Story and photos by PAUL SI
Bau. Not many people outside Sarawak would have heard of this place until local heroine Pandelela Rinong, along with her synchronised diving partner Cheong Jun Hoong, won Malaysia’s first silver medal at the Rio Olympics.
While the whole nation celebrated the dynamic duo’s accomplishment, jubilation (and further expectation) was especially high among residents of this former mining district. After all, Bau was once famous for GOLD!
Miners of the past had carved out a large pit to get at the precious metal, leaving behind a huge hole. Over time, this pit filled with water and became Tasik Biru, a picturesque man-made lake which is a major focus of ongoing tourism promotion efforts.
Located just 40km from the state capital of Kuching, Bau district is far enough from the hustle and bustle of city life, yet within easy reach of people looking to slow down and de-stress. The winding country roads here with sparse traffic have been a magnet for leisure bikers, cyclists and cross-country runners in recent years.
Recognising that tourism can be further advanced, local community leaders have thrown their support behind adventure-themed events, such as the recent Tasik Biru 4X4 Carnival.
Recently-elected first-term Tasik Biru assemblyman Datuk Henry “Harry” Jinep was among the staunch supporters of the project, saying it was a great way to encourage local youngsters to take up healthy sporting activities while learning useful skills.
Since a large portion of Sarawak’s motorists already favour four-wheel-drive vehicles (because of the state’s large network of rough outstation roads and trails), it was easy to stir up interest in the go-anywhere capabilities of these vehicles.
The normally-sleepy village of Tondong provided the venue, and plenty of the raw ingredients – earth and water. Mixed in varying proportions, they became the hills and holes, the streams and mud pools that would be the arena for a contest of men and machines versus the terrain.
There was no shortage of enthusiasts eager to test their mettle, and their metal beasts, in the heat of competition. To ensure a fair contest, the field was divided into three categories. The main attraction for spectators was Class A, a no-holds-barred battle for vehicles specifically modified to win off-road competitions.
The typical vehicle here is the diminutive Suzuki SJ410, prized for it’s light weight. But by the time the car is ready to play, very little from the original Suzuki is left, apart from some body panels. Engines are replaced with high-powered turbocharged stallions, gearboxes and axles are transplanted from Toyota Land Cruisers, and suspension systems are fully tricked up.
But what makes the premier Class A really stand out are the home-made winches, fashioned from junkyard axles and differentials, which draw power directly from the engine. These can haul cars up vertical walls at devilish speeds, hence their nicknames “satan winch” or “god winch”.
Class B had restrictions on the extent of modifications, in particular the winches.
As for Class C, it would feature largely standard, daily-use road vehicles. Organising chairman Laurence Baraw said that the category was intended to encourage newcomers. He said, “The length, size and weight of these daily-use vehicles mean they can’t compete against the specialised Class A and B cars. So Class C provides a level playing field for them.”
The roar of engines and splashing of mud was just the thing to liven up a long weekend in July as thousands of locals flocked to the Tondong grounds to catch the action.
In Class C, the crowd were hugely entertained to see vehicles that looked much like their own daily rides, being asked to go through obstacles that looked impassable. They went up and down steep slopes, and through deep mud baths that had some less-prepared cars spluttering from water ingestion.
The finer points of off-road driving, such as the correct way and speed to approach a water crossing, had to be learned by each team in turn. Some lessons were more costly than others, such as an entire bumper getting ripped off by plunging into a muddy pool too fast.
The momentum then shifted into higher gear with Classes A and B. There were thrills and spills aplenty as vehicles attempted to overcome various obstacles.
For example, there was a steep descent of about 50 degrees, with the car threatening to somersault at any moment, ending with a lunge into a stream before an ascent up an equally steep slope on the other side. There were also challenges such as winching up cliff-like vertical walls and plunges into muddy gullies.
Mechanical breakdowns were par for the course, and the better teams simply fixed their broken cars better and faster than their opponents.
Some spots were soon identified as being especially tricky, with a higher than usual chance of a car toppling over, which naturally attracted the biggest crowds of onlookers and photographers. They were not disappointed.
Ooohs and aaahs accompanied each mishap, followed by loud applause as the hapless drivers emerged safe and unhurt in each incident.
Although the action looked spectacular and dangerous, the organisers had strictly enforced safety precautions, with all participants compelled to wear crash helmets and 4WD seat harnesses (like double seat belts) at all times.
Winching was an especially hazardous activity, with potentially lethal consequences if a cable snapped under excessive strain.
Alert marshals were everywhere, keeping keen eyes on measures such as using dampeners on cables and wearing heavy-duty gloves while handling recovery equipment. There were several instances when winch cables did break, but the strict enforcement of safety rules ensured no one was hurt.
When the dust had settled and the mud caked, Tondong’s local heroes Low Fook Jan and Bong Lieh Tzen delighted the crowd by claiming the top prize in the premier class. Lee Chee Sang and Chao Yao Tian took the Class B honours while the pairing of Eric Jong and Mohd Shaifful topped Class C.
Congratulating the winners, Jinep also praised the organisers, Four-wheel-drive Event Mangement (FEM), for their initiative and pledged support for future motorsport-related events in Bau district and surrounding areas. He also urged them to conduct more driver training courses to upgrade skills and safety awareness.
Preparations are now under way for the second edition of the nearby Padawan 4X4 Challenge to coincide with Malaysia Day celebrations in mid-September.