Wednesday, 20 November 2013

What doesn’t kill you…

Yet another blast from the past, this one from 2004, BEFORE I went off to the Sahara with the Petronas Adventure Team (which, sadly, no longer exists).
I dedicate this to the memory of the late Halim Abdul Rahman (pic above, with leg up), the inspirational leader of PAT who made it all happen. This was a story I wrote as part of the run-up to the PAT Trans Sahara 2004.

MANY of us dream of adventure. Of travelling to far-off lands and experiencing exotic cultures … and then we wake up to the harsh realities of bills and mortgages and deadlines and commitments.
Then there are the people who actually live those dreams. A nice holiday for these people, known collectively as the Petronas Adventure Team, might be a 20,000km drive over 60 days or so from Istanbul, along the historic Silk Route, and back to Kuala Lumpur. Or, how about a trip through China, Mongolia and Siberia over a month and a half?
Names of places that most Malaysians would know only from National Geographic are memories for them, and photographs of scenes we know only from the magazine’s pages are their holiday snapshots.
Each year since 1999, the intrepid Malaysians members of the Petronas Adventure Team have been setting out to explore remote places in their rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles, brightly painted in the colours of Petronas, their main sponsor.
The programme was the brainchild of Halim Abdul Rahman, who first made headlines as an adventurer when he made the cut for the first Malaysian team to take part in the Camel Trophy in Madagascar, back in 1987. After several years of organising local 4WD events as a business, the adventurer in Halim longed to venture further and wider.
“The world is such a big place, and I wanted to see more of it,” said Halim, adding that, “quite a number of people shared the dream.”
With backing from the national oil company, he and several partners put together an expedition to Tibet. The success of the trip, entailing 15,000km in 41 days over some of the toughest trails in Asia, prompted Petronas to sign on for the long haul and the Petronas Adventure Team was officially launched under the auspices of Petronas Motorsports in June 2000.
Since then, team members have driven through Indochina (2000), along the Silk Route (2001), and through Siberia (2002) and Southern Africa (2003).
Now, final preparations are being made for what could be the toughest challenge to date, the Trans-Sahara 2004 that will flag off from Khartoum, Sudan, on Aug 30, and trek through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, ending in Casablanca on Oct 7 – if everything goes according to plan.
The team’s members go forth in search of experiences beyond the ordinary and, more often than not, find challenges in the most unexpected places.
Crossing from Myanmar to Tibet, for instance, the entire expedition of 1999 were placed under “house arrest” by suspicious Chinese local authorities, who had never had to deal with so many travellers in foreign-registered vehicles before. Each day, the team members would pack their gear and load up their Land Cruisers, climb aboard and wait for permission to leave. They repeated this routine for five days, and each time, they had to dismount despondently after hours spent sitting in the cramped confines of the heavily laden vehicles. The confusion was eventually sorted out and sets of local licence plates were flown in from Beijing, clearing the way for the adventure to continue.
It takes a special kind of person to be an adventurer, Petronas Adventure Team-style. Physical stamina, mental endurance and patience are essential traits, obviously, as well as a sense of humour (to maintain sanity) during gruelling journeys that often, by choice, take the road less travelled.

It also requires money, lots of it. Even with the generous sponsorship of Petronas and other big firms such as the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation, participants have to come up with over RM20,000 each “for the privilege of suffering,” as one team veteran put it.
That’s in cash (to cover airfares, insurance, hotels and other expenses, excluding pocket money), on top of the considerable expense of buying a suitably rugged 4WD vehicle. Count on spending between RM100,000 and RM140,000 for a Toyota Land Cruiser. The big rig, known affectionately as the “Ninja Turtle” because of its rounded lines, is the team’s vehicle of choice because it is famous for reliability and has the capacity to lug around the copious amount of food and water, clothing, camping gear, spare parts and other miscellaneous equipment needed to sustain the adventurers for up to two months.
This is not to say that other 4WD vehicles can’t cope, but it makes sense for everyone to use similar equipment in order to cut down on the quantity and type of spare parts that need to be brought along. For the coming Trans-Sahara, Ford Malaysia is sending along two Ford Everests and a Ranger.
Then, there’s another RM30,000 to RM50,000 needed to modify the vehicle with protective bumpers and roof racks, winches, extra tanks for fuel and water and assorted paraphernalia, and a heavy-duty suspension system to hold up all that extra weight.
Once a vehicle is suitably kitted out for the rigours of an expedition, it is no longer suitable for use as daily transport because the suspension would be too hard without a load, and it would probably be too tall to enter any basement car park.
But the reward can be enormous: journeys not only to foreign and distant places but also voyages of self-discovery in which they find out how well they hold up under stressful conditions that are so far removed from routine normalcy. Try to imagine, if you can, what it must be like sharing the confined space of a vehicle with two other people, up to 12 hours a day, for 45 to 60 days. And enduring all this while traversing alien landscapes that range from desert to snowy mountains to mud, and coping with vehicle breakdowns or getting stuck in mud or sand, and, basically, facing many more trials and tribulations than most Malaysians endure in a lifetime.
Those who return for more are living proof of the adage “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger”.
When Petronas Adventure Team members say their motto is “no obstacle too difficult, no challenge too arduous”, believe it because they are not mere daydreamers. They do have dreams as well, though. There is always the next long trip to look forward to.

Next up: What type of car can withstand the rigours of a Petronas Adventure Team trek?