Sunday, 17 November 2013

A year earlier ... Borneo Safari 2012

Borneo Safari 2012 was most memorable to me because I had just turned 50 a few weeks earlier, suffered the shock of having a good friend and offroading buddy die suddenly and so decided to buy a brand new Land Rover Defender pick-up and drive it into the jungles of Sabah. This was dedicated to the late, great Andy "One Ten" Wong.
The story below was written for and published in S4M Magazine Malaysia.
Andy the Landy goes for a swim.
Sabah is paradise to adventure seekers for several reasons, some natural and others man-made. The spectacular vista of Malaysia's tallest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, crystal clear seas dotted with pristine tropical islands, an amazing array of the freshest seafood and the easygoing friendliness of the locals are just some of the factors that lure visitors there in the first place.
Stepping out of Kota Kinabalu International Airport, the first-time visitor cannot help noticing one of Sabah's unique features there are so many four-wheel-drive vehicles in the car parks! There are little Suzukis, and there are work-weary pick-ups, and also the plusher new double-cabs as well as large numbers of the full-sized Toyota Land Cruisers, which the locals affectionately dub the Ninja (Turtle), the Ninja King and the Super King.
There can be only one logical conclusion – the roads here must be terribly rough. Or, perhaps, Sabahans are just really in love with 4X4s.
The truth, as it turns out, is a bit of both. A lot of both, actually. Less than hour's drive from the state capital, in any direction, the roads rapidly deteriorate in quality but there is a surprisingly good network of what (almost) passes for roads that enables the adventurous souls to explore the lesser known places. You'd need a 4X4 to get anywhere but, for the effort, the rewards are a breathtaking collection of landscapes that rival the best the rest of the world has to offer.

This is 4X4 country
The Borneo Safari is the once-a-year event that brings together the best of these attributes in a complete package that 4X4 enthusiasts find hard to resist.
For over two decades, this event organised by the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC) has been a calendar highlight for aficionados from across the state as well as other parts of Malaysia. There are even a number of serious players from as far afield as Japan and Australia, taking part either in their own vehicles shipped all the way to Sabah or by hopping onto local cars.
Some members of this foreign brigade, like the legendary Toshiro Urabe of Japan, have fallen so much in love with the state and the event that they come back year after year, to such an extent they have become almost permanent fixtures of the Safari.
The grassy, rolling hills of Kota Belud.
Recently, the club was reorganised and upgraded to the Sabah Four Wheel Drive Association, which then set the ambitious goal of making the 22nd edition, the Borneo Safari 2012 “”Xtreme Kinabalu”, the biggest and best ever. From the numbers alone over 500 participants in some 200 vehicles over 1,000km in eight days and seven nights they succeeded.
Of course, it was clear that such big numbers could also cause problems with traffic jams in the jungle. With all vehicles going through the same route, simple arithmetic would show that a simple obstacle that takes each vehicle two minutes to clear would take the whole convoy over 400 minutes or six and a half hours to get through! This fear would be realised.

