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January 22, 2011

Sepetang Serenade

By Chiam Kok Heng

At Kuala Sepetang, you can explore the mangrove jungle and learn all about how charcoal is made.

Being flanked by forest on both sides of the road might not sound uncommon, but our day out at Kuala Sepetang in Perak felt special as we drove past rows of monotonous forest trees and entered Matang.

The trees here were tall, with enormous and conspicuous prop roots, and on the ground were the distinctive mangrove ferns or piai (Acrostichum spp), interspersed with nipah palms, indicating that we were entering swampy terrain.

http://thestar.com.my/archives/2011/1/22/lifetravel/f_pg17dew.jpg
The jetty at Kampung Sungai Dew in Matang, Perak.

Looking into the forest only took our eyes endlessly from one tree to another.

Here, nature was allowed to dominate! We knew we were getting nearer to the Kuala Sepetang Mangrove Forest Reserve, reportedly the best managed mangrove forest in the world.

I had always thought that charcoal was made from burning mangrove wood but discovered that the process actually involves logs being “baked” over a 20-day period under intense heat reaching 240°C in an enclosed kiln.

The heating process is an art to master as it takes experience to determine the intensity of the fire, to gauge how things are going from the smoke belching out from the sides of the kiln and finally to decide whether the charcoal was ready.

The charcoal factory, operational since 1930, has a total of 10 magnificent domed kilns.

http://thestar.com.my/archives/2011/1/22/lifetravel/f_pg17matang.jpg
It’s smoky at the charcoal factory in Matang.

Each stood 7m high and measures 7m in diameter, is constructed with 22,000 bricks and costs RM12,000.

Depending on its usage and maintenance, a kiln of this kind could last up to 10 years.

At the factory, mangrove logs are brought in by boat via a manmade canal.

They are then debarked and dried in the sun before being put into the kilns and stacked up in an upright position.

Each kiln can accommodate up to 50 tonnes of mangrove logs, much of the weight being due to the high moisture content of the logs.

http://thestar.com.my/archives/2011/1/22/lifetravel/f_pg17mangrove.jpg
Mangrove trees with their distinctive raised roots.

Once they have been fired in the kiln, the charcoal logs are left to cool down for at least eight days before being removed.

By then, they have blackened and become 80% lighter. A large amount is exported to Japan, with less than half allocated for local consumption (the ratio is about 60:40).

The potassium-rich charcoal chips scattered inside the kilns are also gathered, packed and marketed as planting material; they are highly sought-after by gardeners, especially orchid growers.

The walkway

Our walk into the heart of the mangrove forest revealed the rich diversity of life.

Our specialist, a postgraduate on mangrove conservation from USM, busily pointed out the various species and explained their distribution.

The zig-zag walkway, constructed five-feet above the ground, provided us with a good view of the surroundings. We learnt of the differences between the four main genera of the 41 mangrove species in Malaysia — the Rhizophora with its stilted roots; the Avecennia with its pen-like pneumatophores (aerial roots) that help it to breathe in the heavy mud; the Sonneratia (or berembang) with its pointed, cone-shaped pneumatophores and rounded leaves; the Bruguiera with its prolific and adaptive seeds.

“To differentiate between Rhizophora and Bruguiera, look at their young shoot; the former produces a reddish shoot while the latter yellowish green,” said our specialist.

“Ooh,” we nodded, impressed.

We took everything in again as we walked back to where we started — the couples holding hands, the singletons appreciating the surroundings.

After that, we visited the charming nearby Chinese village and stopped at a “highrise” restaurant which boasted a panaromic deck that looked out on Sungai Sepetang and the islands of huge mangrove forests at the far end. On the foreground, right next to where we stood, the river forked and the boats docked.

We enjoyed the beautiful sunset and even spotted a few Brahmini Kites hovering gracefully in circles.

There were boats big and small, and houses of uneven height flanking the river. The tapestry of village life before us evoked a nostalgic feeling, and the cameras happily clicked away.

At 8pm, we were back at the Kuala Sepetang Education Centre.

Ah Long, the assistant boatman, was ready. He handed each of us a life-jacket and took the time to check that our jackets were properly zipped, locked and tied.

We were then briefed on the do’s and don’ts and what to expect, then marched to the waiting boat.

When all were ready, the boat chugged into the blackish water. Almost every riverside house that we passed in Kampung Sungai Dew had pictures of deities guarding the main entrance.

The community here uses the sampan for transportation — trips cost from as little as 15 sen. Before we knew it, we had left the village behind and were heading into the dark of the river.

Some 30 minutes later, we were in the middle of nowhere. The boatman skillfully navigated the river while his assistant kept an eye on the banks, shining his torch this way and that now and again.

Then, the boat slowed down, and in front us, far up the canopy of a tree, were thousands of flashing lights.

Tiny and fine, they lit up as one and blinked in unison, again and again. Fireflies! Not far away, another colony twinkled.

“The firefly flashes the light from its abdomen three times in a second. The male firefly has two ‘lighting bulbs’ while the female has one. The male uses the bulbs to attract mates. When a female fly lands on the leaf next to the male, both will perform a ‘meeting dance’ in circle before mating takes place. After mating, the male will fly off but will return to the same ‘romance’ spot the next night,“ explained Ah Long.

He said fireflies were sensitive to light pollution and would switch off when there was bright light.

Ah Long demonstrated to us by flashing his torch at a colony, and true enough, the fireflies switched off immediately. Ah Long said prawn farming had started near to the site and if the industry expanded, the fireflies might be adversely affected.

“I never tire of coming here, and I feel even more motivated when we get a responsive crowd,” Ah Long said to the delight of all.

He had a passion for his job and sure loved the place.

Soon it was time to leave. Our boat pull away and sped back. In 30 minutes, the fishing village came into view once more, and we saw the riverine landscape reflected in the water.

It was beautiful. The swamps of Sepetang had been a wonderful place, and our experience here would not soon be forgotten.

Source: The Star


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