29 September 2011

Langkawi - Gunung Raya with Irshad Mobarak

I think what defines a good holiday is one that changes you. Be it from a highly stressed state to a reclamation of peace, physical burn-out to a sense of rejuvenation, from boredom to excitement, from ignorance to enlightened...

Feeling refreshed and having loads of fun during a vacation is just fantastic.

But they are only temporal escapes.

In my opinion, a truly great and enduring holiday is one where we've also learnt something about the world we live in and come home with our horizons expanded. And a visit to Gunung Raya in the company of Langkawi's celebrity naturalist, Irshad Mobarak, is one of those rare occsions where learning and fun intersects.

Animate, engaging and humourous, Irshad grips you with stories of the jungle and talks about every critter, bird, insect and plant like family. He towers over us with his large build, which is an apt size for his larger-than-life mission to protect Langakwi's natural heritage.
To me, Irshad represents somewhat of a modern day shaman as he embodies within him the spirit of the forest and the scientific knowledge about its inhabitants. He is a well-known and respected figure within the Langkawi tourism community and perhaps even the whole of Malaysia's naturalistic associations for he's the face of Tourism Malaysia's docu-ad currently airing on Star TV.

And might I add, he's appeared in various documentaries by Nat Geo and Discovery Channel. We were so fortunate to have him personally take us on a field trip of the island's wildlife!

Armed with books and a hands on approach, Irshad shared fascinating facts about birds such as the Red Wattled Lapwing, which will feign injury to lure predators away from its nest. He's also really good at talking bird by imitating their calls with precision. His mimic of the Great Hornbill's 'orh-gok orh-gok' call still rings in my ears. His knowledge of the forest extends to the plants where he could just pluck something from somewhere and start telling us about its pharmacological benefits.

Red Wattled Lapwing with a broken wing act. The bird lays its eggs on the ground and hence, highly susceptible to predation. To waylay predators, the lapwing will dive-attack hounds and other mammalian quadruped and if that failed to distract them from its nest, it will 'fall down' in front of them with a 'broken wing'. It will then pretend to struggle and fly-fall to lead the animal away. But if the potential invader is a snake, which has poor eyesight, the bird will come right in front of it and perform the injured act. Irshad said : "This bird deserves an Emmy!" I think an Oscar too.

Chromolaena odorata / Eupatorium Odoratum (common names - Siam Weed and Jack in the Bush) is considered a pest plant and rated as a Class 1 weed in many countries. It can grow as much as 20mm in 1 day and seeds profusely.
Apart from a crash course on lapwings, eagles and the hornbill, we were also introduced to medicinal plants such as the Siam Weed. This crop and foliage poison is our medicine. The juice from its crushed leaves is found to contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties and is effective in wound healing. In poorer nations, Siam Weed is purportedly used in the treatment of malaria and dysentery.

The plant can be found along our Singapore highways too! But don't go harvesting it for use just yet as roadside foliage contain higher levels of metal contamination from vehicular fumes. There is a love-hate relationship with this plant... loved for its medicinal and nutritional applications but loathed for its obnoxious virility in growth.

While Irshad was giving us a lesson about birds and plants by the roadside, a zealously friendly calf made our encounter with nature all that more magical! It just loves being around people. I would've brought it home if I could! And not as veal.

Our winding drive up to the peak Gunung Raya was marked with many stops along the way when the trained eyes and ears of Irshad pick up trails of some exotic birds. In particular, we were hoping to see the Great Hornbill in its natural habitat. Here's the lot of us tyring very hard to discern a horbill that Irshad had spotted from the dense green.

The hornbills eluded us but we saw a couple of Brahminy Eagles perched on a tree top. Yo eagle, how's the view up there? :o)

My envy of the view the eagles had was quickly satiated with our arrival on the roof of Langkawi. Standing at 881m, Gunung Raya is the tallest mountain and offers a superb panoramic view of the island.

