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Fighting For The Falls

Getting excited when you come face to face with a roaring waterfall is one thing, but dedicating your life to protecting it is another. One woman shows how a life-long obsession isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

With a garbage bag in one hand and an empty Coke bottle in the other, Elvin Hee, 32, struggled to get a steady footing on the steep, slippery slope. Swaying dangerously for a moment, he stopped to gasp for air and wipe the perspiration cascading from his brows and onto his wet “Save Our Waterfalls!” T-shirt.

Nearby, a little boy — oblivious to this eco-warrior who was risking life and limb for Mother Nature — stood on a bridge and peed into a stream underneath. The water, which was originally crystal clear a few seconds ago, turned a murky yellow, but people continued to splash happily about in it, blissfully unaware.

pos dipang waterfall perak
Pos Dipang Waterfall in Perak

“You’d think that this waterfall is dirty, but all waterfalls are like this these days,” said Hee in between breaths.

“It’s not the bottles that I’m worried about; it’s the candy wrappers. They’re everywhere! People think they’re small and therefore harmless, but they’re the hardest to spot!”

With his wire-rimmed glasses and couch potato bump, Hee looks far from buff, although the task proved to be a good training ground for any athletic pursuits in the future.

He said he was not at all outdoorsy (“Umm . . . I don’t do hiking or camping,” he said), and that he merely signed up as a volunteer because “I’ve been planning to do this for a long time.”

“This” was the second Save Our Waterfalls campaign organised by the Waterfall Survivors Club in conjunction with International Climate Action Day. Some 300 volunteers from community groups like Sunway College and PSPK Selayang Home joined forces with regular Waterfall Survivors members to clear up the mounds of litter found in Kanching Waterfalls in Rawang.

Aside from being a test of strength (some participants literally had to scale mountains to get their hands on a few pieces of garbage), it was also a test of tenacity and grace.

waterfall survivors club members
Joe Yap (middle) with committee members of the Waterfall Survivors Club.

As one of the participants, Nuri Ismail, 30-plus, announced through gritted teeth: “Malaysians can be really ignorant. But what annoys me most is how some of them are deliberately and cruelly so. I saw a few visitors chuck scraps of rubbish around to see if any of us would pick them up.”

Falling in love

“The first time I saw this waterfall, I was like, Wow!” said the founder of the Waterfall Survivors Club, Joe Yap, 30.

waterfall survivors club members 2
Canadian Warren Burrell, 33 and daughter Yuka helping out.

“On my second excursion, it was a double-wow. The wows just kept me coming back. That’s why I created the club — to see if anyone out there shared my passion because those around me didn’t,” she said.

With the help of Dutchman and fellow waterfall enthusiast Jan Stuivenberg, Yap started the Waterfall Survivors Club. The club’s name initially left many bewildered, including me.

What did “Waterfall Survivors” mean? Did its members survive some horrible drowning accident? Yap was not the slightest bit amused when I asked. She shrugged and said: “It’s just a name I went with.”

Seeing how devoted every single member was, however, made me realise that Waterfall Survivors wasn’t just a name. It represented individuals who would actually wake up at 6am on a Sunday morning and collect other people’s trash amidst trying conditions, like burning weather and boorish onlookers, till 4pm. Needless to say, there aren’t many people like these around.

Yap, it seemed, was the Queen of the Survivors. She had just emerged from a “very, very bad” accident on one of her regular waterfall expeditions a week ago, virtually unscathed and indomitable.

“See, I have fresh scars from the accident,” she said, holding up her left arm and knee for me to have a clearer look. “A big bruise here, some scrapes there.”

Apparently, the 4WD she was in overturned in a minor landslide and its windows shattered, injuring her. However, the mother of one was not at all dissuaded from her cause.

“The accident didn’t make any difference whatsoever. I left my job (as a relationship manager in a bank) to do this, and it won’t end here because I have bigger plans,” she said.

“My husband thinks I’m crazy. My mum thinks I’m crazy. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. But this wasn’t the craziest thing I’ve had to go through. Once, I had to travel 13 hours to get to the Buaya Sangkut Falls in Endau Rompin, four hours by car, two hours by 4WD, half an hour by boat and another 6½ hours of hiking on tricky terrain, and another 13 hours to get back . . . now that’s crazy.”

Crazy or not, Yap now has some 3,400 followers.

Compare that to the handful of members she had when she formed her club on Facebook just a year ago (in July 2008), and you’ll see that she’s swiftly making up for lost time. Members are invited on weekly exploration trips and fortnightly camping trips, and have visited over 50 waterfalls around Malaysia to date.

“Waterfalls are classified from category one to five, according to an ascending level of difficulty. Some people join the excursions once and find it too tough, and that would be the last we ever saw of them. But there are those who come back again and again. If you’re a beginner, I would highly recommend level one,” she said.

Let’s talk trash, baby

We were right where it all started. Kanching Falls, a level-one waterfall, was Yap’s first love.

“I had become bored of shopping malls, so I decided to look for the perfect family outing venue online. My search led me to the Waterfalls of Malaysia website, which is incidentally maintained by Jan, and ultimately Kanching!”

Unfortunately, its easy accessibility means that there are always many Sunday picnickers here and, this being Malaysia, a lot of rubbish strewn about. All around us, the emerald forest was dotted with the red, white, pink and blue of thrash.

Passing groups of families and teenagers saw Kanching as a place to indulge in a few cheap thrills and nothing more. They laughed as a monkey scampered down a tree to a plastic bag nearby. When the voracious primate put the bag in its mouth and started to lick its contents, they laughed even harder.

“Ni lah, Malaysia punya orang. Suka hati, buang. Nak senang, buang. Tiada keperihatian langsung. Saya baru lihat orang KL yang pakai smart-smart buang sampah merata-rata walaupun tong sampah sebelah dia saja,” quipped Mat, an Alam Flora worker, closely observing the picnicking litterbugs.

Yap, who shared the same sentiment, explained: “That’s why we’re here today. We have to educate them, tell them, lead by example. I’m not just trying to raise public consciousness. Even my own family members need to be taught now and then!”

Her next dream is to adopt waterfalls by “tying up with Government agencies and corporate sectors to manage waterfalls in Malaysia.” Getting sponsors means being able to hire full-time workers to keep these places clean.

“And to think that I wasn’t even the camping type back then. Now I know how to sniff out new waterfalls, even without using GPS! I’ve managed to locate a couple of waterfalls this way, but I’m not about to disclose it to the public. I don’t wish to ruin those places,” said Yap, who cited her current favourite as Jerangkang Falls in Kuantan.

Then she leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered: “If there’s a river flowing from it, just look upstream. A sharp incline means that there’s an 80% chance of a waterfall being there.”

It was soon 4pm. Sweaty and exhausted, the participants gathered at the foot of the falls with what seemed like hundreds of bulging bags. Several feet away from us, a cameraman was hard at work. The resulting footage will be featured on giant video screens in New York Times Square, together with images of other earth-saving events from around the world.

Not only that, the United Nations will receive a copy as a form of petition.

The next day, Nuri texted me via Blackberry. Her message read: “500 bags collected approx 3 tonne-truck full. Some of the weirdest things we found were condoms, women’s undergarments, clothes, belts and rusty bbq pits. But I immediately sensed our effort paid off when I saw a little girl scolding her father to put the drinking bottles into the bin!”

o Go to www.350.org for videos and images on the call for climate action. To become a member of Waterfall Survivors Club, visit their Facebook page or call Dominic at 016-232 0230.

Article is sourced from www.thestar.com.my and story by LOUISA LIM.

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