IT’S a veritable coming of home of sorts for me as I take a slow drive to Kuala Selangor. The landscape shifts rapidly outside while I navigate my car through narrow, dusty roads and wide highways, flanked by oil palm plantations, quaint kampung houses and scores of factories cloaked in non-descript sterile buildings.
My mother grew up in Kuala Selangor, and her lively stories of her childhood tucked deep within the once-verdant green rubber plantations of this historic town stayed with me through the years.
Much of the landscape has changed since my 77-year-old mother spent her childhood in this quiet town surrounded by thick forests and plantations. Yet this coastal town located about 50 kilometres north of Klang still teems with history — and not just my mother’s.
Kuala Selangor has indeed a colourful history, with an existence that can be traced back to just before the dawn of the 16th century. The earliest residents of Kuala Selangor were seafaring villagers who lived along the riverbank and to this day, fishing remains the local community’s prime mainstay.
The town has often been described by guidebooks and brochures as ''a sleepy fishing village,'' though it's home to over a hundred thousand people, several of whom pointed out to me that it hasn't been a sleepy fishing village for the last 30 years; not since development arrived on the scene and the local municipal council had begun seriously catering to a growing influx of tourists to the area.
There’s much to see at Kuala Selangor. Crowning the town is Bukit Melawati, a large hill that overlooks the Selangor coastline with the historical Altingsburg Lighthouse, a towering structure built in 1907 to replace the original one constructed by the Dutch two centuries earlier. Kota Melawati, an ancient fort built by the Malacca Sultanate during the early 16th century and fortified by the Dutch also stands proudly at the top of the hill.
Much of her impenetrable jungles and flatlands have been converted to housing estates, shoplots and office buildings. There’s even a new Tesco in the vicinity and the once-narrow roads have morphed into paved highways, bringing in big city folks all the way from Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the Klang Valley.
Yet, there are traces of old ways found in this place. The town still retains a friendly village atmosphere, with a cheery assemblage of kedai kopi (coffee shops) and other small mom-and-pop businesses. Kota Melawati and the Altingsburg Lighthouse loom over the town like ageing sentinels, reminding residents and visitors alike of Kuala Selangor’s rich history.
But history isn’t the only highlight of this quaint coastal town. Characterised largely by flatlands with a few hills to the east and a large coastline to the west, Kuala Selangor has been drawing in nature lovers who are lured by her pristine mangrove forests, fireflies and waterbirds.
From watching the dance of the fireflies at Kampung Kuantan nearby, catching sight of the endangered silvered leaf monkeys commonly known as lotong by the locals, perched on overhanging branches of trees to acres of secondary and mangrove forests teeming with abundant aquatic and birdlife, nature remains Kuala Selangor’s best and most underrated star offering.
The lighthouse soon makes its familiar appearance in the far distance as the road narrows again into a single lane. Slowing down my car, my own personal attachment to this side of the world wells up as the faded signboard “Taman Alam Kuala Selangor” appears on the side of the road. I know this route well enough.
For over eight years, I’ve been taking the same route as a bright-eyed nature champion and staff of the Malaysian Nature Society. Memories of bird-watching, planting mangrove saplings and trampling through mudflats assail me as I turn into a narrower road leading up to the Kuala Selangor Nature Park (KSNP).
On the estuary of Sungai Selangor, at the foot of Bukit Melawati, the 800-acre park is one of Malaysian Nature Society’s (MNS) biggest triumphs after successfully lobbying for this wildlife habitat to be established as a nature park instead of a golf course as originally intended.
Finally established in 1987, the environmental non-governmental organisation has been entrusted with the running of the nature park that serves as a sanctuary to many species of flora and fauna, including the erstwhile silvered leaf monkey which KSNP adopted as its logo. With over 168 bird species recorded, the park draws birdwatchers from all over the world who make their way to this sleepy coastal town to observe waterbirds, including the globally threatened Milky Stork and the Lesser Adjutant.
