Tasik Bera - Pahang Malaysia

Like tropical rain thundering down to cool the heated earth, lakes have a strangely cooling effect, even if it's only part of a moving scenery. There are only 2 natural lakes of respectable size in peninsula Malaysia and both of them are found in the state of Pahang - Tasik(lake) Bera being the larger of the two. Tasik Bera is important for its biodiversity. This is Malaysia's largest natural lake. It is a shallow, seasonal, riverine lake system that flows into the Pahang River (Peninsular Malaysia's longest river). It is home to 94 fish species, approximately 200 bird species; and endangered reptilian species such as the Malayan False Gharial (a freshwater, fish-eating crocodile), the totally protected Striped Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle, the much sought after Malayan Giant Turtle, reticulated pythons that can grow to a length of 18feet, prehistoric looking monitor lizards and lots of frogs species.

Large mammals have also been seen in the area and tell tale signs of their existence can be found along nature trails: claw marks on tree trunks, fresh droppings, paw prints along the banks of the lake.

The lake stretches 35km by 20km and covers 7,000 hectares of complex, interlocking ecosystems made up of open waters, reedbeds, ponds, lakes, rivers, dry lowland forests, fresh water swamps, pandanus and blackwater swamps (peat). At Tasik Bera, there is still a chance for the fauna and flora to survive and to rejuvenate despite looming threats that the lake will dry up in the near future as water sources disappear due to increasing conversion of forests to palm oil plantations and excessive siltation and soil erosion caused by uncontrolled logging activities and development.

The Lake People

The highlight for most visitors to Bera is a visit to the Semelai villages. The Semelai people call themselves Semaq Tasik (the lake people) and have been living in the lake area; working on the land - planting crops such as paddy, bananas, tapioca, sugarcane etc for over 600 years. They were accomplished forest farmers, practicing the age-old method of shift cultivation. The farmers rotated their crops on that same clearing of land until the soil in the area was no longer suitable or fertile enough to sustain another cycle of good harvesting. Then they collectively moved to another area. When one plot of land was being worked on, the old areas were left to regenerate. Excellent example of forest management! During the Emergency period (the 1948-1960 Communist uprising), the government decided to relocate the free-roaming Semelai families into settlements. A majority of them settled at POS Iskandar, the largest Semelai settlement area at Bera. But there are still splinters of families living in small villages scattered around the lake. Today, shifting cultivation is no longer practiced due to limited land space source of income for the Semelai mainly derives from tapping rubber on their 6-acre 'government-sponsored' land, working as labourers at nearby logging camps, harvest from the surrounding forests & lake, making handicraft and offering various adventurous and cultural eco-tourism activities and packages.

Feeling the heat - the lake trip

The rental for a 5-6hour lake and visit trip (a 1½ hour ride each way) costs RM200 per boat. Advice No.1 This boat trip to Kampung Jelawat at Pos Iskandar is only available during the monsoon season between November and February when the waters in the lake is high enough for the boats to traverse). We were each given a lifejacket; and were reassured that if anything was to happen along the way, we were fully insured. Comforting words from ones safely planted on dry land and waving us off! Advice No.2; bring something comfy to sit on for the trip. Our boatman, Basri skilfully steered us into the labyrinth of the Pandanus swamp. Advice No.3: don't forget the sun block. Here, we understood why they had to use these small flat-bottomed boats.

Any larger and we wouldn't be able to maneuvre through the narrow shallow canals created by the screwpines (Pandanus sp.). Having moved to the front of the boat, we realised that although we had the best view, it definitely wasn't the best seat in the house! Pushing into the narrow openings created by overhanging screwpine leaves - we found our new seating arrangement a big disadvantage. With rough overhanging rasau leaves constantly raking our faces and startled spiders dropping onto us time and again - we ended up pretty messy at the end of the ride

The Pandanus (Screwpines) Swamp

Screwpines are locally known as rasau. The Semelai people use its leaves for weaving into mats, baskets, and food containers. This has helped manage the spread of the screwpines. Now, however, they have found that replacing the rasau leaves with mengkuang leaves, another type of the Pandanus sp., is much less hard work for them and just as good. They no longer harvest the rasau leaves on the lake as Mengkuang can be found growing wild on land. With no one harvesting the leaves,the screwpines began to grow at an alarming rate, closing up large areas of the lake, cordoning sections into secluded bays and creating a complicated labyrinth of narrow waterways with lots of dead ends.

