Trail of Death

From Mountain Biking Australia

My guts churned, and I felt hollow. A glazed look sweeps across my face as my mind struggled to cope with things. I was truly shocked, not at all for the first time on this journey, but I figured I’d become more or less immune to the whole story by now, as I’d researched most of the horrific details over a long period of time.

We’d stopped off at a stall in a small, near anonymous village in the north of Sabah, Borneo. We were loosely following the routes of the horrific Sandakan death marches of the Second World War, and were in a spot that was used as an impromptu stop off during the marches, where thousands of prisoners of war were force-marched to their deaths. I was told the story of a local man who had recently passed away, he was enforced as a cook to the Japanese captors, and told the tale of how he was once forced to cook two prisoners for the soldiers to eat. By this stage they were so malnourished that their was no flesh on the bones, so he was told to take out and cook the intestines, it just beggared belief, but it was true and documented along with so many other atrocities.

Our ride was around 250km and 3 days in all, along a mix of jungle jeep roads, palm plantation trails and some hard core. This was more or less along thee lines used in the marches, although many things have changed since then, so conditions are nowhere near as harsh today, and we also chose to skip the impenetrable jungle scrambles, which were near impassable with a bike, and also to skip some of the road sections where logging trucks make conditions treacherous.

The port of Sandakan, is situated on the north coast of Borneo, and was used heavily by the Japanese during the war, and was where they shipped in and initially held the POW's. All in all there were some 2600 POW’s shipped to Sandakan between 1942-43, mostly all Australians, and a fair amount of Brits. They had mostly been captured during the fall of Singapore, and others from the Philippines. This made the town the obvious starting point for the route, and we literally rode out from the remains of the POW camp, where many were to meet their end.

Maybe you wonder why we did this ride? Well, it had not been followed by bike before, and had a real sense of purpose. There were just 6 survivors from the marches, all of who escaped to safety, and it was the worst atrocity ever in Australian military history, and one of the worse crimes of the war.

Our initial section was a long slog from Sandakan to Teluipid, This is relatively flat country, so not too demanding. We wound our way along miles and miles of sweet palm plantation trails, great for cruising and clocking up distance, but back then this was primary jungle, and no easy slog for the prisoners.

The Japanese saw great shame in surrender so showed little respect for their captives, or for the Geneva Convention. The war was nearing it’s end, and they knew it, and the allies were bombing the ports heavily, so they decided to move the prisoners inland to force them to work on a new airfield, and to slowly kill them off.

We had the full luxury of a support vehicle and supplies, and a nice clean shower and bed waiting at the end of the day; the prisoners had none of this. It was tough enough just riding easy in the intense heat, which was getting up towards 40 degrees at times. The soldiers were given little or no food or medical supplies, many didn’t even have footwear, and they were literally marched until they died, or were executed along the way – beheaded, shot, or simply kicked to death when they were too weak to continue, no mercy was shown.

Day one had been a hot and humbling day, but in real terms out ride, and the tale of the marches had only just reached the opening chapter. This is where the going starts to get tough, seriously hilly and hot, and through dense and humid jungles.

We were heading for Tampias, a small village used as a stop off point during the marches. The scenery is truly spectacular, especially during early morning, when the mist rises from the jungle, like a magic carpet, The noises of the jungle can be deafening when you chose to listen, although the climbing ensured we had little time to do anything but concentrate on getting through the day.

We eventually came out above the Tovud River, a major crossing point during the marches. Bellow us I could see the river, during the war this was a serious torrent, and the weakened solders were forced to try and cross, many were too weak and were swept away to their deaths. Those that survived were faced with a 2 hour dense jungle scramble out of the gorge, while Japanese soldiers kicked them back down the gorge, shooting those who did not have the strength to try and climb again, for us it was time to rest up and contemplate what had happened.

Our final day dawned, and we were headed for Ranau, the ending point of the marches, where those that did survive were finally slaughtered. Many locals also risked, and lost their lives trying to aid the prisoners. There was a little old lady living in one village we passed through who is known as the ring lady; when she was a young girl she used to sneak the waste food for the pigs and feed the prisoners. It started with one, and became six – then one morning she returned to feed them and found 7 rings in a tin, wedding rings belonging to the soldiers, they had gone, and had left a small thank you for her.

That last day in the saddle was long, hard, and hot. As we got closer and closer to our destination so the riding got tougher, and the heat seemingly hotter. Crossing in towards Ranau we entered the final section, and an evil climb over from Muruk to Ranau, passing through numerous paddy fields. This 30km out and back slog is where the surviving prisoners were forced to carry sacks of rice from camp to camp, until they finally died. For us it was just a hard day in the saddle, nothing by comparison.

Thanks to Borneo

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