Neil_The Awakening: From Australia to Malaysia

by Dusky Neil

Back in the day: circa 1970’s Australia

Present day: Malaysia

School social studies comprising geography, history and nature studies were learnt early on.  Nature trails on school premises or at organised field trips to sites of natural interest sparked curiosity to nature.  Learnt to identify birds – like Kookaburras, Willy Wagtails, Magpies, Parrots, and trees and shrubs like Wattles, Banksias, Bottle-Brush, Grevilleas and Gumtrees, these being homes for countless varieties of birds and insects. 

As a kid, I learned civic responsibility in the form of litter pickups to help fundraise for our schools whereby we picked litter from the sides of roads and highways and were paid by the government a $ amount per kilo of rubbish picked. Of course, my parents and teachers were involved in these community initiatives.

Many weekends were also spent with friends collecting bottles on roadsides which I could take to redemption centres and get money for sweets!

I planted trees on land rehabilitated after mining operations, reinvigorating parklands to create more shade and wildlife habitat, or in agriculture particularly for fighting erosion and building wildlife corridors and stock shelter on over-cleared farmland. These are the lessons I remember most from junior schooling.

Long running initiatives like the “Keep Australia Beautiful” campaign (anti littering) involving TV advertising, school learning packages and community involvement over many years ensured this message was ingrained in our brains!

Later in life, travelling to many countries and experiencing different cultures and natural wonders opened our eyes to an array of exciting opportunities.  We often went to out of the way places, to many National Parks and untouched jungles, river communities and beaches. Utilising local transport for the most part, we liked to travel the lesser known areas of countries not necessarily on the tourist trail. 

Inle Lake, Myanmar, 2000.

As beautiful, interesting and special as some of these places were, the appearance of rubbish and litter was becoming more and more evident. Seeing firsthand the amount of single use plastic (bottles mainly) discarded by travelers & locals made us all the more determined not to add to or ignore the world-wide problem anymore.  On one of our overseas trips over a 30-year period, (which were mainly in SE Asia & most often to Indonesia and Malaysia) we travelled this time in the year 2000 for six months through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.  Knowing what we did about the ever-growing litter problem in these countries, we decided to take a small hand-held water purifier with us to ‘make’ our own drinking water. We could produce 2 x 1.5 litre bottles of water each night by filling 2 bottles with available water and pumping through the purifier into 2 clean bottles.  The addition of ‘viral stop’ drops to each bottle took care of the virus potential as the purifier took care of the bacteria. Suffice to say that we never became ill, and the number of plastic bottles used on the entire 6 months trip only totaled some 15 bottles each. It was unavoidable at times to not buy bottled water, though the staggering amount of single use plastics we DID NOT use is quite an achievement we were proud of, thus saving the planet (albeit in a small way) from this scourge.  Sometimes in our lodgings at checkout times we would see almost this same number of bottles getting thrown out of a single room from one family stay!

Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra 2015

Having traveled extensively in Malaysia, we have seen the growing impact of litter on this country, ever since the first trip I made here in 1983. As the rubbish finds its way into drains and ultimately into the ocean, concerns of huge masses of trash polluting beaches and killing marine life should be a major priority and the concern of everyone. It pains us to watch people using drains as rubbish bins.

In the time we have resided here in Penang we refuse single use plastic bags. We carry our own reusable shopping bags, use reusable mesh fruit and veggie bags, tak nak straw, use our tiffin for take out, try to choose no (or less) packaging, shop at the Owl Zero Waste Bulk Store – refilling our own containers, and we use a water purifier at home.  We hope that more people would realise that these things are not hard to do and see the environmental benefit and follow suit.

Exploration of Pulau Pinang has opened up new interests such as hiking – the chain of hills is a hiker’s paradise! Offering easy access to some tranquility and affording a closeness to nature all of us humans should enjoy.  Other areas on the mainland have not been forgotten in our recent time here, such as Bukit Mertajam, Gunung Jerai, Baling and Cameron Highlands to name a few. I first volunteered at the often littered P84 rest stop – where I responded to an advertisement on site. It is a small commitment; I simply incorporate a hike with a stop there and pick up the rubbish left by hikers and jeep track users. However, the incidence of litter left on other hiking trails by irresponsible citizens has prompted my wife Lynne and I to do more. We take rubbish bags and picking sticks along with us while walking, particularly on the by-paths of Penang Hill, where we do a weekly clean up.

Lynne on Bypath J.                 

By doing this we have time to take in the nature and truly enjoy the quiet (away from the hustle and bustle of down below) and we are incorporating our love of the hills and walking the by-paths. While we really don’t like picking up others rubbish, we are hopeful that by doing this simple voluntary act of civic responsibility we are doing our bit for the environment in the hope maybe others might note our efforts and be inspired to clean up their local area or maybe join a beach cleanup or even better – if even just one person might see us and think to not throw that bottle into the forest after all, it will  be incentive enough for us to carry on.  We report our weekly observations to KP Ong from ‘Nature Walks @ Penang Hills’ who gives us great support. KP has now reinstated a WhatsApp group of Penang Hill hikers who are reporting on their various efforts in keeping the hill clean. It feels great to think a bit of momentum has been gained and that there are actually many other people and groups out there who are also doing their bit. We recently joined Trash Heroes and JEDI on a beach clean-up in Teluk Kumbar where we picked up a staggering 102kg of trash in just one hour.

Sungai Ara students & volunteers, 2020.

This brings me to my next life chapter, I am a proud trainee “Dusky” volunteer Field Assistant for Langur Project Penang (LPP). As such I am combining my love of the forest and my appreciation and respect for nature, with an avid interest in the wellbeing and conservation of the Dusky Langurs. I am glad to be dedicating some of my time as a volunteer to ensure the preservation of the Dusky and its habitat.

But what I mostly enjoy is the opportunity to be around and involved with such a progressive, engaged and enthusiastic group of motivated people. Going by the obvious energy and excitement borne by the LPP team, this important message of conservation and environmental awareness will be spread wide and shared with children. These youngsters will be the nature conservation ambassadors of tomorrow. These children will in turn educate and promote much needed awareness to their friends, families, aunties and uncles to make a nature filled, healthier and safe world for us all!

This motivates me to keep going and be positive for the future, and to an awakening.

Thank you, Langur Project Penang.

Signing off,

Neil.

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