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Johor’s Sungai Belungkor is home to a quarter of the world’s mangroves species. Besides learning all about conservation, Loong Wai Ting also gets up close with some eco-warriors


OUR boat gently slices through the green waters of Sungai Belungkor, a waterway that flows into the busy Johor Strait which separates Johor from the small Singapore archipelago.

It had rained earlier but the waters remain calm and the tide low. Save for the sound of chirping birds above our heads, the only other sound is that of the boat’s engine, churning the waters and leaving a trail of white foam in its wake.

Dense mangroves cover both sides of the river, creating a natural defence against the occasional strong coastal wind and high tides.

At the resort, they take edutourism seriously.
At the resort, they take edutourism seriously.

A stone’s throw away from the Tanjung Belungkor Fisherman Jetty, from where we board the boat, huge sand dinghies are docked near the shore, ready to transport the raw material from a nearby quarry.

The cargo is said to be destined for Singapore for its construction industry.

“It’s a sad view,” says Along, a chatty guide from Belungkor Adventure, an organisation that promotes conservation through conversation; breaking the silence.

The experienced guide is constantly involved in edu-tourism activities organised by Anantara Desaru Coast Resort and Villas.

“We get huge ships like those coming near the mangrove forest. They’re tied to the trees and when it’s time to go, the workers slash the rope from the ship and leave the rest tied to the roots,” adds Along, with a forlorn look on her face.

THE COOL MANGROVE

Our boatman kills the engine. Relying on the water current, the boat pushes forward and into a tiny nook partially hidden by thick forest.

Steering clear of the mangrove’s spider roots — the spindly long roots that stick out from the mud and resemble a spider’s legs — our boat occasionally bumps onto the sturdy bakau nyirih (mangrove cannon-ball or xylocarpus granatum), shaking drops of rainwater from the leaves above.

While there are more than 80 mangroves species in the world, about 20 of them can be found in Sungai Belungkor alone. One of them is the bakau nyirih, which is used by the Seletar community (one of the few remaining Orang Asli communities living along the rivers in Johor) to cure multiple illnesses.

One common use is by grinding the tree’s bark into a fine powder and turning it into a drink to cure stomach discomfort. There are also instances where the powder is used as a painkiller.

A pair of striated herons (or little herons) fly into our view. The pair with shiny black feathers and long beaks are hunting for small fish that live in the shallow waters of the mangrove forest which is also home to crab-eating macaque, various species of birds, otters and more.

The air is noticeably cooler. This is because mangrove forests absorb more carbon dioxide than a secondary jungle and in return, releases plenty of oxygen into the atmosphere. Think of it as nature’s biggest air purifier.

Along showing us the seedling of a mangrove plant.
Along showing us the seedling of a mangrove plant.

In order to learn more about the mangrove, we visit Mak Andak and Mak Anjang at Kampung Linting, located at the tip of Tanjung Surat along Sungai Belungkor. They are eco-warriors who work tirelessly around the clock to educate the public about the importance of the mangrove.

Just behind their homes, at the end of the tiny village, the women manage a mangrove nursery. They plant and nurture mangrove seedlings in ecobags before the mature seedlings are planted along the coastal area.

With the help of Mak Anjang, I stick the long end of a seedling into an ecobag before it is put near the water’s edge where it gets plenty of sunlight.

“With mangrove, you don’t need to worry about them getting enough sunlight or water. They’re quite self-sustaining in their own way,” says Mak Anjang, offering me a seat beside her. We enjoy the afternoon breeze over a glass of teh jeruju (or sea holly tea).

The sea holly can be found growing in abundance along the coast as well. Its flowers and down to its roots, Mak Anjang says, have healing properties which the locals use to cure illnesses like boils, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Not only that, the spiky leaves can also be used as anti-venom for poisonous snake bites.

CHARMING KAMPUNG

At the edge of Kampung Linting, we meet Abang Roslan who lives on a nail-less tree-house. Cheerful and talkative, he invites me to climb into his house to have an expansive view of the coast — talk about a million dollar view!

It took Abang Roslan a month to design his three-storey treehouse and over a year to finish. He built the house using wood and scraps that floated down the river, tying them together with sturdy ropes.

