Wednesday 23rd March
I guess that I slept no more that night than the other three and certainly didnt feel at all rested when the sky began to lighten at its customary seven oclock. I rose, weary and aching, with a day ahead that offered nothing. Id done all my jobs the day before and it seemed that there would be nothing to do but wait. And Im not very good at doing nothing and waiting.
As well as my body and clothes not exactly smelling their best, I hadnt cleaned my teeth for five days. Now that may not seem important but my mouth tasted worse than after any 15 pints of lager and a Vindaloo night out. I seemed to remember seeing a TV programme in which indigenous people were shown cleaning their teeth with a small piece of wood and I searched for one, but nothing suitable was to hand. So, as best I could, I scraped the gunge and gunk from my teeth and tongue with my finger nails and thoroughly washed my mouth with water. I thought that Id done some good but in reality the taste was just as bad.
I realised that taste was one of the things I was missing. Every day we taste many different things, mostly food; and I like my food sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, the different flavours and textures of the food and drink we take every day. But, since my last few shortbread biscuit crumbs, Id tasted nothing but the neutrality of the river water and it seemed that it would stay that way until I was rescued.
Ah, rescue; what were the authorities doing? Surely they should have helicopters up and looking by now, surely Id have heard something if they had. I was convinced that they had no idea at all where I was and were looking in quite the wrong place with inadequate resources and equipment. I longed to know what was going on. Shamefacedly I thought time and again about Noelene and the girls. I hated myself for putting them through what they were obviously having to cope with. Its very corny to say it but my love for them dominated my thoughts, more than survival itself.
I determined to cheer myself up and be positive, because that is my way; Im a natural optimist. Things would turn out okay; it might take a few days more but I had water, shelter of a sort and I could manage without food for a lot longer. But I had dark thoughts and wondered if, while my mobile phone still had some battery, I should write last text messages to Noelene and the girls and even do a text will to be found beside me in a few weeks time. This was one of the worse periods of the whole five days and I felt alternately very sorry for and very angry at myself.
I whistled and sang! I dont have much of a singing voice, even though in my youth I was in the village church choir. But I do sing and whistle to myself constantly at home and at work. It both amuses and annoys Noelene youre always so bloody cheerful! In fact Id been singing and whistling on and off quite a lot as the days passed. Some of the songs were banal in the extreme and most of them ones that I would never, ever listen to. I hate Chris de Burghs Lady in Red but I sang it and thought of Noelene and I getting ready for the dinner dance at Harrogate which we attend each year. In the last days Id frequently sung Don McLeans American Pie (why?), Que Sera Sera seemed a bit more appropriate as did Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. There were others too, but I cant remember them. No doubt one was Comfortably Numb for thats how I felt from time to time (maybe Uncomfortably Numb).
Because the night had been uncomfortable yet again I gathered more and more dried bamboo leaves, armfuls of them and rebuilt my bed, levelling the sand with a stick before laying it down again. I stuffed more dried leaves into the Morrisons carrier bag in my rucksack in an attempt to make my pillow more comfortable too.
Id been making sure to leave my red sweatshirt of the boulder in the middle of the stream, hoping that it would be able to be seen by the helicopter that surely must be searching each stream, river and water course, slowly and at low level. My other things were on the boulder too I was determined to make sure that my feet were dry so there were my socks, boots, boot inners and Sorbothane inserts (remember John, look after your feet and they will look after you). I had swapped my night time long trousers for the shorts so the trousers were on the boulder too. The camera was still drying out and began to work a bit again so I added that and its damp case. I wanted to make sure the rucksack was dry for the night so on that went too.
It was about a quarter to eleven and I was messing around, trying to make myself appear busy and take my mind off my predicament. I turned my socks over and was standing by the mid-stream boulder when I thought I heard an unfamiliar noise. I had; it was an engine, quite far off but unmistakably an engine the first human sound of any sort (apart from my own) Id heard for five days. It was coming towards me and I rushed to my red sweatshirt, whirling it around my head like a Dervish, jumping up and down, frantically waving. The chopper came into sight, rather high up to my east and flying quite fast. It simply passed me by, but it had seen me, hadnt it, it would turn round, come back and winch me out of the forest by a wire as they do in all the best films, wouldn't it? But the engine faded into the distance and was gone.
I was devastated and, for the first time since I became lost, I wept. Just snuffling, sorry-for-myself tears, but I wept and thats all there is too it. I was crushed and sat on my log, dazed, not knowing for a while what to do. They had searched this area now, had found nothing and would move on to another part of the forest. They wouldnt come back this way for a very long time. I would have to wait for days or find my own way out and I began to think of how I should do that. I really didnt have the heart to take on the forest again, knowing how slow and painful progress was likely to be. This was an especially dense part and I would have real problems to get myself out.
