The photos are from well known outdoor photographer Rabani Ayub, a native of Kudat from Sabah. A great guy and one of the most experienced nature/outdoor photographer/journalists around.
I stand at the edge of the uncompleted jetty, 30 feet above the inky blackness of Tasik Bera and stare out into the dark, lake in front of me. I am looking for something from the lake to give it some character. The half moon is veiled by a cloudy night sky. The night is still and heavy with silence but for the continuous hum of a thousand insects. The monkeys and night birds are painfully quiet. There are no smells, no nocturnal songs and chatter from the wild life. Even the air is painfully still, a windless void since we arrived. Nothing. Nothing stares back at me quietly. Nothing tells me gently to head home.
There is no contempt from the lake. She just wearily ignores me, having more important things to do than to pander to the needs of an unworthy scribe who is unfit to record her story.
We had arrived at Tasik Bera in Pahang after a three hour drive from Kuala Lumpur. We were met by Encik Azlan from the Wildlife department and also part of the RAMSAR project who together with his rangers Encik Tahir and Encik Nazim acted as our guides during our stay at Tasik Bera, a 6,000 hectare lake. Almost half the lake is under a peat like swamp from which grows the dominant plant life of the lake, the Pandanus or Pokok Rasau and the Lepironia or Kercut reed.
We were taken on a quick tour of the lake by the rangers. The stillness of the lake forms a liquid canvas spread before us, calm and serenely placid, reflecting the sky and the clouds above. The boat passes by the Pandanus trees and we weave our way in between open lake and narrow canals covered by canopies of Pandanus leaves. We pass by a white throated King Fisher on a burnt Pandanus stem, the result of indirect fishing by the local aborigines, the Semelai, who burn sections of the Pandanus clusters to get access to fish and turtles. As we approach the Pengkalan Sudin jetty we pass by fragile, dainty white water lilies, which are only found in Tasik Bera.
The next morning I sit down at the Persona Lake Resort and tuck into my breakfast of fresh nasi lemak with some of the best sambal I have had. Many fat juicy anchovies lost their lives for this delicious meal! As I sip the hot coffee, I am serenaded by a multitude of songs from around me. Magpies, mynas, yellow throated bulbuls and white rumped Shamas are awake and sing me their morning songs. Chirps, tweets, whistles greet me as a White Bellied squirrel scampers up the trunk of an age old tree by the side of the lake.
We later proceed to take a boat to visit the local aboriginal village of Kampung Pekhir, one of the smaller villages of the Semelai tribe. The hot season has reduced the water level at the lake making inter-village boat travel a challenge as some of the water ways have been overgrown by the Pandanus plants. The Semelai contrary to many reports are now marching down the road of modernity. They are now established rubber plantation owners with each family tending to at least 6 acres given to them by the government. Fishing is now more of a pastime for the Semelai probably due to the decreasing fish population in the lake through over fishing and also the declining oxygen levels in the water caused by the increasing growth of the Pandanus and Lepironio reeds in the lake. The Semelai have also traded in their traditional dugout boats, the Perahu Jalor, for newer fiberglass boats which takes them faster albeit more noisily across the lake.
On the agenda is a visit to the Semelai herb garden and to watch the burning of the Moraceae tree (Artocarpus Scortechinii) a tree whose sap was used for their torches before the introduction of electricity to the villages. It was a visit that was a mixture of a quaint eye opener and slight disappointment.
We left the Semelai home at Kampung Pekhir after we picked up our young guide, Moy. As the dry rubber leaves rustled beneath our booted feet, the sounds of Justin Bieber wafted over the air from a small radio signaling the invasion of the Miley Cyrus generation into the quaint village lives of the orang asli. As we headed deeper in the plantation we hear an elephant in the distance. It sounds about less than a kilometer away. It is a warning trumpet as it has obviously picked up our scents. We press on and within minutes we hear a scuffling in the brush on our right and we hear the urgent snorting of a wild boar. We wait hoping the fates will allow a good photo opportunity for Bani, the seasoned photographer from our team. No such luck as the boar stays incognito.
