Off-road adventuring with the Borneo Safari
OFF-ROAD ENTHUSIASTS GOT a real treat this year during the 24th edition of the Borneo Safari 4×4 International Challenge which took them on an eight-day journey from Oct 26 to Nov 2 through the lesser known parts of Sabah, the highlight being Imbak Canyon Conservation Centre, a 25-kilometer long valley located in central Sabah.
Organised by Sabah Four Wheel Drive Association (SFWDA) with Isuzu Malaysia as its Diamond sponsor, participants began the journey from Kota Kinabalu on Oct 26, arriving at Imbak Canyon on the afternoon of October 28 from Tawai Waterfall. Standing at a height of 95 metres, it is deemed the biggest waterfall in the heart of Sabah.
Imbak Canyon is surrounded on three sides by sandstone cliffs reaching heights of over 3,700 feet and it is the last remaining parts of Sabah which is pristine and relatively unexplored.
This remaining contiguous area of unlogged lowland dipterocarp forest covers an area of about 30,000 hectares including two virgin jungle reserves located in the ridges surrounding it, making Imbak Canyon a priceless heritage.
In 2009, Imbak Canyon was gazetted as a Class I (Protection) Forest Reserve by the Sabah state government and the area is managed by Yayasan Sabah by virtue of the Forest (Imbak Canyon Conservation Area) Rules 2010.
Imbak Canyon is located about 300 kilometers south east from Kota Kinabalu, passing through Tanjung Aru and Telupid, a journey that took about 4 hours. The journey was taken along unpaved road and we had journeyed through the old tracks.
Upon reaching Imbak Canyon, our convoy checked into the hostel, which would be our resting place for the night. Later on, we explore some of the sights around the valley, where I came to know that the Dusun Sungai and Murut ethnic groups lived along the main river.
The villagers are mostly farmers, hunters and fishermen who rely on jungle produce and catch for their livelihoods.
About 15 million years ago, the Imbak Canyon and its surrounding areas were part of an ancient coastal-shield area. It has a depth of about 750 meters and about 3 kilometers wide. The floor of the canyon lies about 250 meters above sea level while the rim of the canyon settles at a lofty 1000 meters above sea level.
Most of the terrain in the Imbak Canyon is steep and rugged. The soils were developed on steep hills and derived from sedimentary rocks, such as the commonly found sandstone.
In addition to the vast tracts of tropical rainforest, the Imbak Canyon also holds spectacular waterfalls, namely the Imbak Waterfall and the 8-tier Waterfall.
The Imbak Canyon has also been recognised as a genetic seed bank. There are about 317 plant species recorded to date and out of these, 32 species are endemic to Borneo with 6 only found in Sabah.
It is also famous for its medicinal plants, which the local communities use for medicinal purposes to treat wounds/cuts, headaches, stomach aches, allergies and high blood pressure. Besides that, it is also a source of food.
The Tampoi Base Camp in Imbak Canyon has good facilities suitable for visitors or those who wish to do research there. These include the hostel with double-deck bunk beds where we stayed for a night, and camping grounds for those who prefer to be closer to nature.
The visit to Imbak Canyon was a good start for me during the Borneo Safari 2014 expedition, as it was the first stay in Sabah for the event with good facilities provided, before we continued on to other camping areas which included the Hitachi Campsite, Lahad Datu Campsite, and Mamut Campsite with its breathtaking view of the ever beautiful Mount Kinabalu.
The challenges of the Borneo Safari
Besides the off-road journey, the part about the Borneo Safari that really puts drivers and their vehicles to the test are the Special Stages (SS) competition.
Fifteen special stages have been set up for this edition of the Borneo Safari, where drivers will be evaluated on their driving skills, obstacle clearing, use of equipment or recovery kit, as well as their team spirit and cooperation between driver and co-driver.
This year’s competition saw hundreds of thrill-seeking experienced and new drivers and their co-drivers challenging their driving skills and endurance through the various SS set up by the organiser.
For Sabahan Hilary Francis, 42, from Papar, his interest in 4WDs was what got him first involved in the event.
He owns his own workshop in Sabah and has participated in the Borneo Safari since 2002 in various positions, as a competitor in 2002 and 2003, track official (2004 – 2006), and as a media representative from 2007 till today.
“I enjoy being part of Borneo Safari as I can get to know more people and we have become good friends.”
For this year’s event, Hilary drove the Isuzu Trooper 2.8 liter turbo diesel engine, complete with electric winch, power take-off unit and coil springs in the front and back.
Meanwhile for Noor Azman Shah Shaharuddin, better known among the participants as ‘Lobang’, the businessman from Kuala Lumpur has been joining the event since 2007 and has not missed an event ever since.
