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Trail’s End: Tropical Truck Torture—Malaysia’s 2007 Rainforest Challenge

Posted in Features on March 7, 2018
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Photographers: Martin BrinkVivek Sharma

What is the most difficult 4x4 race in the world? Some will argue that it’s Mexico’s Baja 1000; others will name the Dakar Rally that runs between Peru and Argentina. After our trip to Malaysia for the Rainforest Challenge, we agreed this race deserves its spot on that list.

Back in April 2007, we covered the Rainforest Challenge, which for those unfamiliar, is quite different from what is considered a normal off-road race. Forget what you know about simple dirt tracks and strings of dusty whoops, because the competitors in Malaysia subjected themselves to a different kind of torture. Drivers ventured into the jungle from across the globe—Holland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Mexico, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Thailand, and Korea—with purpose-built rigs ranging from Land Rovers to Toyotas.

What set this competition apart from other races were the types of challenges the drivers encountered. The race covered nearly 500 miles of rainforest, where it was common to spend more time outside of the rig than inside it. Course markers were not always clear, forcing drivers and co-drivers to dig through mud and bushes to find the makeshift stakes marked with colored tape—only then could they proceed. Proceed, however, is not an appropriate word; that sounds like the vehicles were moving at a steady pace. The crux of this race lies in the hours it can take to cover one kilometer.

Let’s dive inside what it was like to pilot a rig through this race: You’re looking over your left shoulder out the window into the darkness. There are three things currently filling your ears—equal parts high-pitched whining mosquitos, a muddy gumbo of rainforest slime, and the protesting of your engine’s rev limiter. You’re stuck, just like you were ten minutes ago. This time it’s in a river, but that’s not immediately apparent because it’s also night. Stepping out into the waist-deep, swollen Malaysian river, you realize that the rig is high-centered on submerged logs. The custom-cut mud tires are dandy for clawing through the rainforest slop, but offer no help in the water. Time to winch, again. Staring down the glare of the off-road lights, you give the driver the signal and the rig lurches off the logs and plunges once again into the murky river. The additional “oomph” from the winch supplied enough momentum for the driver to ascend the river’s bank—which looked less like a boat ramp and more like a U.S. border wall. Nevertheless, you leap back into the co-driver’s seat and peel a baker’s dozen worth of leeches from your flesh, as you careen through the tangled bamboo toward the next challenge.

The jungle served as a great equalizer, permitting only teams with hearty morale and diamond-honed wheeling skills to complete the race. Upon finishing, vehicles were many flavors of brown, red, and broken; snorkels and skidplates alike had been pushed past their limits; and winch cables had drawn rigs over more miles than did gasoline and horsepower. Only a trophy forged of mangled sheetmetal and overflowing with mud could capture the essence of the Rainforest Challenge, which still runs to this day.

Let us know what you think about extreme off-road races. Did you race back in the day? Is there a future 4x4 race rig sitting half-finished in the barn? We’d love to hear your stories (and see your pictures), so send ’em to!

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