From strangers to brothers
But the true measure of the latest Safari's success lies not in they statistics, they are reflected in the never-ending stories told and retold by those hardy souls who survived this marathon test of Man and Machine.
They are reflected in the bonds of friendship forged on those challenging jungle trails, where strangers from Brunei and Sarawak and Indonesian came together with the other foreigners and the local Sabahans and crossed the finish line as brothers (and a few sisters).
For the non-Sabahan contingent, the adventures began considerably earlier and further away, with the Indonesian “Everything Four Wheel Drive” team led by Susanto “Santo” Harimuljo beginning their epic journey from Jakarta nearly two weeks before the flag-off date of October 29. The first leg of their journey entailed putting their three vehicles a ferry ride to Pontianak, followed by an arduous drive over 400km of rough Kalimantan “roads” to Sarawak's capital Kuching, then on to Bintulu with a brief halt in Miri, then Brunei, through to Limbang, back into Brunei, over into Lawas (still in Sarawak) before finally crossing into Sabah. All this, which would be quite an adventure in itself, is just to get to the start of the Borneo Safari.
Our Indonesian friends upheld the honour of the
Indonesian Offroad Federation in great style.
Along the way, they had to deal with the inevitable vehicle problems caused by gremlins big and small, the unavoidable paperwork and officialdom of multiple border crossings, and the sheer fatigue of motoring long distance over poor roads.
This trial by odometer was shared to some degree by other determined adventurers from Banjamasin in Kalimantan as well as from Kuching and Brunei, who linked up first through modern social networking venues like Facebook and Whatsapp before meeting up along the way and trvelling as an ever-growing convoy, looking forward eagerly to taking on the promised mud and jungles.
The 2012 edition sported a fresh new look, beginning two days before the actual flag-off with an exhibition featuring not just 4X4 paraphernalia but also other outdoor sports and activities such as camping, hiking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), mountain bikes, among others.
Sponsors and exhibitors benefitted not only from the publicity and exposure but also enjoyed roaring trade with many of the Safari participants grabbing the opportunity for some last-minute shopping.
Laszlo Gog from Hungary (right) assisting
withe winching needed to get the cars
 through a particularly tough spot.
No matter how long they've had to prepare for this once-a-year event, it seems there are always some items that had been forgotten, or simply some new-fangled gizmo that 4X4 aficionados simply cannot resist, like sleeping bags, camp furniture, apparel, or the latest in GPS (global positioning system) geaar from Garmin.
Isuzu, as the main sponsor of Borneo Safari 2012, showcased three units of their best-selling D-Max double cabins, fully decked out for the event with winches, beefed-up suspension and body armour, as well as the hot-from-the-mould Komodo Extreme tyres from another major sponsor, GT Radial. The Indonesian tyre giant's presence was also boosted by its sponsorship of the three beautifully-prepared cars from Jakarta a Nissan Terrano, a 1970s-vintage Land Cruiser FJ40 and the Toyota Fortuner that would go on to win the coveted Borneo Safari 2012 Car of The Year Award.
Visitors to the Alamesra site, just opposite the popular 1Borneo mega-mall, were not disappointed. They came for acction, and they got plenty as the competitors vying for Safari glory were put through their paces. Continuous rain over the preceding week ensured the special stages (SS) were well and truly soggy and swampy, giving the competing drivers and their vehicles a torrid time while providing the spectators and amateur photographers with plenty of action.
The cool dudes from Team GT Radial, Jakarta.
The competition aspect has always been an important part of the Safari, with each year's winners assured of fame and respect throughout this 4WD-mad state. Glory and prizes aside, victory in the Safari also holds significant commercial value since the workshops and mechanics that helped prepared the winning vehicles can count on a boom in business.
In the early days of the Borneo Safari, the total number of vehicles would be around 30 to 40, with around half of them  competitors. Over the years, the convoy size grew steadily as the event's popularity grew while the number competing for prizes remained about the same, averaging 20 cars or fewer.
Today, the ratio of competitors to “Tag ons”, as the non-competitors and non-officials are called, is almost 1:10.
For anyone with an interest in machines, the Borneo Safari 2012 flag-off day was a feast for senses. Naturally, a parade of over 200 colourful safari-ready 4X4s, all bedecked with sponsorship decals, makes for quite a sight to behold but there was much more, including motorcycles, ATVs, bicycles and even a helicopter from sponsors Sabah Air, who committed a Bell Jetranger to standby for medical and other emergency evacuations should these become necessary during the event and also as an aerial camera platform.
Those familiar with the Sabah 4X4 scene will know that Sabahans don't believe in leaving their beloved vehicles in standard form. If it was good from the dealer's showroom, they have to make it better by modifying, customising, chopping, removing some bits and adding other bits.
What started off as Jimnys from Suzuki are transplanted with turbodiesel engines and axles from Toyota Land Cruiser II's. Hardly any of the boxy Land Rovers in the field were powered by their original engines, and they wear six-studded wheels instead of the trademark five holes. The notable exception was this writer's two-week-old Defender HCPU (high capacity pick-up) driven all the way from Kuching.
The most prominent and clearly dominant vehicles of the Safari have to be the big Ninja, officially the Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series of 1990s vintage, widely considered the best overlander/off-roader that Toyota ever made. But that has not stopped Sabahan fans from modifying them to be even better, with the most noticeable upgrade being the huge tyres.
Once off the sealed roads and onto the rough stuff, the Sabahans showed they also have their own driving style that differs somewhat from the rest of the world.
Forget about finesse, they have only one solution for all problems and challenges - MORE POWER! As a result, and contrary to popular myth, a lot of parts get broken on the trail, from steering components to gearboxes, driveshafts and other assorted bits, and even a whole engine that blew up.
But what would be a major show-stopper elsewhere serves only to highlight yet another of Sabah's unique 4X4 culture. Help is just a phone call away, and there seemed to be no shortage of obliging parts dealers who would happily deliver an axle or a gearbox and, yes, even a complete engine, to wherever it is needed. And there always seemed to be someone on hand, or several, willing and able to help carry out the repairs and get everyone rolling again in next to no time.
How does one change an entire in the jungle, you wonder? It starts with a friendly supplier delivering a replacement to the spot where you are stranded. A convenient tree serves as the frame for the hoist, with a winch providing the lifting power. The rest is like in your neighhbourhood workshop, but the work is probably completed faster.
The persistent rain that had threatened to turn the entire 2012 Safari into one long slog stopped suddenly on flag-off day and stayed away right until the last day. As a result, everyone enjoyed the fine weather which gave the photographers magnificent sunsets and spectacular shots of Mount Kinabalu. The cooperative weather went so far as to keep away the clouds that normally veil the mountain throughout most of the day.
The route, which was essentially a clockwise loop around the mountain, yielded great views every day when the convoy was not pushing through dense forests.
The absence of rain did not mean the track was easy, though. There were enough muddy bogs, slippery climbs and rocky trails to satisfy the most ardent four-wheeler, to such an extent that most sighed with relief at the end of each tough sector.
Of course, the appetite for adrenalin never really went away for long, so the next obstacle was most eagerly anticipated.
In several stages, winches were absolutely necessary. In fact, the strain was high enough that several vehicles ended up with their winches damaged or destroyed, or suffered catastrophic failure of cables and recovery gear, such as an 'S' hook that was pulled almost straight. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in any of these incidents although there were enough minor cuts and bruises to keep the medics busy.

