It was only when I waded into the waist-deep river towards the thunderous waterfall that I realised I had scrapes and bruises all over.

The tender skin on my right palm was scraped from breaking a fall while crossing a river (slippery boulders!)… there were scratches on my left shin, right arm and left wrist, and a nasty purplish bruise on my right thigh. When in contact with the ice-cold river water, they stung.

The hike to Pelepah Falls in Kota Tinggi was not supposed to be a tough hike. But it wasn’t easy either. The hiking trail led us through an oil palm plantation, across several rivers, and into the jungles of Malaysia’s Johor state, which was very much untouched by men. You can always tell by the  vegetation: Primary forests have a distinct three-tier structure.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

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Primary forests have a distinctive three-tier vegetation structure.

At certain points of the trail, we had to climb almost vertical rock walls, about 20-feet high, assisted only with ropes. Because the rope could swing left or right, I found myself bashing against the rocks a couple of times.

Climbing up with the help of just a rope

Climbing up with the help of just a rope (Photo: James Hui)

I held on to whatever I could find to pull myself up or to steady myself when I was going down. What I appreciated very much was the YMCA staff (who organised the trip) yelling out to us, “Thorns on the right!” or “Thorns on the left!” This helped because when you’re trying to grab onto something, you just grab anything!

And you quickly learn you can’t grab on to everything.

I have to admit that as a greenhorn forest hiker, I grabbed on to liana (which isn’t stable), thick twigs, young roots of trees and whatever I thought I could hold on to to steady myself. And of course, that caused me to lose my balance more than once.

“Hold on to something reliable!” Vivian’s voice broke through the silence of the forest.

Vivian was one of our group leaders from YMCA – a spunky, sporty, outdoorsy sort of girl. Much younger than me but you have to admire her leadership qualities and her ease at navigating the jungle terrain, considering she was lugging a huge backpack, presumably filled with first-aid stuff.

In the midst of being bruised and scratched, I felt as if her words hung in the air. Amplified. If there is one thing I took away from this whole hiking experience, this would be it.

It was more than a jungle survival lesson, it was a life lesson.

How many times have I held on to things which were never stable forces in my life? I had always ended up bruised and battered, losing my equilibrium, and falling. Really, what is the point of holding on to something you can’t rely on in your darkest and weakest moments?

HOLD ON TO SOMETHING RELIABLE – that’s pure common sense logic and wisdom.

I snapped back to reality when the thunderous roar of gushing water hit my ears – we were nearing a waterfall! This was about 45 minutes into our hike and I thought to myself, we’re finally here!

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Waterfall #1 with Tarquin, Joey & James.

Along the way, we had come across a smaller waterfall with a surreal baby blue pond at its base. I would’ve loved to stop and jump in then, but we were told to move on. Now I know why!

We climbed over the slippery rocks and fallen tree trunks to the base of this waterfall, and had a fabulous massage! The gushing water was ice-cold and the force so powerful that I could barely breathe. I was practically gasping for breath as I let the water batter my head and shoulders and wash away the grime and sweat.

“Is this where we have lunch?” We asked Grace and Michael, the other two YMCA guides on our trip.

“No,” A bemused Grace chuckled. “This is only one-third of the way!”

OMG. I was already quite fatigued at this point – I have to admit, and sheepishly so – but they promised us there’s more awaiting us… and better!

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So, off we go again! (Photo: James Hui)

I’m sorry to disappoint but I did not take any photos of the actual trek because there is no way I had the time or the frame of mind to whip out my phone. It was sealed in a Ziploc bag in my knapsack because everything got wet.

Also, I found that I had to concentrate and be constantly aware of my surroundings because I’m not a seasoned forest trekker and one wrong step could mean a sprained ankle or popped knee.

About two hours later, we came to another waterfall, and oh what a sight! The Pelepah Falls is a three–stage waterfall, and we had been trekking uphill to this point, catching glimpses of the falls along the way.

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Pelepah Falls (Photo: James Hui)

This one wasn’t a vertical waterfall but one with a gentler gradient. It was wide. And the water’s journey downhill was punctuated by many rock outcrops. It was a slippery climb up the rocks but what the heck!

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Pelepah Falls in the afternoon sun.

We stopped here for lunch, with the thundering falls as a background soundtrack to our rest. Some folks in our group brought along tins of sardines and tuna, and Milo packs. Ours was a humble packed lunch of sandwiches and energy bars.

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I’ve always loved the sound of running water – be it bubbling brooks or waterfalls. And because I’d forgotten to pack my afternoon shot of caffeine (aka coffee), I was feeling a tad dozy. As Joey and Tarquin settled down to have a lazy after-lunch conversation beside me, I leaned back on the wet rocks for a snooze.

Snoozing by the Falls.

Snoozing by the Falls.

My view, from where I’m lying…

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After making our way up this three-stage waterfall, we had to (of course) backtrack and make our way back down. Going down is always harder for me. This is where my weak knees are put to the test. I had to exert tremendous force on my knee caps as I rested my whole weight on them, especially when taking giant steps down from one foothold to another.

SIGH.

As you can well imagine, I did not take a single photo of my hike back to “base camp”. It was a fantastic trek though, and I was getting the hang of the little tricks of jungle trekking: like stepping on sand or pebbles when crossing rivers – never boulders – and also holding on to what is reliable.

