Friday, 5 January 2018

New Life from Old Man

First, a disclaimer: I am not, by any measure, an expert on vehicle suspension. I have just been fortunate to have been a motoring journalist who had the opportunity to get up close and personal with some people who were professionals in the field, and who had been generous in sharing their knowledge.
Along the way, I have visited several facilities used to develop and manufacture suspension components such as coil and leaf springs and shock absorbers, and have personally used several types of systems in differing conditions, and the experiences have shaped my views, along with additional reading material readily available on the web if you know what you are looking for.
The first factor that affects a suspension system is weight. How heavy a load is expected to be carried by the front axle, and also the rear axle, is what an engineer needs to know.
Knowing the weight that must be borne will yield the strength of the spring, measured as the force (or weight) required to compress said spring by a certain amount. Such as newtons (or kilograms) per centimetre, or pounds per inch.
Then it starts getting complicated. Vehicle weight may vary because we, the users, add stuff to it. The front end load of a typical car will not vary much but the rear will , depending on how much load is carried, where in people or their belongings, or just junk.
Engineers have a particular headache with pick-up trucks because they have to be sprung softly enough to be driven around empty, and also stiffly enough to be laden with an extra thousand kilograms, all of it on the rear axle. So, it is only logical that a pick-up that is comfortable to drive around like a car will sag in the rear end when laden with goods, as pick-uos are intended to. Conversely, one that carries a full load comfortably will be harsh when empty. There is no getting away from the numbers.
On top of that, many buyers also use their pick-ups for adventurous trips into the great outdoors, and decide they need beefier protection in the form of stronger (hence, heavier) bumpers/bullbars, and maybe a winch to add progress through the rough stuff.
That adds around 70 to 90 kilograms on the front axle. It's like having a stout friend sitting on your bonnet. That is why a vehicle that was behaving nicely over bumps and ruts can suddenly feel wallowy after you have stopped feeling pleased with how great it looks with your new bullbar and winch.
The springs are the first line of defence against shocks. They absorb the often violent forces of hitting anything other than smooth pavement at considerably speed.
The problem is that the springs absorb plenty of energy, which must than be dissipated by oscillating. In layman's terms, that is the boing-boing-boing effect. The spring continues to alternately compress and extend for some time after the bump is passed.
Not sure if they came with car from factory, but still looking pretty good.

That's where the shock absorbers come in, although the term is debatable since the springs actually absorb the firat shock, and the “absorber” then dampens the oscillations. But if you consider that the damping action is also “absorbing” the residual enery of the boinging spring, then it's all good. So, we'll accept them as absorbers even if some people insist they are really dampers.
The absorbers have to be engineered with the correct damping rates to work with the springs. And there are two rates to be considered, one being compression damping, and the other, rebound damping.
To add more complexity, some springs and absorbers are designed to act progressively, i.e., they get firmer the more they are compressed or pushed, so they do not have a single, linear rate.
Some shocks that are optimised for comfort offer very resistance to compression. When hitting a bump, the shock energy is absorbed entirely by the spring and the absorber compresses easily. But when the spring rebounds, the absorber does its darnest best to slow it down. If all works according to plan, you get one compression of the spring upon hitting the bump, and one controlled rebound or extension to original height, and the drama ends there, allowing a smooth journey to resume, until the next bump or porthole.
That's the short version. The long version is a lot more complicated with many types of spring and damper materials and designs, and electronic wizardry thrown into the mix. I won't go there, but you can read more online. Just ask google.

We've come this far because I have just had a pair of tired old absorbers replaced on a recently-acquired Ford Everest 3.0l, which has been on the road 10 years, and covered just over 200,000 kilometres, and a friend asked for a review of the brand spanking new Old Man Emu Nitrocharger Front Sport Shocks, part number #60222.
Well, this is not going to be a detailed review because I have just driven about 15km since they were fitted. I have no idea how well they will hold up under varying, real world conditions.
What I will say is they are money well spent. That is the because the shocks that came with the secondhand car were well past their prime. I have no way of knowing if they had been replaced at some point or other in the car's previous career, but they were original Ford-issued shocks, embossed with FoMoCo (for Ford Motor Company). So, they could well have been 200,000km old!
Of course, new OMEs, or any new shocks, will yield an improvement. Before the renewal of shocks, the car felt floaty at speed, and the 3.0l common rail engine is capable of getting it up to a decent clip in a quick time.
But the story did not end there. The front torsion bars also seemed to have sagged significantly, to such an extent that there was hardly any room for upward travel before the arms hit the bump stop.
The good news is that torsion bar-type suspension can be easily adjusted, and should have been done earlier. But, better late than never, so they were adjusted at the same time the Emus were fitted, so that now there is ample upward and downward travel.
Also, a clunking noise when going over bumps was traced to a worn out steering idler arm, which was promptly replaced. This immediately yielded a much more precise and controlled dteering feel, which added to the improvement in handling.
In summary, a pair of new front Old Man Emus (note that nothing has been done yet to the rear end, which are still held up by original leaf springs and, yes, a pair of FoMoCo shocks), a slight tweaking of the original Ford-issued torsion bars to raise ride height by some 20mm, and a tight new idler arm to replace the knackered old one, has TRANSFORMED the car.
It handles and rides beautifully now, even with more improvements due to come.
 I have not yet renewed any of the many suspension arm bushes, anti-roll bar bushes, etc, that will be on the to-do list in future in the quest to restore that new-car feel.
Knackered steering idler arm.
Other possible upgrades on the wishlist include Old Man Emu torsion bars, should the current 10-year-old ones show deficiencies further down the road. But for now, the old springs are still holding up well so new springs are not necessary.
One thing I feel that OME is doing right, and a reson why I like the brand, is that they do not offer a one-size-fit-all solution, such as a “Ford Ranger shock absorber”. Their website offers a Suspension Selector which asks what front bumper your car has, whether it has a winch, and also what weight is regularly carried in the back, and a specific model of springs and shock absorbers will be recommended for YOUR usage.

It helps to know background information about your vehicle, such as the fact that the Everest, model code U268, was not sold in Australia, but it shares the exact same underpinnings as the Ranger J97 (often erroneously called the T5) so you know which model to look for in the selector.
By the way, I have had these OME shocks for too short a period to give an in-depth review so in no way am I suggesting they are "the best", or even better than other competitors out there. For the record, I have been using a combination of King springs and Koni shocks for my other 4X4s, all of which are Land Rovers, and have been satisfied with their performance and durability.
Oh, I have fitted a brand new set of the latest Michelin LTX Force, size 265/70 R 16, and they are awesome.

Good tyres are an important part of the ride, and Michelin's LTX Force are very good.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Forever Yung

Anuar Ghani is a lawyer and a veteran of the Sabah 4X4 scene, having been a key player since the Trans Borneo expedition series of the 1980s. He was a founding member of the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC) and has served as its president. This was his eulogy delivered at the wake for his old friend, the legendary Fred Leong, who passed away suddenly on 29th November 2016.

