Pasoh Cave.

Malaysia is a treasure-trove of nature and bird watching sites, writes Elena Koshy

MY legs are still aching and screaming blue murder. I have a couple of leech bites as trophies and my pants are now loose — a testament of an eight-day roller coaster of a journey across four states and discovering a treasure trove of natural ecotourism destinations and potential hidden gems often off the beaten track.

Organised by Tourism Malaysia in collaboration with Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY), the eco-adventure sees a motley bunch of journalists/writers from the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia band and bond together amidst winding roads, relentless sun, laughter, sweat and tears.

Led by Azhar Musyabri, senior assistant director, Package Development Division, Tourism Malaysia, and Andrew Sebastian, chief executive officer of ECOMY, we head to various sites in Negri Sembilan, Malacca, Pahang and Perak. We have the privilege of exploring potential ecotourism spots that have yet to be discovered by the masses, areas that are in the midst of being developed as ecotourism products as well as places that are already on the map for their amazing natural beauty and bird watching potential.

“Being one of the most megadiverse countries in the world, Malaysia has a lot to offer to bird watchers and tourists looking for alternatives to mainstream holiday packages,” begins the affable “ageing Clooney-esque” Sebastian, flashing a smile across the table.

“Azhar and I decided that aside from showcasing some of the more popular bird watching and ecotourism sites in the country, we want to take the opportunity to visit areas that have been recommended by the states, and explore the possibility and potential of these relatively unknown sites as an ecotourism or bird watching draw. It’s as much an expedition for us, as it will be for you.”

CAVING AN ADVENTURE


Azhar Musyabri (left) and Andrew Sebastian. Picture by Elena Kosby

With no time to waste after our brief introductions, we drive to the sleepy town of Kuala Klawang in Negri Sembilan. We stop briefly at the local mosque to change vehicles, moving lethargically with the speed of a well fed python (no thanks to a heavy lunch earlier). A 20-minute bone rattling drive through a Felda oil palm estate in 4WD vehicles is enough to jolt us out of our food coma. The scenery suddenly changes, from the undulating landscape of matured oil palm trees into a small clearing surrounded by secondary forests with an imposing cave structure in the background.

The Pasoh Cave has been the locals’ best kept secret until recent excavation works carried out by a group of archaeology students from the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, University Sains Malaysia (USM) in April 2015.

“Pasoh Cave is indeed special. It’s the first of its kind in Negri Sembilan, a paleolithic site that has evidence of human adaptation, with stone tools and prehistoric shells dating back to 14,000 years ago,” says Rasydan Muhammad, a first-year Masters student in archaeology and who was part of the archeological team last year. His excitement is palpable as he leads us into the small opening of the cave where we see the plots carefully dug up by the students.

The cave system could be a significant archaeological site, Azhar concurs. “We’re happy that the local community and other stakeholders are actively involved in this expedition. However it will take time to figure out a way to turn it into a viable and accessible ecotourism draw. From a tourism perspective, there’s definitely a market out there of people who will travel the world to see these types of caves. It’s important that we capitalise on that.”

Meanwhile, Sebastian finds the time to bird-watch and counts 12 species of birds there. “The degraded forest and oil palm estate doesn’t make for any spectacular bird watching,” he concedes later over a sumptuous meal of barbecued lamb prepared by the local community. “But the potential of the cave as an ecotourism draw is definitely there.”

OUT ON A LIMB

Our next sojourn leads us to the Sungai Menyala Forest Reserve, a lowland dipterocarp forest reserve in Port Dickson. Beautiful tall imposing trees crown the area with scores of colourful blue tailed bee-eaters flitting around. We pay homage to the largest Jelutong (Dyera costulata) tree recorded in Negri Sembilan. Measuring 200cm in diameter, this impressive-looking gargantuan tree shoots straight up into the clouds shrinking us to tiny Lilliputian figures in its shadow.


