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This is the single-news section of the marathonrally.com special of the Rainforest Challenge 2007, the hardest off-road trophy worldwide. To see all news please use the link under the article or navigate with the left main-navigation.

Rainforest 2007: Participants evacuated, recovery continues

By now all Rainforest Challenge participants have successfully left the jungle. After our last broadcast a few dramatic days had to be managed by everyone. In total the main convoy waited four days in front of the raised river. On the morning of the third day (Sunday) the water level had fallen so far that a passage was possible. Unfortunately the message was only relayed well after daylight had broken and not clearly through the camp which was spread over almost 700m on a narrow jungle track.

By the time everyone was aware of the possibility of passing critical hours were lost until the camp was taken down. To reach the river a very steep hill had to be driven downhill. On the left side of the track the way was washed away in almost 1,5m deep guts. After the initial delay all cars down at the river had passed already. So the rest of the camp was stuck while tying to drive this passage as there were no trees on the sides or cars on that side of the river as anchor points for winching. That delayed the crossing operations further. When everything was set up so much time had been lost that the water level had gone up again.

Disappointed everyone started waiting again for the water to go down. However on that Sunday it kept raining and the river water level only increased further. In the afternoon the rain started getting less and in the late evening it stopped completely. In the meantime the camp's situation became worse. A lot of cars ran out of battery power and letting the engines run was not an option as no one knew if the petrol would last for the track that still had to be crossed.

On Sunday also most competitors who had to turn back in the Twilight Zone arrived at the river camp and joined the waiting session. Again in the late afternoon the rain partially stopped and the river calmed very slowly. However - during the evening the water level stayed on a high level so a passing was not possible. The press teams who had walked into the Twilight Zone equally had to track back the route everyone took. Some were able to join competitors literally on the roofs of their cars. Some other had to walk the entire way back.

The first of those walkers arrived on Sunday evening at the main convoy's location. At that time there were still approximately 5 cars left at the old Event HQ that still had to cross two more rivers before reaching the main site. At the HQ camp were also 3 press members who had fallen sick with fever and vomiting and badly hurt legs and feet with the skin coming off due to the wet conditions. A custom habit of local people to spray insecticides on the boots and trousers to keep leeches away should later also prove as a bad choice. The permanent wet conditions brought the chemicals through the fabric and in direct contact with the naked skin. Three days later those persons found themselves with parts of their skin being deeply red and the skin had partially come off on large areas.

As some cars had successfully crossed the camp was now spread to both sides of the river separated by the streaming waters and only joined by the steel cable across the river. Some of the cars that had managed the passing departed on Sunday afternoon to get back into civilization. They would not make it very far as we found out on the following day. Everyone continued to eye the river and the rain situation cautiously as the evening went on. After the organization went to sleep trophy participants and the press kept on monitoring the water levels. At about 2 AM on Monday morning the water had fallen to levels that were lower than ever before. The RFC organization was informed but chose to wait until daybreak for the crossing.

In the night two hours later the rain started and the water began to rise. Fortunately the downpour settled into a continuous dribbling and while the water had risen again by 30 cm when daylight came the passing could continue. After the lost time on the morning before operations were now quite rapid. Too rapid for everyone as the first car in the middle of the river found out - while the driver was rushed into the river half of the winching crew on the other side of the river had not quite made it out of their camp beds yet. So instead of three vehicles tied one after the other to give the first winching car the needed anchoring there was none. While winching the car kept sliding towards the river bank and the strong current took the passing car down the stream before a stable halt was reached. With loud screaming now everyone awoke and the missing anchors were quickly put in place while the unlucky passengers had to watch the water level rising well over the car seats in the middle of the river.

During that morning a big part of the convoy was able to cross. Again foreign competitors greatly helped in assisting. The Polish team of Piotr Kowal and Wlodzimierz Babicz with their well prepared Range Rover took over winching everyone across as they had strong and fast pulling capacities. The vehicles engines were turned off while being towed through the river. So losses were centered mostly on the side of unprotected equipment that was floating around in the cars or other stuff that had not been in waterproof bags. A few engines had to be emptied from water and ignition systems dried. Soon everyone was ready to go. While the passing still continued the first cars went into the rest of the way back to a small village. No more rivers had to be crossed but the usual muddy jungle tracks to be driven.

