When my editor assigned me to accompany Isuzu Malaysia’s third Dura-Mission, which saw the expedition heading up to the literal Tip of Borneo and into the mists on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, I was a little apprehensive.
Although I had gone on other off-roading trips as a passenger/observer, this would be the first time I was onboard as a driver and added to that, the last time I had driven anything manual was over a decade ago.
The media convoy consisted of 10 vehicles — the latest Isuzu D-Max V-Cross 3.0L diesels, along with eight crew vehicles, including two “Monsters” — lifted D-Maxes with Simex mud-tyres, light arrays and winches as convoy leaders.
For the media convoy vehicles, modifications were limited to just removing the rear bumper (to minimise damage if the vehicle fishtailed during slippery conditions), and a slight lift to accommodate Viking mud tyres for the off-road portions.
Luckily for me, I had an experienced motoring journalist as my driving partner, and throughout the three days on or off the road, I learned much about the truck, and off-roading from him.
The official roll-out started out sunny and bright, where we were promptly flagged of by Isuzu Malaysia chief operating officer Daisuke Ishida, and for a good 30 minutes or so, the convoy travelled more or less intact to the trailhead.
With a spacious interior, riding shotgun was as comfortable as a car, and even the back passengers did not complain during the bumpier drives on the road.
The V-Cross also allows for instant change from two-wheel drive to four-wheel, with the dial on the transmission tunnel. The only thing being that, one has to stop the vehicle to shift from “Four High” to “Four Low” torque for more challenging terrain.
I had taken over the wheel from my driving partner during a toilet stop, and I soon discovered the advantages of the D-Max’s low torque, soon quickly re-learned how to drive a manual vehicle after over a decade of neglecting this vital skill.
The skies started turning grey soon after we entered the trailhead from Kampung Taburan, and it soon drizzled and rained by turns, turning the laterite trail into a churning muddy mess, fun conditions for off-roading going by the walkie-talkie chatter.
It was with no small amount of embarrassment, that our vehicle was the first to get stuck in a pretty deep rut, which I could not reverse or rev my way out of and the recovery vehicle had to come up to the front to assist us.
Other parts of the 30km off-road section saw Hezeri coming out to help direct and guide individual media vehicles through some muddy sections, despite the pouring rain.
Perhaps the most intimidating part, was one river fording, where the previous night’s rains had swollen the river to over 1m-deep with strong currents.
Each D-Max had to cross individually and clear the trail for the following truck to progress.
After lunching along Pantai Teringai, our next stop before nightfall was Bavanggazo Longhouse, a well-known homestay and example of Rungus longhouse architecture, albeit with some modern amenities to make life easier. The Rungus, a sub-set of the larger Kadazandusun ethnic group in Sabah, are primarily concentrated in Kudat and Pitas areas in the Kudat Division, their primary trades being fishing and farming.
Longhouses normally comprised about 10 households in one, but larger ones can hold between 50 to 70 households.
Part of the visit included the longhouse dance troupe which performed a series of dances for the visitors, such as the Manaradan and Sumundai-Mongigol to welcome visitors and as ceremonial.
Nose flutes (seruling) are quite common in the Pacific, and the Dura-Mission’s participants were also given a performance by one of the longhouses’ more senior female residents.
Merrimas Villa is located a few hundred metres away from the Tip of Borneo in Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, and although we had targetted to reach the tip to catch the sunset, the earlier rains and delays on the track meant it was not to be.
Nonetheless, the view is terrific, and in the morning one can actually catch sight of Balambangan Island off the Sabah coast.
Day 2 saw us heading down to Kota Marudu, about 146km from the Tip of Borneo, with the off-road section beginning as we entered Kampung Rosok, next to the army weapons grounds.
This time, there were no stuck vehicles but shovels were broken out instead to help create a solid path, and even then, the Monsters had to deploy their winches to help the media D-Maxes cross the incline.
Lunching in Kandukut, everyone got to enjoy a scenic vista of the Crocker Range, while the crew also broke out streetfoods purchased earlier such as roasted sweetcorn and a jackfruit relative called tarap for everyone to try.
After another river fording, we then drove for some 90km before hitting Kundasang and Mesilau Nature Resort, one of the two jump-off points for hiking up Mt Kinabalu.
The morning of the final day saw Isuzu Malaysia treating the media group to a helicopter tour of Mount Kinabalu and its surroundings, lifting off from the Kundasang Golf Club.
Embarking and disembarking had to be done quickly but cautiously, as the fog and clouds began rolling in within 40 minutes after 7am.
Just after the storied Tamparoli suspension bridge in Tuaran, Sungai Kiulu is a fun recreational place for those who enjoy zip-lining (the flying fox) or moderately-challenging water rafting and several media and crew availed themselves of the opportunity.
After drying off and changing, we then headed back to Kota Kinabalu for our flight back.
At this point, I was perhaps, most amazed by the D-Max’s fuel economy, as the entire trip had logged 640km, without taking into account the extra fuel we burnt on the off-road sections, yet the fuel gauge still showed the vehicle good for another 100 to 200km drive before a refuel.