Survivors Part 4: I thought I was gonna die

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

BHR Nature Challenge 2009

See previous chapters:
Part 1: Crossing the chasm of death
Part 2: We were stung by bees
Part 3: A leech on my bum

Disturbing content

Death Mountain

I wish I could have taken a photo but I didn’t have my camera with me.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a monster of an obstacle presented itself to us.

It was a cliff face which we had to Spiderman across to get to the top because that was the only way to go.

Death Mountain

My illustration isn’t totally accurate because it’s really hard to draw terrain, but the general idea is there.

We could see some faint outlines of footholds in the path we were supposed to take, but they had been ground almost flat by rain and by other trekkers before us. There was also a scarcity of anchored objects which we could use to haul ourselves across.

Worst of all, though, was the nothingness beneath the trail. We were about 3,000 metres above sea level.

There was a jungle below. We could see thorny plants and trees and shrubs. But the jungle was on another slope and it didn’t look like an ideal place to fall into if one wasn’t ready to be jungle fertiliser.

Jungle fertiliser

Taking a deep breath, Nanny Wen led the way. She encountered some minor incidents (root giving way and stuff) but on the whole did pretty good progress. I followed her shortly after.

When she was three-quarters of the way through and I was only about a quarter way, I got stuck.

“Arrgh,” I yelled, “I’m stuck! I can’t find anything else to grab!”

“Wait, I’m reaching,” Nanny Wen yelled back. “I’ll help you to see once I get up there.”

Everywhere around me was mud and leaves and fungi and unidentified icky things. Maybe worms.

I tried not to see worms. I had trained my mind to think: “That’s just a branch!” whenever I saw a worm.

You are a branch

As my eyes searched desperately for my next anchor, I started feeling my feet losing purchase on the two slippery footholds I had chosen.

I had to move on, quickly.

Setting my sights on a faraway branch sticking out the cliff face, I strained a hand towards it. But before I could reach it, the hold under my feet totally gave way at the same time the piece of root one hand was holding on to started loosening.

I found myself sliding down.

Deus Ex Machina

Crying out in shock, I tried to grab stuff around me, anything, hoping to find something anchored strongly into the cliff face.

I think I must have worried Nanny Wen a lot because she stopped in her tracks and went, “OH NO!”

I slid down a few metres. It felt like a year.

And then, miraculously, I stopped sliding.

I can’t remember now how it happened. Maybe I managed to grab hold of something. Maybe my feet found better footholds.

Deus ex machina

I just remember my mind blanking out in one horrifying moment when all I could think about was the nothingness below me. Next thing I knew, I had stopped sliding.

I hung there for several seconds, reluctant to move. Nanny Wen started to clamber downwards to help me, but I told her to stop.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I got it. Go ahead.”

“You sure?”


After pulling herself up the last few steps, she began to direct my pathing.

My arms were beginning to feel like they were coming out their sockets because I was using mostly my arms to suspend myself, unwillingly to trust the slippery footholds.

Fortunately, with Nanny Wen’s help, I managed to haul myself up with the dying strength of my arms. I finally docked at safe harbour.

We had a few seconds of reprieve as we trudged shakily forward, and then the next obstacle loomed, although now I know that the worst had already past with that crazy Spiderman stunt we pulled.

No Quitting

Borneo Highlands Resort

Thinking back now, I can’t believe we managed to complete the race. There were moments I wished we could give up because the trail was insane.

I began to suspect that maybe Sarawakians are all superheroes in disguise because they just bowled through the obstacles as if gravity didn’t exist for them.

At the 5km checkpoint, there was a real chance for us to give up. The jungle trail led out to a spot of civilisation where tourists come up on buggies to admire the scenery. We could have copped out and followed the next tour group down in a buggy.

I contemplated it seriously. The obstacles had been really frightening, to say the least. I couldn’t believe the race organisers would put any normal human beings through what we had been through.

I asked Nanny Wen, “Do you want to quit?”

She said, “Yes.”

Relieved and happy to have reached the checkpoint, we ran up a grassy hill to the water station and downed a can of 100 Plus each.

100 Plus

Our media host was there. We told him about our bee stings and leech attack. By the time we finished our drink, Nanny Wen said, “Let’s not give up.”

As much as I valued my life, I didn’t like giving up, either. I’m a stickler for achievements. I told myself, “If we can make 5km, we can make another 5km.”

We had taken two hours to finish our first 5km. I was hungry but I decided I could hold out for another two hours.

So we forged on ahead, leaving our last chance for refuge behind.

Nobody told us that the next half of the trail was going to be the more dangerous half. (The suicidal obstacle I had described above belonged to the second half.)