Then again something happened that later should prove finally fatal for the entire evacuation operation. Again against recommendation the few ill prepared press and organization cars and drivers (some with street tires, some without winches) were among the first ones to leave. So after 2 kms they all were completely stuck in a difficult but manageable mudhule. A big traffic jam quickly built on the narrow jungle track. A following support car from a Chinese competitor that was only a few cars behind was able to overtake, pass the mudhole without difficulty and assist in winching. From there on the situation only got worse.

The broken Kuala Lumpur street cruisers had blocked some passages and with every winching around them the mudhole got worse. At that point it was still well before Monday noon. Unfortunately further help was not readily available. Here the legendary jungle camaraderie failed. "While most of the foreign competitors from China, Poland, Denmark and other countries really gave their best to try to help us we saw a lot of good local Malaysian drivers just pass us - even though it would have been easy for them with their skills and vehicles to get us out" commented the passenger of a stuck car the depressing situation.

As more and more winches started breaking down the press formed a rescue team that should walk 15 kms to the next village where a regrouping point was set up. The mission was to call for help and get some of the powerful competitor cars back to pass everyone through the hole. A radio contact to the village or the organization there could not be established. The marathonrally.com team joined the rescue crew. On the way out several more difficult obstacles came into view among them two very steep hills where 200-500m winching would be needed to get on top of them. Without words it became evident to everyone of the walkers that the unsuited cars would never make it in this rainy mud over the hills. If the rest of the convoy had managed to get out of the mudhole and had taken the street Pajeros with them they would fail big time at that point. If two or three strong winching cars had been placed at appropriate positions it might have been possible - but there were none. Even getting the first prepared cars up the hill would be a challenge now that several more winches were out of order.

After approximately 10 kilometers the "rescuers" met a special forces team from the Malaysian Army walking in the opposite direction. Every one of the 12 young totally wet men was carrying large backpacks with 20-35 kg of food and medical supplies. "Our helicopters cannot land due to the low reaching clouds and all roads to this plac are flooded" commented the squadron leader "So the only choice for us is to walk in." After giving directions and a situation update for the Army troops the two teams departed again.

In the evening after more than 10 hours of total wetness from above and below finally the village was reached. Again things were different than expected. All cars were parked grouped among the few houses - but no drivers or anyone could be seen around. Finally a special team from the Malaysian fire brigade "Bomba" appeared and after a hands-and-feet discussion the walkers learned that everyone had been taken to the other side of the river in boats. There was no other way in crossing as that particular river was a big one that now was 100m wider and 10m deeper.

Having a clear goal again the walkers joined the Bomba team into the small speedboats. After 15 minutes of flying over the surface of a broad deserted river that had swollen over the treetops of the vegetation on the left and right it became evident that there must have been a misunderstanding - even more as the passage should take 30 more minutes in the fading daylight before reaching "the other side". In the end the camp was reached 40 km down the river far away from the village and the stuck convoy. So there would be no possibility to bring help to the convoy. After arrival the walkers were driven in Police cars - sirens blazing - to a small school that had been set up as a base camp. There the situation looked like in cinema movies or in TV news. Dozens of camp beds had been set up next to each other and only a slightly less numerous team of medical personnel was eagerly awaiting new patients. Quickly everyone found himself in dry T-Shirts and skilled hands disinfecting the numerous jungle wounds on feet and legs.

On that Monday evening - in the original planning the evening of the price giving ceremony - 80 participants were still out while 180 had made it back into civilization. Early on Tuesday morning the surprise was big as the rest of the press and organization convoy slowly began pouring into the school being totally soaked. It turned out that no more cars had made it through the mudhole. More and more equipment kept braking while trying to get across so that on the late Monday evening the entire convoy gave up their cars and walked out with just their clothes on and the most important things on their back.

The rest of the cars were still stuck in the village. So objectively regarded this was the first RFC where not a single car had made it out the jungle again until even after the rally. The organizer Luis J.A. Wee is currently busy with arranging everything so that the cars will be brought out of the jungle and transported to Kuala Lumpur again where the foreign cars will be shipped back to their countries. Of course everyone is worried about the safety of their equipment. While Wee has requested help from the Police to protect the cars in the village and is relying on Army personnel to secure the convoy out in the jungle the participants naturally remain concerned "I took the risk to encounter the jungle so there I cannot complain this year." smiles a Polish trophy competitor "But I and the other European drivers expect from the organizer of an international event that he does his best to guarantee for the basic safety of our cars and equipment - even when unforeseen events occur which are not unusual in a jungle event".

We will keep you updated.

Article from 14.12.2007, marathorally.com/mr

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