Robb Pritchard, Off-road correspondent
Rainforest Challenge: 3rd - 12th December
I push the dense, dripping foliage away and try to free my feet from the clinging, clay-rich mud. This is an extreme environment. The undergrowth is full of things that prick, sting, bite and suck. In all it's brutal beauty this is a place David Attenbourough would love as he searched for a wild and untamed beast known to science as nullus-via extremis, or as it’s more commonly called, the Extreme Off-Roader.
In Malaysia in the middle of the rainy season it's possible to witness this rare creature's bizarre ritual of supremacy, known as the Rainforest Challenge. A dominant male of the species will pair off with a more submissive member of the tribe and the subjugated one will have to run off ahead to attach the winch rope while the dominant 'driver' shouts instructions. And if his partner doesn't comply threats will be called, which may well be carried out later under cover of darkness.
The competition steeds are festooned in bright and garish colours to attract the attention of the press and the more extreme the mud-based behaviour is, the more photos are taken. But complex rules of engagement are followed during this ritualistic display, presided over by a ruling class of 'marshals', although some competitors would argue that some members might actually be classified as a sub-species. Combat is sectioned off into dozens of stages where speed is essential, yet positioning is also of importance as penalties are applied for breaking marker tape or touching marked trees...
It is wet... even by standards of measuring wetness in a rainforest in the middle of the rainy season it is wet. The organizers had been nervously watching the weather reports for weeks before, seeing floods cut off routes to the regions on the east coast of the peninsular where the competition was to take place. And they had cause to worry, as a few years back everyone once had to be evacuated by boat and the cars taken out of the jungle by helicopter!! Luckily it seemed that the event would take place between two sweeping arms of the monsoon…
The prologue is a hard and lonely place, especially for new teams. An abandoned building site mercilessly exposed to the sun with holes and trenches dug out by a sadistic JCB driver, each section is worth 100 points, the same as in the event proper, but there are hardly any trees to winch to so the luckless co-drivers have to trudge through the mud with giant ground anchors for the trucks to winch to. For one team it was a little harder than for others… in partnership with World 4x4 Adventures it is now possible to come out to Malaysia and compete as a co-driver with a local team… which gives you the chance to be part of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s premier events at a fraction of what it would cost to ship your own vehicle out. Dima Sokolov, twice winner of the Adventure Class of the Croatia Trophy looked around with a distant look in his eyes. “It’s so hot!” he gasped, and then smiled. “And the damn anchor is the same weight as I am!”
The prologue might only be for the spectators, a few sponsors and the odd dignitary, but the sections are just as extreme as the rest of the event with DNFs everywhere, mainly due to the wet ground being so soft that there were more ploughing demonstrations than winching as anchors were dragged back towards the cars. Some crews didn’t even attempt to start a few of the harder tests, Denis Stepanenko didn’t like the look of a particularly deep hole for his nice tiger-striped Suzuki. Denis is a big guy and slipped in right up to his head… and decided it was too deep for a Suzuki!
“This is hell,” I heard an exhausted co-driver exclaim, but I disagreed, it's more like the far side of purgatory... close to the eternal horrors of the underworld, but you still know that it’s only a three day walk to the nearest tarmac road and if you manage to get through the 10 days you have the chance of dragging yourself back to normal life.
And then it was off into the jungle. The short stages are brutally hard, but the organizers do know how to find beautiful campsites. On the shore of a fast flowing river we pitched up and Jeremy had already made some gloriously tasty food. But this is the RFC… under a plastic sheet we laid our camp beds and tried to sleep in a downpour that lasted all night… and then come morning I had to pull off all the leeches that had been feasting on my legs and feet. But then it was what we had all come for; the jungle! Narrow tracks led up a stream where crews had to winch over huge rocks and up sheer slopes. Drivers had to decide how to make a 180 degree turn on a 55 degree slope and how to get down a hill of wet clay that ended at the bottom of a fast and deep river.
The members of the press who’d come from around the world slipped through the dripping foliage with our cameras, watching in something akin to disbelief… not at the fact that the teams could tackle such obstacles, but more at the ease at which they did, with most working as relaxed as helping to reverse a car in a car park. “OK, to me a little, left hand down. Winch out a bit. OK. Clear.” Apart from the Australians though, who seemed to thrive on mock hatred as they cursed each other through every section. Dave Cameron said, “We actually weren’t thinking that it would be such a full-on winch event. The DVD shows a lot of the Twilight Zone, which is the adventure part of the event. Our trucks are built for the Outback Challenge which is much faster, with speeds up to 130, 140km/h, so our Nissans are a bit heavy-duty for this.” Fellow Aussie Peter Milhailoff added,” It’s always been on the ‘to-do’ list as it’s one of the world’s most renowned 4x4 events!”
Dave’s co-driver Dan Dewit, showing off the red skid marks on his chest from when he’d nearly got run over by a spinning 35 inch Maxxis tyre added, “They may look like heavy trucks, but actually they are made of a special, top-secret, light-weight metal and the tyres are filled with helium. We are actually making an effort to make it look hard, just so people don’t get too suspicious!”