My condolences to Alvin & Tammy, Alex & Cindy, Veronica, Kenneth Jayaraman and family, Patricia Leong, Stella and Tim Brophy, Evelyn Leong and Amir Datuk Arif, Maureen and Frankie Ho , and the rest of Fred Leong’s family.

We have all suffered a great loss, a father, a brother, an uncle, brother-in-law and a good friend.

I never called him Fred. He and I always called each other Yung. We both believed it means "Brother" in the sungai dialect and that was fine with us.

He was one of a kind. What made Fred Leong what he was?

Fred Leong grew up in Keningau. His father was Leong Ten Fook. His mother, Angeline Tann, was apparently very strict with him. I think she instilled a lot of discipline in Fred. "Kalau suruh bikin kerja, mesti bikin punya".

Sometimes Fred would be playing basketball instead of doing the chores and his mother would show up in the middle of a game, a match, and chase Fred off the court with a cane, in front of all the other players and coaches.

I don’t know whether such treatment made him the great man that he is, but it could be an explanation. This probably instilled the work ethic that made him a top journalist in his field. The "go to" guy for everything sports related.

He related the story to Wen, George Irwin's and Salamah's son, when telling him to be tough and not to be afraid of ghosts, or "hantu". Kids today are too soft, he said. He even gave Wen the name “Lisa” to force him to become more manly. And Wen decided he didn’t want to be called Lisa, and is no longer afraid of hantu.

Fred Leong was not so much of a father to his sons, Alvin and Alex. He was more of a friend and a person who gave advice, sometimes, mostly even when unsolicited.

He loved his two boys dearly and understood their strengths and weaknesses. He would talk to me often about them. He wanted his sons to learn from their own mistakes, to gain experiences.

He was very proud of both of you. He wasn’t much of a father. He was a great father. 4x4 has helped create a special bond between sons and father.

Anuar and Saran looking forward to a
large helping of the signature chicken
 rice cooked by Fred Leong at the end
 of Borneo Safari 2016.
Uncle Fred, as he is also known, was Kung-Kung to every little kid from Tawau to Lawas to Kuching. He knew how to make kids laugh, he would tell jokes, tease them, reprimand them when he was in the mood. If you want to know whether someone is genuine or good inside, see how kids respond to them. And every kid loved Uncle Fred.

Keeping his promise to the late Labo, Fred arranged for his daughter Deborah Saran to take part in Borneo Safari this year despite her being underaged. He fought for her inclusion in deference to Labo’s wish. And as usual, Fred got his way.

Talking about his way, he single-handedly created the 4X4 landscape in Sabah.

One day I said, “Fred, you are responsible for the formation of 12 to 14 clubs and associations in Sabah.” He said, “Yeah, why?” I said, “Don’t you think this is divisive?” He said, “Why not, why stop them from having fun? Anyway, not everyone likes to be controlled, let them have their own club".

Through this, and his unceasing and relentless news coverage of 4x4 events and activities in Sabah, Fred created the impetus and momentum that has brought Sabah 4x4 movement to the powerhouse that it is today.

Fred was well-loved everywhere. Sitting in his camp at Lawas, he gets duty-free whisky, sitting in Kuala Penyu, everyone was dropping crates of beers at our camp.

I don’t think Fred was a wealthy man but he was a rich man because he had many, many, many friends everywhere. He was the richest man I know. And what does it take to become a rich man like him?

First and foremost, if you want friends, you must be a friend.
He helped develop the 4X4 scene by helping every aspiring district to form their own club. He would draft their constitution, personally go to the ROS or Sports Commissioner to register or plead their case.

WRS, Tawau, Kota Belud, Tenom, Kota Marudu, Labuan, Sandakan, and many others owe their existence to him. The existence of SFWDA, the Sabah Four Wheel Drive Association, is due to him and Edward Lingkapo. He was also responsible for finding and raising and finding sponsors for the club and association.But  he was still upset that Keningau, his home town, haven’t registered as a club. So Lolou, Atun, Cheng, and Hamid, if you can, do please do so in memory of Fred Leong.

Thompson Teoh, President of  WRS told me how the WRS team got stuck in the jungle for 4 days and nights without food n water and it was uncle Fred who came and rescued and saved them.

I hear similar stories from the time he was involved in football in Sabah. But his true calling was in 4x4.

Fred Leong lived his life to the fullest. He never wanted to go home and would continue chatting away into the wee hours. He loved people.

He was a ladies man. We can only watch in envy and admiration when he comes along with some chick 20-30 years his junior. I think he learned the skill of mastering women because he was the only boy with 5 sisters. So I guessed he learnt early how the female mind works.

Apart from being good  at how to please the ladies, Fred was also a very good cook. His Hainanese Chicken Rice is legendary. At Borneo Safari last year in Kg. Kolorox, we ate his Hainanese Chicken Rice listening to stories of how he lost his virginity at 16 with ... I won't mention who here.

There was an Indian reporter who was enthralled by the stories and asked many, many questions. So, we got the juicy details.  Fred also cooked the best dish I ever tasted in my life at camp Togop Darat when he cooked Pelian in foil with hot river stones. With Fred, you will get lamb, prawns n chicken in the jungle.How he managed that was an art by itself.

Fred could also be very critical and merciless with his criticism. But one thing, what he says behind you, he will say it to your face. He could be direct and brutal, and sometimes petty. Sometimes, listening to him was like listening to a recorder.

But as Paul Si says, Fred has paid his dues, so we can accept his idiosyncrasies.

Among all his friends and achievements, I know one close to his heart are his “Lawas boys”, the Lun Bawang from Lawas. They are his family. He adopted them. George Irwin Leong, Rick Leong, Nelson Leong, Michael Leong, Yung Leong , Pariel Leong and the rest. To him, they were the most capable, most hardworking, most dependable group in the 4X4 community. He was very close to Labo and was working to making the first Labo challenge in Lawas in February 2017. I hope this can still happen. He was so proud of the Lawas boys including Salamah and Wina.

Fred, Yung, You have been taken to a better place. It will never be the same without you. We will all miss you terribly. You were the brother that I wished I had. And I hope that by calling me Yung, I was the younger brother you never had. It was a privilege and an honour to have known you. We all love you,   Yung.

