A loud call was heard on the radio, “Isuzu are turning around”. A steep slope (circa 30 degrees for about 150 meters) separates an anxious Mitsubishi convoy, some 22 vehicles parked and at the ready. A prior drizzle had turned a sandy patch of ex-logging trails into a mucky slip-n-slide, that one would not attempt even with the best Hill Descent Control system fitted.
This is unprecedented – Isuzu are the title sponsor and have been an unwavering supporter of the event for the last 10 years, and the Isuzu MU-X SUV that takes on the Borneo Safari (BS) for the first time, is also the poster child of this year’s event. Isuzu not completing the challenge, would be like The Matrix movie without Keanu Reeves, not to mention a PR nightmare.
Turning around has little to do with the capability of the Isuzu’s themselves. The delays caused by traffic going into this section of the expedition means that, if the Isuzu team doesn't complete the challenge in time, journalists who are tagging along (Aswan included) will almost surely miss their flights back home.
The Isuzu people reach a decision shortly after; the media team including some of the support vehicles will turn around, while a skeleton crew piloting the D-Max and MU-X vehicles would continue past the point of no return - The ‘Hardcore Section’ of the 2016 Borneo Safari.
In the two days leading up to this point, radio chatter was heard from the Scout and Expedition Leader teams up ahead – they have only progressed some 6km after Day 1. Think about it – even an amateur hiker could cover a longer distance than that over 10 hours, and those teams are in heavily modified off-road vehicles. The torrential rainfall has caused landslides, uprooted trees, and with it, many obstacles along this 40km section of the 2016 trail that circumvents Mount Kinabalu.
With the exception of one Mitsubishi Triton 2.5 VGT (car No 1 - green and yellow graphics) which successfully covered last year’s expedition in the hands of veteran journalist and 4x4 aficionado, Paul Si, the Mitsubishi team have three other unproven vehicles this year, another 2.5 litre VGT in automatic guise (the car I’m in), and two units of the recently launched 2.4 litre MIVEC Turbo Adventure models (black and red graphics). Our convoy is joined by another five Mitsubishi Tritons (current and older generation models) – driven by a few enthusiastic owners who wish to test their mettle at this stage too.
Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on this!
Triton 2.4L MIVEC VGT Adventure
For the two new 2.4L MIVEC models – this is their toughest proving grounds yet, for the 2.5L VGTs, a proper swansong, as they bow out of Mitsubishi’s local line-up.
And, I cannot stress enough that these trucks are largely the same as one would find in a showroom.
The underpinnings have been upgraded with a lift kit and long-travel suspension; the lightweight alloy wheels are now wrapped with 36 inch Giti Compete Extreme Terrain tyres. A mandatory 12,000lbs winch system is tucked under the steel bullbars, steel rear bumper bars are a must too. A snorkel breather and auxiliary spotlights are a few other highly recommended items.
Under the hood, besides an 'Amaron' high discharge battery (needed to power the winch) and an auxiliary engine oil cooler, the powertrain remains standard. In fact, I also learnt that the east Malaysian team managing the convoy, had advised Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia to install a performance ECU remap chip, but Mitsubishi was adamant that the trucks need to prove themselves as they are.
Of course, we also have a heap of support from other trucks, that are carrying everything from our tents, food supplies, drinking water, medical supplies, spare components and video crew – making up this closely knitted convoy of some 22 vehicles.
While we wait our turn to pass – more bad news arrives, a scout vehicle slid off a steep slope the night before, rolling over-and-under five times before coming to a stop. The driver is fine, but the truck, not so much. This kind of news makes you question as to why one signs up for this in the first place, and this being my second time on the BS, I knew what I was getting myself into.
The pack of Isuzu media vehicles pass through the makeshift gate and disappear into the jungle, Borneo’s toughest challenge lies just beyond – here we go!
Local drifting sensation, Leona Chin (our team’s special guest), heads the group in car No 1– swapping driving gloves for hiking boots obviously hasn’t dampened her spirits. Let’s hope the rumbling, dark clouds up above will not either. It’s almost 4.00PM by now.
The shrubbery rises almost as high as the trucks themselves as soon as we clear the gate, with the trail barely wide enough for one truck to pass. We soon find out why the earlier teams have been held up. A ‘v-gulley’ big enough to swallow a whole car, resides barely 600 meters from the start point.
A 'v-gulley', like the name suggests, traps trucks as soon as they inch down towards the centre – entry and departure angles are critical here; the Tritons have some of the best numbers in its class, undoubtedly made even better with steel protector bars front and rear, however, it does little, and all four cars get jammed, nose to tail on both banks of the 'V'.
Thia requires the truck’s winch to be anchored onto the preceding truck - a huge, modified Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. It takes nearly two hours to get all four cars across, and it is pitch dark by now. As we break for camp on Day 1, we celebrate 600 meters of the trail completed, just 39.4km to go!
Day 2 starts off early, the routine which includes packing up sleeping bags and camp beds, followed by a cup of hot coffee or Milo and some much-needed breakfast. Maybe it was the chill of the air or the fact that the jungle burns off so much of your energy, but, I had a massive appreciation for the food I was served, and the team that had painstakingly prepared it, just sausages and scrambled eggs, but it’s better than some hotel breakfast buffets.
