The 264-kilometre hike from Lolosing to the summit of Taviu Hill in the central highlands of north Borneo has been dubbed the toughest hike in the world. But a group of 14 British soldiers have set off in the hope of becoming the first to complete the full length of the infamous Borneo Death March.
Only six Australians survived the death marches enforced by the Japanese towards the end of World War II. Three marches claimed another 1,781 Australian and 641 British troops. All who managed it were malnourished, many afflicted with malaria or beriberi. They were beaten along the way, and those who survived were shot or bayoneted.
The atrocities were considered too great for public consumption and were hushed up by governments in London and Canberra for decades after the war.
In more recent years, the trek has been transformed into a pilgrimage for veterans of all wars and people wanting to pay their respects to the fallen along the Sandakan to Ranau route. In doing so, many have attempted to complete the historic trail, but the journey has proven too arduous and none have finished.
The latest expedition was put together Maj. John Tulloch a retired veteran of many conflicts, including Vietnam, where he served with the New Zealand army, and Northern Ireland after transferring to the British military, where he served with the Royal Artillery Regiment.
Tulloch came to North Borneo, now the East Malaysian state of Sabah, in 1999 to commemorate the fallen. After some basic research he realised the vast majority of British soldiers who perished here were from his own regiment and this made it all the more personal.
‘I was determined there must be official regimental recognition for the members of the Royal Artillery and their attached arms and services who tragically lost their lives in such unspeakable conditions,’ he said. ‘Moreover, I felt that in addition, the Royal Artillery should conduct a remembrance march of the 164-mile Death March route in memory of the POWs.’
It was a difficult task, raising funds and finding sponsorship. But eventually a team of 14 was assembled from the ranks of the artillery regiment under Maj. Claire Curry and Captain Chas May.
Most have experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Curry flew helicopters during the second Gulf war.
The journey from Lolosing near Sandakan takes in established tracks, but as it winds towards the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, secondary jungle gives way to remote, primary rainforests where environmental laws forbid any cutting of the undergrowth.
As a result, the expedition is retracing the journey along a ridgeline, considered the most dangerous part of the trip, before summiting Taviu Hill, then returning to nearby Ranau and then the War Memorial at Kundasang where a stone dedicated to the artillery regiment will be unveiled in the English Garden.
If all goes well Curry, May and the rest of the expedition will arrive for the dedication this Sunday after becoming the first since the war to completely re-trace the steps of the infamous Death March. In doing so, they will add some historical context to an issue that remains to many as relevant today as it was 66 years ago.