Unfortunately, our visit met with thick fog and we could hardly see much. But the cooler temperature was a welcome from the tropical heat. I estimate that the drive up should take no more than 45 minutes without stops.

At the top of Gunung Raya sits the D'Coconut Hill Resort which used to be a holiday villa of the Malaysian Prime Minister. It is now an exclusive mountaintop hotel that is an attraction in its own right.

Enjoying a cup of coffee or tea at the resort's contemporary cafe cum restaurant would let you get not just a caffeine fix but a high from the aerial view and crisp mountain air.

Visage of one of the accomodation wings at the resort with a pool that looks through a forest canopy onto a breathtaking view of Langkawi's topography and the Andaman Sea.

Room rates range from RM400 to RM1,500 for a Superior Room and Premier Suite (pictured here) respectively. We were only shown the rooms and around the resort and it was such a punishment because we didn't get to stay at this beautiful resort! The rooms are gorgeous and I could imagine that if the sky was clear, staying here would be top of this world!

If you're not here to stay, you can also pay RM10 to go atop the watchtower for an unobstructed bird's eye appreciation of the island. This is a walkway that leads to a lift at the tower.

Si mi mah kua boh (can't see anything) because Gaia had been smoking. But it's really cool up here and there's a small cafe. Having wine at this place would be divine!

By the time we left D'Coconut Hill Resort, the sky was already in the middle of its evening concerto. The symphony of azure, crimson and gold gets a standing ovation from my camera.

Spotted! The Great Hornbill! Although it's kinda dark to see, I felt rewarded by the big bird's silhouette because we've been trying to see it the whole afternoon. Like eagles, hornbills are monogamous. This is unlike chickens who are polygamous. 
As we made our way down Gunung Raya at dusk, sleep taking over us due to a day packed full of programmes, we suddenly came to a stop. Still rather drowsy, my senses immediately fired up when I was told that Great Hornbills have been sighted!

Can't really see them clearly but Irshad made up for it with a very touching story. The hornbills mate for life and form lifelong bonds and there was a pair that Irshad had gotten to know. One day, a gunshot rang through the forest and the female collapsed to the ground. A man in a motorcycle sped away with it.

For the next one and a half year, the remaining male hornbill would fly to the very branch on which its mate was killed and called out to it. The male hornbill had since found a new mate but occasionally, it can still be seen at that tree spot.

So, do you want your relationship to be a hornbill, or chicken?

Hunt for the Controversial Colugo

After Gunung Raya, Irshad took us on a night excursion of the forest. So exciting! I've never explored the forest at night before. Our main purpose here was to look for the elusive Colugo who, get this, is our genetic relative!

Strong torchlight is a must for a night survey of the trees. I brought along a LED torchlight which looked very bright to me but was totally weak when shining up at the trees. The darkness hardly barged.

Saw a pair of resting Oriental Pied Hornbills at pretty close range. Awesome!

There's something hidden in the trees. Look carefully, can you see what it is?

Our night reverie was accompanied by cricket mating calls. Here, a female cricket was on its way to meet a date. The orangey spot was cast by a tungsten torch. 
Did you spend a lot of time with the photo preceding the above one looking for what's hidden in the branches? You've been had. Haha. There's nothing in the photo except the foliage. I'm just kidding with you but also to show you how hard it was to spot anything on the leafy ceiling.

We shone our torchlights into the trees hoping to catch an eye shine (tapetum lucidum effect) which will indicate a Colugo (pray it's not Potianak!) but to my unaccustomed eye, I saw nothing. But on the ground, I caught sight of a huge cricket, I mean a really BIG one hurrying across the forest floor. And Irshad promptly picked it up told us their story...

There are two types of male crickets -  the noisy ones and quiet ones. A quiet cricket? Now, that's something new.The noisy crickets get more girlfriends but lead very short lives as they attract predators and a parasitic fly that lays eggs into their bodies. When the eggs hatch, they burst from the cricket's abdomen Alien-style.

