Thursday, 12 June 2014

Not quite Borneo Suffering, but still Drama kot

When Sabahans tell you that a 4X4 expedition is "hard core", believe them. When they say the next trip will be super hard core, be afraid. Be very afraid. Especially if they invite you to go along, and you're freshly out of excuses to decline.
For years, I've been hearing about this place called Deramakot. Whenever Sabah Offroad Adventure Association (SOAA) members get together and the chat turns to how tough a just-ended trip had been, it crops up, "have you been to Deramakot?" It means "you don't know what tough is till you've done it."
If you have been, then the recent event is compared to Deramakot. If you have not, you shut up and listen to the veterans' tall tales about winching 30 times to get up one hill. About taking a whole day to cover one leech-infested kilometre, about having to drag along crippled and broken-down vehicles when even the best-equipped, fully functioning Land Cruisers find the going torturously slow.
And the SOAA has a couple of RTM-made videos on YouTube to back up their claims.
Deramakot Forest Reserve comprises 55,139 hectares of mixed dipterocarp forest located some 160km south-east of Kota Kinabalu and 90km south-west of Sandakan.
Within its boundaries, there are several disused logging trails that can be explored with suitably-outfitted 4X4 vehicles, with prior permission from and under close supervision by the Sabah Forestry Department.
Over the years, these trails have provided a suitable challenge for many expeditions big and small, including the annual Borneo Safari organised by the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (now evolved into the Sabah Four Wheel Association).
In January last year, the SOAA mounted its first expedition to Deramakot, dubbed "Survival Of The Fittest" that apparently lived up to its billing, and then some. They're still talking about it.
Like a good horror movie, the tales are both scary and irresistible at the same time. The hard slog that went on day and night as the rain hammered down incessantly, and the numerous obstacles that broke even the toughest vehicles, should have been enough to deter any sensible person from attempting the trek again but, like a flame draws a moth, the stories only drew even more 4X4 aficionados to Survival Of The Fittest II.
"Our members have been clamouring for a return to Deramakot, especially those who missed out on the first round last year," said SOAA president Hiew Min Kiyun.
When they invited this writer to go along, the reaction was definitely one of mixed feelings. The experience would be welcome, as would the bragging rights as a survivor of Deramakot. But, being more of a leisure, cold beer and camping kind of guy, did I really want to suffer for three days and two nights? Well, the pull was strong, and the push was that I had run out of excuses.
Hopping into the Land Cruiser 80 Series, the legendary "Ninja Turtle" of Expedition Leader Alvin Leong and co-driver Vivian Julip for the 200-plus kilometre drive from KK through Kundasang and Ranau to Telupid, I was treated to more war stories from the previous year's trip.
After turning off onto the unpaved track to the forest reserve, there were hints that this year's event might be less stressful, even if just a little.
The local weather had been dry for some time, and the dusty road had coated the grass and oil palms that lined the70km route with a thick layer of orange-brown dirt. Anyone who has experienced off-road driving would know that the difference between a dry and a wet track can be huge.
But, just after the convoy arrived at Sabah Forestry headquarters and set up camp, the rain began. Game on! Maybe. The shower did not last long.
After dinner, the participants were required to attend a briefing by the forest rangers on the Deramakot Forest Management Unit's reason for being and the many do's and don'ts for all visitors, especially the strict rules on trash - everything brought in, even cigarette butts, must be taken out from the jungle.
The repairs begin ... after less than 1km.
Action began early the next morning when the convoy encountered a deep V-gulley just 800 metres after turning off the road and winching started in earnest and the first leeches showed up.
The first mechanical problems cropped soon after, with a ruptured air intake hose signalling that the vehicles were in for a pounding.
The horror stories of the previous trip had inspired all car owners to check and prepare their vehicles meticulously but Deramakot seemed determined to live up to its reputation, even if the sun was blazing down at that early hour.
This was going to be a contest between Man and machine on one side, and Nature on the other.
The trail had not been traversed by vehicles in over a year, and was thickly overgrown.
And here they come ...
The 4X4s had to force their way through grass and other plants that were as tall as a man, while branches and bamboo reached out from the sides to claw at the passing vehicles.
At times, it sounded like a bunch of unruly children were whacking the cars with sticks while others were scratching blackboards with their fingernails.
From then on, it was hard going but not super hard core. There was no rain. The ruts were deep, the hills steep, but no rain. Progress was slow at an average of about 5km/h, but that's fast compared to a kilometre a day of previous Deramakots. Because there was no rain.
It was still very much a hard core event, with lots of winching and breakdowns but, for the well-prepared cars and participants, not the ultimate hard core event that had been anticipated.
By day's end, the convoy had covered about 12 kilometres of the 20km trail before stopping to set up camp and fend off the few leeches that showed up.
The next day served up some mud pools and fallen trees but everyone made it out in good time and camped in relative comfort at the "White House", a bungalow for the staff of Deramakot.
The third night that had been allocated for the event was spent at Mesilou, about 5,800feet above sea level up in the Kinabalu highlands, where the freezing temperatures were a welcome change from the windless heat and humidity of Deramakot jungle.
While everyone was glad to be out without too much human suffering and damage to vehicles, many participants were left with a feeling of unfinished business.
While it was still a Drama-kot, it was not quite the "Borneo Suffering" we had anticipated. There is a need for a Survival Of The Fittest III, preferably during the wet season. But at least I am now ranked among the Fittest!

