Survivors Part 1: Crossing the chasm of death

[This is a multi-part series describing in gory detail my 10km race through the treacherous mountains of Padawan, Sarawak.]

The Challenge

Nanny Wen and Sheylara

On July 5 this year, Nanny Wen and I faced an impossible challenge (although we didn’t know it was impossible at the time we signed up).

We had been invited to take part in the BHR Padawan Nature Challenge 2009, hosted by Borneo Highlands Resort in Sarawak.

It was to be a 10km race through the jungles of Padawan.

(Padawan, in this case, is a geographical locale in Kuching and not a Jedi apprentice.)

BHR Padawan Nature Challenge 2009

The logo looked deceptively family fun friendly.

According to the website, the challenge “gives an opportunity for nature lovers and adventurous individuals to be close to Nature and to experience the eco-tourism aspects of Padawan”.

What the website neglected to inform us was that, if you didn’t grow up being a jungle ape, you will have an 80% chance of killing yourself in the challenge.

Sheylara and Nanny Wen
Unsuspecting city girls.

When I first asked the organiser to give me more details about the challenge so I could prepare myself, I was told to “just have fun and enjoy the unexpected”. I googled but there was hardly any information to be found.

So I assumed that it would be like the trek in Bako National Park which I had experienced earlier this year.

This was the only piece of information we were given:

BHR Padawan Nature Challenge 2009

Now that I know better, Bako National Park was Disneyland, in comparison.

Last-Minute Decisions

Just an hour before the race, we were given the option to forget the challenge and, instead, enjoy a VIP media tour on a buggy to scenic spots of the resort.

Nanny Wen and I thought about it but decided to carry on as planned since we had already signed up and we were hyped about it, despite the fact that I had slept only one hour prior to the race due to our hectic itinerary.

(Nanny Wen managed to catch a bit more sleep because she’s a sleeping bag. Literally.)

Starting line

At the starting line, when we saw that most of the other participants were going for the challenge empty-handed, I decided to foist my little pink backpack (holding precious supplies such as camera, phone, water, energy gel, insect repellant, plasters and antiseptic wipes) on poor George, a fellow media guest who wasn’t taking part in the challenge.

My little backpack

It turned out to be a good decision because the backpack could have killed me by weighing me down.

I am eternally grateful to George Fu for gallantly volunteering to babysit Little Miss Pinky at severe risk to his reputation and inadvertently saving my life.

Hello, Jungle

The race started off easy enough. We flagged off in a large field and ran up a gently inclining road.

Flagging off

Two minutes later, we hit jungle.

And then it was hell all the way.

It was five kilometres of pure savage jungle before we reached the halfway checkpoint.

It was no ordinary jungle. It was a wild jungle on a freaking mountain with all kinds of jungle hazards excepting giant killer apes.

Jungle floor

I found out after the race that the tallest point we got up to was 3,500 feet above sea level. It was the halfway point of our race and it took us two hours to get there, not because we didn’t have the stamina to run fast enough, but because it was impossible to run at all.

The jungle was thick and treacherous all the way.

The trail was also wet and muddy from the rain in the past two days. Merely 500 metres in, I had to entirely ditch my city distaste towards dirt, mud, moss and strange insects.

For the most part of the 10km journey, I had to use both arms and legs to propel myself forward, many times literally crawling on all fours to reduce the distance between myself and the ground for safety.

Strange insect

It was that steep all the way, not to mention slippery.

Inclines were treacherously vertical, with narrow, sometimes non-existent, and muddy footholds. I would use my arms to pull myself upwards, either clinging on to disgusting mossy branches, icky muddy rocks or random orphan roots.

Declines were equally steep but more treacherous. I had to squat down and slower lower myself foot by foot while my arms clung on to anything (tree trunks, roots, rocks) I could find along the way.

It was like rock climbing on a vertical wall without convenient anchors and a safety harness, with a few-thousand-metre drop below you to give you a new respect for life.

Rock climbing
Rock climbing is a piece of cake compared to the damned mountain.

Can’t… Let… Go

The mountains and jungles threw us obstacle after obstacle, unrelentingly.

The worst obstacles were those in which we had to move sideways along steep, muddy mountain walls, with narrow, slippery footholds or, sometimes, no footholds at all. We would have to dig our own with our feet.

