No matter what people say, no matter what advice they give you: nothing can fully prepare you for the first time you take part in the Borneo Safari. You might have gone trekking in the jungle before, or you might do a spot of camping on the weekends, or perhaps you fancy yourself as an off-road aficionado- the Borneo Safari is an event that takes all of it to another level.
This year, over 340 cars turned up for the event. Some of these participants flew over from Peninsular Malaysia and tagged along, while others drove their own vehicles up from Sarawak and across from Brunei. But regardless of where you come from, the annual event offers a unique opportunity to catch up with friends and take part in a rigorous challenge together- with plenty of stories to tell after.
While Arvinda and I were both attending the event, we were assigned to entirely different teams. I happened to be with the Isuzu team, and as media I was riding in one of Isuzu’s modified D-Max pickup trucks. There were two other D-Max trucks and an MU-X as well, along with over 10 other support and crew cars.
These vehicles are properly built, sporting lifted suspension setups and 35 inch tyres, along with extra reinforcement and secure areas to store fuel and cargo. The point, however, is that these cars are capable of going into this kind of terrain with only the simplest of modifications- no air-locking differentials here.
Many Different Faces
There are a few different groups that attend the Borneo Safari aside from the media contingent, and each has their own purpose throughout the event. While the event does have a ‘hard core’ section that all participants have to traverse, there are also specific special stages that occur throughout the event. These stages are almost like a gymkhana reimagined in a rainforest setting, with specific routes that competing participants have to take.
For this, it isn’t uncommon to see modified Suzuki Jimnys with tube frame architecture and powerful turbocharged engines blasting along. But while these cars are the “focus” of the event, they are also so bare bones that they can hardly carry enough fuel or equipment to make it through the entire safari on their own steam. For that they have a support crew that follows them through, and these vehicles carry the necessary tools and equipment to keep the cars going- much like the support crew in a rally. The support cars have to be able to traverse the trail as well, meaning their drivers must be adept at navigating through the thick jungle.
In addition to the competitors and their support teams, there are also the tag along group- those who want to take part in the safari for the fun of it. These participants usually follow half a day or so behind the main group, but by no means are they unskilled or inexperienced. Spend enough time with them and you'll get to hear all kinds of stories, usually over a few cans of beer or a pack of cigarettes.
Horses for the Courses
Our first day out saw us traversing Sabah, up to Ranau and back down to access the first camp site. Along the way were allowed to watch one of the special stages taking place, and it was spectacular to say the least. These competitor cars may not be as quick as a well-built gymkhana car, but they have the amazing ability to push through conditions you wouldn’t think possible. From the get go you are treated to a symphony of turbo waste-gate noise and belches of black smoke, punctuated by the pressurising and depressurising of their air locking differentials.
This was 1 of close to 20 special stages, conducted during either the day or the night. Some stages even involved pushing through deep streams, and while the speeds may not be quite as insane as the World Rally Championship, they are nonetheless just as exciting to watch.
Unfortunately, during our time on the trip we could only witness one or two of these special stages as they were taking place much further ahead of us, and were practically inaccessible to us most of the time. While the number of competitors this year was less than that of the year before, the level of competition was just as fierce.
Hurry Up and Wait
When you spend the days leading up to the Borneo Safari mentally preparing yourself for the potential challenges that lie ahead, it can be a little (quite) anticlimactic when you actually get there. With 340 cars going through a narrow trail, it’s only natural that there is a lot of time spend waiting for the traffic to clear- as you would experience on a day-to-day basis if your morning commute involves coming in or out of the city.
After participants said that last year’s trail was a little too easy, the organizers may have gone a little overboard. This year the trail was so difficult to progress along that it took each car roughly 30 minutes to clear a single obstacle; multiply that by the sheer number of cars taking part, you get a rough idea of how much waiting is involved.
From our first camp site, we intended to get moving on the second day by 9 a.m.. By noon we hadn’t moved, and by 3 p.m. we were told that we would be spending the night at the same camp site- meaning we had effectively burned the day. Landslides and rainfall in the area had made the trail incredibly difficult to traverse, leading to the hold-up. But perhaps there’s a silver lining to every situation: the other teams had caught up with us and set up for the night at the same camp site, meaning we had a little more company and a few more proverbial campfires to sit around.
The day that followed was a little more eventful, with the convoy moving off a little before noon. Spirits high, we soldiered along and up the dirt packed hills and paths cut through the jungle, wondering how far we would get. After roughly 15 minutes of driving, we came to another stop on the plateau and were told to wait; the groups from the day before had yet to even enter the trail, given the sheer volume of cars.
What we hoped would be a wait for an hour or 2 quickly became a sunbathing session in the afternoon sun, and we were burning through our liquid supplies at an accelerated rate. With no word from the participants ahead as to whether the trail was clear, the decision was made to return to our original camp site and retire for the night.
