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Rainforest Challenge China: "Enter the Dragon" - 4x4 in the jungles of China.

From Robb Pritchard: One of the China Rainforest Challenge's objectives is to promote the region's tourism opportunities, but no one thought that the flooded quarry the prologue was held in showed off the best Sanya has to offer. The next day though, as the convoy headed out of the city the hastily erected tower blocks petered out to rough concrete shacks and we soon found ourselves out in the lush countryside.

Old women with their traditional 'lampshade' hats looked up at us from their terraced paddy fields, the mud holes the water buffalo wallowed in were lined with banana palms and everywhere we looked the sharp-edged mountains were topped by thick jungle. It was absolutely stunning and we were all glad that this was to be the backdrop to the event proper.

The first base camp was situated on a ridge above a fast flowing river brown and swollen from the storm that lashed down the day before and I looked down to see the marshals wading across chest-deep fighting the current to set out the course markers. Routes were laid out from the boulder strewn banks, through the deep water and up the treacherously steep gorge on the other side. Nothing was going to be easy.

The sections are timed but they're scored as well, so the quickest car gets 100 points, 2nd gets 95 etc, which means two things, the pace is absolutely frantic, drivers going balls-out out all the way, pounding over unseen rocks in the river bed and bashing into obstacles at full speed just to save a few meters of winching.

The other is that most of the top crews have a never say die attitude to getting around the course as a DNF is only worth 20 points; they either make it out or the car breaks. This is one reason why the RFC has always been considered extreme and anyone who wins it becomes an instant legend.

It's also held in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. Sanya is lower than the tropic of Cancer, on the same latitude as Chad, which means that twice a year the sun is directly overhead and at about midday on a late August day it wasn't far off. It was so hot that it was hard to stand on the riverbank rocks as they quickly began to melt the soles of my sandals.

From the prologue three Malaysian crews set themselves apart from the rest with 2010 RFC winner Mui Shin just ahead of Tan Eng Joo in his outlandish looking Suzuki and Liew Siak Kiong in his more standard looking SJ. "Actually only the chassis and body are Suzuki and that's because they are small and easy to fit into tricky places," he explained. "The engine is a 3.2 Nissan and the axles are from a 70 series Land Cruiser, so small and tough!"

And that is what most of the vehicles in the RFC are, squat, compact and tough. There are no portal axles here and no one goes above 35' tyres, but it's generally accepted that there is no car you can build that will go everywhere, that's why the winches have developed in that way they have to become the massive and terrifyingly fast God-winches.

"And actually I think we are leading now," he added, "Mui Shin broke his winch cable and got a DNF." But on the very next SS his optimism was as dampened as his engine components. In the river right in front of me a rock tipped the car over and the way the spray was coming off the wheel just happened to angle a jet of river water straight down the snorkel and it dropped a cylinder straight away.

Liew wasn't the only one to suffer though there were quite a few bottle necks at the start gates as time and again the 6x6 army truck was sent in to drag out beached and submerged vehicles. The Phillipean Land Rover team snapped a rope trying to get up the bank and had to thread the rear winch cable through to the front... against the clock... and underwater. They got a great cheer when they made it to the finish.

I paid special attention to the Chinese crews. I never found the Chinese Hummer guys as they always camped far away from the rest of us and even the organisers couldn't point them out in the prize-giving gala, but one of the drivers Ruchieng Wu in a chopped up 80 series Land Cruiser was happy to use the event to learn from the Malaysians who he considers to be the best.

"Serious off-roading is new here in China and to be better... and even the best.., you have to learn. You need to know how to build the car and how to drive t properly. I wanted to go and do the RFC in Malaysia but now I understand that I need to change so much on my car that I don't think I will have enough time!"

Another crew that perhaps shouldn't fork out for the cot of going to Malaysian mother event just yet were in some Proto that was so modified that it was pretty impossible to tell what the base vehicle had been, a tubular body covered in custom panels with a massive God-winch mounted on the front.

I watched as they powered through the start gate and as the driver dropped the car into a 7 foot deep hole and then nudged the front wheels as far up the slope as possible the co-driver ran off into the distant foliage with the winch rope. All was going well.

There was a clunk as the PTO was engaged and the nose rose up a little further... but then the foliage started making its way towards us with such a speed that a collective panic flashed through the crowd of local spectators who fled dragging their children and leaving a few umbrellas to roll into the hole next to the car. Despite the tension involved in lifting a 1500kg car over a sheer wall the co-driver had anchored the winch to a bush that was actually thinner than the rope!

Due to a couple of DNFs for the others after the sections in the river Kiong was grimly holding onto a 50 point lead but his engine was still sick. Someone commented that the others were chasing him down like dogs, but actually, when Mui Shin was beached in the river with a snapped winch cable it was 111 who risked his car to go in and fish him out. "That's a true sportsman and a really good guy!" Sidik Khan, the chief marshal shouted, but the event was far from over.

If the 'theme' of the Malaysian RFC is the impossible claggy mud and the sweltering jungle then it seems China is based on water and the searing sun as the D-Day battlefield was to be on the shores of an artificial lake in a crater of jagged mountains. The still waters reflected the pure blue sky and the surrounding slopes, apart from the highest tops were covered in linear mango plantations... and if you didn't look too closely they resembled certain parts of the Mosel or the Rhine.

But the competitors were not looking at the scenery... Again, the temperature was in the high thirties and in the flooded fields that looked like they used to be paddy fields there was no shade. The heat was almost as fierce a the competition.

There was visible tension in Mui Shin's driving as penalties for leaving the ground anchor in an SS and for driving without seatbelt attached increased the overnight point deficit to Eng Joo from 2 to 20 points, while Eng Joo himself gritted his teeth and put his foot flat on the floor in every section.

Some tests were a cross between a trail and Icelandic Formula Offroad where the only way through is with as much momentum as you can get, with cars going full tilt into the soft ground, mud flying high in the air. But then leader Kiong stalled in a section and couldn't get it going again. It wasn't the battery, or anything obvious in the electrics and heartbreak was written on his face as the excavator arm moved in to drag him out. It wasn't just the privilege of the RFC title at stake, the winner's cheque that had almost been in his hand was worth $30,000.

But after the day's hectic action it takes the time keepers a few hours to calculate all the points and as darkness fell there was an uneasy calm between the two closely situated camps of Eng Joo and Mui Shin. A few of us asked around to see if the marshals had finished but event director Luis Wee had decided to only announce the results at the next night's gala... but people were just too desperate to know and when the result leaked out applause began to ring out in the darkness.

Although one man remained silent. Kiong, sitting cross-legged and shirtless like a Budda, held up his hand to cease the congratulations... but Mui Shin only clapped harder as he praised his rivals' victory. Sometimes you can tell the calibre of a sportsman in how he wins, often more telling is the way in which he loses.

After 20 incredibly tough Special Sections over 5 long days the scores were 1573 to 1551. Without his two careless penalties Mui Shin would have been just 2 points behind... the same as when he started the final day.

The main event, the Malaysian Rainforest Challenge is in the first week of December. To cover all the hardships, suffering, triumph and tragedy in the monsoon jungle, We will be there!

2011/08/28 | 12:56 CET | ARTICLE: MR/SY/PRITCHARD

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