First Sunday of 2015: Hiking Bukit Shahbandar (Again)

If there is one thing more uncertain than predicting the weather before a hike, it is coming up with a blog title that differentiates one from the other. We hiked the 9 Pondok trail on the first day of the new year and three days later we’re back hiking the same trails. Another day, another adventure through the forest and rocky terrains except with fewer company than our last hike. Also, Jong (red tee) a Miri resident who trained exclusively on these hills for his successful 2014 Mount Kinabalu climb joined us for the first time this year. Our morning began with a drizzle as we left our house in Seria that quickly escalated to a heavy rainfall by the time we reached the Seria By-pass. There was turning back or changing of mind because of bad weather — we remained positive, optimistically hopeful that the weather would clear up by the time we’re near Jerudong — it did, to everyone’s delight :)

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A group photo here at the intersection to Pondok 7. This trail is very popular for hikers that prefer a slightly less intense hike, by passing the more challenging and often slippery trails (when wet) that connect Pondok 4, 5, and 6.

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A cloudy morning makes for a dramatic photo moment. I am not too fond of dark clouds but I’m far less fond of environmental portraits with washed out sky. Lighting the subjects here is another matter with the PowerShot G11’s tiny flash just isn’t up to the task. I had to meet things halfway by exposing for the clouds to retain as much detail as possible, setup flash for slow sync and shooting RAW to pull brightness from the otherwise underexposed faces. You only need to look at our shadows to see direction and intensity of sunlight. Click on image to view larger version.

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Jong who was once upon a time the face for Muffin & Co. is incredibly fascinated by Shahbandar’s flora, in particularly the pitcher plants or ‘monkey cups’ as they’re commonly called, or even “somboi-somboi” as they’re called in local Bruneian context.

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Whether you choose to hike 7 or 9 Pondok trail, Bukit Shahbandar offers trail runners and hikers a variety of terrain to keep things interesting. I would get bored rather quickly if there was only one kind of terrain — an hour to get there from home and another hour to get home — would be quite the buzz kill.

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The short rocky trail between Pondok 6 and 7 has some amazing scenery with Pondok 7 offering a higher vantage point overlooking the rooftop of two (maybe three) huts in the distance.

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Descending from Pondok 8 the hike to the last hut, is met with a steep, rocky climb all the way to Pondok 9. Alternatively, there’s a by-pass side trail for anyone who wishes to give this a miss.

see MapMyHike for trail map and workout stats of this hike.

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If this part of the climb looks vaguely familiar to you that’s because it is — scroll up to see my blog header image and that’s a wider perspective. Quite deceptive to think that’s the top of where Pondok 9 might be when in fact it’s only the start of the climb. Like the Pondok 5 lookout photographing people and exposing them correctly here is also quite challenging considering the camera is aimed directly at the bright sky the natural tendency of camera’s automatic metering is to underexpose rendering shadow areas (of trees) and faces dark. Once again, the G11’s DSLR controls saved the day! Click on image to view larger version.

Hiking Bukit Shahbandar on First Day of 2015

I couldn’t think of anything better to ring in the new year than a group hiking activity with like minded enthusiasts. So a few days ago I sent out casual invites to friends on Whatsapp, followed by a quick Facebook post on the eve. At the same time I was worried about bad weather ruining the plan (we’ve had good sunny weather in between). Came Dec 31st, my family and I had Thai cuisine for lunch, wife and I squeezed in a 4.75 km hike in Sungai Liang (Jewel had weekly track training while Jamie was at the cinema watching Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb with a friend) before we all got ready for for dinner at Kaizen Sushi (deviating from our regular haunt, Excapade Sushi)

Excited about the hike, I slept early only to be woken up by looping sounds of relentless rain. Half dazed, I went back to sleep with great hopes that rain would stop by dawn — it never did. In fact it had rained non-stop since midnight and I was pretty sure the trails would be soaked, muddy and expectedly slippery by now. I was close to calling the whole thing off but Eric was going ahead with the hike with his staff from various Mr Baker’s Bakeshop outlets I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity especially when rain had finally stopped. Woke everybody up, grabbed breakfast and made a beeline to Bukit Shahbandar despite the persistent gray weather.

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14 of us in total comprising mostly staff from Mr Baker’s Bakeshop led by owner Eric Pui, including Joe and my family of 4. Both Jamie and Jewel are wearing their new Skechers Go Run Ultra. I’m happy to report that in spite of the muddy and slippery trails, the Ultra’s outsole lugs have been proven effective in handling the unforgiving trail conditions.

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As soon as I took the first picture (above) battery indicator went from full charge to blinking red. (second battery after Singapore holiday). Mistake of not packing a spare and I wasn’t sure how long the remaining charge would hold but surprised I was still able to shoot many more, with flash!

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The break away intersection to Pondok 7 is one of my favourite photo spots although not the easiest to set up, more so when the surface is wet and slippery. The Canon G11 is set up on the Lollipod with 10 second timer activated shutter to fire 3 shots.

