Even from a short distance the lights appeared eerie. Or was there even any light in the darkness. Perhaps the senses were just playing games in this sensory-deprived environment.
We had left the city of Kuala Lumpur earlier in the day and had headed northwest some 75 kilometers along the shores of the Malacca Straits, the world’s busiest shipping lane. We’d seen the delightful monkeys at Kuala Selangor at the mouth of the Selangor river (kuala in the Bahasa language means river mouth; the name of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, thus, translates into muddy river mouth - hardly what the clean and modern metropolis looks like today), and had fabulous seafood right by the river where our meal had been caught. As the night started to fall, we drove to Kampung Kuantan not far from the town to experience the “miracle and mystery of firefly” promised by the tourist advisory. A miracle and mystery it was.
The occasion was amazing, as all conditions had aligned to make the night perfect. There had been a heavy thunderstorm earlier in the evening that had washed the dust off the air. But now it was clear. Most uniquely, the night was totally dark as the result of a rare lunar eclipse. This small trip could turn into a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
The tide was exceptionally high as we approached the pier. In fact, it was so high that we had to remove our shoes and roll up our jeans 30 metres from the jetty. For the rest of the way, we waded through the solid ochre of the river water until we reached the small wooden boat waiting on the dark water. The oarsman, a wiry local with looks that would not reveal his age, stood at the end of the small barge. It would float just centimetres above the river level once the three of us boarded.
On the river peacefulness reigned. The surface was still; not even a hint of a breeze. The yellowish brown of the water appearedfertile and welcoming rather than muddy and uninviting. On both sides, thick mangrove vegetation stood in the flooded landscape. The stillness was something we urbanites are not used to. The only sounds were produced by living beings other than humans. To the east, there was the deep chorus of frogs that croaked at a low, soothing frequency. At a much higher pitch, crickets and other critters provided their own constant background sound. Physiologically, it has been proven that nature sounds - even when they can be measured to be as loud as any produced by human systems - are not stressful to people; rather they provide rest to the senses.
The most amazing sound came from the direction of the youngest mangrove trees. The fireflies were dancing to the beat only known to them, producing a rhythmic whistling sound. The entire riverside was lit with pulsating lights, the bushes over the flat surface of the river appearing like Christmas-lit garden reindeer standing on the lawn of suburban homes in Virginia or Oregon. There were literally millions of the infinitesimal beetles. Lights shone like small but bright beacons guiding a wayward seafarer towards the shore. The tiny lights shining from their equally tiny butts reflected brightly from the river’s brown surface.
Fireflies are sensitive creatures dependent on a stable environment. They are thus vulnerable to any changes in the conditions under which they live. Their lifecycle from the time they emerge as eggs through the larvae stage until their mature state is completely harmonized with the natural habitat in which they spend their lives. They are an integral part of the river ecosystem that nurtures them. They are hatched further away from the river, and then they migrate closer to the water. This night’s illumination represented the culmination of the bugs’ lives: mating. For this purpose, they choose only young Berembang trees; hence their massive concentrations in these select bushes arising from the muddy bottom of the tidal river.
Gliding silently next to the mangroves, we tried to catch the tiny insects in the palms of our hands. They were small indeed, and we could see the light throbbing in their little bodies. We did not hold them long, so as not to reduce their chances of finding a desirable partner to produce the next generation. The pair we had captured eagerly flew back to the bushes.
The night on the river was amazing in its quiet - made loud by the sounds of the myriad inhabitants of the rich and still unspoiled ecosystem, lit up by the ghostly lights of the fireflies and the distant flashes of the retreating thunder. We were alone, except for our fellow species whose kingdom this was. Hopefully, the modest income to the communities generated by the small-scale ecotourism would be enough to keep the developers from encroaching on this lovely piece of real estate. Its value cannot be measured in monetary terms. The inner peace we felt as we emerged from the canoe is beyond measurement.
[Published on www.bootsnall.com/articles/06-07/ghost-lights-in-the-mangroves-kampung-kuantan-kuala-selangor-malaysia.html, July 17, 2006.]