He has joined the Borneo Safari in other capacities as well, including as part of the recovery team, support team and media team.
“Borneo Safari offers many opportunities for me to experience many types of 4WD vehicles, and that is what I am looking forward to every year, seeing and driving it gives myself big satisfaction,” he said when asked about what got him interested to join Borneo Safari.
For this year’s event, he drives an Isuzu D-Max V-Cross 3.0, complete with air snorkel, off-road tyres, heavy duty side steps and a winch. It is one of the official media cars and he says that the vehicle is consistent and powerful, allowing him to have smooth journey all way through.
He added, “As a driver, I also have to remind myself to drive safe along the way since there will always be obstacles ahead. Fortunately this year, everything went smooth for me.”
For Mohd Redzuan Tai Abdullah, 40, who has been participating in the Borneo Safari five years in a row and driven a diverse range of 4WD vehicles, the challenge in doing the off-road journey is what attracts him to joining Borneo Safari.
“I love to challenge myself especially when it comes to driving 4WD vehicles. Apart from that, the experience of joining such huge event in Sabah has always been my interest,” said ‘Ayen’, who works as a mechanic in Kota Kinabalu.
My Journal of Borneo Safari 2014
1st Day, 28th October, Tuesday
I touch down at Kota Kinabalu International Airport and am quickly greeted by Afiq and our driver Mon, both who have been waiting for my arrival in front of the airport.
After I’ve entered their 4WD with my luggage, Mon takes us to Pasar Pekan Tanjung Aru, about a five-minute drive from the airport, where we have breakfast before continuing our journey to Imbak Canyon in calm and windy weather.
Our first stop for breakfast
Along our journey over smooth tarred road, I can see a few remote villages, making me wonder what life must be like to live in a village like that, mostly located up in the hills.
One of the villages we pass is Bundu Tuhan, taken from the language of the Dusun people who live in the mountain areas. I am told that Bundu is the name of a fruit tree, while Tuhan means landslide or felled, roughly translating into fallen fruit tree. Looking at the slopes of the mountain, it is easy to imagine landslides happening often around here.
From here, it didn’t take us long to reach Kinabalu Park, which is another two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu. When it was established in 1964, it was one of Malaysia’s first national parks. With its outstanding universal values and its role as one of the most important biological sites in the world with a diversity of flora and fauna, it also became Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
We stop here to wait for the rest of the team members taking up the other four 4WD vehicles before we continue our journey together. Here, I start to feel the coldness of Sabah’s highland areas.
Nearby, I also see a charming view of the highland town of Kundasang, some five minutes away from the park.
Kundasang is the closest town to Mount Kinabalu mostly populated by people from the Dusun and Chinese communities. Since it’s in a highland area, mist covers my view, preventing me from getting a better look at the village.
Meanwhile, some 30 minutes outside Kundasang, we arrive at the entrance to one of the famous hot springs in Sabah known as the Poring Hot Springs. During the journey, many lorries pass us by along the winding but tarred road.
Here, at Pekan Ranau, all four vehicles in our convoy stop for a while at a nearby petrol station for a fuel top-up since there is still a long way to go before we can reach our final destination for the day.
As we continue on our journey, we encounter a school located on top of a hill – Sekolah Menengah Agama Al-Irsyadiah Marakau – and I wonder how the students and teachers can stand the cold up in the hills.
Passing by Sungai Pinangah Forest Reserve, we come upon a sign indicating the direction to Imbak Canyon Conservation Area. There is also a signboard stating that visitors to this area are strongly prohibited from hunting. From here, we start our journey along a muddy area.
It starts to rain heavily. Our vehicle – even the windshield – is covered in mud, almost completely blocking our view. It’s not too long when we reach a broken bridge, which happens to be the only bridge that will allow us to continue our journey. The heavy rain causes the very strong and fast flows in the river that we have to cross, but luckily every vehicle manages to pass safely.
Finally, we reach our destination, Imbak Canyon. The first thing I see here are some houses situated in the area with some villagers having a conversation with the rest of the team members who have reached there earlier than us. We get introduced to some local folks as well as the surroundings including the hostel where we are to stay for the night.
The Tampoi Base Camp in Imbak Canyon has a hostel-type accommodation, equipped with washroom facilities as well as camping and dining area. It is relaxing and yet, I feel that I should enjoy the day since our schedule only allows us one night to enjoy this place before proceeding to our next destination tomorrow.
In the evening, I am introduced to a team of cooks, known in the convoy team as the Chuck Wagon, responsible for carrying food and cooking equipment. Usually, they will be the first to reach a destination, upon which, they will start to cook for the rest of the convoy team members and make sure everyone gets enough food during the whole journey.
