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WET, WILD & HIGH WATER.
A Summary of the International Rainforest Challenge (RFC) 2011.
The first wave of the seasonal monsoon struck the East Coast state of Terengganu in Peninsula Malaysia one week before D-Day of the Rainforest Challenge (RFC) causing extensive flooding in many areas including the state of Kelantan in the north. By 30 Nov, all evacuation centers in the state were closed and the evacuees returned home; the 1st wave of the monsoon was over. However, the National Security Council which coordinates flood relief efforts will still be on standby until March 2012, expecting for the 2nd and 3rd waves of monsoon rains to come. The authorities expect heavier rainfall than normal and this has kept the organizer of the RFC nervously watching the weather reports daily.
The strategy of this years RFC is to stay out of the lowland areas and proceed towards the highlands to avoid floods cutting off all routes including campsites and escape tracks, like it did in 2007 in which everyone had to be evacuated by boats! If the floods return, a quick and decisive exit plan must be activated in all the three campsites working in close collaboration with the Fire & Rescue Dept and Civil Defense units based in Terengganu.
An overcast sky punctuated with sunny spells greeted the participants and media from 30 countries at the opening day at Pulau Warisan in Kuala Terengganu on 3 Dec. The opening gambit was the soft launch of next years 4x4 Asia exhibition which will be held in conjunction with RFC 2012.
The line-up of 35 teams registered included Australia, Russia, Philippines, China, Austria and USA; while the media members, support crew, touring and officials were, among others, from Italy, Vietnam, Singapore, UK, Sri Lanka and India.
Prologue: Its Show-time.
A three-day carnival weekend with 4x4 Jamboree, drift, mountain bike race were included in the Prologue, which attracted thousands of spectators and enthusiasts to the local Sports Complex. Although the RFC is infamous of what goes on in the jungle, over here on opening day, it was all about warming up time for the competitor teams, sponsors visibility and getting spectators to watch 4x4 show time in the city. A total of 12 Special Stages (SS) were held for public viewing.
For some teams, broken transmissions, body parts and winches were the order of the day as the unlucky crews tried to fix the problems. Some would not even make it to the jungle proper due to mechanical failures.
Base Camp 1: Here Comes the Rain.
Rain fell in buckets on 4 Dec as the convoy moved from the Prologue area to the first campsite at Hulu Sg (river) Berang in Hulu Terengganu. From afternoon to night and lasting till dawn, the rains poured non-stop. For the organizer, it was time to monitor the river level and coordinating with the authorities. It was the first taste of wet, wet, wet conditions which would be repeated later in the event.
However, clear and sunny sky returned on 5 Dec. Time for a good day of 6 SS. These test for man and machine were brutally hard on the teams as they had to use everything they know in the book, experience and thinking out of the box to overcome the obstacles.. Like maneuvering through narrow tracks leading up to a stream, then winching over huge rocks and ascending up steep slopes; making a 180 degree turn on a 55 degree slope and descending on wet clay and ending at the bottom of a fast flowing and deep river.
At the end of a hard days battle, everyone is compensated with a beautiful campsite and well earned rest.
Transport Day to Base Camp 2
The adventure route from Felda Mengkawang to Hulu Sg Loh gave the teams and media members a taste of what the jungle can throw at them from river crossing, V-gullies, muddy streams and recovery exercises using snatch straps and winching. The team work getting everyone through is an experience in off-road bonding.
Twists and Turns: Strategy Rules, Not Speed
The SS continued here in earnest with more twists and turns which calls for strategy, rather than the power and speed of the winch. In SS 19 for example, a super fast PTO used by local teams can be counter-productive as it created uncontrollable momentum which tipped over even the leading teams and ending in a DNF (Did Not Finish). Where to drive, when to press on the accelerator and co-driver alertness to guide the driver are more important that the velocity of the winch.
