Friday, 5 June 2015

Rise of the Padawan Challenge

The fame of Padawan, as in Jedi-wannabe, may have spread far and wide, even to galaxies far far away but that of Padawan, the district in Sarawak, maybe not so much.

Not so well known it may be but the charms are aplenty here, with friendly inhabitants and picturesque landscapes making it a popular destination for visitors who make it to Kuching.

Padawan encompasses about 1,430 square kilometres south of Kuching city with a population of 300,000, comprising mainly Bidayuh and Chinese, along with Malay and Iban.

Efforts to realise its tourism potential were cranked up a notch recently with the inaugural Padawan International 4X4 Challenge, which attracted a total of 60 teams from as far away as Sabah, Johor, Brunei and Indonesia.

The high-octane contest of men and machines against nature was the highlight of this year’s Padawan Fest, an annual affair which is already known locally for its colourful tapestry of culture, food, music and traditional sports such as rafting and even a triathlon.

For local 4X4 aficionados, the Padawan Challenge was a much needed boost to their favourite sport, which has been lagging in development behind regional neighbours.

Despite the state’s size and rugged terrain favouring the widespread use of robust go-anywhere, all-wheel-drive vehicles, Sarawak has not had a high-profile event to rival Sabah’s 25-year-old Borneo Safari, the Peninsula’s world-class Rainforest Challenge or the numerous big-name events in Kalimantan, or even Brunei.

Although drivers and vehicles from Sarawak have enjoyed success at the highest levels in these neighbouring events, the absence of a comparable local event has been glaringly obvious.

The Padawan Municipal Council picked up the gauntlet early in the year and, with enthusiastic support from the various local 4X4 clubs, things are finally looking up.

Excitement was further heightened by news that some of the superstars of 4X4, including the much-celebrated Borneo Safari 2014 champions “Lozai” Lo Fui Min and “Chuxi” Chang Chiew Shew”, would be going head-to-head with the local heroes.

It would not be just a onlookers’ spectacle either, with three categories created so that there would be plenty of action for any 4X4 fan to test themselves against, according to their own level of experience and appetite for pain.

Just as eagerly anticipated was the arrival of the out-of-state vehicles. Fans of 4X4s are never content with a factory-built car since each person’s ride is expected to reflect his own (and his wallet’s) touch so it was to be a welcome opportunity to see and touch the best works from the Sabahans, Indonesians and Bruneian builders.

Class A was the premier no-holds-barred event, featuring the top drivers in fully souped-up vehicles while Class B was for more moderately modified cars and Class C was a clubman-like event for anyone in a standard four-door, long-wheelbase 4X4s.

The action commenced under a blistering sun, and the crowd was not disappointed. There were thrills and spills aplenty as the less polished crews made amateurish mistakes, such as not engaging their four-wheel-drive or forgetting to start the stopwatch, and were punished for them with disqualification, broken parts and even overturned vehicles.

It became apparent quite early on that the celebrity drivers were a cut above the ordinary, with the Lozai-Chuxi pairing scoring two consecutive wins in the first two special stages (SS). Their brilliant run continued with a second, then another win, a second and a third, and then two more wins, to build an apparently unassailable lead from five clear wins out of eight stages, without a single penalty.

The task of defending hometown honour rested on local hopefuls Jong Jack Koh and Jong “Ah Tee” Ai Loong, who had both tasted successes in competitions abroad, who stayed within reach, just, with a solitary stage win and several top three finishes.

It was by no means a two-horse race, with other contenders such as Sarawak’s Wilfred Sim and Indonesian co-driver Sortono, the second Sabahan pair of Ye Yong Chung-Chin Sei Yeung, and Kuching’s Then Tze Kim-Chai Kuek Leung all in contention for a podium finish.    

With a single SS left to run and a large margin, Lozai and Chuxi seemed a sure bet until the unthinkable happened - they failed to complete the stage, recorded as a “Did Not Finish” or DNF. With that, they could do no more than hope those coming after them would also fail to finish.

On the one hand, several other teams also scored DNFs despite giving their all. On the other, a window of opportunity, however slender, appeared for the trailing pack who had yet to take the last torture test.

With all the makings of a classic cliffhanger, the sun was setting and time was running out as two teams left counted their chances and knew they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going for broke.

Then and Chai gave the local crowd reason to cheer when they become the first pair to complete the dreaded gully run, but the best they could hope for was a third place.

The two Jongs were up next, with two non-negotiable tasks to accomplish - they must finish the course before the allotted time ran out, and they must do it without incurring penalties - if they were to fulfil the hopes of the tense home crowd.

One can only imagine the pressure on the Jongs as they weighed the difficulty of the task at hand against the outside chance of upsetting the pre-race favourites, and doing it in front of their fans and friends.

Jack Koh and Ah Tee rose to the occasion, made their run with intelligent decisions and, crucially, without making any expensive mistakes. And the crowd roared!

At the sporting level, it was a great success with the local heroes claiming purses of RM10,000 and RM3,000 for their victory and third place, respectively, in the elite category while the much-celebrated favourites were consoled with a respectable second place and RM5,000.

The honours reflected the international flavour of the Padawan Challenge, with the Indonesian pair of Cicing-Hendrian Lim topping Group B, and victory in Group C claimed by the Bruneian pair of Au Fook Hwa-Vance Lee Khin Pek.
While there had been some shortcomings early on, organising chairman and Padawan councillor Wilfred Yap said, all was well that ended well.

“We are confident the success of the Padawan Challenge will be a boost to 4X4 activities in Sarawak, and we can look forward to more support from the state government and tourism authorities,” he told the cheering crowd.

With the area’s majestic limestone hills as a backdrop, the challenge venue at the Bengoh Resettlement Scheme, some 35km south-west of Kuching, was an immediate hit with the competitors and supporters, as well as the estimated 12,000 visitors to Padawan over the two days.

Before the event, few people had been to this new village, which was built to accommodate the residents of several nearby areas who had to be relocated because the building of the Bengoh dam flooded their homes.

Now, there is new hope that Padawan will establish Sarawak firmly on the region’s 4X4 map.