The quiet ones would hang around the noisy ones and wait. When the loudmouths get busy with a mate, they stop cricketing but their calls would've attracted other females to come their way. At this point, the quiet ones let out a small whimper. Thinking that its the male they were after, the females mate with the cheaters.

The quiet male cricket may not get an orgy, but it gets to live very long. So what do we learn from the male crickets? Promiscuity kills ya faster!

Indian Pennywort (Centella Asiatica). Called 破铜钱 (broken copper coin) and 满天星 (sky full of stars) in Mandarin, this creeper with kidney-shaped leaves is yielding promising properties that allopathic medicine is harvesting.
Letting the female cricket continue its way to heed the mating calls, Irshad plucked some leaves from the ground and introduced us to the Indian Pennywort. The leaves can be eaten raw in a salad or dried and consumed as tea.

From his glowing account of the medicinal benefits of this herb, I wanted to just get down on all fours and start munching on them! The plant has a long history as a traditional medicine in the Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai and Ayurvedic systems of healing which modern science is beginning to verify. A drug for cardiovascular diseases made from the active constituents of the Indian Pennywort may soon find its way into our Western pharmacies soon.

According to clinical studies, the herb is a mild adaptogen which has the ability to regulate stress and act as a sort of tonic for general health like ginseng, has anti-microbial efficacies, possesses anxiolytic properties (mild tranquilising effects helpful in combating anxiety disorders), and also an aphrodisiac! Plus it can stimulate collagen production so it is a great ally for age-defying skin. That's a green fountain of youth right beneath my feet!

Image of Colugo with young clinging to its body taken from Penn State Eberly College of Science archive. Gestation takes 60 days and the infants live with the parent for about six months.
Our search for the Malayan Colugo (a.k.a. Sunda Flying Lemur) was futile. Irshad told us it's unusual not to catch them in action. Guess our lucky stars had fallen asleep that night. But I've found a photo to show you because this animal is pretty amazing.

Nicknamed the Flying Lemur of Southeast Asia, the misnomer is far-fetched because the Colugo neither flies (it glides) nor is it a lemur. When it was first discovered, the nocturnal creature was classified under the order of the primates. Humans are in the primate order. But it was later classified under the order of the bats because it has skin for wings. Colugos are not flying squrriels or flying foxes.

But later DNA mapping found that it is closer to the primate genome. In other words, we humans are relatives with the Colugo! This animal has been classified into a new order own its own (Dermoptera) with two species - the Sunda Colugo and the Philippine Colugo. They can be found in Singapore too at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, MacRitchie Reservoir and I believe other forested areas of our tiny red dot.

While I was disappointed at not having the opportunity to catch the Colugo with my own eyes, my eyes have been opened to a lot more about the romance, survival tactics and healing powers of nature. For a truly rewarding experience of Langkawi's wildlife, you can book tours with Jungle Walla where Irshad is the resident naturalist. It's totally worth it,.

26 September 2011

Langkawi - Kilim Karst Geoforest Park

Forming one part of Langkawi's trinity of Geoparks (the other 2 being Mount Machincang Geoforest Park and Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park), Kilim Karst Geoforest Park is probably the island's best kept terrestrial secret with its ancient limestone formations dating back to the age BEFORE the dinosaurs!

Dipping its toes in the Kilim River at the north-eastern tip of Langkawi, the designated geoforest is a gallery of massive mangrove ecosystems and wildlife sanctuary that astounds with tranquil beauty and endemic biodiversity.

The cluster of attractions at Kilim Geopark includes a network of caves, beaches, mangrove swamps and other ecological points of interest such as eagle feeding and fish farming.
Kilim Geoforest is located diagonally opposite the Langkawi International Airport, which in milege terms, is less than a 90 minutes drive away. To experience nature at a scale that Kilim offers, I would consider the travel time short.

There are various tour packages available that can last between 1 to 4 hours. The short trips would be just a cruise along the site for a quick browse while longer excursions include stopovers at beaches and lunch at a fish farm.

