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Akinabalu Festive Affair

It was the first of its kind. Mount Kinabalu had always welcomed visitors from all walks of life all year round, but this year was an exception. In March, the world as we knew it, went into lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Malaysia was not spared. For the first time in many years, Mount Kinabalu had to close its doors for an uncertain time frame. For months, we could only catch a glimpse of her silhouette from afar. And so when it finally reopened end of May, a lesser-known teacher from Tawau with a great deal of climbing experience, took up a unique challenge. He would scale Mount Kinabalu for the 26th time in a rather 'festive' manner.

Jenal Hending at the summit of Mount Kinabalu dressed in a traditional 'Baju Melayu' attire.

Akinabalu Back In Action!

On 12th May 2020, hikers were greeted with a surprising news; Mount Kinabalu will reopen on 17th May with 100 climbers allowed at one time. I had known Jenal from trekking at Maliau Basin. He was the man behind our 5-day amazing experience in Sabah's Lost World. Yes, I would vouch for his impressive climbing experience, having conquered most of the highest and difficult mountains in Borneo as well as Annapurna Base Camp.

This is how I met Jenal (far left) last year at Maliau Basin. He is an amazing adventure organiser.

Our conversation was rather brief. Jenal had already postponed several hiking excursions to Mount Kinabalu and Mount Trus Madi due to the pandemic. I had expressed my interest in climbing via Ferrata once the pandemic was under control. "Later, we arrange something," said Jenal. As soon as news broke that Kinabalu park was reopnening, Jenal had already secured slots to scale Mount Kinabalu during Kaamatan weekend, thus ending his three-month hiking hiatus.

The Pandemic Ascent

Eid al-Fitri and Kaamatan had finally arrived! Though the celebrations had to be dimmed this year, it didn't stop a group of hikers from bringing the festive mood all the way up to Mount Kinabalu. At the very start, social distancing rules were evident. Upon arrival, cars were not allowed inside the park and parking spaces were provided before the main entrance. The registration counters were no longer inside the office. A makeshift canopy had been set up outside to register all climbers and hand sanitisers were placed at specific points. "Everything was well-organised and we adhered to all regulations. There were only a handful of us trekking on that particular weekend. The only difference at this point was that we had our face masks on and it was rather quiet. Indeed, it was a stark difference to the habitual bustling Kinabalu park." said Jenal.

Temperature checks before entering the park.

Image source: Sabah Parks FB.

Registration done outside the main office.

Image source: Sabah Parks FB.

Jenal in his 'new normal' look!

The van services from Kinabalu park to Timpohon also saw social distancing measures being enforced. "Now, only six individuals were allowed at one go into the van. At Timpohon, right before the ascent, we had to keep one metre distance from each other during briefing." explained Jenal. The ascent to Laban Rata was similar to Jenal's previous experiences. "It didn't differ as much. We all have different trekking paces, so social distancing wasn't a problem. The resting huts along the way were also marked to remind us of social distancing."said Jenal.

Jenal (far left) and his team en route to Laban Rata.

"Everything about the climb felt the same as before but it was quiet and peaceful,"said Jenal.

Resting huts marked to ensure social distancing.

Image source: Sabah Parks FB.

Distancing At Laban Rata

High up at Laban Rata, the scene was also rather unusual. Temperature checks and hand sanitisers were at every entry point. In the common dining area, only two to three people were allowed to share a table. Jenal also expressed some changes in the food catering. "Understandably, the menu had limited options due to the situation. We had rice, noodles, chicken curry and vegetables. There were all delicious!"exclaimed Jenal.

Temperature check again prior to entering Panalaban.

Image source: Sabah Parks FB.

Only two to three people are allowed to share one table.

Image source: Sabah Parks FB.

As for choices of sleeping accommodation, Lemaing Hostel was his pick. Gone are the days of cramming four people into a room with two bunk beds. This time only the bottom beds can be used, meaning only two persons to a room. It was definitely more comfortable and spacious than before. At 8 pm, it was time to turn the lights off. The summit awaits!

A walk in the clouds at Laban Rata.

Low's Peak With A Twist

The journey to the summit remained the same irrespective of the pandemic. It is tough for those who are not familiar with its terrain and altitude and relatively enjoyable for the seasoned hikers. This time around, everything about the climb was perfect. The weather wasn't too cold and at 6 am, Jenal had reached the summit with his son and the rest of the team. Of course, the most normal thing to do is to pose next to the summit signage and take plenty of 'cliché' summit shots. We have all seen it. That jumping pose next to the reflection pool and the one ringgit note shot . So what is new this year for someone who had already summitted Mount Kinabalu over 26 times?

"There were no specific reasons. I just wanted to know what it felt like to hike in a 'Baju Melayu' outfit."

Jenal Hending

Jenal in full 'Baju Melayu' attire during Kaamatan weekend at the summit of Mount Kinabalu.