For the backstory on what we were doing in the jungle in the first place, have a look here.
A blue plastic sheet sinks gently into the sand bank, weighed down by a small mountain of rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and even some bright yellow 20L containers filled with petrol. Sand is sprayed across the food by the boots of someone running past, dragging another plastic sheet across the food as they go. Twisting around to the north from the seat of my mud covered motorcycle, beyond the 30m expanse of muddied water, churned into white peaks over the rocks and what remains of the bridge that once stood 6m above the water surface, up above the mountain on the opposite bank, now scarred by landslides and topped with copses of bamboo and dense tropical trees that sway in the wind reveals a black sky advancing on us. An intermittent “tack, tack, tack” from the plastic sheets mimics the almost calming sound I can hear inside my helmet as the first small rain drops fall from the sky. Any sense of peace is quickly forgotten about in the frantic commotion of the people around me. Road distances in the jungle are variable, measured in hours instead of kilometres. When the rain comes, the distance between villages can be 10 times what it is on dry roads, and the distance between basecamp and us is about to become immeasurable.
24hrs prior to the rain starting, I’m sitting in basecamp, the late in the afternoon sun filtering through the trees. I’ve arrived before most to the convoy, having ridden during the day due to a lack of headlights. I’m not the only motorcyclist in camp for long though. Almost all at once, 28 motorcycles and their riders roll into camp, all Orang Asli on small bikes and covered in mud. Making friends is easy, my bike Emily doing most of the talking as a small group gather around the machine that almost comes up to their shoulders. Chatting with them, we learn that they set out at 7am that morning and have been battling landslides, broken bridges and deep mud, along roads that only the small cub chai motorcycles can access, for 12 hours to reach us. On goo roads the same ride takes them 2.5hrs. With the sun now setting and 12hrs of riding through terrain that we cant breach under their belts, arrangements are made for them to have dinner with us in basecamp that night before they set up a temporary shelter for the night nearby in the jungle.
By 6am the next morning, everyone in basecamp is up, preparing breakfast and packing vehicles with food when the 28 bikes all come putting back from their night in the jungle. The small bikes become first priority, packages of food and other basic essentials taken from the storehouse are prepared while the Temiar share breakfast with us before strapping the food on with strips of old motorcycle inner-tube and starting the 12hr return journey together. Once again, the small bikes prove themselves to be the king of the jungle; able to duck under fallen trees, carried across deep mud and supported by the simplest of bamboo bridges, they make anything else look over engineered, overweight and excessive by comparison.
With the storehouse now overflowing after having 4 trucks from Kuala Lumpur full of aid unload over Friday night and Saturday morning, it was essential that the 4×4 vehicles get loaded and back out into to as many villages as we could reach. Despite the morning dew making the roads and bypass tracks around the fallen bridges exceptionally slippery, we made good time, reaching the impassable river from the previous week within 2 hrs, a quarter f the time it took on the first week. Arriving at the river we were met by a small group of Orang Asli from the next village beyond the river who were already busy cutting down trees with machetes and either floating them down the river or carrying them into place as they began the construction of a log bridge, substantial enough to allow 4 wheeled access in anticipation of our trucks. We were pleasantly surprised as there is no one that we would rather help more than people who are willing to work so hard to help themselves. Axes were unloaded from the vehicles and winches used to drag the necessary long, heavy trees out of the jungle which are more and more difficult to find with the logging, both legal and illegal, that goes on in the area. Standing knee deep in mud and swinging an axe in 36 degree Celsius heat is difficult enough without the added effort of running from the tree as it begins its slow fall through the canopy of vines and smaller trees.
During the bridge building, two other vehicles arrive from a separate NGO, also there to deliver aid to those that need it. The drivers are known to some of those in our group and we are all there for the same purpose, so we band together, binding the logs with old motorcycle chains and guiding each other’s vehicles across. Emily got extra special attention with the Temair boys coming to her aid to get us across the narrow slippery logs without falling into the gaps between.
The 10km after the bridge towards Tohoi, the road shys away from the river and the flood damage is less pronounced. There is still the odd landslide across the road and one section where the road has washed away into a 6m pit, leaving just enough room for the 4x4s to get past if they drop their wheels into the muddy gutter on the far side of the washout. There’s still enough mud to make uphill sections on the bike interesting at times and the biggest mud hole we have found yet hasn’t changed; 200m of light brown muck that sticks to the vehicles and me like concrete. Dropping into the deepest section submerges the lower half of the bike, interfering with the chain which cries out in protest with a series of loud “clunks” as it skips a few teeth on the sprocket. I feel every tooth skipped and cringe at the damage it must be doing to the chain and wheel bearings.
Beyond the fallen power lines that scrape over my helmet as I pass and up the rutted hills, Tohoi lies nestled in a wide and shallow valley hemmed in against a muddy river by secondary growth rainforest, the loggers having long since stripped this area of any valuable timber. The Temair people here live in single story buildings made of wood or concrete, spread out over 2 or 3 square km. While their preference is for the stilted wooden structures, the concrete boxes are newer, last longer and are free despite being far less comfortable in the tropical heat. At the sound of the engines, the residents com out to greet us, adults staring curiously from doors and windows while children are less bashful, running right up to the road, wide grins lighting up the dark skin of their faces and arms extended, hopeful of a high-5 as we pass by.
