THE CAMERON DESCENT – MALAYSIA
18th – 19th JUNE 1995
Back in 1995 the West Australian Department of Sport and Recreation asked me to go to the Cameron Descent whitewater race in Malaysia to train some of the locals in River Rescue as they didn’t have anyone there who was experienced. I really couldn’t say no at such an opportunity.
Bill and Ray from Davenwood Canoes had been selling plastic 415 kayaks to Malaysia and and in liaison with the President of the Malaysian Canoe Federation, the Malay Ministry for Youth and Sport, the Malay Tourist Board and the Base Camp Adventure Company the race from Cameron Highlands through rainforest down the Telom River was initiated. Paddlers who won the Avon Descent were treated to compete in the Cameron Descent and Malaysian paddlers who won the Cameron Descent were treated to compete in the Avon Descent.
The Telom River, with rapids of grade 2 – 4 flows from the Pahang mountains in the Cameron Highlands, at approx 1,524 metres in altitude and passes through one of the world’s oldest rainforests and the home of the Orang Asli Aborigines who still lived a primitive lifestyle.
Day one is 22kms of grade 2-4 rapids and spectacular rainforest. Day 2 is 35kms of easy moving current and spectacular rainforest.
In the Cameron Highlands the soil is rich and area cool, making it conducive to vegetable and fruit farming and tea plantations. It is also a major tourist area, with golf courses, steep hills, beautiful flowers, jungle scenery and jungle walks.
My trip started when I flew to Kuala Lumpur and stayed in a hotel the first night. The next morning I joined Asmi, one of the Base Camp employees and organisers for a road trip to the Cameron Highlands, a 3-4 hour drive. We arrived at Tanah Rata about 3.30pm and went straight to a hall where we were going to sleep, 200 metres from the town centre. A truck carrying kayaks and gear was already there to be unloaded.
Back at the hall, after having a walk around town our group had swollen to 12 and at 8pm another 10 more people joined our team. They were navy divers and radio operators who joined the two commandos and 10 civilians already there. A little later Asmi gave a briefing so it felt as if the show was getting on the road, but first we had to drive to the start which apparently was along a death defying track.
15th June 1995:
For breakfast 22 of us walked into the village to an open air food stall with a tiny kitchen. Already carrying a queasy stomach I tucked into fried rice, fried egg, noodles, cucumber and a few unfamiliar dishes. Getting used to the local food was my first hurdle.
At 11.45am teams in four wheel drives headed for the village of Telunok a 3 to 4 hour drive away. Our driver headed south to the turn off to the Bo Tea Plantation. Here the road narrowed, vegetables at first clustered the hill sides with only small pockets of rain forest in the gullies. We soon moved passed the Bo village and tea factory as tea pickers sorted by the roadside. At the top of a ridge, tea plantations stretched along the next valley and steep-sided hills. Our land rover meandered along the narrow hill side track with a huge near vertical drop beside it which was a little intimidating. As the track levelled, a truck being loaded with tea bales blocked our route and beside it female tea sorters were busy at work. The break gave us time to stretch our legs and take photos. Luckily the truck was nearly fully loaded so our wait was quite short. Only minutes later the narrow bitumen road turned into a very wet boggy track that headed into the jungle.
The mud flowed above the axels of the vehicle, the wheels slipped and spun as it ploughed on through the first bog. As it climbed the ridge the vehicle struggled and jolted through the boggy patches but then the terrain levelled giving some relief, although the vertical 20 metre drop beside us made for an un-easy ride.
Lush vegetation and toppled bamboo trees crowded the gullies. As we moved out of the rain forest and into a clearing, bamboo houses and excited children appeared. Not only were we heading into one of the world’s oldest rainforest but we were going where the Orang Asli Aboriginals lived. The Orang Asli, meaning ‘original people’ or ‘first people’, are the inhabitants of the land which is known as Malaysia. They are believed to have settled around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Passing another village I caught glimpses of the river that the race was going to be held on.
We climbed along a ridge to see another village well below us. Soon after, a straight stretch of track gave an unobstructed view of a long picturesque valley that stretched for miles and terminated among misty mountains. Within minutes though the trees closed in and the magical scene vanished as quick as it had come. We chugged along up and down the hill sides like a roller coaster. At the top of one rise the land-rover failed to climb it. A large slippery rock near the crest caused the wheels to spin, so the driver retreated and tried two more times, but failed on both counts. He then let the land-rover roll back down the slope for a longer run up. Behind us though, the road edge dropped steeply into the jungle. When he had reversed far enough the driver braked, but the wheels just locked and started sliding straight towards the edge. I started to become anxious as the vehicle slid closer. The driver and co-pilot didn’t seem bothered at all, maybe they hadn’t really realised we would soon be going over an edge. The driver then thrust the gear stick into first gear and with relief it started to edge forward. The driver accelerated at a much higher rate than before, hitting the boulder with speed and causing the vehicle to leap and bounce over it, leaving us free to move on, but I sensed with a damaged undercarriage.
It was a relief to get over that rise but further along the narrow track we met two vehicles and they weren’t going to give way so our vehicle had to reverse up, which wasn’t an easy task because the driver had to negotiate a sharp, narrow bend. After three attempts and nearly losing the back wheel in a big hole, the other vehicles passed.