The Semelai hunters search on reed beds for their favourite food item : the turtle. Giant Turtle meat is a much sought after delicacy among the Semelai people and is definitely a must-have at important festivals. The only way to flush them out is to set the reeds on fire. Sometimes the fire gets out of control and singes patches of the screwpines and other areas. This practice indirectly helps control and keep some parts of the lake vegetation free.

Birds, Snakes and other Animals..

Leaving Just before entering into the river valley we see beautiful white water lily and pink lotus gardens. Reed beds spread out from the forested areas so thick and compact that if we were to step off the boat onto the reeds we would seem to be standing in the middle of a prairie. Although the lake is shallow, between 2 and 5metres during the dry season (February to April, June to August), The water-level can rise another 3metres during the Monsoons (April, May and September through to January). The depth of the lake wasn't the worry- not knowing what lurks beneath the surface was a little more unnerving. The Malayan False Gharial, various blind snakes, pipe snakes, water snakes and vipers are quite often seen in such swamps. The Malayan Giant frog is a resident of the lake, often tipping the scales at 1 to 2kg. Closer to the plantations live the large reticulated pythons that can grow to a length of between 4m and 5m.

Semelai women out on the lake fishing.Photo courtesy of Bera Resort

Selling pythons used to be a supplementary source of income for the Semelai community. The snake hunters claimed that they could trap as many as 17 pythons per week, placing nets in the river channels. The nets are of a certain size that allows the very large and the young to escape whilst trapping the rest. Although selective hunting is good but the large number of pythons caught has greatly reduced its population and if it continues, their survival would be seriously threatened.

Chugging slowly into the river channel, we passed Semelai people out on their perahu jalur (dugout canoes) fishing in the little inlets or laying out their fish traps baited with tapioca and palm oil fruits.

Tasik Bera Information Centre

The Tasik Bera Tourist Information Centre has a museum and some brochures providing general information about the lake, the lake people and the importance of wetlands to the economy of the region. The brochure states that there have been sightings of a large variety of birds and apart from the commonly found ones, there are the Black-naped Monarch, the Grey-breasted Babbler, the Siberian Blue Robin, the Lesser Adjutants (burung botak kecil), the Crested Fireback (ayam pegar), the Malayan Peacock Pheasant (Merak Pongsu) endemic only to Peninsular Malaysia and various species of woodpeckers, kingfishers, hornbills, eagles, bulbuls, spiderhunters, parakeets and parrots.

Although the lake is host to over 200species of birds, we found birdlife at Bera extremely difficult to spot. Apart from the Grey-Headed Fishing Eagle flying away in the far distance, a number of pied fantails frolicking in the screwpines and pacific swallows, we saw little of anything else. Perhaps the loud 'brrrr' of the engine frightened them off.

But the number of waders and other waterbirds is extremely low; over hunting by people being the main reason. Large predatory fishes are also blamed. There are large fishes in the lakes such as the adult giant catfish that weighs more than 30kg. One wonders if, a few large predators in the water could cause the demise of the many bird species living and feeding there. Food for thought...

Semelai and the Keruing tree

Resin from the Keruing tree used to be a major source of income for the Semelai. This resin(damar in Malay) from the Keruing tree contains high essential oil contents which also give it a balsamic fragrance. In the early centuries, it was a prized commodity sold at the Melaka port . The oil extract was sold to be used as a base for perfume; as a sticky paste to trap birds; as varnish and as sealant for boat-building.

Activities at Tasik Bera

Lake Bera and the Semelai people offer a variety of unique experiences. To clock a number of unique experiences in one destination, is indeed rare.

The perahu jalur which is a shallow dugout traditional sampan normally carved from a single tree trunk were once the only mode of transportation on the lake before motorized boats were introduced. Today, they are used mainly by women when they go onto the lake to harvest the screwpine leaves for their mat weaving or to install bubu or fish traps in the shallow inlets.

