4WD adventure to hell and back-- be careful what you ask for

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Asia » Malaysia » Sabah » Semporna
July 27th 2007
Published: May 28th 2008
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Beware: This is a long, drawn-out email blast. I suggest you read it all in one sitting, if you have the time. Enjoy!


I asked for adventure. I got adventure. Be careful what you ask for.

I thought by getting there early I would have a good chance of leaving early. Wrong! Getting there early just gave me more time to sit and wait. And wonder. Wonder if this 4WD is really going to make the crossing today or am I just waiting for nothing, wasting my day away. These thoughts occur quite a bit with me, especially in a foreign country with language barriers and no one to share my concerns with. It's all part of the adventure. And speaking of adventure....

I was in Tawau, a city in the southeastern part of Sabah, getting set to embark on a trip across this Malaysian Borneo state that not many travelers take, if they don't have to. Locals, sure, they get across this way, but backpackers, tourists, travelers, call us what you may, the SANE go north, then west on the MAIN ROAD, a paved road. They don't take the 4WD-necessary road, an old logging road used back in the day when they planted all the oil palms and logged timber. Not Suz, here, I have to do things the hard way sometimes. I had made it a goal to take this "road" back to Kota Kiinabalu, on the west side, come hell or high water. And let me tell you, this was not a cake walk.

The morning started out around 7:30 sitting on a bench in front of the parked 4WDs, neatly arranged in their assigned parking lot on the east side of town. In fact, other than zipping across the street to get some food take away (or to go as we say in the states), I was sitting there until 12:30 when we finally had enough people to make the crossing. Fact of the matter is, we didn't actually have enough passengers, cause we kept picking them up along the road! See, here in South East Asia, busses, cars, etc. don't tend to go anywhere until they are filled -- to max capacity. One learns to just sit and wait. And keep waiting, sometimes most of the day.

I was taking no chances at 7:30 that morning. I stashed my misc bags (no valuables) on the front seat, claiming it for my own. I was told this was an 11-hour crossing and there was no way I was going to do it crammed in the back seat with goats and pigs and fish and you name it. In the end, I got my window seat up front; I did have to share, but that was ok, and there weren't any of the aforementioned animals in the vehicle with us. By 12:30, we were on the road, 6 of us in our creaky and well-trodden Land Cruiser belching out some black smoke to contribute last minute to the already polluted Tawau air. Within the first 45 minutes we had 8 adults and three kids in the car, not counting the driver, in a vehicle made for max 8 passengers. We were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.

At 2:20 the sky was beginning to get quite dark and I was rather hoping maybe we could get a little of the wet stuff, if anything, to just cool the air a bit. We had been driving on gravel roads for about an hour and a half, and since the A/C petered out long ago, the windows were down, bringing the heat of the day into the vehicle. Remember the cautionary words: Be careful what you wish for.

By 3pm the rains came. The gravel road had turned to dirt, and at this point had now turned to mud. This meant slipping, sliding and fishtailing but the driver did not take this as a sign to slow down. "Must get across," is all he kept thinking, I'm sure, his pedal to the metal. Passing the massive road construction vehicles was a bit of a fright, in the thick mud and narrow passages. My driver had to get up enough speed to barrel through the mud ruts and if not met with precision and accuracy, we were either going to hit the construction vehicles or veer off the side of the road. Luckily, my driver was a good one, with 4WD knowhow and got us through each obstacle with little incident.

Slick road, squirrley situations, mud-streaked windows, A/C barely working, chain-smoking driver, more mud and continued rain. The road is still used by massive logging trucks, and road construction trucks working on making the road, but not too much other traffic. Someday this road is going to be paved, but it could be years away due to all the construction and labor involved.

As the afternoon wore on, we dropped off a few people here and there while still on the logging road. At one point, we stopped in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain, and one elderly man climbed off the boxes and bags from in the way back (behind the last row of seats), got out of the Land Cruiser, rolled up his pant legs to his knees, and in bare feet, took off down a muddy path that let straight into the jungle. Poof -- just like that, he was gone. I suspect he must have a home hidden back there, but it just reminded me of a movie where the character walks into the sunset and just fades away. It was just about 6:30 when we dropped off another passenger. This was in some ramshackle wooden building in an area that seemed to be set up as a Timber camp of some sort. Quite a bit of activity, security gates for certain areas and security type kiosks amongst scattered homes and temporary housing projects. This was the most people and "village life" I had seen since leaving Tawau 6 hours earlier.

