Fascinating nature of Penang Hill

 |Sep 11, 2016
The beauty of the rainforest on top the 735m-high peak located in the forest reserve of Penang Hill,which is over 130 million years old.
The beauty of the rainforest on top the 735m-high peak located in the forest reserve of Penang Hill,which is over 130 million years old.

Doris Lim walked in the footprints of Malaysia’s renowned naturalist, Irshad Mobarak and appreciates just how many variants of green it takes to knit a rainforest together with its flora, fauna and wildlife.

Malaysia’s renowned naturalist and educator, Irshad Mobarak towers over most Malaysians at 1.9M, a ruggedly handsome figure garbed in his famous khakis, trekking shoes, with binoculars slung casually round his neck.

Irshad spearheaded the first walk and talk series recently at The Habitat located in the forest reserve of Penang Hill which is over 130 million years old.

About 25 guests drank in the beauty of the rainforest on top the 735m-high peak as the noise of George Town fades and is replaced with the chatters of unseen monkeys and the sharp shrill of cicadas’ song.

We listened intently as Irshad took us on a story telling journey, his forte as he jokingly remarked was, “My best work is actually done, walking.”

“If I can get you to fall in love with Nature, I would have won your heart and you will be a friend of Nature for life,” said the former banker-turned-naturalist.

As a young boy growing up in Seremban, the senior Mobarak would take all his ten children out to Nature as often as possible.

From an early age, Irshad had an emotional affinity toward nature and saw his mission to protect the rainforest, birds and plants on his island home of Langkawi where he has lived for over 20 years.

Irshad started his talk with the love story of the cicadas.

One of the world’s largest, the empress cicada (megapomponia imperatoria) with a head-body length of about seven centimetres can be found on Penang Hill.

Irshad Mobarak with binoculars posing with a group of visitors at the rest area of Penang Hill.
Irshad Mobarak with binoculars posing with a group of visitors at the rest area of Penang Hill.

“Imagine when cicada eggs hatch, the tiny wingless nymphs starts its life by burrowing underground to feed and grow. Some cicada species lived their entire lives buried deep in the ground up to 17 years only to emerge from its exoskeleton, to spout wings, mate, then fall back to the ground and die.

“The cicadas’ love song is an overwhelming symphony of droning that can go on for weeks and celebrates the majesty of nature’s events,” he said.

Irshad pulled out a resin encapsulated giant cicada to show us how the exceptionally loud shrill is made by the cicadas vibrating their drum like tymbals rapidly.

“After weeks of droning to attract the female cicadas to mate and eggs are laid for the next generation, the cicadas mysteriously fall from trees to simply die until the next life cycle begins again,“ said Irshad.

Irshad continued to story tell as we weaved the hour’s nature’s trail on the gentle paved walk constructed of pervious concrete.

This material enables rainwater to flow through the path naturally without changing the pattern of the water flow on the hill to prevent soil erosion and landslides.

The terrain is quite impenetrable in places without cutting back into the hill, yet the walk is an easy feast for the senses with plenty of places to rest along the way.

Irshad shared encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna, spoke about the environment and pointed out the species of plants and animals ingenious to the Habitat.

We stopped at framed vistas to experience the forest and its wildlife.

A fascinating Damar Minyak tree found on the hill has a sap reputed to contain natural, organic anti-termite properties and is used by Malay Kampung folks to  treat the timbers of their traditional kampung houses and fishing boats.

The resin, which has a citrus smell, is also reportedly used as incense.

Irshad Mobarak pointing out to a group of visitors a black giant squirrel with its long furry tail scurrying up a tree at Penang Hill.
Irshad Mobarak pointing out to a group of visitors a black giant squirrel with its long furry tail scurrying up a tree at Penang Hill.a

Up on the nearby trees, Irshad spotted and pointed out two lively, vividly coloured birds; Racket Tailed Drongo and Crimson Sunbird.

He took out his bird field guide from his waterproof bag and alerted the group and told engrossing stories about swiftlets and eagles.

Further along the trail, we were lucky catch a glimpse of a shy Black Giant Squirrel with its long furry tail scurrying up a tree.

As we neared the popular Butterfly Bank, Irshad explained that the butterflies from the lowlands would fly up through the forest to the hilltops to drink nectar from flowers and search for a suitable mate.

Often the males will defend mating territories on the summits, and even fighting off other suitors.

As if as if enthralled by Irshad’s stories, several butterfly species in vivid colours and intricate patterns flirted out to greet us, the Great Helen, Common Mormon and the Common Tree Nymph.

Irshad explained that the Butterfly Bank is planted with plants that attract butterflies and caterpillars.

The walk with Irshad is punctuated with anecdotes and little stories that appeal and intrigued; even a relatively small carnivorous “Monkey Cup’s” (Nepenthes albomarginata) growing on a steep side is not left out.

I used to hike with an apprehensive internal dialogue involving stepping on snakes or falling down and turning into a feast fest for leeches, where behind every innocent looking leaf lies impending danger.

As if reading my thoughts, Irshad smiled broadly with a twinkle in his eye, letting his passion for all the voiceless creatures and his deep love for Nature, embrace and envelope the small group who had left their cares in the city below.

Irshad Mobarak has, in the space of two hours, managed to shift the atmosphere and compelled us, city slickers to simply fall in love with Mother Nature.

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Doris Lim is a Malaysia Outlook contributor with a keen eye for details developed form her background in architecture and design. Her affable personality and passion to celebrate life is captured in her stories of the community. Doris’ love for all things beautiful and quirky is tempered by her love for writing, photography, food, art and travel.