PERAK has one of the world’s most pristine forests in Belum Valley but many people have yet to see it.
The three-hour drive on the old trunk road from Ipoh may daunt many potential visitors to the 148,900ha area, while some may be unsure about the kind of activities to try out there.
Lately however, the Government and tour operators are making it easier for people and even families with children to visit and spend a few nights in the valley.
Belum Valley in Upper Perak has an amazing biodiversity of flora and fauna that makes it a unique haven for eco-tourists, recreational anglers and adventurers, young and old.
The area is rich with waterfalls, streams, lagoons, limestone outcrops, and islands dotting the numerous waterways that make up Temenggor Lake located within Belum.
It was only from 1991 that the valley, a former communist terrorist and marked black area, was open to the public. Therefore, much of Belum, especially the upper reaches now known as Royal Belum, is largely unexplored.
Those in Ipoh, Kedah or even Penang can be transported by van for a fee to the Lembah Belum Recreational Centre on Pulau Tikus on Temenggor Lake.
The centre, has a dining hall, surau, dormitories, four twin-sharing chalets and campsites for those who like to rough it out.
“Our concept is back to nature,” said mana-ger Mohammad Mohd Yusof, who added that anglers were encouraged to preserve fish species by practising the catch-and-release method.
The centre offers fishing and nature packages, and packages for groups and individuals with the most expensive costing RM350 each for a three-day two-night stay with food and transportation.
Students need only pay RM35 each per night, said Mohammad.
Activities include bamboo rafting, canoeing, jungle survival courses and boat services to various parts of Belum for fishing, and treks into the jungle for a ‘rainforest experience’.
Nature lovers can expect to see wild ginger, orchids, medicinal herbs, aromatic plants, ferns and if lucky, one of the four Rafflesia species in the valley such as the Rafflesia azlanii, recently named after the Sultan of Perak.
Belum’s forests are home to one of the largest concentration of elephants, tigers and otters in Malaysia, and scientific expeditions keep uncovering new species of plants and wildlife native only to the region.
While Sarawak has been described as the ‘Land of the Hornbills’, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) has pointed out that all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills can be found within the Belum forests.
Watching swarms of hornbills take flight into the sky is a favourite activity among visitors to Belum.
Mohammad said visitors at the centre were usually foreigners who sometimes requested to see up close wild animals, like the clouded leo-pard, panther, Malayan sun bear, tapir, gaur and sambar deer.
“We’d take them to salt licks to stay in observation shelters overnight because all kinds of animals are drawn to salt licks.
“Sometimes you can hear the noise made by big animals when they pass near the shelter. It can be a bit risky, but some guests like a bit of danger,” he said.
First-time visitors will realise that Belum is not all forest. At the heart of it is the man-made Temenggor Lake, which was created in 1978 as a water catchment area for the Temenggor hydroelectric dam.
A number of orang asli communities, who still practise a nomadic lifestyle, have adapted to their new way of life by the lake and welcome visitors to their village.
One such village is Kampung Sungai Chuweh whose picturesque clump of huts on a hilly plateau rising above the water is most eye-catching.
Village headman Tok Batin Khe Wah, 36, said 90 orang asli have been planting rambutan and durian trees as a source of income.
During the day, usually morning, the orang asli take visitors to tour their village and see their way of life as well as demonstrate their skills in using the blowpipe and churning out rattan handicraft.
“We also have huts where guests can stay for RM10 a night,” said Khe.
Guests can also opt to stay at the Banding Island Resort, a two-star establishment with 27 rooms located on the island itself.
The resort also offers various packages for guests, such as picnics, island hopping and visits to Gua Cermin and Kubang Gajah, an ‘elephant playground’.
One of Belum’s strongest lures is the previously inaccessible Royal Belum state park whose 117,500ha of virgin forest is bigger than Penang Island and the oldest in Peninsular Malaysia.
For security reasons, visitors need a special permit to get in but this need not be a hassle, said Perak State Park Corporation assistant general manager Iylia Ainuddin.
Iylia said visitors could contact the corporation, which manages tourism in Royal Belum, two weeks in advance.
“The permit is free. All you have to do is fill in a form with your name, address, identity card number and the date of arrival and departure.
“The application will go through the police to check whether the army is carrying out any military exercises at certain times of the year,” she said.
Royal Belum boasts rocky hills, tranquil streams and a million-year-old rainforest environment few people have set eyes on.
The forest is populated with fascinating animals like the blue-striped beetle, the clouded leopard, dragonflies, the forest gecko, the tree-climbing brown tree toad and the blue-crowned hanging parrot that sleeps upside down.
Iylia said many of the visitors, however, were anglers who liked to fish for toman, tengas, sebarau and even the elusive and protected ikan kelah in the waters of Royal Belum.
“The ikan kelah is hard to catch because it is sensitive to movement in the water and hence won’t swim to the surface,” she said.
Depending on the number of people in the group, it can cost between RM400 and RM800 each for a three-day, two-night guided tour with food and accommodation.
However, said Iylia, groups were limited to no more than 20 people and only 50 visitors were allowed per month.
“We are trying to preserve Royal Belum so that there is minimal disturbance to the wildlife and its habitat,” she said.
For those who want to get close to nature, Belum can be a hidden paradise.