Long known for its panoply of Asian, Indian and colonial cultures, peninsula Malaysia also offers remarkable natural sights. For example, just an hour's drive northwest of Malaysia's cosmopolitan capital Kuala Lumpur, the fireflies -- the "kelip-kelip" -- are courting.
My traveling buddy Liz and I reached the firefly jetty at dusk, clambering aboard a wooden Malay longboat. The long, narrow traditional river craft immediately swung out into a mangrove-lined estuary. Lights from the coastal town of Kuala Selangor reflected an orange hue off low clouds, lending the river a muddy shine.
As a distant mosque's evening call to prayer drifted across the thick, humid air, we saw them -- a thousand points of light garlanding the mangroves, flashing first in unison, then rippling like waves along the bank. As if the trees had reached up and borrowed the night sky, the fireflies shifted from branch to branch, sometimes soaring above the trees, then diving towards their reflections in the river. No-one is sure why folded-wing fireflies congregate on this particular mangrove species to feed and court, but if you are lucky, you'll watch as the males synchronize their flashing -- a mass hypnotism of the females, I imagined.
It worked for us.
Four Hours northeast of Kuala Lumpur lies the 130-million-year-old rainforest of Taman Negara (literally, Park National). We joined six other Canadians, aged from late 20s to early 60s, on another longboat for the three-hour river trip to Taman Negara Resort, a chalet-style resort carved out of the park's 4,30-odd square kilometres.
The next morning dawned to chirping from the small, pale green geckos sharing our rooms and chattering from monkeys scampering outside. After breakfast, we negotiated the world's longest canopy walkway, a rope-and-board structure stretching a heart-stopping 30 metres above the ground and more than 400 metres through the branches.
If the canopy gave us a monkey's eye view, the night jungle walk gave us an earthy one. Just past the chalet area, a wild boar crashed through the underbrush. On the trail, we stumbled over roots and ducked under rattan vines, wondering what lurked beyond the flashlight's glare: the lurid orange and black centipede, for example, six inches long and thick as my thumb. "Do not touch," warned our guide. "Very poisonous!"
Beyond the centipede, the flashlight picked out tiny diamonds: the reflective eyes of hunting spiders. At our feet, a scorpion scurried below leaf debris, tiny glow-worms shone green, and a black and white (not-poisonous) snake disappeared into a hollow tree.
Near a log, coated in an unremarkable brown fungus, our guide shut off the flashlight. Instantly, the small clearing disappeared and the jungle closed in suffocatingly. Night sounds, already loud, became deafening: rustling leaves, the chainsaw-buzz of the crickets, an owl's mournful call.
As our eyes adjusted, we finally saw a
faint purple light. The log fungus was glowing, echoing the star-crowded sky we glimpsed
through a break in the canopy. In the pitch-black jungle, we welcomed both stars and fungus.
The East Coast
Along a coastline of craggy limestone islands, bathtub-warm seas and sandy beaches just south of Kuala Terengganu, our group took a 15 minute jet boat trip to Gem Island, a 52-room resort off larger Kapas Island...and I discovered why divers dive and snorkellers snorkel.
Donning a mask and fins for the first time, I opened my eyes to a kaleidoscope of colour and form: staghorn, brain and fan coral covering an ocean floor dotted with black, long-spined sea urchins and fat green sea cucumbers. Bumpfish pecked at the coral with beak-like mouths, and brilliant yellow angelfish darted by. I wanted to float, salt-water buoyant forever.
So when the recreation supervisor said that an 800-metre kayak to Kapas Island and a 500-metre shoreline snorkel would show us a family of black-tipped sharks, I didn't hesitate. By the time the enormity of the words "swimming with sharks" hit me, it was too late: four metres away, a shape was gliding through the water, a distinctive black tip marking its triangular dorsal fin, grey and black shadings lining its sleek body. Watching a shark approach you, its wide mouth trailing a long feeler from each side, two small, glassy eyes balanced above its jaw, is, well...intimidated is such a mild word. The shark, about two metres long, slid silently past me, and my heart started pounding somewhere near my throat. That's when we saw the others, perhaps five of them, materializing and dematerializing -- sometimes close, sometimes just a shadow and the flick of a powerful tail, grace and power in motion. It was a precious glimpse of a creature rarely seen and even less understood -- as were, in their own ways, the fireflies and the rainforest's insect life. Each forms a thread that, woven together, creates the earth's intricate tapestry...and each is one of Malaysia's natural wonders.
Article By Yvonne Jeffrey Pictures By M. Maxine George
If You go:
Fitness: Research the tour's activity level to ensure it suits you. Can you opt out of activities, for example?
Protect the environment: Touch as little of the plant and animal life as possible. (Stepping on coral, for instance, kills it.)
Best time to go: March through October avoids the east coast's rainy season.
Cost: Expect a 13-day tour to start around $1,500 plus $1,650 airfare.
830 Burrard St., Vancouver, B.C. V6Z 2K4
Phone: 1-888-689-6872 Fax: 011 603 746 5637
Taman Negara Resort: www.forestparadise.freeservers.com
Gem Island Resort: www.gemresorts.com
For the fireflies: ask your Kuala Lumpur hotel concierge. Tours usually include Kuala Selangor Nature Park (bird haven) and a seafood dinner.
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