As anyone who’s been following the RFC over the years will know, the locals have been improving both their technique and their vehicles to world-class standard and the leader after 2 days of prologue was Kualar Lumpur’s Mervyn Lim Wei Shiong in his highly modified Suzuki. On the second round of forest stages he was first into SS19, a short little loop up a hill and a winch up a 15 meter high cliff… sounds easy enough. Up he went, but bounced over a log which slipped him down and caught a back wheel on a root of an upended tree. There were a few options at that point: winch back, Hi-lift the wheel off the tree, or hack away at the wood with an axe, but they chose to winch forwards… and here the disadvantage of an all-powerful God-winch showed itself. It pulled the car off the root easily enough but such speed created uncontrollable momentum and Mervyn was helpless to stop it tipping over. The others waiting behind looked on with barely concealed smiles as 100 points slipped out of his hands… as the 15 minute DNF whistle was blown and the JCB was sent in to extradite him. Next up was 2nd placed man Marcus Oszwald in his Jeep Cherokee based Proto, who had the lead of the event in his sights. He took the same corner a bit wider than Mervyn but unbelievably he also tipped over and smashed the windscreen against the tree. But the difference between a DNF and saving some points was co-driver Brett Macnamara as he deftly doubled the rear winch to another tree and got the Jeep back on its wheels.
But heroes of this particular stage were Wan Mohamad Najib and Dima. They were planning a safe way to drive across the top of the slope and then to winch backwards down it, but the log at the top pulled the front wheels down and the Land Cruiser lurched one way and then the other. All credit to Van though, as he kept his foot in and bounced off a couple of trees before slithering to the bottom. They got around for the 2nd fastest time!
Further in the forest there was a monster of a stage. A sheer bank led down to a stream where crews had to turn around and winch back up. The Russians, part of a big team from Vladivostock got their Toyota 70 Series so stuck that even the JCB had difficulty pulling them out. It was the Philippine Air Asia team in their yellow Land Rover 90 that showed everyone how to do it though. They are a father and son team and Hirryan looks so young that I wondered how he got time off from school. But he slipped down the back, tree strop over his shoulder, and once his dad had winched over one bank he scurried like a water rat up the huge bank on the other side and crashed off into the unwelcoming undergrowth to secure the strop again. Hilario duly started to winch up but was a little out of position and the wheel kept nudging against a tree at the top. He was almost vertical, hanging down on the winch rope so it was hard to manoeuvre and in the end he just put his foot down and the power of the God-winch on the front was such that the tree, thicker than my arm and about 10 meters tall, was snapped and dragged out of the stage with them. And it was quite a surprise to find out that Hirryan is actually 24!
Another unique thing about the RFC is that between the hardcore winching sections there is a 3 day expedition through the jungle! This is the famed Twilight Zone. Ostensibly it follows a 40 year old logging trail but the scouts actually spent 10 days with machetes opening the trail which was mostly kept on high ground to avoid the flood prone lowlands… so lots of hills and descents. Right at the beginning Hilario in the Air Asia Land Rover snapped the low box lever off, but with the battery of Marcus’ Jeep they rigged up an arc welder and fixed it in a couple of minutes. “The route was about 40km… and we winched for about 30km!” he smiled. As an indication of just how hard the trail was, some of the world’s best 4x4s and off-road teams took three days and two nights to get through, but at the end Marcus was all smiles. “It was really a unique experience, unreal... a privilege to be inside it... although sometimes I was wondering if we would ever get out at all!”
There was still several Special Stages planned for the following day, laid out by the RFC’s new partner event, Russia’s Pro-X Trophy, but sadly Alexy Menshenin didn’t get to see the crews tackling his route. It was ready to be a proper showdown with the top three all in with a chance of victory, but in the end, as often happens in the RFC, it was mother nature who drew the final curtain. After three days of constant rain the campsite was inundated and the order was given to withdraw from the forest. The organizers were perhaps weary of what can happen when vehicles with wheels instead of rudders get stuck in the forest, and so battered machines and exhausted people pulled up to the final hotel a day earlier than planned.
For the second year running a local Malaysian team beat the international contingent with Mervyn a scant 16 points ahead of Marcus, 2353 points against 2337. In third, one spot the wrong way from the second place they had last year, were the friendly Air Asia Land Rover team. Best of the electric winches, with a Gigglepin proudly bolted to the front of thier Nissan, were RFC first-timers Peter Mihailoff and Clinto ‘Sharpy’ Sharpe with 2290. Fittingly the team spirit award went to Dima Sokolov and and his driver Wan Mohamad Najib. Neither of them could speak English so they did the whole event together with nothing but sign language. Class!
So now it’s time to enjoy a soft bed in an air conditioned room, to pack (or throw) away a bag of soggy, half rotten clothes, put plasters on the worst of the leech bites and have a few days rest before heading off to Dakar on the Africa Eco Race.