Walking the Sandakan Death March Trail and Gunung Trusmadi

Invictus Games Foundation
Tham’s company in Borneo

The Sandakan Death Marches took place during the last months of World War Two on the island of Borneo where over two and a half thousand Australian and British Prisoners of War were being held by the Japanese. The men had been moved to the island (where there was no actual fighting occurring) to build an airstrip, as the Allies gained control of the sea and air around Borneo the Japanese announced they were going to start moving the prisoners to Jesselton (modern day Kota Kinabalu) to act as labourers. The track was cut by local labourers who were unaware of the fact it was going to be used by POWs and so had routed it through the most inhospitable terrain possible and kept it away from settlements. Only six Australian POWS managed to survive the three death marches, the remainder of the men dying of hunger, malnutrition and illness or being killed by their guards when they became too weak to continue. The route of the track was rapidly lost after the war ended with sections being planted for Palm Oil and other sections becoming tarmac roads, however local guide Tham Yau Kong and Australian historian Lynette Silver worked together to not only rediscover much of the track and many of the camps along the route but also to get this story out to a much wider audience.
Tribal Tracks and the Invictus Games Foundation had put together a team of retired and serving military personnel to undertake a trek on the Death March route followed by an ascent of Gunung Trusmadi, the second highest peak in Borneo but one which is notoriously tougher than Gunung Kinabalu. The team consisted of veterans from Australia, the UK, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and the USA. Many of the individuals had suffered physical and mental injuries and the Foundation was promoting this trek as part of an ongoing recovery programme. Guided by our excellent in country team, led by Tham, the Death March trek was made all the more gruelling by intense heat and very high humidity, not to mention narrow, slippery jungle trails and even leeches. As a team we were equipped with modern equipment and plenty of excellent food and drink making it almost impossible to imagine how torturous it must have been for half starved, half naked POWs. Working in these conditions and with the history of the trek, having an all military team bought an added dimension to the adventure and the trek itself was very emotional as well as being physically challenging. We trekked through dense jungle with the hoots of Gibbons in the distance and Chameleons blending into the foliage around us. We trekked through Palm Oil plantations, forded rivers, followed streams and everywhere we went we were greeted warmly and welcomed by the local villagers. We visited a number of significant WW II sites including the small Death March Museum near Ranau, the Alan Quailey memorial at Sabah Tea Plantation and the sites of various different POW camps along the way. It was an incredible experience and ideal preparation for the challenge of Trusmadi.
Trusmadi is 2642 metres tall, significantly lower than Kinabalu, but unlike the latter which is reached by well constructed paths, Trusmadi summit is protected by thick jungle necessitating the use of fixed ropes and with much descending and ascending as the route weaves through trees and along narrow ridges. Add in the heat and humidity and it becomes a considerable challenge. The mountain is also home to some unique Pitcher Plants and admiring and photographing them provided a welcome respite from the ongoing challenge of reaching the summit which we eventually did. The descent was equally tough but the magnificent effort from the team was rewarded when we got back to our accommodation with a couple of bottles of local rice wine……strong stuff!
Outside of our trekking the team were well looked after with visits to the hot springs and canopy walkway at Poring, as well as visits to swimming holes and waterfalls for some much needed cooling off. We tried plenty of local tropical fruit, Mangosteen-good, Durian-an acquired taste, and had time to explore the markets and waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. I feel incredibly privileged to have been working for Tribal Tracks on this particular journey and to be partnering with the Invictus Games Foundation and TYK Tours who proved admirable partners. Best of all though was working with this brilliant team of hugely impressive individuals. I loved it and learned an awful lot from the experience. The Sandakan Death March should be more widely known about and this is a brilliant way of doing it!