A common perception among many first-time truck owners is that heavy duty 4x4 accessories – high lift suspension, huge tyres, and high performance engine modifications, are necessary before one can drive off-road.
While there will always be hardocre off-roaders who need better equipment as they continue to push the limits of their body and their vehicle. But for most of us, a standard truck is already potent enough to match our skills and experience. As Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia have proven recently, a near-standard Mitsubishi Triton is good enough to conquer the Borneo Safari, one of the toughest 4x4 events in the world.
To further drive home the point, Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia recently organized its fifth Borneo Triton Adventures drive. This time, the drive will run from Kota Belud, Sabah to Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, better known as The Tip Borneo, the northern most point of Sabah where South China Sea and Sulu Sea meets.
The daylong drive took us some 40 km off-road, uneventful when it’s dry, but could quickly turn into a mudcake of a terrain that could take up to an hour to cover just 1 km if it rains.
The drive was not as extreme as the Borneo Safari, but the modus operandi remained the same – take a standard/near-standard Triton that customers can buy off the showroom floor, swap the standard highway terrain tyres for a set of mud terrain tyres, and start playing with mud.
In the case of Borneo Triton Adventures, the only modification done to our Triton VGT was fitting a set of suitable set of off-road tyres. Everything else, including the suspension, engine, transmission and even the rims remained standard.
Out of the 11 Tritons in our convoy, only two – the Lead and Sweeper - ‘Monster’ specifications Tritons piloted by Borneo Tru Events’s ‘Alpha’ leader Silas Martin and his crew had winches. With no winches on our trucks, vehicle recovery on tight jungle trails is going to be extremely difficult if our standard specifications Tritons are not up to the task.
The off-road drive was organized by Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia and Sabah’s Penampang 4x4 Club. At the flagoff ceremony, seeing these near-standard Tritons surrounded by many heavily modified ‘monsters’ with high lift suspensions, Centipede tyres, custom frames, underbody protection plates, equipped with all sorts of lighting and radio communication equipment, one wonders if Mitsubishi might have brought a knife to a gun fight. Of course, many of these participants are veterans of more extreme 4x4 challenges and the friendly members of the Penampang 4x4 Club assured us that this will be a rather leisurely drive, and that our standard trucks will do well.
Or is it? Because my co-driver, a Mitsubishi Motors staff from Sarawak, cautioned me about taking the words of these 4x4 guys literally. “If they tell you it will be a day drive, be prepared to camp in the jungle through the night, if they tell you they will be out of the jungle by evening, then be prepared to come out only by midnight,” he said.
After our flag-off from Penampang, we drove for some 100 km on tarmac towards Kota Belud. It was an uneventful drive but as expected, the ride was noticeably noisier due to the necessary off-road tyres fitted.
Interestingly, many of the more extreme, heavily modified 4x4s found it necessary to top up their fuel tanks, but not our standard Tritons, as our fuel gauges have barely even nudged.
The highways in Sabah are not like the ones we are used to drive on in Peninsular Malaysia. Rather than flat surfaces with three lanes on either sides, the highways here are a lot more like the roads leading up to Cameron Highlands, with high elevations and steep gradient climbs putting a toll on the engine. The thinner air also means that power output is now less than the 178 PS achieved at ground level. Turbocharging, especially when executed via variable geometry turbochargers (VGT) to minimize lag, was never more appreciated.
Thought the paddle-shifters was a gimmicky feature in a pick-up truck? Ha! That means you have not experienced descending these twisty mountainous roads of Borneo.
On such terrain, drivers must be careful to ensure that vehicle is in the correct low gear at all times. Riding on the brake pedal for too long will quickly result in cooked brakes. The paddle shifters allowed drivers to keep their hands on the wheel all the time, balancing use of the hydraulic brakes with prudent engine braking, while we snake our way down, negotiating past many lorries.
Yours truly however, was in a more rudimentary 5-speed manual transmission Triton VGT – so my hands and feet were busy doing their own mini choreographed moves, as opposed to my more relaxed peers in the other higher specifications five-speed automatic Triton VGT Adventure.
Where the road ends, and adventure begins
By the time we reached Kampung Toburon - the point where the tarmac ended for us – it had started drizzling. The change in weather was met with loud cheers because...well, men like revel in the prospects of being tortured by nature.