Rest in peace, Yung.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Fred Leong - The Legend

Frederick Charles Leong (1952-2016) - The Legend
It's been 27 years, almost to the day, since I first walked into the office of the Borneo Mail in Kota Kinabalu. Aside from the fiery-tempered editor, C.C. Pung, the other person I remember well from that fateful first day was the equally straight-shooting and hot-blooded Fred Leong.
Coincidentally, I had just turned 27 then, so I have now known Frederick Charles Leong, also known as Dick, for exactly half of my life.
At work he did his job and I did mine. After work, we shared many good moments together. Those who know him, and me, would know that these were pretty wild moments. I was young, he was 10 years older, but then again, he never grew old. Some would say he, like Peter Pan, never grew up.
Two old timers from an ancient era.
I had been interested in 4X4 adventures for some years then, having covered the Trans Borneo series of expeditions that explored both my home state of Sarawak as well as Sabah. When those trips evolved into the Borneo Safari, Fred and I followed their activities with keen interest, as journalists and also as enthusiasts ourselves.
This interest culminated in my participation, as a journalist, in Borneo Safari 1992, with Fred's keen support and endorsement.
I recall he was already driving a 4X4 back then, a Daihatsu Feroza, when I could afford only to dream of owning one. Some day. (That day did come while I was still in Sabah, albeit just a couple of months before I packed up and moved off to seek my fortunes with The Star in the peninsula.)
In those pre-social media days when even mobile phones were a luxury, Fred and I did not stay in touch regularly, although we did bump into each other occassionally, on the job.
Happy times at Kuala Penyu, BS 2008
In 2008, one of these bumps took place at a 4X4 jamboree at Ulu Yam in Selangor, while Fred was a member of the delegation from the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club.
It was then that he invited me to make a long-overdue visit back to Sabah for that year's Borneo Safari. And when Fred invites one to the Safari, he really wants you to go. Which means you don't really have much of a choice.
A few short weeks later, I was on a plane from KL to KK, and soon after, driving a D-Max as part of the Media team, with Fred as Chief Media. That was when I got to know Fred much better, especially a side of him that I had not seen before.
As Boss, he tolerated no nonsense. What he says, goes. And he commanded the total respect of the team he assembled and led, a team comprising many members whom I count among my closest friends in 4X4. Sadly, several of them, including the late Andy Wong, David Wong and Clarence Labo, have since passed away from illness.
(L to R) Andy Wong, Fred Leong and Clarence Labo.
One particularly memorable incident was when we had struck camp and moved off when a report came in over the two-way radio, pointing out that there was still a fire burning. Despite Fred's stern instructions on trash disposal, someone had decided to burn some rubbish and, worse, did not ensure the flames were completely doused before leaving. Furious, Fred made the convoy turn around and return to the site, and saw to it that every member of the crew scour the whole areas, leaving not one piece of litter. That was so Fred.
After a memorable Borneo Safari 2008, I returned to my base in the peninsula, and we communicated intermittently. He did ask me a couple of times to return for the event in later years but things did not work out because of my then work commitments.
It was not until 2012, when I had moved back to Kuching, that I returned to the Borneo Safari, and reconnected with Fred as if I had never left Sabah at all. Since then, I have not missed a Safari, plus made numerous other trips to Sabah. On several of those trips, I stayed at his apartment but even if I did not, there was never a trip when we did not catch up for his favourite activity (and mine, truth be told), which is shooting the breeze over beers. Lots of beers.
His sons, Alvin and Alex, who were just kids when I first knew Fred, are now all grown up, married and have families of their own. And, in many ways, they took over the roles that Fred used to play as he gradually took a back seat.
Doting grandpa Fred with Nathan, son of Alvin.
Fred had become a doting grandfather. But he was still, as ever, the inimitable Fred. Outspoken, firm in his beliefs, and ready to stand 100%, and loudly, by his principles and his friends.
We did not agree on everything. In fact, we argued a lot, and he seemed to enjoy these animated bouts as much as I did. Or maybe it was the beers that fuelled these debates which we enjoyed. But we had fun, we had great memories.
Along the way, we spent a lot of time doing what we enjoyed the most, messing around with our 4X4s, and exploring the hard-to-reach places that we could reach only by 4X4, and only with great difficulty.
Fred enjoys cooking ...
In the latter years, Fred decided he, as an elder in the fraternity, would no longer suffer the hardcore bits but would still pull the strings and put the pieces in place, and then drive into the last camp site to greet us as we emerge, muddied and wearied, and treat us to some of his fabulous cooking. Those who have not tasted his unique version of Hainanese chicken rice, well, you will never know what you are missing.
Stories about Fred would fill a book. Of several volumes. But it is not my intent to tell his entire life story, just a few anecdotes from the moments we shared on the journey, and the impact these had on me.
Just after 4.00pm on Tuesday, 29th November, 2016, at 64 years young,
And everyone enjoys his cooking.
“Angkol” Fred has driven his last safari, in his beloved Toyota 80-series Land Cruiser “Ninja”.
He was supposed to have flown over to Kuching the next day, to join me in the SAKTA (Sarawak 4X4 Adventure and Travel Club) Sarawak Jamboree.
In the off-roading fraternity, there have been many strong characters, each of whom have stamped their own unique mark and left indelible legacies. Still, we do not use the term “legend” lightly.
Fred Leong, you are Legend. Rest In Peace.
As Malcolm Jitam (left) said: "The total age of these 4x4 off roaders span back to time before the Spanish inquisition."

Monday, 14 November 2016

Borneo Suffering at its worst, and best

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.
We were chilling in an idyllic campsite in the rural heart of Sabah, with a cool, clean river to bathe in. We had great food worthy of a five-star hotel, because it was cooked for us by a chef who used to work in a five-star hotel. Steaming hot fresh-brew coffee in the morning, with home-cured bacon, sausages and eggs.
Mother hens and chicks, and mummy sows and their piglets, wandered all over, scrounging for grub. Pastoral scenes don't get much better than this.

