Shutterbugs take in the easy pace and natural beauty of Parit Jawa and Sungai Balang.
Most people would have simply driven past these two “backwaters” on the coast of north-west Johor without a second look. But when a group of shutterbugs descend on them, some gems are bound to be discovered.
The occasion is a “photo trip” organised by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) to the small fishing village of Parit Jawa and the padi fields of Sungai Balang, about 15km and 30km south of Muar respectively.
These areas of bucolic calm are a patchwork of land parcels criss-crossed by canals or parit that have drained the coastal swamps to enable padi, oil palms and coconut trees to be grown. In the larger canals, fishing boats can be seen gently bobbing on the murky water, or starting up their diesel engines as they seek to harvest the Straits of Malacca.
In the days when this was the main route south to Singapore, I remember a trip in the early 1980s with my father where rambutan trees lush with red and yellow fruits lined the sides of the road. Rambutans are not in season on this trip in early May, but another sight now intrigues me: the many stately Malay houses with quasi-European architectural influences (such as Art Deco windows).
These houses seem to get progressively grander as one approaches Muar, culminating in the colonial-style architecture around the Tanjung Emas esplanade, where one can see clear hybrids of Western and Eastern architectural styles in the numerous colonial bungalows, the Muar High School, and of course, the unique Sultan Ibrahim Mosque.
However, on this trip, the primary target of the MNS Selangor branch’s photography group is a little smaller than houses and fishing boats: they are the numerous birds that dwell along Johor’s coast.
One may not think that the bland, grey mudflats or green padi fields here have much to offer, but look a little closer, and the seaside is actually teeming with feathery friends. The most prominent are the almost comically bald-headed Lesser Adjutant Storks, which stand on gangly legs at 1.2m tall.
At the long wooden jetty of Parit Jawa, these storks seem totally nonchalant as they strut through the estuarine mud, looking for food, even as fishing boats chug past on their way out to sea.
In fact, they continue going about their business even when long-tailed macaques (common monkeys or kera in Malay) descend from the nearby mangrove trees to forage.
The lesser adjutants feed on fish and amphibians such as the crab-eating frog, seizing its prey with a series of stabs of its powerful beak — a clear signal for mischievous monkeys to keep their distance!
Another denizen of these coastal wetlands are the Striated Herons (also known as the Mangrove Herons or Little Herons), which wait patiently at the water’s edge, hoping to ambush small fish, frogs and aquatic insects. They sometimes even use bait, dropping a feather or leaf carefully on the water surface and snapping up fish seeking to satisfy their curiosity.
With Pacific Swallows, White-Winged Terns, Common Sandpipers and Little White Egrets in attendance (as well as the largest, fattest mudskippers I have ever seen), there are more than enough birds to keep the group of about 20 photographers with their tripod-mounted cameras equipped with super-telephoto lenses happily snapping away from 9am till about 2pm, despite the sweltering heat.
We break for a late lunch and gorge ourselves with local seafood. Two almost compulsory local specialities are otak-otak (curried fish paste wrapped in banana leaves) and asam pedas (spicy tamarind) fish.
The latter dish is famous among the Malays of Johor and Malacca, but Parit Jawa is one of the few places which specialise in the Chinese version which has fewer chillies, but a more sour flavour, compared to its Malay counterpart.
To work off lunch, the more hardcore continue their bird photography under the afternoon sun, while others retire for a well-deserved nap.
But everybody is back in full force later to catch a compulsory photo subject — a sea-side sunset. Dinner time brings on another seafood feast, this time featuring fish grilled in aluminium foil and fish head curry.
“You know what MNS really stands for?” jokes one participant. “It’s Makan Non-Stop!”
Loh Wan Yeng, one of the organisers, says, “Photography can help promote awareness about why we should conserve a vulnerable environment. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. For example, the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico produced some of the world’s most dramatic photos of destruction to animal habitats.”
Indeed, even though I had been to Parit Jawa before (yes I confess, for the food!), it is only on this trip with MNS photographers that I can see for myself just how rich the wildlife of these muddy coastal zones is.
The next morning, we drive in a convoy of cars down to the coastal padi fields of Sungai Balang. Here, the sightings of bird life are equally rich.
The most striking of these are the Baya Weavers, which even a non bird-watcher can’t help but notice. Not so much because of the birds themselves, which are only about 15cm long, but because of their colonies of intricately woven nests. In Sungai Balang, we see about two dozen nests hanging from trees, some freshly made with green blades of padi.
According to the website www.naturia.per.sg, the nests are architectural feats which look like upside down flasks with long tube-like necks that make it difficult even for snakes to enter the nest. For added protection, they have been known to nest in trees with hornets or even fierce red ants.
The nests are made entirely out of up to 3,000 strips of grass which the birds weave and knot together with their beaks. The males are promiscuous and try to attract females by building several nests halfway. The male then sings and struts about on these half-built nests to attract a mate.
This type of nest (also called a “cock-swing”!) is inspected by a female bird, which might then approve of mating with him.
Henry Goh, chief organiser of this trip, also photographs other birds in Sungai Balang, including majestic Black Kites, Lesser Coucals, Common Red Shanks, Red-wattled Lapwings and White-headed Munias. All in all, he and other bird-watchers record sightings of three dozen birds.
“If we include those that we heard but did not see, there are even more,” says Goh, who is a member of the central MNS Council.
For those who are not so keen on birds, there is more than enough to perk their photographic appetites. For instance, coconuts are still processed by hand for copra the old-fashioned way here.
One middle-aged participant shares that it is her first time seeing padi up close. “I have driven past them many times but have never gone near actual padi plants until this trip,” she laughs.
Even a field of seemingly monotonous padi can yield surprising gems in the hands of photographers, who are busy zooming in on the little wild flowers or insects in between the masses of green padi stalks.
Another participant comments, “I have gone trekking for years with different people and groups. We enjoyed nature but there was no active discussion about conservation, which is something different on this trip.”
“It’s also nice to see the more experienced freely imparting knowledge to the newer ones, whether it’s about bird species or about camera aperture stops.”
Gowri Sritharan, 27, another first-timer with MNS, says this is her first trip to Johor.
“I was captivated by the scenery of the fishing village at Parit Jawa. Fishermen were hard at work mending nets and cleaning boats in the morning, while those at sea returned as the tide went out around noon. The sunset was breathtaking as the sun dipped into a horizon lined with mangrove swamps.
“Being a beginner in photography, I was glad to meet people with a similar interest in the MNS Photogroup. At dusk, the village folks of Parit Jawa made their way to the jetty with fishing rods and lines. A day here provides endless opportunities for beautiful photographs and memories.
Goh says that MNS is a society where members volunteer their time, effort and knowledge to organise outings like this one.
“Some people join MNS as they like the budget trips. However, we hope that they will join not just for that but also to help uphold our vision, which is to protect our rich natural heritage and biological diversity. We want to conserve it for the benefit and appreciation of all Malaysians. Our motto is, ‘to know nature, value nature and act for nature’.” – By Andrew Sia
Besides photography and bird-watching, the other “special interest groups” in MNS are the marine, path finder, caving, nature guides, flora and fauna and green living. More information on each group’s activities is available at www.mns.my.