Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Kenyir Lake in Terengganu, for the first time in my life. Kenyir Lake is a manmade dam in the interior of Terengganu, which was formed when the headwaters of the Terengganu, Lepar, Kenyir, Petang, Lawit, and many other rivers were impounded to form a vast hydroelectric dam, covering some 36,000 hectares of what was once lush lowland rainforest.
Today, it is the biggest dam in South East Asia. The southern zones of the lake extend into the Terengganu portion of Taman Negara. Numerous waterfalls dot the landscape, and all the “islands” (there are over 300 “islands” there) are actually hilltops, previously.
Getting around Kenyir Lake requires a boat. There are many resorts in Kenyir ranging from upscale ones to rustic ones; I stayed at a resort near Pengkalan Gawi, the main entry point of the lake, but the drawback was that staying there requires traveling a further distance to any location in Kenyir.
The rainforests of Kenyir Lake
Kenyir’s rainforest appears to be extremely lush with very little tree fall. The one thing I noticed while in Terengganu was that it never really gets hot and the higher-than-average rainfall meant that floods occur quite frequently, especially during the monsoon season in the last quarter of the year.
The forests in Terengganu are somewhat different from the rainforest in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia, but that is to be expected, since soil and climatic conditions vary slightly from area to area. There seems to be a good proportion of heavy hardwood dipterocarps (like the balau group) in the Terengganu rainforests, while the canopy height (in the primary forests) lie somewhere between 30-35 meters high; however none of the trees seemed particularly big or high, with the exception of big strangler fig trees. It may be of interest to note that many areas of hilly primary forest cover remaining in Terengganu are labeled as “high quality timber” forest (the Forestry Department has a scoring system for that).
Virtually all the forests that you can see in the Kenyir landscape are logged-over secondary forests, the only exception being the forests bordering with, or within the boundaries of Taman Negara. This difference may not be evident to the layman, but for the experienced forest traveler, once you approach the Taman Negara boundary, the trees suddenly appear taller and larger, while the canopy starts looking more intact. The forest quality starts improving around Petang Island, where there is a resort located there.
Drowned tree trunks also start to become more much more visible. Elsewhere within Kenyir Lake, many standing dead trees have been cut by underwater logging operations, and it’s only within Taman Negara borders where they are not allowed to operate. In the past, such dead standing trunks were more frequent, and it’s worth bearing in mind that these trunks have been standing for 26 years, since Kenyir Lake was formed way back in 1985! The sight of these dead trunks attest to how hard Malaysian rainforest timber really is.
Arriving at Sungai Petang
Such were the scenes that greeted me when I headed out to Petang river (Sungai Petang), a river that flows from within Taman Negara and feeds into the lake. The boat ride to Sungai Petang takes about 45 minutes from the jetties at Pengkalan Gawi. The river is famous for being the spawning grounds of the Kelah (Malaysian Mahseer) fish, an endangered sport fish. Sungai Petang has been declared a kelah sanactuary as a result, where fishing is prohibited.
The authorities have been taking pains to “tame” the kelah at Sungai Petang over the years, and today, due to their efforts, the fishes there no longer fear humans, and readily approach you if you wade into the water, hoping for morsels of food. At the entrance where Sungai Petang debouches into Kenyir Lake, is a floating Fisheries Department “office”/ranger station. Here, you can register yourself and buy fish pellets to feed the fishes. Around this station is the point where the primary forest starts appearing, because the station lies in the buffer zone outside the borders of the National Park.
From the ranger station, a short boat trip takes you to the start of the trail which hugs the side of the Petang River and leads you to the kelah hideouts or “lubuks” at many locations along the river. These lubuks are deeper, sheltered parts of the river where the kelah (and many other species of fish) frequently lurk during the daytime.
The previous day it was raining intermittently throughout the night; this turned the river water brown in color. I was expecting the leeches to come out in full force along the trail, but luckily there were only a few. The trail stretches for about a few hundred meters along the side of the river, and the hike itself was uneventful. Eventually the trail descends to the river, with pristine rainforest clothing both banks.
During the time I was there, the water level of the Petang River was pretty low, which was strange, seeing that it rained the whole night before. The water was very cold and tinted brown due to all that chilled water flowing down from the mountains in the hinterlands of Taman Negara.
Anyway, the kelah came swarming around my feet the moment I stepped into the water. There were thousands of them, ranging in size from little ones 10 cm long to bigger ones more than a foot long. They have a voracious appetite and if you hold some food in one hand, you can even lift a few out of the water with the other hand (while they eat the food from the other hand).
I think this is about as tame as fishes can get, but I strongly suspect it’s because the fishes think humans ARE food – because many of the fishes will be nibbling at your skin as well! Don’t worry, the kelah have no teeth and those in the river are not the full grown adults who are far larger (the adults live in much deeper water and out in the lake) and logically, can deal out more damage even with no teeth.
The entire surrounding scenery was just lovely, and this is how the rivers in Malaysia used to be like, just 60-70 years ago. There were neram trees (Dipterocarpus oblongifolius) along the riverbanks, but these were not as large as the ones typically seen elsewhere. Tualang trees also grow around here, but they are not very frequent, nor large. The nearer you get to the Kelantan border, the more common the tualang trees become due to soil changes. Around Pengkalan Gawi, I did not spot any tualang trees at all; it seems they only appear once you travel further in on Kenyir Lake where the soil quality and depth may have changed.
All in all, it was a nice trip, and I hope to return to Kenyir again, hopefully getting to explore the Terengganu side of Taman Negara even more this time. I really hope the Tanjung Mentong gateway gets more exposure and development, because of all the parts in Taman Negara, the Terangganu side of the park is the one least known and explored. There are many tantalizing secrets in the (remaining) primary rainforests of Terengganu that await discovery.