Shortly before entering the tougher off-road sections, we stopped our vehicles to lower the tyre pressures slightly – an important measure to ensure optimum traction on these soft, muddy terrain. Properly inflated tyres are necessary when driving on tarmac but on these low speed off-road sections, where the surface is uneven, an under-inflated tyre has a wider contact patch and allows it to gently deform and roll over uneven surfaces.
With tyres checked, we dialled the Easy Select 4WD Shift-on-the-fly knob to the left to shift from 2WD-Hi (for tarmac surface only) to 4WD-Low (for off-road terrain only). Doing so links the front axle with the rear via a low range transfer box.
Shifting it into 4-Low does two things – it creates an ultra-low ratio that multiplies the engine torque far more effectively, which is useful for climbing steep inclines. The ratio is so low that it’s okay to launch the vehicle from 2nd gear, with 1st reserved only for the steepest hill starts.
Using 4-Low also keeps the engine at its optimum peak torque range, without having to speed up, which you shouldn’t when driving on such dangerous terrain.
The next 10 km took nearly 1 hour to cover, as the terrain required us to drive over soft soil littered with sharp rocks, climbing over boulders, all while trying to avoid getting stuck.
Silas reminded us over the radio to keep our thumbs upright and keep them on the outer part of the steering wheel rim.
It’s the opposite of what BMW Driver Training teaches, but out here in the jungle, you need to do the opposite of what you would do on a track. Keep your thumbs bent in to the rim’s spokes, and you risk snapping them should the front tyres hit a boulder and delivered a sharp kickback through the steering wheel.
Driving downhill off-road requires yet another counterintuitive technique. “Remember, do not step on the brakes, do not step on the brakes,” reminded Silas over the radio. Sounds ridiculous?
The trick to a safe, uneventful descent while off-road is to allow the vehicle to roll forward gently so it doesn’t overstep whatever little traction the terrain offers. Braking midway is dangerous as it might cause the wheels to lose traction and slide downwards.
With the transfer case in 4-Low, shift into 1st, steer towards a path with the least hazard, let the vehicle creep forward slowly, and trust the 4-Low ratio to hold the vehicle’s speed. Should the vehicle start the slide sideways, resist the urge to brake but instead, gently accelerate and steer the vehicle back into the right direction.
On some of the tighter sections, we were told to be mindful of deep holes on either sides of the path (it’s definitely not a road!) hidden by the thick undergrowth. Tree twigs and branches were leaving deep scratches on all our cars as we drive through but now is not the time to worry about the paint job, especially when they are holes on the ground that are big enough to swallow half the truck should you misjudge your steering angle.
After escaping the clutches of the thick jungle cover, we reached a clearing but ahead of us lies many smaller but steep descents/ascents that threaten to rip out our bumpers. With the right technique (slow approach, accelerate only upon ascent) meant that none of the Tritons lost a bumper.
Sunset is now just a few more hours away and we need to hasten our pace as we are losing daylight fast. Once out of the jungle, we head towards Jalan Indarasan, which despite its name, is over 15 km of unpaved, dusty laterite road that links many native settlements in the interiors of Borneo. Sabah might be a state that’s rich in natural resources, but as far as these natives are concerned, they never saw any of the wealth.
Speeding through the banana plantations, a lot of dust were kicked up and this continued for hours. Many of us wondered how the air filters will cope.
After nearly two hours of driving under such dusty conditions, we regrouped at Kampung Lejong. I made a quick visual inspection on the Triton’s airbox, but found it to be perfectly fine. It is interesting to note that the Triton’s air filter comes with double layers of protection, and the airbox has a small depression at the bottom, just below the air filter, to allow the Triton to cope with a reasonable amount accidental water ingestion.
Changing to a less restrictive air filter might free a couple more horses but owners need to be mindful that the standard car’s more restrictive setup is intentionally designed that way so it can cope with these punishing off-road conditions.
We managed to get back to the main road by dusk, before heading to our final destination to the Tip of Borneo. With daylight diminishing fast, we made our way through unlit twisty roads, ever cautious of some random animal crossing the road (happens quite often) but at least we were no longer in the jungle.
Interestingly, these are the same Tritons used in all the previous Borneo Triton Adventure events. In fact, the Sweeper car in our convoy, WB 7364V is the same car that participated in the last Borneo Safari. Apart from fixing the deep scratches, none of these Tritons have required any mechanical repairs, a further testament of the Triton’s reliability.