Monday 21st March
It's not a surprise that I slept very fitfully, shivering much of the time but dry nonetheless and my feet were much warmer than they had been the previous night. It's untrue to say that I woke with the dawn because I was way ahead of it. But I rose as the sky became lighter to my left, to me confirming my suspicion that the hill with the red light had been to my east. I contacted Noelene and she and I texted each other a couple of times. I explained that I must head downhill, find a stream and get water but that I wouldn't do so until she had spoken to the rescue team. Within an hour she had contacted them and I sent:
"Gone for h2o. Will return here or another place where fone works. Saw red flashing light on hill some km maybe to my E. Pls tell rescuers. Also tell Brit. High Comm. in KL. I love U"
After a while the reply came "Told embsy + rescue. Rescue starts half hour. They want u to stay by stream + wait 4 them XXX"
I'd heard that it's possible to pinpoint someone via the mobile phone system so I asked Noelene to request the rescuers to contact Maxis and Celcom, the two providers whose systems I was using, in the hope that they would be able to locate me. Maybe the Malaysia mobile phone system doesn't have that facility or perhaps they never tried it because this was an avenue that also didn't seem to lead anywhere (although I found out later that the British High Commissioner had personally spoken to the Managing Director of the largest of the Malaysian providers about trying this). A bit like most of the paths I'd followed!
I set off, tried to photograph where I'd stayed, but the camera had got wet the previous day and wasn't working. I walked ahead on what seemed to be a proper path, heading slightly downwards through the undergrowth but quite quickly the path began to rise again and became harder and harder to follow. I left markers to remind myself where I had been (simply two crossed pieces of wood propped against a fallen tree, bush or on the ground). Eventually the going became impossible and I ran into the same awful thorn bushes as the previous day. The temperature began to rise and I had to drink some of my precious "good water". I had about 50 mls left. I decided that if I was going to find a stream I'd just have to crash my way through the undergrowth, down the very steep slope, now to my right (I thought, north).
All of my "good water" had gone and, desperately thirsty, I had to try some of the "recycled" variety collected the previous night. I took a couple of big glugs and it was absolutely disgusting! Salty, bitter, smelly and worse - but it would save me, wouldn't it? They reckon that some people drink such water for therapeutic purposes. They must be completely out of their tiny minds! On a second occasion I had to do the same and probably took about 250 mls altogether. If there was ever an incentive to never get lost in the forest I had found it!
So I slipped, slid, bumped and forced my way downwards. I was stopped many times by sheer drops that had to be walked around (I use the term "walked" very loosely), huge fallen trees to be climbed over, banks to be scrambled up as I slowly progressed downwards. The light began to fade as the tree canopy grew more and more dense and a quiet gloominess descended. And then ahead I could just discern a slight twinkling in the sunlight - water. There was a tiny, tiny stream at the bottom of the slope. I thirstily drank about half a litre straightaway both to relieve my thirst and to take away the disgusting taste of what I'd forced down myself earlier. I filled my water bottles, rinsing one of them very, very thoroughly and checked for a phone signal. Surprisingly I still had one but my battery was now down to less than 20% as I texted Noelene:
"have found h2o but stream v small will walk downstream a way n wait for rcue but will probly lose fone contact XXX"
and she replied "Go ahead girls send their love xxx"
So I began the trek down another stream. The going was rather more difficult than it had been on Sunday as the stream sloped more steeply and I had to scramble and bash my way over rocks (oh those bruises). I began to feel very isolated and worried in case I badly injured myself. A few cuts, bruises and scratches are one thing and can be easily but painfully dealt with, but had I broken a limb then the outlook would have been much more grim. I slowed my headlong downward dash and progressed more slowly and carefully.
