Sunday, 17 November 2013

On the Kalimantan Camel Trail

They say "it's the journey, not the destination that's important". They (whoever "they" may be), are wrong most of the time. After all, if you go to Italy for a holiday, surely it's the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain that you are interested in, and not the transit in Dubai with the possibility of a complimentary body cavity search, no?
But when the Land Rover Owners Club of Malaysia (LROM) mounts an expedition to an exotic locale like Borneo, it really is the journey that matters. Actually getting to the planned destination is optional, something that's nice if it happens but no biggie if unforeseen things happen along the way that force a change of plans.
The third biggest island in the world, Borneo is one of the few places left that conjures up images of exotic adventure at the very mention of its name. While many Malaysians in the peninsula who have still not visited Sabah and Sarawak may imagine the eastern states as a wild place, the Indonesian territory of Kalimantan has even more to offer those who love to rough it.
Rate "Atek" De Silva
"It'll be the blind leading the blind" was the reply from Trans Kalimantan 2 organiser Rate "Atek" De Silva whenever anyone asked where the convoy would be heading on any given day of the recent expedition. "We're looking for adventure," said the LROM president, "so we'll just take whatever challenges come our way, deal with them and have a good time." That's the Land Rover way.
The plan had a start date to depart Kuching, Sarawak, an intermediate date to arrive at the mid-way destination of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, and an end date to return to Kuching. Everything else in between was left intentionally vague.
"We're heading for Nanga Bulik," Atek might say one morning. "But that could change."
And, change it often did. Even Day One had to be postponed a couple of days because three of the expedition's Land Rovers (two 110 Defenders and a Range Rover) from Peninsular Malaysia did not get loaded onto the ship at Port Klang on the right ship at the right time, resulting in late arrival in Kuching and the first forced rescheduling.
The loss of several days meant the planned itinerary had to be amended as well so Samarinda, a city north-east of Balikpapan on Kalimantan's east coast, had to be struck off the list of destinations.
Trans Kalimantan 2013, the second in a series of expeditions by LROM to explore Indonesian Borneo, followed up on the first trip in March last year that took a multi-national bunch of adventurers travelling in eight Land Rovers from Kuching to Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan (Kalimantan Selatan or Kalsel, as the Indonesians have a penchant for shortening and combining just about every place name), and back to Kuching.
This time around, the convoy would be smaller, with just five Land Rovers, including a Camel Trophy-replica Discovery from Kuching and another One-Ten Defender from Jakarta. The journey would be much longer, however, taking the participants through West Kalimantan (Kalimantan Barat or Kalbar) down south before swing east through Central Kalimantan (Kalteng) to East Kalimantan (Kaltim), then southwest to Banjarmasin, Kalsel, before turning north again for the return leg through the Kalbar towns of Pontianak and Singkawang.
Kalimantan has a surprisingly widespread network of roads that links the many interior towns and settlements but the expedition's intent was to take the roads less travelled so the paper maps that some participants brought along would prove to be less than useful.
Navigation would consist of getting lost first, then asking the local inhabitants, and if that fails, consult the Garmin GPS. None of the methods proved to be foolproof because it turned out that many of the locals were, in fact, not local but migrants who moved to the area under the Indonesian government's Transmigrasi programme, and many had never been more than 100km, or even 50km, from wherever they had settled. Ask three "locals" and you could get three answers that pointed us in three directions, and estimates of travel time ranging from "two hours" to "next morning" and "two days".
The GPS could tell us where were, exactly, to five decimal places of latitude and longitude, but that wasn't much help when the maps clearly showed we were on a major road while our eyes told us we were clearly not on any surface that could be described as a "road".
One such stretch near the village of Lampeong (on the Kalteng side of the border with Kaltim, S1.789503° E115.097010° if you wish to look it up in Google Earth) proved to be the epitome of adventure, the kind that Land Rover buffs dream of - deep, soft mud that required inch-by-inch winching to make any progress at all.
And when all the vehicles were successfully pulled through, we were rewarded with the knowledge that we were probably only the second group of Land Rovers to make it through, after the Camel Trophy convoy that passed that way back in 1996! So, yeah, we did the Camel thing, 17 years later, and the terrain looked the same as it did in the videos from back then.
A typical TransKal day would begin with a scheduled time for wheels to start rolling (say, 8am), followed by actual movement maybe half an hour to an hour later.
Then, a couple of hours of dodging potholes and assorted human, animal and mechanical traffic, stop by a roadside shack for "kopi pahit" and confusing directions, and then repeat until lunch break. The afternoon session would be more of the same, with varying degrees of dustiness or muddiness.