In this village, there are no phone lines and it was pretty hard for me to get connected with people outside this area by hand-phone. Nevertheless, it is quite funny how the Chuck Wagon and the convoy can just rely on their walkie-talkies or VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) satellite system for communication.
2nd Day, 29th October, Wednesday
I wake up to a fine morning at the Imbak Canyon Hostel and take some nature photos while I can before taking my bath and breakfast prepared by the Chuck Wagon.
Afiq takes me to learn more about the 4WD vehicles joining the convoy. I learn about the essential components of a 4WD as well as how they perform in harsh conditions and rough terrain that we will face during the Borneo Safari.
After being splashed by mud yesterday, other members of the convoy also take the opportunity to wash their vehicles while still in Imbak Canyon before moving out later in the afternoon.
Some media who came only for the first leg have gone back home, including the RTM Sabah people whose focus was on documenting their journey in the Imbak Canyon.
Today, I spot one weird thing here, although there are no phone lines here, there is WiFi access…funny but true!
I go to check out the surroundings of Imbak Canyon with Afiq and Jeff, another representative from Isuzu Malaysia. The three of us discover a river nearby known as the Sungai Imbak, a long, narrow and tea-colored river with an estimated terrain elevation above sea level of 55 metres. The water from this river flows directly into the Kinabatangan River, making the Imbak an important water catchment for the Kinabatangan.
We pack our stuff and leave Imbak Canyon. Along our journey, I see logs scattered across on the ground, apart from lorries carrying logs gathered from forests nearby. The lorries were very huge with very long logs piled up at the back.
We reach a rather small house owned by the Kumpulan Yayasan Sabah. Every member from the media team of the convoy is gathered here for a small briefing with Isuzu Malaysia fleet support manager Azhar Majid, who then divides us into teams.
I am transferred to Ayen’s supervision, and he will be driving me for the rest of the remaining journey until Sunday. Fortunately, Ayen is a very friendly companion and I never get bored of hearing his stories and jokes while chatting along our journey together, with Jeff, an Isuzu staff-member sitting at the back.
Ayen drives the red Isuzu D-Max, and I am pretty happy to finally be riding a vehicle in red, my favorite colour. Besides its great colour, the D-Max was a suitable transport for the Borneo Safari, considering its powerful and reliable performance. I also meet with a Sabah-based reporter from our sister paper, Utusan Borneo, Suraidah Roslan.
Later on, we all head to a nearby petrol station at the nearest village, since most of the vehicles are running low on fuel. The shop providing petrol is located just in front of the Ulu Kinabatangan Information Centre. Unfortunately, our hope for sufficient fuel seems pretty hopeless since the shop is also running out of diesel supply, and vehicles who were on their last drops are prioritised first to fill up theirs.
On our way to the Hitachi Campsite located at Kampung Malua, we stop for dinner as everyone is hungry. The Chuck Wagon prepares food for us out in the open and we eat a dinner consisting of rice and and some canned food including chicken curry and sardines.
We continue our journey, coming across a few Borneo Pygmy Elephants – deemed the smallest elephants in the world – enjoying their dinner of fruits and vegetables from trees located along the way of the hilly area. Too bad for me, it’s too dark to take their photos. We reach our destination at around midnight, going straight to our much-deserved sleep.
3rd Day, 30th October, Thursday
We start our journey to our next destination, the Lahad Datu campsite. The road is muddy and slippery all the way. There are so many obstacles ahead for us to get past including slippery slopes and crossing rocky riverbeds.
The journey today is a bit rough, with muddy tracks and a bridge made up of three logs to cross, but everyone went through safely.
There are also lots of rivers we have to cross. Luckily, the day is fine, and the sun shines bright and hot.
We finally reach a slightly bigger river but before we can reach it, we have to create traction down the muddy slope by clearing the mud away from our path.
While some are busy with the river crossing, others take their time to enjoy the fresh, cold river water, taking their baths in the river after a long and hot drive. Other drivers take the opportunity to wash their vehicles covered in mud from the journey.
Time to move on with another obstacle blocking our way. This one is bigger than ever since we have to be winched out of the mud with the help of another vehicle.
It is very slippery after coming out from the mudhole and getting back up to the hill, some vehicles tires are worn out.
From here, I can see good teamwork between the participants. Strong, muscular and tough looking guys, with friendly and supportive attitudes, help ensure that everyone passes the obstacles safely before we can continue our remaining journey together.
After about two hours being stuck in mudholes, every vehicle and participant from the media team has managed to continue our journey.
We come across another obstacle and once again, every vehicle has to be winched out to get through the even bigger ditches in the mud compared to the last leg.
