Sunday, 16 November 2014

Earth, Winch & Fire (and Water) - The Elements of Borneo Safari 2014

ALL the elements came together to make Borneo Safari 2014 a classic. It did not start off that way, although veterans might argue that a slow, disorganised, chaotic (and, dare we say ... BORING?) start is also part of Borneo Safari's many cherished traditions.
After some bold venue and format changes in the past couple of years, the flag-off returned to the Sabah Tourism Board building in Kota Kinabalu's Gaya Street. It was bustling and crowded, which emphasised and amplified the scale of this year's record participation of 270 vehicles in Sabah's, and indeed, Borneo's, premier 4X4 event.
A couple of years ago, the entry list neared 200 (or was it just over 200?) cars, which led to some mutterings about traffic jams in the jungle despite the magnificent scenery of the route and overall praise from participants, and the 240 or so last year also raised concerns about whether the Safari was getting too big, too popular, and a victim of its own success. Well, it certainly seems to be getting more popular with each passing year.
After being duly flagged off by Sabah Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Masidi Manjun and other dignitaries, the convoy departed the state capital for nearby Sepanggar Bay, where the first competitive special stages (SS) were to be held.

A Slow Start
With so many cars to get safely into the jungle and the first night's camp site near Kota Belud, there was no time for dallying so most participants did not get to witness the action. This was another departure from the Borneo Safari of old, which was centred on the competition.
Thanks to the modern wizardry of Facebook and Whatsapp, the actual Safari participants followed the competitive action through photo and video updates posted by others and shared instantly around the world.
Anyone with a connected phone
could see more of the Borneo
Safari action than the participants.
So, "did you know the Sandakan car rolled on SS2?" was answered with "ya bah, my friend Whatsapped the pictures".
Anyone anywhere, as long as they have a smart phone (and who does not have one these days) can follow the action almost in real time, except actual Borneo Safari participants who have headed into the remote interior, out of phone signal range.
GPS tracks had been used to guide the participants since a couple of years ago, with limited success, and the failures continued this year. With an overly complicated arrangement that require following detailed, counter-intuitive instructions, it was not long before calls of "help, we're lost" started going out. And this was not even six hours into the event.
Then, the first real problem cropped up. A mild-mannered stream that we had to cross had been swollen into a raging, impassable torrent by heavy rain upstream. Many cars had to turn back and new plans had to be hastily made.
After a detour, original hard-core track and designated camp site of Plan A had to be abandoned. The various groups had to improvise and find whatever makeshift campsite they could for the night, hopefully before it got dark.
This was not a source for complaints, though, because it is accepted that in the Borneo Safari, Man can plan all he wants, but Nature has the final say.
Even though it was disappointing at the time, the decision to backtrack would turn to be a wise one a couple days later, with the most dramatic proof that high water could be one hell of a challenge.
If Day One had gone according to plan, everyone would have their craving for 4X4 action satiated already before emerging near the town of Kota Belud to face a 380-kilometre drive on tarmac up north to Pitas and then down south to Kota Marudu and on to Telupid, near the centre of Sabah.
But without the original track and campsite, it meant two days and over 480km (including 100km on the first day) of driving, there was still no sign of mud, and no opportunity to engage even 4 High, much less 4 Low!
The briefing for the media group on the morning of Day 3 brought no joy. "No off-roading today," media chief Hilary Francis announced. Some groaned silently while others were not so silent.
After refuelling and following directions for some 15 kilometres, a left turn brought some hope. It was a dirt track. Not quite what everyone had been preparing a whole year for, but at least it was not tar-sealed.

Ini Kali Lah!
Then, a stream crossing. A proper, Sabah-style fording under the brilliant sun, no less.
Then, it began. Hard Core! A mud hole, as deep as one dared hope for, full of gloriously brilliant orange mud.
The inaccurate briefing had caught many people off guard, wearing sandals and slippers which were totally inappropriate for the serious work ahead so there was a frantic rush to change into the proper footwear and attire. Nobody complained about the misinformation, they were simply to excited and not a little intimidated by the rough terrain ahead.
It begins!
This, finally, was the Borneo Safari we had come for, that we had looked forward to all year. For the first-timers, this was beginning to look like the stories they had been hearing about from previous editions. "Ini kali lah!"
Thus, began the low-gear crawls, the optimistic charges, the shouts and the frantic gestures. Out came the gloves and the winch cables, and the snatch blocks.
One by one, the cars went into the thick gooey mud and the drivers tried their best to bulldoze through to the other side, only to be foiled and had to be dragged out with varying degrees of difficulty.
Occasionally, someone like Brunei's Shamsuddin Zai would succeed in powering his way through to resounding applause and cheers. But the monster ruts he created in the process ensured that such success was few and far in between.  
Shamsuddin "Nissan King" Zai powers through ...