Visitors to the villages can opt to try the rowing out into the lake on the perahu jalur or be taken out on small flat bottomed motorized boats. Squeezing through tight canals, hemmed in by high walled screwpines requires skillful boatmanship and the Semelai are the most skilled. Skimming the still waters, ducking low overhangs and flicking off strangely alien insect forms is a real thrill.

The Semelai handicraft can be regarded as one of Malaysia 's more refined handiwork amongst the Orang Asli groups. Their crafts range from mat weaving, to bubu making and carving of model perahu jalur. Another interesting aspect of the Semelai culture is their musical instruments such as the Semelai Violin or Rebab where its rounded base is covered with the skin of Lake Bera 's giant pufferfish. The gambang resembles a gamelan in ways and is played by two people sitting on opposite sides to each other. Other instruments are the tetawak and the rebana.

The Keruing tree (dipterocarp specie) is highly regarded by the Semelai. In the old days, damar from this tree was highly prized and middlemen were commissioned by Arab and Indian traders to trade with the semelai. It was used in perfumes, as boat sealant and as lilin or candle wax. The candle wax when lit gives a heady, woody, scented aroma and is simply sublime.

The Semelai people have for centuries been in contact with the 'outside' world, trading with the middle men traders for basic necessities such as tools and food products for which they bartered with rattan, damar, scented wood such as sandalwood and other jungle produce. Many of the Semelai no longer practise their old ways..the villages have changed to incorporate modern amenities and luxuries. Their assimilation into the society is almost complete. They now rely on revenue from their rubber plantations and handicraft items; they also do some hunting to trade. But they still plant paddy twice a year and after the harvest, they come together to celebrate and rejoice.

Makcik Titi and her husband, Pak Engkok own three Keruing trees within the area of Kampung Jelawat, a Semelai village. The trees have been in her family for over 150years. Makcik Titi has been collecting oil from the trees for over ½ a century. A 15minutes trek on level ground took us to the site of the trees. The first Keruing tree looked rather odd. Chunks had been cut out of the trunk about 3 feet from the ground; making it look like the hearth of an old fireplace or a small pizza oven. Each tree 'housed' three of these "ovens". Makcik Titi twisted a handful of dried leaves together, lit one end and tossed the leaves into the gaping hole. Instantly the remaining oil in the hole caught fire, flames licking the bark of the tree. The fire is meant to stimulate flow of the oil from within. Ten minutes later, she put out the fire. She explained that this method does not kill the tree. In fact, the tree may continue to live for another 200years if it is not abused. Back at her house, she collected a RM20 fee from us for the bit of show-and-tell we had just witnessed.

Kampung Jelawat is a 20minute walk from the bridge where the boats were moored. Perahu jalur is also for hire here. The charges are RM20 per boat per hour subject to availability.

The Semelai's are generally shy people and they speak little or no English. Basri, our boatman spoke little English too, making it a bit difficult to communicate. At Pos Iskandar, you may be able to converse with one or two villagers there. Pos Iskandar is also approachable by road. There is an access road not far from the Tasik Bera Resort turning. It leads you there without having to pay for the boatride. But the highlight of visiting Bera is really the lake. Advice No.3: road going into POS Iskandar requires a hardy car.

The SABOT (Semelai People's Association for Boating and Tourism) arranges homestay as well as eco-adventure or eco-cultural programmes for guests. A 3day 2night package for 10 persons or more for RM250 per person and includes activities plus meals and boat rides.

Ramsar Site; live to tell a story - another day

If I were to raise a statement that the preservation of Tasik Bera's profound sanctity has much to do with a little town called Ramsar, tucked away in a corner of Iran - would anyone believe me?

Indeed would anyone really care anyway?

But some of us did care enough to make a few changes and in 1971, something really big went down in Ramsar. After an exchange of opinions, views and a few signatures amongst emissaries from several nations, the world's oldest environmental treaty was finally sealed. This Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar) was formed to protect important wetland areas around the world. But it was only in 1994 when Malaysia signed the Ramsar Convention that secured Tasik Bera's undecided fate.

Tasik Bera was made Malaysia's first Ramsar site. To be nominated as a Ramsar site, there are many regulations that have to be adhered to - there are strict obligations to protect the fauna, flora and the delicate ecosystem of the wetland.

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