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Solo Land Rover-ing in Sabah

POSTED BY Sri Fitrah Vong ON 11 April 2020

#yaminvong

The notorious Kalabakan road

It all started innocently enough: to enjoy and experience Sabah in one’s own Land Rover with a free-and-easy schedule. As a West Malaysian, I had been several times in and around Sabah from the early days of the 4×4 Adventure Club of Kuala Lumpur when our members organised the first Trans-Borneo in 1989 together with the Sabah 4×4 enthusiasts including Dr Dev Siddhu, Anuar Ghani and Gideon Abel.Those were the days when a Malaysian company operated a passenger and RO-RO service called Ferry Malaysia.

After two Trans-Borneos, my adventures in Sabah continued. There was one corporate event where Perodua commissioned a journalists’ drive of its compact all-wheel drive Kembara between Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.

This time, I wanted to organise an overland holiday for myself in my own Land Rover. It was easy to get my wife, Amanih, to join as my co-driver for the 20-day trip since she also loved Sabah and I knew she was keen to join for the planned 20-day trip. We figured we deserved it — the mortgage had been paid up; a year’s sabbatical had been approved and a Land Rover in Kota Kinabalu had been acquired.

Co-driver Amanih and the writer on their solo drive around Sabah before it was interrupted by the MCO

There was a support network of many friends in Sabah, including Land Rover enthusiasts. The Land Rover Defender 110 is a 1991 Stationwagon that first saw service with the Fisheries Board in Johore. After it was decommissioned, it was bought by its previous user, an officer from the Fisheries. Later, it was owned by a Johore Bahru 4×4 enthusiast and Madagascar Camel Trophy participant, Kelvin See Toh Ying Hee , then by a medical doctor, MG Ross, followed by another doctor, Teoh Siang Chin, also a Camel Trophy finalist.

The Defender is original, with a 2.5 Turbo-Diesel engine and 5 speed LT77 gearbox. It’s a very underpowered vehicle, making all of 85 hp (63 kW). The gearbox is miserable. It’s hard to shift, especially from 2nd to 3rd and reflects the Landy’s 265,000 km history.

Our 1991 Land Rover Ststionwagon Turbo Diesel

After buying the Landy from Dr Teoh, it took four months to prep up the long-neglected car for the tour. 

After a few false starts, we found Leo aka Ronny Didimus of Tuaran Mobile Workshop, an accomplished mechanic and 4×4 enthusiast who owned and modified Land Rovers.

Regarding my Landy which had an alarming propensity to wander wildly on roads travelled by overloaded trucks, Leo cured it by fitting a new tied-rod end, changing the steering drop fork and some of the bushes.

Then there was the matter of a loud metallic clunk when forward or reverse gear was engaged. Caused by wear and tear, the excessive free-play was removed by changing the old rear axle differential with a newer one.

The engine was very hard to start: it needed about 15 seconds of cranking to start from cold. We changed the glow plugs and now it can start from cold in 12 seconds of cranking and huge clouds of exhaust smoke. The long term fix is to overhaul the engine and get back the compression to specification.

Ronny, the owner of Tuaran Mobile Workshop

The gearbox couldn’t be overhauled in time. I decided to take the chance that my co-driver would somehow cope with the finicky shift from second gear to third gear.
When she drove part of the Kalabakan stretch heading for Tawau in the east coast, she managed to drive her share — but only in 2nd gear. Fortunately, there was very little traffic on the Kalabakan and the 30kph speed didn’t obstruct the monster logging trucks — they could easily overtake us on the flats. Anyway, not that I noticed since I was taking my power nap. After which I took over the wheel.

Mount Kinabalu in the background

Note: Yamin Vong is a 4×4 enthusiast and Advisor of the Land Rover Owners Club of Malaysia (LROM). His introduction to Land Rovering started in the late 1980’s when he was a journalist in Business Times and assigned to cover the Camel Trophy in Borneo, and subsequently in Australia and Madagascar.