by Terry R.Mills
Thursday evening, Bryan and I hadn’t been for a ride together for ages. He needed the break, I wanted the fun and we needed to explore new routes for our up-coming bikers.
We’d been looking at the map and contemplating the missing section between Ranau and Kota Marudu. Rumor had it that there was an unmapped route between the Kinabalu Park Ranger Station at ??? and the Ranger Station near Kota Marudu, a good enough excuse for an adventure.
Friday morning we set off over the Crocker Range to Ranau and called in at the Police Station to ask if indeed there was a route to Kota Marudu? Two white guys on motorbikes certainly caused a stir but no knowledge of our missing trail.
Next stop was the JKR (Department of Roads). Their map matched ours, still no missing section. We were given a list of villages to pass through on the way to the end of the JKR maintained trails and told to ask the locals there for directions.
We left their office, it was only 11 o’clock, too early for lunch so we fuelled up, popped 4 bottles of water into the back packs and set off. The first 35 kilometers of gravel road were fine, villagers were great giving directions, asking about the bikes and scratching their heads as two mad white men rode off into the distance.
Things were going well; we had successfully traversed three river crossings and were close to the Ranger Station at the end of the marked trail. The last river was deep. Bryan went first and made it across successfully. I went next, hit a submerged rock and got tossed into an even deeper part of the river. I went under and came up to see the bike, still running, gently sinking out of sight. We pulled the bike out, removed the saddle to see if the air intake was still dry and it was, so (mistake number one) I tried to start it. “Grind, grind, bump”, it hydraulicked. We opened the air box and a gallon of water poured out. Not good. Next we removed the plug and spun the engine over. A big jet of water told us the worst. Half an hour drying the air filter and spark plug under the sun and we tried again. Vroom! She fired and ran like a dream. Yee Haw!
Next stop was the Ranger Station. We signed the very thin visitor’s book and asked for directions.
“Back to the river, turn left.”
“About how far?”
Great, we thought, this our lucky day, only 15 kilometers to go!
What they actually meant was 15 kilometers back to the last junction, not to Kota Marudu.
We went back to the river and turned left up a logging trail, hard packed clay and spectacular scenery through the foothills of Mount Kinabalu and prime virgin rain forest.
We soon came across a chained but unlocked gate. We went through; (mistake number two.) soon after there was a padlocked barrier across the trail. (By now the alarm bells should have been ringing.) The bikes were low enough to drive under the bar so under we went, 15 kilometers later there was still no sign of habitation or our destination so we pushed on. (Mistake number three.)
Thirty kilometers in there were signs of logging and an abandoned logging truck so we drove even further into the jungle. The trail was still wide and now there were even tire tracks to give us hope. We followed the tracks for a further 5 kilometers and descended into a big logging camp. As we rolled in there were a lot of nervous glances and shuffling of feet. We were obviously not welcome. Our requests for directions were met with evasive answers and suggestions to go back to where we had come from. As it turned out, probably very good advise.
We had lost a lot of time drying out the bike, we were a long way into the jungle and we were obviously not going to get any help in the logging camp so we decided to turn back. We’d covered about 10 clicks when we heard the thunder and a few moments later came the deluge so typical of the micro climates generated by the 14,000 foot mountain towering alongside us. Within seconds our lovely highway of packed clay was turned into a slimy, sticky ice rink. The muck stuck to the tires, jammed under the front mud guards until the wheels stopped rotating and in rapid succession we crashed to the ground. Even regaining our feet was a struggle. We picked up the bikes, sat on the bank and waited for the rain to stop.
It was 4.30, two hours of daylight to go, time to take stock of our situation. We drank our last half bottle of water and refilled our empties with the muddy water running off the nearby foliage. The first aid box was put to use as a rain water collector so at least the dehydration problem was sorted. But being in the jungle with no water was definitely mistake number four. We cast our minds back to our last meal, it was only a light breakfast and we didn’t even have a snack in the back-packs, no flash light or even a cheap cigarette lighter to start a fire.
You have probably gathered by now that I’m not very proud of this story.
We looked at our cell phones. Mine was dead from its bath in the river and Bryan’s registered no signal. The satellite phone was comfortably sitting in its charger at home.
We gave it half an hour and tried to ride the bikes again. A few hundred yards of slipping, sliding and falling convinced us to stay put and hope the road would dry out before dark.
Being the eternal optimist I was convinced help would come and then I heard it in the distance, a vehicle was coming our way. The battered 4X4 pick-up truck came slithering and skidding round the corner and the two wide eyed occupants pulled up beside us. They were headed to the logging camp. No amount of pleading or bribery would convince them to take us back to the Ranger Station or on to their Logging Camp. They drove off, we were on our own.
We now had only two choices left, try to walk out, in the dark on a deadly slippery surface or hunker down for the night. We weren’t sure how far we had to go, probably 15 kilometers to the river and a further three through overhanging forest to the sanctuary of the Ranger. It was over cast, there was no moon and it was going to be a very dark night so hunker down it was.
