Saturday, 24 January 2015

Up In The Cool Hills of Janda Baik

Our Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor Branch annual Volunteer Appreciation Day (which usually starts on a Saturday morning and ends on Sunday after lunch) typically takes place in December or January each year to coincide with International Volunteer Day to thank the most dedicated and helpful of our volunteers. Previous Volunteer Appreciation Days (VAD) have been held at the MNS Sepang Environmental Interpretative Centre, Air Itam Forest Reserve and Awana Genting Longhouse.

This year, the Committee decided to hold it in a nature spot outside of Selangor, and we chose Janda Baik, Pahang, a hilly rural area with an altitude of 600-800 metres above sea level, making it a cool, chilly retreat with waterfalls and primary rainforests to explore.


I was in charge of the ice-breaking activity and offered to drive the four of us from Green Living to our destination. We arrived at the resort nice and early and marvelled at how lush and green the gardens are and how quaint and charming our rooms looked.

The reception and administrative area is a charming kampung house on stilts.

Aravind, Liza and Illani (Green Living's most reliable and consistent volunteers) standing at the top of the steps leading to our rooms.

This is where Liza, Illani, Sok Yin and I stayed for the night.

Steven and Rafiq coming up the steps.

Lunch at the cafeteria. Food was almost inedible but we decided not to complain and to eat everything anyway, rather than let it go to waste.

The cafeteria cat who gravitated immediately to Aravind and me. I caught her in mid-meow.

We had our ice-breaking session in an indoor meeting room and I got the participants to mingle and answer a list of questions to help them identify and understand their committee members better. It was pretty hilarious. Who is the one with a BSc in Fisheries? Who has a glass bottle collection? Who is an avid tennis and squash player?

So often, we forget that our hardworking committee members are more than just conservationists. They have lives, quirks and interests outside of volunteering, too.

After giving out prizes consisting of treats (trail mix bars, roasted peanuts, pretzels -- all of which came in handy because the unsatisfactory cafeteria food left many hungry), we went on a guided Flora Walk, led by our affable Flora Group coordinator, Koon Hup.

Ginger plants looking quite honeycomb-like and exotic.

Bird-of-Paradise flowers looking very avian and almost animate.

Heliconia galore!

The inflorescence of an ornamental pineapple plant.

A nice, sturdy tree that I wanted to climb until someone pointed out a massive beehive suspended beneath one of its boughs to me.

Watching the local children drift down the fast-flowing but shallow river on rubber tubes.

Picnickers playing in the cold, clear water. Some of the foolhardy guys on the big rock on the left were doing backflips and fancy dives into the water. It was a miracle no one smashed their heads against the rocks.

Birdwatching from the resort grounds. Some of the birders managed to take pretty amazing shots of barbets and bulbuls.

Aravind and I were sitting by the river, soaking in the atmosphere and the crisp evening air when we heard melodious birdsong. We traced the sound to a pair of hill mynahs (a protected species) perched on the branches of this tree.

Although I did not manage to get a good photograph of the mynahs with my el cheapo compact camera, I know that each time I look back on this photo, I will remember the moment, with me sitting on the ground, looking up at this tree, blissfully enjoying the mynahs' delightful missive of love and joy to each other.

After dinner, we attended a workshop on packing wilderness First Aid Kits, with each Special Interest Group coordinator showing the contents of their First Aid kits, and Dr. Suba commenting on the adequacy of each First Aid Kit. Some of the participants, including Aravind, Liza and Illani, went back to their rooms to rest after this session. A number of us joined Steven on a herp (herpetology) walk around the resort grounds. The rain turned out to be a blessing, because we found frogs and toads galore as soon as we exited the meeting hall.

Common grass frog.

A juvenile Phrynoidis asper in my hands.

Ryan (age 8+), is a natural at herping. He moved swiftly enough to catch frogs yet held them gently enough not to hurt them or their sensitive skin. (He's not our volunteer yet, he was here with his Dad, Tony, because some participants pulled out at the last minute and we did not want the food and lodging to go to waste as it had all been paid for in advance).