I whistled and sang Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and tried to get on with my day. Its one thing wearing the same tee shirt for five days, but the same underpants? Yuk, yuk, yuk! Id better do something about that! So I washed them in the stream and added them to the other drying things on the boulder. I put on my shorts and, as Noelene would say hung loose Mother Goose.
There was simply nothing to do but sit around and feel sorry for myself. Maybe if I had lit a fire the helicopter would have seen me. So again I frantically rubbed the sticks together until my arms ached and they (the sticks, that is) broke in two, but still not even a wisp of smoke. I didnt feel like continuing to turn my phone on every hour but I did so, standing on the mid-stream boulder and holding it as high as possible to try to get a signal; but nothing. I didnt even feel like continuing to shout HELP, HELP every half hour in all directions, but I did.
At about half past one it was time to cry for help again and I did so first to the east and then north HELP, HELP, then YES, YES, surely I was hearing things but no, splashing down the stream towards me was a very small brown man in a blue uniform in bare feet with his boots strung around his neck. I WAS RESCUED! I screamed, shouted, jumped up and down, punched the air, threw my hat into the air and howled YES, YES, YES at the top of my voice. After five long days it was over, I would be safe and with my loved ones again. He reached me and I clung onto him like a brother with tears streaming down my face. Mr. John? he asked. Yes, yes, yes, of course I was Mr. John.
His name was Atai and he was an Oran Asli. Atai was quickly followed by another of his race called Rashig and they called to others who quickly arrived. Altogether, within a few minutes, there were about 10 of them on Jungle Johns island. This was unit Tigu-Tigu Alpha of VAT 69, part of the Malaysian Polis Special Forces, their equivalent of the UKs SAS and they proudly showed me their red berets with silver insignias. Only one guy, Raizal, spoke even a few words of English but that didnt matter. The first question was you okay? I okay, okay was my reply. I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures of my rescuers and they one of me with them. I thought that we would leave immediately but Raizal said heli come, heli come, wait, wait. Everything was said twice for some reason. I could hear the radio guy calling Tigu-Tigu Alpha, heli, heli time and again but with just a few crackles as a response.
One of the men lit a fire to make as much smoke as possible. He didnt rub sticks together, merely used a disposable gas cigarette lighter. Now why hadnt I thought of that? Another made me sweet coffee with condensed milk over another fire hed lit and then boiled up some water in an aluminium pan and added Maggi curry flavour instant noodles. I had proper food once again and it was joyous. They gave me orange juice and my mouth was filled with wonderful flavours once more. I suddenly realised that I was exhausted but very, very happy as the guys sat or stood around, smoking, relaxing and trying to contact the helicopter. One of them examined me, gently touching my scrapes and cuts but I said okay, okay and then my wife, my wife. He didnt seem to understand so I said my woman, my woman. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up so I guessed that they had made contact by radio and that Noelene would soon be told that I'd been found.
I put on my very wet (but clean) underpants, long trousers, socks and boots and packed all my bits and pieces into the rucksack. It seemed that they couldnt make good contact with the helicopter and we would have to walk a while. It was no problem for me. I felt happy, light hearted and so very, very relieved that it was almost all over. With two of the guys in front of me wielding pangas and clearing the way before us, yes, hacking their way through the jungle as in all the best films, we made our way upstream, which surprised me a little. Before we had left, the commander of the force had showed me the detailed map they had been using. Id supposed that there werent so many streams such as I had followed but, if fact, there were hundreds of them. It was no wonder that the search had been so difficult. Rashig chopped a branch from a tree, quickly and expertly removed the bark and handed me a very useful walking stick. Oh that Id had one of those a few days ago.
We made slow progress upstream, frequently walking in the stream itself when the going through the forest became particularly difficult. It seemed that contact was made with the helicopter again and, as we stood in the stream, a couple of the guys lit another fire whilst others cleared a space on the bank, hacking away at the bamboo. I said heli-heli to Raizal and he gave me the thumbs up. Maybe I would be whisked away into the sky after all. We heard the chopper approach and, with all of us waving wildly, the fire producing volumes of smoke it simply flew over us again and into the distance. It had missed us again. So we resigned ourselves to walking out.
After a couple of kms we met another group of searchers and they all wanted to shake my hands and clap me on the back. It seemed as if I was the hero, when in fact it was they who were mine. We scrambled up waterfalls, past the abandoned Oran Asli encampment, that Id seen days before, and slowly made progress through the forest.
