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Old 29th December 2010, 21:43   #1
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Default Malaysian Rainforest Challenge

Hi all ))

I was recently afforded the privilege of being press at the hallowed Rainforest Challenge in Malaysia and the nice moderators here said that it would be fine for me to post my report on here for your leisurely perusal )))

Hope you enjoy!

There is a very short list of top-class extreme off-road competitions. Russia has the Ladoga Trophy and Pro-X, there's the Australian Outback Challenge and the Croatia Trophy, to name a few and unquestionably the long-famed Malaysian Rainforest Challenge is right up there with them. In fact it's so highly regarded in the world off-roading community that it lays claim to being the most internationally represented event of its kind in the world.

Under the dense rainforest canopy the jungle swelters. The ground, saturated into a claggy half-metre deep sludge makes it hard to walk, the trees drip from the last drenching shower and the air is laden with heavy moisture... but it's the heat which draws the sweat that clings sodden clothes to bodies. It's like doing a winch challenge in an industrial sized greenhouse... one filled with leeches, spiders and a whole host of bugs usually only found in a natural history museum. Make no mistake, the RFC is hard, it takes place in a tropical rainforest in the middle of monsoon season and so is definitely not for the faint hearted.

The Sultan of Johor, a man equal in social stature to the British Royal family flagged the long line of soggy participants off in the driving rain. Personally I am no fan of hereditary, tax-paid opulence, but I have to admit all republican thoughts were dispelled when I saw his limousine. It was based on a Ford F650 cab with a custom expedition grafted on behind and at nine and a half feet tall it loomed over the off-roaders as excited photographers gathered around it.

Even though it was held in a field next to a supermarket car park the media-friendly prologue was certainly no walk in the park. One of the sections included winching up a sheer 6ft bank and another through 4ft of water and up a bank at a 45 degree angle and a local crowd of bemused onlookers, with no idea what happens when a winch cable snaps, looked on in amazement.
Winning the dubious honour of being the first to falter were the luckless, yet ever optomistic, Italians, the Ox Brown team of Andrea Corsetti and Alessandro Serpieri. First the alternator failed and then as they tried to winch through a trench the steering drop arm snapped clean off. Yet their trials had begun weeks before... They missed the shipping deadline for their own vehicle in Rome and were so shocked with the cost of airfreight that they flew to Malaysia two weeks early to source a vehicle they could rent, and in doing so were actually the earliest ever arrivals in the history of the RFC. They found a Jeep based off-roader but the first time they tried it was in the hotel car park... the steering wheel was on the wrong side (Malaysians drive on the left) and they had never used a PTO winch before. As he sat in waist deep muddy water it would be air to say that Andrea was not a happy man.

The format of the RFC isn't slogging endlessly through, barely discernible forest trails, it's actually half a dozen short but intense trial sections a day, 30 in all, some barely a handful of meters long... but all laid out with a clear sadistic intent. Every single one is designed to test a vehicle and crew to the limit and in remote spots in the forest there are tight, twisty sections through the trees, mud holes that are soft and deep enough to almost swallow a vehicle, slippery fallen tree trunks that get wedged under axles, roots and rocks that need massive articulation to get over and of course everywhere is the mulch-leafed, clay-rich mud which means that almost every vehicle runs on the aggressive Simex Extreme Trekker tyre. Each section is incredibly technical and getting it right requires the absolute mastery of the machine and equipment as well as perfect cohesion between team members. Vehicles lurch and slither at impossible angles and instructions are snapped out in a host of unintelligible languages... which is another thing that sets the RFC far apart from any other event in the world, the attendance of so many nationalities, 25 this year according to the organisers. 'Locals' like Singaporeans and Thais compete with the Malaysian teams, but also are some very capable teams from Sri Lanka, a works-supported Land Rover from the Philippines, guys from Austria, Australia, America, Italy, Vietnam and Russia, or Raa'shaa as the Malays pronounce it. And I have to admit, hearing so many foreign swear words being cursed through the trees was something quite extraordinary.
The Special Stages, or SSs, are all quite close to each other and the photographers crouch in the shade like the tigers that roam wild in the pristine wilderness snapping the sweat pouring from the faces of the panting co-drivers as they struggle through the trailing vines, prickly creepers and spiky undergrowth to get the winch cable to a sturdy enough tree... bamboo just isn't strong enough... and then something else astounding, if you have never seen it before... the speed of what the locals call a God-Winch... a PTO run to a drum through differential gearing. The result is a vehicle getting up a slope that's virtually impossible to walk as though it was accelerating on flat tarmac. Incredible!
And this goes on for some 8 days!!