We started to cross streams as we descended into a valley and through a couple of villages. Finally the track stopped, we had arrived near Telenuk although in a day or two we would have to walk from Telenuk to the next village and the start of the race . The track had took its toll on the vehicle but we heard later one vehicle had rolled over into a gulley.
We had brought with us made-up rice lunches for all the team. I opened my box to find 4 or 5 black hairs mingled in my rice. They didn’t help my appetite. Leaving the vehicles we walked about 100 metres to the river. A newly built bamboo bridge allowed us to cross it to the village on the other side. The river was rocky and it also contained old bamboo bridge supports which had been thrown in the river and now blocked the rapids. Soon after I found my gear in the village shed just as the monsoonal rain pelted down. One of the native women took the opportunity to have a shower, she stood underneath the roof and let the water tumble over her. The heavy storm turned the foot tracks into small raging streams which overflowed into the sheds that our gear was in. One of the team diverted the water by digging a trench therefore saving our gear from being waterlogged.
Asmi and gang decided this was a good time to raft the river. The rain had eased, but started pelting down once more. I hid under a motorbike shelter while they pumped up the raft and cleared as many bamboo poles out of the rapids. Once the route was clearer they launched the raft, jumped into it and went for it. Although their coordination was all out-of-wack, they managed to crash their way down stream and out of sight. I ran along the river and found them very excited, 150 metres downstream. “We nearly capsized in that big hole”, Asmi shouted.
The rain storm had stopped leaving a beautiful fresh smell to the jungle. Still excited the team decided to have another go, so I adjusted the foot bar on a dancer kayak and joined them. It was a little rocky but still very exhilarating to have my first paddle in Malaysia.
As we left the river, a few guys were erecting the toilets and rolling out hundreds of metres of black plastic water pipe. Four of the rafters decided to play soccer so I joined them. I hadn’t played soccer for years. Not long after we started, commandos from Fort Telenok started to run over and joined us. One of the guys arrived on the field and picked up the biggest centrepede that I have ever seen – and I was playing barefoot! Then the guys from the navy came over to make sure we were going to have a good game of 10 aside. The competition was pretty even for most of the game. The grass was wet and very slippery so most of us spent time on our backs. Some of the guys were good, but that didn’t deter me from running around like a fifteen year old and tackling anyone that looked like they were on the opposing side. I was pleased when it got dark and couldn’t play any longer as I was tiring and I didn’t want to get eaten by mosquitoes but for some reason there were none around at that time. I ended up with a couple of bruises, although some of my opponents had more.
Hot and sweaty I joined the others having a wash in the river. It had been quite a footy match, I really enjoyed it. My mind was flooded with memories of the old days when I used to play soccer quite a lot. It also made me feel younger and sillier and the locals really appreciated and enjoyed me taking part.
A noisy generator beside the hut powered a single electric light. I tried to utilise its light to write in my diary. Meanwhile the navy guys were in charge of the dinner. Fried rice and veges were cooked over an open fire in a large wok in a hut. Half way through the cooking, a guy with a mosquito fogging machine suddenly barged in and fogged the shed with people and food inside. So I had rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and now rice and insecticide for dinner. Just after the meal everybody was given a malaria tablet.
The shed was riddled with cockroaches but outside the night was near perfect. Lightning continually lit up the sky, and the surrounding hills were outlined against a faint moonlit night. In the dark shadow of the hills fire flies materialize from nowhere, criss-crossing the sky. It was quite a night, the stars were bold and the jungle noises extraordinary. It was one of those nights that I didn’t really want it to end, but eventually it was time to sleep. I moved inside and rolled my bivvy on the concrete floor, crept inside it, and just hoped no one would tread on me during the night.
The first few hours locked away in my bivvy bag that night were hot, sticky and claustrophobic but it was worth being tortured just to get away from the mosquitoes that were now a pain. After the night cooled I slept very well considering I was lying on a concrete floor. There wasn’t a rustle until 8.00am and when I heard the sound of the rapid it made me think it was raining, which apparently it had been in the night.
When I stood up I was surprised to find that I wasn’t stiff after such a grueling soccer match. Later one of the navy guys showed me a big bruise on his leg. “That’s what you did”, he said. Workmen soon became busy pulling more plastic water pipe around the village and moving sheets of iron towards the new toilets. By breakfast time I was curious to what was on the breakfast menu. Rice of course and two biscuits.
By 9.35am most of the team were ready to walk to the next village, Tiat. There was no road to the start of the race at Tiat. I gathered all my gear together, my heavy pack, my day pack, my sausage bag with canoeing gear and two paddles. I was loaded down while others started walking away with very little. They had left their gear for the porters to carry.
As the team walked away from the village at a virtual trot, I was hoping their pace would slow as my luggage was heavy, and bulky. As we moved through a tiny village, women, men and children came out to greet us.
The terrain was up and down and very slippery, but the track had recently been widened to allow kayaks and other luggage to fit through the jungle without problems. We crossed a river on a wide bamboo bridge. It was rickety, with low hand rails which made it difficult to walk across with so much gear on my back. I imagined falling off and sinking to the bottom. What a way to go. The locals had rigged up ropes across the river to winch the heavy gear across.
