Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Visit to Binyo-Penyilam Conservation Area

Written by: Mr. CK Tham

Binyio Penyilam is a wetland reserve located along the Sebuah River. A visit was made by several members of the Sarawak Natural Science Society on the 20th and 21st December 2008 to the area on the Society’s first expedition.

Day One
To make this trip, we had to travel upriver from Bintulu along the Sebauh River. Arrangements were made to meet at the Bintulu Waterfront Jetty at 9.30am. A group of twelve was supposed to join the visit. A few of us early birds gathered at a kopitiam to have breakfast. After breakfast we waited at the jetty for the others to turn up. We watched large numbers of swiftlets and swallows circling above us; busy scooping up insects for their morning feast. To our inexperienced eyes, it was not easy to distinguish swiftlets from swallows. Oh, with old age my eyesight is failing. Nearby, in the top floor of the shop lots, swiftlets were being domesticated for their valuable edible nests.
Across the river, there were rows and rows of kampung houses on stilts; houses painted yellow, green, white, orange etc. I had never realised they were so colourful. I quickly took a few shots with my camera. Despite passing by here many, many times, I had not noticed the beauty of these river houses. The time spent waiting was not wasted after all.

Finally, all had arrived after 9.30am. Two speed boats had been arranged. We quickly loaded our backpacks, food, drinking water, fishing gears, net and field gears for insect catching, not forgetting the crates of Tigers , of course.
This is my first time traveling up the Sebauh River. It had been raining for the past few days and the water level was high and the current swift. Floating debris in the river came rushing downstream. This didn't seem to worry our boatmen at all. I was pondering if we needed to have our lifejackets on, just in case. Soon we were passing the Kemena Industrial Area. We could see heaps and heaps of timber logs piled up high, close to the river edge. Sawmills and plywood factories had slowed down due to the economic downturn. These logs, especially the smaller one are going to rot away if left lying in the sun and rain. How much of the forest had been destroyed to lay these logs to waste.
As we travel to Ulu Sebauh, we see more logs piled up along the river edge. More mills had shutdown. Workers had left for their early X'mas and New Year holiday; not knowing when work will start again.

The boats sped by Sebauh Township. In the river, there stood a Taoist temple. What an odd location to have a place of worship. Maybe the local folks want to remind the river god to control the water level. If the water level rose too high, the house of worship would also become submerged.

Two hours upriver, we finally reached RH Joseph. We stopped by to pay the tuai rumah, Encik Joseph a courtesy call as he is the headman of the area. We were invited into the long house. Like most longhouses in Sarawak, not many occupants were around having found work in towns; most will come back for X'mas I guess. As we sat down, welcome drink was served. Soon, I see Lim GM, a student from UPM was getting red in his face. The alcohol must have gotten to his head fast.

Welcome drink at Rumah Joseph

Lonely occupant of longhouse

I didn't drink, scared of getting drunk. I get drunk easily. In my earlier days in Sarawak, I learned a hard lesson during one of my previous trip up river. Not knowing the potency of the welcome drink, I innocently bottomed up the glass. Later, as I was boarding the longboat, I felt dizzy and lost my balance. And the next thing I knew, I was in the chilly river water. Someone quickly grasped me before the crocodiles did.

For the night, we were to stay at the conservation project field centre. This was only a few minutes upstream from RH Joseph along the Sg Penyilam. We had to transfer into longboats as the stream was too narrow and shallow for the speedboats. The newly built field centre is a single storied house located on a small hillock; just high enough above the flood level. There are 4 bedrooms adequate for 16 persons or more. A small petrol generator provides the power that we need at night. It is sited right in the wetland area so there is no shortage of water. Though the surrounding water is brownish colour, it is actually quite clean. If you are game enough, one can make a good cup of tea from the peat water; rich in lignin as in ordinary tea.
A quick survey was made of the surrounding compound. This hillock being slightly higher than the surrounding wetland had been used as a farm by the local folks. But this had since been abandoned. Rubber trees possibly twenty years old and nangka trees were abundant in the compound.
High up in one of the trees, a nesting place 3-4 feet across; consisting of branches and twigs was spotted. With my experience in Sabah at the back of my mind, my immediate response was "orang utan nest". My excitement was dashed when Joanes Ungga our team leader explained that bears are common here. To avoid the flood, bears had learnt to build their sleeping places high up in the trees. Upon closer inspection, paw marks were observed deeply scratched into the tree trunk. Smart adaptation.
The surrounding ground was bouncy to walk on. The thick leaf litters had accumulated into a thick carpet. Though the soil is very acidic and low in nutrient, vegetation growth is tremendous thanks to the abundant amount of water. Standing trees produced a thick layer of roots near the surface to catch whatever nutrient available. Epiphytes such as Asplenium ferns, orchids, etc. growing on tree trunk catch falling leaves. With the help of microbes, the debris is converted to plant nutrient for the epiphytes. Without human disturbance, such situation can sustain a very complex bio-diversity.
Later in the afternoon, we took a boat ride up one of the small streams. We followed the stream meandering through thickets of Pandanus. Oriental darters, black hornbills, black bellied malhokas were startled by the noise of the boat engine. Several species of orchids belonging to Dendrobium, Coelogyne, Bulbophyllum, Trixspermum, Eria etc grew in abundance with other epiphytes like Hoya and Aescynanthus.

