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Where the Going Gets Tough - An Expedition to the Crown of Borneo

Live Life Drive

Where the Going Gets Tough - An Expedition to the Crown of Borneo

For the past 500 meters we have been riding over a gravel track, clocking in a steady pace of 80kph, accompanied by the sound of tiny stones pelting the undercarriage of my Isuzu D-Max. The steering wheel vibrates rather vigorously as the wheels pass through the loose and abrasive surface below.  I didn’t relent on the throttle. I can’t, not when there is a lead car ahead, guiding us and keeping pace and the rest of the pack, comprised of similar D-Max pick-up trucks following behind me. Not that I want to anyway, after all these are what pick-up trucks are built for, impregnability to the elements and a go-anywhere ability. The only weak link here is my overbearing level of mechanical sympathy for test cars.  

Then, before I knew it, I was driving on smooth tarmac. Smooth enough to ride a skateboard on without having the risk of planting your face on it, and strangely smoother than most country roads that I can think of from the top of my head. The comfort and familiarity of smoothly laid road continued for a whole two kilometres or so before it abruptly ended again and I was back on the rough gravel, tiny fragments of stone continuing to making a ruckus on my pick-up truck’s underbelly. It is at this point where I muttered to myself, “Yep, this is Sabah alright.”

For all its natural beauty, rich cultural diversity, and popular seafood, Sabah is one place that is rarely talked about in motoring circles. When it comes to driving here in the land under the wind, it is off-road vehicles, pick-up trucks or SUVs, as the locals would rarely stoop for anything that doesn’t boast an elevated ride height or a rudimentary body-on-frame construction. And I can see why. The state’s infrastructure is sporadic, poorly developed in places, and even ignored in others. Here the unpredictability of the road is the normality, and you need something tough and well-equipped to commute through such conditions. No wonder nearly everyone out here drives a pick-up truck, and fittingly Sabah is also the biggest market for Isuzu and their D-Max pick-up trucks. But that isn’t the reason why I find myself out here, hundreds of kilometres out of my comfort zone and my usual programming of on-road driving.

Rather I’m here to put the D-Max through its paces in its natural environment, which is out here in what seems to be in between middle and nowhere. And for a pick-up truck like the Isuzu, there is no better place than Sabah, what with its wide variety of roads to try its capabilities on and breathtaking views to which I can enjoy, when I inevitably get it stuck. I have been assured by Isuzu Malaysia that such a scenario won’t happen, not on their watch on this Dura-Mission expedition, especially with half a dozen well-prepared support trucks watching over our entourage of 10 conventional D-Max pick-up trucks, and veteran off-road adventurers ever present to lend a word of advice and a hand when necessary.

Held once every two years, this year’s Dura-Mission is the third in Isuzu Malaysia’s history and it promises to be one of the most challenging. For me, it is a perfect opportunity to toss their only passenger car model into the thick of things without worry of getting stranded. In keeping the stakes high, our V-Cross spec pick-up trucks features minimal modifications from the stock standard model that you can buy off the showroom floor. The only bits that have been changed are the customary addition of chunkier Viking off-road tyres, a slightly raised front suspension to accommodate the tyres, and the addition of side steps to ensure a more graceful entry and exit.

The route starts off from the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, where we headed up to the Tip of Borneo, before turning back down to the highland settlement of Kundasang, and ending our off-road adventure at the Kiulu River, near the small town of Tamparuli. While these places are easily accessible by road, it wouldn’t be a proper Dura-Mission without taking some less travelled routes that are off the beaten path. Though that said it was only a good 100km outside from the capital city where both man-made infrastructures ended, and the wilderness of the jungle begins.

With a combination of soft mud and steep jungle terrain that led up into the hills, the convoy’s progress was significantly bogged down. Though my CV in off-road driving is embarrassingly short and amateurish, with my only notable off-road experience prior to this being ruining a field with a rear-wheel drive pick-up truck, I have picked up some rudimentary tips for such situations.

