“YOU’RE not really a nature person, Elena. It’s not your thing.” Someone told me that not too long ago, and I was affronted. Not my thing? After working for an environmental non-governmental organisation for almost a decade, writing green stories and entering countless forested areas, that remark – however well-intentioned it was – stung. And to be honest, I half-believed it.

The rainforest can feel both inviting and primordially ominous. There’s alluring comfort among these great trees that embrace your presence and soften your footsteps. What lies beyond the curtain of mist and trees are unknowns: great treasures to be found, or great dangers lurking. One of the largest trees in the country could be hidden a few dozen metres away, obscured in the fog, but so could a snake, a tiger, or an irate elephant. The unpredictability of the forest both unnerves and fascinates me at the same time.

From trying not to trip over tree roots to hoping to high heavens that the next branch I grab for support will not turn out to be a startled snake, one of the most powerful characteristics of forests is that when you’re in one, you can’t see very far. The twists and turns we’re forced to make while navigating them can be bewildering.

So when the invitation came for me to traipse through another forest, I was more than a little apprehensive. What if it’s really not my “thing”?

Organised by Water Watch Penang and Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), the Ulu Muda media advocacy trip aimed to introduce the many wonders of this swathe of forest located in Kedah, as well as highlight the importance of forest biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“Visitors must ensure that they’re mentally and physically fit,” advises one website on visiting Ulu Muda.

“This is an adventure to be experienced only by intrepid adventurers,” says another.

It’s as good a time as any to be out there in the wilderness even if it means I’d have to shed off my nervousness, and allow myself to be fully immersed in what the forest has to offer.

AN INCONSPICUOUS START


Ghani pushes our stuck boat out into deeper waters.

The boat I’m sitting on grinds to a halt for the second time. “Kelut (mud)”, mutters Ghani, our boatman. It’s not so much a boat as a sampan. A long flat wooden boat with planks for seating. The lake ripples in the late morning sunlight. Like many other nature reserves, Ulu Muda isn’t easily accessible by rail or road. The once-densely forested mountainous region was flooded when the Pedu and Muda dams were built with the support of World Bank. Another dam – Ahning – was completed in the 1980s.

To get to the Earth Lodge where we’ll be staying for three days and two nights, it’s a 90-minute journey across the Muda lake and up the adjoining Muda river into a rainforest that’s thought to be as old as 170 million years.

The dry spell, I’m told by Ghani, is the reason why the water level is low. The motor blades of the sampan slows down again, and Sharaad Kuttan, a veteran journalist sharing my boat, smiles wryly as Ghani clambers again into the waters to push the boat out of the muddy banks. The lake is shallow in most places, with the waters swirling just above the boatman’s knees.

As we’re slowly making our way through the lake into the river system, the verdant green forests that surround us rouses itself to give us a warm welcome. A school of wild boars make their appearance before fleeing at the sound of the loud motor. A solitary otter is seen disappearing into the thick foliage while a large monitor lizard basks lazily in the sun, unperturbed by the noise we make. The boat stalls in many places, no thanks to the heavy sedimentation of the river, and we take turns getting off the boat to help Ghani push his vessel into deeper waters.

On this trip, I remind myself not to be fixated on details – like getting stuck on the lake located at one of the country’s most remote rainforests. Instead, I’m focusing on the big picture — jungle, flora, fauna — not thinking much of the lack of hot water and phone signals or the sporadic electricity, what we’d eat, how I’d handle daily activities or fit into a group of strangers. And Ulu Muda, at first meeting, doesn’t disappoint.

WELCOME TO THE FOREST


Ecolodge's Hymeir Kamarudin.

We arrive at Earth Lodge about two hours later, dishevelled, muddy and trailing river water. Meeting us at the “Makan Place” or the central dining area of the lodge is Hymeir Kamarudin.

An avid caver and bird watcher with a background in conservation, Hymeir found himself running this remote outpost, built years ago by the State Government, after failing to stop the construction that he felt was a blight to the fragile ecosystem of the forest.

It was the only way forward for the 57-year-old — to run the venture himself with the smallest ecological footprint and to help raise conservation value of the forest by encouraging and bringing in researchers and conservationists to contribute to the greater understanding of this natural heritage.

At present, Earth Lodge, located at the confluence of the larger Muda river on one side and its tributary, the Labua River on the other, serves both as an ecolodge as well as a field research base. Comprising several simple wooden structures tucked in a pristine jungle enclave, the lodge offers basic accommodations with camp beds, sit-down toilets and cold showers (where water is pumped directly from the river). There isn’t any phone signal, although the lodge has a small generator that runs for a few hours at night.

After a simple yet hearty lunch prepared by the small yet dedicated kampung folks from the nearby villages (who seem to do everything from running the boats to guiding during jungle trekking), we’re greeted by Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, principle investigator and elephant expert of MEME and Professor Chan Ngai Weng from Water Watch Penang.


From left, Professors Chan Ngai Weng (Water Watch Penang) and Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz (MEME).

For both MEME as well as Water Watch Penang, the Ulu Muda forest holds a special significance. The 160,000 hectares of Greater Ulu Muda located along Kedah’s eastern interior border with the Thai province of Yala, consists of several forest reserves including the Ulu Muda forest reserve which is the largest at 105,000 hectares. With lowland, hill and upper hill dipterocarp forest cover, Ulu Muda forest reserve is an important site of Malaysia’s mega fauna including elephants, tigers, leopards and tapirs.


