Driving holiday turns nightmare

By Elizabeth Soh & Jalelah Abu Baker

IT WAS supposed to have been a leisurely driving trip to a hilltop chalet in Endau Rompin National Park in Johor.

But it turned into a nightmare for 21 Singaporeans after rising flood waters cut off their only exit route and left them stranded in their vehicles, submerged in more than 3m of water.

To make things worse, a 1 1/2-year-old was ill and needed medical attention. But they were unable to get a strong enough cellphone signal to call for help.

Their ordeal ended only some 48 hours later when they were finally airlifted to safety by a helicopter on Tuesday.

Yesterday, three members of the group spoke to The Straits Times about their trip which had started brightly from Singapore on Saturday.

‘It was supposed to be a family trip, with colleagues and their families and friends,’ said oil sales representative Farahana Anwar Hassanuddin, 25.

‘The worst thing that we thought would happen was a flat tyre,’ added Ms Farahana, who counted her boss Andrew Fatipah, 34, and her colleague Sandhora Salleh, 27, an administrative officer, among the group.

They set out early on Saturday in four four-wheel-drive vehicles and eight dirt bikes, accompanied by three Malaysian tour guides.

The wet weather meant slippery conditions but the group managed to make the 55km ascent to the chalet in five hours.

They stayed the night at the chalet and, the next morning at about 10am, started their journey home. They had travelled about 6km and crossed one of the two bridges over Lembakoh River when a serious problem cropped up.

‘The second bridge was completely submerged in water. When we first reached it, the water was halfway up my waist; by the time we started turning around to return to the chalet, it was up to my neck and the first bridge was submerged too,’ said Mr Fatipah, director of Singapore-based firm Sapphire Oilfield Services. ‘We were basically trapped.’

Park officers were contacted via radio to help tow the cars – stuck in the muddy road – and they were able to reach the chalet five hours later.

Two cars managed to cross the submerged bridge safely but the other two cars required some effort.

At the chalet, the group contacted the police in Mersing as well as the Singapore consulate in Johor Baru via a satellite phone.

Mr Fatipah said the group was informed on Monday morning that a helicopter would arrive later in the day to airlift the toddler who had developed a high fever and was running out of milk powder.

But there was more drama to come.

In the evening, the helicopter came, but only to airlift a snake-bite victim at the chalet who was not part of their group, leaving the sick toddler and her distressed mother behind.

‘The mother was all ready to leave, carrying her bags and her daughter and standing in the rain for the helicopter,’ said Ms Farahana. ‘When the helicopter left, she just cried.’

Hearts sank when the group were told of their options: either pay RM1,600 (S$650) to rent two motorboats to ferry them back to Mersing; or wait two weeks for the flood waters to subside and the bridges to be repaired.

‘They told us if we took the boat, we would have to sign a waiver of any responsibility for our safety, and we said ‘no way’,’ said Mr Fatipah.

‘We were really desperate and so we kept calling the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help. Eventually with their help, we were rescued.’

They spent another night at the chalet. The next afternoon, on Tuesday, a helicopter, dispatched by the Mersing Fire Brigade, evacuated them to Mersing.

There, they boarded a bus supplied by the Singapore consulate to return home.

Mr Fatipah said the group, which had never been to Endau Rompin National Park before, was not told by their tour agent that it was closed and that it was very dangerous to travel during the monsoon season.

They had booked the trip with Tristan Park, a Singapore-based company specialising in all terrain vehicle tours.

The trio said if they had known about the weather conditions, they would never have gone.

Malaysia media reported yesterday that the tour agency had applied for a permit to visit the park last Saturday but it was rejected. Calls to the agency yesterday were unanswered.

The three of them, who were back at work one day after returning from Johor, said while the trip was an experience they would never forget, it would not deter them from exploring Malaysia or its parks again.