DESPITE the difficult trek up, the multi-tiered waterfall in Kota Tinggi is worth the effort, writes Zulkifly Ab Latif
I’M holding the pieces of paper and it’s the same cheeky feeling I had when I first received my learner’s driving licence that made me actually want to be pulled over by the police so I could show it to them. Only this time it’s a permit to enter a forest reserve in Kota Tinggi, Johor and the police are now the Forestry Department.
“Just let me hang on to it. I’ll keep it safe in my dry bag,” I eagerly tell Fadili, the leader of our eight-men hiking group.
Fadili gives me an annoyed look and puts out his right hand, gesturing to me to return the permit. “I did all the paperwork and it’s under my name. I’ll hang on to it,” he says. He’s right, of course. Fine, I will give him this opportunity for glory, at least this time.
Afdal, a 20-something member of the group is doing warming-up exercises. It’s his first time hiking and camping.
“It’s this way right?” Afdal asks, pointing to the big archway next to the large parking lot we’re standing in.
“No, that’s the entry to Kota Tinggi Waterfalls. We’re going to Pelepah Kiri,” I answer.
Afdal’s confusion is understandable. Unlike the developed and touristy Kota Tinggi Waterfalls, there are no roadside signboards or markers that shows the Pelepah Kiri Falls even exist.
But the falls are gradually becoming a popular destination amongst outdoor enthusiasts, tourists and even weekend picnickers thanks to word of mouth and social media. Along with this increase in human traffic unfortunately, come the usual problems — litterbugs, safety issues and unauthorised entries.
INTO THE FOREST
We meet Khaidil Tahir, a forester attached to the Johor State Forestry Department, South District, near the bridge that is our starting point.Khaidil is gracious enough to join us on his own free time from work, which our group greatly appreciates.
Fadili hands the entry permit over to Khaidil, who then does a quick headcount to tally the number of people listed in the permit. He then briefs everyone on the Do’s and Don’ts while entering the forest reserve.
Afdal is visibly eager to get going. “Yes. Leave only footprints behind. So let’s start making foot prints!” he says, stomping his new shiny rubber shoes on the ground.
The gateway to Pelepah Kiri Falls is by walking ankle-deep through a shallow river under a bridge. On both banks of the river are private oil palm plantations. Trekkers who attempt this route usually stick close to the river or even wade through it until they reach a trailhead into the jungle.
It’s easy to get disoriented regarding the location of this trailhead so secure the services of an experienced guide.
“Pelepah Kiri Falls is actually hidden within the Panti Permanent Reserved Forest , a protected area. That’s why entry permits are required,” says Khaidil.
“Some people complain that we’re only implementing the permit system now because it has gained popularity, which is of course untrue. The permit system has been around for years. It’s only that we’ve to enforce it more now since Pelepah Kiri Waterfalls has started getting more visitors,” he adds.
Undeniably, the Forestry Department’s permit system is in place to ensure that protected areas do not exceed its “carrying capacity”, referring to the number of visitors an area can receive without suffering substantial environmental harm.
Half an hour later, our group finally reaches the jungle path that leads to Pelepah Kiri Waterfalls. Further along the path, we come across a large yellow signboard affixed onto a tree. The sign reads “Hutan Simpanan Kekal Panti”, which is Malay for Panti Permanent Forest Reserve. The sign also warns that you need a permit to enter the area. Having secured a permit for a two-day stay, our group continues trekking.
AT THE SECOND TIER
We reach the campsite around 11am. The campsite is nothing more than a natural clearing near the banks of Pelepah Kiri River, with the remnants of a campfire pit in the middle.
“We’re at the second tier of the falls. We’ll camp here for the night, relax and trek further upstream tomorrow morning,” Fadili suggests. Seeing that it’s a leisurely two-day weekend camping trip, I see no reason to disagree.
Afdal, the camping novice, walks up to me, looking a little concerned. “What do we do when we need to go ...you know …the toilet?” he asks awkwardly. There is, of course, no toilet. We’re inside a Permanent Reserved Forest, not an Amenity or Recreational Forest.
