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.
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.
© Wayne Tarman, 1998
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.
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.
© Wayne Tarman, 1998
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.
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.
© Wayne Tarman, 1998
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
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
Day 7 - Camping Site - Mulu Wednesday 26th August 1998
Sarawak Safari 1999 - Contact Details