Just for added tension, news filtered through the convoy on Day 5 that someone had been bitten by a snake. Details were sketchy but the expedition medic  was sent to the head of the convoy to assist. Later it turned out that the victims was a local villager, whom the doctor gave first aid to before calling for an ambulance from Ranau to send him to the hospital.
Then, while waiting for the convoy to resume rolling, particpants resting by the roadside spotted a snake in the drain. It was dead and posed no threat. The next day, while slowly negotiating a swampy tract, and awaiting recovery of an overturned vehicle, another snake was observed crawling from beneath a Land Rover into the long grass. The news went out over the radio, and everyone quickly climbed back into their cars and slammed the car doors shut. So, yessssss, we had excitement.
On most days, the majority of vehicles arrived at the designated camp sites in good time, giving the occupants sufficient time to get a good night's rest before the next day's challenges.
The 2012 Safari organisers, especially the recce and scout teams, did a brilliant job in finding great campsites that were spacious enough to accommodate everyone, with plenty of room to spare, and usually with fantastic views as a bonus.
The rolling hills of Kota Belud's aptly named Camp Paradise, which normally serves as the Malaysian military's training grounds for conventional warfare, proved to be a favourite campground. On Day 5, the barren, windblown landscape of the disused Mamut copper mine, over 1,500 metres up in the highlands near Ranau, provided a chilly (10 degrees Celsius at night) alternative to more familiar tropical camping experiences.
After an all-night driving marathon ...
Rest is never totally assured, though. On Day 4, delays during the day resulted in many vehicles having to push on late into the night, tackling a hard-core trail until about 4am, when stuck vehicles blocking the track forced exhausted participants to snatch a couple of hours sleep. Some slept in their cars while others just collapsed into any flat ground beside their vehicles. Then, up at 6am and the slog continued. Through many varieties of mud, through dust and rocks, through mist and fog, the drive continued.
At the end of eight days and seven nights, damaged vehicles had bbeen patched up and washed, and every one arrived safely back at KK's posh Sutera Harbour for a grand dinner, and the presentation of the various awards up for grabs.
Not all walked away with an award but everyone certainly went home with enough memories and bragging rights to last until Borneo Safari 2013.

More photos ...

They don't have a Borneo Safari Jungle Couple Award, or else Dave and Philippa Morris from Australia, via Brunei, would be outright crowd favourites. 

Broken suspension? No problem, line up a couple of batteries and weld away.