Joining a group of Universiti Malaya Sport Centre students, Zulkifly Ab Latif explores Southeast Asia’s largest artificial lake, taking in its neighbouring caves, a majestic waterfall and even a secret fishing spot
CREATED out of a nation’s necessity for hydroelectric power in 1985 by the damming of Terengganu’s Kenyir River, Kenyir Lake has evolved throughout its three decades into one of Malaysia’s most iconic nature preserves and eco-tourism destinations.
The name Kenyir Lake itself now invokes mental images of large expanses of jade hued waters and dead tree trunks eerily rising through the surface, fringed by dense verdant green tropical jungles.
Encompassing an area of 260 square kilometres and containing 340 small islands, Kenyir Lake has the distinction of being Southeast Asia’s largest artificial lake.
The length and breadth of the lake is astounding, and naturally, of course, this results in the many possibilities for adventure.
Along with 30 students from Universiti Malaya’s Sport Centre and senior lecturer Dr Teo Eng Wah, I am on one of the lake’s iconic house boats, slowly chugging away in hopes of experiencing one of these adventures.
Large and slow, the two-tiered houseboat that will be my home for the next two nights feels more akin to a floating longhouse rather than a watercraft. There are 10 rooms on the upper level, with a spacious boardwalk and a verandah above the ship’s bow.
The houseboat is half an hour into its journey after disembarking from Pengkalan Gawi, the main entrance to Kenyir Lake. Surprisingly, there is still Internet coverage on my smartphone. Taking advantage of the Internet coverage, the students take selfies and videos, and post them on their social media accounts. Laid-back and a very approachable nature enthusiast, Teo is amused at his students’ antics.
With a few more hours until the houseboat reaches the first stop on our Kenyir Lake adventure, I ask the senior lecturer why Kenyir Lake was chosen and the academic reasons behind this trip.
Teo answers: “It was not my decision; rather it was a collective vote by the students.”
He elaborates: “The class was divided into several groups and each group was assigned to present a destination proposal for this trip. The group that proposed Kenyir Lake received the most votes,” he adds.
He explains that the trip falls under the subject Sports Tourism and throughout the trip, the students are required to observe and research the four main impacts of tourism — economic, health, environment and social.
While listening to Teo’s explanation, I come to realise the educational value that this man-made lake has to offer to countless institutes of higher learning.
REMEDIES AT HERB GARDEN
The first stop of the academic adventure is Kenyir Lake’s Herb Garden, located some 8km from the main entrance of Pengkalan Gawi.
Opened to public in 2000, the garden is located on the tranquil island of Pulau Sah Kecil, which also acts as a research facility for higher learning institutes. Hundreds of herbal plant species are cultivated on the 6.4-hectare area, with unique endemic plants such as Tujuh Duri, Cekor, Tongkat Ali and Hujan Panas.
Part of the visit consists of an informational talk by a resident staff, who goes on to explain the work done at the area as well as the medicinal benefits of various plants and herbs found there.
There is also a souvenir shop selling prepared herbs and roots, if one is inclined to give traditional medicine a try.
MAJESTIC LASIR WATERFALL
An hour or so after leaving the Herb Garden, the houseboat docks at the banks of the popular Lasir Waterfall.
Included as a stopover in almost all tour packages available for Kenyir Lake, the waterfall is a majestic surge of water falling and flowing between craggy boulders and moss covered rocks.
The waterfall is a multi-tiered fall, with a suspension bridge and observation platform built near the tallest tier of the falls. It takes a short hike up a hilly trail to reach the waterfall from where the houseboat anchored. It is pleasing to be able to stretch out my legs in a serene jungle setting after being confined on the slow chugging houseboat.
Being a popular stopover, there are also other houseboats — I count at least four — anchored near the Lasir Waterfall. It is a charming scenery, looking upon these unique and colourful houseboats close to each other, framed against the backdrop of a jungle landscape.