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

James remarked that I was quicker on my way back and getting better. *beams*

I really loved how my travel buddies were looking out for me. In fact, we were all looking out for each other. And I wouldn’t have made it back in one piece without Tarquin’s help. He went a step ahead of me, and was my eyes and my cheerleader, especially when climbing down the vertical rock faces.

And I did get back in one piece – all of us did.

After we took a quick rinse (we paid 2 ringgit to use a nearby resort’s clubhouse) and changed into dry clothes, we headed to Kota Tinggi town for dinner. We arrived ahead of schedule so we had some time to walk around the Ramadan bazaar.

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At Kota Tinggi town for its Ramadan bazaar and dinner!

Even if you don’t intend to shop in Malaysia, chances are you will end up buying something, because things are just so cheap here. Yes, we all ended up doing a little shopping here – from Hari Raya goodies to Kampong Adidas amphibious shoes which were going for just 8 ringgit (S$3).

Kampong Adidas amphibious shoes was what our agile 55-year-old Malaysian guide was wearing on the jungle trek. But I didn’t buy them because I wasn’t convinced his agility was due to the Kampong Adidas shoes and not his experience!

The food at the Chinese restaurant was superb, to say the least. That’s what I love about Malaysian food – cheap and good. I’ll  let my photos speak for themselves.

Pork ribs curry.

Pork ribs curry

Deep-fried Tofu with century and salted egg.

Deep-fried tofu with century and salted egg

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili.

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili

Stir-fried Venison with ginger and spring onions.

Stir-fried venison with ginger and spring onions

Spicy prawns!

Spicy prawns!

After a meal that left me close to exploding, we headed towards the Kota Tinggi jetty to catch a river cruise to see fireflies.

In all my life, I’ve never seen a firefly. And I have to admit I was a little sceptical about actually seeing fireflies in the wild. I guess it seemed surreal, like it’s the sort of thing you see only if you’re lucky. But deep inside, I was excited. I always am when it’s a first.

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise.

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise

A cruise to catch fireflies!

A cruise to catch fireflies!

The first firefly departs at 7.30pm, the next at 8.30pm.

The first boat departs at 7.30pm, the next at 8.30pm

We had to put on life jackets, which I hate. It makes me feel claustrophobic and it’s almost always suffocatingly hot inside one. Plus, these life jackets wouldn’t do much to save my life, I reckoned, as the zip was faulty. OK, there was no zip! Would a little string suffice?

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The cruise took us under a bridge where hundreds of birds had built nests above. It was noisy, and the birds were circling above and around us. I was curious though how the baby birds hatch in these upside-down nests without falling into the river below!

Bird nests under the bridge!

Bird nests under the bridge!

The boat chugged further and further away from the brightly-lit town area of Kota Tinggi. As we inched our way into the more remote areas, the lights on either side of the river got dimmer.

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We were told “No flash!” as it would disturb the fireflies. So I set my Lumix LX7 to a low light setting and crossed my fingers. How cool to be able to capture fireflies on film!

The others saw them before I did.

“Look! Fireflies!” I heard people around me on the boat exclaim in delight.

“Where?”

“Over there!” They pointed to the right side of the boat. “In the bushes!”

I squinted in the general direction but could not see anything. When my eyes finally adjusted to the dark, I saw them.

My first sighting of fireflies in the wild! They were like softly twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. How subtly breathtaking!

The number and frequency of twinkling Christmas lights increased the deeper we drifted into the jungle. They were everywhere – glowing on riverside bushes just inches from us and dotting trees further away.

I tried to take photos of them, but without a flash, my camera could not capture anything. So I resolved to put it away and just enjoy the ride.

My Lumix failed me from here on...

My Lumix failed me from here on…

Tarquin and James weren’t totally convinced the tiny glowing specks were really fireflies.

“Then what do you think they are?” I laughed. “Christmas lights? There’s no electricity out here.”

“It could be low-intensity lights,” Tarquin said quite seriously. After all, he had been trained in the dense jungles of Brunei in his National Service days. “I’m not convinced… but then, it may be that I’m going through a conspiracy theory phase.”

Conspiracy theory for sure, because a firefly flew really close to our boat and James reached out and caught it in his hand.

“Did you just catch a firefly?” Joey asked.

In response, James opened his palm and a firefly fluttered out!

“Now I can tell my friends that I caught a firefly,” he beamed. It was his first time seeing fireflies, as was Joey’s and mine.

After about 45 minutes on the river, we headed back to the jetty where the Ramadan bazaar was in full swing. We couldn’t resist buying some street snacks – hot, freshly-made peanut pancakes!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

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This was ridiculously good and cheap – something like 5 pancakes for a ringgit. We were munching this – with melted butter oozing out and dripping onto my chin – as we headed back to the bus that would take us back to Singapore.

We arrived back in Singapore close to 11pm. I was exhausted. I think I went through the Johor Bahru and Woodlands immigration checkpoints in a daze because I had dozed off on the bus. But it felt good. I felt fulfilled.

No doubt it was just a day trip, but the last 16 hours will be etched in my memory for a while.

It felt good to be back on the road again, with travel buddies whose company I honestly enjoy. I took back with me not just the memory of fireflies and waterfalls, but a life lesson that I know I was meant to learn: right here, right now.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

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