The pace of the group was still fairly fast and by the halfway mark I was beginning to think that I was going to have to lag behind. For once I was struggling to keep up, but they had an unfair advantage, no gear to carry. The downhill tracks were especially slippery but it was the stream crossings spanned with bamboo poles that were the most dangerous. As I crossed one of them my leg slipped between the poles and I luckily broke my fall with my hand but a sharp piece of bamboo slithered up my finger and slit it open. I managed to pick myself up making sure that I didn’t appear to be hurt, although the blood poured freely and ran down my hand at a rapid pace.
We came to another river crossing. The bamboo suspension bridge this time forded a beautiful clear pristine river coming from the mountains. It was so much clearer than the main river. I moved across the bridge with caution. The handrails dipped as I moved towards the centre of the bridge making it difficult for me to keep balance. I managed to reach the other side to where two bamboo poles dropped over a metre at a 45 degree angle. Somehow I slid down the slippery poles without falling over.
I was pretty happy when the group decided to halt and have a rest and swim at this point. Most of the guys jumped in the water and started swimming upstream against the current or messing around. Five of the navy guys had walked in their wet suits so they must surely have been overheated. The stop at the bridge gave me time to plaster my finger and take a few photos and of course rest. Not far downstream the two rivers joined. Hovering above the water were green dragon flies, butterflies and birds singing from the forest tops.
After a half hour break we moved on and reached Tiat 15 minutes later. There were five bamboo huts on stilts. One had been especially vacated for us to use. There was no furniture inside. The clean hut had a bamboo floor and was raised about a metre off the ground. There were four rooms and a porch. A large main one about 6 x 4 metres, a small one that would be only suitable for one person, a narrow one that was as long as the main room and a kitchen eating area. A fire was built in the centre. A small room housed the cutlery and the washing up area and tap. All the water and scraps from the sink went down a chute and plummeted to the ground, 3 feet below. The chickens and dogs took care of all scraps on the ground. In the main room there was only one small window so it was quite dark inside, even in the day time. I found a spot and rested with the others. Above me, crawling along the rafters was a huge spider, bigger than anything that I had seen in Australia. I’d better not leave my pants out. At lunch I offered some of my bread to the others and they cleaned me out. From now on, I only had what food I was given.
The river at this point was a lot wider than further upstream with a rapid above and below the village. In the afternoon it was time for me to teach the navy guys some basic rescue. They had very little gear and had no experience of white water but they had a lot of confidence in the water and plenty of enthusiasm. They had not seen a thrown line before, so it was quite a novelty. After our session they then had a game of kick ball (rattan ball). It was a game that you could only use your head and feet and had to get the bamboo ball over the net, similar to net ball. I was amazed how high they could get their feet, and the way they could kick the ball over the net. I knew that I didn’t have the talent to master it.
As the evening drew to a close a few local guys from the Cameron Highlands arrived. I sat on the porch talking and watching the villagers go about the daily duty. A dog ran from under our hut yelping in pain. The kettle had been knocked over and the boiling water hit the dog that was sitting underneath. Later on, dinner arrived from the other village. A jungle take-a-way. Asmi’s sister had cooked it. She was cooking for all the competitors. The competitors were sleeping at Telenok because there was no room in Tiat. The chief of the village also brought a vegetable, looking like a sweet potato. It was excellent after the first bite.
Later that night Asmi had a briefing. When I retired for the night at 11.30pm, it was hot again. Now where was that spider!
I slept rather well, although I thought that I had an animal or something beside me in the night. It was still dark in the hut when the morning call sounded. Most of the rescue team were moving downstream today to base themselves at the notorious rapids. They put together their rations and gear for the night out and later were issued with tents because the mosquitoes would be severe away from the village camps. At our camp they have controlled the mosquitoes by spraying. The original plan was for them to walk downstream to the rapids where they were going to be based. I was also going along to advise them of the best points to rescue from. But like most things, plans were changed, and instead of walking, which would be extremely hard through the rain forest, they took a ride on bamboo rafts instead. This meant that I couldn’t go along. The rafts were being made by villagers a few kilometres downstream on the other side of the river using bamboo poles. I couldn’t imagine the rafts running the rapids with success, but the locals have been doing it for years.
Five piles of rescue gear were placed in front of our hut. All the team members that were leaving mingled around to collect it. The gear had to be issued out equally. Several local Aborigines were part of the team and given life jackets. When it seemed that everybody was ready, a man came over and started praying and wishing the group safe passage.
As the last man vanished into the jungle Asmi asked me if I wanted to follow them to the departure point. A commando was going so I could go with him. I hurried to get my gear together and trotted off after the commando at a slick pace. We soon moved under the canopy of the rainforest and walked in dark shadows until reaching a landing spot that the villagers used to load people onto the rafts. Some of the guys had already been transported across to the village by raft, the others waited at the site. Two narrow rafts were crossing the river 50 metres downstream. It was quite a magical scene, the river sparkling, the rafts crossing, the sun beaming down on the river and surrounded by virgin rainforest. Looking upstream the Canadian canoe carrying extra gear came into view. It was a magical scene – beyond the river and rainforest, misty mountains were in the distance.
As the Canadian canoe moved passed us, two local natives poled a huge wide bamboo raft up against the current to where the guys were waiting. Being able to watch the locals do their stuff was exciting. The guys jumped on the raft and stood with water lapping above their feet. The polers turned the raft and steered it across the current, and then manoeuvred it downstream. I looked on until the last figure disappeared around the corner. The commando and I then returned to Tiat village.
