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Kenyir Lake rainforest – Visiting Sungai Petang

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Background

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.

Kenyir Lake

Kenyir Lake is a great nature getaway.

Kenyir Lake turquoise water

The vast turquoise waters of Kenyir Lake.

Oriental Pied Hornbill

At the resort where I stayed, the Oriental Pied Hornbill was a frequent visitor, lured there by the large number of fruit trees grown or maintained by the resort.

Kenyir Lake boat ride

The beginning of my boat ride. Houseboats are a good way to sightsee Kenyir Lake.

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.

Kenyir logged forest

A highly degraded area of forest at Kenyir. This hill appears to have been logged multiple times.

Logging at Kenyir Lake

Ongoing clearance and logging at Kenyir Lake. A few years ago, logging was so heavy that the dam experienced severe silt problems.

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.

Petang Island Resort

The Petang Island Resort was undergoing renovation and expansion during my visit. It and Tanjung Mentong are two of the nearest resorts to the primary forests of Taman Negara at Kenyir. There are no other nearer land based resorts with amenities except for these two. The advantage of staying here is you get to be nearer to the more “pristine” jungles of Kenyir.

Kenyir Lake rainforest

The view of the forest around and after Petang Island is much better, as they are in a much more pristine state. Although this hill probably has been logged before, the logging has been light, and the forest still looks to be in superb condition.

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.

Kenyir waterfall

This waterfall is plunging straight into the lake because the dam has drowned out the landscape underneath it where it used to flow. The high water level can be seen here from the exposed soil/rock banks. There are many waterfalls at Kenyir; some small, some large.

Arriving at Sungai Petang

Kenyir primary rainforest

The magnificent primary rainforests of Kenyir Lake only start to appear once you approach Petang River. The hills above bear Seraya stands (grey crowns) which you don’t see in the secondary forested hills because they have been cut down in previous logging operations.

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.

Sungai Petang ranger outpost

The floating ranger outpost at the mouth of the Petang River.

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.

Large strangler fig tree

Large strangler fig trees are common in the Kenyir area. This was spotted at the mouth of Sungai Petang

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.

Sungai Petang rapids

Rapids along Sungai Petang become pronounced when the water level is low. The rocks here seem to be sedimentary rocks mixed or overlain with igneous (granite) rock.

Herbaceous plant at Kenyir

A creeping herbaceous plant with bright green leaves and violet-red undersides which I spotted along the way.

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.

Kelah fishes

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).

Kelah fishes

Kelah fishes swimming in the Petang River. These are the tamest I’ve seen so far. I couldn’t get my camera to focus well, so the fishes may look blur here.

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.

Sungai Petang primary rainforest

The forest clothing both sides of the river was untouched primary rainforest in all its glory.

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.

Sungai Petang brown-green water

On the way back, you can clearly see the brown water of the Petang River and the green water of the Kenyir Lake meeting at a point not far from the ranger station. The lushly forested hill in the backdrop, behind the ranger station, is in virgin (unlogged) condition.

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.

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