There is an African proverb: “Do not call the forest that shelters you a jungle” unless you choose to dismiss it so casually.
The forest can offer solitude and a piece of heaven for adventurers, but when a group of unprepared soldiers tried to conquer one of Mother Nature’s deepest gullies in a badly-planned training exercise, the jungle was prepared to give anything but comfort for them.
Low’s Gully is located at Borneo’s Crocker Range and shares the same national park with Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia.
It was named after British administrator Hugh Low who first looked down it in 1851. The site is a 1,800m deep gorge carved out by glaciation on the north side of Mount Kinabalu.
The gully is one of the least explored and most inhospitable places on earth.
Nobody attempted to make a descent into the gully until 1994. On Feb 21 that year, seven British and three Hong Kong soldiers tried to abseil and climb down into the gully.
The team members going into Low’s Gully
The commander of the army that led the expedition was Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill. His second-in-command was Major Ron Foster.
Together, they both set up the 10-man team. Joining them, there were two corporals – Steve Page and Hugh Brittan from the Royal Logistics Corps – and Lance Corporal Richard Mayfield. Mayfield was also an expert survivalist and rock climber.
The other two British soldiers were a Territorial Army Sergeant Robert Mann and Corporal Pete Shearer.
Also with them were the three Chinese soldiers from Hong Kong, Lance Corporal Cheung Yiu Keuong and Privates Lam Wai Kee and Chan Wai Keung.
Why the expedition into Low’s Gully was a disaster from the beginning
Even before it started, the expedition seemed to be doomed anyway. The first mistake was not to equip themselves with a radio or flares.
On top of that , the three Hong Kong soldiers only learned how to abseil a few days before the expedition. And then, there was the language barrier among the soldiers.
Although some of the team members were familiar with each other, some of them only met weeks prior to the expedition. Hence, there was no teamwork or rapport right from the beginning.
The mistakes along the way
The journey to Low’s Gully needed the team to climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu first before making down on the north side of the mountain.
Even the tourist path to the summit was difficult for the Chinese soldiers in the beginning.
Plus with their backpacks weighing 35-40kg, the less fit soldiers found the climb exhausting and they felt overburdened.
This led to their first mistake during the expedition: the Chinese soldiers started to ditch their rations to lighten their loads.
Slowly, the team members were divided into two; the fitter five British soldiers against Lt. Col Neill, Major Foster and the unprepared, unfit Chinese soldiers.
So, the fitter party broke away from the group and made the first descent of the gully in three days. They reportedly even took the second group’s ropes and parangs.
After they made their descent, they waited for 12 hours for Lt Col Neill and the rest to descend…but they never came down.
Then they decided to set off through the jungle where they spent another two weeks making their way out to civilisation. Over this period, they swam through leech-infested pools, abseiled down waterfalls and survived through the Bornean rainforest.
The first team out
As the days went by, the five-man party also started to separate. Mayfield and Mann went their own way after being separated by the jungle’s thick undergrowth.
Finally after 18 days of what was meant to be a ten-day expedition, the pair found their way to civilisation. The locals who found them gave them food and even treated their wounds.
Upon their return, they found the other three had also made it safely back. Now they had to rescue Lt Col Neill and his four other team members.
They, however, found out that nobody had raised the alarm as nobody thought that they were missing. This was because Neill had not given a finishing date to the authorities.
The rescue from Low’s Gully
The rescue for the stranded soldiers was said to be one of the most expensive and embarrassing missions the British Ministry of Defence had ever taken.
International medias flew halfway around the world, setting up camps at Kinabalu Park as they covered the search and rescue.
The search operation involved up 1,000 people from various parties including the Malaysian Army. It took them 12 days until they finally spotted the stranded soldiers.
According to The Independent’s news report, the five-member party was spotted in a narrow ravine, trapped ‘like a spider in the bathtub’. The men were stuck between two giant waterfalls, in a place Malaysian soldiers called ‘a point of no return’.
Malaysian helicopter pilot, Captain Mohamed Izhar was the first one who saw the stranded soldiers.
He spotted ‘SOS’ written in pebbles on a boulder in a river. Then, they spotted three soldiers standing on rocks, waving and reflecting the sun at them with mirrors.
Niell and Lam were the first two soldiers rescued from the ravine and were flown to a hospital in Kota Kinabalu.
After several attempts, the final three were rescued from their misery.
Brittan, Mayfield and Cheung all received commendations for their actions during the ordeal.
Mayfield sued the British Minister of Defence after suffering from dehydration, malnutrition and mental trauma after the expedition. He told the court that he warned his commanding officer Neill that the expedition should be aborted after he had abseiled down part of the gully ahead of the rest of the group.
Furthermore, Mayfield said he would only continue if it was an order. He won more than £100,000 in compensation. Apart from Mayfield, Mann also won compensation for his injuries.
Meanwhile, both Neill and Foster were severely criticised for their judgement and leadership. They knew the expedition was going to be difficult and proceeded to carry on anyway while bringing along the three inexperienced soldiers.