The 415 kayaks were being washed and placed in neat lines when we returned. I helped to get them ready before going for a paddle. Faizal, who was the official photographer, a keen canoeist, and one of the team who I had met on the night of my arrival, took the dancer out for a paddle. When he had finished I used his boat and paddled in the village rapid which had a steep drop and very turbulent. As I nosed dived into the wave my stern sky rocketed. I found a slight gap in the rocks that allowed me to perform spectacular vertical nose stands. A foot either side that point and the nose of the boat would hit the rock. Faizel was taking a few photos so it gave me an incentive to do as many nose stands as I could and show off. It had been a while since I had done so many nose stands in such a short time. Eventually my balance faltered and I overturned and all I could see were air bubbles spread across the surface of the water. I rolled and found myself upright again but the water had jetted up my nose so I was hoping that I wouldn’t become sick from the experience.
Other Malayan canoeists started to arrive. They practised in the boats that we had washed. I was impressed with some of the guys, one being a policeman, who told me that they had never been in white water before, yet he and some of the others rolled the MI 415s with ease. I gave Faizal a few tips on how to do nose stands and within a few minutes he was having the time of his life.
When everybody had their fill of playing, the group decided to portage up river and come down the rapids. We came to the place where we had to cut through the jungle to enter the water. Our main problem was a steep descent into a gully but the problem was soon overcome. The other guys just let their boats go. With a crash and bang they halted at the bottom. I had a little more respect for my boat, so I lowered it down. Moving through the jungle we eventually found the river and put in just downstream of a nasty grade 4 rapid. Our team consisted of 2 short K2s and 4 other kayaks. The roar of the upstream rapid was pretty loud as we put in and with every one ready, we paddled off. Although I had no trouble with the first tricky rapid, a K2 capsized and the policeman capsized but rolled twice. We tackled another good rapid without incident and then arrived at the rapid at Tiat. The trip was short but interesting. Not knowing what to expect around the corner helped to get the adrenalin pumping.
I later returned to the hut, had a good wash, a bowl of noodles and then set off for another walk to the grade 4 rapid as I wanted a closer look. The rapid was pumping, just like my adrenalin was earlier. There was certainly a nasty drop, with a big hole and enormous boulder deflecting the water. Rocks scattered in and around the drop made it that more dangerous to shoot. I took some photos, listened to the birds for a while and then returned to the village.
The Australian kayaks started arriving, so did some Malaysian tourists, who were not supposed to be there but expected to be housed. After some deliberation they were given place in one of the other huts.
I took a seat on the veranda, the kids from the next hut started stomping grain with long wooden poles. Two kids in beat stomped away while a girl sieved the rice by throwing it up in the air and allowing the wind to blow away the husk. These basic day to day chores really brought home to me that I was in the remote part of Asia, where living off the land still existed.
The local team from the Cameron Highlands tested their inflatable canoes in the river but they had trouble, they kept capsizing. I later talked to one of the leaders of the group. He was telling me about some expeditions that he had done, including rafting the whole length of this river by bamboo raft. It is a long river and it took them 14 days to complete. He has climbed most mountains in Malaysia and hoped to climb Mt Everest next.
The afternoon storm whipped through the village causing the village to flood for a short time. When it dissipated and the evening started to come to a close, the clouds drifted through the trees and the birds broke out in song. As the activity of the village faded, Faizel and the commando performed their 3 time daily ritual, they prayed.
Asmi was up earlier than usual. He had many things to get ready and organise. I really couldn’t help him as I couldn’t understand what was going on. I only had my own gear to get ready but I had to decide what I was going to take in my kayak and what would stay in my pack that would be taken by the sweep raft. I didn’t want to overload my kayak, although I needed to keep with me some personal gear, especially my passport, airline ticket and money. I couldn’t really imagine that my pack in the raft was going to keep dry. By the time I had my rescue gear, first aid, cameras and other belongings in my kayak it was pretty heavy.
I filtered a litre of water with my katydyne mini filter. It would last me the morning. Breakfast was being cooked by a commando and as well as the usual rice dish, he was cooking bread in an egg batter. I was invited to have breakfast first, most of the other crew were scattered about the village. The egg battered bread slices were a real treat and a pleasant change from rice but 3 or 4 slices were enough, as the batter was rich. With my fill of breakfast I completed packing and tied my pack in the raft.
When Paul Genovesi and Simon Thorpe arrived they looked virtually un-recognisable. They were hot, tired, sweaty and pretty filthy. John Talbot wasn’t far behind. The walk hadn’t put him in a good mood. Piers Goodman and Michelle Rogers and Charlie arrived. Piers was looking a little hot and flustered and Michelle came limping down the track. Apparently she didn’t have strong knees and the track had really put strain on them.
More Malaysian paddlers started arriving and had been allocated boats so they were soon adjusting the footrest and packing their gear in plastic bags. They had to carry their own overnight gear and clothing. The Australian paddlers on the other hand, put their gear in the raft and took only the bare essentials.