We found a flat patch of ground with a big felled log across it that was to our head quarters for the night. Darkness comes very quickly at these latitudes and within a few minutes of removing the saddles from the bikes and propping them against our tree it was pitch black.
Up until now I had seen no danger in our situation but the next event really shocked me. A few more claps of thunder heralded another torrential down pour but unlike the balmy warm rain we are used to at sea level this was icy cold. Then it dawned on us, we had left Ranau at 6,000 feet, traversed four rivers at increasing altitudes and continued to climb into the forest. We were at an altitude of at least 7,000 feet. It was so cold that neither mosquitoes nor leeches could survive. We were in for a very long and very cold night. Our situation was worsened by Bryan being soaked from the waist down from his exertions extracting the bike from the river and I was still soaked from head to toe. Exposure became a real threat.
Both of us managed to doze off for a half hour or so but each time woke shivering violently from head to toe from the pervasive cold. We’d then spend ten minutes marching up and down flapping our arms to try to get life back into or bodies. To our surprise neither of us was hungry or thirsty, just as well I suppose. It became so dark we literally couldn’t see our proverbial hands in front of our faces, only the flashing red LED’s on the bikes gave us an idea of which direction to walk in.
We’d each fall into a fitful sleep only to wake in shuddering agony as the cold worked its way through us. Then Bry came up with the idea of running a bike engine to keep us warm. Wow, an exhaust box had never felt so good. And when the engine got hot enough for the radiator cooling fans to cut in we both ducted the hot air up our jackets. Heaven!
It stays dark here for eleven hours. Do you know how long eleven hours is? It’s YEARS! I don’t suppose it got any warmer as dawn arrived but the psychological difference was amazing. We could see the road again. We now had twelve hours to walk or ride out. For sure we couldn’t survive another night without food in these conditions.
We waited till 7o’clock to give it a go, one section at a time, down hill with the engine off, in gear but with the clutch in so that we could use the engine as a back brake whilst paddling along with both feet on the ground to catch the bikes each time they slipped away from beneath us. It was slow and painstaking progress. Both mirrors were eventually snapped off of Bryan’s bike in falls and the radiators on both machines sheared their mounting points. First my back pack was cannibalized and used to re-attach a radiator then my rain suit trousers were shredded and called into service to fix the second one into place. My rear brake lever got bent so far out of shape that the push rod displaced from its piston. It’s amazing what you can do with a Leatherman!
As the surface gradually dried out it reached “super glue” consistency and clogged up the front wheels every few hundred yards. The shaft from a broken mirror proved a perfect tool to repeatedly prize the goo from under the mudguards.
By 9.30 we were exhausted from continually picking up our bikes. The sun was getting hotter and the road visibly drying out so we decided to rest for an hour then try again. Our big fear was another rain storm and we would be literally stuck once more but the gods smiled on us. The heat of the sun warmed our spirits and we slowly inched our way out of the quagmire. We sidled under the padlocked barrier and prayed that our two truck drivers from the night before had not re-locked the chained gates. Luck was on our side and we carefully descended the last rocky incline to the river crossing where our troubles had begun. This time we picked out a shallower crossing further down stream and with my heart in my mouth I forded the torrent without incident. Bry gave me a rousing round of applause as I reached the far bank, probably elated that he didn’t have to retrieve the bike yet again.
Now we were on gravel and just another hour from civilization and phone contact with loved ones at home. All together it took us five and a half back breaking hours to get out.
Have you ever seen a mother in a supermarket when she finally retrieves her lost child? You would think that the first thing she would do would be to pick up the kid and give him a big cuddle but, no they don’t They invariably give their off-spring a might clout around the ear. Don’t ask me why they do it but they always do.
And that is just the reception I got when I finally phoned my wife. Not “Oh I’m so glad you’re safe darling.” Just “Where the hell have you been?” and a list of expletives deleted!
What caused our problems?
Simply; complacency. We have been doing these adventures for three years without incident. Our emergency kit gets smaller and smaller as we decide we can do without various items. We thought we were invincible, we even dispensed with the support truck that we always take on off-road jaunts but never previously required in an emergency. No food, no water, no flash light, no matches, no flare, not telling our family where we were going, no satellite phone, the list of errors goes on and on.
Fortunately we didn’t break our unwritten rule of never taking clients on routes that we have not reconnoitered ourselves. Can you imagine trying to explain to gang of knowledgeable, seasoned bikers why they are spending a night in a muddy jungle freezing to death? At least we were spared that embarrassment
What lessons have learned? Expect the best prepare for the worst.
We have really taken stock of what we do and how we do it. We have a responsibility to our clients, to our families and to ourselves to conduct a professional and well thought-out adventure business. We are proud of our riding skills, our machinery and the beautiful country in which we conduct our tours. It’s time for us to up our game.
Terry Mills can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.borneobikingadventures.com