The tropical peat swamp forest has a sparkle and beauty of its own
Location of the blackwater region of Pahang
Hardly 20 minutes of my boat ride up river along the blackwaters of Sungai Bebar - the lifeline of Pahang’s largest peat swamp forest – we ran smack into a labyrinth of screwpines (pandanus fascicularis) –typical of peat swamp forest. These screwpines‚ locally known as rasau‚ were everywhere‚ and manoeuvring through the narrow shallow canals created by these screwpines was á test of boating skills.
The blackwater river - Sg Bebar with screwpine-fringed banks
Never mind the rough overhanging rasau leaves constantly raking our faces and arms‚ like hand saw; getting past these fast-growing “pain in the neck”” species into the open waters of the river was our major hurdle.It was not getting any easier as we pressed on.
The river turtle is a good source of income for the natives, who'd rather sell their catch than eat it!
A forest dwelling native of the Jakun tribe, apparently looking for terrapins amongst the reed beds‚ cautioned us that the rasau‚ displaced by fast flowing waters following heavy rains two days ago‚ had choked parts of the river as the waters subsided‚ making it difficult even for their dug-outs to manoeuvre.
With the mid-day sun beating on us‚ we sweated as we pushed our boat into the narrow openings created by the overhanging screwpine leaves in parts of the “canals’‚ and where our passage was completely blocked‚ we had to resort to our parang (a long knife) to hack our way through - and even carry the boat - to move on.
To make matters worse‚ dead weeds submerged in the black water would get caught in the propeller‚ and removing the tangle was just as frustrating.
Our native boatman, Lamchun, who knows the terrain like the palm of his hand said that in the past‚ his people‚ who are indigenous to this area‚ had helped to check the spread of the rasau growth as they used the leaves for weaving into mats‚ baskets‚ and food containers.
“Sekarang, kita guna daun mengkuang dan nipah (Now, we use mengkuang leaves‚ another type of the Pandanus sp.‚ and the nipah (nypa fruticans),” he said in a typical native accent, adding with a toothless glee. “Bagus juga dan senang cari (Just as good and easier to find). ”
Not long into the trip‚ we came to a miserable section of the otherwise healthy‚ green pandanus swamp- patches of burnt out reed beds.
My guide, Abdul Rahim, a forestry enforcement officer explained that it was the work of the natives.
“They search on the reed beds for terrapins which they sell to middle men and the only way to flush them out is to set the reeds on fire. Sometimes the fire gets out of control and singes patches of the screwpines and other areas. In a way this practice indirectly helps control and keep some parts of the river vegetation free.”
The dug-out canoe is a favourite mode of river transport for the Jakun tribe of the blackwater river which provides them fish
To the natives, the river is a not only a vital source of food but transport as well. They fish and hunt for their food along the river. In their boats - often in dug out canoes‚ they glide silently over the calm waters of the river‚ listening and watching for tell tale of any disturbances – which can be anything from the terrapins to bull-frogs and the false gharial‚ all of which are endemic to this peat swamp forest – the largest intact ecosystem of its kind in Asia.
It is for this reason, the UNDP-GEF Funded Project on Peat Swamp Forest Conservation and Associated Wetland Ecosystem is taking its PSF conservation initiatives seriously in this area- formulating sustainable management practices, including prudent use of land and the conservation of valuable flora and fauna.
The project’s expert at Pahang-state level, Dr Khali Abdul Aziz, who accompanied me in the “blackwater journey” said, as we hit the open waters of the river : “This river, in its upper reaches which is the project’s core conservation zone‚ is still in its pristine condition.”
Leaving behind our newly-opened trail between the reed beds was indeed a relief. As the fresh breeze swept by, we spotted a pair of Wrinkled Hornbills in a graceful flight over the canopy of tall trees.
And as we steered our boat close to the muddy banks to begin our trek through the peat forest, I also spotted a Grey-Headed Fishing Eagle gliding disinterestedly high above the ramin trees and a number of pied fantails frolicking in a clump of floating screwpines.
“The Bebar area,” explained Dr Khali, as we slipped in our gum boots, “is a bird sanctuary, especially for the Wrinkled Hornbills.
“It is our job to see that the core conservation zone remains intact.To date, we have identified 216 species of plants‚ 62 mammals‚ 192 birds‚ 56 fish‚ 17 frogs and 21 species of tortoises‚ lizards and snakes in our study area. It has great eco-tourism potential. We are already working on trails, birdwatch towers and homestay concept with the natives.”
As we gathered out backpack from the boat to begin out trek, I could feel the freshness of the primary forest and the strong decaying smell of water-logged leaves and twigs (smelt like sulphur!)– a feature of the peat swamp forest.
That's me, ankle deep in the mucky water-logged peat soil..A trek through the peat swamp forest is a totally new experience.
The spongy soil sucked our boots and walking was often difficult in some parts, but then the “jewels of the blackwater”- wild orchids, ferns and sphagnum, berries, palms, medicinal plants, straggling figs as well as dragon flies, strange-looking beetles and insects- which I came across during the three hour trekk– – gave me a sense of euphoria and satisfaction.
As we nudged on‚ I saw striking lipstick palms, a species that is endemic to the peat swamp forest.
Our path‚ which we had to create by clearing the growth as we moved on‚ was not a bed of roses‚ but festered with thorny growth and uncertainties. We took many tumbles along the way.
Wild rattan‚ some of the bearing fruits that looke like snake-skin,frequently got on our way. We had to be careful of the thorns...
The venomous pit viper, nicely coiled up possibly after a good meal
Oh, yup! I had a close encounter with the wild-kind - a pit viper that was curled up on a branch. I did not notice the venomous reptile and it was Lamchun who pointed it out! I froze for a moment but recovered soon enough to take a couple of shots of the creature.
The going was not getting any easier as we stepped on a soft mass of mud‚ camouflaged by dead leaves and twigs. My feet sank and impulsively my hands went for the nearest support to keep me falling-I had grabbed the thorny fronds of a wild palm. Ouch! my palms were all pins and needles! I removed what I could and applied some surgical spirit.
But what caught my eyes was a spray of chilli-red flowers‚ shaped like little trumpets‚ hanging loosely from a slender stem that appeared to be growing out of mossy trunk of a buttress tree.
The monkey lipstick flower..a wild orchid which is endemic to the peat swamp forest
They were beautiful and I wasted no time in taking a couple of close ups. These flowers are known among the natives as “gincu monyet"(monkey lipstick) because the monkeys love to nibble on them!
Occasionally‚ we spotted dragon flies – jewel bright‚ blue and red ones‚ flying about and perching on decaying twigs floating in puddles of still‚ brackish water. Where there a heavy concentration of flowering plants‚ we came across bees and flies‚ apparently‚ investigating the flowers for nectar.
But sadly‚ as it was getting late‚ we had to leave the “ jewels of the blackwater”‚ to be explored‚ perhaps‚ with more time in our hand‚ another day.
And the trek back to our boat is another story...
Footnote: Pahang, the second largest of the 13 Malaysian States, boasts the country's most well-known National Park (Taman Negara), in the district of Jerantut, and the famous Cherating beach washed by the South China Sea. Club Med is also located here, along with strings of backpackers guesthouses and chalets.