Travel Features > Getting Around

Off-Road Observations

Mike Reed hits the trail with the organisers of the Sarawak Safari,
and finds that four-wheel-drives are not just for blocking up school driveways.

The modern off-road vehicle is no longer the mechanical equivalent of the camel; ugly, ungainly, ill tempered and downright smelly. Nowadays the 4X4 creations of Toyota, Land Rover et al are highly civilised, passenger-friendly status objects. Their floors are laid with thick Wilton carpet; their seats are covered with fine fabrics or even leather; their bodies drip with bright chromium plate and glowing metallic paintwork; and their drivers rejoice in such technical refinements as power steering, intelligent automatic transmission, traction control and anti-skid braking systems.

Such development and enhancement has transformed the humble mud-plugger from an agricultural workhorse to the ultimate shopping car. From Los Angeles to Luang Prabang, middle-class mums cause traffic chaos with these shiny behemoths, ferrying hordes of over-indulged offspring from school to shopping mall to ballet class, secure in the knowledge that the sheer bulk of the metal under their control exempts them from the need to possess road manners, or anything but the most rudimentary driving skills.

Kuching has been no more successful at protecting itself from this motorised plague than any other city. When the schools turn out, the whole city centre is gridlocked as Landcruisers, Troopers, Pajeros and Discoveries squat triple-parked at the kerbside awaiting their juvenile cargo. In a uniquely Malaysian phenomenon, these steel and plastic monsters jostle three deep at the school entrance, like a herd of buffalo trying to share a single mud-wallow, whilst the kerbside fifty metres away remains undisturbed by vehicular presence.

This all leads one to speculate that kids in Kuching are either seriously physically impaired or severely maladjusted. Are they incapable of walking the 50 metres from the school gates to a considerately parked parent, or are they so delinquent that they will fall into bad company and condemn themselves to a life of crime before they cover the short distance from classroom to car? In case you think I'm being a little harsh on them, we are not talking about kindergartens or primary schools; these kids are strapping eighteen-year-olds. At the present rate of evolution, people in Sarawak will sprout wheels instead of legs sometime within the next 50,000 years.

You've no doubt got the impression by now that I have a thing against four-wheel-drive vehicles. Not true - just against those who use the relative impregnability of their cars as an excuse for behaving as if the road was their own private property. It was with some scepticism, therefore, that I agreed to join the Superwheels Adventurers, one of the local off-road clubs, on the reconnaissance trip for their new event, the Sarawak Safari.

A few days before the recce I arrived at the home of one Wilfred Gomez Malong (Gomez for short) to join the planning meeting. A table was set up under an awning in the back yard, surrounded by ancient four-wheel-drives in various states of repair. It struck me immediately that these guys were serious; all their vehicles were covered with spotlights, winches and of course lots of mud. I can honestly say that was the first time I saw an off-road vehicle in Kuching with the slightest trace of dirt on it. Gomez certainly knows how to chair a meeting; ice cold beers and endless rounds of spicy chilli and tuna sandwiches accompanied our discussions, and I realised that this was going to be a lot of fun.

Owing to work commitments I had to miss the first two days of the recce, but I managed to catch up with the party in Kapit, on the Rejang River, where they were preparing to head deep into the Borneo jungle. We were ferried upriver to the confluence with the Baleh River, where an enormous tonkang (transport barge) was waiting to unload its unusual cargo of eight four-wheel-drives. The unloading completed, we headed off into the jungle, a motley selection of vehicles old and new. I was given the honour of accompanying Ah Teck in his ancient but much-loved short wheelbase Land Rover, and I steeled myself for a bouncy ride.

The first couple of hours were quite uneventful; the dirt road was in reasonable shape and the surroundings were mostly secondary forest. Ah Teck kept up a passionate monologue on the pleasures and pitfalls of Land Rovers, with which he has had a long and stormy relationship. I also discovered that he's a fanatical hi-fi buff, and I wondered if the 130 decibel whining, rattling and banging in the cab would impair his hearing so much that his expensive sound equipment would go to waste.

We were armed with some excellent maps provided by the Forestry Department, showing which timber trails were usable, and progress was quite rapid, halted only by occasional stops for timber trucks. For the benefit of anybody who's never driven on a logging road, let me assure you that it's nothing like driving on regular roads. Rule number one is that the timber truck always has right of way. Rule number two is that they drive in both sides of the road, taking the shortest line through corners. These monsters need every bit of momentum they can get to make it up the next hill, and arrows by the roadside show oncoming traffic where to take evasive action.

Every timber truck driver's favourite move is Duel, that early Spielberg feature where that demonically evil-looking black truck plays cat-and-mouse with some poor guy out for a drive. When these things are lurching along a mountain trail with 60 tons of dead trees on the back, their braking distance is measured in kilometres. Still, stick to the logging road rules and you won't have any problems except for the occasional mouthful of dust.

As night fell our convoy pulled over at a small clearing by a jungle stream. We made camp and Stephen, our liaison man from the Ministry of Tourism, set about the pots and pans with a relish. Apparently his wife can never get him to cook at home, but when he gets upriver he is transformed into the original jungle scout, conjuring up a delicious meal for twenty people over a roaring camp fire. We ate well, and then we chatted for an hour of so, and then it was time to hit the sack. I hadn't pitched a tent for twenty years, so due to lack of practice my bed for the night was leaning at a crazy angle, and I had managed to gather every large rock in the Borneo jungle under my groundsheet. Some of the party were obviously old hands at jungle camping; they parked two cars next to one another, put up a tarpaulin roof and slung hammocks between the vehicles - sheer luxury.