About three hours after leaving Jungle Johns Island we rounded a bend and I saw three small modern looking concrete built buildings on the right side of the stream. What are those? I said to Raizal. Tandas, tandas (toilets) he replied. What, toilets in the middle of the jungle, it cant be! And it wasnt, these were the toilet blocks at the Jeriau Waterfalls that Id visited the previous Friday. For almost three days Id been no more than about 10 kms from them! More and more of the Special Forces joined us and I was introduced to the major, very big, smart and, in contrast with my rescuers, with very clean boots! Atai, the small Oran Asli who had first reached me put on his own boots at last. All the time in the forest and stream hed been bare footed but he now matched the major with his clean, dry boots.
We waited around and I took a few photos, they gave me more food (chocolate chip biscuits and orange juice) and rested and relaxed themselves. The major spoke pretty good English and I asked him if my wife had been told of my rescue. He said Wife knows, very happy. We were all very happy but no-one more so than me. I was exuberant.
The Jeriau Waterfalls is a small tourist stop and it felt strange as I and my guard of maybe 30 Special Forces Polis walked along the paths to an ambulance which was waiting for me. But I said that I was okay so they put me in a 4WD instead and drove me out of the tourist area, slowly up the road to Frasers Hill town. I thought that we would stop at the Old Smokehouse but we passed it by and continued to the town centre where a large crowd had gathered. I was escorted from the 4WD to cheers from the crowds and dozens of cameras flashing at me, as in all of the best press scrum downs that you often see on TV. Everyone wanted to shake my hands, pat me on the back, give me a thumbs up. I was crying with happiness and, with tears rolling down my face I was escorted into the clinic.
I was accompanied to the clinic by OCS Radzi, chief of the Bukit Fraser Polis, who had been involved in my rescue from the start and by Junus Suhid, Director of the Pahang State Tourism Action Council who is a very keen photographer. Junus had lived outside Malaysia a great deal and spoke perfect English. He told me that the State Tourism Minister, Datuk Maznah Mazlan, has spoken to Noelene personally and she knew that I was okay. I was ordered to strip to my underpants (just as well Id washed them that day or my mother would never have forgiven me!) and, as I removed my trousers, a number of leeches fell to the floor. I dont think we want these, said the nurse, expertly picking them up and getting rid of the disgusting things. She attended to my wounds with an iodine wash, measured my blood pressure (130/90) and gave me a tetanus injection, she dressed me in a clean shirt that belonged to her husband and gave me a pair of plastic sandals which eventually rubbed a blister on my big toe, something which my Brasher boots certainly hadnt done. I was told that I needed to go to the main hospital at the nearest town, Raub, for further checks and I asked if that was really necessary. I guess that they were being cautious and said that I should go.
I asked again if I could speak to Noelene. Junus gave me his mobile phone/PDA device and I made the call that Id been waiting to make ever since Id been rescued. The phone was on speaker mode and I could hardly hear what Noelene, Dawn and Claire were saying for the screams and squeals of delight coming from them. The tears streamed down my face and at last I felt relief. I apologised to them for what Id put them through, told them how much I loved them and how our love for each other had helped me through the dark moments that Id experienced during my isolation. I promised to call back later and speak to Noelene without so many people listening in!
I was escorted out of the clinic by a posse of lovely policemen, Sgt. Radzi, Ibrahim, Kahar and Bahair, through a clapping and cheering crowd of about 200 rescuers, local people, tourists, press photographers and journalists to the police station opposite where they wanted to ask me some questions. I had thought that I was going to be interrogated and shamed (quite rightly in my opinion) for the stupidity of what Id done. But it wasnt to be the case. It was a press conference and the local men and women of the fourth estate wanted to hear my story.
I began by apologising for all the problems and inconvenience that Id caused to all who had been involved in my rescue. I said what a wonderful country Malaysia is and especially what a fine State is Pahang; and its true, it is! I sincerely thanked those who had been involved in the rescue and it turned out that on the last day there had been almost 150 Polis, Polis Special Forces, Army, three helicopters, tracker dogs and many, many local volunteers. It was an amazing effort and time and again I expressed my extreme gratitude. I was asked if I had prayed and I said that I had, even though until then I had considered myself to be an atheist. I was asked therefore if I had found god in the jungle and I tried to explain that I had found a certain spirituality but I suppose that the subtlety of my reply went over the heads of most of those present. In any case, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
I was asked if I had eaten any of the forest plants and I said that Id tried some berries but they had been disgusting. I think it was my answers to these two questions that led them to write, and others around the world to repeat, that I had found god in the jungle and had survived on a diet of plants and fruits from the forest. As Im an ologist (a microbiologist, actually) I suppose that anyone who would live on such fare must be a botanist and why else would such a person go there other than to research the plants? Amongst the many lessons I learned from this experience is that you must be very clear, concise and simple with the press. Theyre bound to get hold of the wrong end of a story!