With daylight fading, the houseboat captain informs that we will be spending the night anchored at Lasir before resuming our journey the next morning. Tired but extremely pleased after soaking in the cooling waters of the waterfall, I do not question the captain’s decision.
Full of mystery and splendid natural beauty, Kenyir Lake is also home to a few caves that are significant both in terms of history and nature. Located near to each other are Gua Bewah and Gua Taat, two of the most visited limestone caves within the lake.
Gua Bewah, the first of the caves that we are visiting on the second day, is a large cave set into a spectacularly towering limestone hill, capped by dense green jungle.
Gua Bewah holds significant archeological value, as it is here that Malaysian archeologists discovered human remains, cooking utensils and tools believed to date back to the Neolithic times.
The cave is also known as Gua Tahi Kelawar or Bat Guano Cave in English. It is here — high above on the cave’s stalactite dotted roof — that colonies of bats can be found, resulting in the large amount of guano deposits on the cave’s floor, giving the cave its alternate name. Thankfully, the authorities have built a raised wooden walkway leading into the large cavern to ensure that a visit here would not be a messy affair.
Walking down the steps back to the houseboat, I come across a somewhat interesting find— small plants growing wild near the entrance of the cave. It is somewhat peculiar to see these plants growing between the limestone cracks of the cave.
The houseboat’s captain notices my curiosity and tells me to pick a few.
“It’s okay. I pick them too when I need chillies for cooking whenever I’m here,” the captain assures me, trying to allay any hesitation of the superstitious kind.
Smaller but equally interesting as Gua Bewah, the second cave on our visit, is the stalactite and stalagmite-rich Gua Taat. It is here that the students get a closer look at the forms of cave stalactites and stalagmites. Small droplets of mineral-rich water can also even be seen upon closer inspection.
The entrance to Taat Cave is also visually interesting as it sits close to the lake’s water level, a stark contrast to the entrance of Bewah Cave which rises halfway up a towering limestone hill.
SECRET FISHING SPOT
Having visited almost all the must-visit spots when exploring Kenyir Lake and with still a few more hours until the day rolls to an end, the houseboat captain decides to take us to one of his secret fishing spots to spend our last night on the lake.
With more than 40 species of fish including river catfish, snakehead, mahseer, sebarau and arowana, Kenyir Lake is a hotspot for anglers who come from all over the country and even worldwide.
The secret fishing spot that the captain navigates to is a secluded river mouth that empties into the lake. The area is dotted with many dead tree trunks, protruding from the bottom of the lake bed and is the ideal place for fish to take shelter and breed.
The captain tells me that rainy season is the most busiest time for the houseboat operators as angling enthusiasts come in droves since it is also said to be the best fishing season.
Having to cater to so many anglers, it is normal for each Kenyir Lake houseboat captain to have his own secret fishing spots.
Although I am not a fishing enthusiast, the spot where we are spending our final night on the rickety houseboat is still impressive and picture-perfect nonetheless.
Donning fluorescent orange life jackets, some of the students decide to partake in some watersport activities — jumping off the houseboat and into the emerald green waters.
Content to only watch his friends splash about in the water is Radzi Mohd Shaharuddin. I approach and sit next to him. Radzi tells me that it is his first visit to Kenyir Lake as well as living on a watercraft. He is awed by the experience, being surrounded by nature and is pleased that the Sports Tourism class voted to visit Kenyir Lake.
Coming out of the water, a friend calls out to Radzi, beckoning him to join in the fun and the latter jumps in. Laughing and splashing about, it is fun watching the students swim rather than fishing at the secret fishing spot, and is more than apt to mark our final day of this short but unforgettable Kenyir Lake adventure.
Kenyir Lake is under the management of Central Terengganu Development Authority (Ketengah). For more information, visit www.ketengah.gov.my
Alternatively, for travel information and packages, contact Kenyir Lake Tourist Information Centre at Pengkalan Gawi at 09-626 7788/ 666 8498.
PICTURES by ZULKIFLY AB LATIF