The events leading up to the activities that have consumed the better part of my life at the beginning of 2015 have been a long and winding path lined with the kindness of strangers, chance encounters and, as I would soon learn, plenty of politics and showboating. But first a little history.
Malaysia’s political scene is as complex as it is controversial and, as such, not worth spending much time on here, as anything less than a full run down of the ins-and-outs of the inter-ethnic relationships of the country would surely do it a discredit and only lead to more confusion. What I will focus on is the Orang Asli, the “Original People”; Malaysia’s often forgotten aboriginal minority. Over the centuries, the threat of slavery has pushed the Orang Asli further into the interior of peninsular Malaysia, Malay raiding parties killing all the grown men of a village and taking women and children captive, who were then sold off or given to local rulers or chieftains to gain favour. Despite the practice being officially banned in 1884, it continued into the early parts of the 20th century.
In more recent times, as modernisation has gripped the country, land encroachment through clear fell logging practices and palm and rubber plantations, both legal and illegal, has further threatened to destroy not only their livelihoods but their culture too. Between 2000 and 2012 Malaysia lost just under 14% of is total forest cover, which equates to the highest rate of deforestation in the world. To make matters worse, only about 17% of the Orang Asli villages are gazetted as Orang Asli area or reserves. The remaining 83% have no rights over the ancestral land that they occupy and rely on to live, the Malaysian government treating them as tenants-at-will.
Entire villages are regularly dispossessed of their land, the government repurposing it for favour of palm oil estates, dams and golf courses. The land that most visitors first step onto when they arrive in Malaysia at the international airport was once the hunting grounds of the Temuan people. With the only form of income for many of the Orang Asli being the sale of jungle commodities such as honey, rottan, bamboo and raw latex from personal plantations, logging has a major impact on their way of life. The government has even removed any obligations from itself to pay compensation for these dispossessions or allocate alternative sites for those affected, which, in many cases has inadvertently forced the Orang Asli from a cashless society into the wider Malaysian economy, albeit as peasants.
Despite their situation, rarely have I found a group of people that have been so open and hospitable in accommodating me as I’ve ventured into some of the more remote areas of Malaysia. Despite insisting that I have my own tent and food, I’ve never been told I can camp in their villages, only that I can stay in their houses, share what food they have, and on occasion, join them fishing, hunting or even getting drunk at 6am as we plant rice on the sides of mountains. I learn far more during these interactions than they intend to teach, which only makes it harder to leave without feeling like I’m able to give a lot in return.
So when friends in Kuala lumpur started to put together a plan to help out some of the Orang Asli villages that were in need after serious flooding in late December 2014, I jumped at the chance to be able to give something back to the communities that have already given me so much. This is the story of the Malaysian Elite Disaster Rescue Forces (MEDRF), specifically the Elite 4×4 Search and Rescue Squad branch and their effort to bring some relief and even save the lives of the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia.
In the days leading up to Christmas 2014, several members of MEDRF received worrying phone calls from members of the Temiar group of Orang Asli who inhabit the jungles nearby Gua Musang in the interior of peninsular Malaysia. Heavy rainfall leading to cold temperatures resulting in numerous sick children was the first sign that trouble was brewing for the dozens of Temiar villages in the area. On The 21st December a report that came through that the Betis River, along which many of the tamir villages are located, was dangerously swollen. That was the last contact we had with the Temiar people.
Over the next few days, social media was awash with light hearted photos of flooding along the east coast of peninsular Malaysia; shots of people wading through waist deep water in towns, generally smiling for the camera were interspersed with comical pictures, like that of a scooter perched on the roof of a house in an attempt to save it from some minor flooding. The full extent of the disaster wouldn’t become apparent until 2 or 3 days later as those from the affected areas were evacuated into areas that still had telecommunication systems intact. Pictures began to filter through of entire towns under 4m of water, homes that had been demolished or simply lifted from their foundations and dumped elsewhere, sometimes onto their sides or roofs. Those that experienced it were describing the flood as an inland tsunami that didn’t just come and go, but stayed for days on end.
MEDRF were in the thick of it early on, their 4×4 vehicles loaded with food and clean water some of the first to enter the Gua Musang township once the landslides had been cleared by heavy machinery and bridges that sat 10m above the normal river levels emerged from the receding floodwaters. Dropping their cargo off in town, they proceeded towards the villages that we had lost contact with 5 days prior, situated along the Betis River. The villages lining the tarred section of road gave some indication of what was to come; houses that hadn’t been swept away and smashed against trees were filled with the same fine, silt-like mud that covered the roads, while the buckled and twisted side rails of those bridges that had survived the force of the water and debris it carried were intertwined with lengths of bamboo and palm fronds. The riverbank stood scoured of all but the largest trees, whose branches were draped with pieces of clothing and tattered plastic in a myriad of colours, replacing the foliage that had been stripped from them by the ferocity of the water.