For one, never grasp the steering wheel too tightly in such situations, and especially avoid placing your thumbs on the steering wheel spokes, as you would do when driving on the road. Though we motoring types do bang on about how steering wheel feedback can make or break a car, steering wheel feedback in these situations can literally break you. Should the front wheels fall into a rut or suddenly skim off an unseen ridge, the kick back from the steering wheel can be violent, hitting back with enough force to injure any hapless digits caught in the way. The trick then is to let the steering wheel have its way. Take it slow and don’t try to wrestle control of it. Give the steering some freedom to move, and let its movements dictate to you about the terrain that you are crossing over. Only when you get an idea of the terrain you are on, is when the necessary amounts of steering correction accompanied by an appropriate dab of torque is applied to steadily push through, or over the odd rut.

Luckily for me, the job of piloting the D-Max was made easier with its automatic transmission. Juggling the act of finding traction and balancing a vague clutch pedal on a slope of slippery mud can fray one’s nerves. And not to say that the D-Max V-Cross’ five-speed automatic was in any way a hindrance to forward progress here. The automatic transmission is rather adept to slot in the right gear to fully utilise the D-Max’s big 3-litre diesel engine and its power outputs of 177PS and 380Nm of torque, pulling us up impossibly slippery mud-covered inclines.  

Steadily as the convoy climbed deeper into the great green yonder, the skies above grew darker and the air became thick with the humidity that precedes an oncoming downpour. Already the ground we drove on was a thick mush, and the rain was only going to make things all the more slippery and unpredictable, but the wonders of chunky off-road tyres can make the difference between spending a warm and comfortable ride through the jungle, and braving the mud and weather to break out the ropes and shovels.

Some trucks in the convoy did get marooned on the ragged ground. But the swift response and advice from the crew quickly remedied their predicament without having to resort to the support trucks’ winches and tools. Slowly but surely we crossed over the last hill and made our way down to a secluded coast surrounded by Sabah’s mountainous landscape. The plan was to have a brief stop to rest after a rather rough ride getting there, and enjoy the scenery. However, just as soon as we pulled over, the dense clouds overhead dispensed its load. Cold and wet, the only other option was to press on to the Tip of Borneo and hope that the skies above would clear up.

Nearly an hour of pushing through the rain and undergrowth, the weather conditions didn’t show any signs of improvement. Though rather ironically, the heavy rain ended up washing off much of the sticky slurry of mud, only leaving slippery puddles of water and vegetation, and exposing the rocky terrain. A welcome change to the landscape on one hand, but on the other was that the small stream crossings that the recce team had originally marked out had by this point grown swollen into a raging deluge of water fuelled by the run-off from the mountains overhead. Furthermore coordinating a dozen pick-up trucks to make a U-turn in the middle of the wet and narrow pathway will be nearly impossible. So the only way was to conduct a river crossing.

Driving through a body of water would require a different set of rules of engagement. No more letting the wheel decide where it wants to go. Instead it requires a firm hand to guide it straight through, a steady throttle to ensure that water doesn’t flood back into the engine through the exhaust pipes, and a leap of faith that the route you picked isn’t deeper than it looks. Confidently the more readily prepared support vehicles took the lead and forged their way through the current, and assured us that the river was shallow enough to attempt a crossing.

Taking their word for it I took the plunge into the water, and it really did feel like taking a dive just as waves of muddy water flowed over the top of the bonnet. No time to be hesitant, stopping would run the risk of getting water into the engine through the air intakes or exhaust. As I feel the wheels rolling on a bed of loose pebbles beneath, I gun the engine to keep a bow wave in front. “Don’t stop, don’t stop” were the only words running through my head at this point. To stop and let the water in right here is a motoring faux pas that I won’t be able to live down, especially with the force of the river pounding its way at the doors, there would be no easy escape.