Giant Jelutong tree. Picture by Elena Kosby

Recognising Sungai Menyala’s potential as a nature “edu-tourism” site, the Forestry Department has built a sprawling centre which includes lecture halls, accommodation and a museum featuring forestry specimens and aboriginal culture. This 1,280 hectare forested area also offers visitors interesting nature activities including jungle trekking, mountain bike cycling as well as opportunities to visit or trek to the nearby Bukit Kepong aboriginal village.

“Its location near an army shooting range doesn’t bode well for bird watchers to see a variety of birds despite possessing a suitable habitat for lowland bird species,” says Sebastian after finding only about five species of birds. “But this is an ideal place for corporate team-building events and even for family getaways.”

RAPTOR-OUS EVENT

We later head for a spectacular event called Raptor Watch at the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve in Malacca. We are amazed to find that despite the debilitating afternoon heat, crowds of people could be seen milling around the event site. Organised by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) every March to coincide with the spring migration of majestic raptors (birds of prey), Raptor Watch is an event that draws bird watchers from all over the world, nature enthusiasts and just about anyone who wants to join in the huge nature “party” at Tanjung Tuan.

“This is an excellent example of how bird watching events can position a place like Tanjung Tuan on the world map as an important birding site,” says Sebastian.

We trek uphill to the lighthouse located at the top of the forest reserve with binoculars and cameras in hand, ready to catch sight of migrant raptors like the oriental honey buzzards and black bazas soaring across the blue skies. The raptors do not disappoint. They put on an amazing aerial show that leaves us breathless and a little light headed — though I suspect the latter is the result of the scorching heat and dehydration!

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

In the evening, Sebastian brings us to the beautiful Lake Gardens in Seremban for a spot of easy bird watching. The four-hectare Seremban Lake Gardens is one of the oldest natural lake gardens in Malaysia. Despite its close proximity to the town centre, this impressively landscaped garden opens a door to a serene alternative world that seems at odds with the bustling town surrounding it.

A variety of indigenous and exotic trees provide welcome shade throughout the day as we begin our bird quest, with Azhar and Sebastian leading the way.

“Seremban Lake Gardens is a hidden gem. It offers easy opportunistic bird watching for Malaysian garden birds, has a respectable bird count for such a small area and can be strategically positioned as a gateway to discover Malaysian birds,” says Sebastian after tabulating a count of at least 18 species of birds including the Sunda pygmy woodpecker and gold whiskered barbets.

TOP OF THE WORLD

The next day, we visit the impressive Pasoh Forest Reserve (PFR). Here, we’re greeted and briefed by the affable and well informed Yao Tze Leong, a researcher based at this reserve.

The Pasoh Forest Reserve, located 70km from Kuala Lumpur, consists of lowland dipterocarp forests and hill dipterocarp forests in its north-eastern boundary. It’s one of the most best studied lowland tropical forests in Southeast Asia and functions as a natural ecological laboratory to researchers.

Boasting amazing biodiversity including 112 species of mammals, 413 moth species and 233 species of birds, one of PFR’s star attractions is the three aluminum-alloy towers interconnected with aluminum bridges at 30m high. One of the towers is taller (52m) and houses micro-climate measuring apparatus and carbon-flux equipment for microclimatic and physiological studies at various heights of the forest canopy. Meanwhile the walkways provide convenient access to the canopy for phenological observations (study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena) and faunal studies.

I climb one of the towers to reach the aluminum bridge above, ignoring the loud protests from my knees. I’m glad I did. A phenomenal site greets me and all at once my knee woes are forgotten. Completely awed and feeling like I’m on top of the world, I don’t want to think about the climb down yet.

Sebastian agrees that this site has tremendous bird watching potential after learning that one of his favourite birds, the Great Argus has been sighted here before. “There’s a lot of work to be done here before it can be packaged as an ecotourism draw,” says Azhar with a sigh, as he looks around at the aged buildings that house the offices, dormitories and halls. We’re still quite entranced with this place though. With the verdant shade of the trees protecting us from the heat of the day, it’s quite pleasant to walk the trails and bird watch. What’s more, that feeling of exhilaration at conquering my fear of heights stays with me, long after we leave that magical place.

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