Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Reflections on Gunung Tapis Expedition (10/3/06-14/3/06)

A copy of the report I had to write for ODAC. One thing I really thank God for is that I managed to do a regular QT throughout the whole 5 days, even if it was at night in a tent. Thanks Daniel Yim, for telling me how you did it in NS outfield. Figured out if you could do it outfield I could do it on this expedition.

I shared Christ with one of the locals (lorry driver), a man by the surname of Tan as I waited for the rest to descend from rainbow falls on the 4th day. I pray that somehow the message of the cross was clear to him, for my Chinese isn't all that fluent.

Congrats, Kor, on your commissioning. Know it means a lot to you, sorry again that I missed it for the expedition.

Samson, Caleb, Joseph, Lowell. Thanks for praying for me when I had a runny nose as I sat the coach to Kuantan. Somehow I managed to rough it out those few nights.

I can only hope that through my actions on this trip I have glorified the Lord.


When you’re trekking for hours on end, when all you see around you is the unending expanse of the tropical jungle, when the slope and pace gets tough and the team stops talking and all you can hear is your own heavy breathing against the backdrop of the continuous, tireless jungle song of birds and insects and wild animals. When you pitch your tent and spend the night with your buddies’ shoulders to your left and right, fully aware that the closest civilization is a 7 hour trek and 2 hour lorry ride away.

That is when you’re in the outdoors.

The natural rock faces and the terrain are there. The summit is there for you to conquer. But you really know that your greatest obstacle; your most challenging summit is yourself. You also know that you can’t possibly go it alone all the way. You need each other. You move as fast as the slowest member of the team and you’re really as strong as the weakest. Be selfish and see your team mates struggle along. Be too gung-ho and see your body wearing thin and your team start to get slowed down by you.

Yes, ignore the team dynamics and you will meet with the consequences.

I ended this trip learning much more than I ever thought I would. This is my personal account.

We started on the evening of the 10th. Reported to school at 5:45p.m. Did the usual equipment checks. Drew what we needed from the ODAC store and packed our stuff at the tennis court.

Mr. Lim and the guide were telling Sheng Long and I that our packs were a bit too heavy for the trek. Sheng Long was carrying a 6-man tent throughout and I was carrying the 9-men. We’d have to trek 7 hours to the camping ground with our full loads. So Sheng Long and I did our best to lighten our loads. Took out even our day packs. I (foolishly) took out my prickly heat- thank God that I managed to borrow some from others on the expedition. Still, my pack weighed 12-15 kg. We were told to drink more water on the earlier parts of the treks to lighten our loads.

By 10p.m., after the last briefings by Chee Yong, Sheng Long and Myra, we’d loaded up on the coach. Reached customs at around 11p.m. Then slept on the bus amidst the chatter of a few nocturnal odacians all the way till the Hakka clan association at Sungei Lembing town. Reached there at about 5a.m. and had bread, cheese and lettuce for breakfast while watching a couple of stray dogs playfully chase each other around (and try to steal our food).

We took 2 lorries to the base of Tapis, all 25 of us. 13 J2s, 7 seniors, 3 teachers, 2 guides. It was quite dark, misty and cool when we started out and crossed a wooden bridge to get to the other side of the river. Somehow cutting through a Chinese cemetery made it a little bit more thrilling. Sitting on a lorry as it cuts through a jungle track is indescribably fun. It’s bumpy and you have to keep dodging overhanging branches while taking in the misty mountains in the distance.

We started our trek proper at about 7:40 a.m. Crossed a low-lying river and made some initially slow process. Most of us odacians hadn’t trekked in a while (the last time we took on the tropical jungle was last June at Gunung Belumut- but that was a whole different, drier, more straightforward affair). The rivers at the mountains were scenic and the water was refreshingly cool as we waded through them. I’d heard before that wet shoes, tropical heat and sand make for abraded feet, but I never quite understood the full extent of that till the 13th. Quite a few of us began to get leech bites. Interesting, since I’ve never been bitten by a leech before. A leech bite wound continues to bleed for about 3 hours even after you’re removed the leech with a lighter or insecticide.

