KULAI, JOHOR: Lost on Johor’s nearest mountain to Singapore, hiker Clarice Lum tried to sleep – but the fear of rolling down the steep slope, and the grunting of wild boars around them, kept her awake.
In the dark of the Gunung Pulai forest reserve, she and her hiking companion could only just make out the creatures' shadows.
“There were probably about four or five boars around us. We froze instantly. because we knew they’d attack us if they were provoked,” recalled the 27-year-old.
“I knew that my life was in danger.”
Telling her story to the programme On The Red Dot, in her first full interview since the pair went missing in February, Ms Lum described how a “simple hike” – one that normally takes hours – turned into a four-day nightmare when she and her friend strayed off course. (Watch the episode here.)
Their disappearance and the subsequent search operations grabbed headlines and stirred social media buzz on both sides of the Causeway, with some 200 volunteers stepping forward to assist in the hunt.
WATCH: A survivor's account (5:01)
FOREST'S SPOTTY HISTORY
When fellow hiker Dominick Tan suggested climbing Gunung Pulai, it was a challenge Ms Lum readily accepted, even though she hardly knew him and had never been up that mountain before.
“I’m a spontaneous person. Whenever my friends ask me to go for activities like rock climbing or sky diving, I’d be very game,” she said.
This particular hike requires about three hours via the paved road, from the base of the mountain to the 654-metre summit and back.
But the forest reserve has a problematic history: It was closed following a landslide that killed five people in 2001, and reopened only in 2016.
Though Ms Lum was going to take the jungle path to the summit, she was undaunted because her companion – who declined to be interviewed for the programme – was said to be an experienced climber who had also trekked up Gunung Pulai several times.
As it was supposed to be a half-day trip, they did not pack extra food or tents. They reached the first viewpoint after about three hours.
“I was feeling very happy with the adrenalin,” said Ms Lum. “I couldn’t wait to reach the summit.”
RED MEANS DANGER
On the second leg of their climb, they noticed that the forest had become denser.
“Dominick had to use his hands to push the leaves apart so that we could keep going through the forest,” she said. “That was when he cut his hand, and it started bleeding.”
Worried that the wound would become infected, they decided to take what they thought was a shortcut, by following the red markers on some trees. With hindsight, Ms Lum said: “I don’t think it was the right shortcut.”
In actuality, the red markers meant the area was dangerous and off-limits to climbers.
Said Ms Lum: “It got denser and denser, and it was very hard to bash on through the forest. And it got steeper."
By the late afternoon, she added, “we knew we were lost. That was when he decided to call the Bomba", Malaysia's fire and rescue department.
Kulai Fire and Rescue Station chief Mohd Khairi S Zainudin was puzzled as to how the two Singaporeans had got lost in the reserve, as it was a straightforward trekking area.
“The first thing we did was to tell the victims to stay calm,” he said.
We also instructed the victims not to move around so that we could find them more easily.
His team pinpointed the duo’s possible locations based on information from Mr Tan, who had an app on his phone that could locate their coordinates.
The coordinates suggested that the two were on Hill 308, where the red markings were, said Mr Mohd Khairi. But his team was unable to locate the hikers after four hours of searching.
The two hikers had to spend the night in the forest. “It was cold. We were wearing basic sports tops, and Dominick was wearing shorts,” said Ms Lum.
We were on a very steep slope. And my fear was that I’d roll down the forest. I got very worried, and I couldn’t sleep.
Then there was the wildlife, especially the wild boars wandering around. Mr Mohd Khairi knows only too well the dangers that lurk in the forest. “There are venomous animals, and there could be wild boar attacks,” he warned.
“There are areas where the rocks are slippery. There had been a case where a victim died.”
He mobilised a new team to take over for the morning search, though he himself did not sleep that night. “But being tired wasn’t my concern,” he said.
“It was our duty to find them. We were determined to save them; we felt like our own siblings were in trouble.”
That second day, the two climbers started rationing their food. They only had some packets of cashew nuts, potato chips and a couple of nutrition bars.
And they faced a dilemma: Stay and wait for help, or search for water for survival. They decided to leave their location and were relieved to find a stream three hours later.