Human ballast to prevent a 3-tonne beast toppling into the mud pool.

A cry of "pacat" (leech) is enough to get squeamish types to drop their pants!

About Deramakot Forest Reserve

Map courtesy of Sabah Forestry Department.

There are logging trucks in Deramakot Forest Reserve. Because there are loggers. Yes, they cut down trees. No, it is not a mistake, nor is it a blatant disregard of regulations.
The reserve's raison d'etre, its reason for existence, is to conserve the natural resources, not to preserve. While it may be puzzling to first-time visitors, there is no confusion among those rangers who serve.
Deramakot is billed as a "well-managed forest" to be used and exploited responsibly for the benefit of the state and its people, not a virgin jungle to be preserved.
According to, it was created in 1989 when the Sabah government realised that the state's forests was being depleted, including Deramakot. With help from the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), it developed a management system aimed at responsible production of timber for logged-over forests.
The goal is "ecologically and scientifically acceptable forest management ... the intent is to manage the commercial forest reserves in a way that mimics natural processes for production of low volume, high quality, high priced timber products in a sustainable manner.
"Sustainability is defined in terms of balance nutrient cycles, forest structure, biodiversity, forest function and socio-economic needs."
"DFR will be managed under sound forest management practices in accordance with the biological, social and economic principles defined by the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), Malaysian Criteria and Indicators (MC&I), and in conformity with the existing State forest policies, environmental policies, legislation and regulations."
At the briefing for participants of SOAA's "Survival Of The Fittest II", the senior ranger said that selected trees were harvested by appointed contractors who are paid for their services while the logs are auctioned off to the highest bidders. The proceeds go to the state and are used, among other things, to pay for the upkeep and protection of the forest reserves.
The local communities living nearby are also looked after through a committee called the "Deramakot Social Forestry Committee (DSFC)". Periodic consultations with the local communities are held every 4 months.
There are no communities inside the reserve, but five villages (each comprising 20 - 50 households) located on the southern fringe of Deramakot FR have been identified.
The stated goals are to provide training and developing skills such as producing functional and decorative handicraft to ensure local communities of a livelihood; provide basic amenities such as clean water, school, etc.; and to create jobs, in line with the government policy to eradicate rural poverty.
Wildlife is also protected, with about 75% of mammals in Sabah found in Deramakot, which is a key habitat for five globally threatened large mammals: Orangutan, Pygmy Eephant, Tembadau (Banteng), Proboscis Monkey and Clouded Leopard.
Eco-tourism, defined as "responsible travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strive to be low impact and (often) small scale (as an alternative to mass tourism)", is also encouraged.
Its purpose is to educate the traveler, provide funds for ecological conservation, directly benefit the economic development of local communities.
Hence, events like the 4X4 adventure organised by SOAA and earlier Borneo Safaris (by the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club) are welcome, with strict conditions and, of course, payment of fees.
The visitors must be accompanied by forest rangers who ensure that all rules, especially those governing cleanliness and wildlife protection, are complied with at all times.