“Battling Mother Nature” – an ‘alternative view’ of the International Rainforest Challenge of Malaysia 2016

Penned by Tom McGuigan (Freelance Motoring Journalist & Editor of Europe 4×4 Mag), “I will leave reporting about the actual competition side of the event to others far more capable than myself.”

The RFC start line in the capital city Kuala Lumpur – December 2016 Photo: Luis J A Wee

Late November/early December 2016 saw the 20th anniversary of the iconic ‘Rainforest Challenge of Malaysia’ take place within the beautiful peninsular of Malaysia. Known more readily as the ‘Rainforest Challenge’ or simply the ‘RFC’, the “Mother Event in Malaysia” is the culmination in a Global Series of RFC challenges. The Malaysian Grand Final is best described as a “10-day 4×4 winch challenge + speed event all rolled into one”. Similar to the Camel Trophy which preceded the RFC, it is certainly high adventure every step of the way, but unlike the now defunct Camel Trophy, the Rainforest Challenge is open to all-comers whatever their skill-set, so does not have the ‘elitist tag’ its forerunner could never shake off.

Truly an international event, teams from across the world compete in the RFC. Photo Luis J A Wee
Parading the RFC convoy through the heavily congested city streets is not a problem as the Police outriders stop the traffic at the major road junctions until exiting the city limits. Photo: Luis J A Wee

Another plus is the RFC also welcomes all makes and types of 4×4 from standard production class vehicles with only slight changes to tyres, suspension, etc., through to heavily modified off-road buggies and suchlike. Basically, with a class to suit everyone, anything goes!

Having personally attended the RFC a total of seven times previously – 1997 (the inaugural event), 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2008 both as a Freelance Motoring Journalist and one year as an Official – I wanted to see for myself how the competition has changed over the years, so hopped on a plane and headed for the 100% humidity of the jungle. The brief answer is … “a lot, and unfortunately, not always for the better”.

 

The start line of the inaugural RFC in 1997 – an image exclusively captured by yours truly!

Let me explain. Back in 1997, founder and Event Director of the RFC – one Luis J.A. Wee – launched a competition that took the 4×4 world by storm. This description is most apt, for he knew that late in the calendar, it’s the monsoon season in Southeast Asia. Thus any person who enters the Malaysian jungle knows only too well what to expect – a high probability that the logging tracks utilised on the RFC will become all but impassable as the dusty earth instantly turns into a slippery clay quagmire. Actually, I was going to say ‘mudbath’, but that’s far too placid a word to describe just how intense the mud can become, such is the ferocity of the monsoon downpours.

So, having sought the correct environmental permissions to hold a major international event in the Malaysian rainforest, no mean task in itself, Luis then had to set about dealing with all the relevant government authorities in the capital city Kuala Lumpur (KL).

Government and local authorities, together with the Malaysian Police, Bomba and Army are all very supportive. Photo: Luis J A Wee

Finding a suitable location for the starting line within KL, liaising with the city’s Police Force as a convoy of up to 80 vehicles in heavy traffic takes some controlling (note: This was pre-Petronas Twin Towers and KL Monorail, both were still under construction in `97, so the city was a mass of road works and building sites that would cause gridlock at times), plus of course meetings galore with the country’s Bomba fire service, St John’s Ambulance and Malaysian Army should competitors require their assistance, forming a team of competent Marshals (the early years saw the LROCM – Land Rover Owners Club of Malaysia – take on this role as well as acting as Scouts, who in advance would reconnoitre the RFC’s entire route to create a roadbook), plus of course the actual Officials who would collate all the timings and data needed to run a completion of this magnitude. Be under no illusions, it was a mammoth task to take on, so Luis Wee should be applauded for even getting the event off the ground, let alone keep it running for two decades … and that’s despite a world financial recession, which of course saw many long-standing off-road competitions die a death. However, nothing can match those early days for camaraderie, exhaustion and the sheer grit & determination of the teams and all involved.

This little beauty decided to take a stroll though our camp in the early hours. Having taken our photos, we released it back into the jungle. Luckily the Asian teams didn’t spot it, otherwise it would have ended up in the frying pan … and I’m not joking!

Yes the RFC is still adventurous (especially for first-timers that have no previous RFC’s to compare it too), it still triggers camaraderie and creates instant friends from all over the world (adversity in arduous conditions will always ensure this is the case), but in terms of adversity/hardship/difficulty/a degree of danger, the “Mother Event in Malaysia – The Grand Final” bears little resemblance to previous years. It has you could say, “become sanitised.”

