The Rainforest Challenge, held in Malaysia each November, is one of the most memorable 4x4 endurance tests on the planet. Fought out intensely over five nights and six days across nearly 500 miles of the most rugged and unforgiving terrain, the Challenge takes competitors through mud, drenching rain, slippery slopes, deep ruts, gullies, flooded rivers, and landslides that are so demanding and dangerous, it takes hours to travel a kilometer and many more to recover. The difficulty is compounded by the humidity, sand flies, leeches, sleepless nights, unending winching from dusk to dawn, and recovering vehicles submerged deep in tropical mud. But the camaraderie among the competitors was much appreciated, "I have never seen such bonding among the competitors since I came into the Rainforest Challenge four years ago," said Thomas Foo (Tango), the competition manager. "This is definitely a plus for the event."
Loosely based on the old Camel Trophy, the Rainforest Challenge comprises a number of Special Stages, or tasks, featuring extreme winching, mud crossings, slaloming through trees, rockcrawling, and a session of night 'wheeling. In addition, a special Prologue Stage is held, to give the competitors a better idea of what to expect in the jungle.
Last year's event featured competitors hailing from Holland, The United Kingdom, Denmark, Mexico, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong (China), Thailand, Korea, and host Malaysia. Immediately after the flag-off, competitors marched towards the Prologue Stage, on Kemasik Beach located on the coast of the South China Sea. It was the first time that the Prologue Stage was held for two days. "It took lots of time and effort to design them to meet the standards that today's competitors demand," said course designer Martin Lewis.
During the race, most teams had a tough time determining and marking the route. Already having experienced torrential rains, overflowing rivers, mud, winching, and washed-away bridges, they spent more time outside the vehicles looking through the undergrowth for signs marking the route than they spent behind the wheel. Expecting that the competitors would have to travel at night and do a lot of navigation in the jungle, a one-night Prologue Stage was held on the beach-with no landmarks, no markers, only running towards the light coming from a burning tire half a mile away. A Korean team went straight into the burning tire and burnt their car into ashes, ignoring the Golden Rule: Finish near the burning tire, and not on top of it!
For all the participants, the following days were tough and had a lot of drama to boot. Clive Paul Raymont from the United Kingdom, in a Suzuki, had a narrow escape when his plasma winch rope got snagged in the winch housing, just as he hung with his Suzuki on the top of a boulder. He was hanging on by only a fiber of the plasma-even the vibration of a heartbeat would have put him into danger. Fortunately he was rescued by event marshals before the rope gave way. During one especially grueling stage, a Herculean effort was required from the four competitors who actually finished, much to the dismay of the other 20 who didn't make it. Another day it took some competitors 18 hours to finish a stage, but five teams had to leave their vehicles in the jungle to be retrieved at a later date.
Another action-packed stage took place in a river with sunken driftwood littering the riverbed to add extra obstacles. All the cars became entangled in it, so the competitors had to winch themselves through the river-a hard job when there are no trees nearby and no solid anchor points. The few moments that the competitors had "nothing to do" was filled in by navigating deep gullies, muddy riverbanks, stony and swollen rivers, steep hillclimbs, bamboo forests, overgrown vegetation, elephant dung every 10 feet, and a constant fight against leeches. An added bonus was the rain-not just a shower, but literally buckets of rain. For some, it was energy-sapping to a breaking point.
There are so many side stories to tell of camaraderie, bravery, continuous driving, recovery, and unending winching for 21 hours at a mud hole. But still, for those who have survived the Rainforest Challenge, it's living out one of life's great 4x4 fantasies.