their bare arms flying in 30C water.

As the athletes pushed to swim 3.9km, the media boats rushed to the shore to wait for the first swimmers to reach the transition point where they had to grab a bike and start their 180km journey speeding through sleepy island roads. The two-loop bike course took the athletes through several local villages (‘Kampungs’), giving them a glimpse of the colorful local sights.

IM_3The run course covered 42.2km of tropical flat road, passing local night markets and botanical gardens. Patrick Nillson was the first male to finish, making this his maiden Ironman win as well as the biggest win of his career. The Swedish pro had trouble with his bike chain that got stuck on the second lap, but managed to regain his position. At 08:41:53, he stumbled into the finish line tape and collapsed onto the ground. “That was a really tough day especially the last 10k. The 1st two laps I kept reminding myself to stay cool and knew I had the lead and the guys would have to run really good to catch me. But those two laps. Those were really REALLY hard”, Nillson said.

Fredrick Croneberg from Sweden came in second at 8:58:45. Malaysia’s first athlete to cross the line was Mohd Amran Ghani. Running his first Ironman ever, the firefighter ranked 20 overall, with a time of 10:14:54.

If there was any uncertainty over who would win the race overall, the women’s race was a shoe in for German pro athlete Diana Riesler who won her maiden IRONMAN race, coming in fifth overall.

This year in Langkawi, it seemed like those who could stand the heat, as well as beat it, reaped the rewards at the finish line. IRONMAN’s return to the tropical islands of Langkawi saw the already popular tourist destination swell with people, passion and drama like never before. The qualified athletes will head to Kona, Hawaii, next year, under the watchful eyes of this steadily growing triathlon cult following.

Text and Images © Himraj Soin and Madhuri Chowdhury

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Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.



Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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