Prices are usually charged according to per boat charter so it's really economical if you go in a group. There were 11 of us plus a guide and boatman onboard and it's still pretty comfortable.

Jonathan all armed and ready with his camera. That's our boat waiting to be boarded at Kilim River jetty.

Hasni vogued a sultry look in anticipation of the seduction of nature while big smiles make its round.
Gua Kelawar (Bat Cave)

We went on a short 2-hour excursion which included a tour of Gua Kelawar, eagle watching, a photo stop at the Hollywood-ish Kilim Geoforest signboard, and ended with lunch on a floating fish farm.

Accessible only by boat, Gua Kelawar is a prehistoric playground of unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations amidst picturesque mangrove overgrowths. The site got its name from its most prominent residents, the kelawar (bat), living within one of the area's larger gua (cave).

Map showing the exploration trail of Gua Kelawar. If you are visiting on your on, remember to bring along a powerful torchlight. Else, ask for one from your guide as you'll need it to study the rock formations within the caves and to see the chamber of bats.

The Fiddler Crab is known as 招潮蟹 in Mandarin, which translates to tide calling crab. This Orange Fiddler looked like a crustaceous sumo!
Our exploration of Gua Kelawar was first welcomed by a mudflat of Fiddler Crabs. I love these tiny crustaceans because they are so comical in their appearance and behaviour. They always crack me up. Although their eyes protrude so far out, Fiddler Crabs actually have very poor vision. The big claw of the male is used to signal for a mate and during territorial conflicts.

If a crab loses its big claw during a fight, the smaller claw will start packing on size as it is faster for the small claw to grow bigger than for the crab to grow a big claw out of nothing. That's why some male Fiddlers have big right claws while others have bigger left pinchers. I didn't know that. I thought big left claw means male, big right claw means female... 男左女右 mah. LOL

Our guide said that they are used in the popular Thai raw papaya salad (som tam) but I have my doubts. I thought the recipe calls for raw black ricefield crabs or blue flower crabs. Not these silent violinists. Then again, there could be many versions of the salad's ingredients and I haven't yet had my tastebuds fiddled with.

The cliff dwelling cycad (generally referred to as the Bogak Tree in Langkawi) is also nicknamed the Elephant Trunk Tree although this one looks more like an anaconda! This plant species dates back to prehistoric times with the earliest fossilised records accepted at 280 million years ago. It is extremely slow growing with some living specimens aged over 1,000 years old. As such, they have been plundered from forests to be placed in homes as a symbol of longevity.

Enrtance and interior of a minor cave at Gua Kelawar. The cave used to be submerged as pieces of seashells can be found stuck on its ceiling.

Here's one tip about visiting Gua Kelawar... there are no toilets on site so clear all you need to at the Kilim River jetty before starting your tour. I had the misfortune of getting a tummyache during our excursion and its the kind that needs immediate release. It's not the kind that can be distracted or willed away. Imagine my agony!

A part of the path had been closed. I wonder where it leads to.

Entrance to a larger cave chamber where the bats are. We went against traffic by taking the Exit route that leads to the Entrance (see the Gua Kelawar map above) rather than follow the conventional. If you went the other way, you'll see this cave first before the smaller cave.

Interesting growth of stalactites (from ceiling down) and stalagmites (from the ground up) that showed nature imitating nature. In the right photo is a stalactite that resembles a crocodile. Can you spot it?

Stalactite formations usually point directly downwards but the ones at the cave's exterior seem to defy gravity by curving horizontally. The reason is that stalactites contain a certain algae on them and for photosynthesis purposes, the algae stretch towards the sunlight and over time, the rock grew horizontal rather than vertical. Never underestimate the power of a microorganism!

A ceiling full of bats within the big cave. It's very dark in here and you'll need a powerful torchlight to see them. Species found at Gua Kelawar are a mixture of fruit bats as well as insect-eating bats. Surprisingly, the cave didn't stink like bat caves usually do.

