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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nature never fails to fascinate-Perak

The gently rippling river glistened under a sky still blanketed by darkness. The crisp freshness of the forest hung in the cold morning air. Then, as the first rays of light swept over the forest canopy, the siren-like sound tapered off. Later, the tropical sun dispersed the mist and the surrounding hills appeared, looking formidable. Just then, I noticed bubbles on the surface of the river. A bop here, a bop there and then everywhere. Well, the fish have come out to play! Some jumped out of the water, only to disappear in fleeting seconds.

This view of Sungai Kejar in the Royal Belum State Park was an intimate look at life in a truly natural setting. It was a buzzing environment of screeching insects, singing birds and playful fishes. Elephants, tigers, rhinoceros and deer roamed the jungles.

My reverie was broken by voices coming from the open kitchen, followed by the clanging of pots and pans. Chief cook Yussof Kasim aka Yusoff Sakai and his men were up and ready to cook breakfast. Above the din were the guffaws of Din Gajah, one of Yusoff’s helpers who had kept us all up till the wee hours with his funny tales and cakap-cakap politik (small talk on politics). His laugh was as big as his physique and earned him the nickname Gajah (elephant). After all, we were in elephant country.

Pak Haji, our guide, was up too. Despite the early hour, I had a burning question to ask him that could not wait — what made the siren-like sound that woke me. Pak Haji explained that cicadas or riang-riang were the main source of sounds in the jungle. One of these insect species makes a raucous sound so punctually at sunrise, noon and just after sunset that villagers living on the edge of forests can tell the time by just listening to them.

I was truly fascinated to think that only about an hour ago, I was woken up by Nature’s alarm clock! When breakfast was served, I was completely bowled over by the spread of beef bacon, sausages, toast, fruit and more — all laid out buffet-style.

In fact, every meal over the next three days was a feast. For lunch one day, we had Malay-style food with fried ikan patin, kerabu ubut (palm shoots) and udang masak lemak. For dinner the second night, we enjoyed a sizzling seafood and meat barbecue, spaghetti bolognaise and salad with Thousand Island dressing. I had expected to cook our own meals at the campsite but instead we were feted like kings and queens in the jungle!

Most of our time was spent trekking the forest and taking boat rides on the invitingly beautiful Tasik Temengor – the second largest man-made lake in the peninsula after Tasik Kenyir in Terengganu. Our boat even came close to Pulau Batu Putih with its dramatic limestone outcrops that dated back 400 million years.

Hanging precariously to the rugged sides were beehives and primitive plants, called cycads or paku gajah after its sheer size. We also stopped at a beautiful waterfall with tantalisingly cool waters at Sungai Ruok, a respite after hours of trekking. A few of us swam in the natural pool fed by the cascading falls while the others rested and fed fish in a shallow part of the crystal-clear pool, with bread that Pak Haji had brought.

Our first trekking experience was to a salt lick in lower Belum. What was supposed to be a two-hour trip took an additional 30 minutes as the girls in our group of 30 kept screaming and stopping whenever leeches crept up their legs.

As we went deeper, the screaming subsided as the girls became resigned to the slimy creatures. The worst were tiger leeches which “parachuted” down from the trees, landing on the upper parts of our bodies and causing even the guys to shriek.

We went deep into the rainforest, rich and thick with plant life, including the towering tualang and ara trees. Interesting fungi and wild, colourful flowers share the forest with animals. While in the forest, there are dos and don’ts to observe. One of these is that we must never say the names of wild animals like elephants and tigers lest they come and attack us.

So instead, our conversations included words like Maybank (for its tiger logo) and Fumakilla (elephant logo). Someone asked Pak Haji: “Is there ING in Belum?” Come on! Lions in Belum? “For that, you go to Africa lah, silly!” someone else replied.

One of the toughest treks was at Sungai Selantan where we plodded through rocky streams, climbed slopes just inches from the streams below, walked over and under fallen tree trunks and gingerly made our way through slippery paths with dried leaves scattered on the forest floor like confetti.

At the end of the three-hour trek, we reached a spot where rafflesia grew but alas, we saw only buds of different sizes. Disappointed, we headed back and reached our camp huffing and puffing and absolutely famished.

The second gruelling path took only half an hour but climbing a steep hill drained our strength. At the top was Sira Gajah (elephant salt lick), dubbed the elephants’ playground. It was marked with many elephant feet prints, droppings, trampled plants and fallen tree trunks.

There are about 300 elephants in the area, moving in herds that roam the forest all the way from here to Thailand. The guides told us stories of elephants swimming from island to island in the park and of animals queueing up for their turn at the salt licks. It surely puts to shame those humans who cut queues at buffet lines and bus and train stations!

