Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lest We Forget.

In 1945, over 1000 prisoners of war (POWs - mainly Australians and British servicemen) were forced to march some 250 km, from Sandakan to Ranau. The Japanese were 'transferring' them to Jesselton to become coolie labourers but they ended up in Ranau due to Allied air activity on the West Coast (where Jesselton/Kota Kinabalu is). There were three groups of POWS who were on the Sandakan-Ranau Death March - the first group being the fittest, the last being the least. Of the 1000-over POWs, only 6 survived. The others died of various reasons: disease, malnutrition, fatigue or killed by the Japanese for being weak or for attempting escape. The march was a horrible ordeal: barely any food, little water and some men only had the clothes on their back and walked barefeet. Death was considered a gentle way out.

Last weekend, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to experience what was considered the toughest route of the infamous Sandakan Death March, namely Taviu Hill in Telupid. I was very familiar with the story of the Sandakan Death March, having organised/attended countless events & memorials in honour of the POWs who died, but to fully appreciate and understand the suffering they went through, I decided to actually retrace the route of the unfortunate soldiers.

Our journey took us from KK to Ranau, where our first stop was the Kundasang War Memorial. We were shown a 15-minute video on the Sandakan Death March, followed by a quick tour of the memorial.

Outside the Memorial, with a fantastic backdrop of the mountain.

Our journey continued to Telupid, where we would make several stops to visit the various POW routes. We finally reached this one:

We stood on the bridge. Sprawling valleys and hills, dense foliage. Simply amazing. Until we found out that this was going to be our exact hiking location. Yikes.

So we checked into our resthouse, had a good night's rest and the next morning, were rearing to go. "Please please please let a bus come along..."

The first hour and a 10 minutes was a relatively easy walk through a plantation. It was a little muddy but nothing we couldn't handle.

"See? Piece of cake. la la la..."

The next bit proved to be a bit more tricky. We had to hike some hour and a half along a river. More like IN the river, which was pretty much a rocky stream and didn't go too deep. It was nice and shady and I was often tempted to just dunk my whole body in the river. According to our guide Tham Yau Kong ( , many POWs died in this area. A chilling thought but surprisingly it was very calm and peaceful

This is me happy to see the other walkers resting at a pit stop. Yay, i can sit down for a while!Climbing over fallen trees, balancing on slippery rocks and ducking through branches slowed us down a lot.

I am a jungle trekker, hear me roar! Flanked by Walter (left) who was my walking buddy from beginning to end. So nice of him to wait for me, heh heh. The other Mel (right) who was waaaaay in front. Hmph, kawan konon.

The last bit is up up up...All the way up Taviu Hill. I could see why this was the toughest bit. Slippery slopes, narrow paths and leeches made in a complete nightmare. Imagine the POWs who had to go through this without food,water and shoes. I was exhausted beyond belief but everytime i wanted to give up,I thought of the men who died right here and how they struggled with each step. It kept me going. Tham explained that this hill was where the Japanese would shoot the weak and ailing soldiers and just roll their bodies down the hill.

Smiling through the sore muscles and leech-free! (ok sort of. One of the buggers still managed to crawl into my shoe). Five and a half hours later, I complete the Death March route. That's Rinto. Saja wanna be in the photo.

Group photo outside Sabah Tea Garden. Everyone is extremely tired at this point. But everyone left not regretting a single drop of blood, sweat or tear shed throughout the experience. At the risk of sounding cliched...It was a life-changing experience.

I still hate leeches though.

Check out for more comments on the Sandakan Death March experience.

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