Departing Gua Kelawar, we skimmed along stretches of mangrove coasts and lush limestone cliffs to reach a secluded lagoon where the feeding of eagles take place.
Our next thrill was to see some wild eagles being fed. Although their natural diet is fish and small mammals, boats that come here feed them chicken innards as they are inexpensive and usually discarded in the markets as compared to purchasing fish. But this is detrimental to the eagles' health as innards are hardly nutritious and don't contain calcium and other minerals if they were to consume whole prey with bones and all. Furthermore, the contamination of bird flu in the fowls can wipe out the whole eagle population in the area.

It used to be that every boat that came would feed. Now, when one boat feeds, the others just watch. Eagles are territorial birds that don't usually gather in such close proximity with each other but the convenience of free food had brought them together. Kinda like how humans behave too.

This Brahminy Kite Eagle will be having sashimi for lunch. The reddish brown eagle with a white head is the mascot of Langkawi. A huge sculpture of it is anchored on the island's Eagle Square. We were supposed to visit that attraction but it was cancelled due to poor weather.
According to a well-accepted folklore of Langkawi's name, the island derived its moniker from the abundance of Brahminy Eagles here. 'Lang' from the Malay word 'helang' means eagle, and 'kawi' is the Sanskrit word for marble.

So the island's name literally means an eagle perched on marble, a poetic tribute to these majestic birds and the archipelago's plenitude of limestone and marble formations.

Another raptor commonly sighted at Langkawi is the White-Bellied Fish Eagle.
However, from early historical records of the island's name, Langkawi may have gotten its name as a by-product of maritime trade. During the early days, Langkawi was a port-of-call for Southeast Asian merchant vessels making their way to Sri Lanka. 'Lanka' became 'lang' and 'kawi' means 'this way' in Malay or something to that effect. So Langkawi actually means "this way to Sri Lanka"!

Must-have shot of the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park sign. It is inspired by a world famous sign that is synonymous with American movies. Can you guess it?

A hole in the wall. It was used as a hideout during olden nautical eras.

One of the many fish farms parked along a sheltered bay area that is parked full of yachts. It is cheaper to park yachts here than at commercial marinas. Fish farmers double up as caretakers of the yachts when their owners return to their home countries for several months. When they are about to visit, the farmers will clean and prepare the ship for their arrival.

Hole in the Wall Restuarant which is a fish farm and where we'll be chomping down on fresh seafood.

General shots of the fish farm which uses natural seawater aquaculture. Giant garoupas and other seafood lurk within the netted hatcheries. Archer fish swims close to the surface to await stunt feeding by farmhands for the amusement of visitors. Pieces of food will be placed on poles for the fish to shoot down and eat. An amazing showmanship of nature's ability to correct parallax error.

Before our lunch, we fed Brenda to the stingrays. I'm kidding. Where got stingray like bak kut teh one? LOL. The mammoth rays are really friendly though and you can pet and feed them. But remove any ring or jewellry first.

Saw this pot of yellowing Howea Thatch Palm that had turned a resplendent gold. So unusual for the plant to be yellowed throughout while the fronds are still firm and upright. It contrasted with the surrounding and was visually striking like a pot of fire. 

Lunch was as flavourful as the our excursion of Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. My fav was the BBQ fish which was grilled to the right degree of char. And the belachan chili sauce was heaven on earth.

If the word 'karst' draws a blank with you, let's shake hands. I thought it is a Malay word initially and Kilim Karst is the site's name. But I wondered why was the river called Kilim River and not Kilim Karst River?

So I googled and learnt that 'karst' is an English word used to describe a geological topography characterised by cardonate rocks such as limestone with ground level caverns carved by water. Well, from the photos above, they pretty much show what a karst is.

With its paleozoic geology and dramatic, almost vertical karstic limestone cliffs interweaved with secret caves, water channels and virgin mangroves, Kilim Karst Geoforest Park is truly lyrical on the senses!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...