The Royal Belum State Park - nature's breathtaking gift. Picture courtesy of Tay Sia Ping.

UNDER a nimbus of rainforest trees in the pale waning light of a tropical afternoon, the undulating waters of the placid lake rock the houseboat gently. It’s quiet out here at the Royal Belum State Park.

The skies overhead warn of impending rain, but Andrew Sebastian, chief executive officer of Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY) is undeterred. The quest to see hornbills in the wild is best met at this swathe of ancient rainforest, dating back to 130 million years. It’s the only existing place to spot all 10 species of hornbills found in Peninsular Malaysia, and Sebastian is determined that the motley group of people aboard the houseboat gets a chance to view these amazing birds. Rain or no rain.


ECOMY’s co-founder, ceo and intrepid naturalist Andrew Sebastian looking out for the elusive hornbills.

“Let’s go!” he finally beckons as the chug of engines breaks our reverie. We reluctantly rise from our languorous lull to don our lifejackets before stepping gingerly into the waiting boats. “We’re heading to a spot where there’s a fruiting tree,” Sebastian’s voice is raised above the din of the engines. He’s seated in the next boat with a group of photographers and waving his hands at us, he gives his final instruction before his boat speeds off: “Follow me!”

The 4th Royal Belum Hornbill Expedition organised by ECOMY, a non-governmental organisation that’s focused on sustainable ecotourism as a means to ensure that conservation values are upheld at all key natural heritage sites in Malaysia, with the support of Emkay Group, Belum Rainforest Resort and Royal Belum State Park Corporation — has begun for real.

GETTING TO KNOW THE RAINFOREST

“Are there any poochis? (insects)” asked Jaclyn Victor nervously a few days earlier. The award-winning singer and winner of the inaugural Malaysian Idol was joining us under the auspice of the Belum Forest Friends (BFF), an initiative by Belum Conservation Malaysia as part of its overall drive to get Malaysians actively involved in rainforest conservation and the environment.

Victor, along with Vince Chong, singer/ songwriter and the nation’s first reality TV star from the first season of talent show Akademi Fantasia, will be coming onboard, joining birdwatchers from Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Singapore to experience the amazing natural wonders encapsulated within one of the last remaining contiguous virgin rainforest in the country.

We gleefully assure her that there would be poochis galore but she’d get used to their presence because that’s what the forest would eventually do to you. It intimidates you at first before entrancing you with its magic.


In search of the elusive hornbills at the Royal Belum State Park.

It’s little wonder, however, that she’s nervous. Anyone would be. After all, this piece of wonderland is so far removed from the urban life that not many Malaysians know of the amazing biodiversity that exists within its mantle of primeval jungle covering Perak’s northernmost tip.

Bordering Thailand to its north and the Malaysian state of Kelantan to the east, Belum- Temengor rainforest was partly flooded after Temengor Dam was completed in 1972. The dam is the third largest in the country and is fully operational to date.

The forest is divided into two sections: the Royal Belum State Park or Upper Belum, which stretches to the Thai-Malaysian border covering 1,175 square kilometres of impenetrable jungle, and the Lower Belum (Temengor forest reserve). The Royal Belum State Park was gazetted as a protected area in 2007.


Natural serenity.

Dam-created Lake Temengor spiders its way through the rainforest and into the state park. The park’s glassy lakes and densely forested islands is home to the world’s endangered mammals, including wild Asiatic elephants, sun bears, cloud leopards, tapirs, tigers and panthers, as well as supports the livelihood of indigenous communities living on the periphery of the jungle, each with their own distinct language and culture.


Asian elephants out to play. Picture courtesy of Roger Boey.

Yet for all its breathtaking beauty and serenity, it remains an area that’s seen remarkably little in the way of tourism. Often overlooked in favour of other easily-accessed lush landscapes dotting the country, its remote location doesn’t help either — a five-hour drive north of the capital of Kuala Lumpur, no airports and the only way to get around the forest is via boats. Permits and guides are also essential in the protected area of Royal Belum State Park.

What’s more, it isn’t on the way to or from any of Malaysia’s popular tourist destinations, fabulous beaches or hip heritage towns, so you’d really have to want to visit Belum specifically. In all honesty, not many do.

ON THE TRAIL OF HORNBILLS


Plain-pouched hornbills flying past. Picture courtesy of Roger Boey.

Mammal sightings are rare, says Sebastian, even with a guide at dawn or dusk when animals are most active. But it’s a thrill a minute for birdwatchers, with Malaysia’s hornbill species cawing from the ancient trees. But for those of us seated on the boats, however, hornbill sightings seem scarce as the evening progresses on.