On most days, the driving went on well into the night, until a suitable camp site is reached, or 11pm, whichever comes first. Covering 280km in a day was about average, and 350kn was pushing it. Once, the entire convoy pushed on through the entire night to reach Balikpapan just after 5am.
The plan was to alternate between one night's camping with the following night's rest in a town where there might be found budget hotels known as "losmen" (from the Dutch word for lodgement). Like the other plans, this was subject to change, depending on circumstances. There were several occasions when we had to sleep in the five-foot way of village shops late at night and woke up just as the shopkeepers opened their front doors to find a bunch of strangers camped right at their doorstep. They never seemed surprised or upset and just grabbed the opportunity to serve fresh coffee and hot noodles to these eager customers!
The "roads" in Kalimantan were certainly an experience for those not used to third world conditions. For Malaysians from the peninsula who are already appalled by the poor roads in rural Sabah or Sarawak, Kalimantan serves up a whole level of horror. While there are some decent tar-sealed stretches linking the main towns, most are so narrow that when two oncoming vehicles pass each other, there is hardly enough room for both. The local seem comfortable to whiz past each other with an inch to spare while the TransKal drivers often resorted to placing the left wheels on the soft shoulder to create more safety space. The problem is that there often motorcyclists or pedestrians  without lights on the shoulders, making night driving a rather tense affair.
Many of the smaller roads appear to have been built and then never maintained, leading to inevitabe deterioration from the elements, accelerated by overloaded lorries.
Along one stretch near Tumbang Titi (near Ketapang, Kalbar), up to 80 percent of the tarmac had eroded away, leaving small chunks of bituminised gravel standing like tiny islands surrounded by a river of red earth that turned into slush when it rained. Of course, it rained when we were on that stretch.
A Land Rover expedition just wouldn't be a Land Rover expedition without breakdowns, err "mechanical issues", and TransKal 2 was most certainly a genuine Land Rover expedition. From a leaking coolant reservoir to melted fan relay to broken prop-shaft coupling to clogged and ruptured fuel lines and diesel filters, frequent stops to make running repairs were part of the daily, albeit unplanned programme.
There were also concerns about the dubious quality of the diesel fuel sold in plastic 20-litre drums, often with the colour and consistency of soy sauce. At RM2.50 to RM3 per litre, it was not cheap either. Officially, subsidised diesel is sold at 4,500 rupiah (about RM1.50) but the Pertamina stations in remote areas are almost always out of stock, or have long queues of lorries lining up to wait for supplies to arrive. (Each Land Rover burned up about RM1,500 worth of diesel over the 4,600km journey.)
None of these were really a surprise or showstopper because of Atek's insistence on standardisation, with all expedition vehicles powered by TDI 300 engines. There were sufficient spares to replace faulty alternators and AC pumps, among others, and when problems arose that required McGyverisation, things just got fixed and moving again in a jiffy. There will certainly be stories for many campfires to come but no major drama.
So what about the destinations? There were so many. Names of towns, cities and villages Sandai, Delang, Nanga Bulik, Palangkaraya, Sampit, Pangkalang Bun, Nanga Tayap, Natai Kerbau, Batu Butok, and dozens more. Truth be told, we passed through so many, had coffee, and moved on. In each there were interesting encounters and experiences but few were tourist attractions. Balikpapan and Banjarmasin turned out to be large modern metropolitan cities that rival any in Malaysia, with similar or better infrastructure.
Along the way, we couldn't help noticing that there was hardly any stretch of road or track, however remote, that did not have people living alongside. Kalimantan is sparsely populated by the standards of other parts of Indonesia, which is why the government deemed it a good idea to people from densely packed areas like Java to its Borneo territory. But it is still a heavily populated area by Malaysian standards, and it is bustling with economic activity such as clearing of the forest for  gigantic oil palm and rubber plantations.
One exceptional thing to see and do that surely deserves a must-visit tag is the orang utan rehabilitation centre at Tanjung Puting (Kalteng), accessible by a three-hour boat ride from the river port of Kumai, near Pangkalan Bun. After nearly two weeks of driving for upward of 10 hours a day every day, the soothing cruise proved to be a much-needed tonic for everyone, with the added reward of getting up close and personal with the amazing primates at the sanctuary, plus troops of proboscis monkeys and gibbons lining the trees by the narrow river.
The 17 days of Trans Kalimantan 2013 were physically and mentally taxing enough that quite a few who completed the trek might be inclined to think "that was fun but I think I've had enough of Kalimantan". Then, there's talk about about starting next year's event from Sabah. Now, that'd be a different journey altogether, never mind the destination.
If any part of this story sounds familiar, could be because it was published in 4X4 Magazine Malaysia.

More Trans Kalimantan photos here

For an overLAND expedition, we sure spent a lot of time on boats!