Bacon and eggs, anyone?
Yet, we were not content. We were impatient. We couldn't wait to get on with it. We had to wait for it.
It” was Borneo Safari 2016. Specifically, the hardcore section that some eager beavers complained was “only 40 kilometres” long. Some of us, who had taken three days to traverse just six kilometres in previous editions, reserved comment, looking forward with equal measure of trepidation and anticipation.
'Andy' the Landy - veteran of three Borneo Safaris (2012, 2014, 2016)
My Land Rover Defender (a four-year-old 110 named “Andy” in honour of a fondly remembered and dearly missed friend from earlier Safaris) and I, and co-driver Afonso Cerejo from Portugal, were embedded with Team Mitsubishi Motor Malaysia (MMM), which was sending in four of their new Tritons, plus four customer cars, and several other support cars of various marques and models. 
An added touch of glamour came in the person of renowned lady racer Leona Chin, also known as Malaysia's Drift Queen, who delights crowds by driving a Triton sideways.
With several members of the motoring media in our group, were placed in the convoy behind Team Isuzu, long-time sponsor of the event, who were behind the officials, photographers, competitors and the scouts who were blazing the trail.
2016 got off to a promising start, with a wide river to ford before reaching Kampung Tibabar, accessed by a track from the famous Poring hot springs, near the high-altitude interior town of Ranau.
Although the trail was mild by 4X4 standards (we came across several Perodua Kancils and Vivas), the river crossing yielded plenty of excitement and photo opportunities.
Day 1/2 Camp at Tibabar
The first night's camp at Tibabar was pleasant, if not exactly exciting. We set up camp, we dined, chatted a bit, and got a good night's sleep. That was about it.
The following day's move to Campsite Two, at Kampung Garung, added to the feeling that we could be in for some fun, with some mushy mud along the way serving as an appetiser. Nothing too hard though, and no winch rope had to be pulled out.
Kpg Garung was supposed to be home for a night, and then two, and then three. Team Isuzu, who had arrived there a day earlier, were on standby to move out since early in the morning, and then noon, and were still waiting by the evening when the plan was changed – they would stay the night.
Early the next morning, they packed up hurriedly and left bright and early for the entrance to the hardcore trail. The day passed slowly for the rest of us, chilling in the stream, until around 4pm, when the Isuzu rolled back in. They had travelled a grand total of about 2km, spent the whole day by the roadside waiting, and then decided to return to the village.
The trail was tough. The scouts reported making less than 1.7km of progress in their first six hours, and 3km in the whole of the first day.
We would just have to relax and wait for our turn.
Hurry up ... and wait
Welcome to the Borneo Safari, one of the toughest offroad vehicle events in Malaysia. Held annually in Sabah since 1991, the reputation has been a magnet for thrill-seekers, drawing about a thousand 4X4 aficionados to Kota Kinabalu for the grand flag-off at the tail end of each October.
Expectations are always high at the flag-off and, this year, participants were served extra helpings from the full menu. Even before it was over, there was already talk about it being “the best ever”, “the toughest in living memory” and “the most fun we've had in a long time”. (Having taking part in in seven Borneo Safaris – 1992, 2008, and every year since 2012, this writer would concur with these sentiments.)
This, from people who consider it fun to be forced to sleep upright in the seat of a cramped 4X4, simply because there is no space around the vehicle, or what little space there is, is shin-deep in gooey mud.
Whereas previous editions served up a couple of memorable moments interspersed with leisurely drives and pleasant camping, 2016 offered the full menu – torrential rain, mud galore, torturous holes and gulleys, and slopes so steeps that winches were mandatory for both ascent and descent, and even strategically-placed logs with a better-than-50-percent chance of slamming into.
3, 2, 1 ... BUNGEE!!!!!
The notorious “bungee jump”, alternatively referred to as the roller-coaster, will be remembered as one of the highlights as BS 2016.
After a torturous uphill climb that required strenuous winching, each car had to negotiate a tight turn with steering at full lock to the right, and then be lowered gingerly on a winch line from the car behind down a steep and slippery slope.
Released from this safety line about halfway down, each driver had to negotiate the remaining distance, knowing that a huge log lay in wait at the bottom. There was no room for error, and nearly half of all cars ended the bumpy ride with a close encounter with the log, sustaining varying degrees of damage, from broken lamps to crumpled fenders to bent chassis.
Handyplast moment - poor Andy is hurt. Bad log.
Wait, there's more. A lot more. A slanted track that sends your car sliding towards a tree. There is no way to drive across, you had to stop the car, and use the winch to pull the front end in the right direction, away from the waiting tree. Some did not make it unscathed, adding to their collections of dents.
However well prepared each participant was, no matter how much the cars were modified or upgraded in anticipation of the challenges, the strain was simply too overwhelming for some.
Minor breakdowns were promptly fixed by “McGyver” mechanics but several cars which suffered major breakdowns had to be left by the side of the track, awaiting rescue at a latter date.
Oh, look what I found!
A failed gearbox, shattered differential gears, broken winches and a wheel that parted company with its hub after all its six studs sheared off were just some of the equipment failures that prematurely ended the adventure for the unfortunate few who had to hitch a ride out of the jungle.
The recovery teams, all volunteers who had to face the same or even tougher conditions just getting to the abandoned cars, continued struggling up to three days after the eight-day Safari had officially ended with the grand closing dinner.
Before each year's Safari gets underway, expectations start forming based on tales from the previous year's event. 2015 had been significant for being the Silver Jubilee event but the action itself had not been spectacular.
The 2016 terrain and weather conspired to serve up a “perfect storm” of challenges that had everyone raving about the toughest, and naturally, the best Borneo Safari ever.
Not everyone who signed up got to savour the experience, though, as more than half of the field did not get the chance to even enter the hardcore trail because of delays at the front.
The hills are steep, but the co-drivers are strong ...
Unlike in most previous events when those at the front of the convoy had an easier time with the obstacles, this year's was brutal right from the start, and for everyone, regardless of position in the queue. Those at the front suffered as much as the rearguard, who suffered as much as the meat in the sandwich.
The slow crawl at the front meant a long wait for those in the queue, and many chose, or were compelled, to take the easy way out – an escape to the nearby village of Kampung Sorinsim, between Ranau and Kota Marudu.
Slipping and sliding, the Tritons in my group took on each challenge in turn and overcame each obstacle, one at a time.
Driving and winching and crossing rickety make-shift log bridges in the dark, with intermittent and, at times, torrential rain, with no end in sight.
The low point, as well as the highlight of BS 2016, came around 1am one night, when the convoy was forced to halt because it had come up to the tail end of the group just ahead, who were still struggling with a particularly tough obstacle.
Good night ... not the most comfortable bed, though.
Surrounded by the jungle, and with no space to set up camp and a steady drizzle falling, everyone had to try to sleep as best as they could, inside the cars. The discomfort of sitting upright while still muddy and grimy was no match for the sheer exhaustion.
Add to that keeping on the same socks and shoes that have trudged through water and mud for the past 48 hours, even as you try to catch some shut-eye, simply because the thought of taking them off and putting them on again is worse. And you cannot walk more than a couple of metres in slippers without falling over. 
If there had been any doubts lingering to that point, it would have become very clear by now – this was the real deal, this was the Borneo Suffering experience that many had heard jokes about.
From then on, it was hardcore all the way. Each obstacle passed brought us a little closer to the end, the eagerly anticipated gravel road that would signal the end of the torment. But the psychological pressure would not let up so easily, with many a false “last one” before we could relax by the beautiful river at Kampung Sorinsim.
Are we in deep enough yet?
Eventually, all would emerge safely, and converged on the Magellan Sutera Harbour resort in Kota Kinabalu for the closing dinner. Everyone who was there wore the event shirt with pride as they shared tales of common hardships endured, who did what where, and whose car suffered which mishap.
Very few came out completely unscathed, but all agree that the memories are worth every scratch and dent and broken shaft or window, or even overturned car.
A touch of celebrity - Mitsubishi brought along renowned lady racer Leona Chin, a.k.a. Malaysia's Drift Queen.
It was not all fun and games, though. There was a lot of waiting, made necessary because of simple maths. If a car took 10 minutes to clear one obstacle, a hundred cars would need over 16 hours! And there were many obstacles, and many cars. The biggest test for many was that of patience, and not all scored well in this aspect. But while tensions might have run high and tempers frayed, all these pale in comparison to the satisfaction on a shared accomplishment – we all made it against the odds, and we did it together.
These memories are shared with like-minded 4X4 enthusiasts from all over Sabah but many came from farther afield, including Brunei, Sarawak and Kalimantan, and some drive their vehicles from as far away as Jakarta and Banjarmasin. This year, the international flavour included thrill-seekers from the United States, The Netherlands, Japan and Portugal.
The growing popularity of the Borneo Safari over the past quarter century is evident from the numbers. Starting with around 25 to 30 cars in the early years, the official registered entries have swollen to over 200 cars a couple of years ago, to 350 vehicles and about 1,000 participants this year.
As the closing dinner drew to its conclusion, the most common refrain heard was “see you again next year”. 
But wait, there's more. The eight days of the official Borneo Safari might have ended with the banquet and the toasts and the backslapping on the night of Nov 6, 2016, but the action was not over yet. 
There were still broken-down cars left in the jungle, and the rescue and recovery efforts would continue for several more days until all were successfully and safely brought back to civilisation. 
Ah Ngiu chops some logs to help ease the passage.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