The Semelai herb garden is a bit of a disappointment as it is more an ‘exhibition’ of selected jungle herbs cordoned off within the secondary jungle. These herbs cured colds, fevers and other ailments before tarred roads opened up travel to local pharmacies in nearby towns. Traditional animal traps are displayed in an open space giving it a staged feel. We make our way to the tree burning experience. Moy sets fire to some sap to show off its burning properties. He puts it out after a minute when we realize that it was totally unnecessary. The sap will flow after the hardened bits are scrapped off the bare bark which has been carved out earlier allowing the fresh sap to flow. I guess it is a neat party trick for unsuspecting tourists.
We then proceed to look for the Purple Water Trumpet, another plant that is only found in the lake. The search proves futile as we travel by road and boat, from Kampung Pekhir in the north to Kampung Pos Iskandar (formerly called Kampung Fort Iskandar) and finally ending up in Kampung Jelawat in the South. We do however come across some old Perahu Jalor that still seem to be in use at Kampung Jelawat. It seems tradition still remains in pockets among the orang asli settlements.
Tasik Bera and the surrounding secondary forest make up the Malaysia’s first Ramsar site, a status given to the area because of its ecological importance.
It covers the secondary forests surrounding the lake, the lake itself and the unique peat swamp forests dominated by the Pandanus plants and fields of the Lepironia reeds which store water beneath the peat soil from the rainy season. Hence walking on the peat soil is often not advised as you will find yourself sinking into soft mud before hitting murky water. The site also supports globally endangered species such as the Arowana fish and the Stripped Soft Shell turtle. It has high bio diversity of flora and fauna.
The lake acts as a filter from the rivers from the state of Negri Sembilan that flow through the lake where the Pandanus plants sieve debris and silt before being ultimately emptied into Sungai Pahang the main source of water for the state of Pahang.
Because of this unique ecosystem, guests come from as far as Japan and Germany, many of them avid bird watchers and anglers. However with the proliferation of the Pandanus plants and the Lepironia reed fields, only about 40% of the lake is accessible to the public.
Semalai kids at dusk. We chatted with them near Kampung Pos Iskandar where we were trying to seek out the water trumpet plants.
Tasik Bera is home to wild life and unique plant life but the onset of the industrial world is knocking impatiently on her borders. Almost an island surrounded by palm oil and rubber plantations, chemicals from pesticides are slowly seeping into her waters. Illegal loggers and poachers are stretching the already undermanned Wild Life Department and Ramsar rangers to the breaking point. With a staff of only 18 the Ramsar personnel made up of staff from the Wild Life, Forestry, Fisheries, Environmental agencies, covering an area of 6,000 sq kilometers is a losing battle.
The White Bellied squirrel that we spotted during breakfast. Bani in true Predator style grabbed his camera and hunted down this little guy and got this great shot.
It has been a long day. We know now that the wild life will deplete in time. The fish and plants will give way to palm oil and rubber and later to livestock. The elephants and tigers will not wander through the ever shrinking forests. The Semelai have embraced industry, though not yet, they will slowly lose their roots to the good earth that had sustained them for ages. But for now, Tasik Bera stands quietly regal, a tired mother still nurturing her children. Some have outgrown her but the waters, the earth, birds, mammals and fish will still need her to provide a home for them.
We stand on the incomplete jetty as the dying embers of the sun throws thin golden embers of light that are reflected in the incredibly placid lake before us. Far away to the South West, lightning flashes and thunder rumbles. Behind a Pandanus grove, children’s laughter liven up a very still evening. The sun sinks further as gold reflects off the lake. A boat buzzes past us. Almost immediately a cold wind rushes in from the South and the lake ripples impatiently. Bani looks at me. “Guess it’s time go?” We pack up and walk back up the uncompleted steps of the Jetty. Our time was up at Tasik Bera. She has more important things to concentrate on. Her family needs her and she has no more time for us.
We leave the lake to the Ramsar team and their never ending duty to protect the sanctity of Tasik Bera from poachers, loggers and the ravages of time.
Rabani got this shot of me and a maritime officer as took a kayak out into the lake in the early morning. I left this part out in the first draft and but bits was included in the final version that was published.