Once the tar ended and the dirt roads began, the situation only got worse. Where the road hadn’t been washed away completely or buried by landslides, mud 12” deep in places made the going treacherously slippery. 3km from where the tar ended they encountered the first of the broken log bridges, while the damage in the villages was more than enough to make the decision to return to Kuala Lumpur and begin organising a far more substantial relief effort.
For the final few days of 2014, MEDRF committed themselves to raising funds, collecting donations and organising a group of willing volunteers who could donate not only time but also vehicles capable of handling the unknown conditions that we would be heading into on the 1st January 2015. My new years eve was spent in the basement of an apartment block changing tyres on the bike to something more suited to the mud we expected to find.
2nd January, 2015
Despite warnings of other food aid convoys being robbed of their aid on the 300km route from Kuala Lumpur to Gua Musang, the most exciting part of the journey was watching the 12 4WDs rolling from side to side through the corners on suspension straining under the combined 3.5 tonnes of food and water they carried. Before we had a chance to add our load to the 10 tonnes that were already stockpiled in basecamp, over 200 Orang Asli from 9 nearby villages had come out of the jungle in search of food and water, some on foot but the majority on 100cc motorcycles. They brought with them stories from beyond the reach of any 4-wheeled vehicle, of bridges either damaged or destroyed and roads washed into the rivers or made impassable by landslides.
Others told of the nearby townspeople who were now holding the Orang Asli to ransom over the price of basic necessities despite the same townspeople now having easy access to plenty of food and water. One man told of how he had ridden for a full day from his jungle home along the destroyed roads with RM50 to buy rice for his family, only to find out that he didn’t have enough to buy both rice and the petrol he required to get back home. 5kg of rice was being sold for RM40 (normally RM15) and 1.5L of petrol for RM15 (normally RM3). He settled for the petrol and a single serving of instant noodles for RM10 (normally RM3). News of our arrival spread and we soon had a steady stream of small bikes and riders arriving, their name and village recorded before being sent off with packages of rice, oil, tinned sardines and water strapped to their mud encrusted bikes with lengths of old inner tubes.
After spending a cold night on a stretcher under a plastic tarp stretched out above us, while village dogs wandered amongst us through the night, we awoke to a heavy mist blanketing the jungle, muffling the sound of roosters crowing in the dull predawn glow. Simple breakfasts with coffee and tea were consumed while the groups’ leaders briefed everyone on the situation as we knew it before loading the vehicles with supplies as the tropical sun began to burn off the mist. Rolling out onto the main track, the sound of the mud sucking and popping at the tread of the oversized tyres is only interrupted when the convoy stops to speak with the locals staying in the semi-permanent bamboo and wooden structures, hidden amongst the trees on the hillside next to the track. On the motorcycle, I continued to the site of the village they left behind where only a small group of women remain, squatting on their heels amongst a tangle of broken bamboo and driftwood in front of the only source of clear water left in the village; a plastic pipe emerging from the 6” of mud that blanks everything from riverbank to the road and beyond. While they wash what few possessions they have salvaged from the muddied ruins of their homes, younger children rummage about the wreckage in search of clothing that they hang to dry; the mud being easier to shake out when its dried than wash out while it’s still wet.
The first of the log bridges slows the group down, but with a little guidance and careful wheel placement everyone makes it across the few remaining logs, despite parts the surface crumbling into he gaps between. Of the second bridge, only two logs remain, one of them sloping downwards at a 30-degree angle, while the bank on the other side is now 45 degrees of slippery clay and has dropped 6 feet lower than the road surface. This is now a motorcycle only bridge, and the search begins for an alternative route. Thankfully an elderly local that is hitching a ride with us back to his village after walking some 30km out to us, indicates that there is a bypass track up through the oil palm plantation on hills to the west. The track is seldom used though, the condition unknown and, as with all palm oil plantations, the route confusing with multiple sidetracks that often lead nowhere.
