Sunday, 17 November 2013

Borneo Safari 2013

The ideal place to start my story is a 4X4 adventure in the northern part of Borneo, in what is today the Malaysian state of Sabah, formerly a protectorate of the British empire and, before that, claimed by various parties including the sultanates of Brunei, Sulu (itself now part of the Philippines). (Future posts will cover various of four-wheeling, tales from past trips elsewhere in Borneo, including Sarawak and Kalimantan, as well as Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Sahara desert.)
Sabah is a dream destination for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts from all over the world. First-time visitors will be taken aback by the sheer number of serious-looking 4X4s on the streets and in the parking lots the moment they step out of the Kota Kinabalu International Airport.
Back in 1988, a bunch of 4WD enthusiasts got together to form the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC) to organise events that would enable like-minded spirits to enjoy using their tough, go-anywhere cars in the manner they were designed to be used, and visit places that most other people simply cannot get to without great difficulty.
That led to the Borneo Safari, which quickly grew in popularity over the years, with regular participation from Japan, Australia, Brunei, Sarawak and, of course, plenty of local Sabahans.
For more on the history of Borneo Safari, click here.
Most people who have been on one of these expeditions have come back with tales of adventure, of struggling with the jungle and mud, of the incessant winching, and the rain and the leeches. And raved also about the spectacular scenery, and the extraordinary warmth of the locals, and the camaraderie they enjoyed in overcoming the trials and challenges together with new-found friends.
Some 200 heavily modified 4X4s had entered the grueling expedition the previous year, and a record tally of 255 cars had signed up for the 23rd edition this year.
While there is a competition portion that has always been a backbone of the event, the greatest growth in popularity has been with the Tag-On group, most of whom just look forward to sharing several days of hardcore 4X4 experience with like-minded fellows.
The 2013 edition, with the theme of "Xtreme Trus Madi", would take the participants to the pictureque river valley of Kiulu, about 40km from Kota Kinabalu, through the highlands of Kundasang, and then to the foothills of Trus Madi, Malaysia's second highest mountain.

When one of the scouts who had reconnoitered the route remarked that the hardcore sector of about 20km would be a "10 out of 10" for toughness, there was some scepticism among the old-timers.
The doubts evaporated when reports filtered through the radio that the cars in front were already struggling, even as the sky was still blue and bright. If the past few days' weather was anything to go by, heavy rain could be expected in the afternoon.
With the lead cars making little progress, those at the rear had plenty of time to cook lunch or got out the playing cards to open up impromptu casinos while waiting for their turn.
CURIOUS SPECTATOR ... A leech is excited by the
 prospect of  so many meals on wheels passing by. 
By late afternoon, the dark grey clouds made good on their threat and the torrential downpour made the already difficult going even more treacherous. Pulling winch cables and tow ropes in the rain and mud kept everyone busy until the light began to fade, and it was time to make camp.
The cars in the lead group had probably travelled about 10km after a whole day while those behind had made even less progress.
Camp would have to be wherever the cars stopped, with some of the more fortunate drivers finding at least a little flat, open ground. Then, the leeches started to appear.

With a simple, hastily prepared dinner out of the way, it was time to socialise with fellow travellers, at least, those who still had the energy to remain awake. This downtime at night, with rain falling on the tarpaulin shelters, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the Borneo Safari, where firm bonds of friendship are forged.

Beers are shared, tall tales are swapped, and the conversation drifts from 4X4 vehicles and modifications, to accounts of other adventures and past offroad trips. At some point, the snoring begins and the conversation gradually peters out.
The second day on the hardcore trail would be more of the same, with steep descents into streams followed by heavy duty winching up the other side, with snatch blocks and doubled lines being the norm rather than the exception.
Vehicles in the rear half of the convoy had to cope with the deep ruts and mud churned into the consistency of thick, gooey porridge, thanks to the hundred and more other vehicles that had already passed through.
Every conceivable challenge of off-roading was thrown at the convoy, from tyre punctures to broken driveshafts and other mechanical failures, to overheating engines and winches. If a piece of equipment was not up to scratch, it broke.
Whatever techniques or tips and tricks that one might have heard of around a campfire or read about on the Internet, they became practical lessons on this hardcore stage of Borneo Safari 2013.
Jone Ville Tinun and his Range Volvo ...
The one that they'll be talking about for a long time to come is the steep descent - more than 60 degrees from vertical - down which each car had to be lowered slowly and carefully by a winch attached to the car behind. The last car in each group would have to lower itself down, either with a rear-mounted winch or by going down backwards.
The challenge did not end with getting to the bottom safely, though. There was a large log to climb over and a right-angle turn into a stream, which ended with a tight U-turn up another steep slope!
Even the veterans of many hardcore events had to admit that this was a new experience, a scary one but guaranteed to generate many tall tales that will be the envy of 4X4 enthusiasts who missed out.
And then there was the deep gully at which the sweeper teams had to station three vehicles, all with engine-powered PTO (power take off) winches to help pull the cars through. Even with each winch line doubed up using snatch blocks, it was a titanic struggle to drag some of the heavier cars through.
This was also the obstacle that inflicted the most mechanical damage, with drive shafts snapping, and even the supposedly indestructible PTOs suffering damage.
Relief would be the only word to describe how everyone felt upon emerging from the trail, which entailed three days and two nights of hard struggling to complete. The reward was a huge sense of accomplishment and a long-overdue bath in the crystal-clear and teeth-chattering cold mountain stream.
After regrouping in the central town of Keningau for some much-needed rest and also repairs for many vehicles, the action moved into the foothills of Gunung Trus Madi.
Upon arriving back in Kota Kinabalu for the closing dinner and formalities, the success of Borneo Safari 2013 could be gauged from the scattered conversations among friends old and new - plans for Borneo Safari 2014 are already being made!

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