One Life. Live It. (The Camel & I)

Yours truly, circa May 1993, somewhere near Tenom, Sabah.
I was a part of something big a long time ago, something that has had a deep influence on me ever since. It has been nearly a quarter century since I got up close and personal with the ultimate 4X4 adventure, the Camel Trophy, and it is still a part of me. In my own mind at least.
No, I was not fortunate to have been one of the participants vying for the coveted Trophy. After being captivated by the cool and oh-so macho ads for several years, the opportunity to be among those rugged adventurers came along in 1992, when I was about to turn 30.
I was living and working as a journalist in Sabah when it was announced that the beautiful north Borneo state had been chosen to host Camel Trophy the following year, 1993.
What joy, what excitement! I had just completed my first ever major 4X4 expedition, the Borneo Safari, and was already hooked.
But my own life was in a state of flux. An opportunity had come along that I could not pass up, a chance to work with The Star, a major national newspaper that also meant a big step forward in my career from the small regional newspapers that I had been working for (and enjoyed doing so, might I add).
With Team Italia (from left) Giovanni Formica, me, Francesco Rapisarda,
Matteo Ghiazza and a journalist whose name I do not recall.
Not only were the Camel Trophy selection trials set during a period when I was busy with preparations for the big move across the South China Sea, the actual dates coincided with the wedding of my only brother. So, I had to pass on it, and probably miss my best opportunity to be a part of this great adventure.
While still in Sabah, shortly before Christmas, my Sunday morning lie-in was shattered by the telephone. I ignored it, but it would not stop. So, I had to get up and answer it.
“Paul, can you go to Milan?” It must be some kind of bad joke. On a Sunday morning. I had already resigned from my job in Sabah.
But the voice was familiar, the nice PR (public relations) lady from Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation.
“Can you go to Milan?” she repeated when I mumbled something unintelligible.
“Milan, as in Italy?” I asked. The furthest I had been sent on assignment in the past three years was Semporna (yes, that’s also in Sabah).
“Of course Italy, is there any other? More importantly, do you have a passport?”
Yes, I had a passport, and within 24 hours, after a lot of hurrying to collect air tickets and round up cash, I was on my way to Europe for the very first time.
It was the bad luck of my good friend Freddie Ch’ng who was supposed to go but had his house broken into and his passport stolen a couple of days earlier. Sorry, Freddie, your loss was my gain.
The reason for this surprising turn of events was the Camel Trophy. The Italians had invited the then Sabah Foundation chairman, Tengku Adlin, to go and give a talk in the northern city of Milan about the coming event, in particular about the “Lost World” of the Maliau Basin.
So it was that a son of Borneo landed at Malpensa Airport, dressed in full Camel Adventure apparel while, all around, the local signoras were bundled up in furs and the gents in great coats.
The airport was being renovated so the aero-bridges could not be used. We had to walk across the tarmac to the terminal. I had brought winter gear but it was in the luggage. Not a good start.
After a few more misadventures through inexperience, we finally made it to the Milan office of RJ Reynolds, where their PR Francesco Rapisarda manager showed me what the Camel Trophy had been all about.
Tengku Adlin (2nd right, front row) and the other local officials.
In the event just past, Guyana 1992, the clippings from newspaper coverage alone, excluding other media, was compiled into a book two inches (50mm) thick! That was how wildly popular the Camel Trophy was!
He reeled off more figures - more than a million Germans had applied to take part, along with several hundreds of thousands in each of the other European nations involved, including Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Russia, etc.
We were then introduced to the Italian team of Matteo Ghiazza and Giovanni Formica, who would pilot the Sandglow Discovery through the jungle trails of Sabah in the coming months.
Tengku Adlin gave a passionate speech about the wonders of Sabah that they could look forward to seeing, and we learned that state’s name may not be familiar to the Italians but they all knew the name of Sandakan. Well, Sandokan anyway, close enough. Apparently, it is a place featured in a popular series of stories for children so every Italian grew up dreaming of visiting Sandokan some day.
An icon of Camel Trophy, the pontoon raft in action.
For the fortunate four (two primary participants and two reserves) from each other participating nations, Italy continued to be a part of the story because a week of intensive training was held in the mountainous north of the country. But I was not a part of that and, in fact, thought that was about as close as I would ever get to the iconic event.
I was in Kuala Lumpur when the adventurers and crew flew into Kota Kinabalu.
Then, another unexpected phone call. Would I like to go back to Sabah? To cover the Camel Trophy?
And just like that, I was off on another adventure, this time even greater than Milan.
Leaving familiar KK behind, I could barely believe I was really going to be part of the great adventure as I rode the rickety train from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort where we joined up with the convoy of yellow (okay, technically Sandglow) Land Rovers, also riding on a special train, on our way to Tenom.
It felt like being in an Indiana Jones movie as we enjoyed the scenic views of the Padas Gorge from the flatbed cars and carriages reminiscent of the Wild Wild West while a couple of helicopters swooped up and down the railway, shooting video.
The next few days were spent camping near the river as the participants were put through their paces, competing in various special stages and exhibiting newly-acquired skills in setting up the inflatable pontoon raft that could ferry a heavily laden Discovery across the river.
To say I was happy would have been an understatement. I loved the challenges, the great outdoors, the camaraderie of the multinational participants and crew, as well as the local 4X4 enthusiasts from the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC) who were drafted as officials. Many of them remain my friends to this day.
Riding on the roof of a Discovery as the convoy made its way back to KK for the finale was icing on the cake.
The Americans won the Camel Trophy that year and the popular and ever-cheerful team from the Canary Island were presented with the Team Spirit Award.
The Malaysian team did not do so well, coming 16th out of 16 competing teams. Some things did not go well that are best left unsaid as I prefer to focus on the positives that came out of the event, and these were huge.
I longed to own one of those magnificent Land Rovers but, for many years, it remained a dream that was out of reach.
I settled for buying and wearing the Camel Adventure apparel, boots, watch, and whatever memorabilia I could lay my hands on.
From the first 4WD, a beat-up Isuzu Trooper I acquired in Sabah just before the 1993 event, I went on to buy more 4X4s, and eventually owned only 4X4s and no saloon cars. As part of the job, I had chances to take part in other adventures, including numerous Ford Lanun Darat trips, the Trans Sahara 2004 with the Petronas Adventure Team, the Mercedes-benz Paris-Beijing 2006 and several Ford Adventures in Cambodia.
But, I never forgot the dream and one day in 2008, I managed to buy a used Discovery of my own so that I could build a replica. I called it “Humphrey” because the Discovery has a hump in the roof, and of course, camels, too. And it is ever so English, like Land Rovers.
'Humphrey' on adventure.
I have gone on to more memorable adventures after shipping it and myself back to my home state of Sarawak, to explore the highlands of Long Semadoh and Ba’kelalan, and crossed the border into the Indonesian part of Borneo, retracing parts of the Camel Trophy 1996 route through Kalimantan to Balikpapan, and visiting Banjarmasin, Sampit, Pontianak and other exotic places.
One is never enough, so I went and acquired a 1986 Land Rover 110, and then another, this time a 2012 Defender. Eventually, the newcomers were also repainted in that iconic shade of yellow, Sandglow LRC 361. So yes, you could say I liked the Camel Trophy.
Out of the blue, on the 25th of July, 2015, I received an email from a Mr. Nick Leadbeter, Chairman of the UK-based Camel Trophy Club, inviting me to be an Honorary Life Member. I am honoured, and I accepted.
The adventure continues even if the event itself ended with the old millennium.
So, what is it that made the Camel Trophy so special to me? Yes, it was a marketing exercise, with interested parties trying to get you to buy their stuff. But unlike the millions of other advertising stunts we are bombarded with each day, the event took on a life of its own, one that was larger than real life.
The beautifully shot stills and videos in the ad campaigns sold us on the idea that there was more to life than the daily grind, that there was a big, wide world out there that we could go explore, even in the late 20th century.
The reality was even better. Gather the fittest and brightest young men and women (military folks excepted) from around the world, give them identical vehicles and equipment, and let them loose on the wildest and toughest terrain out there.
While the “Trophy” bit shows it was a competition, and there were indeed competitive stages that pitted one nation against another, what really made the Camel Trophy memorable was the transport stages.
“Transport” may sound humdrum but just getting from Point A to B in the areas that Camel Trophy went to was truly an adventure.
Mud and sand, bogs and dunes, giant trees or not a blade of green at all, the organisers went out of their way, literally, to scout the world’s most inhospitable places. The Amazon, the Congo, Borneo, Patagonia, Siberia, the Maya heartland, all locales whose names alone would excite Indiana Jones as well as wannabes.
And the best, really best part, was the teamwork that got everyone and every car through each seemingly impassable obstacle. Russians working alongside French helping Japanese and Portuguese, all communicating with some English and a shared love of adventure.
When the finale was over and the trophies handed out, what really remained for the participants and fans was not who won or did not win, but the extraordinary experiences they had shared along the way.
Of course, the event was a big boost for Land Rover as well, even if the reality was that Camel Trophy actually began with three Jeeps! Over the years, unforgettable of the various models of Solihull’s finest have been etched permanently in the subconscious - a Landy can go anywhere, if the drivers are up to it. Which is why I ended up with three of them.
One Life. Live It.