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The scenic lookout between Pondok 4 and 5 is another popular photo spot. Flat ground makes it a lot easier to set up camera. Behind us is part of the extended landscape that stretches the Shahbandar trail by another 3km. A leisure hike that includes the extended trail would take up to 4 hours to complete.

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I’ve crossed this bridge located between Pondok 5 and Pondok 6 countless times but this is the first time I took this shot from a higher vantage point — 13 people on the bridge makes the picture more interesting than usual.

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Here’s a photo on the slope before Pondok 7 where the group stood randomly. Every photo op was an opportunity to rest for those who are exhausted from the steep hills.

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Another picturesque landscape tucked away in a corner of the rocky trail before Pondok 9.

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Slowly but surely every one of Eric’s staff made it to the final pit stop, the observation tower. From here on back to the starting point, it’s downhill and flat all the way. Well done first timers!

Aerial view of Shahbandar Hills | see MapMyHike for map details and workout stats.

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My workout stats for this hike and the longest time I’ve done for a 9 hills hike. The upside of staying in the forest longer is higher calories burned. I’m sure it’s not a linear computation and MapMyHike algorithm takes into account movements tracked by GPS and time it took to work out the burn rate.

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So I finished and tracked a year and four months of my workouts recently adding badminton to the stats and ended 2014 with some hard working numbers to reflect on. 2015: Burn more calories! :)

Take Awesome 10 Megapixel Selfies With A Canon PowerShot G11

If you own a Canon Powershot G series that features a tilt and swivel LCD screen, you already have a camera that takes phenomenally better selfies than your latest smartphone — that is, if image quality matters to you. I was never drawn to taking selfies because smartphone front cameras are largely still supremely inferior when compared to a 5 year old battle-scarred G11. Also, you may have read about RAW support in Android 5.0 Lollipop, I am shooting RAW+JPEG with the G11. Only slight drawback with this camera is its rather narrow 28mm field of view (newer compacts feature 24mm). Regardless, I would take distortion free any day except in rare circumstances where fish eye would be more desired.

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The Lollipod tripod is light, affordable, telescopic and extremely versatile. I have a pair that I picked up in Singapore to mount my remotely triggered Canon Speedlite 580EX flashes. The legs when folded turn into a monopod and let you grip the stick better to maintain camera orientation. The G11 is heavier than a smartphone so a rounded selfie stick is going to be a bit of a challenge if you get what I mean.

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Before mounting the camera onto to the Lollipod, be sure to enable Face AiAF, Servo AF, Continuous AF for facial recognition and continuous tracking. Flip the LCD forward and you’re good to go (with some experimentation to find what works for you).

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Attached to the G11 is a wired shutter release RS-60E3 with more than enough cable to run the entire length of the stick. I originally tested the setup using a 10 seconds timer setting but it got too cumbersome as the camera resets itself each time camera power timed out. Other than triggering the camera, the remote shutter release button also wakes the camera from sleep so that’s convenient.

So yesterday, I put the rig to the test (without the remote shutter cable solely relying on 10 seconds timer for each shot) at our 4 km Bukit Pak Natu hike in Sungai Liang. These pictures were taken between 3.30pm and 4.45pm on an extremely sunny afternoon and what’s the first thing that springs to mind when shooting under such conditions? Yes, harsh shadows, strong contrasts and if you’re taking pictures using a smartphone, front or back camera, you would most probably end up with pictures of dark faces or blown out background, not to mention images with no discernible background detail.

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Taking pictures the way it’s always been taken using a tripod. I have on many occasions hiked with friends and used the Lollipod as a tripod to take group pictures. A tad inconvenient to set up compared to a quick smartphone selfie but priority being image quality over speed.

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The G11 and the Lollipod combined weigh a bit more than your regular selfie stick and a smartphone. The weight may not be to everyone’s liking (it’s really not heavy) but the same principle associated with handling a DSLR applies to this setup — the weight helps with stability in addition to the camera’s optical image stabilization.

The following images were taken at various scenic spots throughout our hike — no forest canopy here just full on direct sunlight leaving subjects with dark faces especially when hats are worn. Here’s the thing with this setup: the G11 has DSLR-like controls so it’s extremely useful to have FEC dial to balance flash power when shooting under such extreme conditions. Conditions that overwhelm even the mightiest of smartphones (their tiny LED flash do not stand a chance). I shot RAW+JPEG and each of these images are good for A3 prints.

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Why choose between properly exposed faces or blue skies when you can have both. The G11 on-board flash (dialed to correct power) takes care of that at the same time captures landscape with good detail (as opposed to a lump of green artifacts resembling distance trees.

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Another great example where fill flash gives the subject the light it needs while camera meters for the background preserving all details behind the subject including blue sky and white clouds with no washed out highlights.

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With my Columbia Omni-Freeze top and wife’s Patagonia Capilene® 1 both fairly recently acquired, we get to stay outdoors longer and stay cool both with UV protection. Love the heat, love the outdoors!