Surviving the Malaysian Highlands
An Adventure Surviving Muddy Monsoons in the Malaysian Highlands
An ebony blackness hung overhead in the Malaysian Highlands, restricting any light from penetrating the omnipresent fog that obscured the night sky. In the distance, headlight beams penetrated the mist and we could hear the whine of diesel mills spinning at redline. Voices commanding “winch in … winch out” could be heard toward the crest of the mountain and in the valley below. Viscous crimson mud that had poured over the cuff of my boots was now oozing between my toes and the sub-tropical heat had induced a continuous stream of sweat. My watch indicated 0400, and we’d been on the move since 0700 the previous day. Such is the life of a journalist reporting on the Rainforest Challenge (RFC), calf-deep in one big fat marathon mud fest. I slung my camera around my back, picked up a winch line, and slogged up the hill. This night was about survival.
There are few events remaining in the world that capture the essence of the infamous Camel Trophy. Back in the day, the Trophy was a no-holds-barred competition that demanded every fiber of intestinal fortitude, mechanical knowledge, and driver ability to survive. The RFC follows suit, pushing competitors, support teams, organizers, and media to their physical and mental limits. Their motto is “Not for the faint of heart,” and once you set foot in the saturated red soil of the Malaysian Highlands one quickly realizes the validity of this statement.
The general route is reconnoitered in advance, but this might have been several months or up to a year in advance … and anything can happen in the jungle. Monsoon rains have a tendency to take out sections of road and entire bridges, the government might dig an elephant trap across the track, or a tribal chief might deny access. The competition is ambulatory, moving from bivouac to bivouac, but the draw for the adventure-minded rests in the transit stages.
Elephant Traps and Bush Engineering
Ten days earlier we were on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital, observing the scrutineering process and making sure our gear was as ready as possible for the monsoon. We were also preparing to be fully self-sufficient for a multi-day slog through Southeast Asia’s most mysterious jungle. Our destination was the Kelantan region, mountainous heights home to roaming elephants, venomous snakes, voracious leeches, and 5-inch scorpions. It is also the traditional lands of the Temiar, the largest of the Orang Asli tribes (original people) on the Malay Peninsula, which have occupied the highlands for millennia.
After a few days of mild terrain on the eastern coastline, we turned off on a muddy track near Tanah Merah and entered the dark, damp, domain of the Temiar. Our media team consisted of Tommy Chung and wife Florence (owners of Kepong 4×4) and Polish videographer Bartek Kosiorek. During the coming days of cramped quarters and adverse conditions we would most assuredly come to love or hate each other. The destination was the village of Kampung Bering, and we were informed that it had not been visited by outsiders in nearly a year. The cause for this isolation was quickly apparent—the track narrowed, ruts deepened, and downed trees blocked the way. An old chainsaw was brought up to the front and we dispatched the interlopers. Though we were a large group, this was our only chainsaw; Malaysia is not a wealthy country. But it was a Stihl, easy to work on, and we figured we could keep it alive. The tree-removal exercise hit replay numerous times that morning.
Midday, the lead vehicle stopped and two of the crew headed into the bush, chainsaw in hand. After the ensuing machine-gun debate (in Malay … didn’t understand a word), we deciphered that they were selecting which trees to fall. Apparently, the government had constructed an elephant trap a kilometer ahead. Elephant traps, cavernous trenches that run for miles through the Malaysian Highlands, are 4 meters deep and as many wide. Designed to keep the 5-ton pachyderms out of agricultural land and from wreaking havoc in villages, this presented a significant roadblock. And the fun began.
In Camel Trophy style, everyone dismounted and showed up ready to work with shovels, rigging equipment, and winch lines. As logs (runners) were dragged in, vehicle track widths were measured, and a second team cut slots on opposing sides of the trench. Using a Pull-Pal ground anchor and a good measure of elbow grease, we winched each log into place and strapped them together. The key to success is log selection and placement. Three runners are used for each tire, with the middle setting slightly lower than the other two, which keeps the tires “in the groove.” A few hours later, the first vehicle, the guinea pig vehicle, gently creeped across. Success!
Shaman and Communists
The days began to meld together like an aqueous continuum; murky brown rivers, decrepit bridges from the region’s logging industry days, and winch lines. On the afternoon of the fourth day we arrived on the banks of the Sungai Nenggiri (mighty river), where a 12-foot vertical ledge and a hundred meters of water lay between us and our next bivouac. Shovels and winch lines were deployed, and one by one we slid down the embankment, into the water, and drove, or winched, to the other side.
