Friday, March 30, 2007

Fireflies at Kampung Kuantan, Kuala Selangor

From Janda Baik we can take the Karak Highway to Gombak toll and then take the MRR2 Highway to Kepong, then Sungai Buluh. Straight to Kuala Selangor. It's a pleasant drive out of the city, winding through old rubber and palm oil plantations, a few shanty-looking towns and several Malay villages …peering into a way of life that perhaps seemed all too familiar to the British planters who used to own large tracks of lands out here at the turn of the 19th century.

To see the fireflies, you have to be there when it's already dark. So, if you are early, before going to Kampung Kuantan, you may want to see some historical site at Kota Melawati” formerly known as “Fort Altingsburg”, the execution block, royal mausoleum and colonial buildings. A bird sanctuary park at the foot of Bukit Melawati is an ideal place for bird watchers to watch migratory birds. Also found are silvered–leaf monkeys, butterflies etc. There's also a train ride up to Bukit Melawati. You can park your car at the town area. The train ride will make one round from the starting point and will be back there about half an hour time. You can see a nice view of Kuala Selangor from the top of Bukit Melawati. The Kuala Selangor District Officer's house is also on the hill top.

Kelip-kelip in Bahasa Malaysia, means 'to twinkle'. Twinkle is what these little creatures do. The kelip-kelip is popularly known as fireflies. However, as confusing as the English Language goes, fireflies aren't flies but are in fact tiny 6mm long beetles, which belong to the Lampyridae species. And they don't produce fire but a cool green glow in the lower abdomen.

If you would like to know more about the kelip-kelip, the visitor centre at Kampung Kuantan has some information. This is also where tickets for the boat ride can be bought. The ticket includes a drink and a packet of local snacks, just in case you get hungry during the boat ride. However, there are pretty good seafood restaurants at Kuala Selangor itself… and seafood doesn't come fresher than the ones sold here. Fishing boats come in from the day's work with fresh catches that are sold to the restaurants. Prices are reasonable…much more affordable than the average place in KL.

As the crowd often turn up during the weekend, boat operators usually tend to accommodate as many of the visitors as they can. This means sacrificing a little on the allocated time spent on the cruise per boat. So, instead of the 40 minutes cruise, it may only take 30 minutes on weekends. If it's possible try making a night excursion during the weekdays and preferably not when there is a full moon or during rainy evenings… the effect would not be that great.
Kampung Kuantan was once a humble little village, not unlike many during the early years. But as industrialisation set in later, this village suffered what many others did - young folk moved away; fishermen and farmers living off the land found it difficult to eke out a living and the highways took away any chances of revival in the area.

Then one day, a bunch of entomologists heard about the strange congregation of lights not too far from the village - a place where millions of little green lights twinkled in the shadows of the night. The entomologists descended on the area like a swarm of bees to honey.

That was in the 70's. But the beauty of the place was kept a secret until almost a decade ago. These twinkling lights helped the villagers revive their little town. They are the local folks' little fairies....

Standing on the floating platform waiting for our turn to climb into the wooden sampan (rowboat), I was glad that we were all given life jackets. Having been told to pick a moonless night to go, we planned the perfect night, the 1st night of the month on the Islamic calendar… least to say that we had worked it out just a little too well that night. In such darkness on the floating platform, where the sampans docked to empty out and fill up with eager visitors ready for a trip into the unknown, I would surely have done a 'walk-into' the water if it wasn't for the guidance of the boat operators and boatman. The murky, flat-white coffee coloured river just seemed a little too swift for a dip. But we settled into our seats on the sampan comfortably and safely and with a push of the row, the boatman slowly steered us away from the platform and into the night.

As we drifted down river, we saw no sign of twinkling trees. So we took a moment to lay back and admire the twinkling of the heavens. Knowing little about the kelip-kelip, their lifecycles and living habits - we proceeded to bombard our poor boatman with a barrage of questions. He imparted all that he knew in a hushed voice. Straining to hear his story, we found out that the kelip-kelip in many areas are fast becoming a rare sight as more and more of their habitats are being chopped down to make way for development. The species of kelip-kelip we were about to encounter, reside only in mangrove areas. During the day, they retreat into the tall grasses just behind the mangroves. As night falls, they move to the mangrove trees (called pokok berembang) lining the banks to feed on nectar from the leaves and to attract mates with their synchronised flashing. The chemical reaction in the thorax of the insect produces a cool green glow that is controlled to flash at a rate of 3 flashes per second. The males flash within 1/30th of a second of each other whilst the females do not flash as frequently nor as flamboyantly as the males. Each tree has different groups of families and sometimes the synchronisation of flashes on one tree falls out of synch with the neighbouring tree. However, for optimum effect, it is best to visit the place just after nightfall and not later than 11.00pm, after which time the kelip-kelip would have found mates or mated, and subsequently the flashing would stop.

The boatman steer us to the edge of the bank so that we could get a closer look at the beetle. He gently cupped a straggling individual in his hands. As he opened his cupped hands, his palms lit up a green glow, flashing on - off, on - off. Beautiful from afar, but up close, these beetles are pretty unsightly..not cute like the ladybug or even the dung beetle. The boatman then gently returned the poor flustered creature back on the leaf. Another one landed on my left hand. It's so nice, glowing on my hand! When I pushed it away, it came back and landed on my friend's hand in the sampan. So we just let the creature follow be with us in the sampan.

We rowed down river for a while longer. Sitting back to enjoy the ride and appreciate the wondrous sight, it felt as though we were floating through the Milky Way, suspended amongst the dust of twinkling stars shimmering in the velvet darkness of the universe. The trees were filled with these tiny wonders and everyone who went on the trip were so awed by the spectacular display. It was a really great evening out with nature.

Returning to the jetty, we looked into the faces of other visitors for reassurance that perhaps we were just overreacting. 'It's just a small drop in numbers but the atmosphere remains just as intact as before?!'. There was no reassurance, nothing but disappointment in their eyes.

We left Kampung Kuantan around 9:30 pm with the images of the twinkling lights still on our eyes. We were not allowed to use flash to take the photos of the kelip-kelip, so I don't have any good photos to show it here.

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