And for the daring few, after breakfast, they find a ‘private place’ amidst the bushes, risk leeches and snakes, dig a hole and handle the morning business.
Today starts off with what has come to be known, as the toughest obstacle yet. A 45-degree incline, some 120 meters up, over a deeply rutted path, where earlier cars have dug tire trails as deep as monsoon drains. Power is the name of the game here.
As soon as the front tires hit the edge of the ascent, slam the throttle to the floor and give it all that its got. The idea is to build as much momentum as quickly as possible so the truck can muscle its way through, any less and the tires will bog down, or the chassis will get clawed down by the pasty mud.
Much to our surprise – it’s the older 2.5 litre VGT’s that becomes the star of the show. Both trucks climbed almost the entire hill without needing a winch, whereas, the 2.4 litre MIVEC units only got to about 75 percent of the way.
Much of this, as we learnt, is down to the torque curve, the MIVEC's engine’s (430Nm) torque peaks at 2500rpm, the older VGT’s on the other hand, gets the ball rolling at just under 1800rpm. So regardless of the MIVEC’s bigger numbers – it’s the 2.5 litre VGT units, that can get that all important jump, earlier. There’s no doubt the 2.4 litre MIVEC’s will be stronger everywhere else, but the tractable torque delivery of the VGT makes it one of the most potent machines you can have, off-road.
Another bit of technology (in the automatic models) is the Hybrid LSD system, which distributes power as evenly as possible to all four corners. In the case of the hill, the cars could consistently climb because traction was spread as evenly as possible where grip exists. This feature becomes even more crucial when one or more tyres are suspended or not touching the ground.
That climb which took the better part of half a day, was only superseded by the fall on the other side, a cold sweat inducing 50 degress drop down slippery mud, into a sharp left, to make matters worse, a large log, some 5.0 feet in diameter, lay on the far side, so if you miss the apex of the turn, you’d be hurtling near 3.0 tonnes of Triton into an immovable, hard place. An earlier car did just that and damaged the entire ladder frame upon impact. Gulp!
Here’s the strategy, the trucks are winched down as far as possible, by the truck behind it (at the top of the hill) so how far down simply depends on the winch rope length of the anchor car. In most cases, some 30 meters. At which point, the winch is released and gravity does the rest.
However, you can’t stomp on the brakes – that would simply lock up the wheels and swing the back around and send the truck into a drift, one perhaps, even Leona Chin would not want. The idea is to apply just enough throttle so the tyres are rotating at the natural speed of the descent – yes, you’d still be going too fast, but at least you are able to steer. Where possible, apply the brakes to reduce speed.
It’s an art that combines clinical precision and artful brutality.
Most people would think off-road expeditions simply require big tyres, big power and machete-wielding men in straw hats and khakis trousers, but, I can assure you it’s so much more that – it requires dexterity, cunning, knowledge of what the car is capable of and how best to use it. The skill sets that gets you through the Borneo Safari are comparable to that of a rally driver – because the grip isn’t always there, you find it!
And even then, a rally driver might be able to retire for the night to a warm trailer, and not sustain 97 sand-fly bites over a night’s sleep on a cold camp-bed.
Over the next three days and 40 odd km of the Hardcore Section, our convoy of 22 vehicles reduced to 20. The two casualties include the earlier mentioned Toyota Prado which lost its gearbox as soon as it climbed the first hill and another Land Cruiser (J80), crucially carrying our medical supplies, which broke its rear axle pinion gear a day later, effectively making it a front wheel drive vehicle. It soldiered on for another two days before the team decided to leave it behind, until spares arrive and repairs are made on site.
As veteran journalists Paul Si best describes the BS, every year we come for the Borneo Safari, but stay for the ‘Borneo Suffering’.
Maybe, it’s the appeal of the challenge itself – pushing one’s skill and wit to the very limit of what’s possible, perhaps it’s about the joyful atmosphere and the deep friendships that are fostered with like-minded people along the way, or trusting your survival and hopes on an inanimate machine, built simply from metal and rubber, that ultimately ends up being your best friend!
Either way one looks at it, it’s a heart-wrenching adventure, and one you would tell your grandchildren some day!
As we approached the last obstacle, my driver, affectionately called Winku, stops midway with one wheel rear wheel suspended in mid-air, worriedly, I looked at him and asked “Kenapa henti bossku?” to which he replied, “Ini last obstacle, kita ambil Wefie dulu?” – I laughed with relief. He knew it wasn’t going to stop our Triton.
I went on to casually ask him what he really thought of the Tritons trucks, one of those ‘off the record moments’, he summed it up in four simple words, “Saya minta, dia kasi…” And, if I am honest, no review could ever be shorter and sweeter.
The four Mitsubishi Tritons, including the other five tag-on trucks, survived the hot mid-day weather, wet slippery conditions, hills and slopes that threatened gearbox failure, and undulating surfaces that could have twisted the chassis at any given moment – in short, if you ever want to attempt the Borneo Safari, the Mitsubishi Triton is a damn good place to start.