As the D-Max’s nose rose from the water line there was a sigh of relief as I made it back to the other side, and as a reward our convoy made it back onto a dirt path that certainly seen regular traffic. Not quite the ribbon of tarmac that had brought us to the jungle, but nevertheless it is an encouraging sign that we are out of the wilderness.  

Before heading for our overnight destination we paid a visit to the longhouse of the Rungus people, a customary trip to experience the traditions and music of one of Sabah’s many indigenous people. Unfortunately due to the rain that impeded our progress, the planned visit to the Rungus longhouse was cut short, and we only made it to our overnight stop just as the last vestiges of the day dipped over the South China Sea. Here at the most northern point of Borneo, where the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea meet, we settled down for the night with hopes that kinder weather awaited us on the morrow.

There is cause for concern as the planned route from the Tip of Borneo through to Kandukut in the south and onto the Mesilau Nature Resort near the mountain town of Kundasang, required fairer weather to be traversable. The route explained for a fact of Isuzu’s decision to have the rear bumpers of  all the pick-up trucks removed, as there is one particularly ravine which requires a steeper than usual departure angle. According to Isuzu Malaysia the new D-Max’s longer proportions meant that it could clear the ditch, but lose its rear bumper in the process. Not the sort of place you would want to go through if it was pouring with rain or caked in mud. 

As if by some divine appointment a beautiful calm sky of azure blue did greet us the next day, while the news from the expedition leader was just as encouraging as the planned route through the countryside would continue. This time around instead of dense hillside jungle, the route led us on a lone road that winds alongside the Kota Belud firing range. Despite being in use by the Malaysian armed forces today for live ammunition firing practice, the range itself offers an utterly captivating sight of Sabah’s magnificence and natural splendour.

Surrounding our convoy are rolling hills that stretches for kilometres in every direction, set upon a backdrop of the coastline in the distance on one side, and the Crocker mountain range on the other. Being far away from civilisation the air is wonderfully crisp, accompanied by a fresh breeze whistling over the grassy hills. But such moments of peace and calm are fleeting on trips like this, and the road inevitably deposited right into a sweltering swamp.

The soft swampy ground, impregnated with water and plant material, once again necessitated the need for the D-Max’s low-range gearbox, which is easy to activate at the turn of a simple control knob. The question of what situations would warrant the need of the four-wheel drive, and high-range or low-range settings is one that comes up with surprising frequency. On almost all kinds of tarmac surfaced roads, including flat gravel pathways, two-wheel drive would suffice. It is only when there is inclines on bare ground or gravel pathways where traction is scarce that the traction from the four-wheel drive system becomes necessary. The last setting, four-wheel drive low-range is only for the toughest situations, soft mud, rocky ridges, or thick vegetation on all sorts of terrain, where torque, rather than speed, is needed to muscle your way through. Consider this as an off-road vehicle’s last get-out-off-jail-free card.

But even the torque from the diesel engine via its low-range gearbox and four driven chunky off-road tyres would be of little use when we finally arrived at the ravine that the expedition crew were speaking of. Though the day was still very much bone dry, the rain from the previous day had made a mess of the slope, with part of side collapsed and washed away. Rather than go looking for an easy route, I thought that it would be appropriate to complete the Dura-Mission experience and break out the shovels and get reforming the collapsed slope.  Joining our effort to scoop out chunks of soil and rock to form a makeshift ramp, the support crew came to the rescue by attaching a metal plough to a winch and use it to tear down huge parts of the slope with surprising efficiency.