Such technical SS requires thinking power of controlling the vehicle and ways to overcome the obstacles more than sheer power of the engine and speed of the winch. Those who did not follow these rules of engagement paid the ultimate price of DNF and losing more points to their competitors. In the RFC, its prudent to optimize the opportunities to do well in some SS and not to push man and machine to the maximum in all the SS.
Twilight Zone: Briefing.
On the night of 7 Dec, a night briefing was held at Event HQ at campsite 2. Only vehicles with working engines and winches would be allowed into the dreaded Twilight Zone (TZ). On top of that, they must be prepared for three days camping to go through the 50 km of disused logging tracks abandoned more than 40 years ago. If the rains come, the going will be extremely hard, thats why all going in were teamed up in groups. The groups were led by three official cars including medics moving in closed convoy for safety.
Twilight Zone: Welcome to the Dark Side.
The TZ is not for the faint hearted, only for those with nerves of steel and ability to work as a team. The following three days were tough, out of 50 kms they had to winch 30 kms to get out of the TZ, its the dark side, of the forest, covered by tree canopies and filled with awesome challenge combined with brutal beauty of the jungle. To avoid the flood prone lowlands, the participants followed along the highland route with lots of uphill and downhill sections.
The first stop for the night was at Sg Hulu Jengai, which all the 5 groups of 23 cars in total managed to reach but just in time to rest only, as the rain came down again, nonstop till dawn. The last group reached campsite at midnight under heavy showers.
The second section from Sg Hulu Jengai to Sg Hulu Nipah became harder with really steep and long hill climbs of over 300 meters, and equally steep downhill descends. It took lots of courage, skills, teamwork, slipping, sliding and winching more than a hundred times to get through from there to base camp 3 where the main convoy was stationed.
The organizer has also sent in an excavator team with trackers to clear the impassable landslides 10 days earlier under monsoon conditions so that the passage is cleared just in time for the teams to get through.
This is another unique thing about the RFC which blends competitive stages (SS) with a real adventure route for the teams to share camaraderie that lasts a lifetime.
Getting Out of the Rain.
Meanwhile, at base camp 3 (Sg Nipah) on 10 Dec, the weather conditions have deteriorated. The monsoon has sent another tempest of wind and rain. Flooding had begun at the plantation area further down the campsite. According to weather reports, the expected 2nd wave of the monsoon had begun and more rainfall would be coming till 14th Dec. The Sg Nipah river where campsite 3 was located had risen furiously, some areas along its banks rose by 1 meter in just half an hour. With torrents of rushing water everywhere, campsite had turned soggy, muddy and watery.
By midday, the first group of competitor teams that went into the Twilight Zone emerged. They were greeted with cheers and jubilation, while the last group came out by 5pm under heavy rainfall. The victory drinks and cheers were confined in their respective tents as heavy rainfall continued to pour from evening to dawn, everything was soaking wet.
The next morning, the rain did not abate and an emergency session was held between Event HQ and the Fire & Rescue Dept based in Chukai town, resulting in an evacuation order to get out before the situation gets worse. Thus, began the getting out of the rain episode, which became the final chapter of the jungle stage of RFC 2011.
Final Curtain by Mother Nature.
There were still Special Stages planned by the RFCs new partner event, Russias Pro-X Trophy, but those had to be abandoned.. It would have been a proper showdown for the top 3 teams since only 51 points separated them, but in the end, its Mother Nature who drew the final curtain for the event to end, one day earlier.
In the 24 SS that were eagerly fought out, this year have been the closest results ever. Overall champion Team 129 was a scant 16 points ahead of 2nd placed Team 137 ( 2,353 against 2,337 points) while third place Team 108 Air Asia-Land Rover Philippines came in third with 2,302 points (35 points behind Team 137).
As far as the event is concerned, actually everyone is a winner; for completing the event, for living out their 4x4 dreams, for facing their fears and sharing camaraderie with their peers from around the 4x4 off-road world, concluded Luis J.A.Wee, the Founder and Creator of the RFC. See you again, in 2012.