Gunung Pulai is a 654 meter high hill near the city of Johor Bahru. Although “Gunung” means “mountain or Mt.” in Malay, it is technically not high enough to be regarded as a mountain. It might be regarded as a mountain because it is the only major high point in an otherwise flat region; however, here I will call it a hill. But what makes this place special is because it still contains substantial primary rainforest cover since it is a water catchment area for nearby Johor Bahru and Singapore, and it also has a spectacular waterfall, although it is under serious threats as well – which I will get to in a moment.
Gunung Pulai is easily reached by the North South Highway, and turning into the Kulai exit, after which you would need to detour underneath the highway by following a signboard to your right just after exiting the toll plaza. Follow along the road, passing oil palm estates and a quarry that are both eating away at the hill for about 5 or 6 km, until you reach a village called Kampung Sri Gunung Pulai.
The road that runs through this village leads all the way to the entrance of a recreational forest that has long since closed down after a fatal landslide occurred there some 10 years ago and took some lives. You will need to park your car at the start of this 5 km road that leads all the way to the summit (on which sits some telecommunication towers), and proceed on foot. A few hundred meters in, the road splits into two, one going up to the peak, and one going down to the picnic/waterfall area, and you will see the archway to the now defunct recreational forest.
Reaching the top of the hill is a straightforward climb up the tarred road, which takes roughly 1.5 to 2 hours. Most hikers only climb part of the way. There are 3 telecommunications towers at the top, two on the summit, and one a little lower down. A couple of viewpoints provide breathtaking views of the rainforest that clothes the hill.
Impressive virgin rainforest
Most people have absolutely no idea that at least part of the forest that clothes Gunung Pulai is one of the most magnificent unlogged dipterocarp rainforest anywhere in Peninsular Malaysia. There is a very high proportion of large timber trees in this essentially untouched rainforest, most of them a meter or more in diameter for bole/trunk size, and almost all of them have very well formed, and dense crowns. A majestic sight to behold today, since these forests are all but gone.
This forest is classic lowland and hill Malayan dipterocarp forest on granite-based soil, which used to cover the Titiwangsa Range extensively, but virtually all of them have already been decimated by logging and are almost all secondary (degraded) forests now. Gunung Pulai is one of the few virgin fragments left, and probably spared (so far) on account of being a major water catchment area.
What is quite unique about this forest is the high proportion of that ubiquitous dipterocarp that grows on hill ridges – Meranti Seraya or Shorea curtisii, which grows almost at sea level here, even at the foot and on the slopes (whereas elsewhere they normally grow higher up on ridges, not usually on slopes). Large individuals of seraya trees can be seen literally everywhere in this forest.
The forest here is also very rich in other dipterocarps like Dipterocarpus, and Anisoptera. Other large species found here include kempas (Koompassia malaccensis) and merbau (Intsia palembanica). Emergent trees often reach heights of between 40-50+ meters tall here. The sugar palm, Arenga pinnata appears to be very common in the lowland forest understory here, and dominates in patches, while Licuala fan palms grow scattered here and there on the forest floor.
During my visit, I noted the calls of gibbons, but they seemed to be rare and confined to a few individuals in just one location. This could be due to hunting pressure on the gibbons and/or habitat destruction. In fact, I saw some people setting up traps in the forest (possibly to catch civet cats), so you must assume that as far as wildlife is concerned, there is very little of it remaining. There may be tapirs and barking deer still roaming the few thousand hectares of forest here, but I believe most of the fauna in the Gunung Pulai forest has already been wiped out.
The invertebrate fauna here is still rich though, like some rarer ant and termite species found here that are not usually found elsewhere. The Common Tree Nymph butterfly (Idea stolli) is often seen flitting around the road area during daytime. I have not encountered these butterflies as frequently elsewhere as I have at the Gunung Pulai forest. Cicada calls were quite loud during the day, a good sign as well.
Pitcher plants are also common along the roadside from about halfway up. These belong to the Nepenthes rafflesiana species, I believe, although spotting their pitchers is not so easy unless it is in forest off the road. The lack of visible pitchers is probably due to constant plucking by visitors and hikers. The selaginella ferns are also found in abundance (there are several species growing here).
An interesting observation is that Gunung Pulai lacks a well developed riparian zone bordering the waterfalls. The waterfalls look a lot like a landslip waterfall, and this type of waterfalls are relatively young, which means that a distinct riparian zone did not have time to develop along the fringes, and this youthful waterway is also reflected in the aquatic fauna (seemingly few species of fishes which are themselves low in number).
I do believe that there are next to zero studies done so far on the forest flora or fauna here in all these years, even though the forest (away from the road and human presence) seems to be of considerably high quality, from every perspective of a mature, unlogged lowland rainforest. The lack of interest in conserving this patch of forest (apart from its water catchment status) means that it will likely continue to suffer from encroachments like quarrying, illegal logging, illegal clearance, hunting – and littering.
Right now, the spectacular waterfall and the road to the peak serve as a magnet for nearby residents to either have a splash or get a good workout. Every day, rain or shine, come weekends or not, there are always people here. Unfortunately, there is NO maintenance of the recreational forest here, and that also means no rubbish bins.
But even if there were, no one would empty the rubbish bins once they get full as there is no maintenance of this place at all. The result is tons of rubbish (wherever humans set foot), but especially along the lower stream below the waterfall, and along the jungle trail next to it. And people continue to bathe in the water even with all the stinking rubbish that lies scattered around them!
Once in a while, I noticed some civic minded visitors will voluntarily remove some of the rubbish (kudos to these people) but it is a never ending task, as long as people continue to litter and not make it a point to make an effort to take out their rubbish with them. All this littering is appalling. I’m sure these people would not litter their own homes indiscriminately, but outside, they just don’t seem to care or make the slightest effort to not litter.
Another (very) major threat is quarrying. There is a quarry that has already denuded a sizable portion of Gunung Pulai, and you can see this enormous scar from far away, even from the North-South highway. I really don’t understand why quarries always like to carve up nice forested hills, in this case, a virgin forested one, when there are so many hills with degraded vegetation cover/belukar for them to conduct their operations. I hope this quarry has only a limited concession for a limited time, as it is more than capable of destroying the entire hill!
Gunung Pulai needs conservation
Johor should be applauded for gazetting the most number of state parks within its borders, compared to all other states in Peninsular Malaysia. They have 6 state parks currently, and you can see the list at their state portal. Now, how about adding Gunung Pulai into the list?
Gunung Pulai is just about the only area with unlogged dipterocarp rainforest left in that region of Johor. It has all the potential to be a major tourist attraction, since it is so near to Johor Bahru city, and also Singapore. It is really baffling to me why the authorities have seemingly abandoned the area, and basically left it to rot (under all the rubbish), and get eaten away (by the quarries) and why nature lovers and students have mostly overlooked it. I don’t get it.
There seems to be NO management plan for the area, no rubbish bins, and next to no interest. What is odd is that Gunung Panti/Kota Tinggi forest reserve receives much more interest from nature interest groups compared to Gunung Pulai, even though Gunung Pulai has old growth primary rainforest cover which is just simply more biodiverse and beautiful, whilst Gunung Panti has been logged before.
We just have to look at Gunung Ledang. Despite having a lot of visitors to its waterfalls, it is not suffocating from rubbish, and this is the difference between having a proper conservation and management program versus having none at all. Conserve Gunung Pulai by cleaning it up, turning it into a proper nature park, and putting into place a structured management plan for it. Shall we get the ball rolling now?