A (De) Mystified Belum

24Sep06

as published in Virtual Malaysia Magazine [September / October 2006]

We were in Gerik, seven hours from Kuala Lumpur and four hours from Ipoh. We were informed that this was the last town we’ll be seeing for the next two days, so we had to stock up on whatever creature comforts we needed. The only condition being, we had to carry our own gear!

Words: Majidah Hashim

With that, we plunged into the Belum Rainforest. This was not the first time I had visited Belum so I knew what to expect. I had extra batteries for my flashlight, a rain poncho and a little chocolate for my hikes and I was good to go. My more paranoid colleagues were having nightmares thinking about all the insects, animals and whatever hardships they were going to face, but I was not worried as I believed that we were all well prepared.

Banding Island is the gateway to Belum Forest and the most established accommodation here is Banding Highland Resort. The staff here may come across as slightly awkward, but once you get them talking about nature within the Belum Forest and Temenggor Lake complex, they will open up and display their expertise. The resort arranges wildlife observation expeditions for wild elephants and hornbills, and excursions to hunt for the Rafflesia flower, one of Nature’s more pungent creations.

Dark clouds hung threateningly over us as we headed towards the boats at the edge of Temenggor Lake. A slight drizzle began to fall from between the trees, we tightened our life vests and covered our backpacks with plastic bags. Stepping gingerly onto the fibreglass vessels, and taking our seats on shallow wooden planks, the boatmen revved the outboard engines and the boats made its way to Pulau Tikus.

Pulau Tikus, named for its supposed aerial resemblance to a rat, is home to the Belum Valley Recreational Centre. The set-up is minimal and does not upset its natural surroundings. Built on wooden planks and stilts, there is even evidence of elephant visits at the airy dining area. The centre, which opened in 2002, comprises of three dormitories, four chalets and a camping site. Said to be over 130 million years old and spanning over 117,500 hectares, Belum Forest is home to over 3,000 species of flowering plants, many of which are endemic here.

Among the plants found here include 46 species of palm, over 30 species of ginger and a variety of rare wild orchids. Besides that, over 64 species of ferns, 62 species of moss and three species of Rafflesias are found within the Belum Forest, including Rafflesia Azlanii which was discovered in 2004 and is the 20th species of rafflesia in the world.

There are at least 247 species of birds in the Belum Forest, including every species of hornbill in Malaysia. The rare and globally protected Plain Pouch Hornbill can also be sighted here. Sometime, flocks of at least 2,000 can be seen in one evening. Over a hundred mammals call Belum Forest home, and this includes elephants, Malayan Tigers, leopards, seladang (gaurs), Sun Bears, Sumatran Rhinoceros and the Malayan Tapir. In fact, Belum Forest supports about 15 globally threatened and near-threatened mammals. The rare Herona sumatrana and Tanaecia clathrata are among the 168 species of butterflies found here, along with 252 species of smaller moths, 51 species of land snails, 36 species of aquatic and semi-aquatic bugs, 25 species of cicadas, 24 species of amphibians, 21 species of lizards, 23 species of snakes, 23 species of freshwater fish, seven species of freshwater and land turtles, and three species of freshwater decapod crustaceans.

That evening, we held an animated session with two of the forest dwellers’ chiefs. Penghulu Kawah, 37, is the chief of Kampung Cuak, an Orang Asli Jahai settlement. The tribe used to be ‘kaki-kaki’ or nomadic, but has for the past few years, settled down at their present location, about 45 minutes via boat from Pulau Tikus. According to the Jahai culture, members are not allowed to marry within their own village and must venture to other villages throughout the forest. No dowry is required for a wedding to take place. But husbands face a penalty of RM10,000 if they ask for a divorce during their wife’s pregnancy. Jahai men are allowed to have up to six wives and the biggest family in his village have 23 children. Jahai children receive formal education in government schools with hostels. Theirs is truly a unique way of life!

Tuan Haji Karim Mat is the chief of Kampung Belum Lama, a very unique Malay settlement located in the forest. I got the impression that having grown up and lived in the forest all his life, he is proud of his heritage as a forest dweller. He tells us that there are no schools or clinics in the forest, except at the army camps.

