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2018 Malaysia Rainforest Challenge: Crimson Mud, Monsoons, and Black Scorpions

Posted in Events on February 21, 2019
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Each January, as we pencil in the calendar, we scan the globe for off-road events with badass reputations. Over the years, Four Wheeler has featured most of them, but there is a long-running debate on which is the toughest, meanest hombre on the block (or at least on which ones land in the top 10). For example, the U.S. has King of the Hammers, Mexico hosts the Baja 1000, and South America is the adopted home of the Dakar Rally. We headed across the Pacific to Southeast Asia for what we considered a little event with a big reputation, the Rainforest Challenge (RFC). What we found was a very unique, formidable event.

We arrived in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to a gala parade celebrating the RFC, grand presentations with local dignitaries, and rigs like none we see in the States. Vehicles flew flags from Russia, China, Japan, Mongolia, Ecuador, and a host of other countries, and a truly international group assembled for the driver orientation. Chatting with founder Luis Wee, we learned that the RFC and its various chapters host events in nearly two dozen countries throughout the year. The Malaysian venue just happens to be the grand finale. Considering the fact that the country is 50 percent jungle and averages nearly 100 inches of rain annually (150 where the event takes place), it is the ideal locale for a mud slog of epic magnitude. We were told that this year’s event, the 23rd annual, would be relatively dry, but we soon learned that in Malaysia, “dry” simply means less wet.

The first two days, the Prologue and Predator stages, are a bit of a warm-up and consist of a dozen flagged tracks through hill and dale near the coast. However, the RFC is ambulatory, and the third day found us deep in the Northern Highlands—where civilization ends and the jungle begins. Organizers, support crews, media, and race teams must be fully self-contained—the longest stretch between fuel sources entailed 600 kilometers of muddy two-tracks.

The RFC begins at the Ibis Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, with a gala parade through the city.

Tires, Tech, and Time

While the RFC is similar to other off-road contests, in that the goal is to go from point A to point B in the shortest elapsed time, the equipment and techniques required to do so vary greatly from U.S. venues. This is due to the terrain that must be surmounted and the weather. Malaysian soil consists of fine red dirt and clay, and Mother Nature sweeps through each winter, packing a soggy punch…the monsoon. To help you understand the inner workings of an RFC-capable car, we’ve included a sidebar with some of the technical tricks needed to survive.

Vehicle classes and scoring are quite simple. Each of the 34 special stages (SS) are worth 100 points to the winner; those who follow receive a fraction thereof. Classes are broken down into three categories: Prototype, Production, and Modified Production. Each class is further subdivided by fuel type, displacement, portal or non-portal axles, team gender, and so on. Although maximum tire diameter is 40 inches, most run smaller rubber. The reason is that courses pass through dense brush that is barely wide enough for a UTV. We found that the Suzuki Samurai is by far the most common vehicle, and rigs such as an FJ40 Land Cruiser are considered large and have a distinct disadvantage in some areas. Unlike many events, the daily starting order is determined by lottery. Everyone gathers for the morning meeting and pulls a number.

The Prologue stage takes place near the coastal town of Kota Bharu, where Malaysians show up with their best “roof-gating” gear.

Into the Jungle

The Lost World and Survival stages have distinct characteristics. Lost World finds drivers hacking paths through the bush, stringing winch lines, and riding ground anchors, while Survival pits them against deep flowing rivers strewn with large boulders. The mountainous terrain and daily rainfall lent perfectly to unstable trail conditions. Log bridges needed to be repaired or were nonexistent, and teams often found themselves building new ones from scratch.

A tentative schedule is outlined at the beginning of the event, but depending on Mother Nature’s mood, the following days are fluid…pun intended. If it rains like heck, rivers swell and are impassable, and a two-hour mountain pass might take all night. One day, on what was to be a seven-hour transit drive between bivouacs, we found ourselves at 0300 the next morning winching our vehicles daisy chain–style through knee-deep mud.

The Suzuki Samurai’s narrow track, short wheelbase, and tight turning circle make it a popular choice among RFC competitors.

One of the RFC’s trademark elements is the Twilight Zone. After a full day of competition, teams head out for an unsupported overnight slog. They are dispatched in groups, as the Kelantan region is a true jungle, replete with roaming elephants, venomous snakes, scorpions, and Malayan tigers. It is a dangerous place, especially at night. The media can opt to stay in camp or enter the Twilight Zone by hitching a ride on the back of a vehicle. We opted for the latter and found ourselves humping it over muddy mountains until the wee hours. Due to the technical challenges, scoring is a bit different. Anyone who survives and makes the 0700 time cutoff the next morning receives the full 100 points.

