Experience and explore in detail every bit and part of the 18th edition of the Rainforest Challenge held last year in Malaysia
'The Rainforest Challenge (RFC)' was definitely an adventurous one! Each edition of Malaysian Rainforest was a different challenge, different experience and consequently a different story. Not once through all the previous edition of the RFC did we come out without a big smile, drenched in sweat and mud uttering the punch line… “Damn, no doubt it is the Rainforest Challenge!”
The 18th edition of RFC was held in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan. Though the rainforests are lush and beautiful to the eyes, they are ruthless to the adventurers. After the international selection across the world, the champions from Italy, Russia, China, India, Vietnam and Australia, along with contenders from other nations, lined up for the Global Series of the mother event '4x4 International Rainforest Challenge of Malaysia'.
The event started with the usual scrutiny at a city mall in Subang Jaya, where all belongings were checked and inspected considering the safety of the occupants of the vehicle, as well as of the recovery gear needed to perform during the competition. And when the sky opened up with monsoonal wind and lashing rain, the thought on everyone’s mind was, “Here comes the rain, again!” reminiscing last year’s wettest episode. Same evening, there was the event briefing, orientation, event format distribution, introduction to marshals, organizers, competitors and important people.
At the same time, the dictum of “never taking anything for granted” was again, reaffirmed to the participants and media from 25 nations. After all, this is the RFC where full preparation (mind, body and machine) means everything to survive the 10 days of extreme off-roading through the dripping depths of the Malaysian jungle, where the natural elements can cause havoc to the best-laid-plans. Welcome to the home of “one of the 10 toughest motorsports event in the world.”
The following morning, all event cars, including marshals, media, competitors and adventurers, were escorted by the Malaysian Royal Police to a small town (near Port Dickson, some 200 km south of Kuala Lumpur) Kompleks KBS (Paroi) of Negeri Sembilan (N9) - the state which played host to RFC 2014 for the very first time in the 18-year history of the event.
Before the competition cars could go for Prologue Special Stages, the official opening and flag-off ceremony was held at the Youth and Sports Complex. A warm welcome from Negeri Sembilan Tourism Board was given to the participants from Poland, Austria, Australia, Russia, Denmark, India, Korea, China, Hong Kong (China), Brunei, Brazil, Philippines, Taiwan, Lebanon, Slovakia, Singapore, Hungary, Czech Republic, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand and the host country: Malaysia.
Soon after, the competition had begun. For all participants coming from Europe to Asia, it was show-time at the spectator-friendly Prologue Special Stages (SS), attending in hundreds to witness the full 4x4 action. Loud music to boost adrenaline, along with munchies, was at the disposal of spectators and off road fans. Stages were strategically placed to give competitors the sense of challenge and adventure that they would face in the jungle.
The Prologue SS were warming-up sessions for the driver and co-driver to get into gear and test their capabilities before the jungle stages begin. Even though these man-made JCB machines were light-weight exercises, they still turned out to be “muddy madness” thrills and spills of the extreme kind for man and machine - plus a lot of grappling with the ground anchor to the delights of the spectators. Crossing through a mud pit was one of them, building a makeshift bridge out of the provided logs was the only way across. Others included dashing 200m across to the furthest tree line and back again over the bridge to the start/finish box, and dismantling the bridge on the way back. The bridge had to be sturdy for maneuver, any hiccup - even one tire off the bridge, would be a DNF.
Other prologues were equally demanding that cost many competitors DNFs. SS5 involved tactfully going through gooey, deep sticky mud. The ground anchor was the only way out of the merciless Malaysian soil - however there was no anchor point. The ground anchor is the last resort that every off roader despises. By the end of the SS5, only five competitors managed to finish, out of which, two were just eight seconds short to the DNF time allowed (20mins).
However, it’s not man and machine alone that shine, but the 'Ladies of Steel' that made the headlines too, in the likes of Datin Maslina Ibrahim #120 (Malaysia) in a four-wheel drive car, Atiqah Abdullah (Brunei), Patti Nabong (Philippines) and Fabiana Martins (Brasil) – these gusty ladies drove two UTVs, which made heads turn and cameras roll in all the 9SS at the Prologue.