There are no high-end furniture inside his tree house but it is certainly cosy and comfortable.

Nearby is a shed used to make miniature sailboats known as jong. Once a popular traditional sport in Johor, jong racing has seen a revival in the Nusantara region.

Jong racing can be traced to the Riau Archipelago in Indonesia before it was introduced to Johor by migrants who settled along the coast.

The partially hidden tree house that Abang Roslan spent a year to build.
The partially hidden tree house that Abang Roslan spent a year to build.

There are only a handful of jong makers left, most of them living in Kampung Linting and in Singapore.

Before leaving Kampung Linting, Along invites me for a sumptuous lunch at Mak Munah’s humble abode.

With my grumbling stomach and the prospect of a delicious meal of asam pedas and curry crabs, the invitation is hard to resist.

PAMPERED TO THE HILT

IT’S the weekend. I walk into the new Anantara Desaru Coast Resort and Villas in Johor, Anantara’s first property in Malaysia that adds to the collection of luxury resorts in Desaru Coast, a premium integrated resort destination in Johor.

The friendly welcome is overwhelming, especially when a hotel employee insists that I have a cup of coffee in the library as he takes over my check-in process.

The bedroom is super comfortable.
The bedroom is super comfortable.

Sensing that it may take a while since I arrived at the same time with a family from Johor, I take up his offer and have a black coffee by the verandah overlooking the roaring South China Sea.

Suddenly, the wind picks up, sending debris flying in the air. Then comes the rain, tiny drops at first before it turns into a downpour.

With no other choice, I move back into the library and sip my coffee ensconsed in the heavy cushion set on top of the polished wooden floor.

As I take in the surrounding of the room and breathe in the heavy-scented wood furnishing, the hotel employee walks in, apologises for making me wait and invites me to my room.

PERFECT VILLA

I am led to a floor below and towards the lobby’s east wing to my accommodation for the weekend — a one-bedroom lagoon pool villa.

Tucked in a small corner and away from the main pool, I let out a “wow” as soon as I step in. This double-storey villa has everything that I need for a short weekend getaway.

There’s a mini pantry that comes with well-stocked amenities such as snacks and complimentary Nepresso, a coffee-making machine and drinking water that is refilled every day and at every turndown service.

The ensuite bathroom is like a room of its own.
The ensuite bathroom is like a room of its own.

Placed on top of the dining table is a tiffin full of sweet desserts that are made by the pastry chefs. They come in all sizes and tastes absolutely delicious!

There is also a plate of seasonal local fruits, just in case I need something else to munch on.

The living room opens to a plunge pool and a gazebo that can sit a small group of adults comfortably. The pool doesn’t offer much of a view except for the man-made pond in front.

Back inside the villa, I take the polished wood stairs to go up to my room. The room is brightly-lit with natural light that streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. One look at the plush bed and I know I will get a good night’s rest.

The ensuite bathroom has a huge bathtub. Bath salts are provided for guests who want to relax in the comfort of their own room. This expansive bathroom is further divided into two smaller rooms which act as a toilet and a bath area.

My favourite is the rain shower with its powerful stream of water. A walk-in robe is on the side of the bathroom, flanked by two doors on its side. It can be accessed from both the bathroom and the room — making it easier for you to retrieve your clothes.

SOAKING UP THE SUN

The rain goes away almost as soon as it arrived. As the sun peeks from behind the clouds, I change into my beach wear and head for the Infinity Pool, located next to the Sea.Fire.Salt restaurant.

As it is tucked away from the main building, the pool area is very quiet, perfect for me to spend some time alone after the mangrove tour at Sungai Belungkor.

I catch up on my reading but when the words don’t make sense anymore, I jump into the pool and swim a couple of laps before taking a stroll along the beach.

At dinner time, I head to the Sea.Fire.Salt restaurant for a sumptuous seafood dinner. The beachfront restaurant specialises in grilled seafood. The restaurant has an open-kitchen concept, so it’s interesting to see the chefs work behind the grilling counter, putting your orders together.

Full from the delicious meal, I head back to my villa for a well-deserved rest.

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