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Cameron Highlands (Malaysia) Kayak Epic

Cameron Descent 1997:

Our transport to the Cameron Highlands materialised out of the heat wave, rather like a mirage appearing in the desert. Not only did our 4WD come equipped with shovel mounted on the roo bar , it also had a second skin of decals, mementos of previous rallies. There was no paint left showing.

Under the relentless sun, Mike O’Donnell and I lashed the kayaks on the roof cage.

It really felt like we were off on some sort of Safari.

Albert, our driver, apologised for the mud in the truck,…he’d just got back from reconnaissance of next month’s 4WD rally. Albert seemed a placid, quiet chap, and that, coupled with the fact that a truck this size, was built for trying, not flying, lulled me into thinking this would be a slow and boring trip up into the mountains. NEEEEP, wrong!

Albert turned out to be the quiet, but dangerous type!

WOAH!!!! Hold on boys. Nauseous memories of my stint as a co-driver in the International New Zealand rally flooded back. A tyre squealing, roll threatening, blind corner passing, 3 hours later, complete with 3 micro millimetre near misses, we arrived at the Equatorial Resort Hotel atop the Cameron Highlands. We should have guessed Alberts tendencies, when we read the sticker on his mate’s truck; “get in, belt up, hold on and shut up”. Fortunately at our higher altitude of 5000 feet, the cooler air helped the contents of our stomachs to stay down despite the lesser gravitational pull at these heights.

Before dinner, Michael and I took the time to adjust our boat seats. The Aussies came to watch and chat. I got the distinct feeling that they didn’t take us as serious contenders for the race. I guess it was because their fancy lightweight Kevlar speed machines, were in a league above our Perception Wavehoppers , essentially a heavier plastic version of what they had, designed for training and for beginners. I must admit to be psyched out by this fact, and accepted a placing perhaps in the top 5 if I was prepared to race hard.

As dusk descended, I lathered myself with even more insect repellent and donned my mesh bug-suit, determined to scare off the mosquitos. I was paranoid about getting sick again. My last adventure racing trip to Malaysia saw me a gnat’s whisker from death for 2 weeks in intensive care with acute Renal failure and Pulmonary Oedema. It seems I’d caught Leptospirosis during the race. So this trip was as much about racing kayaks as about facing my fears, clearing skeletons out of the closet, getting rid of the ghosts, exorcising the demons, getting back on the horse that bucked me, and other cute cliches. Previous to travelling, I’d researched my odds of getting ill again, organised all the right medications, and packed all the bug proof stuff I could find. I felt secure that night as our hotel had bug screens. Imagine my horror in the morning as Mike and I found 2 mosquitos buzzing bloatedly about our bedroom, full of bright red blood!!!! It took me an hour or so to come to grips with the fact that I’d been exposed to full risk again on my very first night back in Malaysia.

What if those Mozzies were carriers of Malaria?……. I decided that I had to trust the Doxycycline I was taking. Or worse, what if the mozzies carried DHF (Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever)?! I downed another Vitamin B pill and ate another tablespoonful of Vegemite, remembering that there was no preventative against DHF other than avoiding being bitten. So there was not much more I could do about it short of getting back on a plane. But that would be letting my fears dominate me. Logically I worked through the odds, and the fact that adventure is all about risk, and flying in the face of fear. Life is about experience and growing. Trembling in a padded cell is not “life”.

I asked the 80 year old Steve Gurney for some advice and he told me to accept the risk and get on with living life to the full, after all you’ve only got another 46 years or so left at the most! So I managed to kick those skeletons in the butt right at the start of the trip. This was fortunate, as the risk factor was to increase dramatically through the trip.

Assembled ready for the 4WD trip into Kampang Tiat, the competitors, 83 of us, including 30 foreigners from UK, USA, Switzerland, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia and NZ milled around a mountainous pile of gear, paddles and kayaks.

Out of the highland mists, like some weird hallucination, appeared an endless procession of beat up old 1950’s Land Rovers, “coming to take me away, take me away” as the Beetles LSD song would say,…perhaps I was hallucinating after all.. This was to be our transport deep into the jungles to the start of the race. The quiet, plush portico of the Equatorial Resort Hotel was transformed into noisy mayhem. It was bizarre, but also very comical that this small town could muster so many of these old British machines in an Asian land where one would expect Subaru, Hyundai, Suzuki, Toyota and Proton Saga to reign supreme! This fleet of fifty battle scarred Land Rovers was owned and driven by local farmers, each with a toothless maniacal grin, just itching to take us into the jungle to show off their 4WD skills. The atmosphere was charged with impatient energy and exhaust fumes.