Kampung Belum Lama is literarily in the middle of nowhere. It takes one week to get from there to Gerik on foot or four days via elephant. The settlement first came to be when north Malaysia was the territory of “Melayu Pattani, or the Pattani Malays long before independence. When the British landed on these parts of the peninsula, they used elephants to move the border markers of their territories in the middle of the night. Noticing this, a discussion was called, and a new border, marked by river and the foot of a hill was drawn.

Today, the settlement comprises 28 villages, five burial sites and one mosque. Traditionally, the villagers survived by collecting wood, which is sold in Thailand or Kelantan, or by fishing. Now, the villagers plant hill rice. Asked if the Malay chief has been out of the forest, Tuan Haji related an amusing incident years ago when he was taken out of the forest to try to adapt to the outside world. After having a can of sardines explode when he tried to cook it ( he did not open the tin!), and having to be brought to hospital when he swallowed milk powder without mixing it with water, he decided to return to the forest as he felt it was ….. safer!! The Malay villagers live side by side with the Jahai and Temis Orang Asli, mostly locals, as well as some indigenous people from Thailand.

The next morning, we took a 40-minute boat ride to Belum’s Batu Putih area. Disembarking from the boat and onto the steep slope of one of the islands along Temenggor Lake, we immediately ascended with the help of ropes and the odd tree root. Gua Batu Putih or White Stone Cave is also known as Gua Terbit and Gua Cermin. The mouth of the cave has a sharp drop that we had to carefully thread our way in. Because of its peculiar entrance, which also happens to be the exit, the pungent air created by bat dwellers within the cave is effectively retained within its high ceilings.

‘Sira Gajah’ is the name of our next destination. Venturing to a mineral mould frequented by wild elephants, we learnt through contact that elephant dung does not smell bad. This is because elephants are herbivorous. Elephants, travelling in a large loop around the Belum-Temenggor complex would come to this mould to get crucial supplies of minerals. They do this by swallowing large amounts of the mineral enriched earth and covering themselves with it. Eventually, the remains of this perfectly natural instinct is deposited along its route. We received a crash course in setting up camp in these parts of Belum. Sites with elephant droppings without fungi are safe to camp at. We should be wary of sites where the elephant droppings had fungi on them, because that means the two month loop the elephants are on is nearly up, and they’re on their way back here.

We also visited a salt lick frequented by animals other than the elephants. The salt lick, springing from the earth itself is one of the many in Belum Forest. It functions as a natural dispensary or clinic and all of Belum’s wildlife come to either of these licks for their required ration of essential minerals. Before we headed back from the morning’s excursion, we had just one more site to go, a massive cliffside, which is home to some of the rarest plants on the planet. Called the Cyclod, the plants (which are still in existence!) are estimated to be over 130 million years old and are believed to be fodder for dinosaurs. The existence of these Cyclod plants hypothetically dates Belum Forest to the pre-historic ages.

That afternoon, we were invited to a Jahai Orang Asli village called Kampung Charok Bush, about half an hour from Pulau Tikus. The village, located along Sara River, is home to 12 families. The Jahai performed a special Sewang as welcoming dance.

The Jahai Sewang is different from the kind practiced by the Temia or Semai
Orang Asli. The Sewang or dance is performed by any number of dancers, but one is the head, and he determines the mood of the dance. The dance is accompanied by the rhythmic knocking of musical instruments made from bamboo, and usually played by womenfolk. Our group was also treated to a blowpipe demonstration by the Jahai Orang Asli. Surrounded by the vast million-yearold rainforest, the group spent the rest of the evening kayaking, rafting and fishing at the 60,000 hectare Temenggor Lake.

Being here is so different from the concrete metropolitan sprawl I come from. Instead of the honks of congested traffic and unmistakable hollers by the frustrated mamak, I am immersed in the ruffling of soaring trees and gentle harmony of creatures of all kinds.

So yes, Belum is a little less mysterious now, but it is no less majestic and bewitching as it has ever been.


The writer and friends trekking through Belum Forest (2005)
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