Kaloula pulchra, also known as Asian Painted Toad or Banded Bullfrog. They are my favourite frogs because of their aesthetics, their role as indicators of environmental health, and the low, two-note mooing sound they make which lulls everyone to sleep.

An adult Phrynoidis asper, which has not reached full size yet but is still quite a big beauty. My hand is there for scale.

A Painted Chorus Frog in Steven's hands...

... and hiding in the wet grass.

Those of us who wanted to participate in the Waterfall Hike, led by Jimmy, assembled at the resort entrance after breakfast on Sunday. I was surprised that Aravind wanted to come along as it was not going to be an easy hike and there would be bugs and leeches, but he assured me that he would like to experience proper hiking at least once. Wonders never cease.

The trail was wet and slippery from the rain the night before, and it was mostly an uphill climb. It was so easy to see from this hike the link between deforestation and soil erosion and landslides. The complex network of tree roots served as grips, anchors and ladders. In areas devoid of primary forest trees and leaf litter, the soil was exposed, infertile and slippery.

We arrived at the Tier 5 Waterfall after half an hour.

Liza looked happy, while Aravind was positively miserable. I gave him one of my cotton gardening gloves to help him grip trees and vines during the climb. I had initially put them on for picking up litter with, but there was not much litter up there in the hills, thank goodness. I found two leeches on him -- one near his pocket and another crawling up his shoulder -- and quickly removed them before he noticed and had occasion to panic.

It was at our waterfall rest stop that Jimmy produced his Sea-To-Summit trash sack, issued to him by Leave No Trace International's Malaysian chapter. I was practically drooling at the sight. It would be perfect for my wilderness cleanup projects. The plastic trash bag slides and clips right into the trash sack, and the tough waterproof outer sack would prevent the plastic bag from ripping and spilling its contents all over the forest trail. The clips and handles on the trash sack also means that it would leave both hands free for climbing when needed. When I expressed my interest in purchasing one, Jimmy arranged for me to meet with the programme coordinator of Leave No Trace Malaysia, for which I am grateful.

A bamboo shoot growing right by the waterfall. This would be so tasty cooked in a stew of coconut milk, tumeric and chillies. (Yes, I was hungry by then.)

We found these remarkable leafless flowers blooming at the base of the bamboo plants. Given the absence of leaves, our resident botanist Ming believes them to be bamboo parasites. We found this nugget of information very fascinating.

We arrived at the Tier 7 Waterfall and I decided I couldn't climb up the slippery rocks and steep slopes in fake Crocs and leech socks, so I stayed in the pools and played with the tiny fishes that nibbled at my fingers. Aravind had a bad fall and hit his elbow, so we waited to see if it got worse or showed signs of breakage or fracture. The climb down was pretty difficult for him with only one good arm. On the bright side, the pain kept him from worrying about trivialities such as leeches.

We took a different route on our way down, and this bamboo grove looked like a work of modern minimalist architecture to me. We passed through the archways and pavillions of bamboo. Mother Nature is a talented artist and architect.

We reached the Resort around 1.00 p.m., filthy, itchy and ravenous. Getting clean was more important than grabbing lunch to me, and I had the best shower ever. (Until I discovered a big leech bite on my left bicep, which was still sore and bleeding almost two weeks later, but that is a story for another day).

We bade goodbye to the other VAD participants and discussed when we would meet next before driving back to the city before the inevitable late afternoon thunderstorm. We stopped by Liza and Illani's house to drop them off and have tea with their father before going to the SPCA to pick up Portia, the stray cat that we left with Kak Mazni for spaying and post-op care. Portia does look well, but she is still as feisty and fierce as ever (hence the name, I decided she deserves to be named after the smartest and feistiest of Shakespeare's heroines).

It was marvellous to be given the opportunity to recharge our batteries in the midst of nature, surrounded by fresh air, clean rivers and trees and birds galore. For two blessed days, we did not discuss the crashed AirAsia plane, the East Coast floods, empty governmental promises, the falling value of the ringgit, or the terror attacks in Paris. We merely let Mother Nature heal our bodies, minds and souls. And this made us ready again to face the challenges the voluntarily take on as volunteers and environmental activists.

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