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Family travel: Langkawi

Discover the canny residents on a river delta wildlife safari in Langkawi — just one of Malaysia’s many beautiful islands

Family travel: Langkawi
Four Seasons Resort Langkawi. Image: Maria Pieri

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Two inquisitive young faces peer over the edge of the small, wooden motorboat. Flickers of gold sparkle in the murky depths — something’s down there, creating larger and larger ripples on the surface.

My kids turn expectantly back towards us, mouthing words of protest.

“Nothing’s happening,” says my daughter Rae (8), in exasperation, looking across to her brother Luca (6) to see if he’s having any more luck.

I lean across, holding onto them from behind. “Put the tips of your fingers just over the edge,” I tell them. “That’s it. Not too far, though.”

Both are concentrating fiercely, like children do — until a thin jet of water flies up and hits Rae in the face, prompting a squeal of delight.

“Mum did you see it?” asks Luca.

“It hit me in the eye!” says Rae, with a big smile on her face. “It spat at me! It SPAT at me!”

We’ve just encountered the archerfish, a golden-yellow fish with black stripes that’s best known for preying on insects by shooting them down with water droplets — spitting at them, in other words. Up to four inches long, the archerfish is one of the many colourful residents we meet along this maze of 550-million-year-old cliffs and tangled mangroves that constitutes Malaysia’s Langkawi’s Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. Others include sea eagles, kites, monkeys, otters and walking fish — plus one regular, knowledgeable visitor, naturalist Aidi Abdullah, from the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi. Today, he’s guiding us through the river delta on the hotel’s Mangrove & Eagles Safari.

“The limestone is made up of millions of very old, little creatures compressed together,” he says, pointing at the cliff rock. “This area was formed over 650 million years ago, when Australia rudely pushed these islands up.”

This ‘karst’ landscape is essentially made up of limestone; otherwise known as chalk or calcium carbonate, Aidi explains. Over time, water erosion has carved out the steep rocky cliffs we’re slowly navigating.

“Creatures?” splutters Rae, belatedly. “Animals and birds, and dinosaurs? Yeuch!”

“All squashed together,” adds Aidi.

I’m guessing Aidi is in his mid-50s; he’s a charismatic storyteller, former flying instructor and petrolhead — the latter hobby leaving him with a rather hoarse voice, following a serious motorbike crash.

His other passions include nature (of course), his family (three teenagers and a wife he married very late in life by Malaysian standards), cameras (he gets bragging rights as the owner of the best lens for miles around) and cars (less impressive; he drives a Peugeot 306). It doesn’t take long for my partner and him to be embroiled in a conversation about cars; two petrolheads on a slow-moving boat, chewing the fat.

But Aidi brings it back to nature soon enough, as we gently sputter-sputter-sput through the calm river water, a breeze welcome in this tropical heat. “Have you ever seen a walking fish?” he asks, pointing at the wet mud on the riverbank.

Young voices whisper loudly: “Where, I can’t see it? Oh… there… look, it’s there.”

I still can’t see a thing until the well-camouflaged, brownish, speckled mudskipper (aka the walking fish in question) turns his head. This small two-inch-long, eel-like fish has, in fact, got two front legs, a tail that absorbs oxygen and gills for the water. Never far from the riverbank, it’s one of many creatures that thrive in the swathe of green mangrove forest growing in the mouth of the river.

Aidi has more itinerant oddities to show us. “And this… this is a walking tree,” he says, pointing to a thick mangrove trunk near the boat, before encouraging the children to lick a leaf. “Salty… mmmm,” says Luca.

Luca in the mangroves. Image: Maria Pieri

Luca in the mangroves. Image: Maria Pieri

These colonising trees can ‘walk’ half a metre in 15-20 years, Aidi tells us. They act as a barrier between land and the sea, filtering water through the membrane of their roots. The leaves literally sweat out the salt — turning them yellow — while hoarding the freshwater on their underside.

“I’m Groot,” says Luca, moving around in the same stiff-limbed manner as the tree-like creature in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. Aidi explains how the trees move: the roots push the tree above the ground (the wider its base the more stable it is). Where roots touch, the trees join to form a third tree. “It’s the ultimate form of socialism,” he says. “Everything works on complete equality.”

This living biology lesson is going down well with our group. There’s no danger of it all becoming too scientific with Aidi’s constant stream of anecdotes, short stories, jokes (“they get better after the third beer”) and quirky facts to keep us entertained.

He points again. “See the crabs. They’re waving at you.”

The thick gooey mud that is the forest floor is home to a multitude of interesting critters, often hiding in plain sight. The reddish-brown fiddler crabs — with a single large claw — seem elusive, until you look more closely and suddenly realise they’re covering the ground (up to 60 crabs per square metre, on average!). These crustaceans are an important food source, says Aidi. Unless you happen to be half-an-inch long, he adds — in which case you’re on their menu.