With the slope done, I climbed back into the D-Max, steadily rolled myself down to ravine’s bottom and pushed the nose as far up the crumbling ramp as I could. The support crew then hooked the D-Max’s nose to a winch, and as soon as the cable grew taut I applied power calmly. Slowly I could feel the rear digging into the soil. Feeling a chance to power out of the rut like a diesel-powered superhero, I foolishly applied a load of extra throttle and the whole truck started shaking and the tail started “bouncing”, like a cat on a hot tin roof. Almost immediately the attending crews began waving their hands, instructing me to stop. Apparently the “bouncing” was indicative that the tyres has hit a patch that wasn’t giving the necessary grip, and that its bobbing motion could pull the truck that is serving as the anchor to the winch down with me. Furthermore the ground beneath was crumbling and I was teetering on the edge with the possibility of tipping myself over into a crevice.

Lesson learnt and humble pie applied, I backed down for another attempt. This time around I keep a light right foot, let the tyres find the necessary traction and utilise its torque reserves more patiently. The rear of the truck was sinking into the freshly upturned soil, digging its heels in and steadily the front wheels were gripping on the dry grass above. As I crawled out of the ravine there was a sigh of relief from the crew, and a breath of ease returned to me.

From clearing the ravine our journey was comparatively easy. With the sunny weather and rocky pathway our convoy ploughed on with ease. Soon we emerged from the undergrowth and joined the A150 that snakes along the mountain ridges that form the base of Mount Kinabalu. Much to my amazement the A150 is a glorious stretch of road that offers spectacular breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys below. I have never seen a road as scenic as the A150 anywhere in Malaysia, certainly none as grand as this. Better yet was the road itself. Perfectly laid tarmac, well-sighted corners, and properly cambered corners. Even in an elevated pick-up truck, driving down such roads was a blast.

Despite its dimensions and rudimentary suspension, the D-Max rode rather comfortably, and was surprisingly wieldy and easy to steer through the winding mountain pass. The only downside was the tyre noise from the chunky off-road tyres permeating into the cabin, whereas the tyre’s heavily grooved contact patch don’t quite make for a lot of grip in the corners, and its knobby sidewalls ruins cornering stability. Not that I’m complaining. After all these are fit-for-purpose tyres, and for the greater part of the trip, it has served us remarkably well.

Though Isuzu of today is more known for making commercial vehicles, with its only passenger vehicles being the D-Max and its SUV spin-off the MU-X (set to arrive later this year), the company have had a peculiar appetite for bravely stretching convention in the early 1990s. Few today would talk of the 1989 mid-engined 4200R concept car with a Lotus-developed 4.2-litre V8 of, nor remember the insane Como concept pick-up truck with a purpose-built mid-mounted 3.5-litre Lotus V12. Though those were whimsical concepts at best, Isuzu’s cutting edge 1997 VehiCROSS was as brave as the company got in production cars. However the times of austerity that followed Isuzu’s brave endeavours in the 1990s forced the company to fall back on their expertise in diesel engines. A caveat that Isuzu has built for themselves to this very day as the company prides themselves as the leading supplier of diesel engines, and it shows.

Where the D-Max lacked in ultimate handling finesse, its 3-litre engine certainly made up for in terms of sheer grunt. As scenic and wonderful as the A150 was, there were plenty of steep sections that can only be passed easily with a fistful of torque. And considering Sabah’s terrain, the 3-litre engine is a right fit, providing a smooth and incessant wave of torque to power up any steep incline, making it easy to overtake any struggling car or truck. Furthermore despite roughing it out in the jungle and now powering through the mountain ranges, the D-Max’s 3-litre engine clocked a remarkable average fuel consumption of 10L/100km, and we completed the whole 560km expedition without the need of refuelling, remarkable.

At dawn of our last day in Sabah, as we packed up and left Kundasang for another go on the remarkable A150, the D-Max has done nothing but impress on both off-road and on-road aspects. Unfortunately its talents will be undermined by the many who will see it as a utilitarian machine, a tool for picking up cargo and nothing more. But the D-Max is more than that. It can be as much of an adventure machine as it is an everyday family car, and out here in the vastness of Sabah with its tough terrain and broken infrastructure, it is the right fit.  And if a pick-up truck doesn’t strike your fancy, the MU-X might.   

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