Saturday, 23 November 2013

'Twas a good year ... 2008

You know it's gonna be wet ...
I cannot speak for the rest of the world but 2008 was a good year for me. I got to tick off several boxes on my to-do list, including driving a topless Lamborghini through the hills of Bologna and bit of backpacking in Italy, all without any work involved.
But the highlights came towards the end of the year, when I got to indulge to the max in my passion — 4X4 adventure.
There was a bit of worry, initially. It looked like nature was going to pour cold water on my plans to enjoy Sabah's famous Borneo Safari, with a weather alert warning of heavy rainfall towards the end of October.
The expected deluge might cause ''flash floods and mudslides in low-lying areas and river banks'', the met boys warned, in ''Sabah's coastal areas and the interior''. (Call me an alarmist but wouldn't that description cover the WHOLE state?)
This was to be a homecoming of sorts for me because I had lived in Sabah for several years in the early 1990s, and the 1992 edition of the Borneo Safari was my induction into the world of hardcore 4X4 (followed by the inimitable Camel Trophy of 1993).
In this hobby of ''challenging nature'', rain means tough trail conditions. But that's regarded as a promise, not a threat. It is something to welcome, not to dread.
The one and only Camel Trophy, Sabah 1993.
But, there can also easily be too much of a good thing. Memories are still fresh of the watery disaster of 2007 edition of the Malaysian Rainforest Challenge in Terengganu, forcing participants to abandon nearly 50 vehicles to the rising waters and flee in rescue boats sent in by the authorities.
When our small contingent from the peninsula, comprising journalists, photographers and representatives of Borneo Safari media sponsor, Isuzu Malaysia, arrived at Kota Kinabalu, it looked as if the gloomy outlook was justified.
The sky was a sullen grey and, according to our hosts from the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC), it had been raining continuously for the past several days. Yup, the 18th Borneo Safari was going to be fun.
Sabah delivered on its promise, serving up mud galore. For the first two days and nights, it was either raining, drizzling or about to pour again.
Anywhere that the chunky tires of heavily-laden 4X4s rolled over, the ground was churned into a greyish mush. Driving was a challenge, and simply walking anywhere was an ordeal that required placing one foot in front of the other, gingerly.
Every piece of kit — shirts, shorts, hats, socks, bags, camp cots — got wet. And we hadn't even gone into the jungle proper yet!
Finally, the sun shone weakly through the clouds on the morning of
''Co-drivers forward with tools.''
Day Three, and not a moment too soon, for the hard part of the eight-day expedition was about to begin.
Only a few minutes had elapsed after I put ''my'' Isuzu D-Max (affectionately dubbed The Monster) in gear when the two-way radio crackled to life. ''Co-drivers forward with tools.'' We hadn't even cleared the camp site and the front of the kilometre-long convoy had already run into an obstacle!
Thankfully, the sun was shining warmly by now but the previous days' rain had dumped part of a hillside across the track. The medium-sized landslide was not a problem, just a challenge — this is, after all, the Borneo Safari.
With willing limbs and strong backs wielding shovels and hoes, the mess of fallen clay was bashed into a passable — albeit barely — path. Winches would be needed.
When my turn came, the Isuzu's 3.0l common rail diesel was more than up to the task, until it reached a point the tyres had no purchase at all. Out came the winch and recovery kit and, with a bit of grunting and a lot of sweat, we crawled to the crest of the hill.
It was a slow, laborious process that had to be repeated every so often, taking several hours before the entire 120-vehicle convoy made it through. It was going to be a long day. It was going to be a classic Borneo Safari.
Just a couple of kilometres up the trail, another steep, deeply rutted slope slowed progress again and yet again, power was applied, the winch cable came out, and the trek continued.
From then on until the expedition's end, the recovery paraphernalia, including snatch straps, shackles and so on, were no longer stowed away neatly but kept conveniently at hand. Until the next obstacle ... err, challenge.
Over the coming week, it would be a routine all the 300 or so participants would become familiar with — the increased radio traffic signalling an obstacle, the queue, the work, the charge through or up difficult stretches, the recovery, and the journey resuming. Slip, slide, stick, dig, push, pull, winch, then go, and repeat.
One of the most comforting aspects of the Safari is the overwhelming hospitality that Sabahans are justifiably famed for, and the large number of fellow travellers who are either mechanics, workshop owners or otherwise mechanically competent.
Whenever a vehicle breaks some part or gets into some other trouble, there are no worries because help is always at hand, all delivered calmly, with a smile, and without fuss.
Twice, the convoy stayed at the same campsite two nights in a row, giving most of the participants time to relax and dry off their wet stuff while enjoying the exciting spectacle of the competitors in action in the arena of the magnificent Crocker Range.
The perfect finale to a great adventure was the final night's camp along the pristine beach of Kuala Penyu, on Sabah's southwest coast.
With a sublime sunset as backdrop, new and old friends gathered around flickering campfires, beer in hand and sucking on freshly cooked local shells, to swap tales about the trials and triumphs of the past week.
There was still the closing ceremony to come, winners to be announced and prizes to be presented. But I had already made a decision: Yes, I'll clear my calendar for end October, 2009.
A couple of weeks later, with memories of Sabah still fresh and leech bites still itching, I was making tracks to Terengganu for another wet and muddy rendezvous — the Rainforest Challenge 2008, dubbed ''The Unfinished Business''. Truly, my cup runneth over — with rainwater and mud!