Doing it the hard way
A 4X4 adventure is not about the destination, but about how you get there.
FIRST-TIME visitors to Sarawak are often surprised by the many four-wheel-drive vehicles (4x4s) they see upon stepping out of the airport. If they travel further afield than the major cities and towns, they soon understand why.
As the quality of the roads drop with increasing distance from urban centres, so rises the ubiquitous 4X4s that are the lifeblood of the locals, ferrying everything: people, groceries, oil palm fruit, drums of fuel and even live buffaloes!
With growing affluence, more people can now afford to own cars, and the preferred choice is the versatile 4X4 double-cab pickup. The runaway market leader is the Toyota Hilux, which have become so popular that its name has become the generic term for all other pickups, regardless of brand.
The ability of these hardy 4X4s to reach remote places with unpaved roads or tracks allows the more adventure-minded types to explore the previously less-accessible parts of this big and still largely jungle-covered state.
The Sarawak 4X4 Travel and Adventure Club (Sakta) was born about a decade ago, bringing together a bunch of like-minded people in their quest for forays into the wild.
Sarawakians have long relied on 4X4s for their essential transportation needs. But the state has lagged behind neighbouring Sabah and even the more-developed Peninsula in organising large-scale, high-profile 4X4 events or expeditions such as the famous Borneo Safari (held for over 25 years in Sabah) and the Peninsula’s Rainforest Challenge.
Sakta intends to make amends with the annual Sarawak 4X4 Jamboree. This was first held on a modest scale last year with the successful second edition completed recently.
“Sarawak may be the last frontier in 4X4 adventure, if only because we are late in developing a signature event,” Sakta president Taip Sobeng said, “But we are up and running now.”
The 2nd Sarawak 4X4 Jamboree brought together some 130 participants in nearly 60 Land Cruisers, Land Rovers and, of course, numerous “hiluxes”, from all over Sarawak, and also from Indonesia, Brunei and even Australia. Their mission: to explore the jungles and rivers of Betong Division, between the towns of Sri Aman and Saratok.
While it is ordinarily an easy two-hour drive from Sri Aman to Saratok, a 4X4 event is never so much about getting from point A to B, as it is about the journey, about the road less travelled, or going where there is no road at all.
Storm before the lull
With heavy, persistent rains pouring down in the preceding fortnight, there were equal measures of apprehension and excitement as
the flag off date drew near.
There had been reports of swollen rivers, flooding and landslides, all of which could wreak havoc on the planned route. But it would also mean plenty of slippery mud and hard driving, which was exactly what 4X4 enthusiasts were looking forward to.
However, as it turned out, Day 1 dawned bright and sunny, and the fair weather remained throughout the four-day expedition, until it was almost all over. The hardcore drivers came prepared to cope with almost every conceivable challenge – except fair weather and firm tracks!
Still, there were enough stretches of mud and steep ascents and descents to get the adrenalin buzzing, and the trails were tough enough to keep the MacGyver-like mechanics busy with improvised repairs to keep the cars going.
While the journey might have been deemed easy by off-road standards, there were enough dramatic incidents to remind everyone that nothing could be taken for granted when going off-road.
When the convoy stopped for a break, one driver parked his vehicle a little too close to the edge of the track, and the soft ground beneath his heavy vehicle crumbled, sending it tumbling on its side.
Although shaken, none of the occupants were hurt, and the recovery gave other participants the chance to put their skills and equipment to good use. In no time, all cars were under way again.
Reviving a drowned car
A scarier moment occurred when another driver overshot the designated turning point while wading across the Lemanak river, and his vehicle ended up in the deep end, known by the locals as a “lubok”.
The two occupants hastily scrambled out through the windows and could only watch helplessly as the 4X4 rapidly sank to the bottom, with only its roof-rack peeking above the water.
Within seconds, the swift current flipped the heavy Land Cruiser onto its back, with only the four tyres barely visible beneath the surface, prompting someone to wisecrack, “Ah, that’s why this car is known as the Ninja Turtle”.
Stunned by how sudden this had almost been a disaster and relieved that no one was hurt, the seasoned off-roaders quickly got to work. They rigged lines to the submerged car and used a winch to flip it over onto its wheels, before pulling it onto dry land in next to no time at all.
The mechanics among the participants then got to work, draining all the lubricants and fluids (including engine, gearbox and axle oil), removed the fuel injectors and cranked the engine to purge any water that might have gotten into the cylinders. Scroungers gathered up fresh motor oil from various donors in the rest of the convoy, and the engine was running again within two hours, to loud applause.
Even more routes
That proved to be sufficient drama, and the rest of the expedition was more uneventful, culminating in a warm welcome at the longhouse community of Rumah Emperan in Ulu Skrang. There, the Iban residents put on a full traditional welcoming ceremony, complete with gongs, a “miring” sacrificial ceremony and copious quantities of food and beverages.
Fun was had by all, and most participants were talking of plans to return with their friends for next year’s jamboree to the Kapit area (which has until recently been accessible only by boats going up the mighty Rajang river).
“We are encouraged by the support we have received from many parties, including the 4X4 community, various corporate sponsors and, in particular, the state government which is keen to develop new areas for tourism,” Taip said. “We are looking forward to next year’s event, which we intend to be bigger and better in every way.”
Thanks to the government’s efforts, more roads have been built over the years, linking up with former logging tracks to bring many more interesting remote places within reach of ordinary people, as long as they have 4X4 vehicles.
“There is no better time than right now for Sarawakians to visit these beautiful places in our own backyard. We should bring along our friends from other parts of Malaysia as well as other countries,” Taip said.
“Sakta has been at the forefront of such adventurous activities, and we will continue our efforts to find and visit the less-explored parts of our beautiful state.”
He added, “These 4X4 trips are an opportunity to develop unique tourism products for Sarawak, where the destinations are unique and interesting. But the journey itself is really the main attraction.”
Crossing a river during the Sarawak 4X4 Jamboree near Sri Aman. — PAUL SI
Sakta president Taip Sobeng says, ‘These 4X4 trips are an opportunity to develop unique tourism products for Sarawak.’
One wrong wrong turn while wading a river can result in the whole 4X4 being submerged.
(Above) A full welcoming ceremony from the longhouse community of Rumah Emperan in Ulu Skrang. (Below) The 4X4 convoy waiting to get across the river.
Taking a break during the Sarawak 4X4 Jamboree.