Team Denmark # 106 (Christian Nauta, Soren Bach Christensen) was the golden tooth of this year’s RFC. Since they rented the vehicle locally but didn’t get around to familiarizing themselves to the vehicle until it was game time, they didn’t realize that they were driving on 2WD until they got stuck in SS2 mud and didn’t know which lever or stick would engage the 4WD, costing them a DNF. What a bummer! It was particularly interesting because of their attire throughout the challenge – a two-piece suit with a bow tie - regardless of the mud or slush.
After the Prologue special stages, it was time for the Predator Zone, where competitors get to face the jungle - the unanticipated side of the challenge. As the convoy of fully loaded 4x4s entered predator zone, they were welcomed by a minor landslide. Cars started to pile up and one of the female competitors, Datin Maslina Ibrahim (from Malaysia #120), parked the car on top of the hill hoping that she would be the last in the traffic jam. Her car had the Manual Hydraulic brakes, where you engage them after pressing the brake-paddle, but she engaged the hydraulics without pressing the brake-paddle, and the truck started to roll back. The hydraulic was engaged, but not the brakes.
There was no way the truck would stop. Behind her, at the bottom of the hill, was the Indian team waiting for their climb up. It didn’t take them much time to figure out that trouble is on their way and its coming fast. They reversed their truck, luckily there was no one behind them. Datin managed to maneuver towards the hill and smashed into the hill, which saved her going into the valley. The damage to the vehicle was some cosmetic body bruises, rear axle and some minor alignment issues. However, it was a different story for her - she was in shock and trauma and refused to proceed. She along with her backup crew headed back to the city to get the truck fixed and join the main convoy the next morning for the competition.
Predator campsite was on top of the hill, vegetation was too thick and trees were too tall, it appeared that we were in the valley. Event headquarters, along with competitors and media, set up their camp on that hill. This camping experience was not a picture perfect one - with private tents, nice location and inflated comfy mattresses. In reality, it was far from it.
Setting a campsite was simple, park two cars side by side, tie a long strap between two cars and throw a big tarpaulin sheet on it and sleep under that on your camp bed. The idea of this style of camping is survival not comfort - as long as no one got wet and muddy, avoided blood sucking leeches and make the maximum utilization of the space available - you’re on the right track. A few set up their independent kitchen next to their tents.
The SS in the jungle were laid out over natural terrain using steep slopes, rivers and the cloying mud to test driver’s skills and vehicle’s capabilities. But a lot of places were too tough to drive and that’s where “have winch will travel” really comes into play.
These were some of the 23 SS, most of which were technical and tough, testing the teams in their machine power, manpower, strategic thinking, driving and recovery skills. At most of these SSs, the obstacles were not only energy sapping, but also strained their engines to the limits and beyond across steep ascends, descends, twisting and turning using winch and engine power.
SS15 The Cliff Hanger:Competitors had to climb up zig zag, dodging through the trees using winch. After reaching at the top, they had to rappel down in reverse winching. Going up was not an issue, but coming down was, because it wasn’t straight down. The little hill had slanted on one side, and all the cars were slipping into the edges. In order to control that, use of winches were required to keep the car on track. After maneuvering the hill, the challenge wasn’t over yet. Once competitors got down from the hill, the start/finish box was on the edge too. Interestingly, Comp# 129 Mervyn, champion team of 2011, managed to go through all these hurdles, but got stuck at the start-finish box, and it took him 12 minutes at the box to straighten his car to make it right into the box - but all efforts were in vein as he had to settle with DNF. Contrary to his thrill of easy hurdles, he couldn’t manage himself into the box. One should not count their chickens before they actually hatched. By now, we are down to 25 competitors and at SS15 out of 25 only 3 could execute, rest all DNF.
After camping in that Predator Zone for two nights, the journey progressed to the Terminator Zone. However, it was not only the SS that sap the energy of the teams, this year, the transport stages were equally thrilling and challenging for everyone in the convoy to move from one campsite to another. On route, there was a small tributary to the tributary, which got slushy and got deeper after many cars passed by. The mud pool turned into a mega mud monster of the extreme kind, and everyone had to use all the tricks in the book to get out of the” hell-hole!”