Other trails led to different types of salt licks and we saw all three types – in watery pools, and on stones and earth. Salt licks provide animals with the crucial minerals they need. The braver among us joined Pak Haji one night for a trek to see glow-worms, insects, toads and luminescent plants. It wasn’t without risk, for unknown to the group, a tiger was lurking near the path. Only Pak Haji knew of its presence, so he coolly led the group along another path instead. The trekkers only learned about the tiger the next morning!

One afternoon, we spent time at the orang asli (Jahai) settlement in Sungai Kejar. The Jahai used to be a nomadic tribe, but had settled down to cultivate bananas and vegetables. They receive government aid but their lives are not without hardship as often, wild elephants would raid their farms.

They survive on their farm produce and the catch from the lake and rivers. The settlement is made up of a few dilapidated huts with attap roofs and bamboo flooring; in some, the flooring is earth. The Jahais are shy but still, they welcomed us with a special Sewang dance performed to the rhythmic knocking of musical instruments made of bamboo.

The men did a blowpipe demonstration, after which some of us gave it a try, using balloons for a target. All but two missed and I was one of the lucky sharp-shooters. The whole village erupted with applause when I hit the bull’s eye – by fluke of course!

We had a taste of rafting Jahai-style when Pak Haji brought us to the end of Sungai Kejar where it meets Sungai Perak — just five minutes by boat from our campsite. Getting on the bamboo raft and keeping our balance were easier said than done. Perched precariously on the raft that was partly submerged in the water, we found rowing hard work. But we had got it all wrong of course.

The Jahais squat on the raft to make it tilt at the front. This way, the raft becomes lighter and it moves faster. Unfortunately, none of us could squat, row and keep our balance at the same time. Still, it was great fun even when some of us fell into the water. We played till the sunset, by which time, I heard the “siren” again. It reverberated all along the river, as if to tell us “it’s getting dark, go home, go home, go home…”

I knew then that this Nature’s alarm clock would be one of my most poignant memories of Belum, that green, rugged sanctuary that would remain forever etched in my mind.

How To Get There ? Take the North-South Expressway, exit at Kuala Kangsar, Perak, and head for Gerik. From here, take the East-West Highway to Pulau Banding. It’s about 45 minutes’ drive or 38km from Gerik. Driving from Kuala Lumpur to Pulau Banding takes about five hours. At Pulau Banding, chartered boats go to Belum-Temengor Rainforest. Do book in advance through resorts or nature guides.

Where To Stay ? Belum Rainforest Resort, Pulau Banding: This is the gateway to the Belum-Temengor Rainforest Complex. Its tranquil setting by the forest and the lake is just perfect for you to unwind. Soft opening room promotion till Aug 29, 2008 at RM180 nett for single/double room with breakfast. Normal rates after the promotion for the four types of rooms are: Deluxe Lake View (RM500++), Deluxe Garden View (RM450++), Superior Lake View (RM400++) and Superior Garden View (RM350++).

Call the resort at 05-791 6800 or go to Sungai Kejar Campsite in Upper Belum: An hour’s boat ride from Pulau Banding, this has basic facilities including 30 spots to pitch tents, dining area with tables and benches, kitchen, bathrooms with toilets and shower, surau and covered rest areas (wakaf). Electricity supply is via generator sets.

Jenut Papan in Lower Belum: It’s 20 minutes by boat to this wildlife lookout point from Pulau Banding. There are wakaf, hanging bridges and two lookout towers (north and south) built with accommodation facilities including sleeping area and bathrooms with toilets and shower. Ideal for researchers and those who wish to study wildlife, with many animals seen at salt licks visible from the towers.

To book facilities at Sungai Kejar and Jenut Papan, contact Perak State Park Corporation at 05-791 7858 or the Belum Rainforest Resort. You may also contact Nature Tour Guide Haji Mohamad Silah Yusof at 012-534 4010/019-545 5079/05-691 4502. Email To stay in a houseboat and enjoy sport fishing, contact Mohd Yussof Kassim at 017-466 5266/05-791 7549. Email
Belum Adventure Packages. Belum Rainforest Resort offers several packages from Nature appreciation walks and night trekking to fishing trips. Packages can also be tailor-made to suit individuals. Some of the most interesting things to discover in Belum are 12 waterfalls, three rafflesia species (cantleyi, kerrii and azlanii) and other exotic plants like wild orchids, ferns, bamboo and giant Tualang and Ara trees, 12 salt licks, orang asli (Jahai and Negrito tribes) settlements in Kampung Sungai Kejar, Kampung Sungai Tiang and Kampung Belum Lama, 10 hornbill species (i.e. all species in the country) and wildlife including elephants, tigers, rhinoceros and deer.

You need a permit to enter Royal Belum. Apply to the Perak State Park Corporation four days before trip (for locals) or seven days (for foreigners). Application can also be made at least a week ahead via Belum Rainforest Resort (for stay-in guests). Details, call 05-791 6800.

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