With more competitors mingling around the village a policeman with a machine gun was showing another man the mechanics of it. I kept my distance as it swung in all directions. About 36 Malaysian paddlers and 8 Australian paddlers were about to take part in this new 57km two day race. There were 35 x MI 415s, 4 x Fibreglass K1s, 2 Kevlar K2s, 2 x Short Plastic K2s, 1 Fibreglass K2 and 1 x open canoe.
I took photos from the hill of the bustling small village. I shouldn’t think it had seen anything like this before. I mingled in the crowd, talking to those who were preparing themselves for the race. Finally the time came for the briefing. Asmi in his true self was making jokes along the way, in two languages. Such comments as – watch out for elephants that may be crossing the river and don’t try to paddle between their legs. With the briefing over, prayers were expressed and competitors were blessed with a safe passage.
As the kayaks started cruising away from the start line, Sam, who was also acting as sweep, and I started to enter the water. Eventually all the kayaks left. We followed, leaving the rafts to look after themselves. Everyone negotiated the first small rapid without a hitch. The kayaks were making a good pace and I thought for a time that I was going to be on the move all through the race. But then, I noticed a plastic short K2 ahead going in circles. The guy in the front had no idea. Sam tried to give them a few hints which helped a little but they were still out of control. I now had more time to look around. I noticed some bank erosion, like a bulldozer had pushed the vegetation right down to the water’s edge but when I looked closer there were elephant foot prints in the mud. I saw no elephants though.
It wasn’t long before we caught up with an inflatable double canoe. The short K2 stopped on a sand bar and changed partners with the inflatable team. The inflatable kayak started pulling away from the plastic K2 which was now going in more circles. I could see it was going to be a long day.
By the time we arrived at the first rapid a raft had paddled by, taking the right channel. I led the guys down the centre channel and apart from doing several 360 turns they managed to get down okay. A rescue crew and some Aborigines were on hand. As we approached the second rapid we caught up with the inflatable canoe. The rapid at the top was quite easy but with the crews in the two boats being inexperienced, both boats capsized before the main drop. The inflatable managed to get close to the right bank, but the other guys in the K2 were stuck on a rock 3 metres from shore. Both crews were very anxious about their situation. Downstream the channel narrowed, the water accelerated and disappeared down a nice sized drop. I waited a while to see what action they were going to take to get themselves out of the mess. A local Aborigine came across and handed them a vine but it wasn’t quite long enough. As he walked away to find a longer vine I moved across to the shore and threw them a rope which they attached to the boat and I pulled it across before rescuing them.
The guys started to walk through the jungle and around the rapid. The others in the inflatable had already walked. I shot the technical drop and then paddled another 20 metres to the next less severe drop. Both drops veered slightly to the left. I waited at the bottom and they took ages to portage. When they arrived one guy had a leach hanging off his leg. He took a hand full of sand and rubbed it off. Instantly his leg started bleeding profusely but it didn’t seem to bother him. They both were very apprehensive about the rapids ahead and were not enthusiastic to move, but there was no way out, other than paddling. The forest was too impenetrable to walk to the end so they had no choice but to carry on.
Further downstream we met up with two girls in a K2 and another male paddler. Both boats had lost their paddles. The girls had one kayak paddle and one canoe blade. I had to lend my spare paddle to the other guy, as he had nothing. Both boats shot off leaving my team to get their act together.
Finally the guys started to move but within a few hundred metres they were over again. I attempted to pull them in, but their weight was far too heavy and I was being dragged down the next rapid backwards. Rocks started to appear making it dangerous for me so I yelled for them to let go before I got into trouble. They managed to stop themselves on a rock bar.
The rapid downstream was very easy but the guys were far from happy. They sat there for a while pondering what to do. They eventually got back in and although wobbly, they successfully managed to get down okay. Just as things were going okay they capsized again. This time they swam to the bank, emptied out to find soggy biscuits and wet cigarettes. They sat on the bank trying to light a smoke with a wet cigarette lighter and blamed each other for the mess they were in.
They were adamant that they were not going to paddle the next rapid. It looked pretty safe to me so I tried to encourage them on. No, they were determined to portage through the thick rain forest. With several kilometres to go and the four worst rapids ahead, I could imagine that we wouldn’t get to the finish before dark. As the two disappeared into the rain forest, I moved down to the next eddy. I slouched back in my boat and tried to relax and be patience. I could hear voices and bumping sounds of the kayak being dragged but couldn’t see them, then occasionally I would see a bush move.
Several of the rescue and technical team members walked through the forest on the opposite bank. “Where are the guys”‘ they shouted. “Up there somewhere in the forest”, I replied.
Soon after Asmi and his crew paddled down in the sweep raft and out of control they slid sluggishly past me, missed the main easy route and ended up taking a rockier route near the bank. I couldn’t believe how overloaded the raft was. They had my pack, their own packs, some diver’s air tanks and all the Australian paddlers gear as well. On top of that, eight people crowded the small raft. Under an ill fitted helmet, and with a worried fed up look, I noticed the face of Rowena, a West Australian journalist. I might have been mistaken but she didn’t look like she was enjoying the experience.
The raft sailed on downstream. I thought it was their job to be at the back, but it soon disappeared out of sight. Now I was on my own – no rafts – no kayaks – no one was upstream. I just hoped the crew, astray in the rainforest didn’t break a leg.