Just after dropping off this last passenger, we faced the most challenging part of the trip yet. Keep in mind it is now after 6:30, we are deep in the jungle, it is nearly pitch dark at this point, still raining, and now thunder and lightning have added to the excitement of the evening. Fortunately, for the last couple of hours, we had been tag-teaming with a (presumed) buddy of my driver. This man, too, was in a
4-WD and heading to the same destination. I can only guess for safety reasons they stuck close to one another on the muddy, slippery roads.

The guy we were following made it up a particularly steep part of the road. He was only slightly fishtailing while heading up the hill. Our driver tried three times and in the same spot, roughly half way up the steepest part of the muddy road, our wheels kept spinning, making it impossible for us to continue forward.

We made it back down the hill and tied up the winch to his friend’s truck (who came back down when he realized we weren’t behind him anymore at the top of the hill - the road curved to the left near the top so he was out of our view and vice versa). The tie came loose on the first attempt up the hill and the second time we tried we made it as far as the first place we attempted all those other times. Then, his truck got stuck. He couldn’t carry our weight up and we kept stalling out, slipping and sliding all over the inclined road. Eventually he lurched forward, the tie snapped, and we slipped down the hill backwards and sideways. When we came to a stop, perpendicular to the direction of the road, I opened my door (facing downhill) and nearly fell out. Everything on the dash and the floor at my feet (including the driver’s two packs of cigarettes that I felt compelled to “rescue” and throw back into the cab) fell out of the Land Cruiser into the mud below. It was all I could do to hold on to my 2 small packs on my lap. I finally got out (cause if I didn’t I would have fallen out, given the angle, and I didn’t want to chance the truck tipping over on top of me!) and stood in the rain with the other two remaining guys from the back seat.

I was slipping all over the muddy road but managed to slide my way in the rain down to a pickup truck that had just come down the hill. At least the pickup was able to provide light on the two attempts the others made trying to get up the hill. Still, to no avail. We piled a number of times into the back of the pickup, along with all the other people and objects back there. There were huge oil drums that kept rolling into me as I was trying to get a footing in the slippery bed of the truck. I was concerned about my electronics, camera and journal getting wet, so was rifling through my backpack looking for a plastic bag. The pickup moved forward and I nearly fell out the back. This happened twice. The one time I had a footing the drum nearly rolled into me. I was standing on the far back of the truck bed, slick and wet from the rain. Plus it was dark and I didn’t know what was happening or why exactly I was even in the back of the truck. I just followed the other two guys I recognized from MY truck! I had thought that perhaps this pickup was going to take us up the hill should our vehicle make it. It didn’t make it so we piled out of the pickup, jumping over the back of the bed and narrowly landing face first into the mud!

In the end, after coughing and belching black smoke and not getting anywhere up the hill, our driver backed down the hill and disappeared out of sight. Guess he gave up. Before leaving, though, he managed to grab my rucksack from the back and while he stood there talking with his buddy (the other driver), he held my pack upside down (once again, in the rain!) so the rain cover was now UNDERNEATH the pack. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, even given the circumstances and stress, but no one said these people know how to use common sense!

14 of us plus the driver (my driver's buddy) ended up in the other Land Cruiser and were soon on our way up the road, having gotten a good start on the flat part at the bottom of the hill. Up we went....are we gonna make it, are we gonna? Huh? Huh? Nope! 1/2 way up we slipped and ended in a ditch on the right side of the road. We were quite stuck and not going anywhere, despite the feable attempts by the driver, over and over and over and over. It was raining hard, it hasn’t let up for hours (how unusual is that!?!?) and it wasn’t looking promising that we were going anywhere that night. At this point, too, there wasn’t a soul on the road. I made sure all my electronics, camera, plugs, batteries, journals and all misc papers were all in as many plastic bags I had (I found three unused bags) inside my laptop bag, just in case we found ourselves outside in the inclement weather once again tonight. My three bags had gotten soaked while waiting in the pickup bed as there was no place for me to put them to shield them from the rain.