“You find a private spot in the bushes over there and dig a hole,” I answer, handing him my parang, suggesting that he use it as a digging tool. As he walks towards the bushes, I warn him not to wander too far and to stay within earshot.
Khaidil is not camping with us but he nevertheless helps with setting up the tents and clearing the campsite. At this point we discover discarded trash — empty plastic bottles, tin cans and even socks between the tree roots and rocks.
The forester lets out a sigh, takes out several trash bags from his daypack and starts picking up the trash. Our group joins him in the clean-up. Later, Khaidil leaves with some of the collected trash. I assure him that we will take the rest of the rubbish when we leave tomorrow.
Night has closed in. The surrounding forest is silent and still except for the gentle flow of the Pelepah Kiri river I hear the occupants of the four-man tent beside mine laughing and bickering; something to do about living space and personal privacy. I am glad that I brought along my own single occupant tent.
As I’m settling in for the night, a familiar sound begins to materialise on my tent’s rainfly. What begins as rhythmic taps on the taut fabric gradually becomes a patter. I’ve always found the sound of rain on a tent calming and the sleep that follows rewarding.
In the darkness of the forest, the sounds of both the nearby river and the rain merge, producing a sweet rhapsody that has the entire camping party fast asleep. This is Mother Nature granting visitors an unexpected boon.
TREKKING THE RIVER
Immediately after breakfast we make preparations for exploring the main falls. We decide not to break camp since it will be cumbersome to haul everything, including the still wet tents, upstream, only to have to bring it all down again later in the evening.
We pack a light lunch and put our valuables such as wallets and phones into waterproof bags. If unscrupulous people do decide to raid our camp, they will only find wet clothes and cooking utensils inside the zipped up tents. Not wanting to attract scavenging animals while we are away, we pack and tie our food up on the trunk of a nearby tree.
Exploring Pelepah Kiri Waterfalls can best be described in two words — river trekking.
It is a wet and oftentimes slippery affair. Pelepah Kiri River is a multi-tiered river consisting of falls, cascades and pools. Fadili tells me that there are 12 tiers to the river but we only explore until the seventh level.
The trek itself is moderately difficult with several spots requiring climbing up steep rock faces using the assistance of fixed ropes. Walking through a narrow ravine in knee-deep water, I realise that this river trek has a degree of danger, predominantly in the form of flash floods and “kepala air”, a natural phenomenon of massive water columns sweeping downriver. Strewn along the river are large logs and dead branches, a silent reminder of the river’s past rages.
As we make our way farther upstream, we intermittently meet other groups of hikers. It is a pleasant sight as everyone exchanges greetings along the trail. Two hours into the trek, we finally reach the seventh level of the river. The sight of a pool with a single solitary log leaning against the falls is a wondrous and rewarding sight. There’s a mutual sense of satisfaction within the group as we sit near the falls and enjoy our packed lunch.
Another group of hikers are having a dip in the pool, and I find Afdal staring at the group. It’s apparent that a young female member of that group has caught his attention.
“So was it worth the journey?” I ask Afdal.
He takes a bite from his sandwich, eyes still transfixed at the girl and nods a simple “Yes”. Ah, another one has joined the hiking and camping fold.
Located within the Panti Permanent Reserved Forest in the Kota Tinggi district, Johor, Pelepah Kiri Waterfalls falls under the management of the District Level Office South Johor (Johor Bharu), Johor Forestry Department. For permit applications and other enquires, contact:
Pejabat Hutan Daerah
Aras 9, Bangunan Sultan Ibrahim
Jalan Bukit Timbalan
Tel: 07-224 3048
Fax: 07-224 5725
River Trekking Tip
Proper footwear is important to ensure a safe river trekking experience. Choose footwear that offers good traction on wet and slippery terrain such as river sandals, water shoes or even Adidas Kampungs rubber shoes.