I caught glimpses of the guys clothing and a blue blob being dragged over rocks 30 metres up the slope. They passed my point to avoid another easy rapid. I moved down to another eddy where one of the rescue team members asked me to ferry him across the river. I transported him on my rear deck, dropped him off and he disappeared in the undergrowth to find the guys. Unsuccessfully, he emerged from the forest and I transported him back again. Five minutes later the guys appeared.
They had little choice but to pick an unsuitable launching point. I gave them a few tips and to my surprise they managed to ferry glide into midstream and turn their boat and head downstream. They succeeded in negotiating two more small rapids before capsizing once again near the left bank. They portaged again but a vertical cliff soon halted their progress. They sat debating their situation before taking the plunge once again.
Another two small rapids were run before approaching what looked like a big rapid. Somehow I had to get them over to the left side of the river without them capsizing. There was no easy place to land for the couple with so little experience. I coached them across, but as they got closer to the rapid they became more nervous. I was praying that they would stay upright. They were so close to pulling it off but suddenly they capsized. The guys clung for dear life on the nearest rocks but the boat was dragged over the falls through the cheese grater of rocks and bounced from boulder to boulder but it managed to reach the flat water without broaching and getting stuck.
I could see fear in their eyes. Nothing would budge them off the rock at that moment. I exited my kayak and clambered over rocks and through the rain forest to a suitable spot upstream of them to perform a rescue. I threw a rope to the nearest guy, who then threw it to the other, who was in a much more dangerous position. His fingers grasp tightly around the rope as I pulled him across the current. He was certainly the worst of the two paddlers. If he had been better they wouldn’t have been in so much bother. As he reached the safety of a rock ledge below me, his face was full of relief. I coiled the rope and threw it to his partner. With both safe they walked around the rapid.
When I arrived at the bottom of the technical grade 3 rapid it was like Piccadilly Circus. Rafters, canoeists, rescuers and the technical team members were scattered all over the place. I went over to talk to Rowena the WA journalist and a journalist working for a Malaysian men’s magazine. Rowena had told him about some of my exploits, so he started asking me questions. I was half way through a crocodile story when a girl and a guy, who was part of the technical team, started to paddle away from the eddy. I could see they were going to capsize so I ran from the journalist and jumped into my kayak. Just as I was about to seal launch off the rocks the K2 rolled over. The crew swam, with the kayak being slightly ahead. Floating broadside to the current the K2 hit a tree, wrapped around it and slice completely in half like butter. The pair got washed down the rapid and bounced off boulders but I could do nothing to ease their pain, I could only follow. It was a very technical rapid and I found it hard to look after my own welfare. At one point I had to perform a big back paddle to miss a huge rock. When I hit the flat water at the bottom of the rapid the two swimmers were just in front and the kayaks bow and stern floating vertically downstream several metres apart. I pushed one end to shore and retrieved a bag from inside it. With the paddlers being safe I leaped out of my kayak and trekked across boulders, logs, pools of water and eventually into the jungle to return to the top of the rapid to retrieve my spare paddle. The paddler I had lent it to earlier had found his and had left it back at the rapid. By the time I arrived the sweep raft had picked it up and taken off with it. Losing no time I ran back to my boat.
While I was away the paddlers who were paddling the broken K2 were swapping boats with the pair that I had been rescuing all day in the short plastic K2. They had decided that walking was much safer than canoeing.
With every one accounted for, we moved on knowing there were other big rapids waiting. Within minutes a K1 paddler had capsized. He grabbed my stern hand loop and I started pulling him to shore. However, another rapid loomed and his weight started to drag me down. Concerned with my own safety I shouted for him to let go, which he did thank goodness. As he found his kayak and emptied it, one half of the broken K2, still pointing skywards floated by. A few minutes later we passed it by. A chocolate bar was still taped to it so I took it off and offered it back to the girl. She accepted it, gave her partner half and ate the other half in front of me. My mouth watered and after having rice for five days, a bit of chocolate would have gone down nicely.
There were now four kayaks in our party. Sam had now joined me again after going ahead after the second rapid. Our progress was faster than when I was with the guys. Sam soon led down another rapid. We winded our way down an easy part but the second section was a lot more technical. All three boats in front survived. Another rapid was approached. The drop looked quite severe and a large boulder sat downstream of the drop. A guy in a MI 415 slid unprofessional over the drop, became sideways and capsized. The K2 followed ungracefully and like a barrel, rolled over. The boat surfaced and brushed off the rock. Eventually two PFDs came to the surface with the occupants gasping for air. They were okay. Sam and I rescued a boat each.
We reached another large rapid as the crew in the sweep raft were ahead bounding over the rocks to check it out. We pulled up and disembarked on a steep sloping rock. I scrambled off in the direction of the first drop where the river narrowed. The current was fast and furious. As I moved to the centre of the rapid I slipped on a rock and slammed down on my right thigh. I jumped up a little bruised and winded, but received no real damage so I checked the crux of the rapid. As I took photos, the journalist from Men’s Mag suddenly fell in the water and floated down the rapid with a smile on his face. As he plummeted over a drop his facial expressions became more serious. Further down he clambered on a rock, his smile returned. We returned to our boats to face the rapid.
