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A hike up Cameron Highlands' highest mountain via the Mossy Forest is a trek into a magical wonderland albeit one filled with twists, turns and slippery tracks write Zalina Mohd Som THE morning doesn't go as planned. We are to meet Haziq from the Cameron Highlands District Forestry Office around 8.30 am at the junction of the road that leads up to Mossy Forest. However, just minutes before the appointment, my hiking buddies excuse themselves to answer nature's call. Perhaps they are nervous. Actually, I am too but I have to wait for Haziq. Going in and out of a building during the Recovery Movement Control Order is not as simple as ABC. The supposedly simple trip to the loo takes the girls almost an hour.  Haziq can't wait as he and his team have to be at the small office of the Mossy Forest entrance at 9am sharp. He leaves first, but not before giving me instructions on getting there. "But I thought you would be driving us to the entrance," I cry out. I'm not comfortable driving someone else's car, let alone navigating a steep, narrow, and rough road that requires the agility and toughness of a four-wheel drive. "Ah, don't worry. You're driving a Proton X70. You'll be up there in no time," Haziq replies and quickly excuses himself.

A BUMPY START

Well, it takes us almost 40 minutes to reach the entrance of Mossy Forest. At one hole-laden stretch, I have to get the driver of an oncoming car to help me maneuver my vehicle. The sound of screeching tires on loose gravel has somehow got the best of me. "It's a smooth drive from here onwards. Just switch off the air-conditioning, wind down the windows, enjoy the cool air and you'll be all right," advises the helpful chap. On arrival, still with butterflies in my stomach, I get down from the SUV to join Haziq, worried that we have kept him waiting for too long. Next to him is another hiker. My two comrades tag along, each with their own hiking stick. Haziq turns to the other guy and says, "Don't think we need hiking sticks, right?" The guy nods in agreement. Ah, cocky!, I mutter to myself. Before I could defend my mates, Haziq explains: "With the condition of the track, they won't be of any use. Your hands need to be free." Haziq then introduces his friend. Ja is a certified nature guide who will be leading our group. Haziq, meanwhile, will take on the duty of a sweeper. Ja, in his no-nonsense tone of voice, briefs us on the trail as well as the do's and don'ts.

What catches my attention is when he mentions the cut-off time for our expedition. "Regardless of whether or not we reach the peak of Gunung Mini Irau, we have to turn back at 1 pm. This means you have three hours to ascend," he says. Alamak, how- lah? Can we reach a peak in three hours? I'm told that some groups have turned back just halfway up the peak. Can we, who are slow hikers, do it within the allotted time? "If you want to complete it, walk faster but be careful. And take fewer breaks," Haziq interrupts.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

And so the adventure begins. The short walk on the boardwalk, built over the original mossy forest trail to help protect the forest, fails to ease our anxiety. When our feet finally hit the forest floor, we say a silent prayer and follow Ja's footsteps. Though we are anxious, we keep our usual pace. We do not rush or race along the path. Walking at our individual pace, we will wait for each other if we find that someone is falling behind. Due to the condition of the trail, we actually cannot hike fast even if we want to. We have to take a long pause before a step is made as the track is practically covered by a massive network of twisting, and slippery, roots of the hard montane forest trees. 

We have to plan our steps and consider which branches, rocks or even roots to hold on to for balance and to prevent us from slipping and stepping on the soft, squishy ground. The situation gets so intense that we practically ignore our thirst as well as our sore and tired muscles as we make our way up. But thanks to the pauses we make, we get to enjoy and fully take in the magical feeling the Mossy Forest has generously showered us with. The forest looks like those in fairy-tale movies, only better because it's real and we're in it. The trees that grow majestically from the black wet ground have crooked branches either covered with thick moss or lush air plants. All around, there are sprinkles of color from wild blooms that thrive in rotting roots, tree trunks, and branches. Filling the air between the trees are low-level clouds that at times move as the wind blows. It's just surreal.

Whether it's the magical power lent by the mystical forest or our sheer determination, we reach the peak of Gunung Mini Irau (2,008 meters) in two hours and 45 minutes. The peak, according to Ja, is actually a false peak. The actual Gunung Irau peak is at 2,090 meters but it is now inaccessible due to a landslide that occurred two years ago. The difference in altitude aside, the higher Irau which is the third highest mountain in Pahang, is another 45 minutes' hike from Mini Irau.

A HAPPY ENDING

Happy with our time, Ja lets us enjoy the peak for almost 40 minutes before calling us to descend. He is by now friendlier — perhaps he is like Cameron Highlands, cold in the morning and warming up as the day progresses! "We go slow and steady. Let's hope that it won't rain and we're able to come out by 4.30 pm," he says. Alas, just 20 minutes into the return leg, it starts to rain.  "Ah, there we go. And it's heavy," Ja laments. Heavy? To me, it's more like a spray of thick mist. Only occasionally do I feel raindrops on my head. "This is heavy. We cannot feel the raindrops because of the thick forest canopy which has broken the drops down into spray," he explains. Thanks to the canopy too, we don't get drenched immediately. Walking in the rain for the two and a half hours in the fantasy-like Mossy Forest is another (cool) story altogether.  Wet and cold but happy and contented, we make our way down to Ringlet where The Lakehouse Cameron Highlands, our warm and charming home for the night, awaits. "Let's celebrate the day with a big dine-in dinner tonight," I suggest. Our celebratory dinner is a sumptuous piping-hot meal of white rice with home-style dishes at The Lakehouse Restaurant. We end the night with our bodies getting the much-needed horizontal treatment on the soft beds in our deluxe room.

TRAVEL FACTS

GUNUNG Irau is the highest mountain in Cameron Highlands and the 15th highest in Malaysia. Until the 45-minute trail to the "real" peak is open, hikers will have to settle for the peak of Mini Irau — erstwhile known as the false peak — which is 82m shorter than its higher sister, Irau (2090m). Irau is inaccessible due to a landslide two years ago. For the Mini Irau climbing expedition, my tracking device recorded a total distance of 10.30km, done in six and a half hours (with an almost 45-minute break at the peak) and with only 200m elevation difference. Besides a sound level of fitness, enough rations and appropriate hiking gear, one also needs a permit from the Cameron Highlands District Forestry Office and a certified guide to attempt this hike. 

UP TO EXPECTATIONS

IT'S hard not to compare the 2020 Proton X70 CKD, which is locally assembled at Proton's Tanjung Malim plant, with its older sister, the CBU version. While they don't look much different from each other, car enthusiasts say each variant has their own highlights. Well, I'm not a car person — a car is a car, no matter what — but I like this SUV. The drive is smooth and sturdy. Sitting behind the wheel with its luxurious furnishing and accessories certainly makes me feel pampered.

Engine 1.8L TGDI (petrol)

Maximum output 135kW/5,500rpm

Maximum torque 300Nm/1,750rpm

Drive Mode Eco/Normal/Sport

Safety Six SRS airbags, anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic brake distribution (EBD), brake assist (BA), auto brake hold, electronic stability control (ESC), traction control system (TCS), hill hold assist (HHA) and hill descent control (HDC).

NEW FEATURES ONLY IN THE CKD VARIANT Ventilated seats, a power tailgate with a foot sensor, rear reclining seats, an upgrade to the existing engine and a seven-speed wet dual-clutch transmission. Source - NST

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