WE are obviously not going anywhere. The van screeches to a halt as someone points out to a spot in front on the lone winding Kulim-Gerik road flanked by secondary forests on both sides.
“Look, elephants!” We get up from our seats, heads bumping against the roof of the van in our haste to get a better look at what’s ahead.
We watch a female Asian elephant and her two calves slowly make their way across. For all their heft, they seem so light on their feet, soundlessly crossing the tarred road towards a clump of foliage on the other side, not unlike land whales adrift above the floor of an ancient, waterless sea.
That’s certainly the highlight of what has proven to be a long road-trip. It’s been almost 2 ½ hours and all thoughts of taking a power nap fly out the window as my sore derriere literally feels the van go over every bump on the road throughout the journey. I’ve only myself to blame for picking a seat right at the back.
I’m on a media trip organised by World Wildlife Fund Malaysia (WWF) to learn more about sustainable aquaculture while visiting two of the conservation organisation’s partners’ aquaculture farms, namely the GST Group in Jerejak Island, Penang, and Trapia Malaysia in Temengor Lake, Perak.
We left Penang earlier this morning, and we’re on our way to the Belum Rainforest Resort in Perak where we’ll be putting up the night.
After almost three hours on the road (time spent watching abovementioned pachyderms included), the ostentatious “Royal Belum” signage up on the hill announces our arrival at the resort. Trees, birdsong, clear skies and an unsettling peace (which a city girl like me is unused to) make this place an idyll getaway for holiday-makers seeking some nature therapy away from the bright lights and bustle of the city.
There’s no television set in my bedroom. Back in the city, that would have been cause for panic. But here in the middle of nature, the eco-friendly resort has other distractions to help you unwind. With the ancient tropical rainforest at your doorstep, the lush natural surroundings will draw you out of your bedroom to admire its breathtaking vista.
This place is truly a haven for nature lovers and fishing enthusiasts. For adrenaline junkies, thrilling outdoor adventures await. You could attempt to explore the different parts of the pristine rainforest, or you could go on an excursion to find the elusive Rafflesia, the world’s largest bloom and one that’s fascinated many a hardy adventurer. “It’s perhaps the largest and most magnificent flower in the world,” described Sir Stamford Raffles of his discovery in 1818 —the Rafflesia arnoldii, named after himself and his companion, surgeon-naturalist Dr James Arnold.
You could also opt to stay onboard the resort’s houseboat that will take you on a leisurely cruise on the mystical Temengor Lake. The boat houses four cabins — two queen beds, seven single beds and an open deck suitable for bird watching or just taking in the sights of the submerged forest landscape, thanks to the Temengor dam, the third largest in the country which has been fully operational since the 1970s.
We have our dinner later that night at the resort’s Hornbill Restaurant which serves both local and international cuisine.
The menu for our dinner is as delightfully local as it can get — white rice and a few side dishes including a hearty beef soup, steamed seabass, prawn cooked in chilly paste, mixed vegetables and the ubiquitous ulam, a traditional Malay salad mostly eaten raw with various condiments.
The need to recuperate after a long journey intensifies as the clock ticks. By 11pm, we call it a night.
SUSTAINABLE FISH FARMING
The overcast skies the next morning warn of impending rain. The resort’s infinity pool overlooking the lake offers a picture-perfect moment despite the gloomy forecast. True to form, it starts to drizzle as I sit on one of the deck chairs by the pool. With raindrops rippling the pool water, I gaze towards the lake and find most of the view obscured by a white fog. There isn’t time for a lap in the pool to get the blood circulating so I reluctantly leave to head towards the jetty.
We’re visiting a fish farm today, and it’s a half an hour ride on the boat to get there. “Don’t worry, it’s a lake so the water is calm,” assures Ang Ting Cheong, fondly known as TC, the chief executive officer of Trapia Malaysia, who greets us at the jetty.
We soon arrive at the farm which was set up in 2008 as an eco-friendly aquaculture facility. Around us are round cages, 15m in depth and 20m in width. Our boat man carefully manoeuvres the boat as close as it can get toone of the cages. We take a closer look at the tilapia splashing inside it, their scales glistening under the sun which has finally made its appearance after a brief drizzle.
Trapia, the acronym for Traceable Tilapia, allows its products to be traceable and verifiable throughout the value chain through proprietary DNA technology. The company is the first in the world to implement a state-of-the art tamper-proof traceability system that is DNA-verified — the Genopass verification system.
This assures consumers that the labelled seafood they buy has been sourced legally from a sustainably managed source, has not been mixed with uncertified seafood and can be traced along the supply chain from egg to plate.
Considered one of the most robust methods for determining the likely origin of seafood, farms like Trapia are changing the face of fish farming in this region. With unsustainable fishing currently being the biggest single threat to our oceans and over three-quarters of fisheries already exploited to the limit of what’s sustainable, WWF is working with aquaculture businesses like Trapia to ensure sustainable markets while educating consumers about how smarter purchasing can help preserve marine ecosystems.
As we step back into our waiting boat, the tilapia farm, as interesting as it is, soon becomes a distant memory when the lush tapestry of caves, cliffs and trees emerge. The only sound is a rhythmic swish, swish, as our boat glides across the lake. Eyes closed, I take a deep breath and inhale.
“A few years back, someone saw a tiger taking a bath in this lake. Keep your eyes open. You might get lucky,” says TC breaking the silence. We’re immediately alert, hoping to catch a glimpse of this majestic creature but the lake remains tranquil and devoid of any signs of wildlife. I suppose our luck stopped at the elephants. The chances of us spotting the critically endangered Malayan tiger is about roughly the same as getting a phone signal in the middle of this large man-made lake, with the ancient forested landscape of Belum-Temengor surrounding us.
The Belum-Temengor forest complex is believed to be the world’s oldest rainforest, having been in existence for over 130 million years. The forest reserve covers about 290,000ha with more than 146,000ha of virgin primary forest. That’s about four times the size of Singapore!
The forest is divided into two sections: the Upper Belum (The Royal Belum State Park), which stretches to the Thai-Malaysian border covering 117,500ha of impenetrable jungle, and the Lower Belum (Temengor forest reserve) mostly covered by Temengor Lake.
The Royal Belum State Park was gazetted as a protected area covering 117,500ha in 2007.
Home to over 101 mammals including our iconic large mammals like the Asian elephants, Malayan tiger, Malayan tapir and the sun bear, the forests contain over 60 salt licks — a gathering place for various animals that make their way there to lick the much needed mineral nutrients from a deposit of salts and other minerals.
A haven for bird watchers, the Belum-Temengor forest complex contains all 10 of Malaysia’s magnificent hornbill species. It also supports the significant populations and settlements of the indigenous people better known as Orang Asli.
Our boat thumps noisily against the gangplank at the eco-resort jetty. It’s time to bid goodbye as we head back to pack up and leave. The distant call of the gibbon and the jungle chorus of crickets echo through the silent lake as if to bid us farewell. I wish I could have stayed longer. I promise myself a return trip for a quiet and peaceful getaway against a breathtaking nature backdrop. And Belum Rainforest Resort can offer just that.