Tackling North Borneo on wheels

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The Isuzu Dura-Mission 2012 convoy makes for an impressive sight on the lonely Sandakan roadway.

UNTIL last month, I wasn’t a fan of the pickup truck.

Given Kuching’s mix of winding colonial roads and single carriageways, this class of vehicle seemed too big and too menacing to be used within city limits – especially when you’re trying to outrun one in your much smaller car.

It took being rear-ended last month (for the third time), followed by an even timelier roadtrip through Sandakan, Sabah, in an Isuzu D-Max pickup, for me to re-examine that opinion.

Sponsored by Isuzu Malaysia Sdn Bhd, the Isuzu Dura-Mission 2012 convoy was made up of two ‘Monster’ trucks, an Isuzu Trooper and nine standard Isuzu D-Max — a combination of double-cab 4×4 manual and automatic vehicles with 2.5 and 3.0-litre diesel engines.

Our entourage comprised reporters and editors from East and West Malaysia and our mission was to travel from Sandakan to Tawau, Sabah, from February 14 to 18.

We were split in pairs so that we could take turns behind the stars of the show –  the D-Max – making stops at the sanctuaries and reserves along Sabah’s eastern seaboard over the four days on the road.

PERFECTION: The scenery at Mabul Island, 15 minutes’ boat-ride from Sipadan Island, makes it impossible to take a bad picture.

Our journey started from Sandakan Hotel on February 14 with the traditional flag-off by recently appointed Isuzu Malaysia managing director and chief executive officer Kimitoshi Kurokawa and chief of operations, Daisuke Ishida. Our first destination was the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre nestled in the 4,300-hectare Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve.

Road runs through it

The road from Sandakan town through Sabah’s eastern seaboard is flanked by undulating hills of oil palm plantations as far as the eye can see.

With at least 102 oil palm estates in Sandakan recorded in 1997, today, nature reserves and plantations live next to each other, making for an interesting balance between conservation and economic development.

For the casual observer, the dotted rows of oil palm were calming to the tired urban eye, made even more so by the smoothness of the D-Max.

Evelyn Heng, event manager and PR representative for Isuzu Malaysia Sdn Bhd, pointed out that one of the trucks in the convoy was used by our BAT Team in their first expedition across Malaysian Borneo last year

They logged 3,903km over 21 days and the vehicle has since traversed the Pan-Borneo Highway several times over — testament to the D-Max’s hardiness.

My co-driver, Syukran, who drives a Malaysian hatchback at home, steered our manual pickup with practised ease, probably honed by the last Dura-Mission expedition Isuzu made in 2009 through Ba Kelalan to Lawas where the drivers truly experimented with D-Max’s off-road capabilities which, coupled with its fuel efficiency, are a source of pride for Isuzu.

Last year, Isuzu challenged the fuel-efficiency of its 2.5-litre 4×4 pickup by driving it from Bangkok to Malacca on a single tank of diesel. At the end of the four-day journey, the D-Max reached Malacca, covering a distance of 1,600km and consuming a total of 73.7 litres — a few short of its 76-litre tank capacity.

GETTING READY TO ROLL: The convoy taking a pause at the entrance of Tabin Wildlife Reserve’s only accommodation, the Tabin Wildlife Resort.

By comparison, the four-day journey from sanctuary to sanctuary like Sukau and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve along smooth roads was a piece of cake for many in our entourage.

For reporters and editors like Syukran who had a taste of the off-road adventure in 2009, they were itching to hit a dirt track in the D-Max again — something that would happen two days later on our way to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

On our first day, we were headed to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, 23km from Sandakan town.

Once there, we were greeted by the sight of adolescent and childlike orang utans, rappelling lazily down ropes, webbed through the surrounding forest reserve, before crouching around their breakfast – a careful preparation of fruits and multi-vitamins.

As tourists snapped pictures from the observation deck, the ‘people of the jungle’ were joined by their more wily cousins, the pig-tailed macaques, which took every opportunity to reach out a long, hairy arm to grab a bunch of bananas when they thought nobody was looking. (No, nobody was fooled!)

Despite this light-hearted moment in the animal kingdom, the orang utans at the sanctuary are in reality orphans. Their stories may vary from being rescued from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunting or people who kept these gentle beasts as pets but their future at the sanctuary is the same — to be trained to survive in the wild.

Their eventual release is done through a three-step process. From the nursery, orphaned orang utans between the ages of 1-3 years learn basic jungle skills like climbing trees from the wildlife ranger before graduating to other phases that would see them becoming less dependent on the rehabilitation centre for food and emotional support until they achieve total independence.

Since the centre’s inception in 1964, more than 100 orang utans have been released back into the wild.

