THE first time I met Kovin Sivanasvaran, we were on a short trek to the Sungai Pisang waterfalls. The wiry 23-year-old who looked very much at home in the deep forest said very little. While I stumbled and navigated through muddy trails, stray tree roots and streams artlessly, Kovin walked ahead nimbly, deep in thought, weaving effortlessly through tall grass, sturdy trees and flowing waters.
“Welcome to my backyard,” he said then, a rare smile transforming his serious face, as we approached the sound of the waterfalls. The surging waters, deep still pools of unimaginable depths imbued in an ethereal shade of muted emerald green and shaded by whispering leaves of the trees… you can trust that Kovin’s the man to find these oft-forgotten little shards of wilderness all around Malaysia.
Standing on the edge of the slippery rocks, he’s back to being the young thrill-seeker that he bashfully admits to being. Stripping down to his shorts, he dives into the pool with uninhibited joy. It’s a little harrowing to see him plunge into the depths of the water from a high rocky ledge. For a moment, my heart literally skips a heartbeat when the waters close over him. But he resurfaces in a few seconds, shaking off droplets of water that glint in the wan sunlight, grinning broadly as he beckons me to jump in.
I never did jump in. But I can’t help but share the exhilaration he feels. He’s a seeker of waterfalls and an adventurer of sorts, he admits to me. His Instagram (which I follow avidly) showcases breathtakingly beautiful natural vistas he has explored all around the country, either on his solitary trips or with a group of fellow thrill seekers, together with whom he’d founded a hiking group aptly known as “Glimpse of Malaysia”. It was initially set up to make hiking more accessible for everyone.
Dazzling sceneries of mountain tops, deep forests and majestic waterfalls dominate his social media feed. There are heart-stopping images of Kovin balanced delicately on the edge of a precipice overlooking the dizzying valleys below, or diving from an unimaginably high cliff into swirling waters. You can’t believe what you’re seeing — a young man, millimetres from extinction, transforming the unthinkable into the sublime.
The thrills, he confides unabashedly, is less about climbing than it is about living. Aren’t you afraid of hurting yourself, I ask incredulously. “Anybody could conceivably die on any given day,” he replies philosophically, shrugging his shoulders. It’s that presence and immediacy that make these harrowing hikes so appealing to Kovin and his peers; not because it brings death so much nearer, but because it makes life so much more vivid and significant. Most of us have been told, at one point or another, to work, study or perform as if our lives depended on it. There just aren’t many activities where it’s literally true.
Challenging terrains deep in the heart of the forest is one of them. Every move counts. Every motion is considered. No decision is inconsequential. There’s no cushion, no second chance, no helping hand. The only route to safety is through the relentless disciplining of body, mind, uncertainty, and fear.
For Kovin, it’s the heady combination of the challenge, the adrenaline rush and the beauty of these remote places that keeps him wandering into forest. “There’s nothing quite like it,” he admits.
CALL TO THE WILD
Having recently graduated in Applied Ecology, Kovin shares that it’s his love for the outdoors which stirred his interest in studying about the earth. Geology, he points out, is a multi-disciplinary subject, which includes the study of minerals, rocks, the earth structure, landforms and the process that produce them, among many others. “Applied geology focuses on how to solve different type of human problems that are associated with geological factors,” he explains, adding: “In other words, application of various fields of geology to economic, engineering, water-supply or environmental problems.”
His passion for nature, he confides, comes from his parents who share his love for trekking. “When I was five or six, we’d go out picnicking by the waterfalls or walk through easy trails as family. Those moments were my first encounters out in the outdoors and they’ve stayed with me ever since.”
His first major trek with his family was up Gunung Ledang back when he was around 15. “That’s when I discovered how much I enjoyed hiking,” he recalls, adding that his mum was in fact an avid hiker herself.
Kovin began organising outdoor trips “… out of necessity, really!” he reveals, chuckling. “Socialising with friends costs money. I mean, you’d need at least RM50 for a trip to the mall, and I didn’t want to burden my parents with that.” So trips to nature instead? “Well, it doesn’t cost much,” he counters with a shrug. “You’re still out with your friends but at least it’s a much better view out in the wild!”
Organising trips became a routine once Kovin started his degree programme at Curtin University in Sarawak. “I’d organise trips during my semester breaks, and would have at least one trip a week either with friends or alone,” he recalls. He started a WhatsApp group, adding on as many people as he could from his contact list.
In that group, he explained that he was keen on organising hiking trips if they were interested. “Not many were,” he says, drily, adding: “Most of them left the chat group!” But the few who remained (“around two to three of them only!”) joined him and eventually Glimpse of Malaysia was set up.
“I wanted to make hiking accessible to people — especially students who were on a tight budget,” elaborates Kovin. “There’s something inherently fulfilling watching how people react to nature when they’re hiking or encountering a new place for the first time. And that encourages me.”
While bringing people on hikes is rewarding, his solitary trips into the forest or up a mountain never ceased. The Petaling Jaya-born hiker often retreats into the forest every once in a while on his solo hikes. “I’d search for new places to hike,” he shares. “I realised that this country is full of forgotten or little-known trails, hiding real treasures with great potential to attract hikers.”
