Rainforest Journal

Rainforest Info, Images, and Adventures.

Gunung Pulai in Johor


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.

Getting there

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.

Mount Pulai

Mount (Gunung) Pulai is a major geographical feature of this part of Johor. Notice the telecommunications towers at the summit.

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.

Gunung Pulai Recreational Forest

The archway to the former Recreational Forest, long closed down and abandoned.

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.

Gunung Pulai road

The 5 km road that winds its way to the peak of Gunung Pulai.

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.

Virgin rainforest

Beautiful, magnificent virgin rainforest in its unlogged state, with giant, mature trees.

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.

Primary rainforest

This is rainforest that has not been subjected to logging or clearance, notwithstanding the oil palm that surrounds it. How much longer will it stay this way is anyone’s guess.

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.

Shorea curtisii

Mature seraya (Shorea curtisii) trees. These trees are likely to be averaging 100 years or more old.

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.

Arenga pinnata

The fruits of Arenga pinnata, a sugar palm related to Arenga westerhoutii. Both palms are common in Malaysia.

Koompassia malaccensis

A towering tree of kempas (Koompassia malaccensis). Kempas is related to the mighty tualang (Koompassia excelsa), and loves moist soil.

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.

Apis dorsata

Honeycombs of Apis dorsata, the giant honeybee, hanging from the branches of a tree. They have to make do without tualang trees here (their favorite tree), as these do not grow in southern Peninsular Malaysia.

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.

Nepenthes rafflesiana

Aerial pitcher of Nepenthes rafflesiana. Pitcher plants typically have aerial and terrestrial pitchers which may differ in appearance.

Nepenthes rafflesiana

The unopened pitcher of Nepenthes rafflesiana.

Selaginella willdenowii

The iridescent blue leaves of Selaginella willdenowii. The leaves lose their blue hue if exposed to stronger sunlight.

Dipteris conjugata

Dipteris conjugata, a fairly common fern found in exposed/sunny areas on hilly terrain in Malaysia.

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).

Gunung Pulai waterfall

The spectacular waterfall of Mount Pulai (main tier). The main fall is probably 40-50 meters high. The entire waterfall consists of many tiers. Unfortunately, rubbish mars its beauty.

Gunung Pulai waterfall top

The beautiful view from the top of the main fall. Untouched primary jungle all around. Will it stay this way with all the increasing rubbish?

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).

Pulai waterfall lower tier

The lower tier of the Pulai waterfall. Even here, there was rubbish that I had to remove prior to taking this photo.

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.

Major threats

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.

Gunung Pulai litter

Now for the ugly. Trash is everywhere you look, especially around the waterfall and stream area.

Gunung Pulai rubbish problem

Styrofoam lunch boxes,plastic bottles, junk food packets, you name it, it’s strewn everywhere.

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!

Gunung Pulai rubbish problem

Gunung Pulai is turning into a rubbish dump!

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.

Oil palm threatening Gunung Pulai

Oil palm plantations continue to eat away at the fringes. A little here, a little there….it’s only a little bit, boss.

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 quarry

The mother of all environmental destruction – quarries/mines. Here, the quarry at Gunung Pulai has already devastated a large part of the hill forever.

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 vista

The nice view from one of the viewpoints on Gunung Pulai. On a less hazy day, the view extends all the way to the coastline.

Gunung Pulai panorama

The view from another viewpoint near the summit. A dam which probably supplies water to Singapore can be seen in the distance (top right), as well as housing areas around Skudai. Notice the huge track running through the forest and the many dead trees along the fringes of it? Apparently the forest on this side of the hill has been damaged.

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.

Dipteris conjugata new leaf

Attack of the flying jellyfish? No, just a young leaf of that exotic looking fern, Dipteris conjugata.

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?

Latest Update: Recent news indicates that “major logging activity” is being carried out at Gunung Pulai. It is worrisome that rather than conserve and maintain the area for its ecotourism, biodiversity conservation, and water catchment role, the state approves logging instead.

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