Beasts in the jungle.
Motoring journalists and Isuzu representative Yuumi Kato clearing the path.

IF there was any doubt about the popularity of the annual International Borneo Safari Off-Road Challenge, the 27th edition that ended last week would have quashed it.

Not only did it draw the biggest number of participants (with 412 four-wheel drive vehicles and 1,168 hardcore adventurers, including a handful of journalists, including yours truly), this year’s Safari showed that the thrill was not gone!

Journalists making sure their 4x4 rigs are clean before leaving for the city.

The eight-day expedition took us to the highlands of Kimanis, 60km from Kota Kinabalu. The route moved the convoy of vehicles and adventurers to Kampung Ovai, Papar, and Kampung Mandalipau before disappearing for five days into the so-called hardcore session, and from there to the final checkpoint in Kota Kinabalu.

Datuk Seri Panglima Masidi Manjun, the Sabah Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, flagged off the event at Tong Hing and Sabah Customs Department.

Also present were Sabah Four Wheel Drive Association president and event director Faez Einstein, Isuzu Malaysia chief operating officer Masayuji Suzuki, and UMW Grantt Sdn Bhd general manager Amri Hashim.

One of the Isuzus during a water crossing.

Right after the lunch, the convoy headed for a construction site behind the Benoni Commercial Centre in Papar for the special stage, or “prologue” of the Borneo Safari.

Already a major sponsor of the Borneo Safari since the last decade, Isuzu Malaysia came on as strong as ever this year. As of last year, it reserved three models for the journalists: the seven-seater Isuzu mu-X SUV, two 2.5-litre Isuzu D-Max (Red and Black Monster), and the 3.0-litre D-Max V-Cross (White Monster).

The three modified Isuzu D-Max “Monsters” have been the ride for the Isuzu media team for four years now. And as a result, some believe, the D-Max “Monster” was declared Car of the Year twice in the Borneo Safari.

Last year, Isuzu introduced the modified Isuzu mu-X “Monster”, a seven-seater SUV and it became the Borneo Safari Car of the Year.

The Borneo Safari last year was regarded as many as the toughest in the event’s recent history.

This year’s Borneo Safari was also graced by newly-appointed Isuzu brand ambassador, the 21-year-old Japanese celebrity and model Yuumi Kato.

Isuzu brand ambassador Yuumi Kato.

For me, having someone my age in the Sabah wilderness made the threats of leeches and mudslides more bearable.

Together with a couple of other journalists, we entered the jungles at Kampung Lingan on the third day. The campsite was located just a few kilometres away from the entrance of the so-called hardcore section.

We entered the hardcore section the very next day. It was the day everybody had been waiting for. Unlike the previous Borneo Safari, the media representatives were going to be doing all the off-roading by themselves.

The Isuzu co-drivers assigned to these journalists were there merely as guides. This was meant to spice things up for us and to make us feel a bit more like participants instead of being there just to observe and report.

One of the participants roving through the mud.

That was the plan, anyway,

However, just as we were approaching the first obstacle, at a point when this narrow track climbed into a sharp ascent, the convoy in front of us came to a sudden halt. We discovered later that a Red Monster driven by one of the journalists had a broken drive shaft. The whole convoy had wait for about an hour before the recovery team could get the vehicle running again.

The chief media officer's vehicle leading the pack through a grueling obstacle.

After the incident, the chief media officer Hillary Francis announced that the Isuzu co-drivers would take the wheels from the journalists for the duration of the hardcore section to avoid any more untoward incidents.

I learnt that the hardcore section was an unused timber track that had been abandoned for 20 years. And while the terrain might not be the most challenging, there were some incredible obstacles, such as the site of a recent landslide and a 10-feet V-Gulley that could only be passed by constructing a temporary bridge or flattening the sides.

Participants hard at work.

To make things worse, it was pouring and it was dark.

We had to set up camp and rest as there were a lot winching to be done. As I got off my vehicle, I realised that there was no proper “road” on the ground any more. The ground itself seemed to have disappeared All I could see was mud everywhere and everyone was trying to ensure that their boots did not get swallowed by the thick, sticky sea of mud.

“I have never seen so much mud in my life before!” exclaimed one journalist.

White Monster in the single-lane V-Gulley.

The next morning, after breakfast, everyone got ready to face their common obstacle: the V-Gulley. In the daylight, the sight of the deep, single-lane V-Gulley barely wide enough to pilot a Monster was quite frightening. We were sure the cars would not be able to squeeze through, at least not without major damage.

To our surprise, the Monsters not only got through but made it look like it was a walk in the proverbial park!

There were a lot of winching going on with the other cars ahead of us and when it was my vehicle’s turn to pass through the obstacle, the car attached with the winch suffered some technical issues so we had to use a snatch block instead to support the winching system. This took quite a while but we reached the peak of the V-Gulley without further incident.

Black Monster in a tight situation.

Because of the continuous heavy rain (some said it had been raining for two months in these parts of the jungles,) the terrain was rated “extremely hardcore and challenging”. The slippery conditions required all vehicles to be winched all the way to the top of the hills.

We witnessed and experienced a great deal of teamwork spirit. In the Borneo jungles, the only way to survive and clear the obstacles, is certainly to cooperate with one another.