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