I slipped -nearly on my face -- as I got out of the cab door, no matter how careful I was being! It took all the effort I could muster to get and keep my footing from the cab door to the front of the truck. That’s not a lot of area to cover, but given the angle of the truck and the massive amount of mud and slick conditions, I could barely do it - even as I held onto the side of the truck!

11 of us (out of 15 total people) tried fruitlessly for maybe 1/2 an hour to try and push the SUV out of the ditch but the wheels were just spinning and digging farther into the mud. Wet from the pouring down rain and caked with mud from the spray caused by the spinning tires, I climbed into the cab, and eventually everyone else who had tried to help, followed suit. I was beyond trying to save the floor of the truck from getting covered with mud. I was barefoot while trying to push the truck backwards cause my sandals don’t have much traction left on the souls. I had left the filthy shoes on the floor of the truck, and along with everything else that was there, got dirty very fast. There was a pretty sizable box at the feet of my neighbor to the left. I didn’t find out we were sharing the vehicle with two roosters (could have even been three; I didn’t look hard enough to get a definitive answer) until the morning.

Ok, I asked for adventure……and rain…..and there it was, all at once! At least it’ll make for good writing, I thought! That is, once I decide to laugh about this…ha ha. The hardest part was upon me, something I could not foresee. Read on if you want to hear about the hardest night of my life:

It is now 8:20pm, and I am leaning far to the right in the front seat of the truck (keep in mind in Malaysia one drives on the left side of the road, hence the driver is on the right side of the vehicle). I am in the middle portion of the front seat (or, center console); there is a gap between the passenger’s and the driver’s seat (where I am sitting) and no headrest. Because of the angle, I am practically on the driver’s lap. And let me say, that ain’t no picnic!

6 people in the back back, 5 people in the back seat (the ONLY back seat) and 4 people in the front (a driver, me, a local and his 10-year old daughter). Did I mention there were also two roosters? To be fair, there were 5 kids in the vehicle, but none the less.....This part of the world somehow knows how to cram double -- and then some -- the amount of people into vehicles made for far less passengers. It's not always a fun ordeal, but sometimes it is the way to travel to get from point A to point B. I wanted the adventure of going this route...I just had no idea "rainy season" was going to start the day I decided to travel across Sabah on the back logging roads! Ha!

My fellow passengers. I didn't get to know them. Didn't want to get to know them. Not a nice crowd and no one spoke English. No one even bothered to try to explain to me what was happening or what we needed to do next. When we transfered from one 4WD to another, in the dark mind you, everyone just piled out of truck number 1 and in the dark trudged down the muddy slope to a waiting pickup truck helping by shining his lights on the "scene." I hadn't any idea we weren't going to be heading up the road that night in vehicle number 1 (though it was pretty obvious this SUV was not going to make it) but when everyone started piling into vehicle number 2 (the other 4WD we were following), I just followed suit. It would have been nice to have someone to lend a hand and show me what was happening. Anyway, there are too many details to cover here.......

Oh, and talk about rude! Keeping in mind the amount of people "trapped" in tight quarters, stuck in the vehicle from just after 8pm (when we finally gave up trying to push the vehicle out of the ditch --yeah, that wasn't happening!) until 5:30am when we all finally "woke up" (or should I say "got up," as I never slept a wink that night!), there were so many noises emitted from these locals, it was enough to make me go mental! Sneezing, wheezing, coughing, belching, farting,
snoring, all night long! The driver, whom I was unfortunately pressed up against all night long (we were at an angle in the ditch, so everyone naturally slid to the right side of the SUV) was the absolute worst! He squirmed and wiggled all night and let out loud obnoxious signs of boredom and uncomfortableness (I don't have to know Malay to know this is what he was thinking). He smoked (thankfully not all night
long, though he did puff up at 1am, 2am and I think another time or two til the early morning light when I could make my getaway and get out of the vehicle!), and I must give him credit for being half a gentleman, as I tried to see if he could at the very least blow the smoke outside of the window, and, well, some smoke managed to get outside. I was pretty blatent about putting my face into my shirt and trying to breathe my sweat rather than his damn smoke! That has got to be the most disgusting habit ever, but unfortunately in this part of the world it seems 99% of the people take it up! Ug!

