Borneo Safari 2015: 4WD Adventure into mystical Sabah

Look mum, I finally got to drive Isuzu D-Max monster trucks!

Look mum, I finally got to drive Isuzu D-Max monster trucks!

When I was invited to participate in the Borneo Safari 4WD Adventure through the interior and jungles of Sabah, I was excited in anticipation yet was filled with trepidation of the adventures within. I had only seen photos of the rough, muddy terrain in the thick jungles where competitors were up to their chests in mud, trudging through obstacles to get through to camp.

Little did I imagine, that someday I would have the chance to join in the fun. I’ve only been on short weekend 4WD trips with friends, somewhat ‘amateur’ and ‘soft-core’ compared to what these hard-core enthusiasts had in mind. So how would I get through 4 days in jungle? The monsoon season was upon us and torrential thunderstorms would only make the terrain soft, mushy, sticky mud. A recipe for adventure!

Pit stop in Tenom town for a strong caffeine fix

Pit stop in Tenom town for a strong caffeine fix

Right out of the international airport of Kota Kinabalu, I was excited to see the metal beasts of the Isuzu D-Max and Toyota Hilux which would take us to the base camp at Kampung Kerolok in the interiors of Keningau, to meet the others whom had started from Day 1 of the 8 day long Borneo Safari.

After a 3 hour long journey, we finally got off the tarmac and onto the rocky terrain which is plied by villagers, going through some palm oil estates and virgin jungles. The road was dry, a good sign for now. Eventually, we reached a village with its own school, a church made out of a bamboo structure and many houses littered around a football field. As part of the 25 year Silver Jubilee of Borneo Safari this year, the organisers donated some water pumps, erected goal posts and gave the children a few footballs.

7-star 'Glamping' at Kampung Kelorok in Sabah.

7-star ‘Glamping’ at Kampung Kelorok in Sabah.

7-star ‘Glamping’

In comparison, this camp site was luxurious, otherwise known as ‘glamping’ or glamorous camping. A huge tent was set up and we had foldable camp beds made from light-weight aluminium structure, a sleeping bag. This was equivalent to a 7-star hotel, set in the highlands of the Crocker range, temperatures were cool and moderate keeping us chilly into the night without the need for air-conditioning units.

There was a slight catch. The sleeping bags provided could only tolerate up to 15 degrees Celsius but temperatures dropped way below that with the strong cold winds. We all loaded up with multiple layers of clothing to keep warm the next night. If it weren’t for the cloudy nights which brought a bit of rain, we would have a million star view which would have upgraded our ‘hotel’ to a million star rating.

We even received a ‘care package’ equipped with toiletries, snacks, mess tin, cups, cutlery, torches, courtesy of Isuzu Malaysia – the Diamond Sponsors of this Borneo Safari Jubilee which brought the Media team in. There was a Camp Manager crew who would set up and break camps, and a central kitchen aka ‘Chuck Wagon’ cooking our meals three times a day so we didn’t have to lift a finger. There was also which also served free-range, organic chicken and fresh jungle vegetables in many recipes!

Care package to see us through the adventure

Care package to see us through the adventure

This village also had proper buildings as our make-shift toilets and piped bone-chilling mountain water into our bathrooms. Now isn’t that glamorous camping? I couldn’t ask for more, I just have to remember to do ‘some work’ on this trip.

The best bonds are brewed in a cuppa

To settle in, all you need is to have a cup or drink in your hand, and anyone around you will welcome you to sit down and get to know you. The conversations and stories shared are truly engaging as everyone listens intently without modern distractions like internet and smartphones due to lack of telephone reception. This is how real friendships are made, and are renewed annually in the Borneo Safari alumni.

In the 25 years of its history, the Borneo Safari has many interesting people, each with a different story to tell including a car which spent a night in the river en route to Imbak Canyon in 2014.

The legendary car which was left in the river overnight, driver Hilary 'Aleeboy' Francis (middle) and co-driver Azhar Majid (left) whom narrowly escaped a near tragedy.

The legendary car which was left in the river overnight, driver Hilary ‘Aleeboy’ Francis (middle) and co-driver Azhar Majid (left) whom narrowly escaped a near tragedy.

Near fatal tragedy

The ‘legendary’ Isuzu Trooper with driver Hilary Francis, wife Lynn and co-driver Azahar survived a close call in 2014 when their car was suddenly turned 90 degrees while attempting to cross a river. Quick thinking and reaction by other participating teams brought their car and more importantly the people to safety within minutes before swift current turned the river and the situation into a near death tragedy.

