Sunday, August 05, 2007

Brunei River Cruise: A River Cruise of Discovery

Migratory birds spotted during sunset
Jong Batu, a small island on the Brunei River

Proboscis monkeys high up on a mangrove tree

Nepenthes rafflesiana, a species of the pitcher plant

Enjoying our cruise along the river

Photos courtesy of and Copyright to NYL and
Brunei Press Sdn Bhd.


One of the more popular local tours, the Brunei River Cruise provides tourists hours of wondrous eco-tourism experience among the lush mangrove forests. During one such cruise last week, I met Julia and her two daughters, Fiona and Georgia from Australia. We were accompanied by Danny and Hajah Rina from Mona Florafauna Tours Enterprise.

The first part of our cruise was spent admiring and enjoying a pleasant view of Kampong Ayer and the capital from an open traditional boat. We caught a glimpse of Istana Nurul Iman, the Royal Palace and Jong Batu, a small island on the Brunei River that resembles the keel of a ship.

The most awesome sight to behold as one cruises along this river are hectares of mangroves, one of the most fascinating resources of Brunei. Many species of animals need the mangroves in periods of their life. Ducks, geese and other wild birds stop over at these mangroves during migration. The mangroves offer nursery and breeding grounds for freshwater and marine life, especially crabs and shrimps.

On that bright sunny afternoon, we spotted wildlife such as white egrets, sea eagles, kingfishers, monitor lizards and long tail macaques.

Danny signalled the boatman to slow down. To my surprise, he showed us two species of pitcher plants, Nepenthes ampullaria and Nepenthes rafflesiana, growing near the fringe of the river.

"We only discovered these pitcher plants about a month ago," he informed us.

The N ampullaria has an oval shape, with a wide peristome and a narrow lid turned backwards that never covers the pitcher's mouth while the N rafflesiana with lower and upper pitchers is an unusually variable plant. The only similarities are the shape of the lid and the peristome, which ends in a long neck at the back and is largest just below the lid. In upper pitchers it is characteristically raised in the front part.

Further up the river, a group of proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), led by a dominant male, was quietly enjoying their meal of fruits and young shoots from a mangrove tree. Upon hearing the sound of our boat engine, he quickly climbed up the tree bringing along with him the rest of the troop, mums with babies, young females and males.

My Australian friends got excited, never had they seen any creature like the proboscis monkey before. They moved to the front of the boat and stared up at the trees. Our boatman, Makim, made a honking sound to attract the monkeys' attention but they chose to camouflage themselves high up on the mangroves, watching us from their vantage point.

Yellowish-brown in colour with a white long tail, the proboscis monkey is a most striking creature. It has a curiously developed long nose, on which account it is sometimes called, Orang Belanda (Dutchman). This appendage, which is almost a caricature of a nose, is only fully developed in the males of the species. Among the females it is shorter, while in the young it is squat and turned up.

We waited patiently for them to come down but they refused to budge. The dominant male monkey whom Makim called "Boss" ignored us completely. We spent some time watching the antics of the younger monkeys as they swung from tree to tree showing off their acrobatic skills.

Sunset and nightfall on the river are almost simultaneous, heralded with extraordinary punctuality by an insect orchestra of cicadas.

With the insects appear numbers of bats of all kinds, among them the " flying fox", a large fruit eating bat, whole companies of which may be observed hanging down from the branches of trees and looking like a collection of half-open umbrellas.

An interesting feature of the river cruise at night is the lightning bugs or fireflies. These are actually beetles and part of a scientific family that contains the largest order of living things. These beetles spangled the dark background with countless fairy lights, some stationary, some moving in graceful curves and some flashing out for the space of a second and then dying.

We caught some of these fireflies and placed them inside a bottle, marvelling at the luminous blue light emitting from their bodies.

The light given off by fireflies during their abdominal flashes is called bioluminescence. Light production in fireflies is due to a chemical reaction that occurs in specialized light-emitting organs, usually on the lower abdomen. The enzyme luciferase acts on luciferin in this organ to stimulate light emission. For adult beetles, it is primarily used to locate other individuals of the same species for reproduction.

Although other insects can produce light, fireflies are the only insects that can flash their light on and off in distinct signals.

All too soon, our cruise along the river came to an end. We were ravenously hungry. We rounded off the evening with a barbecue dinner of chicken and fish at Hjh Faridah & Anak-anak, a local restaurant in Kampong Ayer.

Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin Sunday

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