With the bikes greater manoeuvrability, we use it to scout ahead on the trails in an attempt to keep the convoy from getting into a situation that requires reversing all the vehicles back out, one by one. I have to start thinking like a car now, as what I consider an easy section of road, those with two-wheel track can easily come unstuck on. Deep washed out ruts easily navigable on two wheels but creating some havoc on 4. While this tactic works well for a while, one section of unused track shows the bikes weakness; slippery clay. A mild incline overgrown with grass on top of a layer of fine, sticky clay clogs the rear wheel and tyre tread with mud to the point that even getting off the bike and pushing while accelerating goes nowhere. I abandon the bike and walk the rest of the track, confirming that it’s passable for the 4x4s before radioing back to them to proceed. The physical strain of trying to get the bike up the slope and the ensuing walk in the 36 degree heat sees me sitting by the side of the track, stripped of riding gear and drinking plenty of water, trying to cool down as the convoy passes, each vehicle spinning all four wheels as they scramble up the slope. Well equipped vehicles and skilled drivers see everyone through and back out onto the main road while I go in search of a more tractable route, better suited to my one wheel drive vehicle.
Less than a kilometre on the main track and the convoy is halted again, this time the remains of a large tree sprawled across the track blocks our path. While chainsaws are unpacked from the vehicles we realise this tree wasn’t from here and the intensity of the flooding begins to reveal itself. This 40m length of tree, with the entire root system missing and no branches smaller than 12” in diameter remaining, has been torn form the riverbank and washed downstream, deposited by receding flood waters on top of a slight rise in the track, some 10m above the river that runs alongside.
A few hundred metres beyond the fallen tree, another log bridge is impassable with deep holes at either end and obvious movement of the structure, large logs now sticking out at odd angles. The time it would take to make repairs had the convoy headed into the hills and palm oil plantations again. With large palm fronds obscuring the slippery track ahead, small landslides crept up on the convoy quickly but only a minor annoyance compared to the steep, deeply rutted uphill section we were to face. After one of the lead vehicles became stuck on the hill, a group of plantation workers that had been following our convoy worked hard to level the road surface with hand tools while suitable winching points were found amongst the trunks of the palm trees. The drivers of the 4WDs transporting the plantation workers decided to turn back at this point.
With signs of heat exhaustion showing, it felt like heaven back on the main track to click the bike up into 2nd gear and get some cool air flowing over my skin that was pumping sweat out faster than I could take water in. The bliss only lasted was short lived as we came upon a depression in the track, submerged during the flooding and now filled with 12” of concrete like mud, slowly solidifying in the tropical sun. At over 200m long, it was a mud hole to be reckoned with, parts of it partially set hard, just like concrete, making pushing through it impossible for the first vehicle. Even with the momentum of a 2.5T truck, 4 wheel drive and diff-locks, the winch was the only option to get through. With a set of wheel tracks forged through the mud, the others could follow relatively easily.
Again, the good surface of the track doesn’t last long as we roll through more isolated villages, stopping to get names and numbers in each one before sliding across one more mud plain left behind by the flooding and arriving on the banks of the Peralong River. Waist deep and fast flowing, the caramel coloured span of water had a distinct lack of a bridge spanning it. Additionally, a lack of winch points on the far bank meant this would be as far as we would get today; a total of 10km from basecamp that had taken us a full 8hrs. Watching some of the more intrepid Orang Asli cross the water in a crook of the river on a small bamboo bridge bound together with vines, we noticed the 1.5m diameter logs we had parked next to. Although they had only been moved a few hundred metres by the flood waters, they had been floated high enough to get tangled up in the power lines, where they now lay in a tangled mess next to us.
With the light fading and no headlights on the bike, I headed back to basecamp ahead of the rest of the convoy, navigating the three broken bridges like the locals were in order to make it back before total darkness. The slippery logs and narrow margin for error with the time pressure of the earth’s rotation made for a nerve-wracking ride. The first bridge providing a challenge in the form of a log angled at 30 degrees across the track that formed the entry to the rest of the bridge. With a 1 foot drop off and absolutely no hope of getting any traction on the muddy wooden cylinder, the only choice was to get it over and done with quickly, speed my only ally in limiting the amount of sideways movement of the tyres. Avoiding the large hole to my right, landed on the deck of the bridge, wrestling the bike vertical again before spinning the rear wheel as I roll slowly between the other holes in the bridge surface.
The second bridge is the 45-degree mud bank, sloping down to two logs angled at 30 degrees back towards the opposite bank. With both feet on the ground and the engine switched off so I could use the clutch as a rear brake, I inch the front wheel over the edge of the bank. With both wheels in the ruts made by the small bikes of the Orang Asli, the only thing keeping me from ending up in the river 3m below the collapsed logs, is the wide tyres getting caught up in the narrow rut. I only start breathing again once both wheels are firmly on the slippery wooden remain of the bridge, but stops again as the rear wheel starts spinning and sliding towards the abyss as it looses traction on a buried stick. With the logs only wide enough to get one foot down, there is no way to get off the bike and push. Thankfully two of the locals turn up and help me out, even if it is just to get the bridge cleared so they can continue on their way.
