Under the intense midday heat and a canopy of lush tropical foliage, just steps from Kuala Lumpur’s TTDI Park, a team is hard at work on the trails of Bukit Kiara jungle with shovels, saws and large knives known as parangs.
Wiping rivers of sweat from their faces, they form a human chain to transport boulders and stones from deep within the jungle to rebuild a stable, cobbled surface for mountain bikers. Later, they'll build steps for walkers alongside the cobbles, using planks of wood from a disused footbridge.
This is the second Sunday of the month, which means it's the Trails Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor's (TRAKS) trail repair day. This month's effort is led by jungle enthusiast and TRAKS member Martin “Gillie” Gilliland.
“This part of the trail's been eroded by rain water for awhile now,” he tells me. “It gets a lot of action from bikers, runners and hikers, because it's right by the park, so our aim today is to make it rideable again and build a side trail for foot traffic.”
Like the rest of his team, Gillie is an avid mountain biker, and Bukit Kiara is home to some of his favourite trails.
“It's just an incredible place to be,” he enthuses. “Once you leave the paved roads behind and you get the dirt under your tyres, you just completely forget you're in the middle of a city.”
It's true, deep inside this green lung, as it's affectionately known, long-tailed macaques swing high above black forest scorpions, pythons and cobras. Even the occasional crested serpent eagle can be spotted in quieter corners of the jungle.
Gillie’s love of Bukit Kiara is what led him to join the non-profit TRAKS as a trail maintenance leader. He supports the organisation in the ongoing battle to save the treasured green space by having it officially gazetted as a permanent and protected forest reserve.
“It's hard to believe a resource like Bukit Kiara could possibly be under threat. You look around and you see people everywhere enjoying the great outdoors, being active, connecting with nature, breathing fresh air,” says Gillie. “I can't even put into words what a loss it would be to Kuala Lumpur if Bukit Kiara disappeared.”
And yet, this ever-shrinking jungle is a phenomenon that other TRAKS members are all too familiar with. Scott Roberts, former president of the association, has lived in Kuala Lumpur for 26 years, and he's been running and riding in Bukit Kiara since 1995.
“Bukit Kiara was a very different place when I first started running in there back in the mid-nineties. It was a much larger area, around 1,000 acres (400 hectares), and the trails were mostly left over from the old rubber plantation,” he says. “It was a really wild place, and new users of the trails could get lost easily, particularly since we didn't have GPS and Google maps back then.”
Over the years, various intrepid mountain bikers mapped the area and expanded its trails into a 37-kilometre network of steep ups and downs that wind around one 300-metre central peak. Maps attracted more mountain bikers as well as runners and hikers, and as the years passed, Bukit Kiara became known for some of the best recreational trails in Malaysia.
Sadly, over the same period, developments squeezed the borders of the jungle, and a golf course and equestrian centre also claimed chunks of land.
“The jungle as a whole is being eroded like the trails erode, slowly and over time but very noticeably. It's being eroded by greed, and if we don't take action now, there won't be anything left to save,” says Roberts.
Roberts explains that TRAKS' mandate is, first and foremost, to have Bukit Kiara formally preserved as a permanent green lung. Its secondary mission is to keep the jungle as a jungle.
“Kuala Lumpur has plenty of parks with paved roads and manmade lakes. Bukit Kiara is unique because it's wild and largely untamed, and that's what makes it so special. You step inside and it's just serenity. You can't hear construction, you can't hear vehicles, it's just incredibly peaceful. We want to keep it that way,” he says.
Their final commitment, the one which demands the most sweat equity, is to maintain the existing trails and protect them from weather and human erosion.
“I don't believe people really understand how much work goes into keeping Bukit Kiara in the shape it's in or how the work we do relates to their hike or run or Sunday bike ride,” admits Roberts. “Every trail you hike, run along or bike on needs maintenance at some point in time. There are literally thousands of people using these trails every week, mostly on weekends, and they don't just repair themselves by magic.”
In fact, in addition to the monthly trail repair session, the TRAKS team works on trails on a near-daily basis, clearing trees and branches after storms, redirecting flood water and ensuring erosion is dealt with quickly. They even call their WhatsApp group “Trail Fairies”.
“We have over 2,000 members but probably less than 100 active members, people who take a visible role in helping with our work. We find that there's a large silent majority in Kuala Lumpur, people who love using Bukit Kiara recreationally, and agree with us that it should be gazetted, but they're apathetic about doing anything about it,” he laments.
“We're noticing that attitude is changing, slowly,” he continues. “We used to run a trail repair day twice a year but now we have enough interest to run it once a month, and the turnout is usually pretty good. But my fear is that attitudes won't change quickly enough to make a difference and save the jungle.”
Roberts says there are lots of ways for people to get involved with the work, and newbies are always welcome.
“Become a member for starters, contribute to our tool and timber fund, spread our work and message on social media, tell people about the cause,” he says. “Or better yet, come along to the trail maintenance days and you'll learn how to repair a trail, channel water to prevent further erosion and to make it sustainable for years to come. Topping it off, always carry a saw and a hatchet to clear fallen trees while you're out biking or hiking in the jungle. The more people who get their hands dirty and take ownership of Bukit Kiara the better. It's your jungle and it's yours to lose and that will happen if people don't get involved.”