“So, who wants to spend a few days in the jungle?” This question was put forth to the editorial team when the invite to this year’s Borneo Safari was sent by Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia (MMM).
Either by way of curiosity or lunacy, I volunteered myself for the assignment, not knowing what was in store. I have heard tales of the Borneo Safari in the past, with it being known as one of the world’s toughest 4×4 expeditions, and that it would be more like a “Borneo Suffering,” according to some.
And yet, year after year, participants keep signing up for the event, eager for the adventure. In fact, this year saw a record number of registered participants at 347, originating from seven countries – Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Portugal and even China.
With the trigger pulled, the weeks leading up to my departure from the Peninsular to East Malaysia included plenty of preparation to ensure I was well equipped for the adventure. Waterproof shoes, snacks, torchlights and anti-mosquito sprays, everything that MMM deemed necessary was crammed into a bag. With that, the adventure begins:
Landing at the Kota Kinabalu airport in the late evening, I was ushered off for a light meal before checking into a hotel in town. However, this luxury was short lived, as I was told we would depart at 3am the following morning.
Wide-awake after a few hours of sleep, I met up with Leona Chin, who had just flown from China at 11pm the night before. Together, we set off with our local guide and driver, who brought us from Kota Kinabalu to the foothills around Mount Kinabalu, stopping by Ranau to stock up on some supplies.
We would be meeting up with the main convoy, which departed ahead a few days earlier, at the Kampung Garung campsite. This included navigating through what I thought was some pretty difficult off-road terrain, but the Pajero Sport we were seated in, part of the production crew from this year’s Sandakan Festival Offroad Challenge, made it through without any incident.
By evening, we soon arrived at the campsite, with many familiar faces from the media there to greet us. An exchange of pleasantries is later followed by an introduction to the campsite, which reminded me of those days as a boy scout.
“This isn’t so bad, there’s still running water and the only thing outdoor-sy about the whole thing so far are the tents and sleeping cots,” I thought.
An early dinner (night comes quite early here) with some of the participants was later followed by an exchange of the “war stories” while participating in the yearly event. For instance, there was last year’s drama where a Triton teetered on the edge of a 50-metre ravine before being pulled back on track.
Daybreak allowed for a better view at the trusted steeds that will bring us through the hardcore section, four units of the Mitsubishi Triton VGT Adventure, with two of them fitted with the new MIVEC power plants.
One of the non-MIVEC Tritons (WB 7364 V) is actually MMM’s sole participant from last year’s Borneo Safari, back for another round in the jungle with its new wingmen. All the Tritons do get a fair bit of add-ons, which include a lift kit, tougher rims, chunky tyres, bull bars, light bars and of course, the mandatory winch.
Beyond that, the 4×4 trucks are near standard, with the newer Tritons sporting the 2.4 litre MIVEC VGT turbodiesel with 181 PS and 430 Nm, while the previous models retain the 2.5 litre VGT mill with 178 PS and 400 Nm. Not only are the mills lighter than before by around 30 kg, the Easy Select 4WD rotary dial also makes its way into models fitted with the manual transmission.
Speaking of transmissions, MMM brought along both the five-speed automatic and new six-speed manual (previously 5MT) versions of the new Triton so both can prove their mettle. For aesthetics, the pick-ups also gain automatic bi-xenon HID headlamps with integrated LED daytime running lights, which blends “pretty boy” with “rugged outlander” quite well.
Parked alongside the competition vehicles, which are purpose-built to tackle special stages (known simply as SS), collecting points in the process for completing them quickly, our machines are pretty tame to say the least. However, our goal here isn’t to compete, but to complete this grueling challenge.
Therefore, all we had to do was traverse the planned route, trudge through the “hardcore section” was where I was told the “actual off-roading” will take place. Sounds pretty easy, and according to members of the crew, the “difficult portion” only required us to cover 40 km. As Jeremy Clarkson would say, how hard can it be?
Raring to go, news from the radio chatter revealed that there has been a bit of a hold up at the entrance to the hardcore section, with some cars being unable to cross the first obstacle – a pretty sizeable gulley described over the radio as “being able to fit the length of an entire truck.”
With the team ahead of us unable to move forward, this meant an entire day was wasted just sitting around and waiting. Nonetheless, there are ways to pass the time like chatting with the crew and other participants, praying for a strong mobile signal to contact the outside world and enjoying the modern convenience of running water while it lasted.
Day three in the jungle held more promise, as we finally packed up the campsite, and proceeded towards the gerbang, leading into the hardcore section. Yesterday’s delay had resulted in some disagreements among participants, with some having to opt out of the most demanding part of the expedition due to time constraints.
An understandable decision, as those who wanted to take on the challenge will have to be totally committed as there was no backing out. When I was told that navigating the whole course would take approximately three days, just to cover 40 km, things did start to get worrying.
A signboard written ‘KM 0’ marked the start of the journey, and immediately, we were greeted by a trail covered with mud that was porridge-like in the texture. We soon met the infamous gulley that caused the delay, which we still had to cross. As you can see in the photos, they weren’t kidding when they said a truck could fit.
Although the trucks had winches on them, the drivers could not rely solely on them to pull themselves out of the hole. There’s no other way to put it, it’s an art form to watch them simultaneously activate the winch, while ensuring the right throttle application.
Too little, and you’ll put excessive strain on the winch. Too much, and you’ll just cause the wheels to spin furiously, digging a deeper hole in the process. Getting it right so the truck could progressively claw its way out requires skill and patience, with brute force having no place here.
