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

Finding insect shit on my bed

I have to be honest. I’m a pampered city girl and I love my modern city creature comforts.

But I was excited about staying in a jungle longhouse, which is the dwelling type for the indigenious people of Borneo, called Dayaks.

I mean, I don’t know, funny little things in life excite me, even if they fill me with dread or distaste on another level. (Like, I was really excited about being admitted to the hospital for a major operation ages ago.)

So, similarly, I was really excited when I saw the room that I was going to be sharing with Nanny Wen.

Longhouse room

It was something different, so it was like an adventure. I was surprised to see beds and a fan. I had expected to sleep on thin mats on the floor or something like that.

The fan is actually more for discouraging mosquitoes than for providing coolness. Sarawak at night is cold and dry, almost like being in an air-conditioned room.

Unfortunately, our room only had one electrical outlet, so we had to decide between using the fan for mosquitoes or charging our laptops and phones at night.

Both our phones were flat by the end of the day because we had used it to Plurk and Tweet all day.

Nanny Wen asked me, “Would you rather sacrifice your phone or sacrifice yourself to mosquitoes?”

I thought for two seconds and said, “Sacrifice myself.”

Sheylara at the longhouse

She laughed. But I think she had the same sentiments.

Besides, I had brought three kinds of insect repellent with me, and Nanny Wen had Tiger Balm and lavender essence.

I am terribly spoilt.

Our longhouse:


We were hosted by Mathew Ngau, an acclaimed sape (traditional lute) master who owns a village and built this longhouse by himself. He also makes his own musical instruments and handicraft items.

Mathew Ngau

Sorry, bad photo.

Longhouses are usually built on stilts and feature steep, narrow logs for steps.

Longhouse steps

It’s quite scary when you try them for the first time, especially the descending part.

Longhouse steps

This leads to the bathroom area. We were told that Mathew had specially built tile walls for the bathrooms just for us. Before this, the walls were made of bamboo leaves or something like that.

Longhouse bathroom

There’s no hot water!!! I nearly died trying to shower at midnight when the air was really cold.

Sheylara in the bathroom

Cute doggy standing guard outside the bathroom!

Cute doggy

The front of the longhouse might be pretty and green like a well-kept garden, but the back is a jungle.


This is where Mathew grows food for the village.

They have their own supply of rice, vegetables, fruits and fish. Once in a while, they will trade for other meats at the market.

Durian tree!

Durian tree

This tree had begun to fruit, but the durians won’t be ready for consumption till August. Sad. =(

Durian tree

Crossing a little log bridge to another segment of the jungle:

Jungle hut

Jungle hut

We came to a tilapia pond, where Mathew allowed me to feed the fish off a little wooden bowl.

Tilapia pond

Tilapia pond

Nanny Wen and I were thrilled about pretending to be farm girls.

Tilapia pond

Tilapia pond

Back at the longhouse, we were greeted by cute doggies!


The dog on the left has a crippled leg. It was run over by a vehicle. I felt so sad for it seeing it hop around on three legs. =(

There’s also a very attention-seeking cat the longhouse. Friendliest cat I ever saw. She would go up to strangers and wait to be petted and fussed over.

Friendly cat

After our jungle tour, we had two hours to rest before dinner, so I took a shower and got down to work. I had to write my Star Blog entry for Monday’s update.

Sheylara working

It started raining right after I finished my shower, so it was really comfortable and cool lounging in our shabby room. Nanny Wen slept while I worked. O_o

Because of the rain, our van got stuck as we were driving out to dinner, so the men had to get down to push.

Nanny Wen and I got down to take photos. Haha!

Pushing the van

We were on our way to attend the Gawai closing ceremony. Gawai is a Dayak festival to give thanks for a good harvest and to ask for blessings for another good year of harvest.

We would be fed two dinners that night. Once at 6:30 pm and once at 8:30 pm.


Thinking back, now, I realise that for the three nights we were in Kuching, Nanny Wen and I had two dinners every single night! OMG.

Dinner in Kuching

But Kuching is a really great place for food. Everything is good and cheap (especially the hawker fare and Dayak cooking) and I have developed serious cravings for many dishes that can only be found there. Can’t wait to go back again!

Oh, yes, I have yet to recount my experience of sleeping in the longhouse.

Um… two words: INSECT CITY!!

At night, all the insects come out to play. I decided not to spray insect repellent on myself cos I can’t stand the smell, but I had brought repellent sachets which can be placed beside your bed.