The Terminator Zone campsite was a beautiful one, next to the fresh water reservoir. We expected a lot of water activities and water SS. However, locals and aboriginal people use that water for their drinking and regular use, so we were not allowed in, to spoil it or make it dirty with soap or oil. Despite that, we were privileged to camp besides the water at the banks of that reservoir.
Along with campsite and location, organizers set up the stages very strategically and made them very interesting. The top four ranking cars got to run these four new SS first, and rest followed as their ranking appeared. Sometimes, the purpose of having this is to give everybody a fair chance, cause as the stages progress it gets tougher, but during some stages it was the opposite.
Similarly, in SS16, competitors started from the box, which was on a little slant and made a dash through the forest and turned around through the trees and over the hill. For the first few, it took an average time of seven minutes. To get into the box which was on a steep slant and in the corner, it was hard for competitors to maneuver and get into the box. Some got DNF right in front the box, since they couldn’t figure out how to keep their car straight with all four wheels in that start/finish box.
Another interesting stage was nothing too fancy and treacherous, but the fun part was that the marshals put a log on a side and gave each competitor five nails and a hammer. The navigator had to hammer the nail into the log, and with every missing nail, competitors would get a penalty, and obviously the more time they took to nail added into their time to award the points.
Next morning, we headed back out of the Terminator Zone towards the final campsite and Twilight Zone (TZ) - which was the main attraction of the event. Even though the routes to the campsite were short (less than 15 km), the terrain was tough going in (Terminator Zone) and even tougher getting out – it also had the “sting of the scorpion” effect, where they had to fight both “tooth and tail” through a steep uphill and downhill, ruts, gullies and glutinous mud holes!
Finally, campsite next to the stream had arrived, where one could swim, wash and do whatever - that was the base for the Twilight Zone. After a briefing about the Twilight Zone and the SS' later that day, the competitors' cars got scrutinized for the TZ. The other condition for getting inside the TZ was to have a buddy, which meant any other member of the team (any nationality) from the competition. The marshals let the competitors pick their own buddy, and whoever came out of the jungle by end of the day, would get 100 points.
By this time the competition was so tight, the difference among first five was less than 100 points. This is the first time in the history of RFC that the competition came to such intensity where everybody was looking at scoreboard and timings. Because in previous editions, by the time the event had reached TZ, it became obvious who would be winning and getting on to the podium. Now it was a "cat and mouse race" - every stage and every point mattered. Because of such a tight competition, going through TZ was piece of cake. Tough mother nature was kind this time around with no heavy downpour during the assault on TZ, it still took teams nine hours to complete the loop from Kenaboi campsite (at Jelebu district); but by now the main focus was to tackle the next SS after TZ.
After TZ, there were four more SS, and if you were not one tough off-road warrior, you’d not exist amongst them.
SS22:With 20 minutes allowed for DNF, the properties of the stage was to take a start from the start/finish box, into the river bed, and then climb up again from the bank almost 45 degree steep climb. If one could manage without winch, its good, or else winching was required. Their strategies started right from the start box – the navigator comes out of the car with the strap in his hand; immediately after the start - and to save time - set that strap up around the tree in case winching is required. It was incredible to watch those who managed to climb up without winching, but even those who had to winch, were still quick.
The first 10 contenders finished under two minutes, and the fastest time on that stage was 48.47 seconds. Most of the journalists couldn’t keep up. Chang Chiew #119 from team Sabah was already in the finish box. To me, they were the true champions and my favourite team cause the way they play with their DefLocks, PTOs, Gear Ratios, I don’t think anybody could go close to what they were doing. In most of the stages, they were literary floating on mud, where everybody else had to dig themselves out either by JCB (earthmover or recovery). During SS14 and SS15 they got DNF because of their breakdown during the stages, otherwise in all other stages they gave a tough fight to the defending champion team #104 Roman Kulbak from Russia. At the same time, we learnt from the Russians, they were calm and relaxed, yet determined. They didn’t have DNF throughout 23SS and 2TZs.