By the time half the convoy passed the gulley, it was already starting to get dark. Therefore, a makeshift campsite was set up, albeit on a gentle incline, so getting a good night’s sleep is entirely up to your capability to keep yourself in place, while fending off insects and blocking out the snoring from your fellow crew.
I was up an early at 6am, partly thanks to my internal clock now in sync with jungle life, and also because some crickets have managed to sneak in under the mosquito net. After a light meal, we continued the task of getting the rest of the convoy through.
This meant a certain amount of elbow grease was required, using the trusty cangkul to create space for wooden logs to be put into the pit, providing some much-needed traction for the trucks.
With the convoy safely navigating the first obstacle on the 40 km journey, a steep hill climb marked ‘KM 2’ of the journey, and at this point, you slow get used to the fact that it can take whole day to move just a kilometre. Of course, things can go from bad to worse in an instant, and as we made our way to the top of the hill, it did.
A participant’s four-tonne Toyota Landcruiser Prado decided to have a transmission failure, and ahead of it was a steep descend. As a garage is hard to come by in a forest, and the parts even harder, there was no way to fix the truck. Despite this, the truck had to make it down the hill, as it was holding up the convoy, with no way around it.
Out came the winches once again, this time with a pulley attached to control the descent. With several people pushing the truck into position, it was a nervous feat to execute as the truck was lowered inch by inch, but one that was completed without any unwanted drama.
Of course, the steep descend meant some vehicles came down a little too quickly, and had the unfortunate encounter with a large log of local hardwood at the bottom, resulting in some painful battle scars.
The convoy continued on with minimal issues, although the damp conditions did hamper our progress rate a little. Approaching evening, we finally caught up the other participating teams camped near a river, a welcomed lapse of luxury after going two days without a proper shower.
Feeling refreshed, we decided to push on through the late evening and night to make as much progress as possible. Midway through our river crossing, we were informed over the radio that the forward team had decided to make camp, and as such, we double backed to set up camp near the riverbank. Tents erected, we settled into our humble “hotel rooms,” accompanied by our insect friends.
A night by the river done, we underwent our river crossing again; with the bright sunshine drying up the route, allowing us to cover ground quickly. Of course, things don’t always go as planned here, and true enough, torrential rain came pouring down, drastically reducing our coverage pace even further.
Soon, a traffic jam formed, in the jungle, as the rainfall slowed the forward teams down. With each obstacle being made more difficult thanks to wet conditions, each vehicle had to use its winch to get through. With each vehicle requiring at least 20 minutes to tackle the obstacles, getting the 22 (inclusive of support vehicles and tag-on participants) in our convoy took a while.
This went on for a good few hours until it was decided at about 9pm, a full 8-9 hours from our last meal, that we would take a break to have some Maggi Hot Cup, a welcome treat in the wet and cold conditions.
Quick meal over, the crawl continued, with the radio being filled with the use of the term “winki” or “winch him,” if you listen to the local lingo. Soon, the jungle was shrouded in darkness, with only light bars on the trucks helping to illuminate our way, while attracting the odd centipede or two.
While the on-board GPS showed a distance of about 5 km to go, it was all a farce. The whole journey, with the remaining obstacles, took us well past midnight and we had yet to reach a spot to set up camp. Without a proper place to prepare out sleeping cots, the Tritons ended up being our motel for the night.
Waking up to the cool jungle surroundings and low-lying fog, a scrumptious breakfast later, and we’re back to tackling obstacles. Yesterday’s rainfall made the first encounter – a steep, slippery climb – particularly troublesome for the crew, who had to cangkul the mud away with each passing vehicle.
Continuing on, we encountered remnants of the unused logging trail that we have been travelling on for the past few days. Logs embedded in the ground made for a bumpy ride but this paled in comparison to the previous obstacles we had to circumvent.
Having cleared the last of the sunken logs, we emerged from the jungle not exhausted, but exalted. We’ve done it! We’ve successfully completed one of the toughest editions of the Borneo Safari ever, according to some of the veteran participants.
What a journey it has been, and who would have thought four pick-up trucks, which are can buy at any Mitsubishi dealership would be able cope with the thick mud, logs and mechanically-damaging obstacles the jungle put in their way, albeit with some modest modifications.
So, what of the Triton’s new-found performance? Well, our skilled drivers who spent the most amount of time behind both the old and new trucks, certainly enjoyed the power hike on the MIVEC-equipped models, with some enjoying the “pull” the engine delivers once the revs hit 2,000 rpm and the MIVEC kicks in.
Even better, the non-MIVEC Tritons managed to complete the journey with its updated siblings while remaining completely intact. A few scars are the only signs of the abuse the trucks have taken over the past few days but beyond that, all four still managed to ferry us back to Kota Kinabalu, and to the airport the following day, albeit with a muddy interior.
While the trucks have demonstrated their worth, they are backed by the strong efforts of the entire crew that made the journey look nearly effortless. Overcoming each hurdle illustrated the the ultimate expression of man and machine working together in perfect harmony, and it is something that has to be seen to be believed.
In my opinion, the Borneo Safari is an experience unlike any other, and certainly something one must try at least once in their lifetime. Despite the “discomforts,” it teaches you to appreciate the things you take for granted daily (running water and electricity), to communicate and bond with strangers instead of sticking your face in a mobile device, to adapt to the changing environment, to value teamwork and that stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t so scary after all.
Above all, you need to be prepare the right tool for the job, and MMM certainly got it spot on in this case. Borneo Safari? One off the bucket list, and into to the “to-do again” list.