KSNP comprises three main habitats, namely coastal secondary forest mainly consisting of mature strangling fig trees with climbers and ferns, an open brackish water lake system, and a remnant patch (about 240 acres) of mangrove forest.
Within this mangrove forest you will find four different families of mangrove and a total of 13 species of mangrove trees including the Rhizophora mucronata and the Bruguiera cylindrica. The mangroves and adjacent mudflats form part of a rich ecosystem that recycles nutrients and provides the land protection against coastal erosion.
It also constitutes a protective breeding ground for many varieties of commercially important marine invertebrates, including crabs, prawns and bivalves, which in turn support a large variety of birds and mammals.
At this time of the day — midway through the week — the park looks devoid of people. The cluster of clapboard buildings housing a small gallery and hall, a tiny shop and an office haven’t changed much since I’d been here last. ‘Enjoy the Gift of Nature’ a sign says at the entrance. “I think I will,” I murmur before heading to the office, looking for Maichal Isthyben, the park manager.
We need no introduction, Maichal and I. Grinning, he gets up from behind a desk heaving beneath the weight of files and papers and we exchange a flurry of conversation — a brief catch-up since the last time I was here. It looks the same, I note and he offers a wry smile in response. “Shall we take a walk around the park?” he asks, before adding teasingly: “... For you to get reacquainted again?”
The burly park manager walks ahead of me clad in a long-sleeved shirt despite the late morning sun blazing overhead. I soon find out why — and I instantly regret my short sleeve t-shirt and shorts. Slap! Slap! I hit my arm several times and familiar welts start to appear on my forearm.
“Mosquitoes!” I groan aloud and Maichal grins again. “So fast you forgot ah, Elena!” he chides. My sentimental recollections conveniently omitted one important fact. Mosquitoes are a-plenty as you enter the trail leading through the secondary forest. I should’ve known this. After all, these pesky buggers were the bane of my existence whenever I visited the park in the past.
The secondary forest is exactly how I remembered it. Dried leaves crackle under our feet as we amble silently through the gently undulating path. A lone long-tailed macaque scampers ahead of us before disappearing into the underbrushes.
Faded signages bearing information of the trees dot the sides of the path, but the words are a little hard to decipher now. “Nothing lasts here,” remarks Maichal with a sigh, adding: “If it’s not the salty air that erodes just about everything, the macaques would get at it!” As if to underscore his remark, he points at a signage that’s half covered with animal tracks. “Macaques!” he exclaims again.
We soon pass through a small bridge and I look carefully into the murky stream, hoping to see the elusive smooth-coated otters. A movement catches my eye (and my breath). “Otters?” I ask hopefully. But no. A reptilian head peers above the water before it glides out of the water on all fours. “Monitor lizard,” replies Maichal. “... But these are otter tracks!” he adds, pointing to a freshly-dug burrow leading to the stream.
The man-made brackish lake system, much to my dismay, is all but gone. The lake was created for birds to roost and feed, and also acted as a safe nesting area for over 150 bird species, 57 of which are migratory. Shallow pools of water has replaced the vast lake and mangrove species have now covered most of its water-logged space.
Mangrove planting activities, which is the park’s main income generator have encroached on this side of the park. “There honestly isn’t much space left to plant saplings anymore,” admits Maichal with a sigh. “These trees here,” he says, waving at the mangrove trees covering most of the lake’s surface, “These were supposed to be replanted at another site, but that never happened.” He grows quiet again.
The trails around the park are reasonably well-maintained, but there’s still much to be done to give KSNP an uplift it sorely needs. The gazebos are in need of repair, with some having been removed after the wood had rotted swiftly. Out of the three watchtowers erected around the former lake system, only one remains accessible and safe to climb. One had since been demolished while the other is closed for repairs.
As we head towards the watchtower, we pass a family of macaques who watch us idly. Macaques are a lot more aggressive than their reticent cousins, the silvered leaf monkeys. Used to being fed by unsuspecting visitors, these primates are no longer wary of people.