Third Time’s The Charm – Or Not
When dawn broke on the fourth day, we were good and ready to go- hopeful that we would get a little further than the days before. And this time we actually did, finally getting a glimpse of the actual hard core trail that lay ahead. Parking our trucks at the top of yet another steep hill, we wandered on down to the trail and took a short walk inside to see what the hubbub was about.
While not exactly the chaos we imagined, there was still a fair amount of stop-and-go. Participants were parked every 25 metres or so to prevent potential accidents from happening if they got too close and lost grip. Even the first obstacle, a V-gulley, was admitting cars in batches of 2 to 3, requiring roughly 30 minutes for the group to clear.
Further up, there was another insane obstacle that required the use of a winch- 3 consecutive times no less- followed by a bungee jump down the other side. The Isuzu contingent was still stuck outside the gate that marked the beginning of the hard core trail, and the queue showed little signs of clearing quickly. With the rain starting to pick up, progress was becoming increasingly slow- and it was time to make an executive decision.
By this point in time, we had burned the 2 buffer days necessary to get the team through to the Timberwell camp site by the 6th day. Unfortunately, the majority of the media team had to be back on a flight to their respective homes by that day, and going in would mean staying for the full 8-day course (as Arvinda did with his team). Eventually a vote was passed and the team would have to split, with the MU-X and a D-Max going in, while the remaining two D-Max trucks would take a shortcut out with the majority of the support crew.
With the decision made to take the shortcut out, it was only natural that some of the drivers were a little disappointed. For most of them, this once-a-year event is especially important- both to prove their abilities as offroad drivers, and to undergo the experience with their fellow off-road enthusiasts. We were picking up a bit of speed on the trail, accelerating along the path and slipping our sliding our way along. But it was only a matter of time before we once again came to a stop: one of the support cars had slipped down the slope and rolled over. The passengers were injured, and they would need to be taken to a hospital.
This is the danger of off-roading. Even a seemingly innocent slope can be treacherous, especially with a top heavy car that is dynamically unstable. One of the D-Max trucks was used to ferry the injured passengers out, while the rest of the convoy regrouped after winching the car back onto its tyres. We headed out of the jungle and eventually back onto tarmac roads, before descending into the town of Kota Marudu.
After a quick stop off at the hospital, we were again presented with the choice to return to Kota Kinabalu, or to go to the Kampung Sorinsim site that was meant to be the final camp site for the participants. With Sorinsim being the more practical option, we took the 40 minute trip and set up camp for what would be the next 2 nights.
With a day to kill at Kampung Sorinsim (as idyllic as it was), one of the Isuzu team members helped to arrange a short off-road drive to let us experience the trucks for ourselves. It wasn’t a route that was particularly hardcore- no winching or opportunities to get stuck in the mud- but it was something to help kill time. The trip was dual-purpose as well: the Isuzu team members wanted to see if they could make radio contact with the team that had gone into the Safari trail, and for that they needed to get up high above the treeline.
From my brief time in the driver’s seat, there were a few things I could observe. While Isuzu did their best to keep the car as out-of-the-showroom as they could, the additional weight of the support gear and equipment meant it took a lot more effort to get the truck moving. Most of the time we test these vehicles with an empty bed, and their high-torque engines allow you to step off the clutch and let it roll along with ease.
This also meant that in many places where you would normally run in 2H or 4H, it would be more prudent to run the car in 4L. The additional torque of the gear reduction made it easier to haul up slopes and over the odd bump in the road- we weren’t doing blistering speeds by any measure, but it was still a fairly respectable pace. Stopping for a few photo opportunities and to have a little bit of fun, we relinquished control and let the drivers carry us onwards and upwards along the trail.
After some time crawling along the gravel path, we eventually found a peak high enough to start broadcasting. Parking the trucks at the very edge of the rise gave us the best chance of reaching the team still trapped along the safari trail, and after a few minutes they managed to get through. For their 1 day of effort, the MU-X and D-Max had managed to cross 12 kilometres of the trail (a trail only 20 kilometres long), which a clear indication of how rough it was.
With that knowledge we returned to the camp site and the crew began to prepare for the next few days, aiming to resupply in the town of Kota Marudu and reconnect with the rest of the team when they exited at Timberwell. All that was left was for us to pack up and leave the next day, heading back to Kota Kinabalu before our flights back home.
Thanks to the power of social media, we still managed to get a good glimpse of what went on inside the hardcore section that we never managed to traverse. It looked like some pretty tough going, with the trail turning into a muddy stream at one point throughout the journey- but perhaps the satisfaction of completing it would be worth the struggle. No- it would most definitely be worth the struggle. Would we return next year for another shot at the safari? Absolutely- but perhaps this time we’ll be a little better prepared.