After the fall of Singapore in 1942, 1800 Australians and 750 British prisoners of war were transported to Sandakan in British North Borneo (now Sabah) to construct an airfield. By the end of 1944, more than 900 had died of ill-treatment.
With allied forces within striking distance, rations below subsistence and the airstrip unusable after repeated allied attacks, Japanese Command ordered prisoners to be moved.
On January 29, 1945, 455 of the fittest prisoners began the 240km march through thick, steamy jungle west to Ranau, where they would be used as labourers until they dropped. A second march of 532 prisoners left Sandakan on May 29.
The Diggers had no idea where they were going, couldn’t see the sky for jungle, had rations for four days on a nine-day journey, and were under the watchful eye of captors who had guns and bayonets ready if they became too weak to go on.
The track had been cut through thick growth in the mountains by pro-British locals who, thinking it was for the Japanese soldiers, had chosen the most difficult path.
The route was unknown until 1998, when the full extent of the tragedy was unearthed. It would be another eight years before the actual route was fully identified in 2006. By then, much of it had become roads, rubber and palm oil plantations, and private land. Much of the original track is now a two-lane highway.
For us, the Sandakan-Ranau death march route begins when we are met a Kota Kinabalu airport after a flight from Kuala Lumpur. Over the next six days we will trek 80km of the 240km the original POWs marched.
We wear strong walking boots, clothes for the climate, and our load is only water as we retire to a guest house at the end of each day. It’s not hard to imagine the hell it would have been for undernourished and sick prisoners, barefoot and carrying heavy packs.
The trail is overgrown and steamy. It’s a challenging trek through thick jungle, much of it uphill, swamps and palm plantations. We cross rivers, streams and old bridges, and discover little villages but there is no pressure to rush. The rain belts down at night and days are clear and humid.
Guides with machetes and relying on instinct know exactly where they are going as they hack our path through the dense jungle, grass that towers above them, and savage prickling vines.
In this tropical wilderness full of leeches, it was harsh enough without the dysentery, malaria, scabies and malnutrition that the POWs had to endure.
There’s unexplored and uninhabited Taviu Valley and Taviu Hill, which gives a view of the path taken by the POWs.
The last two nights are at the Sabah Tea Garden, a plantation and homestead which was built on the original track. Finally, we hike 12km across Marakayu Hill to visit the Ranau POW campsite, and war memorial at Kundasang.
The Sandakan death march route is raw territory, and remains little travelled, unlike the better-known 96km Kokoda Trail. There are no campsites, and the trail is not marked.
Kokoda is dotted with monuments brought in by helicopter, but there’s none of that here.
The Sandakan route is not a lot different to what it was when the Japanese withdrew in 1945.
And there are no glossy signposts or memorials, just 200 river rocks embedded in concrete honour the sacrifice and pay tribute to the courage and friendship of the local people.
The last 33 prisoners at Ranau who had survived the torturous journey carrying their heavy packs through Borneo’s jungle were massacred at Ranau on August 1, 1945.
Only six men, “skeletons with skin” survived the Sandakan death march. They escaped and were cared for by villagers until being rescued by special forces.
In 2005, trekking expert Tham Yau Kong and Australian historian Lynette Silver plotted and located the original route of the POWs.
They discovered that part of the old track passed through the area now occupied by the Sabah Tea Plantation.
TYK Adventure Tours, an educational tourism award winner, specialises in jungle trekking and offers a variety of packages.
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