Much to Learn on this Walk in the Forest

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Air Hitam Dalam offers birds and beasts to admire and plenty of plants to adore.

A tall forest tree spotted along the walkway at Air Hitam Dalam.

Nestled in the heart of Seberang Perai North is one of the last vestiges of mainland Penang’s swampy past. The Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, also known as Air Hitam Dalam Recreational Forest, is located at the confluence of two rivers – Sungai Jarak and Sungai Air Hitam – which together drain into Sungai Perai.

Its rather intriguing name, “Air Hitam Dalam” (deep black water), is attributed to the dark colour of the river. Buffered from lush paddy fields by the two rivers on one side and flanked by Air Hitam Dalam village on the other, this reserve protects 11 hectares of prime peat swamp forest – the only kind left in Seberang Perai today.

While it is admittedly rather small, it does not lack biodiversity. In fact, Air Hitam Dalam teems with wildlife – there are at least 150 species of birds, 17 species of reptiles and mammals, and a host of plants to which it is home. As the only piece of natural vegetation for miles around, it is an important stopover for migrant birds refuelling on their long journey down from northern Asia.

Among the 150 species of birds that can be spotted here are the crested honey buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus), Eastern marsh harriers (Circus spilonotus) and the greater flameback woodpecker (Chrysocolaptes lucidus). The honey buzzards and marsh harriers fly a perilous journey of a few thousand kilometres, including a nonstop 700km stretch over open sea from their breeding grounds in central Siberia, to winter in locations throughout South-East Asia. The flameback woodpecker on the other hand is a resident species – though easily spotted in the park, many visitors recognize it as a woodpecker only when it starts bill-drilling into the trees. The best time to spot both resident and migratory birds in Air Hitam Dalam is between the months of October and June.

Parts of the elevated walkway pass through areas of shrubbery and thick nipah palm (Nypa Fruticans) groves.

Unlike most wetlands dominated by common coastal mangrove species such as Rhizophora and Avicennia, Air Hitam Dalam is special in that as a freshwater swamp it houses a variety of different plant species – from tall groves of jejawi (Ficus microcarpa) and merbau (Intsia bijuga) and thick pockets of nipah palm (Nypa Fruticans) to open spaces of shrubbery where wild ginger and ferns thrive.

It is the site’s importance to the survival of the many species of avian fauna found there that has earned Air Hitam Dalam a listing as the state’s only educational forest by the Penang State Forestry Department, which manages it today. Much has been invested into turning the site into a prime ecotourism destination for birdwatchers, families and tourists; a small office with amenities such as toilets, gazebos and information boards have been built to make the trip as meaningful and pleasant as possible.

Nature Made Convenient

Since many parts are perpetually submerged in muddy water, a network of elevated walkways spanning over a kilometre has been built through the reserve, making it possible for visitors to appreciate the beauty of the forest without getting wet. Along this walkway are centuries-old jejawi trees, a fig species with aerial roots that expand the tree’s reach horizontally; dense nipah palms that produce the nipah fruit, a much needed ingredient in Penang ais kacang; and putat trees (Barringtonia asiatica), whose fallen pink blossoms often pleasantly decorate the walkway.

Ripening nipah fruits.

Flowers of the wild ginger, which can be found in the more exposed areas of the park.

Fruits of a forest tree.

From the thick and seemingly impenetrable inland swamp right up to the riverbanks where one can spot riverine animals such as smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) and common monitor lizards (Varanus salvator), the walkway allows for a fascinating trip through a varied landscape. At quieter times of the day, it becomes a playground for long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), one of the two species of monkeys found on the reserve.

A key attraction of Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest is its 210m-long suspension bridge; even for the most seasoned visitor, it is truly an enthralling experience. Perched above the swampy forest, the canopy walkway was built by the Forestry Department. It begins at a lookout tower among the shrubbery and almost immediately enters a patch of dense and rather undisturbed peat swamp forest. Access is restricted to seven adults at a time. Tip: keep an ear perked for woodpeckers – they are occasionally heard in the morning drumming into the taller trees.

The rivers around Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest are prime spots for fishing among locals.

The Penang State Forestry Department and the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) continue to make Air Hitam Dalam a sustainable destination for ecotourism. A major refurbishment project was carried out a few years back when all the old wooden pathways were replaced with the solid concrete in place today.

Certain parts of the park were damaged by human activity prior to its gazettement, and the forestry department has planted thousands of nipah palms, and tropical sea almond (Terminalia catappa) and malabera (Fagraea crenulata) trees to hasten its return to being a healthy peat swamp forest.

Recently, the inaugural Seberang Perai International Conference on Ecotourism and Conservation Efforts (SPICEC) 2016 organised by the MPSP brought participants to the park on the last day of the conference to advertise its potential as a birding site. NGOs such as the Penang branch of the Malaysian Nature Society have also contributed immensely by documenting the biodiversity in the park, particularly its avian fauna.

For the communities living around Air Hitam Dalam, the forest is a treasure trove of edible wild herbs (ulam) and fish. The park also opens prospects for locals to become nature guides. Most importantly, it serves as a green lung rich with flora and fauna.

Air Hitam Dalam's suspension bridge.

Getting There

Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest is best visited at 8-10am or 4-6.30pm. It is open daily and entrance is free. Getting to Air Hitam Dalam takes about 30 minutes from Penang Island via the first Penang Bridge. Following the north-bound E36 route, get off at exit 165 and turn right towards Sungai Dua. Upon reaching Sungai Dua, turn left onto route P205 at the junction beside the Al Amin Mosque and continue for about 3km until Masjid Ar-Ridhuan appears. Here, take a right at the junction (the signboard points in the direction of Kubang Semang and Bukit Mertajam) and in about 1km, the entrance and car park of Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest will appear.

For further enquiries, contact the Forest Ranger Office of Seberang Perai North/Central at +604- 5391743.

 

Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.



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