Despite the harrowing experience, Hilary nicknamed ‘Aleeboy’ has been joining the Borneo Safari since 2002 and has never missed it since. It is also the camaderie and teamwork, leaving car manufacturers and brands aside, that brings everyone together in a huge reunion annually.

We stayed for 3 days at Kampung Kelorok in the interiors of Sabah.

Campsite for Tag On teams at Kampung Kelorok in the interiors of Sabah.

Tagging On for the drive

This Borneo Safari has attracted participants from far and wide, all over Sabah, including bordering neighbours Labuan, Brunei and Indonesia. The highlight of this year’s Borneo Safari is the Silver Jubilee with the biggest entourage of 4 Wheel Drives (4WD) in Malaysia with 317 cars. That’s massive!

Approximately 160 cars tagged on to the Borneo Safari as non-competitors who were in it for the experience the mystique of Borneo, and to put their 4 wheel drives to the test in crossing rivers and obstacles. One team travelled by land from Jakarta after shipping their car over from Sumatra island to Borneo. Needless to say, they won an award for their efforts.

Fancy a roop-top Penthouse suite?

Fancy a roop-top Penthouse suite?

While our entourage escaped with relative ease, the terrain had been dug into deep ruts by the hundreds of car going through, that the Tag-On cars only arrived at our campsite some one to two days later, looking like something the cat dragged in. Nevertheless, they relish the challenge and multiple teams worked together to get each other out of the muddy, sticky, situation.

Experience matters as does a bit of physics. Choosing the right winching point is important too, when we saw one car thrown into the deep end of the mud, with water up to the driver’s chest in the river when wrong decisions were made.

Our sturdy, roaring powerful Isuzu D-Max Monsters

Our sturdy, roaring powerful Isuzu D-Max Monsters

Intuitive, powerful Isuzu D-Max monsters to the fore

Isuzu Malaysia prepared Isuzu D-Max monsters as Media cars throughout the expedition. These beast were indeed powerful, robust yet kept us comfortable with its spacious interior. Its cargo area was huge and could carry the usual camping gear, supplies plus the occasional ‘stowaways’ when we ran out of space on short trips.

Due to lack of rain, the terrain wasn’t as ‘hardcore’ (muddy and challenging) as we had anticipated. Thoughtfully, we were handed a ‘survival kit’ laden with nuts, cookies, sweets and biscuits to feed our hungry tummies if we got stuck in the mud for long periods of time. The latter didn’t happen so the children in the villages were more than happy to benefit from our stash.

As we departed from Kampung Kelorok after 3 days, we encountered some muddy terrain and I was looking for some slipping and sliding to test our metal beasts. However, the Isuzu D-Max lived up to the task, handling the slippery terrain well, and keeping us safe from harm. You could barely feel the rocks and bumps, and I was hoping for even more to test the D-Max.

Although I had never driven a 4WD previously, I found the Isuzu D-Max intuitive and easy to drive even when it’s been a long time since I had driven a manual car. A ‘special stage’ was set up for the Media team to test drive the D-Max Monsters and although I was apprehensive, I breezed through the course and wished we had more obstacles to drive through! Driving through a (mild) river would have definitely been fun, says this self-professed water-baby.

We were also shown the technique of descending steep slopes by using the gears and without using brakes, or minimal at best to reduce over heating the brake pads. Instinctively you would hit the brakes, but it took some getting used to, and it was a good technique to know.

A competitor winched themselves out of a deep river during a Special Stage.

A competitor winched themselves out of a deep river during a Special Stage.

Swashbuckling 4 Wheel Drive Obstacle Course

So, what do you with 8 days in the jungle? There is a competition side to the Borneo Safari where the prestigious, coveted Borneo Safari International Challenge trophy awaits the best team. Competitors are judged on points while going through ‘Special Stages’ akin to an obstacle course, which tests them on various terrains, driving over rocks and through rivers to name a few.

One particular Special Stage – required teams to move the Isuzu D-Max Monster using a hi-lift jack, D-shackles, straps or chains. Competitors were given the items to use at their discretion to move the vehicles across ten meters in ten minutes but none were able to complete the task.

