This year marks the third time one of the world's largest islands, Borneo, hosted the convoys of Camel Trophy. Twenty-two days were spent crossing the all but impenetrable rain forests, swamps and unbridled rivers of this island's wildest region, Kalimantan.
The tropics near the equator allow but two seasons: wet and dry. The Camel Trophy '96 convoy encounter the tail end of monsoon rains and the resulting mud traps that present one of their worst obstacles. The four wheel-drive Discovery Land Rovers handle most of the muddy sections with ease, but sometimes even they succumb to grip of the soggy earth. Stuck. Winches attached to the front of the vehicles are designed for just these cases, facilitating a tow by the front vehicle or a deeply-rooted tree. Usually the first vehicles of the convoy pass more easily, but the last ones must follow in the wheel tracks of those ahead, and each passing vehicle gouges the soft road into pits and canals.
Sungai Jelau River, lined on both banks by swamps, was the point at which the convoy made their first big river crossing...
The second day, the convoy completed a relatively easy 88km stretch, and in the afternoon made the first big river crossing at Muhur Belusah village. Monsoon rains left the river bloated with such swampy conditions on both banks that even the descent had to be made with winches. Drawing each of the 38 vehicles one by one across the river on two "pontoons" (rafts made by the locals from tree trunks) pulled by a motor boat, took a little over 12 hours. When the last car reached the camp on the opposite shore it was 5.30 a.m.
Team spirit is key to success in the Camel Trophy, as is fitness and stamina to compete. Most of the obstacles competitors face are so difficult and complex that without team work they cannot be overcome lending the field the look of laboring ants.
The convoy advancing into the rain forest which becomes more and more dense...
The rain forest thickens towards the interior of the island. From time to time when the jungle seemed to engulf the whole convoy as it forged fresh "trails", branches threatened to puncture either side of the cars. To get past an obstacle, the whole convoy would halt and people would make their way to the front cars, sometimes needing to resort to scimitars to clear back enough jungle to move. The rain forest is so dense here that if someone "fell in" by accident it would be impossible to make one's way through.
The most difficult lap of the forest way, known as the "Trans Borneo Highway", was begun on the fifth day with an accompanying depression. The name deceives: although a highway is planned, this lap had never before been explored overland. The participants relied upon directions derived from rough information gathered by exploratory flights that had been made earlier. The bridge constructed from giant beams had completely collapsed. The cars made their crossing after attaching aluminum rails to the 2 tree stumps left at the side.
In the Camel Trophy convoy, two specially produced easy-assembly raft units for river crossings were each carried on a support vehicle. Sometimes, as in the Sungai Jelau crossing, the vehicles could be carried to a point further down the river.
More than one explorer has tried to conquer wild, remote Kalimantan, leaving their names to peaks such as Müller and Schwaner. Some succeeded, but many never returned. The Dutchman, Nieuwenhuis, was the first European to cross Kalimantan on a 14 month journey. The Camel Trophy convoy had a little over three weeks to cross South Borneo in the first known motor crossing starting from Balikpapan.
Dense rain forests discourage uninvited guests from taming Kalimantan, and powerful rushing rivers like the Kapuas, Mahakam, Kayan and Barito present further trials for the ambitious and intrepid.
After a flight Istanbul to Balikpapan lasting nearly 24 hours, we had grown accustomed to the comfort of air conditioning. The island's tropical heat and humidity hit us like a slap in the face, and we looked for comfort in the cool hotel lobby and the sweating fruit cocktails before venturing out on our first "excursion" - a survey of the town.
Until the 1890's Balikpapan was a little fishing village trading in timber. Since the discovery of oil in 1897, it has burgeoned into a modern city with a population of 370,000, including many foreigners involved in the boom industry. Countless motorcycles swarmed like bees up and down the avenues, and the public minibuses seemed to outnumber their customers. Suzuki, Toyota and other Japanese makes were everywhere, due mainly to a reciprocal agreement with Japan which allows cheap car imports in return for oil.
Even the Dayaks, one of many tribes living in the interior and thought to be head hunters until the beginning of this century, now travel by motor bike and live in relatively modern houses. However, one can still encounter riverside "Long houses" that accommodate an entire village.
Most of the next two days were spent within the comforts of the hotel except for a visit to an orangutan rehabilitation center two hours outside the city. This orange-haired endangered species is found in the greatest numbers in Borneo where the locals trap the young and keep them in chains at home for decoration. The center serves to gradually and gently reintroduce them to life in the wild.
Although orangutans can rarely be see in the wild, one can more easily catch a glimpse of the long nosed monkey (probiscus) peculiar to Borneo's river banks. You can count on one hand the number of people who have seen a black rhinoceros.
Naturally, the wild life of an island five times the size of Britain is not limited to these few creatures. Borneo is the largest "oxygen tent" in the world next to the Amazon, but this ecological paradise harbors more tree varieties than the entire South American continent. It has 2,500 different kinds of orchid, more bird varieties than Europe, and more kinds of mammal than Australasia, numerous reptiles and amphibians and millions of insects, many of which have not yet been studied or named.
The rain forest rising above this wealth of flora and fauna is like a giant cathedral. A canopy of leaves blocks out all but 2% of daylight causing trees to compete for the life-giving sun. Some grow to 75m - a height surpassing the trees of Africa and the Amazon. The jungle receives an annual rainfall of 3,000mm. Nutrients are provided by rotting leaves, fruit and animal droppings that break down rapidly in the warm, moist environment and are absorbed hungrily by a host of plant life before they can be washed away by the rain.
Nasuh Mahruki, Turkish team member, carrying spare gas cans to the car.
Selim Kemahli loading aluminum rails onto the roof rack. They will be used to construct the bridge.left. Atlas team member Mehmet Gülbiz, responsible for photographing Camel Trophy, in one of his more idle moments. He finds himself in front of the lens for a change... right
As is well known, necessity is the mother of invention: car bonnets provide one of the most convenient places for drying muddy boots.
The Kalimantan '96 team frequently obtained drinking water by using a ceramic filter to strain river and pond water.left. For the competitors, mud was an overcoat they could never remove.right
This moment captured by cameraman Yusuf Akçura was a rare one - there were not always washing opportunities...