I constantly questioned my own sanity.

What the hell was I thinking?

To make myself feel better, I would imagine real people being trapped in jungles, lost, wandering around for days looking for an exit, tired, hungry, forced to eat bugs and mossy plants.


It could have been a lot worse, right? At least I had red paint to guide my way and I didn’t have to eat bugs. I just had to endure the ordeal for a few hours and there would be a finishing line.

Breaking Down

By the time we were just 2km away from the finishing point, we were both so bone weary it felt like we would dissolve if you so much as poked a finger at us.

Reaching the 2km checkpoint was a bit demoralising because we really believed we were closer, like 1km, instead.

We were just putting one foot in front of another mechanically. If a tiger had come out of nowhere and pounced at us, I doubt we’d have had the strength to run.

My body was shooting signals of pain all over, especially on my back and knees. My feet and shins were cramping from the effort of balancing myself on precarious footholds for hours.

I had gastric pains in my tummy and bee stings on my ankles. My arms were sore from overuse. My feet were literally heavy with mud because there were a couple of swampy patches we couldn’t avoid.

Dirty shoes

The last 2km was madness. I was so weary I would have screamed in frustration at the neverending obstacles if I had the strength to.

Nanny Wen suspected that the trail was more than 10km. The map did say that 10km was only an approximation. Also, the 10km probably didn’t take into account vertical distance, of which there was an abundance.

Finishing Alive

When we finally broke out of jungle and hit civillisation (paved roads) at about 500m from the finishing line, we yelled out in happiness. We couldn’t do a victory dance, though. We were too exhausted.

There were some construction workers by the side of the road. They waved at us and gave us the thumbs up sign. We waved back.

Bones about to fall apart, we trudged up the road hill and into the welcoming arms of the finishing line.


We finished the race in 4.5 hours. We found out later that the champion had finished in something like 80 minutes.

How he did that is something I will never understand till the day I die. Nanny Wen and I never stopped to rest except at water stations for hydrating. We had kept going as fast as we could without compromising our safety.

I can understand three hours. Maybe even two hours. If we had worn the right shoes, we might have finished faster. Our running shoes didn’t have the right traction for the muddy slopes.

Still, 80 minutes is just freaking unbelievable.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we completed the race, even if it was a little embarrassing reaching the finishing line hours after everyone else. By the time we arrived, all the other participants were lounging about in the grass, clean and relaxed, the race all but forgotten.

Borneo Highlands Resort

But we did receive encouraging words and applause from some people who were impressed by us being the only Singaporean participants. The race referee had made a big deal at the start about us being media from Singapore who have never seen jungles.

Well, at least we didn’t come in last.

And I was so glad to be alive.

After the race

Survivors Part 3: A leech on my bum

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

Borneo Highlands

See previous chapters:
Part 1: Crossing the chasm of death
Part 2: We were stung by bees

Disturbing content, coarse language

The Leech

It was around the halfway point of our 10km trek when I was suddenly aware of a cold wetness at the curvy bottom of my right butt cheek.

I thought I had maybe picked up some mud from climbing over giant fallen tree trunks, so I ignored it. My hands and feet were by then already muddied beyond recognition, so what was a little bit of butt dirt?

Butt cold

But, 15 or 20 minutes later, the cold wetness was still there, which was uncharacteristic of mud or dirty water, which should have dried up by then.

It finally bothered me enough to want to take action, although on a largely subconscious level. I was still more or less on auto-pilot when I reached down to rub the wetness away.

When my hand touched the spot, a piercing shriek escaped my throat even as icy cold slivers tore out my heart.

There was a cold, slimy, rubbery thing stuck on my butt! Reflexively, before I could think, my fingers plucked the offensive parasite out and flung it behind me as quickly as possibly.

“FUCK THIS FUCKING SHIT!” I cried hysterically, shivering with disgust.

Leech trauma

The Butt Exam

Nanny Wen was about 10 metres in front of me. She turned back in alarm and said, “What? What?!”


“Where? Where!”

“I dunno! I threw it away!”

“WHAT? You’re not supposed to pull out a leech like that!”


“Lemme see!” she said worriedly.

I trotted up to her and stuck my butt in her face while she bent down to examine my traumatised behind.

The butt exam

“Nothing,” she said. “No scratch, no blood.”

“IT ATE MY BUTT FOR 20 MINUTES!!!” I cried miserably.

“Nothing leh,” Nanny Wen double checked.

That didn’t make me feel any better. I was very grossed out and had to employ some mind tricks on myself to prevent hysteria.

My skin always crawls whenever I watch movies where people get sucked by leeches and, there I was, a victim myself.

I have no idea now whether it was a leech or something else since I had tossed it away without looking at it. It was shaped like one, anyway. Or it could have been a slug. It was about 2.5 inches long, from what my right hand could tell.

I told Wen that the thing felt like a silicone bra insert, except colder and slimier, and slug-shaped.

It took me the rest of the day to get over it and stop feeling grossed out.

Confounding Obstacles


We continued on our journey. Sometimes Nanny Wen took the lead. Sometimes I took the lead. We were rarely able to trek side by side because most of the climbs or descents only had enough footholds for one person at a time.

The entire journey was made of either climbs or descents. The jungle undulated cruelly. There was hardly any flat ground.

Our trail was marked by red paint on tree trunks to ensure that participants wouldn’t get lost. The trail went left and right and up and down like a maze. After each obstacle, we would have to look around for more red paint to guide our way.

Painted tree trunks

Sometimes we couldn’t see any red tree trunks and for one chilling moment, we would panic and assume that we had gotten lost and would have to backtrack, which was an inconceivable horror because we were dying of exhaustion and hunger, and couldn’t wait to finish the race.

And then we would look up and see the paint 50 metres directly above us.

And I would go, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?”

Which was my way of saying, “How the hell are we supposed to get up there?”

Impossible trail

It was almost like a computer game quest, Nanny Wen observed. We had to constantly search for objects in the environment to help us get to where we needed to get.

For example, sometimes we would find hidden roots that could hold our weight as we hoisted ourselves up to the next foothold. Even footholds were hard to find, many having been washed flat by the rain, becoming muddy death traps.

But every obstacle looked more impossible than the last, and my heart would first drop to the pit of my stomach before it started beating furiously as I attempted the challenge.

Nanny Wen is a Monkey

I made very slow progress because I didn’t want to gamble with life. I would double test every foothold and supporting branch, root and rock for its hold strength. Only when I was satisfied that it wouldn’t give way would I trust my weight on it.

Nanny Wen, on the other hand, was a monkey. She bounced over obstacles recklessly and went faster than me, always having to stop to wait for me.

But she also met with accidents a lot more. She slipped and fell countless times because she kept trusting her weight on the wrong things, ending up with a lot more scratches and wounds.

Three of us

But she was also more adept at finding stuff to grab onto and places to put our feet. She was more fearless. And she would scramble through obstacles and offer me a helping hand.

The times when I led, because I was more careful with finding the right places to hang on to, I like to think I saved her from some falls because she could follow the path I took.

We then understood why we were required to register for the challenge as teams of two. It helped immensely to have a partner. The unsaid reason was that, if one person fell and broke a leg or died, at least there would be a witness.

A casualty

We were mostly alone in the jungle because most of the other participants had long surpassed us. There were a few teams behind us (according to our checkpoint guides) but they were so far behind we never saw them.

Death Is All Around

More than once during our trek, my mind would involuntarily conjure up vivid images of me losing my grip on slippery rocks, or of half-rotten branches giving way, after which I would slide down a steep muddy slope, continuing to tumble through thorny jungle foliage, finally to stop at the bottom with 20 broken bones and deadly larcerations all over my face and body.

If I was lucky, I might die instantly.

I was often angry with the terrain and bewildered by the thought that people actually did this for fun.

You are all insane

The obstacles came one after another, never letting up. They got harder and harder.

On top of having to deal with thrist, hunger and painful muscles after hours of nonstop trekking, we had to navigate obstacles with surgical precision to avoid accidents.

It had become standard procedure for me to swear before each impossible obstacle.

“What the fuck is that?!” was my favourite.

“How the fuck are we supposed to get up there / get down there?!”



I know my swear vocabularly is quite limited.

A casualty

Once, during the last quarter of our trek, we came upon a crazy rock face. It was a slippery vertical wall with virtually no footholds and we had to climb it sort of diagonally to reach the top.

But, even if it hadn’t been muddy, how the hell does one climb a wall with no footholds?

To compound matters, there was no ground beneath the wall we had to traverse. Below our obstacle was a terrifying 3,000-metre drop to the ends of the earth.

(To be continued…)

Part 4: I thought I was gonna die

Survivors Part 2: We were stung by bees

[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

BHR Padawan Nature Challenge 2009

Disturbing content, coarse language

The Zillipede

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.

Beetle slug

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.

Bee sting

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.


Bee sting

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.

Sara Tancredi

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.

Getting Help

First aid

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.

Normal jungle trek
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…)

Part 3: A leech on my bum