All of his hikes, which contain some of the nation’s oldest surviving forest, he attests, is a plunge into mysteries science has barely begun to fathom. Imagine a miracle drug that could ease many of the stresses of modern life, he poses, and imagine that this cure-all was an old-fashioned folk remedy: Just take a hike into the forest. “No prescription necessary!” he exclaims, grinning. “We don’t get out often enough,” he laments. Hiking enthusiasts, he adds, have long internalised the restorative feeling that comes from a walk or a hike along a peaceful trail.
Don’t solo trips invite danger, especially if you’re all alone out there in the middle of the forest? “You’ve got to be prepared,” replies Kovin. “I study the area and I familiarise myself with the geography of the place I want to explore.”
Having a smart phone with downloadable maps and a power bank are just the tools he needs for a trek. “Along with my water and snacks, of course!” he adds, grinning. “Having a high fitness level and a clear mind helps,” remarks Kovin who plays futsal and football on the side.
He doesn’t really require much else, he says, but it’s important that hikers have some basic training in first aid. “I never enter a forest without my first aid kit,” he stresses. There are bound to be mishaps, he adds matter-of-factly, adding with a chuckle: “I’ve sprained my ankle before on a trail run. But my worst accident happened at home when I slipped and fell down the stairs!”
Reveals Kovin: “I learnt all I could about hiking from YouTube videos!” Millennial, I sputter and he laughs, protesting: “Well, it helped!”. He’s no stranger to risks and I ask him, how far would he go for the thrills. “Calculated risks,” he corrects me firmly. “I don’t attempt foolhardy stunts. But there’s something about the thrill of taking risks. That’s when we feel most alive.” “Like jumping off a cliff?” I tease him. “Yes!” answers Kovin, laughing.
Any close encounters with the wild, I ask. “Wild boars and snakes!” he replies, before gleefully regaling me with a story about the time he chanced upon an irate cobra ready to do battle. “It rose up to my chest level in a stand-off. I backed down of course!” he shares, chuckling.
Mountains, waterfalls, beaches and just about every natural scenic spot in between, Kovin ventures into the remote parts of Malaysia and explores them all. In an age where explorers are running out of wildernesses and life has been street-mapped to the ends of the earth, there are still, Kovin attests, breathtakingly beautiful sites in this country that begs to be experienced.
Malaysia, he says, has some of the best natural spots that rival other countries, “… and they’re still remarkably pristine and remote. That’s why I do what I do,” he concludes, shrugging his shoulders again. “We don’t know the world nearly as well as we think we do.”
KOVIN’S FAVOURITE HIKING SPOTS IN PENINSULAR MALAYSIA
Jerangkang Waterfalls in Maran, Pahang.
The Jerangkang Falls can be reached from the KL-Kuantan road. About 30 km after passing Maran, turn left at a signboard 'Hutan Lipur Jerangkang'. The road leads through rubber plantations and passes under the new KL-Kuantan Highway. For the last part, Kovin says that 4WD vehicles are needed. Enthuses Kovin: “According to local stories, there are 43 levels to this amazing waterfall, complete with large pools at each level. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Hiking Level: Intermediate
Berkelah Waterfalls, Pahang
Berkelah Falls is a cascade of waterfalls located in Pahang, Malaysia. It’s about 31 to 35 km away from Kuantan City in the direction of Maran. The falls consist of seven tiers, according to official data from the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, but there are actually more tiers above the seventh.
Hiking Level: Intermediate
Bukit Tabur, Selangor
Bukit Tabur is a hill located in Selangor, Malaysia. It’s also known locally as Bukit Hangus. The hill is very prominent as it’s part of Klang Gates Quartz Ridge and can be seen from the Kuala Lumpur Middle Ring Road 2. The hill, which is less than 500 metres, is a quartz ridge. Climbers enter the hiking trail via Kampung Klang Gates, 50 metres from the gates of the Klang Gates Dam, at the back of Taman Melawati for a 3-4 hour climb. The peak offers a view of the dam and panoramic views of Kuala Lumpur from the north.
Bukit Tabur is divided into the eastern and western section by the dam. Most hikers are familiar with the western section. The eastern side offers more challenging hikes but is said to be steeper and riskier if unfamiliar with the trail. “The eastern side offers glorious sunsets while on the western side hikers can behold the ‘carpet cloud’ that’s absolutely breathtaking,” says Kovin.
Hiking Level: Intermediate to Difficult
Chiling Falls, Kuala Kubu Baru
The Chiling Falls are probably the most beautiful waterfalls in Selangor. To reach the trail head, hikers need to take the road from Kuala Kubu Baru to the Gap. After passing the Selangor Dam, you’d need to cross the bridge on the Chiling river where there’s a space provided to park your vehicles. Follow the road for about 100 metres and soon you’ll arrive at an open campsite beside the river which is maintained by the Fisheries department. “It’s an easy hike and a great place to bring your family,” says Kovin, adding: “The waterfall is beautiful, the trek is adventurous — you’d be crossing several small streams!”
Hiking level: Beginner to Intermediate
Windmill stairs, Pulau Perhentian Kecil
Panoramic views, windmills in the background, lush jungle, a myriad of winding stairs down to the water, and the crystal clear, turquoise ocean greet you on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. There are a few starting points to reach the windmills (unless you’re arriving by boat or kayak). “It’s best to trek,” advises Kovin, adding: “The view is stunning at the top!”
Hiking Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Pictures courtesy of Kovin Sivanasvaran