Monday, 18 November 2013

Where a Sunday drive can take you to Tuesday

Andy 'One-Ten' Wong

The story below was published in The Star, Malaysia, two years ago (circa June 2011). The trials and travails faced by travellers described in it no longer exist since the road to Ba'kelalan has been completed. I have left the story as it was published then to retain its original flavour, and also to remind readers not to wait too long to go out and chase that dream. The great wilderness may not be there much longer. 

I dedicate this post to the memory of a good friend and a legend in the Borneo 4X4 community, Andy 'One-Ten' Wong. Rest In Peace, dear friend. Carpe diem

Yes, this was a road ... between Long Semadoh and Ba'kelalan.

IN a faraway land known as Borneo, a place that many Malaysians have never visited, time stands still. Truth is, the clock's hands do move but ever so slowly that it feels like time hardly passes at all.
It's not that backward, though, they do have cars there.
Up in the mysterious mountains of north-eastern Sarawak, there are no traffic lights or jams but they take an entire day, or two, to drive just 12 kilometres. Or maybe just two kilometres.
The slow pace is not because there are no roads. There's one road, at least. Not just any road, mind you, but one of the last great driving adventures in the world.
It’s also the worst road I’ve driven on, and I’ve driven on plenty in far-flung places. Here, a Sunday drive could stretch to Monday, or maybe Tuesday, or even Wednesday. For those in a hurry or travelling light, a MASwings Twin Otter flight from the nearest town of Lawas about 130km away, takes less than 30 minutes.
Here, a couple of inches are a big deal. Having a set of tyres an inch bigger or smaller in diameter makes a world of difference – between making it home or not.
Here, the "road" swallows even jacked-up Land Cruisers that look like monster trucks in town and spits out bits of bumpers, hubs, CV joints and other assorted car parts.
“Here” is Ba'kelalan, billed by tourism marketeers as “Sarawak's hidden highland paradise” where the journey (to and from) is really the adventure, although the destination is pretty nice, too.
Until recently, this writer had heard about the unusual charms of this slow-paced Garden of Eden where they grow apples but didn't really believe those tall tales.
One fine day, after reading about the 1Borneo 4X4WD Expedition to Ba’kelalan (185km east of Miri as the crow flies), I decided to find out if these tall tales were true.
It would turn out to be an epic road trip which entailed an 800km drive from Kuching to Miri just to get to the preliminary starting point. Here, I collected several travelling companions and motored over border to Brunei to pick up more companions, then back into the Sarawak district and town of Limbang.
Eight stamps on my passport later, I was in the company of around 80 fellow travellers from Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah, heading for the hills in 36 four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicles.
After an entertaining detour to sample a bit of traditional jungle driving and river fording, expedition leader and local taikoh Clarence Labo led the convoy up some seriously steep slopes that proved to be a strain for many vehicles’ engines. Intermittent halts were needed to let the hot engines cool down.
The 90km run from the Sarawakian town of Lawas to Long Semadoh was relatively easy-going on wide tracks maintained by the logging companies operating in the area. In these parts, they’re called highways.
The passengers were treated to magnificent views while drivers kept one eye on overworked temperature gauges and the other alert from the log-laden behemoths that were the main danger to other road users.
On these timber roads, traffic flow is not fixed to the left or right side but rather, on right of way for the laden logging trucks. These heavy behemoths have priority to hug the hillsides so that they can stop safely in the event of emergencies while all other traffic must stay out of their way and use the ravine side, mere metres from a very long drop if anything goes wrong.
As the convoy snaked its way upwards through Long Tanguh, Long Ramirang and Long Luping, it wasn’t long before the two-way radios crackled with quips about how many places here were named after Ah Long, one of the participants from Brunei. Or, maybe the residents owed him a lot of money. (“Long” is actually “river” in the languages of the Orang Ulu, the collective term for the natives in Sarawak's highlands.)
Before nightfall, we arrived at Long Semadoh with just enough daylight left to set up camp by a pristine mountain stream. After driving almost the entire day, a good night's rest was just what the doctor ordered considering what lay ahead the following day.
Ba'kelalan was just 40km away but the Lawas-bound local pick-ups we passed along the way hinted at the rugged terrain lying in wait. They were all completely caked in mud up to the roof!
Lost sole along the way.
Setting off early the next morning, about 25km of reasonably smooth motoring brought the 1Borneo adventurers to what they had come for – MUD!
Just how bad is this so-called road to Ba'kelalan? It's viscous and vicious, gooey and gluey, with consistency ranging from thick oatmeal porridge to peanut butter, the type that sticks uncomfortably to the roof of your mouth.
The yellow-brown clay is too soft to support a vehicle's weight but sticky enough to cling to tyres, feet, clothes and just about everything else that touches it. And this was on a fine day with brilliant sunshine and blue sky overhead.
From here on, progress became painfully slow as each vehicle charged through the murk as far as momentum would carry it before bogging down in ruts that were thigh-deep in places.
Even the best-equipped 4X4 ended up stranded on the raised plateau between two canyons masquerading as tyre tracks, all four wheels spinning helplessly without any purchase on the slick mud beneath.
Willing souls with strong backs set to work with winches, tow ropes and assorted digging implements to fill the deepest holes and coax the heavy trucks up the slippery slopes.
Getting a single vehicle through a 100m stretch in 20 minutes was cause for celebration until one realises that it would take 720 minutes – that's 12 hours – to get the entire 36-car convoy across.
Fortunately, the vehicles that had made it across moved on to tackle the next muddy obstacle – just 500 metres away at the other side of the hill so the entire convoy was not held up at one spot.
Anyone who has attended one of the Rainforest Challenge 4X4 competition special stages would have seen men and machines taking on similar obstacles but this was a road that the locals used daily just to get from Point A to B.
The ordeal did not let up after the first two major obstacles, with more deeply-rutted stretches waiting to trap traveller all along the remaining 12km or so to Ba'kelalan proper, which the last car reached at sunset, nearly 10 hours after we set out from Long Semadoh.
The return journey would turn out to be even tougher because it rained intermittently, turning the ground into a squishy slurry that made every footstep a deliberate, considered action.
The same 40km that had taken us about 10 hours to cover on the way in would see us driving, winching, towing and digging from 10am to 1.30am the following morning before reaching a campsite, with a brief halt at 11pm for instant noodles eaten on the muddy road.
We were lucky. According to the locals, they frequently camp by the roadside or sleep in stuck cars.
To the locals, the torturous road is not an adventure but their lifeline to the rest of the world. Everything bulky and heavy that they need – fuel, cement, roofing & other building materials, etc – is hauled up on that road, and it is vital for transporting the famous Ba'kelalan rice to market.
In its present unsealed state, it is easily torn up by the heavy vehicles, which cut deep ruts into the soft surface. So they solve the problem by using bigger diameter tyres to lift themselves higher, but they end up cutting even deeper routes.
So, when they reach largest practical size tyres, the ruts are so deep that everyone MUST use those tyres. It's a vicious circle that can only be broken by making the road all-weather, sealed, tarred, etc.
The government has allocated funds and entrusted the task of building an all-weather road to the army corps of engineers. Empty drums that used to contain sealants are scattered everywhere, signalling the approach of progress.
Although the works are behind schedule – the road was supposed to be completed in April – it should be no more than a year before the drive to and from Ba'kelalan is no longer an adventure.

Or, you could just fly ...

More photos here