No body was sure until the last SS who would win. The last SS was in the river, which was tricky too and before these two warriors got into play, no body had successfully managed to complete this stage. Out of 32 competitors in the last river SS, only eight competitors managed to finish the stage, the rest got DNF. Both the teams - Team Sabah and Team Russia, were nervous to their bone. For them, it was a do or die moment at the last stage, and when both of them managed to cross the main hurdle on soft sand underneath and dash towards the finishing line, their heart beat was faster than the rev of the engine. Team Russia was the champion.
The finale and prize distribution ceremony was held at Kuala Klawang stadium with a traditional dinner and meeting with the Honorable Chief Minister of the state.
In summary, RFC 2014 ended like a "sting of the scorpion: The route was shorter, but has a stingy effect on man and machines like no other – pushing everyone to their limits and beyond. The SS were more technical, requiring lots of strategic thinking, driving and recovery, and the camaraderie was as thick as the jungle humidity - all of which made up this year’s edition one of the best ever organized in the 18-year history of the RFC!
Top Guns of RFC 2014
1) Overall Champion: Team 104 (RUSSIA)Kulbak Roman / Kovalenko Evgenii, Vehicle: Suzuki Jimny, Winch: Electric, Points: 2173
2) First Runner-up: Team 119 (MALAYSIA-SABAH) Chang Chiew Shen / Lo Fui Min, Vehicle: Suzuki Jimny, Winch: PTO, Points: 2155
3) Second Runner-up :Team 129 (MALAYSIA-MELAKA) Mervyn Lim Wei Shiong/Hamizan Abdul Hamid, Vehicle: Suzuki Jimny, Winch: PTO, Points:1856
4) Fourth place : Team 113 (MALAYSIA-SABAH) Wong Su Bin / August Rambil Vehicle: Suzuki Jimny, Winch: PTO, Points: 1848
5) Fifth Place : Team 137 (AUSTRIA / AUSTRALIA) Marcus Oszwald/ Brett Macnamara, Vehicle: Jeep XJ, Winch: PTO, Points: 1788
6) Sixth Place:Team 112 (MAXXIS 4X4 CLUB MALAYSIA) Tee Hong Kiat / Lee Beng Khoon, Vehicle: American Jeep CJ6, Winch: PTO & Electric, Points: 1732
Indian Contingent at Malaysian RFC 2014
This is the first time in the history of RFC that any Indian team has participated as a competitor. Kabir Waraich and Gurmeet Virdi from Chandigarh, after winning at RFC Goa selection round last year, got the opportunity to join the RFC 2014 mother event in Malaysia.
Though there are some similarities between the RFC Malaysia and RFC Goa event, the level of challenge and difficulties in terms of technicality and recovery skills are no doubt double-folded. Anticipating all that, Kabir and Gurmet rented the vehicle and took the service from Malaysia.
Apparently, both of them were used to playing with electric winch only, and in Malaysia, they got a PTO winch in their vehicle. It's not easy to handle PTO. Those who have mastered in using PTO have developed the muscle memory with these gears, and they don’t have to think twice to engage, disengage, release and press deflocks. But for Kabir and Gurmeet, it was like going a step ahead, where to achieve the task there are precise steps to undergo. Apart from PTO, there was another challenge - using the ground anchor. One thing is for sure in off-roading, your driving skills and maneuvering does matter, but more important is the ability to use recovery gear to save time and energy and get out of the trouble.
Though they were the first-timers in Malaysia, and from India, they already had managed to gather their fans in the arena - everybody had their eyes on them. They were doing well in their Prologue SS, until in SS5 where they had to use PTO to get themselves out from the muddy stage. During the PTO engaged, one of the steps was to disengage PTO before you drive off. But in the heat of competition and to save time, Kabir forgot to disengage PTO and it kept winding in. The housing of the winch and chain broke, and it was less anticipated that this kind of problem would arise.
Eventually that cost them the event. They somehow fixed and repaired the housing, but when they actually got into the Predator zone and at their first jungle SS - the moment they tried to use the winch – the PTO gave up. That crashed many people's hope of their survival in the Malaysian Jungle.
Thereafter the only stages they could perform were the ones which didn’t have winching activities. Also, sadly, their hopes of completing RFC Malaysia were gone.