Travel Features > Up the Ulu

Off Road, Up the Ulu

Wayne Tarman joins the Sarawak Safari, a four wheel drive event that offers off-roading adventure
and the chance of staying in Iban, Kayan and Kenyah Longhouses

Off Road in the Hose Mountain Range.

© Wayne Tarman, 1998
I am sitting in the back seat of a 4-wheel-drive, somewhere in the interior of Sarawak, locked in that zombie zone, where lack of sleep keeps the mind buzzingly active; so active that you can't sleep. Despite a bizarre day that would normally fill my head with positive ideas, my mind is a blur of depressing thoughts. I haven't slept for 24 hours. I can't recall a recent meal that did not consist of packet noodles and a stale dried biscuit. I can't take another 2 hour delay whilst an old heap of a Land Rover that should not be with us is patched up. I'm caked with mud and dried sweat and I smell like a skunk. In short, I look and feel like a wreck.

In the front passenger seat, Philip Tero is fast asleep. After 12 hours at the wheel, our team's main driver is taking a well-earned rest. Next to me in the back another body emits the odd snore and mumble; Jennifer Rubis, a fellow passenger with a unique ability to sleep whilst a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is airborne, is comatose. Thankfully, Stephen Sagir, our co-driver and navigator, is wide awake and confidently sitting at the wheel.

Stephen has been caning the Red Bull energy drinks; he's buzzing on caffeine, his eyes are darting around and his knuckles are white as he grips the wheel. Stephen loves travelling around the interior of Sarawak and is just getting into off-roading. Now, sitting at the wheel of a 4WD, in the middle of Borneo, mid-way through a mad journey, perched on a muddy slippery surface, Stephen has found nirvana.

But nirvana is miles away for me. It's been a long day and I want it to end. We are driving on a logging road in the Hose Mountain range, one of the most scenic areas in the whole of Sarawak. However, due to a series of delays, we are driving through the Hose Mountains at night and therefore missing out on seeing a vast area of forested mountains which the Sarawak Forestry Department recently proposed as a national park.

After heavy rain, logging roads were transformed into a thick layer of slippery yellow mud.

© Wayne Tarman, 1998
We are now 10 hours behind schedule. I should be in a Kayan longhouse drinking tuak (rice wine) and having the time of my life. But instead I am on a 15 feet wide logging road that somehow weaves its way through the rainforested slopes of the mountain range. On the right hand side is a wall of rock, the remains of the mountain side that was blasted to make the logging access road. On the left is a sheer drop and a dangerous looking expanse of black nothingness. Heavy rain has created an ice-like surface of slippery yellow mud. Tap on the brakes too hard, get the gear change wrong, or simply have some bad luck and you slide and slide forever.

I look out of the window and see nothing but darkness. The lamps are so caked with mud that they now only emit a small beam of light. I am thinking about one of the most bizarre days of my life when I realise that we are sliding across the road. No big deal, I think, its not the first time we've 'lost it' on the road, but hey, this is different! We are not sliding towards the right and a manageable, 'bruises only' crunch with the rock face. We are sliding towards the left-hand side of the road and a 200 foot drop down a ravine. What's more, this is not a controlled slide, its a slow slide that is picking up speed and despite Stephen's desperate attempts to pull us back to the right we are moving to the edge. If this was happening fast I wouldn't have time to think about it but it is happening so slowly. I am actually quite scared but the zombie-like state of my mind finds this danger highly amusing and I start to ponder life and the forthcoming bunny-hop to instant death.

'Mad world, here I am on some logging road in Borneo, skidding towards the edge of a yellow mud road and a nasty drop down a ravine. All part of life's rich tapestry. What a way of leaving the world - falling off a cliff in a Mitsubishi Pajero and being spiked to death by a monster dipterocarp rainforest giant which breaks the fall. Guinness book of records, mate.'.