I waited for the K2 to get their act into gear. I gave them directions to the best way to entry the rapid and followed them. As the water was constricted between two rock walls, the gradient steepened, causing a confusion of turbulence and clashing waves. Holes formed where the waves recirculated and the river eased around to the left. I was trying to concentrate on the rapid, I didn’t want to take a spill but the K2 in front of me failed to turn the corner and crashed nose first into a large boulder. They stood no chance, the collision, the boiling turbulence and their inexperience forced them to lean upstream. They were over. I couldn’t do a thing at that point as I was concentrating on my own safety. I watched hopelessly as the swift current gobbled them up and dunked them repeatedly as they dropped down the rapid. There was an eddy on the right hand side before another big swift drop but they had no time or energy to get to it, so the current just sucked them down. Their paddles somehow got caught in the eddy, so I chased them knowing that the rescue team would help the swimmers. After rescuing the paddles, I ran over to the tail end of the rapid and threw them in the water for the paddlers or rescuers to get. I couldn’t take them down with me, the water was too fierce.
By the time I entered my kayak, the rescue team had packed up and were leaving. I just hoped I didn’t come adrift. I peeled out of the eddy and slid down the drop. The boat quivered as diagonal waves rebounded off the rock walls. For a spit second the water turbulence eased and then I was faced with the rock wall and a sharp right hand corner. I turned just in time and paddled the next part of the rapid at ease. The KL photographer was standing on a rock on the right side of the river, and the raft was messing about on the left side. I carried on chasing the capsized boat and the paddlers who were still swimming. The paddlers were in no hurry to retrieve their craft, so they drifted across the finish line in the water.
At the finish many of the competitors had been there for some time, and were relaxed. The shoreline was crowded with boats and the campsite crowded with tents all squeezed together on a small undulating cleared area in the middle of the rainforest. Every inch had been taken up. I visited the centre tent where most of the Australians had gathered. Here I was greeted by one of the organisers and given a rice dish for lunch.
I mingled around and visited the people who I had been rescuing all day. They had been happy to have had me around. Later the rescue crews and the technical team, who I had been with for the last five days started arriving. They had blooded legs mainly caused by leach bites. Arriving with them were the two guys who had paddled the short plastic K2 and I had been rescuing all day and what a day it had been.
As the day started to draw to a close, I talked a little more with the Australian’s. Gerry Post from the Avon Descent committee was really enjoying the experience. He had never travelled like this before, although his type of transport was better than most. He had been up in the chopper a lot of the time, and then by longboat from the finish point to the overnight camp. He raved on about the rainforest and the event. He said, the experience was the pinnacle of his life. At the same time he was complaining about his sore backside as he had been sitting on the hard ground for some time.
When the evening meal arrived by longboat from a nearby village, a queue for the food assembled quickly. When I secured mine I went over to the navy camp. They had fed me for the last four days so it was fitting I had my last meal with them. Throughout the meal times they laughed at me and were always interested in my eating habits, the food I ate and how I used my fingers to eat. They had showed me how to eat with my fingers before but I hadn’t noticed that they used their thumb to push the rice into their mouth. Now I had learnt that, eating with my fingers was much easier. I was quite proud.
When darkness crept in the sounds of the forest became deafening. A multitude of insects, frogs and monkeys joined together to amplify the incredible noises. I can’t think that I had heard night noises as loud as this before. As we talked against the background sound a rocket shot into the air. It lit up the sky and started to slowly spiral to earth, leaving behind a huge cloud of smoke that surrounded the navy personnel campsite. The rainforest came alight, tall trees reflected and as the flare fell slowly to the ground it faded leaving the trees silhouetted against a dark night. The show was over. The campers carried on talking, although by this time many had already gone to bed. I was one of the last to go.
There had been a shortage of bottled drinking water so I filtered a litre of river water, the evening before. It had a brown appearance but I was hoping that the filter had taken out all the nasties. Breakfast turned out to be noodles.
The race wasn’t planned to start until 10.00am which gave paddlers plenty of time to relax. Piers and Paul were giving a lady on shore paddle coaching. Michelle sneaked off towards the rain forest to do her business but there wasn’t much room to do it in. The section behind us had huge trees and thick undergrowth with a very steep bank to climb. Luckily I didn’t need to go to the toilet.
Paddlers were getting restless, there was too much waiting for the start. The race could have started an hour earlier. Finally at 9.30am the rafts took off, followed by the kayaks at 10.00am. John was the last to go, he missed his start so took off with some paddlers who were not racing. He cursed as he took off. I sped off behind them and for some time the competitors were making good time. For a moment there I thought I was going to have a non stop run but eventually I caught up with some slow paddlers in the plastic K2 and a paddler in a M1 415 who were giving them support.
The river was quite wide, the current moved along but not at a great speed. We turned a corner and the two guys in the K2 stopped on the left bank, pulled the kayak up and started disappearing in the undergrowth. “What are you doing”, I asked. Collecting good vegetables, one of them replied in broken English. They moved up the slope breaking the top 60cm of a plant that looked similar to fern. They returned to their boat, put the vegetables shoots on the centre of their kayak deck and paddled off. I was quite dumbfounded, this was a race and here they were collecting bush tucker. We moved on, but within five minutes they had stopped again, this time at a place on the right hand side. Good food, good food they shouted as I waited patiently for them to return.