As on Sunday the stream I followed collected others and gradually became wide, deeper and more strongly flowing. It levelled out and I tried to avoid wading through it, preferring to use the banks wherever possible. But they were mostly covered in very dense undergrowth, the way often blocked by fallen trees, thorn bushes, creepers and all the other "jungly" things. Worst of all, maybe apart from those bloody thorns, were the increasing growth of bamboo. When bamboo grows it does so in dense clumps, rapidly heading upwards but then, at a certain height, it just seems to fall over and forms an almost impenetrable mess of decaying and half decaying tubes, or whatever bamboo trunks are called. They really are very, very difficult to get through and I often had to resort to crawling under or climbing over masses of the things.
Sometimes I was forced into the stream, by now becoming a river, as others joined it. At the junction of "my main" stream with another I found what appeared to be a footpath, the first I'd seen since the one on the hilltop the previous day. It was pretty overgrown but following it along the river bank wasn't too difficult. It lead to a clearing close to the water's edge and it was evident that this had been some sort of temporary Oran Asli encampment some time ago. It was a shame that my camera wouldn't work because it was quite fascinating. They had dug holes, constructed seats and benches from wood and bamboo, held very firmly together with creepers. There were holes dug, evidence of fires and rather ominously, a depression in the ground where something had possibly been buried. It was the size of a small person, although I'm sure that there was probably just an animal buried beneath. I found a very worn and tattered copy of a Malay language newspaper dated 29th July 2004 and that made me think that if they had been there so recently then maybe they had moved to another place nearby. For a few minutes I shouted "help" as loudly as I could. The only response was my own echo, muffled by the forest foliage.
I found another path leading from the clearing and followed my way downstream. I was very tempted to use the Oran Asli space to make my camp, but there was a complete tree canopy, I wouldn't have been able to have been seen from the air and I didn't know what ghosts lurked there! It didn't feel a very welcoming place and I must admit that I left it with a bit of a shiver! The path was very intermittent and I again had to alternately wade in the stream/river and force my way along the bank. Several times I passed large animal holes in the ground, rather like big fox burrows and I wondered what slept inside them. Occasionally, in patches of sunlight, large beautiful butterflies darted around but I was in no mood to admire them. I almost tripped over the largest wild tortoise I've ever seen. It was all of 70 cms long and 25 cms high and simply looked up as me, very sleepily, as if I were stupid. How wise a tortoise can be!
In places I had to take a track away from the stream, where another joined it or where the going was too difficult and on a couple of occasions I again became disorientated and found myself going in the wrong direction, having to backtrack several times. By about five o'clock I knew that I had to look for somewhere to spend the night and realised that for better or worse this could be my last resting place before rescue or........ Yes, there were very dark thoughts going through my mind!
This small river didn't have the many sandbanks of the one I'd followed on Sunday and I began to think that I'd have to sleep in the forest itself. That was a bit daunting as Soe, the Manager of the Old Smokehouse, had told me on the Friday about the discovery of a family of a poisonous Tarantula like spiders that had been found recently, for which David Attenborough and a BBC TV wildlife team had visited the area late in 2004. However, I rounded a bend and saw a likely spot with a sandbank about 10 x 5 m in size jutting slightly out into the river with a large boulder in the middle of the water flow, itself with a small sandy "tail". There was a gap above in the tree canopy and hopefully the rescue helicopter, when it came, for I was still convinced that it wouldn't be much longer before I was out of there, would be able to spot me.
This was to be my desert island and I reached it by wading through the water as the forest on either bank was, once again, impenetrable. At one end the stump of a fallen and partly decayed tree was embedded in the bank, thoughtfully providing a seat, next to it was a second seat in the form of a small boulder, then there was my bed space and, at the other end separated by a small width of water, another large boulder, ideal for sunbathing on. Thoughts of Robinson Crusoe came into my head!
