10 Years A Go : Borneo Equator Expedition 2009

This story tells of one of the most extreme jungle travels ever undertaken besides the past Camel Trophy races of many years ago, and on the same mysterious island of Borneo. The initial journey started two years ago with the idea and preparation to cross along the equator line from one side to the other side. The expedition organizer was the Cheetah Off-road Club and members of the Indonesian Off-road Federation (IOF).

This adventure off-road event, named the Borneo Equator Expedition 2009, was held from 6th December until 20th December, 2009, started from Pontianak, West Borneo, traveling through Central Borneo and finished in Balikpapan, East Borneo, along the equator line with a maximum deviation of 1° and covering about 2030 km.

The participants from Indonesia, Vietnam, Netherland, Italy, USA, and Australia were all involved with the mission not only to enjoy the once in a lifetime adventure, but also to experience the scenic drive through mountainous areas and rivers, to promote tourist spots, and learn more about the diverse Indonesian culture.

A select group of people were to be involved, all with off road experience in extreme jungle conditions and with the skills to help bring the whole convoy of 25 vehicles across the equator line. In simple language, the equator is an imaginary line on the earth’s surface, equidistant from the North Pole and South Pole, that divides the earth into a Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere. The length of the earth’s equator is about 40,075 km, and it runs through a number of countries including Indonesia, Ecuador, northern Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. During our trip, we had temperatures way above 35°C, which all of the expedition team members had to contend with. The main rule was to bring along enough water for the entire expedition, and also to make sure we drank that water. During our fourteen days of traveling in jungle conditions.

The culture and history of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan goes way back. Borneo, the world’s third largest island, is a land of darkness and light – a place of stark contrasts. Politically, Borneo is divided into Sabah and Sarawak, which are states of Malaysia, Brunei, an independent sultanate, and Kalimantan, part of Indonesia. The area is about 743,325 km² . It is also the home of the original inhabitants of Kalimantan. The tribes are collectively called Dayak, although this name is not embraced by many tribespeople themselves, who prefer to be known by separate tribal names such as Iban, Punan and Banuaq. Local tribes traditionally live in communal long houses called Lamin or Umaq Daru. They are built on wooden piles, sometimes three meters high, for protection against wild animals and flooding. The Punan people are nomadic hunter-gatherers, and only use the long houses at the height of the rainy season. Steeped in tradition, the interior of a long house is typically divided into separate family quarters with communal areas connecting each. It is in these communal areas that village meetings are held and ceremonies performed, thereby reinforcing the strong tribal bonds in the face of rapidly advancing 20th century technology. It is estimated that there are more than 200 Dayak tribes on Borneo, the most important being the Iban and Bidayuh in Sarawak, and the Kadazan in Sabah. Other small groups include the Kenyah, Kayan and Penan, whose way of life and habitat are rapidly disappearing.

The main indigenous tribe of Sarawak is the Iban, who number 395,000. They are largely long house dwellers and live along the Rejang and Baram Rivers. For the Dayak of southern and western Borneo, tattoos and death are inextricably bound. When the soul (beruwa) leaves its human host, it journeys through the murky depths of the afterlife in search of heaven- the land of ancestors. Dayak souls encounter many obstacles on their supernatural flight: The River of Death is the most formidable. According to tradition, only the souls of tattooed women who provided generously for their families, and head-hunters who possess hand tattoos (a token of their success) are able to cross the log bridge that span these dangerous waters. Maligang, the malevolent guardian of the bridge, often refuses such passage forcing souls to descend into the river’s depths to be eaten by Patan, the giant fish. However, if the soul is properly tattooed, it is free to pass into the darkness that awaits on the other side. Although this dim world is at first silent and discomforting, the soul’s tattoos begin to burn brightly, and in turn, guide the incorporeal spirit to its final resting place among the ancestors. The Expedition So it’s D – day (departure day) for the entire convoy and we are heading to a small and quick flag off ceremony in Pontianak and then to our official starting point at the equator monument. Here, the real adventure will begin as we head into the first jungle section of our trip.

The first off road sections are easy going so that everyone can get used to convoy driving and check that everything is working, including correct tyre pressures, having everything packed properly, and ensuring we have enough water and other essentials. It seems that everybody has prepared themselves well and the first few kilometers of our expedition are clicking away nicely. Today’s goal is to reach base camp one at Rimba, located in one of the many palm plantations. Small logging bridges have to be crossed, and we receive a joyous welcome from villagers in the townships we pass through. They seem to be impressed that the vehicles are heading deeper and deeper into the jungle of Borneo. At base camp one we have our first jungle night, but Mother Nature is not at her kindest, and heavy rain is falling while we are setting up our campsite. Tarps are fixed between two vehicles to create a dry spot for our beds and cooking gear. Slowly, the remaining vehicles are arriving towards nightfall. During the night the rain keeps falling and at sunrise we are pretty sure that the tracks ahead will be muddy, slippery and tough to drive. A quick briefing is done by one of the convoy leaders, and soon after, breaking up this campsite, we are heading deeper and deeper into the jungle. The tracks are indeed muddy and slippery, and on a few occasions small landslides have made deep potholes and broken small bridges. The entire convoy is approaching every obstacle with caution. Small logs are used to rebuild the broken bridges, and on some occasions we need to winch the vehicles around.