In fairness, it couldn’t continue as it was. The resources of the event management didn’t stretch to repatriating 12+ broken vehicles marooned in the jungle for up to 4 days, or dozens of competitors having to leave their steeds behind as floods made exiting the rainforest impossible – this actually occurred in 2007 when the Bomba/Police/Army extracted participants by motor-boat, now THAT was memorable I can tell you. Luckily I happened upon the Aussie teams, who not only supplied bed & board for a couple of days, they also had a healthy supply of ice-cold Tiger beers; sanctuary! My thanks and appreciation cannot be measured.

Where would we be without cold Tigers … and Aussie fridges?

In a nutshell, the entire event is a logistical nightmare. As an organiser of motoring events myself, the handicap imposed by logistics I fully understand. Financially nowadays, it wouldn’t be possible for the RFC to repatriate that amount of vehicles, not unless they doubled the entry fee overnight … and to his credit, that is something that Luis has always tried to avoid. If you want a totally clinical motorsport event where you’ll pay an extortionate amount of cash to enter, go and register yourself in the Dakar Rally. The RFC is still to this day within reach of the ordinary working person, something you cannot say about the pseudo Dakar, a mere shadow of it’s former greatness.

My biggest concern during this 20th anniversary edition of the RFC was one of safety. It quickly became apparent during the Prologue, the Marshals of RFC`16 were nowhere near competent enough to police what remains a major international motorsport competition!

Okay, socially the Marshals may have been a great bunch of guys, but professionally they were truly inept. Sorry chaps, I realise the truth hurts, but clearly it’s not your fault as you simply haven’t had the correct training or experience to perform on such a prestigious world stage, so how can you possibly officiate to international standard?

I realise everyone wants to be close to the action, but this is folly. Potentially more dangerous than winching, the teams were at full throttle when this shot was taken. Bad enough on tarmac, but on mud? I think not! Organisers have to ensure spectator safety.

With a large audience of locals in attendance, folk who know absolutely nothing about the deadly consequences of standing alongside a winch cable under strain, or spectating on the outside of a fast corner, or standing in front of a tree or boulder as an out-of-control vehicle heads toward them, so quite literally they could end up “between a rock and a hard place”. This is part of a Marshal’s remit surely, their role to make certain that attendees position themselves in safe locations whilst spectating? It’s not rocket science, but it’s something that was sadly lacking throughout this year’s RFC.

Competitors know the risks associated with winching, spectators do not. Despite this little mishap, this Russian team came 3rd overall in RFC`16. Photo: Sanya Diesel

As for penalising competitors during a competitive SS (Special Stage), this too was atrocious as they missed all sorts of infringements. This was therefore very unfair to the other participants. By way of example, I witnessed a co-driver from a leading team cross his winch cable twice whilst the vehicle was quite literally balancing over a deep ditch (more of a mini canyon), so the strain on that cable couldn’t have been greater. If that wasn’t bad enough, he also ran under the rear of the vehicle as it hung over the edge. Add to this a host of infractions such as crews finishing an SS without their vehicle’s full complement of recovery equipment on board (e.g. sand ladders, shackles, etc.) left in a river or the mud, or forgetting to use winch cable dampers (should a cable break whilst under load, dampers or blankets send a broken cable downwards instead of flying though the air like a whiplash, hence causing major injury to anybody unlucky enough to be in its trajectory), apart from the obvious fact this omission is highly dangerous to spectators, adjacent Marshals AND the participants themselves, the point is they should have been penalised for their actions, but weren’t … plus many other examples too numerous to mention. Again, this is not fair to the other participants, plain and simple.

Returning to the lack of safety this year – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, unless the standard of Marshaling improves dramatically, it’s only a matter of time before serious injury or perish the thought, a fatality occurs. And of course if this happens, it could well sound the death knell for what has been an incredible 4×4 competition for so many years. This is something nobody wants to see.

My advice for what it’s worth … draw the Marshals from just one group of experienced off-roaders, along the lines of the Land Rover Owners Club of Malaysia I mentioned previously. Clubs and groups like this know each other very well, they work together as a cohesive team, they always have a natural leader and pecking order which is essential when under pressure, they possess good radio skills, having run events themselves they will be experienced in controlling crowds thus ensuring audiences are sited correctly, they are versed in sound recovery techniques, they know the rules of motorsport inside out hence will see fair play is practised throughout the competition, plus importantly a good team of volunteers will arrive with properly-prepared and maintained vehicles as they have pride in their club. Unbelievably, in the past I’ve seen Marshal’s 4x4s without working winches!!! Operating as a tight unit, this is most definitely the way to go.