The trip in was a safari adventure in itself. We zoomed past tea plantations, fantastic vistas and were generally entertained by the 4WD skills of our mad chauffeurs as we bumped and squeaked along the deteriorating track.

We were to be the guests of the Orang Asli, the indigenous inhabitants of the villages along the race course.

Kampang Tiat, our village for the first night and, the race start was an education. Grass huts, complete with grass roofs, squat toilets, and you eat with your right hand, coz’ you use your left hand for something else,… so Mike informed me after I’d heartily tucked into rice and curried chicken with both hands!

Next morning we started the race in heats of five. Last year’s winner, Abdul Aziz the Malaysian was in the second heat. My heat was first off. As predicted, John the Aussie immediately took the lead in his fancy Kevlar boat. The river was very shallow, averaging shin deep, producing terrible bottom drag for my Wavehopper. John’s boat being lighter, longer and of less rocker was soon out of sight, leaving me frustrated and wishing for my Kevlar Sisson Evolution. After all, it seemed the rapids we only grade 1 or 2. The race organisers must be grossly exaggerating, by claiming this piece of the Telom river to be grade 4! With no chance to come in early and inspect this remote river I could only go on the advice of the Malaysians, which sometimes gets distorted in the translation. I started to get pissed off by the whole affair.

As I rounded a slow lazy corner, my heart leapt into my mouth as I was suddenly confronted with fluoro red-clad, flag-waving officials atop huge boulders, their shrill whistles just audible above the roar of a rapid. Before I knew it I was in the middle of a grade 3 rapid. Spat out the end, I was relieved that this might be fun after all.

A few minutes further on were more race officials. I figured that that previous rapid was only number one rapid, and the next six were supposed to be much harder! The whole race had just moved up the scariness scale by many notches!

Heart pounding with adrenalin, I carefully manoeuvred into #2 rapid, and over a narrow mini waterfall.

The River was apparently very low flow this year as there had been no rain for 2 weeks. The rapids became a series of drops and waterfalls, with massive rocks exposed there were many pour-overs and narrow chutes. It was important to keep forward speed to avoid broaching sideways. and I was mighty grateful to be in a plastic boat.

WOAH! Look out. John the Aussie was being towed to the side by an official. He’d gone fish counting! I yelled to check he was OK. The tone of John’s reply was “I’m OK mate but look out coz’ I’m coming after you!”. A huge burst of competitive determination flooded my veins. I felt dizzy with the compounding stress that I was first down the river, I was the “Gurney pig”, the tester. John the Aussie had already come to grief on number 2 rapid, was I to be next? The worst rapids were yet to come. I felt tempted to wait for John and follow him. But Aziz the Malaysian had started 5 minutes behind us in heat 2, so I must press on as fast as I could. Besides, I figured that I needed to put as much distance on the rest of the field to compensate for Day, where these others will have an advantage in the slow, flat water.

In the pre race brief, we’d been told there were 7 major rapids, the last one was the most difficult, but #4 was dangerous due to a tree across it. We were not to run it if there was hazard tape right across the river above it. Old “Gurney-pig” got there to find tape half across it! The stress was unbearable. What should I do? I wanted to get out to scout the rapid, as my better senses told me to, but the competitive devil in me prodded me with his fork into the mouth of the rapid.

You know that sickening feeling of dreadful anticipation, deep in your gut as you approach something you don’t want to do? Well, that's how I felt on #4, but I didn’t even get time for that on rapid #7! A cunning grade 3 lead-in distracted me from what really lay ahead until it was too late. I seriously wanted to get out and inspect this one, and as I entered the jaws of this watery monster, I decided that in fact I really wanted to walk this one. It looked as if you’d need to be an Olympic gymnast to contort your way through it,……. a couple of half pikes and a double somersault, with an acute left hand turn half way down. If I got my line wrong, there was gonna be a few cartwheels followed by some unsynchronised swimming. To compound matters the curling bluff wave half way down the waterfall funneled through a chute so narrow I’d have to watch my paddle didn’t wedge across it.