So far everything is going well; Mother Nature eventually stops dropping the rain and welcomes everybody with a hot, humid sunny day, the temperature rising to above 36°C. Countless bottles of water are consumed by all team members while driving along the jungle roads and, though it seems fairly easy going at the moment, how long can it last? After reaching base camp two and three with only some minor obstacles, we are preparing ourselves for the days ahead. At the township, Nanga Pinoh, we get less than one hour to do some final shopping. We need to fill up all vehicles with fuel (and take an extra 40 litres of diesel) as well as food and drinking water, along with performing some minor repairs on the vehicles. After this township we have to be self sufficient for the next four or five days. It seems it is getting hotter and hotter every day as we head deeper into the jungle. Although Mother Nature is kind at first, later on she again shows her nasty side by showering us with heavy rain, and the tracks are getting stickier with the mud, and very slippery. Due to landslides we have to create several time consuming diversions to get around the obstacles. Then a major one looms upon us. Slowly we have to winch the vehicles down steep slopes, sometimes more than 80m. Each vehicle is lowered down by the vehicle behind, and on and on it goes. After this, it’s a drive along a small river and then the attempt to get up the other side. That was the plan, anyway, but it turns out that Mother Nature had other things in store for us. She opened all the clouds and drenched us for hours and hours. The result, vehicles stuck at the bottom of the hill in the riverbed, vehicles waiting in line above us, and vehicles stuck at the exit of the section. This resulted in teams working around the clock to get the convoy moving. Just to move seven vehicles took almost ten hours of nonstop winching, digging, pulling and pushing to get them back on the main track. Co-drivers worked relentlessly, pulling winch cables forward and back, hooking them up again, single line, double line and even triple line winching was required! Slowly, these vehicles ended up back on the main track, though this took well into the dark of night. And it is not over because that was only the first seven vehicles!

The next morning these seven helped the next ones in line. I must say it was like a machine, with all team members working together with one goal. Further down the track we again had similar obstacles to overcome, it was man and machine against nature. Every time we hit a barrier, engines worked non-stop, tyres dug their way through the deep and sticky mud, team members rebuilt bridges … literally rebuilding the track! By this point, food and drinking water is becoming scarce, and at night many team members don’t have the strength to bother with campsites – they simply sleep in their vehicles until daylight again signals the beginning of another day of action. A few members have been attacked by leeches, but our main animal attack has been bees! It seems that this year the jungle is a veritable plague of bees. I can say that everybody has been stung by at least one bee; with one of the co-drivers being stung more than ten times!

Finally, with Mother Nature still not showing her best side, it has taken us five days to overcome 36km of hard core jungle track, though we are victorious and happy. This track has not been used since the 80s, so we have actually completely rebuilt it, rebuilding bridges, tackling water crossings, and all with only what the jungle had on offer. A previous Camel Trophy was also held on this track, but they had to evacuate when they found it impossible to cross, and were airlifted out. In contrast we have successfully crossed this section, even though it took so many days, so many hours of hard work and winching, and so many sweat drops. Further down the track we are faced with the prospect of crossing numerous big rivers, though here we employ the local ferries to help get our convoy across. At times it is possible to get three or four vehicles on a ferry, and at other times we have to build (with some small local boats) a “look-alike ferry” to get vehicles across one by one. The village people were giving us strange looks:

“Where did you come from?”

And,

“Did you cross that jungle section, that’s impossible!”

They were amazed when we told them that indeed we had.

After crossing the Mahop and Bakanon River we are heading towards Muara Teweh. Here in this relatively big town it was possible for us to refuel, do some shopping to get food, water and fresh fruit, and also to freshen up. A few vehicles required maintenance, like fixing tyres, welding and repairing winches and cables. Here in Muara Teweh we also regrouped the convoy, as some vehicles were out of the jungle early in the day, while for others it was late afternoon. Soon we are again on our way to continue our Borneo Equator Expedition 2009. We have calculated that we are roughly 1.5 to 2 days behind the original schedule; so we have some catching up to do. From Muara Teweh we head towards the Mahakan River to Melak City. To make up some lost ground, we decide to make the traveling days longer and look into a slightly different route to maintain our original arrival time in Bontang. But again Mother Nature was not kind, and again we had to struggle against landslides, broken bridges and deep, sticky, muddy tracks. At this point it seems we are either not going to reach our goal on time, or will have to abandon the entire expedition just a couple of hundred kilometers before the finishing point. The team members gathered together to formulate a new plan … we decide to organize a large ferry boat at the end of our jungle trails which will ship us 1.5 hours downstream. We also decide to skip the short visit to Bontang and head directly towards Samarinda, which is the official end of the 2009 expedition. Following a relatively incident-free final leg, we reach the hotel in Samarinda at long last, though not at our scheduled 3pm in the afternoon, but at 10pm at night. Although behind schedule, we have made it, covering over 2030km of tracks and jungle terrain, to travel across an island on the equator line. We started in Pontianak and 14 days later we are in Samarinda. At the end the camaraderie is still the same as when we started, new friends were made and new plans are being talked about for 2010!

From Samarinda the next day we drove to Balikpapan, to ship the vehicles back to Jakarta and the team members back by plane, saying goodbye to many old and new friends.

This was an achievement for all the team members. We did get across the equator line within 14 days, as was our goal, from one side of Borneo to the other. A total of 2030 km hard core jungle tracks, working together as a team, respecting the environment, mutual cooperation and sportsmanship; this was the Borneo Equator Expedition 2009, one to be remembered.

 

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