Our transport liaison Howard casually says to me while he places my luggage in the back of his Isuzu D-Max, first time on the ‘B.S’? I didn’t quite catch it at first, but I nodded in agreement anyway. The ‘B.S’ as you might surmise, is the abbreviation for the Borneo Safari, the ‘shortie’ for the many people that have come to sample it over the years.
The 2015 instalment marks the 25th anniversary of this landmark event that has evolved into one of the most celebrated off-roading expeditions in the 4x4 event calendar. Howard has and his entourage consisting three ‘RC’ series Isuzu D-Max’s have one job to do, to get us from the last traces of modern civilisations into the wild labyrinths of Borneo.
As soon as we set off, my entire existence drowns in the monotonous drone of the extreme-terrain Maxxis Trepador tyres which seem to be in constant argument with the tarmac. The roads are lumpy in places; perhaps a godsend compared to what I’ve been told could be experienced on the BS. The obvious method of preparation was to scour YouTube (because that’s where I learn everything these days) for any video of picture montage of what I’d be facing once I was there… peculiarly; I was drawn to one titled Borneo Safari 2014: man vs nature.
Within 42-seconds of the opening credits, despite being somewhat educational, I was also suitably reminded why a confessed city-slicker like me should never be persuaded into attempting the Borneo Safari.
The video showcased a routine river crossing – one of a few every year, only as soon as half the media convoy had passed, downpour up ahead had very rapidly turn a gentle stream into a raging torrent of mud and water, with one very unlucky Isuzu Trooper stuck midway. At this point, only a portion of its front windscreen and roof were visible, made even worse because all the passengers were still trapped in the car, which was also getting washed along bit by bit.
If you’d indulge me – wherever you are reading this, perhaps at a Starbucks with the froth from your caramel-latte gently evaporating or at the dentist’s waiting room, imagine perilously tip-toeing while a deluge of water threatens to kill you, jumping in would almost mean certain death, the car is juddering backwards, around 15-meters separate you from the river bank on either side, and a rope tossed at you represents the only chance of survival – if you can hold on! Think of that for a second.
Then you would surmise the type of person that would actually find an expedition like this interesting, let alone call it… fun!
The initial ride with Howard would take us from the city to a town called Tenom, famous for its coffee beans and age-old brewing traditions. Tenom also represents the final vestiges of modern-civilisation. The complex nut-and-bolts that make up our connected nature of being like WhatsApp messages, e-mails and Facebook updates will eventually erode alongside the ‘reception bars’ at the top of every phone screen. This isn’t a primary concern for me. That would have to be toilet phobia. A very real fear I have after an incident that involved Tioman Island, a monitor lizard and toothpaste some years back… but I digress.
The eight-day event is already mid-way through by now. The trail this year commences from the bustling Kota Kinabalu through the Rafflesia Forest Reserve in Tambunan before heading on to Keningau. For this part of the journey – the conditions trek through a combination of ex-logging roads, village access routes and plantation estate arteries.
The route from Keningau will then progress onto the Dalit oil-palm section and wind its way through Kg. Sungi onto Kg. Kolorok. Now, there’s something I learnt about BS participants – as Howard explains after taking a short-cut through a village on route to Tenom. The shorter trail was sandy and rocky, abundantly littered with gaping dips that would swallow whole the tyres of your average Proton Iriz. Howard, largely unperturbed, powers through them as if on a Sunday drive. The cargo shuffles about as my forehead bangs against the rear windows – this is affectionately referred to as a highway!
At which point, I wonder how much more can these Isuzu trucks and indeed my head and spirit can take.
The map route from the Sg. Dalit oil palm plantation all the way to the Kg. Kelorok mid-way camp is etched with a jagged red line, aptly called… the hard-core section. A portion of the expedition that ultimately test the mettle of every man and woman on the Borneo Safari, will fill their ‘Phua Chu Kang’ boots with mud and leeches and tear apart tyres, drive axles and suspension linkages – this is also the section that will eventually sum up the excellence and prominence of every year’s expedition.