Matteo Ghiazza blows his horn.
More vintage photos from Camel Trophy Sabah 1993

Today ... because one is never enough.

More pictures of "Humphrey - The Making Of ..."

An honour, gratefully accepted. Thanks, guys.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Fuel economy, and the factors affecting it

7.1l/100km is a pretty good fuel economy figure for a five-cylinder 3.2l diesel that can produce 200bhp and 470Nm, like this Ford Ranger XLT.

Yes, it is a matter of growing concern. Fuel is expensive, and the Ringgit is deteriorating.
So, here’s the low down on what affects fuel consumption and how you, as the driver, can adjust your driving style to maximise efficiency.

Modern car engines are mostly run by computers which interpret what the driver wants from his/her inputs at the throttle. These inputs are translated into precisely measured quantities of fuel injected into the engine’s combustion at the right time. Many cars also have computers controlling the gearboxes, in sync with the engines, to further optimise fuel efficiency.

If you have a newish vehicle of a particular make, model and specifications, and achieves fuel economy that is drastically from another person who has the same type of vehicle and it is of similar age, that difference can be attributed to different driving conditions, such as ratio of urban driving to highway driving.

You may, for example, be getting poor economy because you drive a lot in congested city streets while he travels mostly between cities and towns, using mainly the highways. Stop-start motoring wastes more fuel than constant cruising in top gear.

But, before getting into the nitty-gritty of good or bad fuel economy, it's worthwhile to consider how consumption is measured. A common unit used today is litres per hundred kilometres, expressed as the amount of fuel used to travel 100km. Other popular units include km per litre and the old Imperial miles per gallon. I advocate going metric, for reasons of simplicity.

A car counts the kilometres it has travelled by a sensor that measures the number of rotations of a part of the car's drivetrain, that co-relates to the number of times its wheels have turned. This is where it becomes tricky to determine if you have really travelled 100km even when the odometer says you have.

Most new cars have meters that over-read a little, i.e., it may indicate you are going 100km/h when the reality is that you are doing 97km/h. There is a good reason for this - you cannot blame the car maker if you get penalised for speeding. By the time you get zapped at 119km/h, there is no way you can argue that the car's speedometer was showing 110km/h. It was more likely to be showing 124km/h, or something like that.

This optimistic reading does not matter if you keep your car standard and measure fuel consumption under one set of circumstances against another. But it becomes a problem once you change tyres to a different size than the original. If your new tyres are of a bigger diameter, the odometer will show a lower reading for the same distance travelled.

For example, if your odometer showed 200km for a journey from a fixed point near KL to another fixed point in Ipoh, then the odometer may show 194km after the same journey with tyres that are 3% bigger in diameter. This has to be taken into account when calculating fuel consumption. And if you rely on the car's computer, remember that the car does not know that you now have bigger tyres. (It is possible to get the meters re-calibrated but that's another story.)

Heavy Vs Light foot
If you and your housemate work the same hours in the same building downtown and hang out together after hours, and still record widely differing fuel economy with the same type of car - in short, all things being equal - then it is highly likely that driving style is causing the difference.

It takes a lot of energy to accelerate a stationary vehicle from standstill, and a lot more to keep accelerating to a higher speed. It takes a lot less to maintain the vehicle at a moderate constant speed, and then a lot more is need again to maintain it at high speeds, when wind resistance increases.

You burn a lot of fuel to build up speed, converting chemical energy into heat and then into kinetic energy. When you brake to slow down you, turn that kinetic energy into heat again, with the brakes being the parts that gets hot. That energy then gets dissipated into the atmosphere.

So, in city traffic, if you stomp on the accelerator to get up to 50km/h and then stomp on the brakes to come to a screeching halt again, you will have burnt a lot of fuel to heat the air and move just a short distance. Like from one set of traffic lights to the next.

Or you could press just enough on the accelerator to move about half the distance, and lift off the pedal. Let the car coast (other traffic permitting, of course) to the next red light. This way, you burn just enough fuel to get you going, and let momentum or knietic energy carry you along. Friction and air resistance will act to slow you down. If your judgement and timing is spot on, you will need just a gentle press on the brakes just as your car is almost at a standstill anyway, just to avoid hitting the car in front.