I guess it worked because I didn’t get bitten. But I could still see all kinds of strange insects flying around the room all night.

Strange insect

After washing up and staying up a bit to chat with the guys and drink a bit of tuak (native rice wine), I went to bed at 2:30 am.

The communal area just outside our rooms where we hung out:


I set my alarm for 4:30 am because we had to leave at 6 am to drive to our mountain race.

I got woken up several times by varieties of insects noises during my first hour, but I did manage to get some sleep.

But at 3:50 am, I woke up for the final time and couldn’t go back to sleep. There was this stupid fly that wouldn’t quit buzzing around my ears, even after I put the repellent sachet right next to my ear.

I lay in bed, trying to get back to sleep, but sleep eluded me. After half an hour, I gave up. At 4.20 am, I got out of bed to wash up and get ready for the day. (Anyway, we only had one bathroom, two toilet cubicles and one wash basin to share among six people, so someone had to start early.)

With only about an hour’s sleep, I looked forward to doing my 10km mountain trek. Awesome.


But it was good. I mean, I wasn’t traumatised or anything by the humble accommodation and insects.

I did feel a little grossed out at finding insect shit on my bed. There was this small lump of wet, black shit which smelled disgusting, which my index finger accidentally discovered, to its dismay. There were also several lizard droppings scattered around.

The scary thing was that they weren’t there in the day when we checked in. I only found them at night after we got back to the longhouse, so I was kinda worried all night about lizards shitting on my face while I slept.

But it was interesting and cosy. I’m sure if we’d had the chance to stay there for a few more days, I would have gotten used to the insects.

And, maybe, next time, I will sacrifice my phone for the fan.

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.


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


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.



What happens when you feed journalists alcohol

When I was in Kuching, our unofficial tour guide, Malcolm, brought us to a traveller lodge belonging to a good friend of his.

We had a crazy party there, me and the journalists who had been invited to visit Kuching.

I made a video of the madness. I was frankly quite amazed at how talented my journalist friends were and by the fact that we all clicked like old friends even though we’d only met each other the day before.

Now, a bit about The Fairview because I really liked it.

It’s a large heritage house that’s been converted to a budget hostel and is managed by a middle-aged couple who treat guests like friends.

The Fairview

With a 25-guest capacity and a price range of RM25 (S$10.40) to RM115 ($47.90), it’s located within walking distance from the city centre.

There are dorm rooms (good for trips with friends) and different sized bedrooms for couples or families. Totally a great alternative to staying at a hotel.

The Fairview

It actually looks rather creepy when you first step in because it’s so old and the furniture and decoration are, like, antique.

The Fairview

The Fairview

But once you get to know Eric and Annie, the friendly owners, and settle in, you’ll start feeling cosy and comfortable. The place probably looks different in the day, anyway.

They served us tuak, a rice wine made by the natives in Kuching.

The Fairview

There are different kinds of tuak which use slightly different ingredients. I really like the sweet ones. The one we tried at Fairview was sweet and delicious!

Annie showed us the guestbook, which has been signed by hundreds of happy and grateful tourists.

The Fairview

There was even a homemade thank-you card.

The Fairview

The Fairview

Most importantly, there’s broadband Internet, and you can make reservations online.

Actually, the guys in the video weren’t crazy because of the tuak and beer. They behaved like that the entire trip. It’s just them.


Cheers to Malcolm, Nicholas, Javad, Wai Kit, Lili and Soh. And, of course, to Eric, Annie and pretty Flora!

Bako National Park: The screaming tour guide

It happened after lunch.

Lunch looked kinda cool but it was awful.

Lunch at Bako National Park

There’s a canteen in Bako National Park which serves a variety of rice, noodles and local dishes. For a few dollars, I think, you get a plate which you can heap with as much food as you want.

Lunch at Bako National Park

But the food was cold, hard and tasteless.

There’s like fish, and chicken and a few curry things, too, but I didn’t take any of them because they looked dodgy.

Or maybe I just wasn’t that hungry. I was hot and tired after a morning of climbing mountains and trudging through swamps, and sleepy after not having slept much for a few nights in a row.

But what happened after lunch woke me up.

Our two tour guides wanted to show us more creatures, such as cute monkeys.

Here’s a picture of Anastasia, our main guide:

Anastasia and Sheylara

I don’t have a picture of Alex, our secondary guide, which is just as well (and you will find out why, soon).