Sometimes, I had to literally hug the mountain to move myself, grabbing on to protruding roots and rocks, using only the strength of my arms to prevent gravity from taking me.

Slippery slope

If a root or rock had come loose, or my foot had slipped, it would have meant an endless drop to the bottom of the mountain, so thick with thorny jungle foliage that you can’t see a bottom at all.

Sometimes, we had to do tightrope-walking on narrow tree trunks bridging chasms, with nothing on the sides for our hands to hold on to for balance.

The Chasm of Death

The biggest chasm we came across was about 40 metres long. The tree trunk bridge was about half a foot wide. You couldn’t stand on it with two feet together.

It was so horrifying that I thought I was going to die or go mad with fright.

Fortunately, Nanny Wen isn’t afraid of heights like me. Ever resourceful, she found a stick for me to hold on to while she held on to the other end and walked ahead to lead me across.

Tree trunk tightrope

That was kind of a silly and useless safeguard, but it helped very much, psychologically.

I swallowed my fear and turned off my runaway imagination. I had no other choice. We couldn’t turn back for so many reasons.

We were making good progress when, midway, the stick broke into two and my heart flipped. Nanny Wen said “uh oh” and stopped walking, worried for me.

My mouth was so dry I couldn’t even swallow but I refused to allow paranoia to set in. I can be quite rational, sometimes. Steeling my heart and numbing my senses, I narrowed my mind to one single thought — get to the other side.

Ditching the stick and grabbing Wen’s hand, I calmly asked her to continue. Foot by terrifying foot, we managed to get to the other side without further incident. I could have dropped onto the floor and kissed the muddy, insect-infested ground.

I’m glad I didn’t, though. Because, shortly after, we came across a worm almost as long as my forearm.

(To be continued…)

Part 2: We were stung by bees

Princesses in the jungle

When Kenny Sia met up with Nanny Wen and me after our 10km jungle/mountain race, which was advertised as a “Nature Challenge”, but should have been named “Suicide Mission” instead, he couldn’t stop laughing his ass off.

Thanks to her jungle tweets.

Nanny Wen's tweet

Nanny Wen's tweet

Nanny Wen's tweet

He laughed till he was red in the face. He was incredulous. “Didn’t you girls know what you had signed up for?”

No. The answer is no. I had asked and asked and researched. But no one could tell me and there was nothing on the Internet which told us what was in the trail and what to prepare for.

I mean, I had a more realistic expectation of the challenge than Nanny Wen did, but the actual experience far exceeded my wildest imaginations.

Kenny was dying of amusement.

Kenny Sia, Sheylara and Nanny Wen

But he was also very proud of us because he said our trail is more raw and challenging than Mount Kinabalu, which he had climbed.

He called us princesses in the jungle because he had an image of us as city princesses with nice clothes and makeup, so it really amused him to imagine us roughing it out in a perilous jungle.

Anyway, I can’t blog about my jungle experience yet because I’m waiting for photos. I didn’t bring my camera for the race and I’m glad I didn’t, even though I wish I had.

So, today, I’ll talk about some random stuff that we did in Kuching.

First photo taken upon landing:

Sheylara and Nanny Wen

We were hosted at Four Points Hotel by Sheraton, which is only minutes away from the airport.

That was our first and last taste of city princess treatment. We shared a nice big room with a nice big bathroom that featured a rainforest shower (which didn’t work or I am too retarded to make it work).

Four Points Hotel

Nice, funky stuff in the room.

Four Points Hotel

Dinner was the hotel’s continental buffet. It was truly welcome because I was starving!

Sheylara and Nanny Wen

I only managed to take two photos of the food before I was stopped by a waitress.

Food

The restaurant has a no-photo policy. Which was just as well, since that meant I could get on with the food.

After a filling dinner, Kenny took us out to dinner.

That wasn’t a typo. We had two dinners that night.

But first, we made a brief stop at The Spring, which is Kuching’s biggest mall. (Kuching only has two malls, according to our tour guide.)

The Spring, Kuching

It was raining and I took this photo from inside Kenny’s car.

