by LEONG SIOK HUI, June 20, 2009
Trekking in Malaysian forests usually involves tricky manoeuvres or acrobatic moves. You skirt around ankle-deep mud, claw up near-vertical slopes, duck under fallen logs, squeeze through narrow openings between giant boulders and sometimes totter precariously on pencil-slim ridges.
Some of us would think: “Yeah, it’s fun!” But really, does this mean these trails are good?
A good trail is defined as sustainable (read: lasts forever!) if it can handle stomping feet, protects the environment, requires little maintenance and meets users’ needs. Sliding helplessly down muddy slopes and tearing out tree branches and roots doesn’t seem like a fun trail experience.
And most of us go tra-la-la on the trails without thinking about what it takes to create and maintain the trails. Who is doing all the hard work?
Mountain bike buff Joe @ Azizul Azmi Adnan is one of the main guys responsible for creating the Kota Damansara trail
So when I met the trail-makers behind the new Kota Damansara Community Forest (KDCF) trail, I picked up some tips on trail design. Their story first unravelled in Klang Valley’s Bukit Kiara, where pointers were picked up from the biking trails there.
Kiara’s mountain biking trails are synonymous with one name: Patrick Brunsdon. The Canadian expatriate has been instrumental in creating the 20km network of biking and hiking trails that zigzag Bukit Kiara.
When he first moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1995, Brunsdon was raring to hit the trails. He was told about Kiara, the lush green hill that straddles Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Sri Hartamas, Kg Sg Penchala and Segambut. But Brunsdon found there were few trails and no riding map.
“I joined the hash runs and found out more about the area. Others also told me about the different biking trails,” says Brunsdon.
The existing topography map, a 30-year old map created when the area was a rubber plantation with trails created by the planters, was a bit outdated.
“When you look at the map, you see a stub of the trail here and another one there. I thought why not find a way to join them and get a loop?” says Brunsdon who makes a living maintaining editing, post-production, and computer animation equipment.
“Nothing like getting in there with a cangkul (hoe), seeing what works and what doesn’t,” recalls Brunsdon grinning.
“You build something and see it a year later and realise, oh, there’s more to this …”
With the help of eager volunteers cum mountain biking zealots, Brunsdon improved on the existing trails, cut out new ones and created the Kiara mountain biking map.
A good trail should use boulders and trees to its advantage; Patrick Brunsdon
“I went through a big learning curve over 13 years. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I looked up references from the US-based IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) trail design guide, that I was like, ‘Oh ya, I learned it the hard way!’ ” says Brunsdon.
“You pit your wits against nature and very quickly you’re humbled because it’s relentless! You get 100mm of rain here in one afternoon, and if the trail’s problematic, you’re in trouble.”
The gist of trail design is: get water off the trail!
Water that funnels down the trail erodes it, and water that collects on the trail creates a muddy puddle (see sidebar). A case in point was a trail built by downhill riders about six years ago for a mountain biking race in Kiara.
“Most of the trails were done well except a few spots that turned out to be a perpetual problem like this heavily used and steep trail,” says Brunsdon.
“The hillside leaks water for months on end so the trail is always wet and muddy.
“Some 10,000 bicycles have been up here, coupled with walkers, so the high volume of users keeps breaking the soil surface. Finally, I had to place rocks on it to prevent the trail from eroding.
“Also, the trick is to come here when it’s raining. You can see instantly if you have a problem!”
Some people may associate sheer slopes with adrenaline shots.
“It’s a misconception! The trail doesn’t last! The best trails are rolling, contoured trails,” says Brunsdon, who learned by looking at old plantations to see how the roads were built 50 to 60 years ago.
“They didn’t have vehicles with enough horsepower to sustain steep grades so they built 2%-3% grade slopes that are good roads and don’t take much upkeep.
“You can do this by snaking the trail back and forth, narrowing it at sections or changing direction a lot more with tight switchbacks,” points out Brunsdon.
But a trail that’s too flat is also a no-no.
“The water can’t drain off and you need to cut the outside for the water to flow away. If you build with a slight perpetual grade of 1%-2% up and down, the water will not collect on the trail.
“The idea is to have maximum fun and challenge, minimum impact, minimum amount of work to build and time to sustain.”
A clean slate
The lessons learnt from Kiara were applied to the Kota Damansara forest last year.
“Pat (Brunsdon) took part in the initial recces, map-out of the place and design of the trail,” says Joe @ Azizul Azmi Adnan, the founding member of TRAKS (Trails Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor).
The trail was a collaborative effort between TRAKS, Friends of Kota Damansara Community Forest Park and the Bukit Bintang Scouting District.
“It took about 480 to 600 man-hours with a work crew of 20 people over six months to create that 2km trail,” says Joe, who checks the trail weekly.
The KDCF trail makes for a pleasant stroll — with its meandering route, shady foliage and short steep sections flanked by the occasional towering trees. The hiking cum mountain biking trail has fun features for riders like switchbacks, climbs and dips.
“A switchback uphill reduces the overall gradient and prevents trail erosion,” explains Joe, a mountain biking aficionado and lawyer.
“Water always finds the path of least resistance. If there’s no water diversion, puddles form and create a mud hole. Trail users will skirt around the mud hole, creating a wider trail and damage the plants around it.”
The current trail was designed more for casual walkers while successive trails will be more challenging for mountain bikers, adds Joe.
For the love of it
A well-designed trail needs less maintenance and provides a great experience for users. But it takes a lot of dedication and hard work from the trail users (with the exception of national/state parks).
“If the trails are not designed well, I’m back every two to three months for simple stuff like building up water bars (a small hump) so water doesn’t get trapped or run down the trail,” says Brunsdon who spends an average 500 hours a year, unpaid, maintaining Kiara.
“For a good trail, you only come once a year, cut back the foliage to keep it open,”
Brunsdon’s zeal is infectious. Today, more volunteers are chipping in to help maintain Kiara. Some riders have adopted a 1km stretch of trail each, which they maintain regularly.
“Most trails will end up being maintained by mountain bikers because for us, it’s all about the trail — the whole riding experience is about how you interact with the trail,” adds Brunsdon.
When he’s not on an overseas business trip, Brunsdon spends five to six days a week in Kiara — three days for riding and the rest for maintaining the trails.
“I do this so I have a place to ride; it is entirely selfish. If it weren’t for this, I wouldn’t stay in Kuala Lumpur,” says Brunsdon who lives in Bangsar, a 15-minute ride to the trails.
“If you want guaranteed fun, this is it. I know something good’s going to happen every day I hit the trail. We are so lucky to have it here in the city!”