In such a scenario, a heavy-footed driver and a calculative light-footed driver will travel the same distance in more or less the same time, but one will use a lot less fuel, all other factors being equal. Plus, one will wear out his brake pads a lot sooner.

There are many variables in city traffic, such as intersections, right of way, congestion, etc, all of which conspire against a smooth, constant drive, which is the sure way to achieve the best fuel economy. But an alert driver who thinks things through can still use fuel more efficiently than one who does not.

Mind the brakes
Even when traffic is flowing smoothly, the ability to read the traffic ahead can aid in fuel efficiency. If the brake lights come on six or seven cars ahead, for example, a careful driver who maintains a safe distance between himself and the car in front may not need to brake but only lifts off his right foot and coasts for a while as he assesses the situation. If it develops into an emergency, he brakes. If it does not, and that driver up ahead braked for a reason that no longer exists or no reason at all, he resumes driving normally.

Each time you brake, you are wasting energy gained from burning fuel, i.e., wasting fuel. So, by keeping a safe distance between yourself and traffic in front and constantly scanning conditions far ahead, you can leave the brakes alone until you really need them. You save on fuel, and over time, also on brake replacement parts.

Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), tailgating is bad for fuel economy. You will have to brake every time the car in front slows down for whatever reason.

Having said that, do use the brakes when necessary. No point taking fuel economy to extremes and crashing the car. Common sense and all that, ya?  

Unnecessary overtaking is another way to waste fuel. If you are in a long line of cars on a single-lane trunk road, downshifting gears and stomping on the gas pedal may be necessary to achieve an overtaking manoeuvre, burning copious amounts of fuel to build up speed, then slamming on the brakes to slow down and merge back into the long line as an oncoming lorry whizzes by.

You will have wasted a lot of fuel and heated up your brakes, frighten a few other motorists and your passengers and yourself, and be exactly one car farther ahead in the same long line of cars.

Hit the open road, and you will get better mileage, but ... Yes, there is always a but.

There is a speed at which fuel efficiency is at its optimum for a particular vehicle. It is the slowest speed at which you can drive comfortably (for the engine, not the driver) in the tallest gear.

This optimum speed is determined by the torque characteristics of the car’s engines and its gear ratios (itself a combination of the main gearbox, the final drive and, in the case of 4X4s, the transfer case ratio).

Learn to read power and torque charts like this, also for the Ford Ranger 3,2l. Choosing the right gear to keep the engine revs between 1,500 and around 2,800 rpm yields the best combination of performance and fuel economy.
For many vehicles, this happens to be between 70 and 90km/h. Go any slower, and the torque may not be enough to push the car along in top gear. When you go faster, wind resistance or drag increases in proportion to the square of the increase in speed. Meaning, if you double the speed, drag rises four times. Pick any speed as a baseline, go 10% faster, drag increases 21%, 20% faster, 44% more drag, etc.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, remember a lot of the fuel that is burnt is the energy needed to overcome the greatly increased drag at increasing speeds. Driving at 140km/h requires a lot more revs and fuel to overcome four times more wind resistance compared to cruising at 70km/h.

Driving style, as in fast & furious (FF) versus cool, calm, collected (CCC), also has a big impact. For maximum efficiency, read the traffic just like you would in congested areas, ease off when you see vehicles braking ahead, when you see a road hog on the overtaking lane who does not give way to others, etc. If you charge right up behind a recalcitrant road hog, then have to brake hard and wait until he moves over, then accelerate hard again, fuel is going to be wasted.

The alternative is to study the situation and plan ahead, lift off the gas to slow down gently, find a way past, then resume cruising at the speed you want to travel. Smoothness is the key.

A good friend and I once travelled from KL to Penang, each of us driving identical new VW Golf GTIs of the same age, and we both refuelled to the brim at the R&R (rest area) at Tapah. Upon reaching Batu Ferringhi, I had more than two-thirds of a tankful left, he had low fuel warning light blinking.

There is no question about YS Khong’s driving ability or credentials, having been the Malaysian rally champion five times. He does enjoy speed, though. Seeing as I also neared the car’s speed limit and cruised at ... ahem, above legal limits, for most of the journey, the difference between his consumption and mine was mainly in aggressiveness.

It takes more energy to accelerate a heavy car than a light one. It takes more fuel to accelerate a double cab pick-up with a full load of passengers and maximum payload than it does to accelerate that same vehicle with just a driver aboard. And each time the vehicles slow down, the built-up energy is wasted, and more fuel needs to be burnt to build up speed again.

Theoretically, an unladen vehicle and a heavily loaded version of the same make and model would return similar consumption if both could start rolling together and then travel, say 500 kilometres at a constant speed of 90km/h. The heavy vehicle would incur a fuel penalty only when accelerating from standstill to 90km/h, after which both will need the same energy to overcome the same level of wind resistance. Overall consumption figures will see only a tiny difference favouring the lighter car.

This is all well and good in theory, but in real life, the heavier car will be thirstier than the lighter car because cycles of acceleration and deceleration are very much a part of getting around.

A slippery slope
From walking and running, we know that climbing hills take more effort than cruising on flat ground. In theory, though, the extra energy you put into gaining altitude becomes potential energy which should be recoverable when you descend the other side of the hill. After all, you don't climb up forever, and what goes up must come down.

In reality, that does not always happen. If the slopes are gentle, it is possible to offset the extra fuel need to climb up by coasting down the other side. But, if the slopes are steep, you may need to burn a lot of fuel while climbing, and descend slowly with some braking to ensure a safe descent so some energy will be lost.

DO NOT ever put your gearbox in neutral when coasting, whether you are driving an auto or manual. It is silly and dangerous. Silly because it does not save any fuel, and dangerous because it can result in loss of control and a crash..

All modern cars rely on electronic fuel injection, which cuts off fuel when you don't press on the accelerator pedal. When coasting down a gentle in slope in top gear, it is the car's momentum that keeps the engine turning so whether it is running at 2,000rpm or 3,000rpm, no fuel is burnt. Many modern cars have multi-information displays that show, among other things, instantaneous fuel consumption. Select this and you will see that fuel burn is 0 l/100km when you coast in gear, with right foot off the pedal.

However, if you put the gear in neutral, the ECU (engine control unit) actually needs to inject fuel to keep the engine turning over at idling speed. Idling does not use up much fuel but even a small amount is still more wasteful than none at all.

On top of being wasteful, coasting downhill in neutral is dangerous because you no longer have the benefit of engine braking, and no means of propulsion if you suddenly encounter a situation that requires power to get around or away from. Engine braking is the practice of selecting a lower gear than usual when descending a slope so that the car's momentum or kinetic energy is used to turn the engine over, working against the compression in the cylinders, resulting in a retardation of speed.

Tyres are another factor that has a bearing on fuel economy. Some tyres are especially engineered to give low rolling resistance, possibly with compromises in other aspects of performance. Chances are that changing to other tyres on the basis of aggressive looks, or bigger sizes for more macho style, will hurt fuel economy. There’s a price for looking good, beyond the sticker price of the tyres, and other sacrifices in noise, grip, comfort, etc.