There’d been a tale circulating around the park where vengeful macaques had intentionally torn up the seat of Maichal’s motorcycle after being chased by the park manager earlier. We used to laugh about the story then, but at present, their unblinking stares are making me nervous. “Just don’t look them in the eye,” advises Maichal calmly. I avert my gaze and we pass them without incident.
The top of the watchtower offers a breathtaking sight of the park’s landscape. A flock of egrets fly just above the tree-tops and Maiichal points out the mangrove forests in the distance. The view is incredible, and it’s a perfect perch for birdwatchers to see birds in flight. A lone brahminy kite swoops and glides against the backdrop of the brilliant blue skies. It’s heartening to hear from Maichal that the mangrove forests have been gazetted in recent years as a forest reserve.
But the struggle isn’t over yet, says Maichal. Classification as a forest reserve is no protection against logging or development, as the state government has the power to excise land from permanent reserved forests. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, he concedes.
Small wins aside, the status of KSNP nevertheless hangs in the balance. Back in 1987, MNS submitted a proposal to the Selangor State Government to jointly develop the area as a conservation site, under a unique collaborative agreement. The Selangor State Government accepted the proposal and in 1987 about 340 hectares of mangrove and secondary forest habitats officially opened as the Kuala Selangor Nature Park.
For almost 40 years, the park has been managed by MNS with a tacit understanding from its landowners and while this has been an amicable partnership, the lack of an official MOU has put the park in a perpetual limbo. “It’s a difficult position to be in,” he confesses. “We’ve been running this place for so long but there’s no guarantee that we’ll be here for another 40 years.”
Maichal and his motley crew of eight have been running the park for close to eight years now. With little assurance of KSNP’s future, the park manager has nevertheless been faithfully keeping the park afloat with sporadic funding from the state council to help upkeep the infrastructure within the park boundaries. MNS continues to seek for funding and grants to help maintain and run the park.
We soon clamber back down to head towards my favourite part of the park — the boardwalk that leads into the mangrove ecosystem. Mature mangrove trees line either side of the cemented pathway and the entire path is bathed in dappled green. As far as the eye can see, matured trees with root systems that arch high over the mudflats rise tall, while scores of crabs, crustaceans, worms, snails, mudskippers and molluscs skitter and burrow away at the muddy ground below. With the skylight barely seen overhead, it’s a perfectly natural green cathedral of whispering leaves and birdsong.
The old boardwalk leading directly into the estuary mudflats, overlooking rich cockle and fishing grounds in the Straits of Malacca, is no longer there. “The wood had rotted away and we had to take it down,” he explains matter-of-factly. The perennial issue of funding is why it’s not been rebuilt to date.
The same problem rears its head as we head back towards the office. The cluster of A-frame huts, chalets, dormitories and dining hall show signs of general decay, with missing roof tiles on some of the buildings. Again, it isn’t something new. People like Maichal who work in public parks and NGOs have been dealing with the decline in funding for years.
Parks and natural green spaces form part of our cultural heritage and our wellbeing. Yet they have become a Cinderella service, set against competing financial demands. According to the Kuala Selangor native, KSNP is still much loved and well visited but the years of doing less are starting to show in the landscape.
We should be striving to achieve more and distribute that quality standard to all parks in all cities, towns and villages — especially the communities who need them the most. In this case, the local fishermen are still very much dependent on the mangrove estuaries for their livelihood.
In city parks all over the country, there are neglected playgrounds closed because they can’t be maintained, and children whose only experience of nature is a shabby and unkempt pocket park. It could be so much better. KSNP can be and should be so much better.
The coastal town of Kuala Selangor teems with history and the spectacular mangrove ecology that’s existed for centuries tells the loudest story. “The heartbeat and identity of Kuala Selangor is her rich natural heritage,” says Maichal. “This deserves to be conserved, and as long as the nature park is here, we’ll do what we can to care and protect this green haven.”
KUALA SELANGOR NATURE PARK
Where: Jalan Klinik, Taman Alam, 45000 Kuala Selangor, Selangor
Opens daily from 9am to 6pm
Tel No: +603-3289-2294