Old paths retravelled


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Asia » Malaysia
October 22nd 2008
Published: October 11th 2009
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I decided to head south the next day, Wednesday, to Kuala Selangor, about 80km northwest of Kuala Lumpur. I expected much of the road to be familiar to me since in the early 1980’s I often used to drive the coastal route from KL to Lumut, to take the ferry over to stay on Pangkor Island. In this part of Malaysia, however, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. What were once narrow, quiet, traffic-free kampong back roads are now exceptionally busy, lined in places with industrial estates, and for a large part, the route consists of a four-lane divided highway. I didn’t even dare drive into Lumut, a lovely old small town that I used to like very much, as the urban sprawl on the outskirts made me fear the worst. In actual fact, the old town centre probably hasn’t changed a lot, so I really should have taken the nostalgic detour.

It was about a four-hour drive, and with short stops along the way - including rice and curry fish at a mamak coffee shop - I got to Kuala Selangor around two o’clock and checked into the De Palma Hotel (sic) at the back of the old town, just below Bukit Melawati. The old town centre of Kuala Selangor is delightful in a laid back kind of way; clean, a few modern buildings, some attractive old ones, and isolated from the strip development along the main road that now skirts it.

As soon as I had checked in I went off to the nearby Kuala Selangor Nature Park, a modest but important forest and mangrove reserve at the mouth of the Selangor River. The 200 hectares it covers was rescued from becoming a golf course in 1987 and has been run ever since by the Malaysia Nature Society under the auspices of the Selangor State Government.

It consists of a man-made brackish lake with mud flats in the centre, surrounded by forest and streams on three sides and mangroves on the seaward side. The path runs all the way round with some hides and towers, and a mangrove boardwalk approaching the estuary mud flats. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon with a strong breeze and I spent a leisurely three hours walking slowly around, or sitting in the hides. Although of the 156 resident and migrant bird species that occur here I managed to see precisely nine, it is a lovely quiet spot and I enjoyed the tranquillity, the sounds of nature, and the pleasure of my own company.

Later I went up to the top of Bukit Melawati, to the lighthouse with its fabulous views of the Malacca Straits. Up here, both locals and tourists come to see and to feed the engaging Silvered Leaf Monkeys that range this area. They are the most good-natured, gentle monkeys I have ever come across. They don’t snatch food like the Macaques - they sit and ask patiently, and then take the food gently from the giver’s hand. They are completely tame, and very amusing to watch. Like a zoo with no need for bars.

Back at the hotel, I wrote up my notes, edited the day’s photos, and checked emails over dinner in the De Palma café.

These early starts were becoming a habit. Today was quite heavily overcast, but after a couple of coffees in my room I was ready for a return visit to KSNP, and was at the entrance shortly after seven. It doesn’t officially open until nine, but there is nothing to stop you going in (I’d checked this with the office the night before) so off I went, entering at the same time as another European whom I was to meet later.

It struck me as I walked around to the hide by the lake that all the dawn sounds were like a foreign language to me - and probably always will be - while some bird watchers who have been at this game for years can separate and identify the myriad of birdcalls. I’m beginning to get to recognise a few - Asian Koel, Kingfisher (though not the separate species), Yellow-vented Bulbul, Myna, Black-naped Oriole, sunbirds and a few others, most of them pretty common, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be fluent.

Shortly after entering the park I walked right through a pack of Macaques who showed me some interest and moved slowly off the track out of my way. In contrast, a hundred meters on was a large pack of Silvered Leaf Monkeys - much shier than the Macaques, crashing away through the trees at my approach. Funny how their relatives, less than a kilometre away on Bukit Melawati are hand tame. The strange thing is the range of noises this monkey makes, one minute sounding like a frog, then a donkey, then a duck, plus clicking and the usual monkey shrieking.

I spent about an hour or more at the hide - you have to be very patient at this place, but got some good pictures of what seemed to be a lone Great Egret in the park yesterday and today, spotted an Ashy Tailor Bird in a nearby tree, saw the same Common Kingfisher in the same spot as yesterday, and a Collared Kingfisher too. I then walked around the mangrove swamp boardwalk and looped around back to the entrance, meeting up with the guy I’d seen entering the park earlier who turned out to be Czech; he goes frequently to work in New Zealand and always stops in Malaysia for a week’s bird watching en route. Nice guy.

I enjoyed my visits to KSNP - it is a very peaceful spot to while away the hours (over four hours this morning). Over the two visits, I’d seen twenty-two species of birds that I could identify - many of them common enough, but not a bad start for a beginner, I guess.