Lunch break was 3 buns at a stream. Jeremy and I experimented with planting our bottoms in the cold river water- just some of the weird stuff that weird people called odacians like to do. I’d read before that if the body gets cold, your bladder gets full faster. That was correct. Clement lost his specs while trying to catch a snooze on a rock. They’d fallen off another rock where he’d placed them. He never got them back.

The part after lunch was pretty tough. The gradient got steeper and morale got lower. Somebody along the trek (can’t remember who) told me that it’s not too hard to tell when morale drops on a trek. That’s when people stop talking and start looking down at the trail as they ascend. That is exactly what happened. I remember feeling my quad muscles start to get a bit tight as I ascended. You know, the about-to-cramp-so-slow-down feeling. We reached Kem 3 as early as 3:30p.m. Kem 3 is roughly 500m above sea level. That is about 5 Bukit Timahs, if you’re wondering.

At Kem 3 is a memorial, which Yao Hui made for his friend, a certain Joseph Chang (not our guide Joseph). This man was a dedicated guide who volunteered to bring people up Tapis after the army had bashed through to the top and created a reasonable trail. In 2003 (if I recall correctly) he was bringing up a group when he died of a heart attack. The group had to bring him down and they laid his body at Kem 3 while they waited for the rescue team to come. Quite sad, yet interesting, these guide’s tales. It gives you a knowledge of the local stories and the close-knit climbing community in these areas.

Campsite I/Cs Sheng Long and Van started to delegate the regular campsite duties. I went off with Wei Long to dig the toilet. Digging a toilet may sound like a menial task, but it really isn’t. (notice that when people need urgently to do their business, and it’s not dark yet and there isn’t a suitable out-of-sight area to shit, the toilet I/C is elevated to god-like status) Everybody, especially the ladies, need the toilet. It’s not simple finding a location and making do with what you have. You have to bash through and make a clearing with a parang, then tie up groundsheets with cords. The toilet must be dug with a shovel till it’s 30-40 cm deep, from the fist to the elbow. Lay a shovel and a generous amount of soil next to the hole to sprinkle gently every time you finish shitting and there you have it: A five-star toilet!!!

Wei Long cut his hand with the parang and went back to the campsite. Seniors Shawn and Ying Guang came along to give me a hand. That’s when Ying Guang taught me how to build a nicer-looking toilet by pressing the sides down with a shovel. (My fascination with building a toilet might sound curious, but hey! I’m rather proud of being the most skilled and experienced toilet-maker in ODAC!)

Dinner that night was pasta with tomato soup. It was the first night in the jungle and I wasn’t really hungry. But it was quite clear that there was not enough meat, vegetables, salt or carbohydrates. This was when it began to become obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the food planning. But all was still manageable.

It rained that evening as we were finishing dinner. About 7 or 8 of us went to the HQ tent to just chit-chat till the rain stopped. Then we returned to our tents after the night’s debrief to find out tents flooded. I shared a 4-men tent with Alan and Wei Long (a 4-men tent fits only 2 reasonably, a 6-men fits 4 and a 9-men fits 6 to 7, if you’re wondering. I haven’t quite figured out why yet). We had to take of our shirts to dry the tent. Then we slept, with a faint glow from the mosquito coil as the only light that the eye could see.

They say that when you sleep, the coldness doesn’t come from the air, but up from the ground. That’s why insulating pads are important. ODAC didn’t bring any this time round, since we figured that we could rough it out for 2 nights in the wild. I suppose that’s why we woke up on the morning of the 12th feeling at 3 a.m. feeling cold.

Morning refreshment was heated Chrysanthemum tea. We started night-trekking to the summit at 4 plus. (Night-trekking is using headlamps and moving in the dark). The idea was to reach the summit as fast as possible. Night-trekking has a few advantages. It saves time, since you don’t have to wait for sunrise. Less water is lost through the skin, since there is no sun, and you save on the water-load. It’s dark, so you simply concentrate on moving forward. The summit climb was approximately 4 hours. A steep, slippery climb to the top. 4 hours in which we ascended one klick to the summit. The slope was an American-climbing class 4 (according to Joseph, the guide). We had to scramble (use all 4) for a large part of the summit climb. The gradient was easily more than 45 degrees. The one good thing was that we didn’t have to bring the whole load, just the bare essentials.

