#JOM! GO: Mangrove adventure

Braving the blistering sun, sore arms and a possible crocodile sighting are part of the experience of exploring the mangrove forest in Bagan Lalang, writes Zalina Mohd Som

"DO not enter that channel!" alerts Captain Mail, the skipper of our small inflatable boat, right after briefing the group on the next course of the journey.

In his happy, gleeful tone of voice, I could sense weight and urgency when the retired captain from the Royal Malaysian Navy uttered the statement.

"Whatever you do, whatever happens, do not. I repeat, do not enter that channel," he says.

Everyone in the group of 30-odd participants, who are by now half "baked" by the morning sun and wet from their own sweat and the splashing water of Sungai Sepang Besar, nods almost in unison.

Made up of small groups of friends and young families, these strangers, who make the long drive to Bagan Lalang about 100km from Kuala Lumpur, don't look perturbed at all by the captain's statement.

Nevertheless, the sight before me is refreshingly captivating: shades of greens from the sugarcane juice-coloured Sungai Teruntom and lush mangrove trees meet the bright cloudless blue sky with sprinkles of vibrant red, yellow and orange from the kayaks and the life jackets.

The kayakers are busy taking photos, munching on the packed breakfast or simply indulging in their own thoughts.

I can understand why. They have been paddling their kayaks — some are big sit-on kayaks, others are semi-sunken rapid kayaks — from the Jetty Pak Din for more than two hours.

The Bagan Lalang Mangrove Exploration started sharp at 9am with a half an hour water confidence exercise and safety briefing before it made its way downstream.

Being under the scorching morning sun with no cloud to filter, an offer to line their kayaks at the shaded bank of Sungai
Teruntom is almost a godsend.

The tributary river from the Negri Sembilan side feeds into the bigger Sungai Sepang Besar that flows into the Straits of Melaka. The river mouth is so near that we can see the sea from our boat. Like most rivers in the country, the 4m-deep Sungai Sepang Besar is the state border of Selangor and Negri Sembilan.

Seeing that no one seems to be curious about the captain's warning, I ask almost in a whisper: "Why?

Ada apa kat situ?"

"Lacoste lives there," he replies with a smize.

I can almost see a big grin splashed across his face underneath his mask when he repeats the French clothing brand for the second time.

I immediately recall a recent news story on a viral video of a huge crocodile seen resting on a bank of Sungai Linggi, located just 80km south from where we are.

Though it was an old video that has resurfaced to spark the news, the lazy river that marks the state border of Negri Sembilan and Melaka is said to be one of the few remaining rivers in the peninsula that still holds a breeding population of saltwater crocodiles.

Being not too far from the teh tarik-coloured Sungai Linggi, I don't find it odd for Sungai Teruntom to have its own clan of crocs.

"Have you come face to face with the reptile?" I ask. He nods, and my eyes widen.

"We're doing a birthday surprise for our client and I was tasked with hiding in one of the channels with a birthday cake. It turned out that I was not the only one hiding there," he laughs.

Thank goodness, he says, the croc was asleep. He then quickly and quietly made his way out of his hideout.

"Even though the reptile is a nocturnal creature and sleeps almost throughout the day, you do not want, in a million years, to provoke them," he adds.

Just as I'm about to ask him what other wildlife calls this river home, an adult-size brahminy kite swooshes above our heads, showing off its reddish-brown body feathers that contrast with its white head and breast.

"Lacoste aside, this area is also home to birds like this eagle and other typical birds, pig-tailed macaque and those on the ground like mud crabs, mudskipper and snakes," he says.

"What about fireflies? Like those in Kuala Selangor?" I ask.

"Unfortunately, not much," Captain Mail replies, "because this area doesn't have the berembang tree from which fireflies feed on like Sungai Selangor."

Sungai Selangor for decades has made its mark in the country's tourism map as one of the spots that "sells" fireflies as its attractions.

Other famous rivers that offer firefly river cruises are Sungai Cherating in Pahang, Sungai Klias in Sabah and Sungai Yak Yah in Terengganu.