Everything takes place close to the open spots of land which the organisers rather over-enthusiastically call campsites, so if needed, running repairs can be made. And in the evenings, when the battle-rage had receded, under the condensation sheened tarpaulins were great places to catch up with the action. A few people commented on the fact that the Russians were barely seen smiling, but I thought that they were a great group, offering me vodka and porridge (in that order) as soon as I said hello. I asked Yuri Ignatenko and Andrey Kurdakov, who were in their chunky Toyota LC70 and Stanislav Pundurov and Valery Lyubarenko in their diminutive Suzuki why they came all the way to Malaysia when there are world class events at home in Russia. “Because,” Yuri said, “It's cheaper and easier to get to Malaysia from Vladivostok than it is to get to Moscow! Plus, here it's tropical, so it's like a holiday away from the winter as well.” 2010 was the close-knit team's third time at the RFC but they accepted that challenging the Malaysians in their own mud is hard. “But bring them to challenge us in the Russian snow and who would win then?” Andrey laughed.

One of the friendliest teams in the forest was the 'works' Land Rover from the Philippines and constant jokes and belly laughs rang out from under their tarp. The official LR dealership in Manila had given them a '97 90 with a de-electrified 3.9 V8 and they'd fitted Ashcroft axles, ARB lockers, fiddle-brakes and a God-Winch spun by a Suzuki diff. They had a DNF on one of the Prologue tests so were 100 points down from the outset which proved impossible to pull back, but then it never looked likely to be a tooth and nail battle for victory as the top of the leaderboard was dominated from start to finish by Chai Mui Shin from the Borneo part of Malaysia. He certainly wouldn't have been on my initial list of contenders as Chai is such a slight guy that he doesn't look like he could beat my Mum in an arm wrestle, never mind the fact that his vehicle is based on a Daihatsu Rocky, but he was never headed. The secret, he said rather modestly is just in knowing where the limits of the vehicle are and only going fast when it's safe to do so. At all other times it's important to be careful.

For pure determination and dedication I take my hat off to another Russian who now lives in Malaysia, Denis Stepanenko. “I basically quit my job a year ago so I could study mechanics in my friend's workshop. I want to know how everything works so I know how to improve it,” he said. The vehicle he was co-driving was a buggy based on an old Jeep chassis with a Suzuki body mounted on it... and their secret weapon... a God-Winch powered through a Toyota Prado differential. They weren't finding the event easy though, in one SS they hit an unseen log hard enough to brake both the axles and the gearbox... Results are based on the points awarded for the finishing order of each stage, 100 for the fastest, 95 for second, 90 for third, etc, so the 300 possible points they lost cost them dearly, yet despite this they still came away at the end with victory in the under 2000cc category.

And the vehicles... They're not the massive monsters commonly found in Russia or the USA, they are smaller, nimble and easy to manoeuvre machines. Only a couple were fitted with portal axles and only the Russians ran on anything bigger than a 35 inch tyre. Diff clearance here is offset by the lightening speed of the God-winches. Properly put together and well handled for the most part, but ingenious... apart from the God-winches, not really. Mother Nature in one of her most extreme guises, the tropical rainforest, seeming must be taken on only with the tried and tested.