I had a couple of hours, so I roughly levelled a place where the sand was drier, once again gathered leaves for my bed and ate half of the remaining shortbread biscuit crumbs, washed down with a rather nice 2005 vintage river water. I smelt: I don't mean that I sniffed the air and took in the fragrances of my surrounds. No, after three days of very hard walking it was me that was the smelly object. So I took off my clothes, realising for the first time just how filthy they were, especially the poor old Stones 2004 tour tee shirt! I bathed in the stream, washing the sand and muck off me and the dried blood from my wounded arms and legs. I was astonished at how bruised I was and, after only such a short time, how much bonier I had become. I could easily see my ribs and my stomach, never very large, had gone altogether. I wondered how long I would be able to last without food and then rather perversely remembered the IRA hunger strikers of the 1970s who had lasted for several weeks before starving themselves to death. I'd be okay: I had somewhere to sleep, I wasn't ill or badly injured and there was water aplenty.
I washed my hanky (well, one has to maintain some standards), lay naked on a rock to air-dry myself before putting my very dirty and rather unpleasant clothes back on. Only my socks and boots were wet. I began to think about the creatures of the jungle and the large animal holes that I'd seen earlier in the day and decided that I needed protection. I found a heavy piece of wood and lay it besides where I would sleep, although I later wondered what use such an object would be if a Tarantula was crawling over my face in the dark. I'd have probably done myself more harm than the spider.
It was another cold and fitful night and, as the moon rose, the din of the animals increased again; thankfully there were no mosquitoes. The sounds of the night were different here compared with the first river bank and the hilltop. I heard several creatures whose cries to each other were "kark - screech, kark - screech", slowly at first but with the tempo gradually increasing to a pitch and then fading away; there were always 36 "kark - screeches". Another, in what I first took for a human voice, said "one" slowly and repeatedly, almost like a sound engineer at a rock concert a third seemed to repeat "fuck you, fuck you" over and over, to which I replied at the top of my voice "yes, and fuck you too!". Another creature disconcertingly made a noise like a 1970s British Post Office Telephones "Trimphone" and had me reaching for my mobile at first thinking that it was suddenly, magically working. I heard the mother of all cicadas again, whose sounds increased and increased in pitch to a crescendo fell away and started over again. There were many, many other grunts, groans, screeches, growls, chirps, beeps and other noises all competing with each other to prevent me from sleeping. Once again I shouted at the top of my voice "Will you all shut the fuck up and let me get some sleep". Surprisingly they took not much notice!
The strangest thing about all these noises, or maybe it wasn't, is that I really had no idea, apart from the cicada-like insects, which animals they were coming from. They could have been monkeys, apes, other mammals, birds, insects or any other creature. I hardly saw any of them, which was both a shame and also reassuring. I guess that the higher animals knew that I was there and decided that I would make a lousy meal, so they may as well remain hidden from me. As the almost full moon shone down I did see a lot of bats flitting across the open space in the tree canopy and the occasional night time birds flying over but that was all.
My socks were again cold and wet, making my feet numb so I put my also cold, wet boots on for the night. It helped a little but made for very clumsy sleeping as I rolled from side to side to try to make myself comfortable. Because of my weight loss, my hip bones were protruding a bit and they'd been pretty badly bruised in bumping over the rocks; so the only comfortable position was on my back, with my hands in my pockets and my legs crossed. This isn't, however, how I normally sleep as Noelene says I snore when I lie on my back (although I've never heard me, myself!). After all I didn't want to disturb the creatures of the night, did I! I guess that, as with the previous two nights I probably slept for no more than three hours on and off and my mind was full of thoughts of Noelene, Dawn and Claire, my family, friends and all the colleagues, comrades and acquaintances who I knew would be worried about me. I began to feel very, very guilty and as the moon set behind me, making the night darker still, my mood became gloomier and gloomier. I wondered what I should do next: stay put and wait for rescue, climb up high again and use my remaining mobile battery to try to make contact with my rescuers, go further downstream, upstream, where, what, how? I reached for my wonderful Maglite torch and a coin, determined to make a choice. But, in the dark I tossed it twice and then lost it in the sand or bedding. No decision was the correct one to take that night.
©John Gillatt, 2005