The next morning Gomez decided to take pity on the tenderfoot, and allocated me to a very comfortable Isuzu Invader, complete with turbo-powered air conditioner and CD-player. We headed up into real wild country, climbing long winding trails into cloud forest. Here I saw something I will never forget as long as I live; eight crested hornbills just a few feet away from me. As we rounded a bend, an avalanche of big black birds kind of tumbled from one tree branch to another in front of us. As we got closer they launched into flight, flying parallel with us for a while before peeling off into the valley below.

Some people think hornbills are ungainly birds, and the hopping shuffle they use to move around tree branches could never be described as elegant. But once they are in flight they possess a starkly utilitarian beauty. They remind me of World War 2 carrier planes, far more rugged and bulky than their land-based counterparts, but determined and purposeful once in the air. These hornbills were like a flight of Hellcats setting out on a patrol, their stubby wings and fat bodies moving freely in the morning air. A strange metaphor, maybe, but for me they were airborne poetry.

We stopped for lunch at the Linnau River. This is one of the most beautiful watercourses in Borneo, its rushing torrents surging through tree-clad limestone hills and pulverizing the rocks in its way into rounded, flowing shapes like Henry Moore sculptures. I hadn't been looking forward to our lunchtime rations - cold rice with canned sardines - but the perfect surroundings seemed to add an extra dimension of flavour to the food. The experience was only marred slightly by the persistent approaches of a jungle hornet, that had singled me out from the twenty people assembled along the river bank.

Afternoon took us further up-country, through more spectacular rainforest scenery, and the high point was spotting two barking deer as they headed for cover. As we were surveying the route, we had been heading up a lot of false trails, and backtracking time and time again, so it soon became clear that we were not going to make our target destination of Bakun that day. Another night under canvas was made more comfortable by the residents of a nearby logging camp, who let us pitch tent on their recreation field and use their bathroom facilities. Around the campfire, miracles were performed with wild boar and jungle ferns, and our rations of warm beer were broken into at last.

We were woken the next day by the sound of forklift trucks loading logs onto the timber trucks, a sound akin to a near miss by a Scud missile. There was no chance of a lie-in so we bade our farewells and headed off for Bakun. About 11 am we arrived at possibly the remotest filling station in Borneo. Long Murrum is a large Kayan longhouse, and across river from the longhouse is a small bazaar, with a few shops and cafes, and a shed containing drums of diesel and gasoline. While the vehicles filled up, I went for a coffee and a chat with the locals.

As is normal in this area, most of the folks were very traditionally dressed. The men wore typical Orang Ulu rattan caps, and had large holes pierced in their ears. The ladies had large brass or gold earrings hanging from their elongated earlobes, and their arms and legs were covered in dense black tattoos, a sign of high social status. I happened to know a few of them from my previous travels upriver by boat, but some of my colleagues were a little shy of sitting down and making friends. The ice was broken when the locals handed round a few Kayan cigarettes - pungent black tobacco rolled into a conical shape inside a piece of palm leaf. After fifteen minutes or so the vehicles returned and we took our leave, to a chorus of violent coughing and wry smiles from the locals.

Lunch was scheduled for Bakun, the site of the biggest hydroelectric project in Southeast Asia. We headed for the Bakun Resort, a supposed 3-star hotel near the construction site, only to be told that "we can't serve you lunch because the chef is on leave and besides that, we don't have any food." As always, Gomez had a fall-back plan and after a short drive we found ourselves at a splendid Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

During the afternoon, progress was slowed by frequent running repairs to one of the Landcruisers, which had broken its alternator mounting bracket. Eventually we limped to the Bakun Resettlement Area at Sungai Asap, where we found a repair yard for the construction vehicles and an enormous arc welding machine. After a few touches from maestro mechanic Peter Liew, the convoy was mobile again, but it was getting dark so we decided to make our way to a wooden coffee shop over the road. This is where we met former State Assemblyman and consummate host Datuk Tajang Laing. Datuk Tajang takes his role as a community leader seriously, so we were overwhelmed with vast heaps of home cooking and gallons of potent borak rice wine (co-drivers only, I might add).

Shortly before midnight we left for a night-driving practice, winding our way through the Dulit mountains to the Baram river system. About 3 am, bruised, battered and exhausted, we pulled over onto an abandoned log pond (log storage and handling area) and slept out under the stars for a few hours. Out here, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major town, the darkness was absolute, and the Milky Way glowed like the neon signs of a fairground. It was almost a crime to fall asleep with such a fantastic light show going on above our heads.

The next morning, unfortunately, was departure time. The rest of the expedition was heading for the Upper Baram and Mulu National Park, but Stephen and I had to head back to work. The only problem was, how were we going to get there? Three vehicles were leaving the convoy, but they were either full or in need of running repairs. Gomez suggested we take a bus. I thought he was mad, until we pulled onto a quite decent gravel road near the Sungai (river) Tinjar. There was a small Iban village next to a modern bridge, and we dawdled over breakfast, waiting for a bus that was supposed to arrive at 10 am. I took a stroll around and saw something you will only see in Sarawak around the time of Gawai, the annual rice harvest festival. Draped across the pylons of the bridge, ten metres long and three metres high, was a banner advertising a cockfight.

Shortly after 10 Stephen and I boarded the bus for Miri. In its way, the bus ride was more of an adventure experience than the entire expedition, as the driver thundered along the potholed track at a speed more fitting to a rally car. We arrived in Miri only two hours later, much to our surprise. Just one short bus ride from the deep interior to one of the most modern towns in Malaysia. I felt a deep pang of regret that I was not completing the recce, but you can be sure I'll go along when the Sarawak Safari takes place for real in August.

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