Be Careful What You Wish For
We certainly got our wish. The rest of the the day was spent slowly and painfully negotiating the multiple obstacles that lay ahead. More mud holes, steep and slippery ascents and descents, all the essential ingredients of a classic Borneo Safari were served up, one after another.
It was not long before the tough going took its toll on the vehicles, with mechanical failures occuring at the very first mudhole.
A broken driveshaft here, a shattered pinion gear there, an entire axle ripped off, a tyre puncture halfway up a treacherous slope, burnt-out winches or broken ropes or cables, all these more were occurring at a furious pace up and down the convoy.
In the afternoon, it poured. What was already a difficult track became a Herculean challenge.
It was teamwork that got each car through, slowly, painfully, an inch at a time, then a foot.

High Water
By late afternoon, the various groups had become mixed up and the convoy stretched over many kilometres.
The lead element of the media group, comprising four vehicles, reached the biggest of several streams in the Tawai area about 3.20pm and forded the clear waters without drama.
When the main body arrived less than half an hour later, the water level had risen considerably and it was beginning to look dangerous.
Media chief Hilary had misgivings about making the crossing but information from some participants bathing in the stream indicated it might be safe to attempt.
It would prove to be a mistake, as the strong current pushed his Trooper off-course in mid-stream, and a desperate and urgent rescue effort had to be mounted, with no time to waste. (See separate story)
Fortunately, everyone aboard was saved and all ended well, other than the 15-hour soaking that the car had to endure before the raging waters subsided sufficiently for a salvage operation to be carried out.

Earth and Fire
Not everyone had the same level of adrenalin and drama. One group missed the junction and ended up wandering on tarmac for another long day, and then spent an even longer day waiting for the others to catch up with them.
Then, just as they were about to have some fun, a Nissan Patrol from Brunei was brought to a screeching halt by a wheel bearing failure.
Mahmood "Komando Hangus" Omar and his charred car.
Mahmood Omar had to rely on a buddy to drive him over five hours to Tawau to look for a replacement part, and endured another five hours back to his stranded car, only to discover it had caught fire while he was gone. A wiring fault and subsequent short circuit was the suspected culprit.
There was not much else left for Mahmood to do except accept a tow from his buddy but his tales of woe were not over. The towing vehicle's tyres threw up rocks that shattered his windscreen.
But all these have not damped the enthusiasm of Mahmood, now dubbed "Komando Hangus" (burnt commando) by his friends. He has vowed to return for Borneo Safari 2015, better prepared than ever.

Imbak Canyon
The official destination for Borneo Safari 2014 was Imbak Canyon,  a forest conservation area famous for its wide waterfall. Sadly, most participants never got to see this spectacular wonder of nature. Only a handful of official and media vehicles were allowed into the conservation headquarters area because of space constraints so we will have to be content with their offical photo of what we missed.

Here Be Elephants
The rest of the convoy moved on to the oddly named Camp Hitachi (because it is identified by some abandoned Hitachi brand machinery, apparently) for a two-night stay.
A pair of exhausted competitors from Sarawak pulled over at the side of the track for a brief rest and promptly fell asleep.
When co-driver Tze Kim woke up, he nudged his partner Jack Then and asked: "Are there elephants in Sabah?"
His drowsy buddy wondered why he would come up such an odd question, whereupon Kim replied: "Because there is one looking at us."

Earth + Water = Mud
Jack Jones from Kuching enjoying the mud.
The journey from Camp Hitachi back out to Lahad Datu and civilisation would prove to be everything that 4X4 aficionados could wish for, and then some.
Winching, more winching, more mechanical failures, tyre punctures, flat batteries, and more. Much more.
Some of the bigger vehicles that had attracted admiration at the start line were now beginning to inspire dread rather than awe because their weight was proving to be a severe impediment to progress.
While the lighter vehicles could winch themselves through the quagmires, the massive beasts, some of them crippled by broken drivetrains, needed multiple lines from several of the most powerful winches available to coax them out.
Suffice to say, everyone was relived when the hard core stuff ended. Much as we enjoyed deploying the equipment and practising the skills, there came a point when enough was enough. And we had had enough.
The rest of Borneo Safari 2014 would prove to be a breeze as we took in the sights of Lahad datu, Ranau and the abandoned Mamut copper mine, and an ample opportunities to catch up with our fellow travellers under more sociable circumstances, and a good time was had by all.