[This is a multi-part series describing in gory detail my 10km race through the treacherous mountains of Padawan, Sarawak.]
Part 1: Crossing the chasm of death
Disturbing content, coarse language
When I first saw it, I screamed like there was no tomorrow.
Nanny Wen and I both stopped in our tracks, frozen in horror.
In front of us, on a flat piece of rock, was a giant millipede.
About eight inches long and maybe 1.5 inches wide (almost as long as my forearm), it was yellow and black and white.
Nanny Wen called it a zillipede because it was inconceivably larger than a mere millipede.
It occupied about half the rock, which we had to step on to get past, because surrounding the rock was thick vegetation. We were on a very narrow trail.
It should be noted at this point that even regular household bugs make my skin crawl, so this zillipede totally thrashed me.
The little hairs on my nape and face tingled fiercely as I stifled a faint, swallowed bile and willed my heart to slow.
I held my breath and stepped on the rock, placing my foot as far away from it as possible.
Time slowed to a stop.
During the moment I was neighbours with the crazy psychedelic bug, all my senses came afire and screamed in protest. I resolutely avoided the cinema in my mind that was playing a movie of the millipede pouncing on my feet.
And then I was home free, a dizzy spell attempting to overwhelm me.
Plagued By Bugs
There was a giant oval-shaped bug which looked like a cross between a beetle and a slug, about six inches long and two inches wide (shorter but fatter than the zillipede).
It was bright orange with black stripes and its body looked smooth and glossy (like a beetle’s). It looked cute and terrifying at the same time.
I swear I am not exaggerating what the bugs look like.
We came across this tiger-beetle thing twice in our journey.
There were also random harmless insects that were simply annoying and flew around our faces. Tons of irritating buzzing flies. You know those that go bzzzzzzz around your ears and sometimes even brush your ears and cheeks?
We were so annoyed by them after a while that we started cursing at them.
“Fuck you, fuck off my face!” we would scream in frustration. It was that bad that we had to resort to cursing the insects out loud.
There was one persistent fly that actually followed me for, like, 20 minutes. It nearly drove me crazy, especially during the moments I was concentrating on not falling to my death while manoeuvering obstacles.
First Bee Stings
And then there were bees.
I was climbing an almost-vertical rock face with very shallow footholds that were part roots-part indents in the rock, and which were too far apart when, suddenly, I felt a very sharp sting on my ankle, followed by another very sharp sting on another ankle. It felt like big injections.
I screamed and brushed my ankles furiously with one hand, the other hand holding on to something, a root or branch, I can’t remember. And then I felt a swarm of flying things around my ankles, and another sting.
“Ow, fuck!” I cried and climbed faster to get away from the swarm.
Next thing I know, Nanny Wen screamed. She was below me, and it was the first time she screamed that day (me being the screamier person), so she must have been hit by something remarkable.
I shouted down, “Don’t stop! Keep moving!”
She yelled, “Oww! Pain! I got stung!!”
I yelled back, “I got stung, too! Keep going! Get away from the swarm!”
“Oww! It’s very painful!” she cried.
I reached the top and looked back at her. “Come up here,” I urged, “Don’t stay there!”
She finally reached the top and showed me her arm.
THERE WAS A FREAKING HUGE INSECT STUCK TO HER ARM WITH A THING POKED INTO HER SKIN LIKE A FREAKING SYRINGE.
Ignorant City Girls
I didn’t know whether it was a bee or not. Every insect in the damned jungle looked like it came from outer space.
“Why the fuck are you letting it sit on your arm?!” I cried in horror.
“How?!” she cried, “I dunno! I think we’re not supposed to pull them out, right??? Aaaaaah! It’s very painful!!”
“I don’t know!” I spluttered helplessly, staring at the bee thing on her arm sucking her life away. I wished I had read up on deadly insects before the trip.
She made a decision and plucked the bee from her arm and flung it away. There was a white welt with yellow pus oozing out the middle. Or maybe it was broken skin, I couldn’t tell.
“Help me pull out the sting!”
“Fuck!” I said.
Being terribly squeamish, I gag when I see wounds and people in pain. And here, I had to inflict pain on my friend to save her arm.
For some reason, an image of Sara Tancredi in Prison Break performing a non-anesthesized operation on her own arm to dislodge a bullet flashed in my mind.
Gritting my teeth, I picked at her wound. I couldn’t see the sting amidst all the pus. I didn’t know if I was tearing her skin or plucking out the sting. Feeling the pain for Nanny Wen, I tried not to gag.
After a few agonising attempts, I think I managed to pick it out. I don’t know if it came out fully.
We were both in pain. I felt at least three stings around my ankles. But I think mine weren’t as painful because I had gotten rid of my predators fast. At least, my welts weren’t as big.
We decided we had to go on. It was too far to turn back. I said, “Can you walk? Let’s get to the next checkpoint fast so we can get some help.”
She nodded and walked resolutely on.
We continued climbing the neverending steep mountain and plodded on woodenly.
Nanny Wen described her sting as receiving an injection and feeling the fiery warmth spreading around the injected area, with a pulsating pain afterwards.
Mine felt the same, except less intense.
It took us a while but we finally reached the 3km checkpoint. The checkpoint leaders were expecting us.
“Are you the girls who got stung by bees?”
Apparently, a few other participants who had passed us at our time of crisis had heard our cries and reported it to the leaders.
They checked our wounds and confirmed they were bee stings. They rubbed some green ointment on them and the pain slowly abated. Since they didn’t seem overly concerned, we assumed that it wasn’t fatal or anything, so we proceeded in relief.
But it was a heart-sinking relief. We were only one-third of the way. It felt like we had already done twice that distance and goodness only knew what other evils we were going to have to face.
The trail kept getting harder. There were some rare moments of reprieve when the trek stopped being perilous for half a minute and actually became a decent jungle trail that ordinary people could walk on.
Luxurious normal trek.
For us, those moments were as luxurious as soaking in a hot bubble bath and sipping champagne, but they were always short-lived.
Still, those moments helped to stabilise our morale before they plunged to the depths again with each obstacle we faced.
I really needed all the soothing I could get to help me deal with an incoming leech attack.
(To be continued…)