Tyre pressures also influence economy, with higher tyres generally giving better mileage at the expense of comfort. Refer to the vehicle manufacturer’s guidelines on pressures. If a range of pressures is given, know that the lower figures usually give a softer, more comfortable ride while the higher figures give better fuel economy. Choose wisely.

There are no rigid guidelines on when an engine is at its most efficient, with some schools of thought insisting a brand new engine is still tight and rough before it is truly run-in, when the working, moving components have polished themselves by rubbing against each other. Some say engines are nicely bedded in at 10,000km, others say 30,000 or 40,000, while some engines begin to get tired at 100,000km or even sooner.

What is not disputed is that a well-serviced and maintained engine will run more efficiently than one that is neglected. Service regularly, use the best quality lubricants and filters recommended by the engine maker, and fuel consumption should remain at optimum levels.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Rise of the Padawan Challenge

The fame of Padawan, as in Jedi-wannabe, may have spread far and wide, even to galaxies far far away but that of Padawan, the district in Sarawak, maybe not so much.

Not so well known it may be but the charms are aplenty here, with friendly inhabitants and picturesque landscapes making it a popular destination for visitors who make it to Kuching.

Padawan encompasses about 1,430 square kilometres south of Kuching city with a population of 300,000, comprising mainly Bidayuh and Chinese, along with Malay and Iban.

Efforts to realise its tourism potential were cranked up a notch recently with the inaugural Padawan International 4X4 Challenge, which attracted a total of 60 teams from as far away as Sabah, Johor, Brunei and Indonesia.

The high-octane contest of men and machines against nature was the highlight of this year’s Padawan Fest, an annual affair which is already known locally for its colourful tapestry of culture, food, music and traditional sports such as rafting and even a triathlon.

For local 4X4 aficionados, the Padawan Challenge was a much needed boost to their favourite sport, which has been lagging in development behind regional neighbours.

Despite the state’s size and rugged terrain favouring the widespread use of robust go-anywhere, all-wheel-drive vehicles, Sarawak has not had a high-profile event to rival Sabah’s 25-year-old Borneo Safari, the Peninsula’s world-class Rainforest Challenge or the numerous big-name events in Kalimantan, or even Brunei.

Although drivers and vehicles from Sarawak have enjoyed success at the highest levels in these neighbouring events, the absence of a comparable local event has been glaringly obvious.

The Padawan Municipal Council picked up the gauntlet early in the year and, with enthusiastic support from the various local 4X4 clubs, things are finally looking up.

Excitement was further heightened by news that some of the superstars of 4X4, including the much-celebrated Borneo Safari 2014 champions “Lozai” Lo Fui Min and “Chuxi” Chang Chiew Shew”, would be going head-to-head with the local heroes.

It would not be just a onlookers’ spectacle either, with three categories created so that there would be plenty of action for any 4X4 fan to test themselves against, according to their own level of experience and appetite for pain.

Just as eagerly anticipated was the arrival of the out-of-state vehicles. Fans of 4X4s are never content with a factory-built car since each person’s ride is expected to reflect his own (and his wallet’s) touch so it was to be a welcome opportunity to see and touch the best works from the Sabahans, Indonesians and Bruneian builders.

Class A was the premier no-holds-barred event, featuring the top drivers in fully souped-up vehicles while Class B was for more moderately modified cars and Class C was a clubman-like event for anyone in a standard four-door, long-wheelbase 4X4s.

The action commenced under a blistering sun, and the crowd was not disappointed. There were thrills and spills aplenty as the less polished crews made amateurish mistakes, such as not engaging their four-wheel-drive or forgetting to start the stopwatch, and were punished for them with disqualification, broken parts and even overturned vehicles.

It became apparent quite early on that the celebrity drivers were a cut above the ordinary, with the Lozai-Chuxi pairing scoring two consecutive wins in the first two special stages (SS). Their brilliant run continued with a second, then another win, a second and a third, and then two more wins, to build an apparently unassailable lead from five clear wins out of eight stages, without a single penalty.

The task of defending hometown honour rested on local hopefuls Jong Jack Koh and Jong “Ah Tee” Ai Loong, who had both tasted successes in competitions abroad, who stayed within reach, just, with a solitary stage win and several top three finishes.

It was by no means a two-horse race, with other contenders such as Sarawak’s Wilfred Sim and Indonesian co-driver Sortono, the second Sabahan pair of Ye Yong Chung-Chin Sei Yeung, and Kuching’s Then Tze Kim-Chai Kuek Leung all in contention for a podium finish.    

With a single SS left to run and a large margin, Lozai and Chuxi seemed a sure bet until the unthinkable happened - they failed to complete the stage, recorded as a “Did Not Finish” or DNF. With that, they could do no more than hope those coming after them would also fail to finish.

On the one hand, several other teams also scored DNFs despite giving their all. On the other, a window of opportunity, however slender, appeared for the trailing pack who had yet to take the last torture test.

With all the makings of a classic cliffhanger, the sun was setting and time was running out as two teams left counted their chances and knew they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going for broke.

Then and Chai gave the local crowd reason to cheer when they become the first pair to complete the dreaded gully run, but the best they could hope for was a third place.

The two Jongs were up next, with two non-negotiable tasks to accomplish - they must finish the course before the allotted time ran out, and they must do it without incurring penalties - if they were to fulfil the hopes of the tense home crowd.

One can only imagine the pressure on the Jongs as they weighed the difficulty of the task at hand against the outside chance of upsetting the pre-race favourites, and doing it in front of their fans and friends.

Jack Koh and Ah Tee rose to the occasion, made their run with intelligent decisions and, crucially, without making any expensive mistakes. And the crowd roared!

At the sporting level, it was a great success with the local heroes claiming purses of RM10,000 and RM3,000 for their victory and third place, respectively, in the elite category while the much-celebrated favourites were consoled with a respectable second place and RM5,000.

The honours reflected the international flavour of the Padawan Challenge, with the Indonesian pair of Cicing-Hendrian Lim topping Group B, and victory in Group C claimed by the Bruneian pair of Au Fook Hwa-Vance Lee Khin Pek.
While there had been some shortcomings early on, organising chairman and Padawan councillor Wilfred Yap said, all was well that ended well.

“We are confident the success of the Padawan Challenge will be a boost to 4X4 activities in Sarawak, and we can look forward to more support from the state government and tourism authorities,” he told the cheering crowd.

With the area’s majestic limestone hills as a backdrop, the challenge venue at the Bengoh Resettlement Scheme, some 35km south-west of Kuching, was an immediate hit with the competitors and supporters, as well as the estimated 12,000 visitors to Padawan over the two days.

Before the event, few people had been to this new village, which was built to accommodate the residents of several nearby areas who had to be relocated because the building of the Bengoh dam flooded their homes.

Now, there is new hope that Padawan will establish Sarawak firmly on the region’s 4X4 map.