By Mariam Mokhtar
After the tour of the charcoal factory and the various activities in the nearby kampong, we drove to a little roadside café and had a few drinks and some snacks before the main attraction of that day – the firefly tour.
“Shall we be the first in the queue for the firefly boat?” asked one of the children in our group.
“Will it be dangerous? It’s so dark,” said another.
“You talk too much,” moaned one teenager. “The crocodiles will jump out of the water and bite you.”
We arrived fifteen minutes early at the jetty at Kampung Dew. There was a parking attendant who told us we could park our cars outside someone’s house. He assured us that it was safe to leave it there and beckoned us to follow him along the path to the jetty.
At the jetty, there were at least six people waiting to receive us. We were each handed life jackets, and given a safety briefing.
Boat Ready, Guide Wasn’t
The boat was ready but our guide, was nowhere to be seen. I was reluctant to go without him and this caused some friction with the jetty crew. I wondered whether this was my intended boat or we were being hounded by touts.
No one seemed to know where the guide was, although he turned up twenty minutes later. It was a shame that the communication between the jetty and the guide was so poor. The jetty crew were very apologetic about his lateness. We set off on the boat and made our way downriver.
The crew and guide were wonderful. They were friendly and told us the history of the fireflies, their habitat and how many different types there were. They showed us which type of tree the fireflies liked to live in and they told us the dangers that the fireflies faced. One of the crew explained that a professor from a local university was a regular visitor, and had taken many samples for one of his studies.
For the first half hour or so, we were on full alert looking for the fireflies. We were fortunate that it was not raining and as we sped up the river, felt the warm breeze on our faces. Surprisingly, there were no mosquitoes or other bugs.
During the day the boat is used to transport mangrove logs. At night, it is used for the firefly tours.
As we relaxed on the chairs and stools, arranged on the deck of the boat, we scanned the riverbanks for wild animals. Even after we had gained our night vision, it was difficult to detect other signs of life. But we were told that there would probably be monitor lizards, snakes and birds.
When we turned round one bend of the river, we saw what looked like a large Christmas tree in the middle of nowhere. It was so startling it took our breath away.
The younger children shouted with astonishment at the blinking fairy lights whilst the older ones tried to take pictures. We continued down the river and found more colonies on the riverbanks.
The spotter at the front of the boat was very knowledgeable and gave us a running commentary. As he could not speak English, his companion helped to translate, for the benefit of the children who did not understand Malay. We stopped at one berembang (Sonneratia caseolaris) tree, so that one child could retrieve a leaf and flower for her ‘show and tell’ sessions at school. After an hour, the boat turned round and we headed back to the jetty.
Fumes and Noise
It was only on the return journey that the fumes from the diesel boat irritated us. Even the noise of the diesel engines was beginning to drown our conversations. Perhaps, the driver of the boat was at top speed to rush back. Or had we been so excited about seeing the fireflies that we did not notice the fumes and noise before?
Is there an allocation under VPY 2012 for the villagers/tour guides to purchase quieter and cleaner engines for a truly memorable experience?
Protection for Habitat Critical
The encroachment of oil palm plantations may soon destroy the habitat of the fireflies. There was only a small buffer zone to protect the natural habitat of the riverbanks, and according to the villagers, who acted as the crew and guides, the plantation workers clear the trees on which the fireflies live.
The crew claimed that they had protested about the lack of protection for the habitat of the fireflies and of their new source of tourist income.
Perhaps, their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
If the Perak state authorities are serious about empowering the villagers to promote village life and eco-tourism, they must help protect the villagers from the big-industrial players which promote their own interests and increase their profits with ruthless efficiency.
It isn’t just the oil-palm plantations which are destroying the habitat of the fireflies and the villagers’ new livelihood. The glare from the powerful lights on the nearby highway may also kill-off the firefly colonies, as there is nowhere for them to move to and breed. The oil-palm plantations are encroaching upon the whole length of the riverbank.
In the next instalment, join us as we embark on the Taiping night safari.