While the rest of the group was clearing the river, a young man appeared from the jungle. Without a common word, we shared friendly greetings and he motioned for me to follow him up a footpath. A few hundred meters through the bush we entered a broad clearing dotted with simple bamboo huts on stilts. Curious faces peered from window and door openings, watching as we walked toward his home where he introduced me to his family. This was Kampung Bering, one of several traditional villages of the northern Temiar. A few people moved into doorways and porches, and we made our rounds visiting each. We could only smile and acknowledge our approval of each other, but they were graceful and reserved.
In the middle of the compound, smoke seeped through the porous walls of a small hut. My host led me to a rickety bamboo door, opening it slowly as the afternoon light flooded its shadowy interior. In the middle next to a small fire was an elderly man, his skin the texture of sun-baked leather. The Temiar revere their elders. Kule, at 101 years of age, was the spiritual leader and senior member of the tribe. During World War II, when the expansion of communism from the north was a constant threat, he was enlisted by the British Army as a bush scout to warn of attack. I sat down cross-legged in the dirt just outside the threshold, and we shared a few magical moments of intercultural friendship.
That night we piled in under a tarp city and set up our cots as the monsoon pounded the earth with a deafening din. Exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and the elemental need for comfort are interesting bedfellows. As one attempted to claim a dry sliver of real estate in our open-walled abode, you realized that the dryer you were, the wetter your teammates would be. The solution was sleeping head-to-head in the middle, so only our feet would be in jeopardy—staying dry was a team effort. Nourishment, also a primal trait, can be the demise of the most-prepared expedition. Each night we’d enjoy our ration of alcohol (one beer) before heading to the mess tent where the cook crew served up rice and some type of meat or fish. No one went hungry.
Europeans, Afterlife, and Hell Night
The Europeans were latecomers to Southeast Asia, the Portuguese claiming the Malay Peninsula in 1511. They ceded to the Dutch, who eventually yielded to the British. But the region’s chronicle of occupation reaches back to before the birth of Christianity. Like many of the smaller, less powerful tribal areas, the Malay have been conquered, subjugated, and influenced by a global medley of social and religious flavors—the Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists have all shared a hand in the development of this polytheistic society. But the northern Orang Asli, living in a region that attracted little attention, were typically left alone. They are considered animists, believing in the power of trance, dreams, shaman, spiritual healing, and the afterlife. The land provided everything they needed, and tribal life remained relatively stable until the British created a remote outpost at Pos Gob during World War II.
The most isolated village in Malaysia, Pos Gob, would be our final bivouac. Today, this small settlement near the Thai border serves as the tribal center for the Temiar. Power is supplied by a diesel generator a few hours a day, there is satellite Wi-Fi for emergencies, and a government doctor visits by helicopter once each month. It is truly the end of the earth.
The following two days of competition left many teams low on fuel, short on supplies, and in need of mechanical assistance or a tow strap. Whether by necessity or desire, everyone was ready to find the pavement, a shower, and a coldie at the awards celebration that evening in Kuala Betis. There were two routes, one was easy but longer, the other more direct and challenging. The group split, and being the macho guys that we were, we selected the straight-line approach. Big mistake.
The morning and afternoon were consumed with winching each other through bottomless mud bogs and rebuilding bridges. Darkness arrived and the jungle awoke with a symphonic cacophony of, well, everything—bugs, beetles, bats, and a barrage of foreboding noises from its shadowy depths. We heard over the radio that Group B, which took the long way, had arrived at the hotel at about 2000, enjoyed dinner, and were probably counting sheep. Around midnight we deducted that we were 8 miles from the road, but at the moment we were still knee deep in mud, daisy-chain winching our way over hell mountain. The RFC was testing our fortitude.
We finally reached a two-wheel-drive road about 0600, as the rising sun began to illuminate the horizon. While regrouping for the stragglers, the rescue team showed up from town with cases of water and Tiger (local beer). Our supplies had been depleted, and we chugged down a few of each like hyenas in a Kalahari drought. Tired but triumphant, our little team of four had emerged with nary an injury or mechanical issue; to boot we had become the best of mates. Emotions were a pungent mix of exhaustion, adrenaline, and elation, the perfect end to 10 days in the Malaysian Highlands.
Editor’s note: If this type of Malaysian maelstrom sounds like your cup of mud, we offer you a few options. Join the RFC Adventure Tour, which follows the race as we did, or check out the Rainforest Trophy, a non-competitive trek of similar magnitude.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July/August 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine.