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

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PARENTAL ADVISORY
Disturbing content
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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?”

“Yes.”

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.

Hungry

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.

Uphill

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

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PARENTAL ADVISORY
Disturbing content, coarse language
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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?!”

“THERE’S A FUCKING LEECH ON MY BUTT! FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK MY LIFE! ARARRRAAAGGHHH!!!”

“Where? Where!”

“I dunno! I threw it away!”

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

“WHO THE FUCK CARES?! I’M NOT HAVING A LEECH ON MY BUTT!!!”

“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

Markers

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?!”

“FUCK THIS SHIT!”

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.”

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 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