Malaysian Footnote

Just to prove that I am working in bed, I’ve been tinkering with this article today…
As the peaceful surface of the river started to shudder, I moved out from under the boat’s shelter to feel the refreshing bursts of large, warm raindrops on my skin. The air shifted, filling my nostrils with humid, heavy fragrances from the lush tropical undergrowth, seasoned with sea salt.

“It will soon pass,” our guide Irshad calmly said; and, sure enough, the deluge was over within minutes, while the resuming combination of blazing sun and soft, warm breezes speedily dried my white cotton shirt as if nothing had happened. While the boat chugged slowly past the leafy, tiptoeing mangroves and majestic limestone outcrops which edge the Kilim River, Irshad pointed out details that our slower senses would otherwise have missed. The vibrant splash of a colourful kingfisher skimming over green-tinged water.

The slow, implacable blink of a sunbathing monitor lizard.

The twisted knot of a slender black and yellow striped snake, tied around a perilously high tree branch. And the heavy rustle of undergrowth that heralded the arrival of a long-tailed macaque monkey as it swung into view. Formerly a banker in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, Irshad Mobarak fell in love with the island of Langkawi on his first visit nine years ago, and was inspired by its beautiful, richly diverse and vulnerable ecology to become the region’s first naturalist.

Now employed by the Datai Bay Resort, he runs boat tours through the mangrove swamps, via fishing villages and bat caves, and leads nature walks into the warm depths of the rich, tropical rainforest. The rest of his time is devoted to conservation, fighting to preserve Langkawi’s fragile, fragmented ecosystem in the implacable face of marching modern development.

An intelligent and charismatic man, with gentle brown eyes and a warm, steady voice, Irshad has an engaging passion for his surroundings that is truly infectious. Every sighting is accompanied by a wealth of background detail, from the flying habits of swifts (which can apparently feed, mate and sleep on the wing), to the physical and financial struggles of migrant loggers from Thailand, who harvest wood from the mangroves to support their families.

Our trip was an entertaining and thought-provoking insight into a side of Langkawi that is often overlooked in favour of the more obvious pleasures of this tropical tourist getaway: luxurious five-star resorts with private beaches; cheap duty-free shopping; a multitude of watersports, and the delectable variety of Malaysian cuisine. Irshad is quick to acknowledge how tourism has successfully boosted the local economy, bringing development, improved education and many other positive opportunities to this little agricultural community. Yet, the damaging effects which are all too often associated with this industry need to be managed carefully. Responsible eco-tourism can help.

As we rounded into an open bay, we were greeted by the awesome vision of several magnificent birds of prey performing shooting swoops and dives as they circled gracefully overhead. An impressive display, it was nonetheless tinged with sadness, as Irshad explained that the birds were attracted by chicken pieces thrown from the boats of other tourist operators. This practice not only upsets the birds’ natural diet and feeding habits, but also increases the likelihood of disease spreading from contaminated meat.

Irshad is convinced that this possibility will one day become a reality, when the birds will disappear from the skies as swiftly as the rains do.
“With more education, tourists will hopefully stop this practice, and the birds will be safe again,” he sighed, warm eyes riveted to the skies as the kites and eagles cried above us. Both the sight and sentiment are inspiring, given to us by someone who is so obviously in love with one of the region’s most beautiful islands. And who is so happy to share his hidden treasures with us, Langkawi’s lucky guests.

By rowtheboat @ Friday, 13. Apr, 2007 – 01:06:49 pm