As we ascended, brief moments of beauty spurred us on. During the first 2 hours, it was the hundred of stars in the sky peeking through the tree branches. Then it became the sea of clouds below us, as the sun made it’s leisurely appearance, first with pinkish-orange light stunningly illuminating the clouds with a hue of blue, then as a little red dot peeking through in the distance over the clouds, then as a larger circle with it’s rays cutting through the branches. The wonders of God’s creation. Simply beautiful.

Equally beautiful was the change in the greenery. Unlike the rotting undergrowth at around 400m above sea level, it was now mostly wet (and slippery) rock, green moss and soft ground which sank a few centimeters each time you planted your foot on it. The sun rays peeking through the trees made the 1000m to 1500m part amazing.

The summit was rewarding. Just stayed around there for around 15 minutes snapping pictures and admiring the sea of clouds, with shorter mountains piercing through in the distance. It seemed something like a snow covered wilderness with small green hills over them, with our green hill being the tallest.

Then we began our descent. The descent always requires less energy but more skill than the ascent. It’s slippery, and you have to put all the bouldering and rock-climbing skills you ever learnt into practice. You have to hold on to branches and slowly lower your weight as you move down.

Well, we reached the campsite at about 12 noon I think. Had lunch- which was 2 pieces of pastries (sometimes my breakfast is more than that). The bad food planning became more and more obvious. I tried to sun my shoes as much as I could. Took out the in-soles and did my best to dry it. My feet were showing signs of being worn out already.

By 1:40 p.m. we began to leave the campsite, after striking tents. I descended with a double-layered set of sock plus another single-layered set. My feet were getting more and more abraded and the lack of food was beginning to take it’s toll. I had to consume Repalyte about 1 hour into the descent to prevent cramping up. I managed to find 2 sturdy sticks to use as trekking poles as I went down. The descent is harder than flat ground, especially if you have a load and you’re not too familiar with moving down, like some of the more seasoned seniors and teachers were.

At about 4 plus our group began to get separated with the front party moving a bit too fast and me and Keith straggling behind. (We were to be told later how much worry this caused our teachers, because there was more than one group without a comms device or guide or teacher). The weight of my 12-15 kg pack and the wetness and condition of my feet, plus the tiredness that comes from lack of food began to wear me down a little. But in the end, we still made it to the river by 7p.m. to set up the campsite.

Well, I dug another toilet with Wei Long at the campsite, this time it required a bit more creativity, since there were no trees at the location. So I had to use the parang to cut out a few branches to make a frame for the toilet while Wei Long used the shovel to build a hole and try to arrange the rocks in a way where one could have stable footing. Later Sheng Long came over to help us. Took us more than an hour, since the branch we used for the toilet frame broke halfway through. But we still finished the toilet! (And I used it the next morning- a unique experience since this particular toilet was open-door and facing the flowing river about 10 meters in front.)

Dinner that night was still manageable. The kitchen people were nice to me. Gave me some more excess food after everybody ate. Slept that night with Alan and Wei Long by my side again. Coincidentally, all 3 of us were a little sick.

Woke up at 5 a.m. Keith, Chang Tai and I were I/Cs for that day. Breakfast was Tao Sa Pia and Longan and Red Date tea. By 6:40 a.m. we set out to complete the last part of the mountain trek- crossing a river and getting on to the lorry, which would take us to the foot of Rainbow falls. I had to make the choice not to ascend the waterfall, since I knew my feet already couldn’t take it. By then I was well and truly CMI (Cannot-Make-It).

The party that didn’t ascend consisted of Chee Yong, Jeremy, Clement, Alan and myself. I spent the morning relaxing at a stream and reading my bible while the others either played Uno cards on the lorry or slept.