The chugging of the boat lulls me into a near stupor but before I can nod off to sleep, there’s a cry: “Plain-pouched hornbills ahead!” The boat rocks as we move around, grabbing our cameras to capture the sight of flocks of migrating plain-pouched hornbills in classic V-formation that suddenly fill the skies.

Flocks of these hornbills covering our skies were common sight in the deep forests of Belum-Temengor in the 1990s and up to the early 2000s. However in recent years, there has been a sad decline in the number of these globally-threatened species making their migratory journey past the forest complex. In this instance, we count 138 birds flitting through darkening evening skies.


We counted up to 138 Plain-pouched hornbills up in the skies. Picture courtesy of Tay Sia Ping.

It’s time to head back to the houseboat. The journey is slow, with the boats navigating through the spears of barren trees poking above the waterline — an eerie reminder that an entire submerged forested area exists beneath the lake. Ever the consummate singers, both Victor and Chong break into songs, their voices echoing through the silent valley. A concert in the middle of the wilderness is something you don’t get on any other given day, and the rest of us listen raptly.

The ghostly sight of tree trunks reaching out from watery depths fills the typical scene at this swathe of natural wonderland. We’re told later at night, of submerged villages and burial sites — stories that give us chills as we stare into the inky blackness from our houseboat.


The houseboat that was to be our home for 3 days and 2 nights.

Coupled with the ubiquitous poochis that fly into the lights, the trio of city slickers — Victor, Chong and I look at each other before laughing nervously. The air is cool as we sit out on the open deck. The stars are out and a lone firefly hovers by the side of the houseboat before drifting out into the dark. The quietness feels different. “Listen...” says Sebastian, and we do. The chirrups of crickets, cicadas and the foghorn blasts of frogs serenade the night. It’s music of a different kind.

WILDLIFE WONDERLAND


Rhinocerous Hornbill. Picture courtesy of Tay Sia Ping.

In the 3-day-2-night expedition, we don’t get to see all that many hornbills. A total of seven species were spotted, namely the Bushy-crested hornbill, Wreathed hornbill, Black hornbill, Oriental Pied hornbill, Rhinoceros hornbill, the globally-threatened Plain-pouched hornbill and the critically-endangered Helmeted hornbill. The occasional pelting rain cuts some of our trips out on the lake short. Huddled beneath disposable raincoats, we’re drenched but it’s to be expected. After all, nature is unpredictable — and therein lies the charm of such excursions.


Smooth-clawed otters by the banks of the lake. Picture courtesy of Roger Boey.

But there’s still a lucky star that hovers over our expedition. To our delight, we spot a family of smooth-clawed otters on the banks of the lake, frolicking around the edges of the lapping water, and we get to witness a group of Asiatic elephants sliding through the steep banks and into the water. For all their heft, they seem graceful on their feet, not unlike land whales adrift above the floor of an ancient waterless sea.


Vince Chong is amazed at what the Royal Belum State Park has to offer.

For Victor and Chong, the expedition has given them a show like no other. “It’s such a humbling experience watching flocks of hornbills flood the sky,” enthuses Chong, adding vehemently: “Pictures and videos don’t do it justice. You have to come here for yourself and feel it. Really feel it!”


Jaclyn Victor reconnects with nature.

“It’s scary how we can get so caught up with life that we lose that connection with nature,” chips in Victor, adding: “There’s nothing like being in the rainforest. If you’ve not done it before, you have to try coming here at least once. The best is that this piece of wonderland is right here in Malaysia and we must do all we can to protect what we have.” What about the poochis? I ask. And she laughs heartily.


The elusive critically-endangered Helmeted hornbill. Picture courtesy of Roger Boey.

Our final show occurs as we head on back to the houseboat for the last time. Hoo...Hoo..Hoo... Hoo-hoo-hoo... Hahahahahahahaha! It’s the maniacal laughter of a Helmeted hornbill. By the sound of it, this lone bird is only a few trees away. And soon we spot it flying above the distant trees, its incongruously long central tail feathers and impressively large casque can be spotted from afar.

As we leave for the city — and the airport for some of our international visitors — soon after a hearty lunch at the Belum Rainforest Resort, our only fear is whether this wondrously fascinating yet delicate place can withstand the constant threats of poaching and illegal logging in the years to come. The Belum-Temengor forest may have existed for around 130 million years, but the battle for its survival continues. In the meantime, some of the world’s best entertainment — as Victor and Chong would attest — lies within this swathe of rainforest, and the show will go on, for as long as the forest continues to exist.

elena@nst.com.my

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