Beyond that was obviously some more steep action, but I couldn’t see it yet. I felt despair turn to panic then to fierce determination. Some powerful support strokes got me through that one! The relief flooded the fear out, and then it was back to the business of getting to the finish line for Day 1 ASAP.

One by bedraggled one, the other competitors arrived, and along with them some gruesome stories. John the Aussie had swum 4 times and cracked his boat. All but three of us K1 paddlers took swims. The K2 Aussies in true Americas Cup tradition snapped their boat in half, the remaining two K2 teams, fear struck into them, walked around the major rapids. All the racing rafts jammed or flipped at some stage.

But none of these stories were as gruesome as the news that one of the rafting competitors had drowned on rapid #7. The mood of the camp suddenly transformed. The poor guy was a novice competitor who’d left behind a wife and 2 kids. Long into the night we debated the safety of the race. We concluded that the organisers had provided what was probably the best river safety that was available in Malaysia, but perhaps entries should be limited to experienced paddlers only. This fatality highlighted how dangerous adventure sports can be and the need to assess the risks before we start. I spared a thought for my family back home. Would the news reach New Zealand before we got out to a phone? Would they worry? Although they didn’t say anything at the time, I suspect they thought me crazy to face my nemesis in Malaysia.

Day 2 Was to go ahead as planned , we had wondered if Day 2 would be cancelled because of the tragedy. I was dreading day 2. I’d heard it was slow, shallow and that we’d frequently run aground on hidden sandbars. Like grilled bacon, we were gonna fry under the relentless sun, for 3 hours. The brown river water would offer little relief as it would be luke warm, heated as it ran over the shallow river sand.

Day 1 placings put me ahead of Aziz the Malaysian by 2 minutes and John the Aussie was a further 14 minutes back. We three started together in the same heat. Due to their superior hull speeds, we were all within striking distance of a win. Personally, all I had to do to guarantee a win was to stay with these guys today, …… idea that was blown out the door the instant the gun went! John and Aziz blasted ahead. Plan B was to keep Aziz in sight and hope that John stays less than 14 minutes ahead of that.

Emotionally I was see-sawing. Day 1 had been a fantastic revival from my aim of a top 5 placing to a win with a 2 minute buffer. Now my buoyant spirits were being plunged, as the buffer wasn’t gonna be enough. The other two were out of sight ahead of me. It was time for the turbo booster. In rather a contradiction of terms, the 80 year old Steve Gurney revisited, evicting that moaning superficial being that reacts to pain and fatigue. I felt that wonderful flame of burning desire heat my soul. My mind sharpened and focused only on efficiency and pulling back the guys ahead. As if in reward, the river changed unexpectedly to a beautiful little tree canopied gorge. The cool respite from the sun, fueled my drive even more. Within an hour I’d regained the lead. Aziz blew up, leaving John and I to battle it out to the finish. In a do or die half hour blast, I beat John to take line honours by 50 metres.

All skeletons are cleared from my closet and it feels fantastic.

I challenge you to face your fears.

Men's K1 Race Results:

1st Steve Gurney NZ 4:04:03

2nd Aziz Malaysia 4:12:00

3rd John Australia 4:22:23

4th Michael O'Donnell NZ 4:40:49

Michael performed fantastically for an old fart! (It must be pointed out here that he was NZ National whitewater champion in 1975).

First Woman: Chen Yuen-Li Malaysia 6:00:56

Race Description:

Day 1 is 22 km of grade 3 to 4 rapids. Day 2 is 35 km of essentially flat water shrouded by spectacular rainforest.

The event is open to K1, K2 and 6 person rafts.

Hype before the race:

The Cameron Descent is not just another Kayak race.

It is a very worthwhile and affordable Grade 4 paddling adventure trip for experienced paddlers.

It is also an excursion into one of the world’s oldest rainforests to meet the Orang Asli aborigines and to live their primitive lifestyle for a couple of days.

The Telom river starts in northwest Pahang mountains in the Cameron Highlands, at approx 5000 feet altitude.

Fly to Kuala Lumpur (Flight is nine and a half hours).

Race organisers:

Base Camp Sdn Bhd. Phone: 603 457 5007 Fax: 603 457 3007 e-mail

A 12-2-2, One Ampang Business Avenue Jalan Ampang Utama 2/2 6800 Ampang Selangor Durul Ehasan Malaysia

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