Friday, 7 March 2008

Operation: Kg. Rening

It was in January that Andy Paul asked if I were able to assist him in an aid ops to deliver food and other supplies to the poorest of the Orang Asli (indigenous) communities in Cameron Highlands, Pahang. I had, of course, accepted the assignment and engaged the 4x4 gang to mobilise mission-equipped 4x4s for this trip. Our contact persons were Mr. Ooi, an MNS member who had coordinated the collection of food and clothes, and Kali, the guide who will be leading us to the village.

And so after days of exasperating deliberations with the donors who insisted on tagging along on the trip just because they wanted to see “where their donations went to” but were completely unprepared for hardcore offroading and camping, we were finally ready to roll on 1st March.

We spent a good part of the morning loading the 3 vehicles (a long-wheel base Land Cruiser 2 [Foo’s], a Ford Ranger [Zawalan's] and a Mitsubishi Pajero [Chan’s]) with sacks of rice and boxes of food items and clothes. I was given the responsibility of instructing another teammate, Mr. Chan, on how to operate the ham radio handset while he helped both drivers calibrate our ham frequencies.

It took us 4 hours to arrive at Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, and meet our guide, Mr. Kali. After a quick lunch, we began the challenging 6-hour offroad drive to Kg. Rening in the depths of the montane forest. Much of the trail was narrow, winding, badly rutted and full of sharp rocks that could puncture your fuel tank if you ride too low. It was old hat for the Offroadies (Foo, Sharene, Chan and I), but hell for the donor-tourists from the Buddhist Society, being the lightweights that they are.

Our guides were complete turds who, as if it were not frustrating enough that they weren’t in radio contact with us, never stopped at the forks in the road to point out the correct way to us. They left us to take the wrong track for hours until they sensed that something was wrong and then turned back to look for us. A gentle but firm reprimand from us that accelerating and then having to turn back isn’t exactly Fuel Economy Tip No. 1, set them straight and made them a little more mindful.

Along the way, we passed by dozens of Orang Asli villages. Most were well-kept and neat, and had solar panels for electricity generation. The villagers collected enough jungle produce for trade and the younger men often found work with the vegetable farms.

As we drove through the montane forest, I spotted Greater Racquet-Tailed Drongos, a Black Eagle, and other birds. Majestic Tualang and Kapur trees, bamboo groves, elephant ferns, wild plantain and banana plants and rattan plants thicker than my thigh flanked the trail, and mist enveloped the lush forest.

We arrived at Kg. Rening at 1845 hours, just before dark. It was a tidy, small village of 14 huts, each one a home to 2 – 3 families. A stream and waterfall 200 metres away supplied fresh water, while photovoltaic panels and energy-efficient bulbs provided lighting. They didn’t have much else. Half the time, the villagers could provide for their own needs. They harvested jungle produce, grew tapioca and vegetables, raised a few jungle fowl and caught frogs, fish and wild boar. But now times are hard and the pickings are slim. Many of the young men have left to find work in neighbouring villages and farms, leaving the elderly or disabled men to look after the womenfolk and children. The nearest village is hours away, even by car. The children couldn’t get to school. They had no clothes or shoes, and have had no rice for months. The clearing and bisecting of the forest for agriculture and highway construction also meant that they now find it harder to hunt wild boar and other bush tucker. The hills were cold at night and the villagers have had no blankets or medicine in ages.

With the younger villagers’ help, we unloaded our rigs. The village headman, now old and partially blind, oversaw the distribution of the donated items. There was a mad rush for the used clothes and shoes, but there wasn’t enough to go around. Children screamed and cried when a particularly favoured t-shirt or pair of jeans was claimed by a bigger child. It was heartbreaking to see them so much in need. I normally do not believe in patronising the indigenous communities, but instead, pledge to build meaningful friendships with them and attempt to create opportunities for education and access to healthcare and legal advice. However, we could see that this village was truly in need, and we vowed to come back in 3 months with a convoy of ten 4x4s to bring these good, honest people clothes and food aid to tide them over the rougher months.

It was raining like the clappers by sundown and a conflict arose when we realised that the Lightweights were not Mission Ready at all. They didn’t have a single tent or hexamine cooker between them, and expected us Offroadies to give up our camp beds and mess tins for them. I was pissed beyond belief, but Chan and Ooi as usual helped us all reach an amicable solution when they managed to persuade the village headman to let us have the use of a vacant hut for the night.

It was a pukka comfortable hut but rather dirty, so I swept it clean, removed the rubbish and spread out newspapers so the Lightweights could unroll their sleeping mats on top. However, instead of showing gratitude, the lady, Bee Yong, told me sullenly not to bother because she didn’t think she would sleep well anyway, while the old man, Phua, insisted that I mop the floor as well as sweep! I have never met anyone so single-mindedly determined to have a miserable time of it. I love camping and expect others to make the most of it, too. Those who cannot rough it out should not insist on tagging along and making a nuisance of themselves.

We had a pukka hot dinner of rice and canned sardines, and fed the leftovers to the villagers’ pet dogs and cats. Offroadie Sharene and I did the washing up. After an icy cold wash with my eco-friendly shampoo, the Offroadies sat out on the porch drinking our stout and whiskey. We told bawdy stories to each other and laughed well into the night, sharing our booze and tucker with the friendly villagers who came to visit their ‘new’ neighbours. The solar panels switched their supply off by 0100 hours, and we slept out in the porch with the stars as our ‘bathroom light’.

Woke up to the delicious smell of roasted tapioca. Ooi and the Offroadies had bought bushels of tapioca and sweet potato from our village friends, and the men had roasted some for breakfast. Had a pukka wild tuber breakfast with strong sweet coffee. Had a wash in the stream, tidied up, gave the rest of our tucker and rations to the children, readied the vehicles and shook hands and exchanged hugs with all the village elders before we left our newfound friends.

The drive home was memorable because Chan’s rig kept getting stuck in the unlikeliest of places and we kept having to strap, shackle or winch his rig out. We finally got onto the highway to Raub after more than 4 hours of moderate offroading.

We had a curry lunch at Ratha Restaurant in Raub, which was highly satisfying. At Bentong, we stopped to refuel, and the men proposed ice-cream at a well-known little confectionary shop. Homemade ice-cream on a Sunday afternoon seems to have universal appeal, as the little shop was full. The ice-cream, which came in local flavours such as sweetcorn, coffee, screwpine leaf, coconut and durian, was rich, delicious and surprisingly dense.

Here are photos taken by the group:

Happy, friendly faces!
Unloading the Ranger.

Sorting out the food aid for distribution at the porch of the village headman’s home.

The village headman.

“Hurray! I’ve got sugar!”
Fowl Play?
Group Photo: Standing, left to right: Sharene, Foo, Zawalan, Ooi, Ravi, Kali, Kali’s son, Phua and Bee Yong.
Squatting, left to right: Me, Kali’s business partner and their two boys.

Winching Chan’s Long-Wheelbase Land Cruiser II out of a ditch.

The rest of the drive home was blustery and wet, but at least the rain had washed a good deal of the mud and laterite soil off our pickup. I helped Zawalan tidy the truck and put away the bags, got into my Battletank, and was soon safely back at the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters with Chloe, Pix and Wee Daisy.

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