I t was 2001 when my friend and I were on a hike up Gunung Ledang in Johor. After hours of footslogging, we reached the peak, only to find (to our disgust) stacks of trash. I felt sick to the stomach.
In my years of living abroad, I had never seen a trash heap on an outdoor trail or at a campsite. Talk about reverse culture shock.
In Malaysia, most easily accessible forests and waterfalls double as dumpsites. Even peaks that require lung-busting hikes like Gunung Trus Madi (the countrys second highest at 2,642m) in Tambunan district, Sabah, are not spared.
When Tham Yau Kong, one of the adventure tour pioneers in Sabah, first climbed Gunung Trus Madi in 1988, he found the place pristine and says that it was like stepping into heaven.
But from the early 90s, when groups of school students began coming up, trees have been cut to make firewood, vegetation cleared to make campsites, rubbish dumped and pitcher plants taken, says Tham.
The once beautiful campsite called Taman Bunga (floral garden) on top of a ridge which brimmed with unique plants, is now bare and ugly, the director of TYK Adventures reveals.
Ive also met students bringing pitcher plants down. They say their teachers want the plants as specimen. They dont realise their actions can cause these plants to become extinct! adds Tham.
In Peninsular Malaysia, mountains like Gunung Irau and Yong Belar (Cameron Highlands), Datuk (Negri Sembilan), and Rajah and Korbu (Perak) are notorious for their garbage.
The worst dumpsite is Gunung Nuang in Hulu Langat (Selangor), especially at the Lolo campsite, says Zul Hilmi Hamdun, 29, the co-owner of Gunung Online, an online forum for mountain enthusiasts.
Rubbish seems to fall from the sky! Groups have done clean-ups on the mountain, but if you clean it this month, next month its dirty again.
The public dont realise that its not just about affecting the beauty of the mountain, adds Phang Thong Wah of Mountain Goal Adventure Consultant, a Klang Valley-based outdoor operator.
For example, Hulu Langat dam is located at the foot of Nuang. When it rains heavily, lots of rubbish flows into the river and into the dam. Once the river is polluted, it will also affect its inhabitants.
Because of its proximity to the city (20 minutes from the Kuala Lumpur city centre by car), Nuang sees throngs of visitors, especially on weekends and school holidays. And trekkers do not need permits to climb the mountain since its gazetted as a recreational forest.
Real trekkers are people who love trekking and nature, Zul says.
Most culprits who litter are occasional trekkers; students to outdoor club members, to people in the private sector and Government.
When the army trained in Gunung Rajah, they left a trail of rubbish behind, adds Zul.
During my trip to Gunung Bujang Melaka in Kampar, we met a group of students on National Service training coming down the mountain, recalls the IT operator in Cyberjaya.
When we arrived at the campsite, we found tons of rubbish like polystyrene food containers. I wasnt sure whether their instructors realised this or were oblivious.
Some trekkers ditch their gear midway through a hike to lighten their load, so its not unusual to find canned food, foam mats, sleeping bags and clothes along the trail.
Experienced trekkers will distribute the load evenly among fellow trekkers if someone in the group is sick or is unable to trek, adds Zul.
The litterbugs come from all walks of life, and they think someone will always pick up after them.
People throw rubbish because there are people hired to clean up for them. But in the jungle, there is no Alam Flora or DBKL! says Zul.
What can be done?
For starters, trekking group leaders can lead by example and remind their team not to litter. Apart from the clean-up campaigns by Government agencies, NGOs and outdoor clubs, suggests Zul, perhaps photo exhibitions highlighting the problem can be held in shopping complexes.
Nature tourism ranks as one of the top income earners for states like Sabah and Sarawak.
Since most of the forests in Sabah have been destroyed through logging, Sabah needs to depend on tourism and needs to protect whatever is left of its forests and mountains, says Tham.
If not, one day, the future generation will not even get a chance to see a wild orchid in its natural habitat!
But it all boils down to the individual, adds Zul.
Its hard to change a persons attitude overnight but enforcing fines and strict guidelines is one method.
The highest peak in Peninsular Malaysia, Gunung Tahan (2,187m), attracts huge numbers of hikers each year, yet it is still relatively litter-free. Hikers need a permit to enter the trail, and rangers at the registration checkpoint will check their gear.
They have to list every item from the number of batteries and clothing they are carrying in, to the amount of food. And when they return to the Park HQ, rangers will re-check the list. Hikers are fined for each item that is left behind.
In May 2004, the Johor National Park authorities made it compulsory for trekkers entering the newly gazetted Gunung Ledang (Johor) National Park to pay for a permit and hire a guide for the climb.
This is a mountain where hikers used to say: You will never get lost in Ledang if you just follow the rubbish trail.
Since the ruling came into effect, the rubbish on the mountain has reduced drastically. Endau Rompin National Parks and Kinabalu Park are some of the places where authorities involvement have made a difference.
The moment tourists enter the gates of protected areas or nature reserves, the guides/officers must stress to them that they should NEVER take plants and animals out of the forest or they will have to pay a heavy penalty, suggests I.S. Shanmugaraj, Malaysian Nature Societys head of environmental education.
The public can also be the eyes and ears and warn the authorities if they notice anyone littering or poaching flora and fauna. W