Wrap-up

Malaysian mud does the Devil’s work when it comes to silencing your vehicle’s pulse. After 10 days in the gooey stuff, we can tell you that the RFC is one tough hombre. The RFC website states that it is “not for the faint of heart,” and we wholeheartedly concur. As is the case with the Dakar Rally and Baja 1000, the Rainforest Challenge is not only brutal on competitors, but on everyone involved. If the idea of brushing mud out of your teeth, sleep deprivation, and wearing soaked clothes and soggy boots until your traveling mates give you the stink eye are your idea of fun, the RFC is your ticket to ride.

Interested in running the RFC but don’t have a rig? No worries! The organizers can put you in touch with outfits that hire (rent) race-ready vehicles. Crazy, eh? The cost is about $3,500, and if you choose this route, it is highly advised that you arrive a few days early to give the car a thorough evaluation and become familiar with its systems. They don’t offer full-damage insurance waivers (or any insurance), so we suggest driving it like you own it rather than you stole it…AAA will not come get you when you break.

We often assess the difficulty of an event by the number of teams that see the checkered flag. When the mud settled, more than 50 percent of the field had broken, crashed, turned around, or were on the receiving end of a towstrap. We had traversed more than 900 kilometers of dense jungle, built bridges, winched until sunrise, and dodged scorpions. Would we agree that the Rainforest Challenge ranks in the top 10 toughest events in the world? Lima Charlie on that one.

As the only Yankees in attendance, we’d love to see some of our Ultra4 teams expand their horizons and represent the good ol’ red, white, and blue in the coming years. They’ll be in for a muddy good time! For more info visit rainforest-challenge.com.

The Prologue consists of seven technical courses through the coastal brush.
The Prologue
The first stretch of trenchy jungle begins a few kilometers from the Thai border.
Each morning at the driver’s meeting, lead marshal Thomas Woo apprised teams of the day’s schedule.
Special stages on the second day consisted of natural and manmade obstacles. One of the marshals told us this was “just a warm-up” for the days to come.
Although Malaysia has its share of granite, the only time it is not covered in mud is when it is covered by water.
Although the female teams usually have less brute strength than the men (they compete side by side), they make up for it with pure determination.
The navigators spend most of their time stringing winch lines and extracting vehicles, and they are equally as important (if not more) as the driver.
This Samurai balanced on two wheels for several seconds before the driver found reverse and brought the front end back to terra firma.
Jungle hazards included steep descents and downed trees.
Jungle hazards
Far from civilization, teams must be fully self-contained to manage field repairs.
Contestants and support crews gather along the river’s edge, waiting for their start time.
Transit days between bivouacs involved extended muddy two-tracks through the jungle.
Transit days
On several occasions, log bridges needed to be constructed or rebuilt.
The remote location and challenging conditions required competitors, support crews, and organizers to work together to reach each bivouac.
Teams line up for one of the in-camp technical tasks.
One of the in-camp technical tasks was winching vehicles for a predetermined distance with a Hi-Lift jack.
Utilizing PTO winches, an essential piece of RFC equipment, vehicles climbed near-vertical embankments at impressive speed without spinning a tire.
Although high-horsepower mills are not the norm, there are times when nothing can substitute for cubes under the hood.
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The dreaded Twilight Zone, an unsupported overnight slog through the inky blackness of the Malaysian jungle, taxed man and machine until the wee hours of the morning.

PhotosView Slideshow

The RFC takes place during the height of the monsoon season, when deep water is a constant.

The Survival stage, which pits teams against flooded rivers, is the final day of competition.
Class winners gathered for a group photo during the awards ceremony.
Although the black forest scorpion will not kill you, a sting from this aggressive bugger will remind you to look before you reach under a log.
The typical RFC bivouac consisted of our cots lined up under massive rain tarps.

RFC Tech Tricks

Extreme mud requires meaty tires with cavernous tread voids, as well as a means to extricate your vehicle when you get stuck. The most common tire choices at the RFC are the Simex Centipede, Interco Super Swamper Bogger, and Maxxis Trepador. Ground anchors, though most appeared to be home-fabbed, are standard equipment.
Gooey mud will quickly clog a conventionally mounted radiator, so cooling systems are repositioned up high and near the center of the vehicle.
Hood-deep water is an everyday occurrence; air intakes are routed above the roof or inside the cockpit.
Pneumatics are not only used to actuate ARB Air Lockers (nearly all vehicles run Air Lockers); they’re also used to engage PTO winching systems.
Winching systems include a power takeoff (PTO) as well as a conventional electric unit. The PTO is utilized for most situations, but if the engine dies, the vehicle is upside down, or precision control is needed, the electric takes the lead.
Winch
For deep, trenchy mud, competitors running portal axles gain the advantage. The most common is the Volvo 101 model.
Fully hydraulic steering and dual-caliper brakes are commonplace. The additional brake systems (one for the left side and one for the right) are electronically actuated and linked to the turn signal. This brilliant concept is quite intuitive—flip the signal and the vehicle cuts in that direction.

Wheels Up

PhotosView Slideshow

There were dozens of near-vertical embankments where winching was the prudent approach. Those that opted to drive the line often ended up on their lids.

PhotosView Slideshow

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