It is a truly exciting experience to drive in the middle of the jungle. It is even more challenging to cross a narrow, rickety bridge made out of logs which are held together with tie-downs or motorcycle chains. It takes nerves of steel to completely trust the man standing on the other side of the bridge directing you with hand signals. The experience gets even worse after sunset when you are unable to clearly see where the wheels of the vehicle should be placed on the makeshift bridge. You are literally trusting your life to your codriver's blurred hand signals.
As part of the media convoy, my Range Rover team and I had to cross some extremely difficult obstacles along our journey. It seemed that building bridges above countless streams and mudholes became our daily routine. Even so, every time I looked at one of the vehicles crossing a log bridge I was scared, especially after a Land Rover Defender, which was just behind us in the convoy, tried to cross the bridge in complete darkness. The vehicle lost its grip and ended up with all four of its wheels off the logs and hanging in the air. I was particularly stressed because our vehicle was pulling the Land Rover forward to safety using our winch, with my driver standing outside his car, winch control box in his hands, while I sat in the driver seat pushing the brake pedal so that both cars wouldn't slide downhill onto the dark precipice below.
I was in this perilous and remote locale for the Rainforest Challenge (RFC), a nerve-racking and exhausting, 10-day 4x4 event. This event is in its ninth year, and each time it is held in a different district of the Federation of Malaysia. It was my third trip to Malaysia to cover the event as a journalist.
Like most 4x4 events throughout the world, the purpose here is to test the abilities of the different teams that come from around the globe. The drivers and codrivers are put through sequences of extremely difficult and almost impossible obstacles that nature has created in the heart of one of the most ancient and exotic rainforests. To make it even more challenging, the RFC is held in November and December right in the middle of the monsoon season. This means that during the event, participants have to endure torrents of heavy tropical rain that almost never ceases. The weather is also extremely hot, with almost 100-percent humidity. That might be very nice in a sauna, but it is a lot less pleasant when you are trying to win a 10-day motorsports event.
In addition to the adventure, the challenge, the weather, and the difficult course prepared by the organization, the teams are also judged on their vehicles' preparedness for the RFC. Countless dollars and hours of work are dedicated to this vital preparation.
The RFC is considered to be one of the toughest motorsports events of its kind. In this race, there are no off-road vehicles racing at crazy speeds between trees in the style of a desert rally race such as the Paris-Dakar. The speed of the competitors is an important factor, but it is generally quite slow, with drivers using low gears as well as winches to enable them to advance across the muddy, rugged landscape.
Since the RFC first took place in 1997, the organizers have made it a point to run the courses on existing jungle trails that are usually used in the dry season by the locals. Because of the heavy monsoon rains during the time of the year the race is held, those trails become virtually inaccessible. As a testament to how tough the terrain is in the RFC, two years ago I joined an X-men car, which is one of the official scouting team vehicles in front of the competitors' cars, and it took us more than 12 hours to cover 5 km (3.1 miles). However, the jungle's power is so strong that within a few weeks after the event, nature takes over and the terrain is back to what it was before the start of the competition, thus ensuring an equally challenging race for the next year.
What counts here in the jungle is not the size of the engine but the driver's experience, toughness, and ability to handle a vehicle in extremely harsh jungle conditions. In other parts of the world, I have learned that desert drivers are the modern version of a Bedouin and his camel. Here in the Malaysian rainforest, I have met the equivalent species of off-road creatures whose natural habitat is the jungle. They specialize in driving in extremely muddy conditions with slippery terrain and minimum traction. They are also extremely experienced in using winches, building makeshift bridges out of logs, crossing deep-water obstacles, and clearing old trails with chainsaws, axes, and machetes. For most of the westerners taking part in the event, it is basically unknown territory, which is probably why Malaysian drivers have won the event almost every year. What counts here even more than the capabilities of one's vehicle is experience and familiarity, which the locals have plenty of.
After a long and exhausting flight to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, followed by a six-hour press-bus ride toward the east coast, we ended up outside Cukai, the starting point of the 2005 RFC. Cukai is a small town located in the state of Terengganu on the beautiful east coast of the Malay Peninsula, next to the South China Sea.
The following morning, the two days of Prologue events began with a colorful opening ceremony. Like most events of this kind, the Prologue section is an introduction to the event itself for members of the media and the general public who are unable to follow the competitors into the jungle. Following the opening ceremony was the first of five Special Stages (SS) for the day. While the RFC course does traverse a considerable amount of territory in Terengganu, it is the SS events which punctuate the trek that are the real meat and bones of the competition. Essentially, the RFC is a series of these Special Stages. The SS events consist of many difficult obstacles such as stone walls, steep side-angles, huge logs, and boulders.
Toward the end of the first Prologue day, camp was set up on the beach in preparation for the final SS of the day. There was no time for either the competitors or the members of the media to rest. The day's final SS didn't appear to be a difficult test for the abilities of the teams since it was more or less just heading toward a campfire and back. However, what the competitors did not know was that the fire was lit on a tiny island surrounded by water, not far from the beach. This challenge was not as easy as they had thought! One team got lost in the dark just outside the camp. All of this before even heading into the jungle - not exactly a spectacular start!