The third and final bridge has been repaired by the locals using dozens of lengths of bamboo, perfectly suited for motorcycles and I make it back with half an hour of daylight to spare. Those in the 4WDs on the other hand still need to take their time through the bridge bypass tracks ad even stop at one bridge to make rudimentary repairs, saving them the hassle of tackling the rough and slippery palm estate tracks in the dark. Its well after dark before high powered lights filter through the tress, announcing the arrival of the main convoy before engines were shut down and tales recounted of the days adventures, interrupted only by spoons loaded with dinner food.
3rd January, 2015
After a slightly warmer nights rest than the previous one, clear skies the next morning that revealed a camp full of vehicles plastered with mud. A quick breakfast of the Malaysian favourite, nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk served with small dried and salted fish, roasted peanuts, and a spicy sambal sauce was all the time we gave ourselves before loading the trucks up with over 2 tonnes of food and other necessities from the basecamp store.
Even with the trucks heavily loaded, the trip to the same river takes a fraction of the time, now that the broken bridge bypass routes are mapped and parts of the road cleared and rebuilt. We even have time to stop at one of the bridges to make good on our promise to provide chainsaw fuel and oil to some men attempting basic repairs on the bridges. We stay to help to get the wooden planks cut from a fallen tree into position so the 4WDs can avoid the long and risky bypass track. Crossing the wooden planks spanning a 2m deep mud hole at the far side of the bridge on 2 wheels is less than appealing, so I opt for the solitude and firm but slippery mud of the bypass route, meeting up with the main convoy further down the track.
Back at the Peralong River, a crowd of Orang Asli from Kampung Tohoi, the next village beyond the river, have gathered in anticipation of our arrival, a hand written note passed from us to one of Tohois’ residents the previous evening having found its destinations overnight. One man stands out from the Orang Asli, a large imposing ethnic Indian, skin darker than the locals surrounding him telling of a life lived outdoors. He turns out to be the manager of a rubber plantation a little further down the road. He and his equipment that survived the floods have ben trapped on the far side of the river along with the Temiar people, and despite his stern expression and unsmiling face as he surveys the bridge the Orang Asli use to get their small bikes across the narrow stretch of water, Bala as we would later know him, readily volunteers his men and equipment for the relief effort, sending one of his boys off in their tractor to retrieve a large trailer from the village.
The distance to Tohoi from the Peralong River is only 10km, but the tractor is slow and takes over 2 hrs to return, so with the help of the Temiar we begin unloading the vehicles and carrying the food across the bamboo and logs in preparation of the arrival of the tractor-trailer. While we wait in the shade of a fallen tree, the locals begin to tell us of what the situation is like in Tohoi who have fared better than some other villages. Only 5 houses and a handful of school buildings being damaged, but being cut off from the rest of the country for a week had forced them to survive on a diet of boiled and grilled tapioca and water. Dry firewood is in such short supply that they have resorted to burning their own rubber trees, one of their few sources of income. While cleaning up after our lunch of instant noodles in a cup, the conditions in which the Temiar live really hit home when one of the girls from Tohoi asks if she could have our used cups, our rubbish, wanting to use them for drinking cups back in the village.
When the tractor-trailer does finally arrive, it is quickly loaded up by the Temiars before starting the long haul to Tohoi. Some of the team follow along to oversee the distribution of food, riding in the tray of one of Bala’s Toyota Hilux’s. Despite the relatively easy nature of the road out to the village, we still stop to fit chains to the rear tyres in order to successfully navigate the steeper hills and the longest mud hole to date, deep enough that Balas other tractor is bogged halfway through while the concrete-like slop blocks the radiator of the Hilux, causing the vehicle to overheat until it can be washed out.
While we wait for the tractor to catch us up in Tohoi, a quick assessment is made with the help of the village elders of the damage to the village and plans are made for future aid missions to the area. After unloading the tractor-trailer, we head back out to our own vehicles in the Hilux and onwards to basecamp to settle down for the night. The next day it was an half exhausted group of people that left basecamp to make one more delivery as far as we could on the jungle tracks before heading back to tarred roads for the drive/ride home, the majority of the unpaid volunteers starting their 9-5 jobs and small private businesses the next day. After washing the mud off the vehicles, to ensure the damage it caused remained minimal, everyone arrived home safely, well after midnight on Monday morning, before starting the first working week of 2015.