The goal for today is to get to the bridge beyond Tohoi, which is reported to be impassable by the locals, but is yet to be seen by outsiders. After dropping off the doctor that we brought in with the group at Tohoi to make an assessment of the and hand out some basic medications that he had brought along with him, we continued the final 3 km to the former bridge site.
Standing on the bank of the river, scoured clean by the floodwaters, it becomes apparent that we will be going no farther anytime soon. The only sign that there was ever a bridge here are a few stacked tree trunks that used to serve as the bridge foundations and short section of decking, now partially submerged in the swirling water rushing by some 6 metres below us. A man from the next village on the other side of the river yells that the only way across is to go back downstream and take a boat where the waters are calmer. Our conversation is cut short by the first light drops of rainfall and he retreats to a makeshift shelter constructed up on the hill opposite our position.
We quickly decide that a small sand bank formed by the floodwaters in the shelter of a large landslide obscuring our view upstream is a good location to drop the supplies that both our groups are transporting. With the small patch of sky visible through the tree topped mountains quickly darkening, the urgency of the group increases notably. This may seem odd to those that have never had to drive on a jungle track in the rain, after all, its just a little rain right? Surely it would take a couple of days to make the track truly impassable? One of the unique things about the jungles in Malaysia and Borneo is the amount of change that half an hours rain can bring. Rain here is not like rain in other parts of the world, its either valves fully open, or nothing at all. It can be completely dry in one location while 100m down the road there is a torrential downpour; its an odd sensation to transition from a location without rain into a wall of water falling from the sky within the space of 20m. Then there’s the soil, which is like a sponge for any kind of moisture and can evolve from a dry, grippy surface to being nearly impossible to walk on flat sections in a fraction of a second.
Needless to say, being the only vehicle on two wheels, it was all I could do to remain calm. As soon as the vehicles are unloaded, my helmet is on and I’m covering as much ground as I can before the roads turn to a greasy steel plate. I don’t get much further than Tohoi before the real rain begins, drops of water so large that they form baseball sized wet patches wherever they land. Its not long before the road becomes speckled with Temair people heading back home, either sliding both feet along the ground as they try to keep their small bikes upright or walking, shoes in hand, bare feet offering superior grip on the slick road surface than any manmade boot. While its difficult to imagine living in and dealing with such arduous conditions on a regular basis, everyone I see has a smile and brief wave (brief because riding one handed in these conditions is difficult even on a small bike) ready for the idiot on the bike that’s too big.
The mud either fills the voids in the off-road tyres or the hard pack soil simply provides no traction at all as I slip my way up one hill and down another, finally getting an unexpected respite at the top of a hill where a small group of Tohoi residents had gathered. It turned out they were the same guys that helped us to put he bridge together earlier on in the day, now heading home in a trailer towed by a tractor. The reason no one was in the trailer at that time was to try to reduce the load on the tractor as it spun its enormous wheels in a vain attempt to get up the hill, blocking the road in the process. After 20 minutes sitting in the pouring rain watching the tractor reverse down the hill and try again and again while the soaking wet passengers threw stones in under the tyres, a triumphant cheer was let out as the vehicle finally crested the hill. Those that hadn’t opted to start walking the 6km back to Tohoi clambering back into the trailer for the slow ride home as the rest of our convoy caught up with me after stopping to collect our doctor from Tohio where he had found an almost epidemic of skin infections and diarrhoea.
The 200 metre long mud hole was a little deeper on the way out, the consistency less dense but the bullet like raindrops still left deep impressions in the surface. The chain only skipped 2 teeth this time as I passed through and it should have marked the final serious challenge before the bridge we had constructed earlier in the day. But no one expected the waterfall.
Riding at the front of the group, I was the first to round a downhill bend in the track, only to be confronted with a torrent of milky brown water surging across the track and off the side, foaming as it cascaded into the gully below and out of sight through the trees. I was initially confused, thinking surely we were on the wrong track; 1hr ago there was no water across the road here, only a small stream that drained through a hollow tree trunk that served as a culvert buried in the road surface. I didn’t have to ride across this did I? With the amount of rain that had fallen, the small creek had become a river, swollen further by the confluence of runoff from an old logging track and another smaller stream. I’d never seen water running so fast or so deep across a road before. Was there even a road underneath all that water anymore?