If it’s too easy, these rugged roughnecks are left wanting. Too tough and risk breaking cars, crippling logistical progress and exponentially increase the element of danger and exposure when supplies run low and fuel levels are critical. Get it wrong here – calling an ‘AAM’ truck isn’t an option.
Which is why the trust in the guy in front of you and looking out for the person behind you is the only way everyone survives the BS. And yes, one merely survives the BS. Fortunately for me, perhaps, by the time Howard reaches our destination for the day – we would join the expedition at Kg. Kelorok having completed the hard-core stint and set up shop in this tranquil village.
More head-banging (not the normal type) ensues as our convoy leaves Tenom for the steep back roads leading to Kg. Kelorok – even these older ‘RC’ D-Maxs exhibit reliable power and sterling traction tackling the muddy and rain-carved roads. At one point, it rains heavily, the rear end squirms in pursuit of traction, banked on one end, a sheer drop on the other, water rushes down the 25-something degree incline – and only now does Howard engage the four-wheel high mode. Honestly, I was in awe of how much capability even two-wheels give these Isuzu D-Max trucks.
The sun sets just as we hit camp – it’s six in the evening. It’s a beautiful place, I grab eye-shot of a place roughly the size four football pitches, peppered with quaint wooden structures inhabited by the locals. Brutal 4WD machines, richly covered in mud, weed grass are either wrapped around rim spokes or adhered onto side steps and tow-eyes are parked everywhere – visibly knackered by the preceding journey. It’s a special sight – one that would surely excite any petrol-head worth his or her diesel.
Camps are set up in any every nook-and-cranny available, held up by wooden sticks, nailed by stakes in the ground or tied to the truck’s bull-bars if within reach. Word around the camp says that despite a few stints of rain, the hard-core section remained dry for most of the way – hence progress for the most part slightly predictable.
It’s a ‘highway’ unless the winches and snatch-traps come out! Snatch-traps are interwoven and reinforced fabric straps that would wrap around a tree and hook up to a toe eye – which would then connect to the winch’s toe eye. Snatch-traps are required because they do little harm to the anchored tree, and when stretched under load, stores potential energy to tug back against the vehicle. This spring-like effect creates the all-important tow a truck may need to get out of a ditch. A good winch is also paramount. The ones commonly used range from 8,000- to 12,000lbs of pulling force.
As it gets dark, the camp fires come on – sounds of laughter and music are ceremoniously heard all around. The all-important barbeque represents a good footnote to a day of muscle and turbine busting activity. The lack of creature comforts and connected complexity somehow welcomes an air of fun, laughter, and tales of bravado - shared over a warm cup of tea or a cold beer. Anywhere one went people were merry, peaceful, even relaxed – I finally understood why, year after year, more and more people come to partake in the Borneo Safari.
Now, if you think the Borneo Safari consists of a bunch 4X4 addicts, dressed in khakis shorts and straw hats wielding machetes as they prod deep into the jungle – think again! One must understand that to survive in wilds of Borneo, every single participant and vehicle on the BS represents a link in a chain – and the successful deployment of this protocol is the only way to ensure the completion of the expedition.
The entire participation of the Borneo Safari consists of Team A- and B. The BS is led by an expedition leader, referred in short around camp as the E.L. Think of him as the General of the Army. He and his team decide when the entire convoy starts, stops, breaks for camp and is allowed to detour to neighbouring towns for fuel and supplies. The E.L. team consists of an ensemble of vehicles ranging from spotters, marshals and the requisite support crew.
Typically behind them are the Communication Support guys, the bunch of brawny Isuzu Troopers and Toyota FJ Cruisers that carry all the equipment and communication hardware to stay in touch with every team on the BS. They’re also the guys that make the call in case something goes horribly wrong and emergency support is needed.