Our next wildlife stop to Proboscis Lodge Bukit Melapi in Sukau on day two saw us navigating the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River in search of the wildlife that live in the forest reserve surrounding the river.

True to its name — the Proboscis Lodge — proboscis monkeys there live in massive numbers in the surrounding forest reserve, and can actually swim. We discovered this on a river cruise down the Menanggul tributary in search of local wildlife when our careful inspection of a dozing monitor lizard was interrupted by a splash from behind.

By the time we turned around with cameras ready, there was nothing to be seen, at least not until the performance
was repeated by a proboscis monkey, jumping from its treetop perch spread-eagle into the river, followed by the
rest of its family. It’s a dangerous way to cross a river, inhabited by crocodiles, but for our city-weary entourage, it was awesome.

As we walked up a paved slope to the eco-resort’s main building, quarrelsome pied hornbills fussed at each other in the trees overhead, oblivious of us as we stood around taking pictures of them.

For those of us lucky enough to have chalets by the river, our balconies opened up to the serenity of the Kinabatangan River — a sight we would explore later in the night in search of crocodiles.

No crocodiles here

Our search for crocodiles came to naught, revealing instead a smattering of sleeping kingfishers, an owl and a prowling civet cat.

Our night-time safari at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve the next day was similarly lacklustre but thankfully for Syukran, the dirt road that wound through the oil palm estates to get there gave him the chance to work out the D-Max.

Although tame compared to the wet mud-tracks in Ba Kelalan, it made for a thrilling ride nonetheless, especially when you’re in the passenger seat.

The little known secret of Tabin is that it is Malaysia’s biggest wildlife reserve, and more importantly, the last major stronghold of the Sumatra Rhinoceros in Borneo.

Spanning 120,500 hectares of the Dent peninsula, the reserve is located 48 kilometres from Lahad Datu and boasts most of the region’s majestic and awesome beasts like the Pygmy elephant, the clouded leopard and even the Sun Bear. All will invariably make their way to the biggest salt lick around – the Lipad Mud Volcano.

It was an expedition our entourage made on foot in the afternoon where we plastered our faces with the mineral-rich creamy-textured mud in the pursuit of its anti-aging properties … or just a fun photo-op.

Bordered by oil palm plantations, the Tabin Wildlife Reserve exemplifies the delicate balance this region is striving for between conservation and oil palm plantations.

Pushing more boundaries

Whenever foreigners asked me what part of Borneo they should visit, I had mostly directed them towards Sabah. Despite never having seen its blue waters or white sandy beaches myself, there have been too many wide-eyed accounts and repeat tourists for these natural attractions to be untrue.

And so it was

THe 45-minute boat-ride from the Semporna jetty to Smart Divers Resort on Mabul Island, just 15 minutes away from the legendary but now-exclusive Sipadan Island, was everything it was rumoured to be.

You didn’t need glasses to see corals blooming beneath the crystal-clear waters, or parrot-fish nipping between the corals’ flower-like blossoms.

But it did take an amateur scuba-diving course offered by the resort to find a sea turtle dozing on the coral bed, not five feet from the jetty.

Mabul Island is oval-shaped and quite a bit larger than Sipadan. The island has three resorts and a large village in the middle which is home to fisherman as well as resort employees and their families.

Besides the diving, the village is another interesting aspect of the island. It is teeming with life, its most predominant feature being the children playing marbles in the sand or pushing a wheel or circular lid with a stick from one end of the kampung to the other.

Visitors walking idly through the village are no strangers to the inhabitants. In fact, they continue with their daily chores unfazed by strangers taking their pictures. Although there are Hotlink posters plastered around the surrounding areas, the charm of this village lies in its rustic simplicity.

Taming the beast

I’m a meek driver by nature. Two days into the trip, I had been spoilt by more experienced drivers and was able to enjoy Sabah’s serene landscape. Curiosity, and an encouraging Isuzu crew, however, coaxed me into an automatic Isuzu D-Max by the third day.

ICHIBAN!: The media and Isuzu representatives giving the expedition a thumbs up.

It took the gentle (and not so gentle) coaching from my Isuzu handler and co-driver to really enjoy the D-Max.

After that, I found myself overtaking cars (10 tonne trucks, to be exact), and driving faster than I ever had — 120km/h over my standard snail’s pace of 60km/h.

By the time we reached Tawau, our final stop, I was zig-zagging between two-lane traffic at 130km/h. By the end of our expedition, we had travelled 618km on a single tank.

So while I don’t profess to being an expert on pickups, and may have actually backslid to driving my standard 60 km/h by now, the D-Max makes it easy to be a Vettel or a Button on the road – even for just a couple of days.

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