I still hadn’t decided where I was going next. I had been vaguely thinking about Malacca. But the Czech guy had just come from Fraser’s Hill, and when I looked at the map I realised it was only about a hundred or so kilometres away, so decided I’d go there.

I had nasi lemak at a sort of half-modern café in Kuala Selangor town, and then set out for Fraser’s. It took me exactly two hours which, given the traffic around Rawang and the thirty twisty kilometres climbing up through the hills, was not bad going, I suppose. As is often the case, the new “down road” from the top of Fraser’s Hill was closed (another landslide), and when I got to the start of the “up road”, now being used again in alternate directions, the gate was shut. My car clock said 3.38 and the gate closes at 3.40, so I reckoned I had made it by the skin of my teeth. The gate man apparently agreed and opened up for me willingly - otherwise it would have been an eighty-minute wait!

I had not visited Fraser’s Hill in over 25 years, and when I reached the top I couldn’t be bothered to trudge around checking out the best place to stay, so I just went straight to the Jelai Highland Resort, which I had read had fantastic bird life right out front. It is a Fawlty Towers sort of place - they have 25-30 rooms, but I was definitely the only guest. The young man who checked me in seemed to be the only staff, and he went off later on his motorbike, leaving a sign at reception with a mobile number for enquiries. I chose a so-called “deluxe” room at the front corner of the hotel, overlooking the area of the grounds that is reputed to teem with birds, put a chair and table on the balcony, sat out with my binoculars, camera and bird book, and within an hour had identified six species, four of which were new to me. Great spot. The room itself was large, musty, run down and pretty basic, but acceptable given the balcony and the birds.

In the evening I went down to the centre of Fraser’s Hill (if there is such a thing) in the pouring rain, to eat at the Hill View, a Chinese-owned restaurant. Deprived - psychologically at least - of pork for the past ten days, I ordered up bacon, eggs, chips and toast, washed down with Chinese tea.

I realised that tonight was the first time I had put on long trousers, shoes and socks since I arrived in Malaysia (my sandals by this time were looking a little worse for wear), and even with a light windbreaker I felt decidedly chilly in the relative cool (perhaps 18C) of a Fraser’s Hill evening.

The next morning I had planned to watch birds again from my balcony and then take one of the Fraser’s Hill walking trails, but when dawn broke it was clear that we were in cloud. The mist whirled around the hotel, bringing light drizzle and keeping it almost too dark to even see birds, let along photograph them. Already, however, I could hear the chattering of Long-tailed Sibia, and soon a small flock of them were darting everywhere, hanging upside down from flowers, feeding on the ground, and preening each other in the trees. Soon a few Chestnut-capped Laughing Thrushes and a group of Silver-eared Mesia joined them. It got somewhat lighter around eight - enough to try a few shots with the camera wedged tightly against the balcony railing, but this was not great weather. An amazing display of birds however, and an extraordinary vantage point.

At eight-thirty, there was a knock on the door and the young guy who seems to run the hotel brought me some breakfast - completely unexpectedly. I assume he had cooked it himself: two crispy roti prata, butter, peanut butter, some delicious vanilla sauce to pour on the roti, and tea. And very welcome it was, too, I must say.

Around ten I thought I would brave the conditions and took off in the car. The drizzle, however, and the lack of light made it all a bit pointless, so I drove slowly around the circular road that surrounds the telecom towers on one of the hills. I soon realised this weather was here to stay, and decided that I wouldn’t. Back at the Jelai I packed up my stuff and caught the 12:00 to 12:40 downward movement of traffic on the single lane road, intending to head for Muar, and check out Parit Jawa and Sungei Baling, two nearby birding spots.

As I drove south however, the weather just got worse, and with my knowledge of Malaysian weather patterns it looked to me like it was going to set in like this for a day or two. So I decided to call it quits, and instead of turning off the highway to the west I just kept heading south towards Johor Bahru, and at sundown I was back home in Singapore. This was one of the pleasures of this trip - I could just decide what to do on the spur of the moment.

I had been away for twelve days, and covered some 3,000km in what was almost a circumnavigation of Peninsula Malaysia. I had returned to many places that I frequented when I lived in the country from 1980 to 1985, and visited quite a few areas for the first time. It had been one of the most enjoyable trips of my life, partly because the concept of unplanned solo travel was one I had not particularly pursued in the past, partly because of the bird watching theme that gave me a sense of purpose, and partly because Malaysia is (despite its occasional frustrations) such an amiable place to travel around. I vowed not to leave it too long before I undertook a similar trip somewhere else in the region.

Howard's Malaysia Trip Galleries at PBase





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