At last they were happy with their crop so we progressed again. Ahead I could see paddlers in a double inflatable kayak struggling. We soon caught up with them and a discussion took place and then they stopped midstream in the shallows and changed partners. One of the guys in the inflatable said he had a sore back so he just sat there and stopped paddling completely. The two guys in the K2 were strong, so they powered the boats on, although for how long was going to be anyone’s guess.
Occasionally a bamboo hut would appear. Families that peered down from their home seemed quite surprised with the activity on the river. Once in a while children played or fished near the river’s edge but most were somewhat shy. Many of the huts had small blocks of banana plantations beside them. I had time to take photographs, and to look closely at the rainforest. I couldn’t help but notice hundreds of staghorns, some quite huge growing vigorous high in a host tree. They were spectacular. It was just like someone had being going around planting seeds in the bows of the huge trees.
Sleek longboats loaded with a few passengers and gear often passed by, leaving only a slight bow wave. At times they approached when the river narrowed but they were courteous to hang back until there was enough space to pass without interfering with the paddlers.
Houses and small villages became more frequent, although many of the kids and adults at the water’s edge were very shy when I approached. At one village the women washing their clothes in a stream feeding onto the river ran away when they realised I had a camera. Beside each village there were anchored bamboo rafts. At times women were fishing from the rafts under the shade of the forest canopy. Again they were shy.
The current often accelerated and then slowed again. Then the river began to narrow, meander and small easy grade 1-2 rapids started to appear. The faster flow brought a little more excitement to our paddling. The river became enclosed as the jungle canopy stretched right across it. The trees shaded the river and kept the temperature down but at times sun rays occasionally broke through the foliage causing some warm spots. The whole experience was magnificent and I couldn’t help but feel happy.
As the river quickened our small team of paddlers started to catch up with other paddlers who were now slowing. For a short time the river widened and slowed. I could hear the chop of an axe in the forest and a little downstream there was a small clearing with trees freshly felled and bundled in heaps. As I passed the chopping sounds, I looked up to see three men using machetes to chop huge trees. Out here they had nothing but a few tools, a bamboo hut and their family.
As we caught up with another slow paddler my dream run was about to come to an end. The tired paddler was a Dutchman seemingly a bit of a dreamer, taking in the beauty of the country to extremes. He hardly paddled and when I asked him if he was tired he said he was going slow to take in the splendor. That was very well if the finish was around the bend but it wasn’t. I paddled ahead hoping that he would get the hint and paddle but he just sat there drifting with the current. I couldn’t believe my luck, we were the last on the river and the technical teams were waiting for us to pass their checkpoints so they could go home. For over an hour he drifted and then we came to a check point. They told us we had an hour to go and that had surprised the guy, he had thought we were nearly there. At last he started paddling and we moved slowly towards the finish. Within three kilometres we met a long boat at anchor under a shady canopy of trees with some drinking water on board, which we were very pleased to accept. The girl told us that it was only 3 kms to the finish but I think her judge of distances was very poor. We paddled on, the river started to widen once again. Fences were now erected around some of the fields. It felt as if we were getting closer but around every corner the finish line was no-where to be seen. My Dutch friend still took his time. The only good thing was that he was at least paddling 70% of the time, although it was at a slow pace. As the river widened even further, bamboo houses continually lined the river bank. Small sheds like toilets/wash rooms were build on bamboo rafts anchored to the bank. I assumed that they were toilets and that the waste was going straight into the river. What a nice thought. Better not capsize.
Just after passing a very clean river which entered our murky one, I could see the finish line way in the distance. My friend at last, quickened his pace. At this point the river was very wide, probably 150 metres. I crossed the finish line and forgot to take a photo, so I paddled backwards against the current to get the finish banner in the frame. There were crowds milling around and as soon as I took firm ground I was presented around my neck with a medal and given an egg and flower. As I walked away someone shouted for me to hurry because the bus was leaving. I couldn’t believe my luck. I also couldn’t find my pack of clothes. Eventually I was directed to the village market place which was rather colourful where beyond it I found the bus, but no one seemed to know when the bus was leaving.
All the other competitors had eaten well but I had missed out. I was also hot and sweaty and I really needed a wash however with lots of other people having the same idea the two toilets/wash rooms on site couldn’t cope. I waited in the queue and finally it was my turn. The wash room door wouldn’t close properly and the floor was flooded with water. It wasn’t the most hygienic toilet to wash in, but it was all we had.
Soon after my wash the presentation was announce. Medals were awarded, the Aussies taking off the kayak section. Michelle had come third overall but she was overlooked and the prize was given to another guy but later she was told that she had won third spot and given some prize money. Once the presentation was over, which involved some people in high places, we all made our way to two buses waiting to take us back to Kuala Lumper. Then there was a delay because some people had boarded who were not on the list nevertheless we eventually arrived back in Kuala Lumper.
Before leaving Malaysia I met with Shaharuddin, the General Manager of Base Camp and President of Kuala Lumper Canoe Association and Mohammed Khaira Bin Z Abidin (Colonel), the Executive Chairman of Base Camp. I also met with Dino a liaison person with the Malaysian Shooting Team and the Deputy Director General of Sports, Mr Raja Rusian B. Raja Samah. We discussed the event, future events and the possibility of training their instructors in Perth.
On the 21st June I return to Perth at 5.30pm and arrived 2.25am Thursday morning.
It appears that the race was held for a 2-3 more years but nowadays it is a rafting destination for tourists.