The best looking car in the forest was undoubtedly ex-pat American Rod Caldwell's bright orange Hi-Lux, which could easily be Miss September in the 2011 ARB accessories calendar, but not so pretty was the expression on Rod's face. “We're having a few equipment failures,” he shrugged disappointedly. “Which is annoying 'cos the SS we do, we do really well!” First the front diff went, costing them 4 missed SS, a fuse blew in the river and killed everything and then the rear diff snapped as well. As we spoke his charismatic co-driver, David Metcalf sprawled around in the mud on the floor trying to fish out chunks of diff from inside the casing, but they had it repaired in time for a stage traditionally known as the Twilight Zone; a trek through very rough jungle, worth 200 points for everyone who comes through in their group of three. Although it was only 10km long no one was light hearted about it and sure enough, just a few hundred meters in it was chaos. The Sri Lankan's steering had broken, leaving them beached helplessly over a large tree and blocking those trying to come from behind... a little further ahead things were going a bit better for Dave's team though. With years of off-roading experience behind him he guided the group leader's car to a good anchor point while the winch of the car behind, attached to the rear tow hook was spooled out. Then when the first vehicle was secure the second winched itself up to the back of it while pulling Dave's spooling cable along. Compared to the multilingual cursing echoing off the trees it looked like a sure-fire plan to get through... except Dave didn't come out the other end in a car... some 10 hours later he was carried out on a stretcher. In the darkness another competitor drove into a tree... which fell on him and knocked him out cold for around a quarter of an hour. Fair play to the organisers though, with an injured competitor hurt in the stage the competition meant nothing. The Signal Core officers who'd been on duty all week collected as many head-torches as they could and then spent a good part of the night extracting him, and until good news came back from the hospital the SS were postponed and then eventually cancelled. The rest of us had a day off lounging on the stunning beach... which with all the battered vehicles, muddy people and tarpaulin shelters looked like a cross between paradise and a Somalian refugee camp.

Thankfully the event had a happy ending. Dave was discharged from the hospital and was in the hotel a day before everyone else and no one at all can argue, in Chai who collected his trophy with a sheepish almost apologetic smile, the event had a worthy winner..
And then finally it was to the hotel I'd been longing for for over a week. The bath water was turned brown, the A/C put on full blast and a 10 day old beard shaved off... but then I stood by the large window watching the rush hour gridlock of cars 13 storeys below and suddenly longed for the sounds of the incessantly chirping cicadas, hooting monkeys and the whir of a Gigglepin winch... I guess I'll have almost another year to wait... although I have been invited to the RFC China event in August next year... as a driver! I reckon that will make a good story!
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Old 31st December 2010, 04:16   #2
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Default Re: Malaysian Rainforest Challenge

Surprised no one commented. Brilliant writeup on the people invvolved. Must have been one heck of an event.

Does the media walk through the entire event? or how does things work for them?

More pics plz
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Old 3rd January 2011, 14:59   #3
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No one commented because it is in the wrong place, please move to excursions - Superb stuff here Robb.
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Old 3rd January 2011, 15:07   #4
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Awesome, these machines are awesome and look extreme. Please post the link where we can see the videos (if any).
Experts - any idea what make are these ?
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Old 3rd January 2011, 15:56   #5
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Default Re: Malaysian Rainforest Challenge

Thanks for the nice comments ))

Yep, the press get to see pretty much everything. The competitive sections are rather short and close to the camp sites so you can amble around and see it all. Only a few brave souls entered the Twilight Zone which was 10km of pretty much winching all the way.

The vehicles are all a mix of bits pilfered from here and nabbed form there. The winning vehicle was based on a Diahatsu Rocky... with a Toyota truck engine ans Land Cruiser axles, but I live in Russia where we have the Ladoga Trophy so the RFC didn't look like real monsters to me. (Proto class in Ladoga = 40 inch boggers, portals and an air intake that is 7 or 8 feet off the ground is a real monster ))) But the RFC cars are agile! That's what's special about them.

I am also waiting for the videos. There was a Russian guy throwing his camera in the mud to get the best shots, so when he has something sorted I will post the link here.

Cheers, Robb
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Old 4th January 2011, 10:24   #6
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Nice writeup robb!!!
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Old 27th January 2011, 18:05   #7
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Excellent writeup & pictures. Yes would definitely like to see more pictures / videos if possible.
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Old 27th January 2011, 18:33   #8
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Woooohoooo...added to my bucket list.

Hoping for some narration with next bunch of pics - please!
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Old 27th January 2011, 18:48   #9
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Great write up and pics Robb. Thanks for sharing with us. The Surf looks like a beauty. Keep em coming.
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