For nearly seven years, I tried to attend one of the 4X4 world’s premiere events, the Borneo Safari, but every year something came up.
This year, was different as thanks to the folks over in Isuzu Malaysia and a free calendar, I managed to make my way over to Sabah to enjoy a little bit of fun in the bush.
Unfortunately, I could only attend the three-day “soft-core” section and had to pass on the whole 10-day experience.
The first day started bright and early for me as flag-off was slotted for 7.00am in front of the Sabah Tourism Board’s offices on Gaya Street in Kota Kinabalu.
The sound of gongs, kompang and rumbling engines greeted me after I headed down to the starting line as car after car rolled past, adding to the almost carnival atmosphere.
With almost 400 cars participating, Sabah Deputy Chief Minister and state Culture, Tourism, and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew had the wrist-spraining task of flagging-off event participants which would see them follow 400km route between the state capital, Kota Marudu and Kota Belud.
Just over 1,000 participants along with 27 competitors signed up for the event.
After the flag-off, the media team and I boarded three souped-up D-Max pick-up trucks that Isuzu Malaysia had brought especially for the event.
Out of the three trucks, two of them were built in 2013 and had completed Borneo Safari challenges for six years straight.
Our first stop was a hillside near Tuaran for the first four special stages (SS).
We arrived a bit late to the party as the first few teams had already started their attempts and tensions were running high.
One of the Russian teams ended one of their 'SS’ attempts with a heated shouting match.
From what I could gather, they had misunderstood the directions from the marshal and had gone off course during their attempt.
Thankfully, both the driver and co-driver managed to settle their differences with a hug and a handshake.
It was a thrill to look at the machines they were using though.
Like many of the other cars, it seemed to be stripped down 4X4 competition car that seemed to have been Suzuki Jimnys in a previous life.
Due to the modifications, it was hard to tell.
We then made our way to a camping area near Kampung Toburon in Kota Belud which was about 100km away.
The camp site turned out to be a gorgeous beach facing the South China Sea.
There were already many 4X4s at the campsite by the time that we got there.
In fact, participants had set up camps all along the 5km stretch, turning it into a small town of tents and tarpaulin shelters.
Night time came almost as fast as it took us to set up camp and we were plunged into darkness as the sounds of the forest started to kick into high gear.
The organisers had set up a decent barbecue for dinner to help us recover from our long, hard day on the road.
After dinner, the media team got together for some refreshment and to catch up on the day’s events but I felt I needed to stretch my legs so went for a walk along the beach.
I dropped by some of the other camps just to say ‘hi’ and chat with the participants and found many were friendly and open to chatting.
One of the groups had even set up a mobile ‘disco’ at their camp complete with a DJ, dance floor, special lighting and even a disco ball!
Needless to say, they were committed to ending their first night with a bang.
The next morning started as early as the first but also with a spot of bad news.
Bad weather had slowed down proceedings at Tuaran causing the SS planned at our beach camp to be delayed.
This meant that we wouldn’t be able to catch the competitors in action as we had to leave before lunch.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and our lining was that we had most of the morning to mess about on the beach.
Just before noon, the folks from Isuzu Malaysia rounded up the media team for a photo opportunity of the entire convoy.
It was impressive to see all the 4X4s lined up on the beach, even more so once the convoy started moving.
After the shutterbugs had their fill, we all loaded up into our vehicles and made our way to the next campsite near Kota Marudu.
It looked close on paper, but it took us the entire day to get to, due to road conditions. Let’s just say there was barely a road to begin with.
The view was simply amazing.
Granted we were driving through dense bush but once there was a break between the trees, we were blessed with a spectacular view of the hills and the sea.
The drive was challenging, but thankfully it didn’t rain again so the raw earth that made up our one-track road didn’t turn into porridge.
After a few hours of ups and downs as well as several little villages in between, we finally burst out of the boonies and onto tarmac at Kampung Tonsom, just outside Kota Marudu.
We stopped at some shop houses near the junction to regroup and clean-up.
While my fellow media folk drank tea, I decided to pop over to visit a relative of mine who ran one of the shops nearby.
When I returned, I found that our chuck wagon (the car that carries our food) had broken down and some of the lads were having a go at trying to get it to start up.
I have always found bush mechanics to be an amazing bunch. I’ve seen them do the most amazing things in the most hellish environments imaginable with next to nothing.
It’s like watching Dr Frankenstein trying to reanimate his monster with some duct tape and a toothbrush.
They eventually managed to get it going again so we proceeded to our next camp-site.
My last night out in the bush was actually in someone’s back yard.
Due to the delay our faulty chuck wagon caused, our planned camp site had already been taken so the road crew had to recce for a new spot.
What they came back with was a strip by the road flanked by thick brush with two houses on either side.
We were far from the main road but still in kampung land, but the owner (who lived in the house opposite our camp) was nice enough to let us use the spot. Furthermore, we had access to fresh water which was good.
We were joined by another group of media folk who were going for the hard core section of the trip that evening, and I have to say I did feel a pang of envy at not being able to go along with them.
The evening passed into the wee hours as all of us sat down to chat after dinner and it was quite late before we headed back to our cots to catch some sleep before our long drive back to Kota Kinabalu.
One thing about trips like these is that it does bring about a sense of esprit de corps, as all those involve develop a strong bond thanks to the shared experience, both good and bad, of being on the road.
I suppose its that very feeling that keeps me going for trips like this as the camaraderie is very addictive.
Even for the short time I was there, I already felt the bonds growing between participants and I can only imagine how tight they would end up being by the end of it all.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to find out next year if I am lucky enough to be invited again.
This time, I’ll make sure I’ll go for the whole trip!
By: NIKLAS ALBAKRI