The others came down at 11 plus. We loaded up and took the lorry back the way we’d come and back to the town, where we had lunch.

We got on the coach at 2:30p.m. and headed back to Singapore. We reached AJ at 11p.m. Then we began equipment cleaning till 3a.m.

Hosing the tents to clean it of the soil was fun. There was Clement, Alan, Wei Long, Sheng Long, Chee Yong and myself. Interesting how the most simple task can turn out to be fun.

I woke up at 5 a.m. for sentry duty. By the time I had freshened up I didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. So I spent the morning chatting with Hazel, Jeremy, Chang Tai and Sam.

And we had debrief and then we went home.

Where I slept for 5 hours before eating dinner.

I enjoyed this trip thoroughly. Though I now have a little cough and some (understatement) schoolwork to catch up on, there is no place that I would rather have been. No other place than with ODAC on an outdoor adventure.

Our guide Yao Hui (who’s a seasoned trekker) rated Tapis as 4 to 4.5 stars out of 5, with 5 being mountains such as Gunung Tahan and 3 being Mount Ophir or Kinabalu. So I’m pretty satisfied to have completed Tapis

Hard Skills Learnt (from painful experience, guides, teachers and seniors)

-How to use a parang
Cut away from body, control your swing. Don’t let parang come into contact with sand, because that will blunt the parang. A good parang will grow sharper and sharper as you cut it. Yao Hui (the guide) never had to sharpen his parang from 1997/8 till now, and only because Wei Long and I used it on sandy branches.

-How to cross a low-lying river (clear water and up to waist deep)
Walk on the sand and the smaller rocks clustered together. Don’t step on the big rocks (they’re slippery).

-Preventing abrasions (groin and ??????? area)
Get better fitting underwear. Use Vaseline too.

-Preventing abrasions (feet)
Use black tape on the feet when it’s dry. This will prevent the feet from rubbing against the shoe too much. Wear more than one layer of socks when it gets painful Keep feet as dry as possible (Wet feet can get abraded more easily, especially when there’s heat and friction).

Prickly heat is very, very, very important. Especially when bathing is not an option. It dries and kills bacteria in the groin region, the feet and anywhere else. Personally, between prickly heat and extra clothing, I’d now choose prickly heat.

-Walking sticks (a.k.a. trekking poles)
They really help when you’re feet are abraded, your load is heavy (mine was 12-15 kg) and especially when you’re trekking down slope. The sticks help you to reduce the impact on your feet and get better balance without having to reach for branches around.

Food is an extremely, extremely important item, even if you intend to rough it out for the whole expedition. Inadequate food = Inadequate calories and body salts = Cramps. The next time, I think I’ll pack about 8 Muesli bars along (Mr. Ong’s suggestion). I know I need a lot more food then the standard rations provide. Of course, if all else fails, there’s Repalyte (electrolytes) to replenish body salts. But then again, it’s never nice to know that you’re just about to cramp up.

-Pace yourself
Yet another way to avoid cramping up is to keep going at a constant pace. Moving fast and stopping multiple times is a formula for cramps. Move at a comfortable pace and don’t worry about lagging behind. Somehow, the guy in front will always stop once in a while to either bash through or take a break.

Soft Skills Learnt

Never ever again trek without a guide, a compass, a map or comms devices if it can be helped. It worries the teachers and increases the possibility of getting lost.

-Toilet (a.k.a. shit hole)
Start asking the ladies to do what they have to at least 20 minutes before you start to dismantle the toilet. Somehow, people suddenly have to do their business just when it’s time to leave (Joseph said so, not me- though I agree).

-Campsite management
Even if you have as much as 4 hours before dusk to settle the campsite, don’t take your own sweet time. Dispatch teams immediately to puri-tab water at the water source, pitch the tents, cook the food, dig the toilet. Unexpected situations might crop up- e.g. rain.

-Bus rides
When backpacking, to save precious time and money, take night coaches. You sleep on the coach, so you don’t have to waste precious waking hours on heavier traffic and money on accommodation (if it’s urban backpacking, that is- and it wasn’t on this trip).

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