Every 1/2 an hour or so throughout the night the driver would squirm his way to the steering column and turn on the A/C. This of course meant I had to move as well, which was quite difficult given the little amount of space I had to move! The blast of cold air did nothing to keep me warm. Keep in mind I was still soaked from the rain the night before and mud over my entire front side, legs/feet, hair and face.

Trying to keep off the wandering hands of the two guys in the front seat took up much of the night. I sat there with one of my packs close to my body, hugging it to my chest as best I could and praying the first light would hurry its damn self in getting there!

The entire truck was pretty much up by 5:30am (this is when I first noticed the two roosters in the box!). Up? Ha! I never went to sleep! I was ready to get out of the truck and stretch and pee. The guys were smoking and farting again, this time, thankfully outside of the vehicle. They can be so obnoxious, so rude, so gross!

Why bother going in the bushes, boys, when you can just stand in the open doorway and wet the already mud-saturated road. No couth. No class. Not an educated bunch in the least. I couldn’t have asked for a more derelict-ridden group to ride the ride with! Yuck! The kids are kinda cute, but I’m really in no mood to entertain them, let alone look at them! They sure spend a lot of time staring at me, though! A novelty. Perhaps I am the first white person they have ever seen!?

7:15am. I see down the hill another pickup truck is trying to get up the mud-soaked road to no avail (last night the road resorted to a river of red mud, but the rain has stopped now, thankfully). It can’t even make it past our stuck SUV! Belching black smoke it slipped and slid and finally backed down the hill to try again. And again. It nearly ended in a ditch on the opposite side of the road, having turned sideways slightly up the hill from our vehicle. It eventually made it up and plugged on past us, ignoring the 14 hapless people stranded on the side of the road (our driver had gone on foot even farther up the hill once he got back from trying the camp below us. I guess no luck there, so he had instructed us all to the top of the hill -well, the curve in the road, anyway, about 200 or so slippery feet above the truck!). And there we waited.

Just before 8am, my bladder had had enough, and I just had to release. I had been hesitating cause the only place to have a little privacy was in some bushes a good 50 steps or more amongst the really tall weeds way off the side of the road. Well, I meandered, barefoot (remember my shoes were in the truck, so even if we all were forced to hoof it up the hill to who-knows-where, that all had to be done barefooted!) through the weeds and grasses, nearly as tall as I, and who knows what was or might have been there. I did my thing taking care not to be seen by the others or squat on anything dangerous (at this point, I’m quite surprised I didn’t end up standing on a fire ant hill or something, which would have been just my luck!). I soon made it back to where the other passengers were waiting. Not that I needed or found solace and comfort in being near them. After my much-relieving bathroom adventure, I tried sitting on a plastic bag on top of some weeds I then had to flatten out (there was no other place to sit except directly on the mud). Naturally, as I stooped to sit, the bag shifted, as did the weeds, and I ended up on the mud anyway. Sometimes I just can’t do anything right!

A few vehicles have passed in both directions (mostly uphill) but no one has stopped for us or even to help us out of the ditch.

8:12am: A pickup truck just came down the hill with four guys standing up in the back. Are they helping our guys below? Let me get up and look.

8:15am: Yes! Rescued! The pickup boy wonders are my new heros! I videoed the truck being pulled free, waved to the guys below who waved back and pretty soon our driver was up the hill with minimum effort. Whew! I let out a “BAGUS!” (good!) much to the delight of the others. We all piled in to the LC and we were off. Within a few hundred feet from where we had been waiting, we came across, once again, a manageable gravel road. Figures we were so close! “On the Road Again!” Sing it ole Willy!

Within 1/2 an hour we were on paved roads, and getting back to civilization. We still have another couple of hours to go, however...

The driver is making me ill - he smokes excessively and talks unnecessarily loud on his cell phone (screams, I believe is a more appropriate word). He coughs and sneezes without covering his mouth and blows his nose constantly into his shirt. What a disgusting, sad excuse for a human being! Someone get me out of this vehicle!

At 10:40, being the last passenger left, we pulled into a parking lot of the ubiquitous strip mall type shopping area one finds all over Malaysia and directly to a service station. I hadn’t any idea if this was the 4WD termination spot or if he needed to get some work done on his truck (that was an obvious one, but wasn’t 100% sure that was why we were here). In any case, the driver got out, shut the door behind him and left to go talk to one of the service guys. I was left in the truck alone and decided at one point to get out and stretch my legs. The roosters at my feet were crowding me.