We spent about 15 minutes in there, enough time for Nanny Wen to buy a cheap towel and for us to give the mall a once-over, and then we headed off to a hawker centre.

This was our after-dinner dinner:

After-dinner dinner

For three people.

Kenny Sia, Sheylara and Nanny Wen

Everything was so good!

I feel bad that Kenny always pays for our meals when we visit Kuching, but he refuses to let us pay, claiming that he is always pampered and not allowed to pay when he comes to Singapore, so fair’s fair.

The yellow drink is freaking awesome. It’s like a mango milk concoction with lychee. I need someone to make me that in Singapore!!

Nanny Wen does really sillly things. She bought a cheap towel at The Spring to use during the trip, right? We were going to stay in a longhouse on our second night and we assumed towels wouldn’t be provided. (We were wrong, but we still used our own towels.)

On our last day in Kuching, I spotted something on her towel which I hadn’t seen earlier.

Nanny Wen's towel

Haha…

It’s the freaking price tag. She used the towel for three days with the price tag still attached.

Nanny Wen's towel

I wonder if she even realised it was there.

Our pilgrimage to the famous kucing in Kuching:

Kuching, Cat City

On our last day, Kenny took us out for breakfast. We had Sarawak laksa and soft-boiled eggs and kaya toast.

Sheylara and Nanny Wen at breakfast

The eggs were so huge!!! And the toast was so nice!!! It’s a little different from the kaya toast in Singapore. It’s a lot more, I dunno, organic and authentic than the commercial Ya Kun variety. I mean, Ya Kun is nice and all, but eating the ones in Kuching fills me with nice, happy feelings.

Kenny Sia's thumb, with eggs

I ate a LOT of toast. I had Kenny order a second set after I finished the first set and my laksa.

Sarawak laksa

I’m gonna miss the food again!

By the way, I skipped two days of events because they’re kinda long so I’ll blog about them another day.

Yay! Kenny just commented on an earlier post!


Kenny Sia's comment

See, I wasn’t lying. He can’t stop laughing!!! He’s still laughing two days later!

Okay, look forward to my mountain race post! Nanny Wen just told me that her colleagues asked her how come when she told them the story it doesn’t sound treacherous at all.

Hopefully, I’ll get some photos that can give you an idea.

If not, I’ll go back there again one day and take photos.

Haha.

Plurk

Bako National Park: Being a Jungle Jane

I was quite the monkey when I was younger, catching bugs for fun, crawling through mud, attempting to climb trees (but failing because it’s hard to find climbable trees in Singapore when you’re not an actual monkey).

Orang Utan climbing a tree

When I grew older, the female hormones in me decided to revolt. They wanted a say in my daily activities. They lobbied, for instance, for knitting lessons.

Calling a mutiny, they quite succeeded in driving out the males, consequently usurping the terrority for themselves.

Battle of the sexes

So it was that I found myself turned from monkey to cat.

I developed a dislike for bugs, water and dirt. I liked sitting in air-conditioned rooms, safe and protected from the harsh elements of the outdoors. And I learnt how to knit.

Cat

Last month, when I received an invitation to gallivant in a faraway jungle and visit with bugs, my female hormones obviously received the news with a lot of joy.

As the story goes, the male hormones in me didn’t all get banished in the last uprising. Some of the more enterprising ones hid in fat cells, where they knew the females would be loath to go near, and bided their time.

One day, they told themselves, they would overthrow the tyranny and reclaim their territory!

Reclamation

My trip to Bako National Park in Kuching, Sarawak, where I was invited to explore as part of a media familiarisation trip, seemed like the perfect opportunity for the male hormones to carry out a forceful takeover.

Bako National Park

Thanks to my inner insurgents, I actually enjoyed being Jungle Jane very much.

I think the two sides are now at full-on war. The males are now demanding for me to take them somewhere a) rugged, b) dangerous, c) dirty, or d) all of the above.

The females are retaliating by growing a pimple.

While I leave them to fight, I’m starting my account with our arrival by boat at Bako National Park, on the way to which we had encountered a sunbathing crocodile.

Bako National Park

Everything I saw in Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Sarawak, was a delight. Paving our way to the jetty were mangrove plantations, a rather strange sight for a city girl.