The X-men teams broke camp before the end of the first night and were to spend the next three days ahead of the competitors setting up the upcoming Special Stages.
After the second day of the Prologue events, which witnessed the cancellation of three Special Stages due to extreme weather conditions, everybody headed north to Kuala Berang for gas, food, and spare parts. Many teams used this short break in the action to recover from damages sustained during the Prologue Special Stages by visiting some local garages before the big jump into the jungle. Land Rovers, Jeeps, Suzukis, and Toyotas were familiar sights to the local mechanics, but most Malaysians have never seen an Austrian-designed, British-manufactured Pinzgauer.
After a long hard night of traversing countless streams and miles of mud, building bridges from logs, and making heavy use of our winches, we eventually made it to our campsite for the night. We hung plastic sheets on top of poles between the vehicles, set up our beds, and collapsed into a well-deserved slumber.
The next morning, following another SS in a river, the media convoy had to separate from the competitors who were headed to the extremely difficult Twilight Zone SS and Terminator SS, which were inaccessible to our press vehicles. We had no other alternative but to drive straight to the camp set up at the old "Elephant Bridge" at the end of the Twilight Zone and Terminator sections. It was going to be a long wait of four nights before we could rejoin the competitors.
In the meantime, we received reports that the X-men teams scouting the track leading to the Twilight Zone had been viciously attacked by aggressive sand flies, which had apparently learned the art of penetrating mosquito netting. We could still see the marks of this unfortunate encounter on the X-mens' bodies a few days later.
While we members of the press camped and waited, the competitors were heading into the high hills, using their winches for hours upon hours and, unfortunately, dealing with the jungle's abundant leech population. After 48 hours of slow but nonstop progress, the competitors eventually reached the dreaded Terminator Hill.
This year, the Terminator SS was a very slippery hill, 700 meters high with a 30- to 40-degree slope, requiring the codrivers to climb up and down, constantly employing their winches. In addition, the soil stuck like glue to every visible part of the vehicles, and at the same time, was as slippery as ice. It seems that the codrivers were the ones who physically suffered the most. The maximum-allowed winch-cable length was 50 meters, and with Terminator Hill being 700 meters high, a codriver had to pull the cable constantly along the slope, up and down, at least 30 times. It might not seem like very much, but it's exactly 1.4 km on an almost vertical slope. Definitely the path to hell!
Many vehicles also suffered from mechanical problems in this stage, mostly in the differentials and driveshafts, leading, of course, to sleepless nights of wrenching. Even with these difficulties, there was a strong spirit of friendship between the competitors. Everybody helped everybody else, whether it was with manpower, mechanical expertise, spare gas, or spare parts. Eventually, only five teams were able to finish the SS Terminator in time. Most of the other vehicles had to be winched out by the X-men teams.
The next day, the competitors advanced in spread-out groups and crossed an area of bamboo forest. A Suzuki driven by one of the British teams had lost its four-wheel-drive capability and had to manage with only two-wheel drive. The Dutch team's Pinzgauer lost its windshield after a dangerous encounter with a tree trunk. Luckily, the driver stopped just in time to avoid having his throat nailed to the seat. The team continued with the windshield replaced by tie-downs across the frame to at least help protect them from the slashing of the branches; although the lack of a windshield left them completely unprotected from the relentless monsoon rains.
It was almost completely dark when we finally saw the lead competitor's car arriving toward our press camp on the other side of the Elephant Bridge. Four days ago, our media convoy had arrived here and waited patiently for the competitors to emerge from the dense jungle. We watched the teams eventually arrive one by one as the rain pounded on.
In fact, due to the heavy rainstorms, the water level of the river had risen dangerously high, and it was therefore decided to cancel the last three SS events of the RFC. All vehicles (press, official, and competitor) were to depart straightaway and drive en masse to Kuala Terengganu where the award ceremony would take place that very evening.
The award ceremony and dinner banquet was a lavish affair hosted by the sultan and sultana of the State of Terengganu. After the sticky mud of the jungle, the festive dinner seemed like an oriental fantasy. We were given traditional silk Malaysian clothes to wear as T-shirts and jungle clothes were strictly prohibited in the presence of the sultan, although most of us still wore our muddy jungle boots - this was quite a contrast. Such a colorful celebration was a welcome respite after our ten long days in the green jungle and toffee-colored mud of Malaysia's Rain Forest Challenge.
Race ResultsChampionMalaysia (Jeep CJ-6)Tan Eng Joo/Lee Yit Kiang
Champion, Under 2,000ccUnited KingdomClive Paul Raymont/Malcolm Allan Burman
Champion, 2,000cc - 3,000cc (GASOLINE)MalaysiaTan Eng Joo/Lee Yit Kiang
Champion, 2,000cc - 3,000cc (Diesel)United KingdomAndrew James/Mark Chaplin/Shaun Paul Harris
Champion, Above 3,000ccMalaysiaChong Yoke Sang/Lee Kun Fatt
Team Spirit AwardPhilippinesHilario Mendiola/Sergio Jamila/Dennis Javier