The three Isuzu D-Maxs Monsters we have at our disposal are part of the corporate and media convoy. Perhaps the most attractive cars on the BS, replete with sponsor livery and graphics to further accentuate the extent of their respective support for the event. Isuzu are the Platinum sponsors again for the Borneo Safari in 2015. There are even awards given out for corporate cars that complete the safari and remain unscathed and pretty at the end. Isuzu’s White Monster may have just missed out on this accolade due to an unfortunate incident involving a large stone and the front windshield a day before the close of the event.
And behind everyone else is the jovial bunch of Tag-Ons. These are simply off-road aficionados that have come along for the ride. Consisting privately sponsored individuals and groups that are amalgamated into large – self-sufficient teams. Tag-ons (normally consisting around 40 cars per team) come from all corners of the country - including Sarawak, the Peninsula and Brunei. Not forgetting one hard-core group from Indonesia that completed a circa-1500km journey even before they reached the starting line of the BS. The level of passion and commitment is simply staggering. The roll-call of vehicles is diverse amongst the Tag-On groups, anything from mid-eighties Land Cruisers and FJs, Land Rover Defenders and even a rather handsome Jeep Wrangler 5-dr.
The competitor cars are unlike any other cars in the convoy. These Frankenstein monsters normally are mash-up of bodies from Suzuki Jimnys to Toyota FJs, bolted onto a shortened and reinforced chassis from perhaps, a Toyota Hilux, and powered by monstrously charged turbodiesel power plants capable of beaming vociferous soundtracks of induction and exhaust fury throughout the forest.
Now add the whole lot up, including the requisite supports cars carrying spares, crew and supplies for the competitors and you would end up with the total tally of participation for the Borneo Safari in 2015. That number stands at 319 vehicles and no-less than 1198 participants throughout. The sheer scale and logistical undertaking of the event are mind-boggling – add to that the complexities of being in a jungle far away from paved roads one can imagine just how special it feels to be a part of something like this.
After two days of breathing the clean, rich air of Kg. Kolorok – the convoy was cleared progress towards the following campsite on the outskirts of Tenom and then onto Kota Kinabalu the following day for the closing gala event. Most of the time here was spent waiting on the final sets of Group B Tag-Ons to reach the Kg. Kolorok campsite. Some reached in the thick of midnight on Day 5, accompanied by intermittent torrential rain, freezing temperatures in the high ‘teens. The scent of mud and diesel filled the air, as trails that were visibly intact earlier in the day had slowly deteriorated into tyre-gulping craters and tracks filled with slippery clay goo.
Save a rough passage through the hilly passages out of Kg. Kolorok the next day, which combined muddy and deeply rutted roads. There was a little drama that I unfortunately or perhaps fortunately experienced. The Isuzu D-Maxs were simply sublime requiring not much more than the tenacious tyres to negotiate the chosen course. Having experienced just how reliable and robust these cars are, even fresh of the showroom floors with minimal modification… simply put, were sensational.
Remember that little Isuzu Trooper that was stuck mid-river. It came back in full force this year. Our media group expedition leader, Hillary (the owner) was on the bonnet. Azhar, Isuzu’s resident 4X4 daredevil was the one who caught the rope. It was hard not feeling awestruck piecing the pieces together from the video and the tales of bravery on the ground. In this neck of the woods at least – they’re celebrities, and surely my heroes! However, out here, everyone is an equal.
It’s even harder to put my finger on just what makes the BS so special. Perhaps it’s the joy of being surrounded by such learned and experienced people, plying their trade in a craft that requires both brutality and finesse, maybe it was the quality of the rich bonds and friendships we fostered along the way – no Facebook pokes required here, just face-to-face communication. As I recall a catchy one-liner by one of the stalwarts (Uncle Fred Leong) of the competition – “One comes for the Borneo Suffering 2015, but we all stay for the fun and friendships.”
Of course, none of this would be possible without a reliable all-wheel drive monster underneath you – in which case, an Isuzu D-Max is a damn good place to start!
Words and photography: Arvind Kumar