We were trekking around the chalet grounds. Yes, you can stay in Bako National Park. But I wouldn’t because it looks really creepy, the perfect setting for a horror movie.

Bako National Park

The view from inside the chalet:

Bako National Park

And you have scary neighbours, such as an exceptionally large sunbathing monitor lizard:

Monitor lizard

It trotted off after a while, probably realising that it had paparazzi on its tail:

Monitor lizard

I’m getting to the story.

Shortly after, we came upon a green tree pit viper. Alex found it first. I mean, it’s really amazing how our guides are able to spot camouflaged creatures a mile away.

Tree pit viper

Tree pit viper

We spent the next ten minutes furiously clicking our cameras at the viper, while Anastasia went off to look for monkeys.

We eventually got tired of gawking at the viper, which fortunately didn’t jump at us or anything like that. Alex said he’d take us to Anastasia, so we followed him down this walkway.

Bako National Park

Suddenly, Alex let out a bloodcurdling shriek, jumped backwards very violently and started racing towards us, yelling all the time, like, “AaaaaH AAAAAHHH AAAAIIIEEEEEE!!”

Shocked, we all jumped back. I almost died of fright. I thought that maybe a hungry man-eating carnivore had strolled out of the forest in front of Alex or something like that.

He continued screaming and yelling and jumping as if a swarm of bees were attacking him.

Nothing was attacking him. We stood rooted to the spot in fright, waiting.

Anastasia appeared from the other end of the walkway.

“What happened?” she shouted.

To which Alex replied, very emotionally, “It’s a snake!! Arrghh! I hate snakes I hate snakes!!”

At this point of time, I burst out laughing. I was instantly reminded of that silly cult hit from years ago, Badgerbadgerbadger.

By the time I saw the snake, I didn’t have much time to take a good shot of it before it disappeared under the walkway. It was really quick!

Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Actually, what I managed to take was a photo of Javad and Lili taking photos of the snake.

Bako National Park

To be honest, I didn’t dare to go too near.

After the snake disappeared and we all nervously sprinted past the spot where it was hiding under the walkway, we were able to have a leisurely laugh while Alex explained vehemently that he hated snakes and they gave him goosebumps and so on.

That was quite funny.

In the end, we didn’t get to see any monkeys. We heard them, though. But they kept running from us and we could never get near.

There are supposed to be silver leaf monkeys in that area. I found this photo in someone’s Flickr:

Silver Leaf Monkey

Cute, isn’t it?

Following this, just about five metres from the snake, we came across pretty red dragonflies.

Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Which was a nice finale to our Bako National Park outing.

No, wait.

Actually, the nice finale was finding out that high tide had ENTIRELY covered our dock, so there was NO DOCK from which we could take a boat back to the mainland.

That meant we had to walk through a beach and then wade out to a part of the sea deep enough for boats to moor.

Bako National Park

The beach was very nice. We kinda hung out there to camwhore for a bit.

Bako National Park
From left: Juraida, Lili, Sheylara, Nicholas, Wai Kit, Soh, Javad.

Nicholas wanted to do some jumping shots.

Bako National Park

And then someone got the bright idea to do a group jumping shot!

We only did one take because we had to rush off to our next location.

Here’s the shot, taken by Javad!

Bako National Park

The journey out to the boats was actually quite fun. We had to remove our shoes.

And everyone had to stop for a while because Nicholas and Lili wanted to camwhore in the water.

Bako National Park

Deeper and deeper.

Bako National Park

And deeper.

Bako National Park

I tried to take a photo of my legs half submerged in the water, but it didn’t work very well.

Bako National Park

Lili’s parting shot:

Bako National Park

I have no idea what her expression meant. Maybe she was having a premonition of what was to come.

Because, a minute after this shot was taken, she fell into the water while trying to get into her boat.


Well, she didn’t hurt herself, just got drenched. Hehe.

I didn’t actually witness her accident because I was at that time trying to get into my boat. I only found out when we arrived at the mainland and saw her dripping wet. Haha.

The journey back was quite uneventful. No crocodiles this time. Just a few playful dolphins too quick to photograph.

And that concludes my three-part Bako National Park report.

I wouldn’t have gone there on my own because parks are not normally my thing. But I was glad to have been made to go. It was truly an experience!

If you’re interested in paying a visit, more info can be found here.