After staring, frozen in horror for what seemed like forever, I decided that if we were going to cross then it had best be walked first. Even with the water barely up to my knee, I could feel my boot sliding on the small stones and slimy hard-pack mud underneath. I already had serious doubts about getting the bike across without ending in the gully below, potentially pinned under the water by 160kg of steel and rubber. But before I had time to mull it over for too long, one of the 4WDs eased into the torrent, quickly making a dash for the other side before too much water could pile up against the upstream side of the vehicle. Not wanting to be left behind, I prepared to cross too, lining the bike up on the upstream side of the crossing, as far from the cascades as possible. While the 4x4s made it look easy, my heart was pounding. Dropping the front wheel into the depths, it moved sideways almost instantly and I froze. I changed my mind but physically couldn’t back out. A plan was hatched to tie a rope around the bike, using it as part winch, part safety line in the event that the bike was swept away and with the water level rising ever higher, knots were hastily tied around the front forks.
With 4 men on the far side of the river holding the rope, I stare wide eyed across the narrow stretch of fast moving water as we count down to the big moment. Those holding the rope start pulling at the same time as I gently let the clutch out, just enough to not waste time in the water but not so much that the rear wheel spins. Any loss of traction now and there will be no stopping the bike from being swept downstream towards the edge. With the water is up over the axles, I can feel the front slide a little and the rear moves even more, taking me with it as I hang half off the bike, letting it move around underneath me to keep it upright. All I can hear are the shouts of “PULL PULL PULL!!” from those on the end of the rope above the roar of the foaming waterfall to my right that feels uncomfortably close. With eyes trained on the far bank, lungs frozen and heart racing, my white knuckles twist the throttle a little more and momentum does the rest. I’m through. There’s still water swirling around my ankles but the worst is over for me and I can begin to breathe again, laughing nervously as we untie the rope and straighten the bike out. The water is high enough now that even one of the 4x4s is shifted sideways as they cross after me. Whatever lies in front of us, there is no going back the way we just came.
Up through a ravine where the full width of the road has become a caramel coloured waterfall and around a few more bends brings us to the ridgeline above our makeshift log bridge. From a distance its difficult to see if the river level has risen but I can glimpse the log bridge and hope rises that we will get out of here and back to some dry clothes and big hot meal for dinner. Rolling down the muddy slope, I can see that the water has come up, but both sections of bridge are still in place, although no longer clear of the water. Then the unthinkable happens. Just as I rolled to a stop, not 10m from the waters edge, both sections of bridge lift up and began to float down the swollen river. All I can do is pull out my camera and try to film the final moments as any hope of getting out of here today is washed away along with the two bundles of logs in front of me and the realisations sets in that it is going to be a cold, wet night in the jungle.
Once the rest of the convoy arrives, the two Temair boys getting a lift back to their village with us decide that they aren’t going to hang around in the jungle overnight, preferring instead to sleep in their own beds. So, as the light fades they hike off into the dense undergrowth, carrying handwritten notes sealed in plastic bags to protect them from the rain that is still falling destined for basecamp. It takes take them a little over 3 hours to reach basecamp where our notes were delivered and vehicles packed with provisions in preparation for an early morning rescue mission the next day, rain and deteriorating road conditions making any rescue attempt too dangerous by night.
Back at the river, we had found ourselves little a flat point in the road, large enough to string a small tarp up between the vehicles to keep dry warm up somewhat. 15m above the river level down below, we should have been safe from any rising waters overnight, but grass flattened from the Christmas flooding on either side of the road told a different story. So we spent the night rationing instant noodles and tending to a small fire built on flat stones to keep it out of the mud, almost impossible to keep going due to a lack of dry wood while keeping an eye on the rainfall, lest it intensify and force us onto even higher ground.
As the only one without a soft seat to sleep in and being soaked to the bone, I had the privilege of shivering my way through the night on the steel tray of one of the 4x4s and have never welcomed the dawn with greater exuberance. The morning was both rainless and sunless, a heavy blanket of mist over the jungle obscuring the morning sun and the track in both directions. Down at the river, the water level had dropped from the previous night so we began the task of recovering the bridge from where we had tied it the night before after it got tangled amongst some tree roots. Half an hour of wrestling it upstream against the still strong current and it was back in position, although the river was still too high for it to be usable. An alternative yet undesirable means of crossing was found in a tangle of logs, trees and power lines on the far bank; the perfect winching point for those vehicles with winches to drag themselves through the fast flowing water. The others would drag those without through the river, and Emily would end up riding in the tray of one of the 4x4s, the water too deep and strong now for any motorcycle to cross.
One by one, the 4x4s forded the river, largely without drama despite one of the tie down ropes on the bike almost snapping, and the only vehicle without a snorkel sucking in water to the engine, requiring two other vehicles to winch it back onto dry land. Halfway through getting all the vehicles across, a rescue convoy from basecamp arrived, having dealt with their own ordeal on the rain-damaged roads to get to us. It had taken them 4 hrs to cover what took us 2 hrs only 24hrs ago. With clean, dry clothes and, in the very welcome Malaysian tradition, lots of food, the rescue convoy was a sight for sore eyes and it was with a sense of achievement that all three convoys headed for basecamp together. The broken bridges and muddy tracks seemed almost welcoming after the ordeals of the previous day, as the vehicles were winched through and over each obstacle as a single team, before the two groups retired to their separate basecamps before packing up and heading for home and work the next day.