Dendrobium spp

As we traveled upstream, the passage amongst the pandanus became narrower; we had to duck our heads to avoid being hit by overhanging branches. Finally, we decide to lie on our back in the longboat; looking at the sky as the day passes by. What a relaxing day. Epiphytes collecting debris

We stopped under some overhanging trees for tuai rumah Joseph to inspect his fish net. This he had set the night before. As he pulled in the net, we could see he had trapped several species of barbs and catfishes.
We headed home after this. On the way, we met the other group that had gone out fishing in another boat. They were not so lucky with their fishing rods. For their contribution to dinner, they were looking for ants. Yes, ants. The red kerangga species. They harvested a few nest full of them, despite being bitten by the fiery ants.
For dinner, we had barbecued freshwater fish and I found the ant wasn't so bad after all; rich in protein anyway.
As night gets dark, the crickets and frogs started to sing. The rain came down and we could not go out to see the luminescent mushroom which we had spotted earlier.
Moths, beetles and other insects were attracted to the light in the veranda and Lim GM was busy with his net and collecting bottles. These were easier to catch than the termites that he used to study; definitely more colorful.
Despite the rain, the night was stuffy and humid. I could not sleep. Tossing and turning, thinking of how to collect the beautiful dendrobium without Joanes knowing.

Day Two
Early in the morning, we were wakened by the call of the Hill Mynas.; loud and crisp through the morning air.
Joanes promised today we get to see more interesting vegetation. But be ready to get wet. We took off by four longboats; meandering through thicker pandanus thickets. “Watch out for overhanging branches”, the boatman shouted. The pandanus were in bloom; yellow flowers arising from the apex and insects attracted to the scented inflorescence. Dr Daisy caught a glimpse of the violet Papilionanthe hookeria, which was rather rare amongst the pandanus. I remind myself that we must stop to catch a closer look on the way back.
Dragonflies flew over our head as we rode into an open area. Blue ones, brown ones, red ones, damsel or dragonflies. They flew so fast that my eyes went blur. I reminded myself to sit still before I lose my balance.
At last, we reached an old camp site. There were more trees and more orchids and other epiphytes. Over the years, the accumulation of plant materials and debris brought down by the river had built up sufficient medium for the trees to grow on. As we moved further inland, we approached a depression that had formed an inland swamp. The vegetation changed. There were plants with pneumatophores; roots with prominent lenticels protruding into the air. We could see Nepenthes gracilis amongst the roots of the trees. The flowing water was brackish. The water was knee deep. The ground was muddy and sticky. But foot walks made of jungle rollers had be laid along the trail for easy movement. But today walking was not going to be easy. The rising water level had submerged the trail. The water was half a meter deep and brackish. We groped our way gently amongst the pneumatophores. It seems endless. Be careful, hang on to low branches to keep the balance. There are no crocodiles here. But you don't want to loose your camera in the brackish water.
Walking through brackish water

At last, we saw some palms nearby. We were on higher ground. R ed stems started to appear everywhere; beautiful Cyrtostachys lakka. More palms caught our eyes as we looked around. Eugenssonia with stilt roots; Pinanga with cluster of scent flowers and orangey fruit; Salacca with 3 inch thorns; Licuala with typical palmate leaves; Dendrocalamus rattan climbing up trees. There were more and many more palms.
Red Palm Cyrtostachys lakka
As we moved forward, we came across the odd Dacrydium tree. And then we came into an open area and felt water again with our feet. Pitcher plants can be seen everywhere. Nepenthes gracilis with reddish pitchers; Nepenthes rafflesia with bulky lower pitches and long slender upper pitchers. Ant plants were common amongst the taller trees. Having satisfied ourselves with the photo session, we proceeded to go back. Nepenthes rafflesia

Termite nest
Joanes showed us a tall tree which had been badly mauled a few feet off the ground. Sign of bears again. This one was probably digging into the tree trunk looking for the stingless bee hive. Bear loves honey.
We moved through the submerged walking boards again; this time nobody fell into the water.
We stopped at a tree next to the jetty. Looking up there was this large clump of Trichostia orchid in flowers. From a distance, they could be mistaken for miniature Dimophochis.
We hopped into the long boats and headed towards the camp.

Dr Daisy, where's the Papilionanthe hookeriana you saw earlier?
I can't remember; the pandanus are all the same. There is no landmark.
No, no. It was around here. Keep looking.
At last, we saw the violet flowers overhanging the pandanus. Quickly, took some photos and off we went.
Papilionanthe hookeriana amongst the pandanus

We went meandering through the thickets of pandanus again. Watch your heads.
The boatman took a corner too fast, lost control and smashed into the pandanus.
I never realised the pandanus leaves were so thorny until I was propelled against a clump and having my hands badly cut.

Soon, the boatman straightened up and we were on our way again.
Back at camp, the river water was fresh and cool. Jerry, Daisy and Ivy couldn't resist the temptation to take a dive off the jetty. Oh how refreshing.

Lunch was ready. But last night, we had devoured the fish we caught and we had to eat sardine for lunch.

It was time to go home. The speedboats that brought us here were waiting. We left without collecting the Dendrobium.
Traveling downstream was faster. It only took us 1 and a 1/2 hour to get to Bintulu.

We said goodbye and hope to see each other again on another trip.
I hope by then, Lim GM is more dexterous with his insect net and catches more dragonflies. To think of it, he needs a bigger net.
I look forward to hear from Dr Bong that he had identified the microbes that attack his termites.
Next trip, I hope there will be more dendrobium to collect.

Though during the trip, we didn't see large mammals. But we are glad to know of their existence. The deer had left droppings and foot prints amongst the pepper plants; the honey bears prominently left his paw marks up the tree and strangely built his nest several meter high in the air; the wild boar had been scavenging under the rubber trees eating up all the fallen seeds and uprooting the farmers' tapioca roots.

1 comment:

JoEs said...

Nice work from the author and the editor.

Looking forward for the next trip where.

Very sorry about the Dendrobium Mr Tham. I should put it in glass cages next time hehehe...

You can come to Binyo again with us if you want to see it flowering again...and support our tourism work there next time.