The driver appeared on my side of the truck almost instantly, looked at me, threw up his arms and exclaimed, “Finish!” Great, I’m outta here. I am at this point thinking all sorts of things, including that I don’t care which way I go (I don't even know which way to go), I’m not going to shake this guy's snot-infested hand, I don’t even want to look at him, so I just got up, grabbed my bags and took off down the endless rows of shops, barely mumbling a thank you as I walked away. I came across a nice-looking hotel (was that out of place or what??) complete with 2 valet parking attendants in front and a bell hop or two on the marble-type steps. I’m surprised I didn’t scare them away, the way I must have looked!

Laughing and mumbling to herself, bounding up the alley heading towards a plush, glass-fronted hotel with marble or faux marble steps in front (still, probably only a 3-star place given this non-exciting town, and far nicer than I would ever find myself staying in), comes this muddy solo female traveler, filthy rucksack on her back, laptop bag on her front, and yet another smaller bag (only filled with provisions and water for the trip cross that I hardly touched during the last day's travels) draped over her right arm. All the bags are filthy-dirty (newly filthy-dirty, I might add, just from yesterday's crossing), her grey trekking sandals even more torn and brown with caked-on mud from the night before, as are her legs and feet. Gross. Not the way one wants to present herself when approaching a respectable hotel with suited businessmen and women coming and going in and out the glass front doors.

I tried the valet parkers to see if they knew any English and received only blank stares back. Great. Bad start. Just then, two lovely ladies came to my rescue and asked if I was looking for a room and wanted to stay at that place (how in the world they ever thought someone like me, and the way I looked would ever stay there, I haven’t any idea!). I asked them if there was a cheaper guesthouse within walking distance and as soon as they put their heads together, decided there was, and gave me directions, I instantly changed my mind. All I wanted to do was get to KK and back to familiarity. Forget the shower, that can wait until later.

The ladies assured me it was no problem, and drove me to the bus station, where, come to find out, I had just missed the latest bus. Figures. No worries, though, for there was another in a couple of hours. Directly behind the covered food stalls attached to the gravel parking lot that doubled as the bus station, of all things, I found a car wash. Guess what I did? At no charge to me and much to the delight of the young kids running the place, I got my feet thoroughly washed clean of mud with the high pressure hoses. The force of the spray hurt my feet but I didn’t care. The kids even offered me a room to change out of my muddy clothes (no peep-holes, I checked!) and the complimentary usage of their bathroom. Normally one pays (a small amount, usually only a few cents) to use the toilet; guess they felt sorry for me. There must have been 8 teenage guys and girls hanging around with nothing to do when I showed up, though one willingly took a break washing the soapsuds off a monster SUV while another took the wand and sprayed off my feet, one at a time. When the fun was over, one of the guys said “Wow—I have never washed a human before!” which brought the lot to uncontrollable giggles. My bad mood had by this time lifted and I too broke out in laughter.

Somehow, things just have a way of working out.

Lunch cost me under $2 and the bus ticket from Keningau to KK cost about $4 and left at 1pm, right on time. Thankfully I had a window seat, and because my pillow was under the bus tucked nicely in my filthy rucksack, I put my dirty laptop bag against the window, laid my weary head against it and within moments I was out like a light! Woke up only once during the 2.5 hour ride to KK but couldn’t keep my eyes open so fell right back to sleep! Boy, did I need that!

Before disembarking from the bus, I decided, since it was raining once again, I would cover my reading book in a plastic bag. Thankfully the pockets on the seat back in front of everyone's seats were equipped with plastic bags, presumably for trash or motion sickness. I grabbed the bag and put my book inside and put the entire thing in my pack. It wasn’t until that evening when I pulled my book out I found out the bag had already been used. Someone had spit quite a bit of phlegm into said plastic bag, which, of course, proceeded to get all over my book. Yuck! Does it ever end???

Thankfully the bus dropped me off within a couple of blocks of a fabulous guesthouse, where I ended up staying for the next 8 days. For under $6 a night including breakfast and a whole library of wonderful books, I parked myself on the traveler's couch for the next two days and read and recouped. I didn't in the least feel guilty about "doing nothing."

I asked for adventure. I got adventure. Be careful what you ask for.


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