We watch two of the crabs waving at each other in what appears to be a Mexican standoff. Apparently, when male fiddler crabs want to attract a prospective mate, or see off a challenger, they wave in this manner — up and down, the claw held horizontally. If it wants you to come closer, it waves in a beckoning, circular fashion.

“The male crabs will fight for a female until the tide comes in,” Aidi explains. “They’ll even cut off their own claw if they sense danger and are in a tight spot,” he adds.

“Yeuch!” says Rae, for the second time today.

The children are still practising their crab signals as we reach the macaque monkeys, whose curiosity seems to need no encouragement. As the boat comes to a halt, a whole family of these rather wise-looking primates seem to be giving us the eye.

“Wherever you travel, don’t feed them,” warns Aidi. “Monkeys will pull a fast one on you by looking really sad. They’re very intelligent, and they tell a very sad story: my husband doesn’t feed me or I’ve not been fed for days. They’re cute from afar, but feeding them the wrong food can kill them.”

Aidi explains that monkeys can’t digest complex carbohydrates, like we can. They crave the food we give them, and will feel full afterwards, but they aren’t. “If you want to see a monkey really excited,” he adds, “shake a packet of Pringles at them.”

But Aidi warns that salty, starchy potato snacks like these make them thirsty. “Give them fruit instead.”

He tells us how one family of monkeys had become accustomed to terrorising tourists by jumping onto their boats from overhanging branches and stealing food and belongings. “You should have seen how angry they got when that branch was cut and they couldn’t jump onto the boat any more,” he laughs.

Juvenile macaque monkeys feasting on a coconut. Image: Aidi Abdullah

Juvenile macaque monkeys feasting on a coconut. Image: Aidi Abdullah

Behind the family of monkeys are crumbling redbrick buildings, the remnants of a charcoal factory. The local mangrove wood burns slowly to produce high-quality charcoal, much of which is exported to Japan. Unfortunately the factory had a ruinous impact on the local ecosystem; decimating the river fish population and consequently almost wiping out the sea eagles. The factory shut in 2000 and a World Wild Fund for Nature programme was set up to clean the water and reintroduce the eagle’s food source.

Sailing further north east on the Kilim River, we witness the success of the initiative. It’s feeding time for the eagles. For the next 20 minutes, we’re privy to a fabulous air show featuring brahminy kites and white-bellied sea eagles as they swoop, circle and dive into the river to catch their dinner. The eagles can spot their prey from over a mile away, gliding at up to 40 miles an hour with their wings stretched out in rigid ‘V’ shape.

Aidi must make this trip daily, yet he’s still snapping away with his Canon camera and huge telephoto lens, documenting the wildlife.

Moseying on back, we see our final big ‘safari’ sighting — the scaly grey and yellow mangrove viper, its head hidden from view to protect it from eagle attack.

“If its skin is opaque, it will strike at anything,” says Aidi, explaining the snake turns this colour when shedding — a process that causes its vision to be impaired, making them more aggressive.

“Is it dangerous?” asks Rae.

“No one I know has died from it. It’s not potentially fatal.”

Rae sits still in awe, as we get closer and closer.

“OK, close enough — back up now,” says Aidi, not wanting Rae’s curiosity to be rewarded with a nasty bite.

From the deck of our family beach house the next day, we watch a monkey walk past along the sand on what seems like his morning constitutional. He’s followed by a procession of cuddly-looking primates of all sizes, including a mother and baby. I grab my camera and start snapping. What must be the alpha male looks over at us and nonchalantly starts walking in our direction, as we edge back into our room — calmly at first, then bolting as fast as we can.

From behind the window pane we watch him pick up and discard the shells we’d collected the day before.

Now who’s on safari?

More info

Where: Langkawi, Malaysia. One of 99 islands during high tide (103 when it’s low), these islands are famed for their beautiful tropical beaches — and their duty-free status.
Who: Maria Pieri, Chad Giussani, Rae (8), Luca (6).
Best for: Sun and sea, plus an exotic delta safari.
Chad (dad): The food and the Malaysian cooking class.
Maria (mum): The activities — sunrise yoga, paddleboard yoga and a cliff climb.
Rae: The Mangrove safari, Easter egg hunt and learning to dive in the swimming pool.
Luca: The archery (he was the only one to get a bullseye), rock climbing and swimming pool.
Highs: All the above, and the friendly local people.
Lows: Getting there. Around 14 hours via Kuala Lumpur. And the heat (the mercury climbed above 40C on several occasions).
How to do it: Kuoni offers seven nights with breakfast at the five-star Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, Malaysia in an Upper Melaleuca Pavilion, including flights with Malaysia Airlines from Heathrow and transfers. Prices for 2015 are from £1,674 per person, based on two sharing. The Mangrove & Eagles safari can be booked in resort. To book, quote KU0769.  

Published in the Summer 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family