Sunday, 17 November 2013

Lone Ranger takes on Borneo Safari 2013

For Malaysian four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, Sabah is a dream destination. For their counterparts who actually live in the eastern state, the dream is to take part in the annual Borneo Safari.
Everyone who have been on one has 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.
For Ford, the Borneo Safari 2013 sounded like the ideal opportunity to put the newly-launched Ranger XLT 3.2l 6-Speed Manual to the ultimate test.
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.
The solitary Ford Ranger T6, quickly dubbed the Lone Ranger by all and sundry, going into the eight-day, seven-night 2013 Borneo Safari would be different from every other car in one key area - it would be stock standard.
At least, it would be as standard as permitted by the Safari organisers, the Sabah Four Wheel Drive Association, which insists that every participating vehicle must have, as a minimum, a winch, a snorkel and a set of XT (or extreme terrain) tyres in good condition.
Even with the tyres, the minimalist Ranger would use a set of modest 33" Silverstone MT-117 Extremes, which looked positively puny alongside the mostly 35" and 36" Simex Centipedes which most of the cars had, and the new 37" Maxxis Trepadors and even one Land Cruiser "Ninja" with massive 40" versions of the Maxxis.
While every conceivable modification to enhance off-road capability could be seen at the Safari, from body lifts of up to four inches (100mm) to suspension lifts of similar or higher dimensions, to beefed-up springs and dampers, to upgraded axles and differential locks, the Ranger would go in with all working parts exactly as it had left the factory.
The protective front bumper takes shape.
Original 3.2l five-cylinder Duratorq engine with original ECU, standard 6-speed manual gearbox, standard springs and absorbers, in short, standard everything. Aside from the organiser-mandated add-ons, the only extras were metal front bumper to mount the winch, plus locally fabricated heavy duty side steps and rear bumper to protect against the inevitable close encounters with the mud, buried logs and rocks that would be encountered along the way.
Bowing to pressure from many experienced off-roaders who were worried that it was too low, a decision was made to raise the front suspension by a modest 30mm, to ensure the front tryre would not foul the bodywork, and that was it. The rear suspension was left completely standard.
A bit earlier in the story, this was how this particular story began. I was going to the Borneo Safari 2103, regardless. God willing. I had taken my then new Land Rover Defender 110 to Borneo Safari 2012, and was making preparations to do so again. Then came the idea. Ford had just launched their latest Ranger, the 3.2l XLT 6-Speed Manual, which seemed the ideal vehicle for Sabah and Sarawak. How about I borrow one from Ford Kuching, outfit it, and take it into the toughest event in Borneo. Ford said "OK", and that was that.
After about two and a bit weeks to get ready, Ranger QCD 9399 set out from Kuching, Sarawak, for the 1,200 kilometre to Sabah via Brunei, escorting a convoy of Indonesian 4X4s that had travelled from Jakarta by ferry to Pontianak, Kalimantan, and then by road all the way to the starting line in downtown Kota Kinabalu.
It was simply a matter of getting to the start of the Borneo Safari but, along the way, the Ranger returned an amazing fuel economy of 7.1 l/100km.
Being forced to drive below the
speed limit  does have its benefits.
The convoy travelled within the speed limit all the way, mainly because some of the Indonesian vehicles could not go fast since they were on extreme offroad tyres.
Most people might just assume that a 3.2l engine that produced 200PS would be a guzzler but,  we ended up with the impressive figure.
Fuel economy is not exactly a priority on the Borneo Safari but even in this area, the Ranger shone ... on the road, it could easily go more than 800km without refuelling while some of it's petrol-powered companions needed to look for petrol stations every 350km or so.
I carried along a 20l jerry can of spare diesel, just in case, and ended up bringing it back all the way home. It was not needed, unlike for many other teams with thirstier cars, which had to refuel multiple times in the jungle. The Ranger could always wait until we got to a town to refuel.
For the record, the Ranger 3.2l XLT's computer showed an overall average fuel consumption of 9.4l/100km at the end of the 4,000km trip, which included the 400km or so of the actual Borneo Safari, large parts of which were done in 4L (four-wheel-drive low range) and low gears.
By the power of two PTOs and snatch blocks ...

This year's Safari served up a route that took the expedition from Kota Kinabalu to picturesque Kiulu, and then on to Kundasang and Ranau, where the really hardcore stuff began.
Over a stretch of jungle trail that measured only about 20 kilometres, many of the participants struggled against the elements for three days and two nights. There was heavy rain throughout that turned the clay and laterite into slushy mud, further churned into the consistency of porridge by the passage of so many big-wheeled mechanical monsters.

The ascents were steep, the descents were steep, and the ruts were deep, very deep. In parts, there was no option other than to drag the cars through by winch power, often using snatch blocks (pulleys) to double the power of the winches, just to get the heavily laden vehicles to crawl forward, inch by painful inch.
There were no designated campsites, each team or group would just have to stop and set up camp wherever and whenever they could go no further. And the leeches would come to feast.
Running repairs were made as needed, up and down the entire convoy, and frequent calls could be heard over the two-way radios, asking if anyone had this spare part or that to share. Reports came in that one car at the rear end had broken down completely, and had to be towed along, with no engine and electrical power.
There was no way to turn back, and the toughest obstacles still lay ahead. The trek was fast becoming a car breaker, with stories about broken suspension bits and pieces, failed winches. Just about everything that could fail on a car, someone had it fail.
Some failures were minor, some major, but everyone would make it through, even if it meant they had to be towed all the way. "Leave no one behind" is the Borneo Safari creed.
Through all this, the Ranger also struggled but nothing failed, and nothing broke. The lack of any suspension lift meant it was lower than just about every other car, and thus it had more difficulty in ploughing through the thick mud.
Where everyone needed winching to get through, the Ranger's winch had to work that much harder because more parts of the body were actually in contact with the ground.
But in several stretches where other vehicles had to make several tries to clear obstacles, the Ranger's ample torque at low revs made it look easy. Just select the right gear, a gentle press on the accelerator and it was through.
The long wheelbase also presented challenges in going over sharp apexes but it was all in a day's work, Borneo Safari style.
By itself, the fact that the Ranger came out mechanically unscathed might not mean much since it could be the trail was not that tough this time around. But when viewed in the context of the long list of broken and failed parts suffered by so many other vehicles, the "Built Ford Tough" tagline is justified.
It did sustain damage, mostly to the locally fabricated protective bumpers which took a beating against the rocks, and one side of the rear bumper was torn off.
A known weakness of vehicles with independent front suspension is that the rubber boots protecting the front drive shafts are vulnerable to damage, and the ones on the Ranger were indeed torn (pic left).
When lifting the front by 30mm, the anti-roll bar was overlooked. As a result, when the mud was cleaned off, it was discovered the left side link rod (between AR bar and chassis) had snapped. There was no noticeable change in handling, and it was welded back once the vehicle got back to town.
And the automatic feature on the driver's power window failed at the end of the Safari, probably due to rainwater getting into the switch. By the time it reached Brunei on the return leg of the journey, it must have dried out because the window's auto up and down feature worked perfectly again.
Would I do it again? Not really. I wanted to find out if the Ranger, in standard trim, could survive the Borneo Safari, and that has been achieved. Quite clearly, it can. I can't see any reason to prove the same thing again and again.
If we were to do it again next year, I'd want to apply the same modifications to the Ranger that everyone else does to their cars, and see how much better it can do.

A Ranger from Sarawak ... a Sarawak Ranger! Agi Idup, Agi Ngelaban!