The point of this Special Stage is to let them teams figure out how to manoeuvre their cars if their winches were not functioning. They were not allowed to push or pull their cars physically. It was interesting to watch teams as they figured it out. They then realised how reliant they were on winches and also learnt a new way to use the hi-lift jack, which most people would think it’s only useful in lifting up a vehicle.

Team Maxxis using the hi-lift jack to move the Isuzu D-Max monsters in a Special Stage.

Team Maxxis using the hi-lift jack to move the Isuzu D-Max monsters in a Special Stage.

Trust your co-driver

The key to navigating a route or obstacle safely is to learn the hand signals, and for the driver to trust the co-driver in navigating them through safely. That being said, the navigator needs to issue the correct hand signals too!

Andre Norbert, President of the 4WD Club of Penampang, Sabah said:

“It’s very important to trust your co-driver when he gives instructions outside the vehicle. I do not look at anyone else except for him.”

The trust between the driver and co-drivers can be the difference between driving or walking out from the route. Walking out is not an option when you’re on a week-long expedition through the thick tropical rainforests of Sabah.

Wrong decisions can lend teams in the deep end of the mud, literally.

Wrong decisions can lend teams in the deep end of the mud, literally.

Cooperation between the drivers and their co-drivers, communication and decision-making skills were put to the test. In a simple loop where the car had to climb a small slope and descent over a log and in between trees before making a turn and looping back might sound quick, clean and easy.

However, one team’s driver disagreed with his co-driver on the winching point which led to a disaster when the driver decided to reverse down the slope. A little too much throttle set his car in the most peculiar position straddling a log, and wedged in between trees at the front and the rear. Needless to say, they did not finish the stage and had to be rescued, sacrificing a tree in the process.

The last Special Stage of the Borneo Safari was the most interesting pitting the drivers against the toughest and trickiest of terrains and obstacles. Climbing steep sandy slopes with sharp switchbacks seemed easy when you are fitted with the right tyres, after which drivers negotiated a rocky garden with big boulders and finished by driving through a short but deep river.

As it was the last day of competition, some cars were more battered than others and the drivers need to know what would make or break their vehicles. Some even chose to bypass the river as their cars could no longer handle the obstacle and would rather take the penalty. After all, they did have to drive another 4 hours back to Kota Kinabalu and everyone was looking forward to the final Gala Dinner and Awards presentation night.

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Fun without the cars.. Say what?

Borneo Safari was not always about the cars, as we took an evening to rejuvenate ourselves in the river at Kampung Melalap near Keningau. I had been missing the calming sounds of a bubbling brook, soaking my feet and taking a bath in the cold river waters. Piped water in bathrooms didn’t quite do it for me, as it lacks the feel of camping.

This water baby was more than happy to take to the water, soaking in the river like a thirsty hippo and refusing to get out till the sun went down. I found a small empty cavern right behind a mini waterfall, and sat there to enjoy the roaring sounds of water cascading swiftly overhead. The pounding waters made for the perfect massage aka ‘hydro-therapy’ to de-stress, who needs a masseuse anymore?

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Freshly barbequed fish and the village pride, a big vase of ‘tapai’ also known as fermented rice with a sweet taste and a little bit of alcohol in it awaited by the riverside.

It was a privilege to indulge in the sweet alcohol, not often available to city folks. Beware, you might get a little high especially if you had consumed beer beforehand. Or did that warning come a little too late?

We also stopped by the Fatt Choi coffee factory to sample the best coffee in town. Lo and behold, we were treated to a modern cafe complete with Affogato on the menu, just as I had dreamt of ice cream the night before. Dreams indeed do come true!

Posing with the winning team Maxxis on the final stage of the competition.

Posing with the winning team Maxxis on the final stage of the competition.

All in all, this Borneo Safari turned out to be the perfect ‘holiday’ for me. The forest, the D-Max monsters, the camping, the river and the camaraderie was right up my alley. We met many strangers whom became fast friends in a matter of days.

For city-slickers to survive the week-long expedition, it’s pretty easy. Bring along a sense of adventure, an open mind and leave your worries and smartphone behind. I’m already eager to return for another dose. Where do I sign up?

A short version of this article was published in The Star.

Convoy all set and ready to roll out from Kampung Kerolok

Convoy all set and ready to roll out from Kampung Kerolok

Yeow Mei Jyn

Little Jynx is Yeow Mei Jyn's alter persona whom loves travelling the world, cycling to explore new places and finding yummy eats in the smallest towns.

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