After about two hours stuck here, we manage to get hold of everyone and then later on continue with our journey. We finally reach our destination at midnight.
4th Day, 31st October, Friday
We go to Taliwas Forestry and Recreation Centre, some 21 km from the place where we camp. I see lots of birds here with the Taliwas Reception and Information building located nearby. This building is administered by the Rakyat Berjaya Sdn Bhd and a subsidiary company of Innoprise Corporation Sdn Bhd. We gather here and wait for the rest of the media team members.
After taking some photos, we move on to our next destination. Here, we have to provide our plate numbers to the Yayasan Sabah Security Door located at Jalan Segama/Malua before we can proceed with our journey.
We reach the Ulu Segama Malua Forest Reserve, managed by the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) and Yayasan Sabah.
We reach Menara Kayangan (Tower of Heaven) Lahad Datu, an observation tower located 620 meters above sea level on Mount Silam. It reaches up to 33 metres in height, and is a solid steel and cement structure.
Passing by the Lahad Datu Guanyin Temple, a temple on the hills and considered one of the most beautiful temples in Lahad Datu, we reach our next destination, Restoran Rumpun Selera located at Sri Perdana in Lahad Datu town for our lunch.
After that, we go to a place in the Lahad Datu field area for the next SS before our next stop at the Mamut Campsite located in Ranau.
On our way to Mamut Campsite, one of the vehicles has a flat tire.
We finally reach Kota Kinabatangan, stopping awhile for dinner before reaching the Mamut Campsite around 11pm and taking our rest. The weather here is very cold. The temperature can get to 18 degree Celsius since it’s located not far from the feet of Mount Kinabalu.
5th Day, 1st November, Saturday
Wake up early in the morning, and then continue taking some great photos that include the beautiful scenery around Mount Kinabalu. The weather today is windy, with sunrise early in the morning. The place was for me, nicer compared to the other camping areas.
We go to the next SS arena at a predetermined location not far from our camping area just some 10 minutes away. It was a bit hilly this time, and most of the cars can’t make it through, having to be winched out from the lake in order for them to get out, causing them to be penalised from the competition.
We reach Restoran Anjung Selera to have our early dinner since there is no water in the camping area and we search for a nearby house to take our baths. Luckily one of them knew someone there so we could borrow his bathroom!
We hang out together, enjoying our last night being together before proceeding to Kota Kinabalu.
6th Day, 2nd November, Sunday
I start taking photos as soon as I wake, this time I take more photos since it is the last day of the trip before we move on to Kota Kinabalu later this afternoon.
The scenery of mountains covered in mist is breathtaking. We also take the time to charge our electrical items with a generator.
We pack our things up and get ready to move out, but not before have breakfast prepared by the Chuck Wagon first.
We managed to grab some memorable group photos just to make our visit together worthwhile and to be remembered forever.
I grab my last opportunity to watch the last SS (15th) being held nearby. There were lots of people over here watching the participants put their vehicles through the various obstacles, each hoping to win this year’s Borneo Safari.
I check into Promenade Hotel Kota Kinabalu, quickly unpacking my stuff before going to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home at the local Philippines Market in Kota Kinabalu.
After buying some souvenirs, I rush back to my hotel room as I have to attend the closing ceremony dinner tonight at 6 at the Hakka Hall. Likas, some 10 minutes away from my hotel.
We reach Hakka Hall for the closing ceremony graced by Chairman of Sabah Tourism Board Datuk Joniston Bangkuai and attended by several notable people in the local automotive industry including President of Sabah Four Wheel Drive Association (SFWDA) Faez Nordin and General Manager of Isuzu Malaysia Yasuhiko Oyama.
After eight days and 15 special stages that competitors had to undergo, during the Prize Presentation Dinner cum Closing Ceremony , it was announced that Sabahans Chang Chiew Shen and his co-driver Lo Fui Min, emerged as the champions with a total accumulated points of 654.
Meanwhile, Michael Tham Vun Pin (driver) and Liew Su Chieung (co-driver) came second place with 542 points, and Liew Siak Kion (driver) and Lesun B Lee Siong (co-driver) placed at third with 380 points in total.
Tonight we each look back on what we did together over the past week, everyone saying how dearly they will miss each other. That is good to know. We also took some nice group photos together before hugging and saying goodbye.
7th Day, 3rd November, Monday
I get sent to Kota Kinabalu International Airport early in the morning, reaching there just in time for my flight that scheduled at 8 in the morning.
This trip has been one of the best experiences for me. Apart from getting to know the nice people here in Sabah, I have always been longing for an adventurous trip of this kind my entire life. I can’t wait for another edition of Borneo Safari next year and I hope I will get the chance to once again participate in this exciting expedition.