Thursday 12 December 2013

Mt Kinabalu 1

The photo above is one of the best I have ever taken. It juxtaposes a speck of red against a sea of dull rock making the subject stand out like that little girl in the movie Schindler's List (which debuted a year later). It also captures well the joy we all felt reaching that high summit.

I had not intended to climb Mt Kinabalu at all that year. I was a committee member of the Recreational Club where I worked. I met some outgoing types there. A friend of a friend knew someone who was planning a trip and looking for like-minded kakis. 

I did not know anything about Kota Kinbalu/Sabah at the time, only that it was some sort of timber port and that things there were rather expensive - even more so than Singapore. That timber bit I'd learnt while working as a student-labourer in a timber yard in Kranji one school holiday. The cost-of-living aspect I had learnt from a family friend who lived in Miri/Sarawak. Like my family, they were also into the ship repair business and traveled often to Sabah. Okay, in retrospect perhaps I did know something about Sabah after all. But of its cities and people, not much.

That friend of a friend who rang me up was Cecilia. She was working in TCE Audio at the time. TCE was the French Thomson Consumer Electronics company and its audio plant in Toa Payoh North at the time was making cassette recorders and hi-fi equipment. It's the same building now occupied by Singapore Press Holdings. 

Besides making social visits to friends at the factory's R&D department, I played tennis with some blokes there as well. My two partners were very good hard hitters whose powerful ground strokes could literally burst balls. I sometimes wondered why they were not representing Singapore at major tournaments. 

That tennis court at the back of the factory was not the best location to play the game. As it was located next to a busy road (Braddell). Balls would fly over the fence and be eaten up by the heavy traffic there.


Cecilia's kakis were not from Thomson. Most of them were from NTUC Income. It turned out that there would be eight of us going, led by a guy named by Richard, a late 20- or early 30-something. His wife Peck Hong would join in as well. Both - looking like a well-settled married couple - did not seem the most gung-ho of outdoor types (they were rather fair). I guess they were both looking to rekindle some kind of adventure spirit they once had back in their school days. They were certainly experienced going about it.

I liked them as they were rather emotionally mature types. Richard did become our de facto head and helped plan the trip and logistics. His wife Peck Hong assisted.

I don't remember being asked to help out much in the prep-work except to cough up money for the airfare and accomodation. Everything was well taken care of and Richard also promised a surprise during the trip.


Like everybody else, I did my own preparation for the climb. At the time, the highest mountains I ever climbed were those in South Taiwan during my National Service and the occasional Mt Ophir in Segamat, Malaysia. But Mt Kinabalu was a different proposition altogether as it was way higher. The air would thin out at the summit and that could make us suffer from some kind of altitude-related sickness.

It could also be very cold!

Well, I knew it wouldn't be snow-cold so I decided to bring just one winter jacket, the soft nylon/cotton-filled type from Taiwan that was popular with SAF soldier-boys at the time. They were cheap and easily bought from those army surplus stores above the Golden Mile Food Center (better known as Beach Road Hawker Centre).

For the other clothes, I decided to buy some cheap ones from a factory outlet and then leave them behind in Sabah. There was an excellent outlet at Rochor Centre that sold so-called "factory rejects". The clothes ranged from $2 to $10 only. A GF used to buy me nice jumpers from that store when I was an Engineering student freezing in over-air-conditioned lecture theatres. Going back there brought back strong memories with this pretty and leggy girl.

That factory outlet sold a variety of clothes. They were made of cotton as well as wool and many were actually defect-free (with the label cut off as usual). I decided to pick out a few for light cold weather. The summit would be cold but snowless. And the stay at the top (we were told) would be short. Hence there was no need to be over-zealous with extreme winterwear.

Before heading home, I popped over to the shoe store next door to pick up a pair of high-top hiking shoes. They would protect my ankles from the granite rocks I was told were plenty near the summit. The shoes I eventually bought were cheap but good ones from China. (They eventually lasted me many years! Old, reliable Chinese manufacturing methods still evident obviously!)

For a backpack, I used a tall yellow nylon one with a frame. It was something I had used when I climbed Mt Ophir nine years back. It was a good decision as it really helped to preserve my posture and prevent backaches from carrying a heavy load. It came with a waist strap that kept everything snuggly fit and tight. I could jump and hop without jangling the backpack about.

Because of the way I climbed, Cecilia and the rest would later nickname me Mountain Goat.


To fly to Sabah's capital Kota Kinabalu on the cheap (I think it cost us each about $400 both ways), we took our flight from Senai airport in Johor, Malaysia instead of from our very own at Changi. However, that meant crossing the Causeway at Woodlands. Thankfully, there was an express coach lane and we passed Johor Customs after only a short delay. We didn't even have to disembark from the bus!

At Sennai, we boarded a small MAS Boeing plane from the tarmac and were soon on our way. That way of boarding reminded me of my first plane trip back in the '60s. I was just 3+ years old then. Airports at the time did not have aerobridges; they used either push cart stair-ladders or motorised ones mounted on a truck. It was all very Casablanca movie-like in terms of nostalgia.

I don't remember the flight to KK taking very long - probably about 1.5hrs. I think all of us were kind of nervous as none of us had climbed a mountain that high before. We were all newbies and did not know what to expect.

After landing, we took cabs to our accomodation in the city, which was a budget hotel called Hotel Asia. As it was late, we decided to just settle in and head out for breakfast early the next morning, which was a Monday. Yup, we all took four days off with the Labour Day holiday (May 1st) sandwiched in the middle. 

That would be the day we reach the summit. How sweet! I just hope we wouldn't labour much getting there! But it would prove prophetic.

Story continues with Mt Kinabalu 2

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