I noticed on the wall of the Polis conference room a large chart showing the details of the rescue, where each team was, who was leading it, the area in which they were searching and a crude map with already searched sections crossed off. Again it brought home to me the enormity of the scale of the search and I felt very humbled once again. Soe, the Manager of the Old Smokehouse, arrived at the press conference with a holdall containing clothes and a few other things but there was hardly any chance to speak to him. But he and Junus collected my rucksack, boots and socks from the clinic and took them up to the hotel.
I was taken from the Polis station, back in the 4WD to the Old Smokehouse and a wonderful welcome from Soe, who hugged me like a brother, Maya, the receptionist and all of the other staff, clapping as I asked if they had any vacancies for the night! I went to my room, cleaned my teeth and shaved for the first time in five days and had a long, luxurious shower. I felt clean at last and it was great! I put on clean clothes, including a pair of trousers loaned by Soe and sat down with the assembled throng on the hotels veranda to a large cold beer and an excellent Beef Wellington. Some Asian food would have been nice but, hey, I wasnt going to complain. This was just perfect.
Janet Ng from Thor Malaysia phoned and said that she and Kiew had been up to Bukit Fraser the previous day to see what, if any help they could give and to inspect the troops. Kiew had pronounced himself satisfied with the operation and they had gone back to KL. Janet arranged to come and pick me up the next day at about eleven oclock, would take me to the Hyatt Saujana at Subang and try to get me a flight back to the UK that night.
I talked with Soe, Junus and the Polis who were sitting with me Ibrahim, Kahar and Bahair and they told me more about the rescue. They wanted to know my full story and I recounted it to them in as much detail as I could remember. The Bukit Fraser ambulance had followed us to the hotel and was waiting to take me down to Raub for a further inspection! But I really didnt feel like lying in the back of an ambulance down a very twisting, bumpy road so I took off in Junus 4WD with two of the Polis. We dropped one of them off at the Bukit Fraser station where I met, this time in civilian clothes, the guys who had actually rescued me. There were handshakes and thumbs up all round, hugs from some of them and many a photo taken.
Junus, Inspector Bahair and I drove down to Raub, closely followed by the ambulance with its lights flashing and, occasionally, its siren wailing. I was taken into the A&E, rather guiltily jumping the queue of local people who had obviously been waiting a long time for attention, and met a charming young Malay doctor who had been trained for seven years in Dublin. He checked my blood pressure (still okay), heart and lungs, gave me another injection and said that hed like to keep me in overnight. But I was having none of that and he agreed that if I really wanted to I could go back to the Old Smokehouse. He advised me to have blood tests carried out in about five weeks time to see whether or not Id picked up any parasitic infections and officially discharged me.
We dropped Inspector Bahair with some of his colleagues at a rather nice looking fish restaurant and headed back to Bukit Fraser with Junus. On the way back he loaned me his phone again and I had an all too brief private chat with Noelene, until the signal dropped. Junus and I talked, not so much about the rescue but about ourselves. His wife Liz has a fascinating ancestry being descended from a former Cornish tin miner who had come to Malaysia in the 1930s (already married in England with three children), married a local woman and had three more children of the same gender and named the same as his English family. Once the Japanese invasion took place he disappeared, probably back to Cornwall and was never seen again. Last year they had visited Cornwall to try and track down his grave or find some relatives but, despite the help of the local press, hadnt been successful. But Junus certainly has an affinity for Britain and all thats British. He told me that hed worked in the USA for quite a long time and had spent several years in Japan too, learning the language fluently. It was a fascinating conversation with a very worldly and educated man and took my mind off the fatigue that I was now feeling.
We got back to the Smokehouse at about half past eleven and the young boy, who is a waiter there, handed me my key, Soe popped his head around the door and said good night and I was alone with a huge, warm comfortable bed. I checked my texts for the first time since being found and discovered the ones that Noelene and a couple of other people had sent me whilst I was out of signal range. I composed a text to my closest friends and family thanking them for their love, help and support, sent it to maybe a dozen or so people and then settled down for a good nights sleep. But it didnt come. So many things were whizzing around inside my head that even the warmth, quiet and softness of that beautiful room couldnt induce me to sleep for more than a few hours.
©John Gillatt, 2005