I always try to resist this temptation – to be overly philosophical or emotional when trying to surmise my thoughts or to tell my story, this one in particular.
And, I tell this story for the third time. And no two years have ever been the same.
What started out as a gathering of a small bunch of intrepid off-road enthusiasts in 1990, as a way to break away from the tedium of daily life with family and friends, the event has grown and evolved over the last 27 years, drawing in over 900 participants and more than 300 off-road machines, some even from beyond our own borders.
In the early days, small advertisements were taken out in local dailies in the hopes of attracting likeminded off-roading enthusiasts. Now though, I'm part of a full-fledged media entourage made up of both international and local press, photographers, and video crews - telling this story to a worldwide audience
The jungle calls; this is the 27th installment of Borneo Safari (BS).
Isuzu returns as the Diamond Sponsor for the 11th year running, with one single overarching message: that their vehicles are built to be reliable and tough.
And, Instead of spending their marketing dollars on fancy advertisements and campaigns, they’d rather slap on some bolt-on off-road components and let the trucks and SUVs do the talking.
Much like the old adage “race on Sunday and sell on Monday” – their efforts at the BS mirror that of sports car manufacturers like Porsche and Ferrari who prove their worth on racetracks around the world and then carry that DNA into their road-going vehicles. The only difference here is the Isuzu team will track through the jungle for eight days straight.
Naturally, for a company that dates as far back as 1916, with its roots in shipbuilding and heavy engineering; they pride themselves on providing customers with solutions that work.
The Borneo Safari has also had a massive effect of the brand’s acceptance in East Malaysia because as much East Malaysians love trucks, customers over there will not buy one unless it’s extremely reliable, easy to maintain and capable when the going gets tough. It’s little surprise then, why there’s a large number of older Land Rover Defenders, Toyota Hilux, and Isuzu Troopers still on active duty.
The route in 2017 starts the convoy off from the flag-off point at the Sabah Tourism Board building in the heart of Kota Kinabalu, the heads west through Putatan, Kinarut, and then onto Papar. Our first campsite is at Kampung Mikik in Papar.
The stage is set to be a monumental uphill climb from the start of the Hardcore Section, just off Kampung Mikik, for the better part of four days, before the entire convoy makes its way through the hills of Kaiduan and re-enters Kota Kinabalu.
The four Isuzu media vehicles include three D-Max pick-up trucks, and the latest addition, the MU-X SUV which completed its maiden expedition in 2016. The three D-Maxs, nicknamed the Black, Red and White Monsters have been in service since 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Think about that for a second, the Black Monster (a 2.5-litre manual variant) has successfully completed five consecutive Borneo Safari expeditions (including 2017) and save wear-and-tear components that have been replaced along the way, is unchanged from the way it left the showroom floor.
In terms of modifications, the MU-X and D-Max, all the Isuzu Monsters run a chassis lift-kit for greater ground clearance and to enable the fitment of 36-inch extreme terrain tyres. The aftermarket suspension system likewise is suited for off-road duty. Other pre-requisites are solid steel front bumpers, front underbody skid plate, and a steel rear bumper, mostly to protect the car’s vital components.
Other improvements are limited to the fitment of a powerful winch system, snorkel breather and long-range radio system, and a high-discharge battery to support the winch.
As for the drivetrain - there are no modifications to the engine, ECU system, gearbox, AWD system, steering components, cooling system, and differentials. Heck, even the radio and air-conditioning still work like normal.
The most powerful machine of the lot is the White Monster, a 3.0-litre D-Max V-Cross manual variant, which is given the paramount role of carting the convoy’s water and camping beds, weighing in at roughly 2-tonnes fully laden.
The Isuzu convoy alone consists of some 20 vehicles; while the Isuzu Monsters are perfectly capable of handling their own in the jungle, support cars are still needed to carry food, camping items, the medic team, parts, tools and crew members.
As dawn broke on Day 4, the wait to enter the Harcore section was finally over, the MU-X SUV led the charge into the Hardcore Section, a circa 4km route that ascends through the hills of Papar. Ahead, a maze of uphill sections, punctuated by V-Gullys that put immense strain on the chassis, AWD system and engine cooling system.
In other places, slippery and arduous hill climbs await to push the gearbox and engine and, differentials to their very limit.
Due to a driver error (plunging into a deep rut at high speed) shortly after the convoy enters the Hardcore Section – the Red Monster suffers a broken front drive shaft. What ensues is a quick recovery effort to get the car on level ground, while the rest of the team break out the spanners and perform a well-orchestrated repair operation. Within 45 mins the Red Monster is back in action.
The car soldiers on for another three long days before the front differential gives way, upon further inspection, the team finds that the earlier driveshaft breakage had also damaged the front differential's main bearings and gears.
But this pales in comparison to an assortment of breakdowns that befall a number of cars just ahead of the Isuzu convoy, not spared from their fair share of differential failures and engine breakdowns.
With a little help, the Red Monster made a triumphant finish, regardless of being driven by its two rear wheels, passing a 60-foot deep V-Gully at the very end, along with the MU-X SUV and two other D-Max Monsters.
The icing on the cake would have to be the MU-X completing the challenge for the second time, an otherwise stylish and well-equipped SUV for the family, in the jungles of Borneo, it proves its duality as a formidable off-road machine, in line with its tough and rugged DNA.
The Borneo Safari in 2017 has once again served as the ultimate test of man and machine. And as always, the experience leaves the jungle with footprints and the explorer with memories that can last a lifetime.
There is little wonder why the Borneo Safari leaves a lasting impression on everyone, it seems to touch everyone in different ways.
Perhaps for the competitors, in their heavily modified machines ahead of our convoy, it was a huge obstacle they powered through or being the fastest team for a Prologue Stage, for others, the jungle offers peace and relaxation, away from the routine of emails and meetings.
For enthusiasts drivers, such as those in the Tag On groups, perhaps it’s knowing the vehicle they have been building and tuning all year survived the challenge and lived to tell the story.
It also fills one with great respect for the staggering beauty of our great rainforests. For me, it’s the people – because everyone is a vital cog in a system that builds this great event. That’s good a reason as any to be philosophical.
Perhaps for Isuzu, they’re already planning the challenge for next year, and because fancy brochures only tell half the story, Isuzu vehicles prove their mettle when tyres meet dirt and mud.