Reality check. I'm not ready to die. I mentally prepare myself for a possible ravine dive and decide that if we go over the cliff, the best option is to stuff team solidarity and hurl myself out of the window. I wind the window down. Prepared for potential death, I re-assess the situation. The front left-hand wheel is close to the edge of the track. I look in the driver's rear-view mirror and catch a glimpse of Stephen's face. He looks so relaxed and in control, and I wonder if he knows that we are a couple feet away from meeting out maker. Then Stephen's face changes as he starts juggling the wheel, spinning it back and forth back. I'm buzzing, my heart is pounding, a shot of adrenalin has jolted me awake and I'm gunning for Stephen, silently urging him on. And then it happens, the rear wheels finally grip and start to drag us away from the edge and relief and happiness explode from within me. What a complete star of a driver Stephen is and what a great journey this is. So glad I came on this trip. If I had the energy I would have jumped across and told Stephen what a star he was for saving the day. Instead, zapped of all energy but well and truly happy, I slump in my seat and fall asleep.

Iban elder takes a break from drum playing. Rumah Achan, Kapit.

© Wayne Tarman, 1998
Welcome to the Sarawak Safari, a 4x4 off-roading adventure that passes through some stunning rainforest scenery and offers participants the opportunity of staying in Iban, Kayan and Kenyah longhouses, and experiencing upriver life and the ups, downs and thrills of an expedition into the interior of Borneo.

After 6 months of planning, a lot of hard work and a number of recces, the expedition convoy left Kuching on 20th August 1998, led by the event director Wilfred Gomez. Event organisers, Superwheel Adventurers Sarawak - a Kuching-based 4WD club, had expected 30 vehicles from around Southeast Asia to participate in this pioneering trip. Not surprisingly the economic downtown resulted in a number of participants dropping out whilst adverse weather prevented a mini-convoy of Indonesian vehicles from making it. These die hard off-roaders had planned to drive from East Kalimantan to Pontianak in West Kalimantan and then on to Kuching to join the event. Unfortunately flooding in East Kalimantan prevented them from completing their epic drive through Indonesian Borneo. A few hopeful participants turned up in Kuching with beaten up vehicles that weren't up for the journey and the organisers politely and sensibly refused their entry. In the end 13 vehicles (12 from Sarawak and one from Brunei) and 30 participants from Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei, Indonesia, Germany and England, took part in the event.

The Chief Minister of Sarawak officially flagged off the convoy in Kuching. The first day's drive was an easy one as it followed the main Kuching-Sibu road. The first overnight stop was at Nanga Lichok, an Iban longhouse, where participants got their first taste of Iban culture and naturally their first taste of tuak. After a night of partying, the convoy left early the next day and proceeded to Durin. The participants jumped into an express boat and travelled up the Rejang river to the town of Kapit whilst the vehicles were loaded onto a river barge, ferried up the Rejang River and then on to the mouth of the Balleh River.

I joined the Sarawak Safari in Kapit on the evening of the second day. The following morning was the first off-road stage and what I regarded as the real beginning of this unique journey into the heart of upriver Sarawak. I planned to stay with the convoy for a week or so taking in the best off-roading stages, overnight stays in Kayan and Kenyah longhouses and the odd night camping beside crystal clear jungle streams. The fact that the convoy was scheduled to drive to Mulu National Park, the first expedition to ever drive there, gave me the option of flying out of Mulu in a 19 seater Twin Otter, another great Sarawak travel experience. I could either stay with the convoy or bail out. After Mulu the Sarawak Safari's journey back to Kuching essentially followed sealed roads. I knew I'd take some flak from the other participants by 'wimping out' at Mulu. But flying out of Mulu not only meant that I would enjoy an aerial view of the Pinnacles, I would also get back to Kuching in time for the Rainforest World Music Festival, a weekend of workshops and performances.



The following sections offer a day by day account of the convoy's progress from Kapit to Mulu.

Day 2 -Kapit/Rumah Achan (Evening 21st August 1998)

Day 3 - Kapit to Long Murum (Saturday 22nd August 1998)

Day 4 - Long Murum - Long San (Sunday 23rd August 1998)

Day 5 - Long San (Rest Day) Monday 24th August

Day 6 - Long San to Akah River Camp Site - Tuesday 25th August 1998

Day 7 - Camping Site - Mulu Wednesday 26th August 1998

Sarawak Safari 1999 - Contact Details

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