Though without pokok berembang, Sungai Sepang Besar and its tributaries are not short of flora offerings.

"So far, we have documented a total of 16 species of mangrove flora in this area," says Hiker Training and Consultant operation director Ahmad Nazri Ismail, who joins our group after settling some issues at the jetty.

They, he says, fall in four groups: avicennia or locally known as api-api, rhizophora (bakau), sonneratia (perepat) and bruguiera (berus or tumu).

"Except for the usual mangrove flora of palmae or nipah and paku laut or pteridaceae, you'll find them all here," says Cikgu Nazri, as he is fondly known among his crew members and regular clients.

"Have you tried the mangrove tour in Vietnam? How do you like it? How do you compare it with this tour?" he asks in one breath.

Without waiting for my answer, he replies: "You sit in a wide sampan with a Vietnamese lady in ao dai and big straw hat paddling it at the back, right?"

I nod. I remember my "mangrove expedition" in Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve in Ho Chi Minh City a few years ago. Yes, it's nothing like paddling your own kayak, whose width is just nice to hold your rear and length for your stretched legs.

And not discounting the lush mangrove forest that is spread in front of my eyes now.

"Yes, this is way better," I reply, even though deep down in my heart I won't trade the inflatable boat with one of those kayaks. FYI, I am aquaphobic. My panic level shoots up at the thought of being in water deeper than my height, and it takes comfort in assuming the inflatable boat is more stable than the kayak.

"Do you know that there is another mangrove forest that you can visit in Selangor?" Cikgu Nazri jolts me out of my thoughts.
I shake my head.

"It's in Kampung Sijangkang in Kuala Langat. The folks have done it up with a boardwalk and strategically placed sitting and photo-op areas," he says.

"Do they also have a similar mangrove expedition like this?" I ask.

Not right now, he answers, but we do hope soon Sungai Langat will have its own mangrove expedition.

"Soon. Soon," he replies, as he leaves us to lead the group out of Sungai Teruntom.

Thanks to the engine of our inflatable boat, we do not have to paddle out of Sungai Teruntom and cross the choppy Sungai Sepang Besar to our final pitstop when it is high time to refuel our tummies.

"We will have our lunch there, under those trees. Unless, of course, you like it in the open," says cheeky Captain Mail as his finger points out to the sandy river bank at the Selangor side of the river, located right at its mouth. There is a wide, flat and shallow sandy beach with tall leafless tree trunks jutting out of it separating it from the forest line.

It's high noon and the sun is right above our heads. Even though it's quite a walk from where we get off the boat to the forest line, maybe almost 100m, our eyes are fixed on the shadows under the trees.

As soon as the kayakers reach the shore, Cikgu Nazri and Captain Mail call everyone to take their packed lunch. Lunch is a simple four-item packet of white rice, stir-fried cabbage, ayam goreng rempah and a pack of curry. But it's delish!

Lunch is gone in a jiffy, but the group is not moving just yet because now is photo time! It will be such a waste if we don't take the opportunity to immortalise the bank's beautiful setting in photographs as it is not easy for us to be here.

The return leg is a fast one for us. We zoom pass the kelongs that are lining along the Selangor side of Sungai Sepang Besar. No longer in their traditional use as floating fish farms, these kelongs have been turned into floating lodgings that are frequented by anglers.

Not surprisingly, all the kelongs that we pass by are occupied either by groups of all-male anglers or big families with little children.

"Some of these kelongs are tastefully done up and equipped with basic comfort for guests," Captain Mail says. Hmm... interesting!

We finally reach Jetty Pak Din, just a few minutes before 2pm and my watch clocks a total distance of 8km for our inflatable boat ride. Now, I can't imagine the sore arms those kayakers would have tonight!


Hiker Training and Consultant

012-287 8787

9am and 2pm every weekend and public holidays only.

RM120 per adult, RM80 per child. Price includes packed lunch, kayak tools and life jackets, certified guides and basic kayak lesson.

Explore Bagan Lalang with Promo Code to enjoy rooms at reasonable prices.

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