Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tackling North Borneo on wheels

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.

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.

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.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Tackling North Borneo on wheels
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