Another bast from the past, this one from 2004. Also, another example of the fun things you can do with a 4X4 (or several) and the band of brothers in mud that are usually associated with such vehicles.
A romantic dinner by candlelight in a five-star hotel, surrounded by dear friends, feted to a fine meal and even finer wine, serenaded with soft music – sounds like the makings of a perfect birthday party.
It’s easy enough to organise one of these – round up a few pals, head off to a fancy hotel, order the best food and drinks in the house, and then settle the bill at the end of the night.
However, this just did not seem good enough for a birthday that comes once in four years.
Last Sunday was Feb 29, my wife’s 10th birthday (so to speak!), and also exactly one month after our 10th wedding anniversary. Clearly, the occasion called for something special. But what?
I pondered on a “variation’’ of the above scenario – a romantic candlelight dinner, surrounded by dear friends, feted to a fine meal and even finer wines, serenaded with soft music... but all under a million stars amid the ageless rainforest, tens of kilometres away from civilisation.
A few days earlier, my regular gang of 4X4 buddies had proposed an off-road trip over the weekend to Sungkai, Perak. They were unaware of the “big event’’ looming before me. Ordinarily, I would not have had second thoughts about going along but this time, it was obviously out of the question. Try telling your beloved that you and she are going to spend her rare and precious birthday in the jungle, bathing in a freezing mountain stream and sleeping in a tent and … forget it!
Well, Rena is a rare and precious sweetheart indeed and when I suggested we head for the hills in our truck on her big day, she agreed!
The inspiration came from countless movies I had watched as a child, when the most adventurous thing to do was to go on safari in Africa, like the great white hunters in King Solomon’s Mine and the countless Tarzan films I adored. The heroes and heroines would trek at the head of a long line of porters all day and then sit down to a proper dinner, complete with white linen, silver knives and forks, waited on hand and foot by their attentive native servants, amid the sounds, sights and smells of the wilderness.
The idea is quite politically incorrect today, I’m sure. But, I often wondered, wouldn’t it be fun if my pals could be persuaded to play waiters and chefs for a day?
Unfortunately, I could not even make the pitch to them in person because another pressing engagement (involving work and, more importantly, beer) came up at the time set for discussing the logistics of the expedition, which was going to proceed with or without me. But it was organised anyhow: ‘You’ve got your party’ read the short message service (SMS) on my mobile phone go and the mission was on!
After an inauspicious start on Saturday morning when I missed an interchange that I had used dozens of times before and ended up having to battle traffic just to get onto the expressway, we were on our way. An hour and a half of highway motoring brought us to Sungkai, a sleepy town off the North-South Expressway, around 110km north-west of Kuala Lumpur. Here, the convoy of six 4X4 pick-up trucks turned east and headed for adventure.
Unfortunately, one of our regulars, Gerard Richard of Cameron Highlands, could not make it because of a last-minute family emergency. We would miss his company, and the truckload of flowers he was tasked with bringing along from the highlands.
We bounced along dusty and deeply rutted tracks, at first passing through rubber estates and oil palm plantations and several orang asli settlements, then along muddy logging trails winding alongside a spectacular rock-strewn stream with breathtaking rapids.
Then, the lady of the day and her 10 male companions arrived at the chosen spot. According to the constellation of Global Positioning System, also known as GPS, we were at latitude north 4° 07’ 37.3” longitude, east 101° 27’ 22.2” at an altitude of 965m. The nearest town was Bidor, 18.9km away as the crow flew, on a bearing of true 264°.
As the growl of diesel engines died away, to be replaced by the sound of rushing water, nine men began the familiar routine of setting up camp.
The view from our campsite was magnificent. In the middle of a valley winding up into the hills on either side, a crystal-clear stream tripped and fell over boulders polished smooth by centuries of fast moving water. All around us, ancient trees reached up tall and straight to the sky, forming walls of green that would put even the grandest hotel ballroom to shame. Above, the sky was clear and blue, promising us all a perfect evening under the twinkling stars.
Chef Richard Ho, whose day job is fleet sales manager at Ford Malaysia, wasted no time getting stuck into his favourite hobby of setting fire to charcoal.
Out came the lamb cutlets, and the steaks and chicken chops, sourced from a supplier known as “Lambchop Lai”. The meat had been well marinated since the day before, but no one could think of any good reason why a stiff shot of Johnnie Walker Swing should not be added to the gravy. Things were looking merry already.
Ho , who confessed to being unable to cook anything fancier than boiled eggs and instant noodles, proceeded to serve up one of the finest barbecue meals we’ve ever had, and we’ve had quite a few. By then, there was a banquet table laid out with white tablecloth, scented candles and the requisite silverware and crystal wine goblets and champagne flutes. Colourful examples of the local flora, including what looked suspiciously like grass seeds, filled the now-empty Swing bottle pressed into service as a vase.
Maitre d’ Lionel Yew, looking suitably spiffy in his dinner jacket over an Adidas jersey and shorts, towel draped correctly over one arm, served up the stream-chilled wine, a bottle of Italian Nipozzano. By day, he moonlights as marketing manager for Adidas Malaysia, which explained the jersey and shorts.
The chef’s assistant and father, Geoffrey Ho, slaved over a hot stove and wok, serving up course after course of delicious dishes, including stirred fried cabbage and fresh petai with dried prawns. He finally stopped at five courses, but most of the diners were well and truly satiated by the third course.
More fine wine and liquor were served , including a bottle of Otard Jade fine cognac, a brand new bottle of Swing, and a giant magnum of South African bubbly labelled J.C. Leroux, which was perfect for the birthday toast, along with a bottle of sparkling Martini Asti.
Great food, fine wine and liquor, wonderful companionship in harmonious surroundings with Mother Nature graciously providing perfect weather (the temperature was an ideal 20ºC) and not a single mosquito in attendance – could it get any better?
We started counting the stars, and somebody got to 81 before complaints of stiff necks prompted us to adopt that as the official figure. No one thought we were being too generous when we judged our al fresco dining establishment deserving of 81 stars, plus a quarter moon.
There were some of the traditional trappings of a birthday celebration – the surprise appearance of a candle-topped cake, presents and the hearty toasts.
“I’m flattered, touched, lost for words. Don’t know what to say except to thank you all for this most wonderful birthday treat. I’ll treasure this memory for the next four years,’’ said Rena.
We talked, as good friends do, about everything under the sun. The subject of “ten” came up – Rena’s 10th birthday, our 10th anniversary, a party in the company of 10 men. Just then, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played on my truck’s stereo, and it sure sounded like “Ten, ten, ten, TEN!”
And so we partied on, well into the wee hours of the morning before retiring to the luxury of air mattresses in nylon tents, satisfied that this was one birthday party that was different from the norm.
Now, all I have to think about is Feb 29, 2008.
* Footnote: Feb 29, 2008, has come and gone. We went to Italy, she had her pilgrimage to St Peter's while I had mine to St Agata Bolognese. That's another story.
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