The Chief Marshal from Land Rover Owners Club Malaysia (that’s his steed in the foreground) pondering his next move. His dilemma? Half of the teams had crossed this river, but as the level rapidly rose, the other half of the convoy – including the medic and media cars – were stuck on the wrong side. Somehow they HAD to get across. During the monsoon season, normally calm rivers can rise by 1.5m / 4ft in just one hour, instantly turning them into raging torrents!
The answer was obvious – rig up a Bosun’s Chair! Now why didn’t I think of that? Before too long, not only were people being ferried across, the Marshals were even sending cooked food over as all the cooking gear was on our side. For my part, I can’t thank LROCM enough. They really looked after us media and everyone they came into contact with during RFC 2007, the year of the great floods. If you are a fan of the Green Oval and are ever in Malaysia, make sure you look them up – you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This bobtail Range Rover Classic is just one of the many well-prepared Land Rovers that LROCM have ‘sacrificed’ during their time as Marshals on the RFC. The jungle quickly pounds vehicles of all makes into submission, she takes no prisoners, so good preparation is essential.

So what of the future? Personally, until I can be assured the safety aspect of the RFC has been rectified to international standards, sadly I won’t be returning any time soon. As a long-standing friend I say to Luis (don’t know if I still will be after this review?), please address these issues ASAP, this way the Rainforest Challenge can provide yet another decade of fun for all involved. Boasting so many positives over the years, the RFC has always been a fantastic event … long may it continue to be so!

Oh! By the way, competition-wise just one point separated the winner and runners-up teams in RFC`16, the closest it has ever been in the event’s entire history, so for results or information of RFC`17 entry, either as a competitor, spectator or even hiring a self-drive 4×4 and tagging along in the non-competing ‘Explorer Class’, go to www.rainforest-challenge.com

Last but not least, my thanks to fellow journalists for snaps and videos of RFC`16 included within this article. 

The winner of RFC`16 tackling a competitive SS (Special Stage). Yes, the terrain can be quite challenging! Photo: Sanya Diesel
Opps! No vehicle was harmed during the taking of this photo. Photo: Sanya Diesel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This bank looked so simple, but it was deceptive as a deep hole was hiding in the muddy water . Photo: Sanya Diesel

 

Mud, mud, glorious mud …
RFC Event Director Luis Wee holding a driver’s briefing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Malaysian Police – obviously there to keep everybody safe, but not from whom you would think. Bandits, robbers, terrorists or whatever don’t exist in the rainforest, actually they are there to ward off any potential predators that may be around. Brown bears, snakes, monitor lizards and tigers all have healthy appetites, so having armed Police present is very reassuring.
Now THAT’s a rut! Your intrepid author, up to his neck in it as usual.
Battling Mother Nature. Did you know, “she reigns supreme?” Photo: Luis J A Wee 

 

 

Back out of the jungle, this SS was one of the ‘tamer’ sections the local off-road park had to offer. Photo: Sanya Diesel
That’s more like it. Photo: Luis J A Wee
And again, the same SS as above. This was one of the last competitive sections, little wonder as it managed to devour several winches. It was devilishly difficult. Photo: Luis J A Wee
The RFC`16 awards ceremony … every one a winner! Photo: Luis J A Wee
The RFC`16 Press Corps … and yes I agree, they certainly are a motley bunch, a real rogue’s gallery! Representing India, UK, Italy, Australia, USA, Poland, Hungary, Argentina and The Netherlands, they were in fact just a small part of the media following the event. China alone had 60 media personnel following their teams, and then there was Thailand, Brazil, Czech Republic, Singapore, Hong Kong, Russia, Vietnam and of course Malaysia, plus countless others I can’t even recall. Yes, it’s truly an ‘international event’.
And more or less the same reprobates as above, only this time off duty – it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it!

 

Check out this great video compiled by Pandik Vivek, an Indian Motoring Journalist who covered RFC`16.

Me, I’m the one on 49 seconds who is about to murder a young lady with a parang/machete! (Tom McGuigan, Editor Europe 4×4 Mag) 

 


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Tom McGuigan