Mangroves

Oh, during our boat ride, we encountered this handsome ang moh who turned to our boat and sort of smiled at us. He looked like some National Geographic celebrity, with his trekking gear and sunglasses.

Foreigner

We later bumped into him again at the park, where he had set up his camera and was waiting to photograph monkeys in the mangroves.

I didn’t dare to talk to him because he seemed a little pissed off with our group for going into the mangrove swamp and scaring the monkeys away, although it wasn’t our fault because our tour guide wanted to show us stuff in there.

Foreigner

This is where the monkeys will come out from the adjoining jungle to play at if there aren’t any tourists walking about. So, obviously we didn’t see monkeys that day because we were playing in their playground.

We did see one proboscis monkey on one very high treetop at the edge of the jungle. But it was very far away.

Proboscis Monkey

Here’s the best I could do with my camera zoom:

Proboscis Monkey

The big fleshy reddish-beige thing in the middle of its face is its nose, which is what proboscis monkeys are famous for.

The mangrove trail was awesome. Besides making our shoes awfully wet and muddy, it served as a great backdrop for photography and also turned up some really cool wildlife.

Such as a woodpecker.

Woodpecker

Can you spot the woodpecker? I never would have. Our tour guide Anastasia saw it and pointed it out to us. Anastasia is truly an amazing guide.

Here’s a zoom-in on the woodpecker:

Woodpecker

It was hard to photograph it because it was very high up in a tree, and when we tried to get closer, it disappeared entirely.

But we saw it pecking at the tree industriously a few times before it went into hiding. It was so cute!

We also saw a hermit crab, which Juraida very bravely held out to let us photograph.

Hermit crab

One part of the ground swarmed with fiddler crabs. The male ones have one giant claw which is bigger than their shells, making them look very funny.

Fiddler crab

They’re very tiny, about 1 or 2 inches in length.

I actually jumped the gun. We had started with a jungle hike before going into the mangroves. We actually climbed a mountain! I think we got up to about 200 metres above sea level or a little over that.

The climb was really fun because we had to navigate steep and trecherous rocks and sometimes climb on tree roots. It was like going through an obstacle course, which is something that very greatly appealed to me when I was a monkey girl.

Bako National Park

That’s Anastasia climbing up the trail, which had been cut out by park authorities for trekking purposes.

Basically, we just climbed and climbed while Anastasia stopped occasionally to point out items of interest.

Bako National Park

For instance, here’s a cinnammon plant, from which you get cinnammon spice:

Cinnammon plant

What a good workout that was. We were also constantly harrassed by mosquitoes. Our insect repellent totally did not work.

Mosquito bite

There are many different trails you can explore in the park. The mangrove swamp I described earlier was one. The jungle trek is another.

Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Some of the “steps” are easy to climb, such as this:

Bako National Park

Others are really tough, especially when going downhill, requiring you to hold on to neighbouring mouldy vegetation for support or risk falling to your demise.

I don’t have photos of the tough ones because I was too busy trying to stay alive during those times.

Well, okay, it’s not as bad as I just described. I kinda survived without a scratch on me, if you don’t count the mosquito bites.

Here’s a rest stop where people can take a break and have a smoke:

Bako National Park

You’re not allowed to smoke outside of this little rest area.

After an hour or so, we reached the plateau, which was sort of a flat rocky base with sandy craters.

Bako National Park

It was hot! And I forgot to bring sunblock. So I got quite tanned after the trip.

Sheylara

At the plateau, we were introduced to a variety of carnivorous pitcher plants, which eat insects.

Here’s one:

Pitcher plant

Here’s another:

Pitcher plant

And a giant lounging one:

Pitcher plant

I really wouldn’t mind going mountain or jungle trekking again. But I must say that having a good tour guide helps. It’s fun to have someone there to point out interesting plants and animals, and tell you stories.

For instance, I would have just walked past this plant and ignored it as being just a stupid common plant:

Fern

But Anastasia made it interesting for us by describing how her grandmother used to harvest these ferns and process them into cures for a host of ailments.

Well, you know what, I’m only halfway through my Bako National Park report, although that’s the end of our mountain trekking. Please come back again for part two!

Sheylara

Next stop: Monitor lizards and snakes and a screaming tour guide.