Elephant dung.

Besides its importance for biodiversity, Ulu Muda plays a critical role as a water catchment. As a water catchment area for the Muda, Pedu and Ahning dams, Ulu Muda provides an invaluable environmental service to the northern Peninsular Malaysia, providing as much as 96 per cent of Kedah’s and 80 per cent of Penang’s water supply.

The Ulu Muda forest’s water, explains Chan, is used domestically, in industry and for agriculture – irrigating Kedah’s vast rice fields which produce about 40 per cent of Malaysia’s total rice supply. Yet for all its undeniable importance, the Ulu Muda forest remains unprotected. “That’s why you’re here today. To get to know Ulu Muda and understand its special role,” says Ahimsa, smiling.

GETTING TO KNOW THE FOREST


Elephants thrive at the Ulu Muda forest. Picture by Sharul Hafiz Zam.

And for the rest of our stay we do. While the accommodations at the Earth Lodge can be best described as basic, the real magic takes place during the excursions we embark on. Permits and guides, says Hymeir, are essential in this area, where tapirs, sun bears, tigers and elephants make their home.


Tapir footprint found at the saltlick in Ulu Muda.

We take a late afternoon boat ride downstream, enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest as we leisurely drift through the river. Birds are a plenty here with over 300 species recorded. Aside from Belum-Temengor, Ulu Muda also boasts 10 species of hornbills, including the globally threatened Plain-pouched hornbills. Black-capped kingfishers flit around the river, while a lone white-bellied sea eagle soar across the afternoon skies. We spot a family of smooth-clawed otters by the riverbank from afar but the real treat lies ahead for us around the bend of the river.

“Elephants!” someone calls out in wonder. Not far from us is a small herd of Asian elephants – one of the world’s most charismatic mammals – feeding by the river banks. While some of us stare transfixed, photographers grapple with their cameras and scramble over the opposite riverbank, trying to get a closer view of these elusive animals.

Jungle trekking is quite the experience here at Ulu Muda. Within minutes, I find myself submerged in the forest, a change so sudden and complete that it’s as if I’ve been gulped, whole, by a great beast. Gone are the sounds of water, the sight of clouds overhead, the smell of wet rocks. What there are instead are endless towering trees, creepers and undergrowth.


Mossy trees abound at the forest.

As in many other forests, the trees share space with ground — their roots buckling the floor into petrified hillocks, dried leaves that crackle beneath my feet and moss, which is lime green and springy, covering the trunks like fur. There is sunlight, but even it is greenish, as if filtered through a screen of chlorophyll.

We trek to view some of the tallest trees in the forest – the tualang (Koompasia excelsa). There are legends and lore regarding the tualang tree. Aborigines believe this tree is inhabited by spirits, which is why it’s often left alone in heavily logged areas. Of course, it being the favourite tree for the Asian Giant Honeybee (Apis dorsata) to build their nests on, could be the other reason why the tualang is left alone!


The towering Tualang tree is the favourite tree for the Asian Giant Honeybee.

Hymeir shares that traditional honey hunters spend a couple of weeks in the forest during harvest season. They construct a precarious looking ladder reaching the hive during the day, and collect the honey only on moonless nights, to ensure there’s no source of lights other than the glowing embers from the torches that distract the bees.

There’s something inherently tranquil within this green haven. Trickling brooks, whispering trees, the sound of twittering birds, cicadas and crickets that form part of the jungle soundtrack… In the mornings, the haunting whoops and calls of the white-handed gibbons pierce through the silence that shrouds the lodge.


The biodiversity found at Ulu Muda is fascinating.

Like many green areas in this country, Ulu Muda is beset with environmental concerns. As of today, the Ulu Muda forest has yet to be gazetted as a protected area and there’s no management plan in place to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Ulu Muda forest. Potential deforestation and unsustainable logging activities, both legal and illegal, threaten Ulu Muda’s role as a water catchment by affecting the quality and volume of its water output.

Apart from this, unsustainable tourism activities and illegal poaching are also ever present threats to Ulu Muda’s rich floral and faunal biodiversity, especially to its substantial population of large mammals. Our visit to the popular hot springs area Sira Hangat was marred slightly by tyre tracks all around the fragile sands by the steaming hot bubbling creek. While entering this ecosystem is restricted through the issuance of permits, it isn’t really enforced.

Leaving is hard. As we approach the jetty on the mainland at Gubir, the boatman, nudges me and points out something in the nearby riverbank. “Gajah! (Elephants)” he whispers.

Lo and behold, a pair of elephants are spotted nearby. The forest’s final hurrah before we disembark and enter the real world. How do you forget an experience like this? So why aren’t we doing more to protect places like Ulu Muda?


The writer at Ulu Muda forest.

Once you’ve seen an elephant, or experienced the emerald-lit interior of the forest, or find the ground marked with elephant dung and tapir tracks, you may find yourself wandering through this paradise in your mind, in a realm where stars burn bright in the night sky and an acre of Ulu Muda is the whole world. Opinions be damned. Nature is my thing.

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