Travel Features > Getting Around
Mike Reed hits the trail with the organisers of the Sarawak Safari,
and finds that four-wheel-drives are not just for blocking up
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
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
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
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
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.