“After collecting our water, we decided to follow the stream downwards,” said Ms Lum.
“I thought it was a good idea to keep moving so that the wild animals wouldn’t follow us. But I was worried that (the search team) couldn’t find us," she added, as they were moving away from the coordinates they had given.
SOCIAL MEDIA HELP
Mr Mohd Khairi suspected that the two might have wandered off, even though they were told to stay put. His team of 60 split up to look for them over an ever-expanding area – with help from some 200 Malaysian and Singaporean volunteers.
They joined in the search partly owing to the efforts of Ms Lum’s friend Chloe Quek, who had learnt on Facebook that her friend was lost and decided to galvanise social media users.
“I updated all the posts to say that we needed volunteers with experience in hiking,” she said. “They could go down to the site to help the authorities.”
Ms Lum’s mother Ann Chia remembers waiting for her daughter at the foot of the mountain, hopeful with every returning team. “But the 100 to 200 trekkers returned with no news of her,” she said. “I cried non-stop.”
Meanwhile, her daughter was particularly hungry, tired – and had been bitten by a leech while walking along the stream.
“I was terrified,” she said. “My first instinct was to pull it off, but Dominick told me that I couldn’t … because the blood would gush out. He helped me to burn off the leech using his lighter.”
The hikers even started to hallucinate at some point.
“We were shouting, ‘Tolong! Tolong!’ (Help! Help!), and we heard something – we heard ‘Hello, are you there?’ from across the river. We said we were along the river, and the sound responded. It said, ‘OK,’” recalled Miss Lum.
But it was just their imagination.
CROCODILES AND SNAKEHEADS
Mr Tan was feeling very apologetic for putting his companion in this predicament. “I told him that it was okay, (that) we’d get out of there alive,” Miss Lum recounted. "I still had so many things that I had yet to achieve.
I had yet to travel around the world, to settle down … to buy a house for my parents. I really couldn’t die without accomplishing these things.
On the fourth day, the Bomba team decided to concentrate on an area they had not yet searched – one the two hikers had ventured into.
Said Mr Mohd Khairi: “That area is extremely dangerous, and we didn’t expect the victims to go there. There are crocodiles and giant snakehead (fish) there, which can attack humans.”
The two tried building a raft to cross the water but gave up, as the logs were too heavy. They then decided to swim across the river.
It was then that they heard the sound of a helicopter. They immediately started shouting to get its occupants’ attention. But the aircraft flew away, sending Ms Lum into a panic.
She said: “I thought they didn’t see us, and I had a mix of emotions – of sadness and frustration.”
But they had been spotted. Mr Mohd Khairi was on the rescue chopper, and at first, he thought the figures they saw in the river were fishermen.
“Then I thought again – fishing is prohibited in that area. So we turned around … we were certain they were the victims.”
WILL TO LIVE
When the aircraft returned, Ms Lum was ecstatic. “I was crying. I was saying to Dominick, ‘I’m going to get out of here alive!’”
Mr Mohd Khairi said he was the happiest person to have located them. “I was shocked because we didn’t expect their will to live to be so strong. Especially in such an extreme area, and in their injured condition."
The two, who suffered minor injuries, were sent to Pontian Hospital and then to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where Ms Lum took a blood test, was given an intravenous drip, and had her wounds cleaned.
Some five weeks after the ordeal, the On The Red Dot team arranged for her to return to Johor, to visit her rescuers. She brought some gifts to thank them, and was surprised when the whole Bomba team turned up.
“As I shook each and every one of their hands, I felt this tingling sensation of emotions. I was about to cry,” she said.
“They gave me a second chance at life because without them, I’d still have been stuck in the forest, or I’d have died.”
The Malaysian agencies’ efforts also drew praise from Singapore’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
When Mr Mohd Khairi ask Ms Lum if she would consider returning to Gunung Pulai to hike, she said yes, but not yet.
“I’ll take my time to heal first. Once I’m ready, I’m sure (next) time, I’ll reach the summit,” she added.
Clarice Lum is one of four Singaporean travellers who share their stories of terrifying misadventures abroad, on On The Red Dot. Watch this episode here. New episodes air on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.