RM25 per head, the man said. That’s how much they charge for a 30-minute boat ride to see the fireflies in Sungai Yak Yah, Kampung Ibok, in the district of Kemaman, Terengganu. But that price is for tourists, untuk orang kite mesti boleh dapat murah lagi (for us, Malaysians, we should be able to get a better price), DH smoothly replied. And so they agreed on RM20 per adult, RM10 for children. It helped that there were 17 of us in our group: 8 adults and 9 children.
The drive to the kampung was made easier by my HTC Desire smartphone’s Maps application, despite the slow refresh rate as we moved farther and farther from the township of Cukai. As we neared the Firefly Sanctuary, the road became darker, making me wonder if there was a mistake in the signage. “Kelip-Kelip 100m“, the brown sign said. DH almost missed the small slip road under an ascending bridge.
There was nothing to indicate that we have come to the right place. Everything was pitch-black. There was no office or reception hall in sight. All I could see was a parked car with our man and his companion. Such a stark contrast from its highly publicized and more well-known equivalent in Kuala Selangor.
Our man shook hands briefly with DH then proceeded to distributing life jackets to everyone. I started to feel a bit more confident with the odd arrangement upon seeing that the life jackets were fairly new and quite well-maintained. They even had child-sized life jackets for all the children. And the guy insisted that we put them on properly, including fastening the strap between the legs (to ensure that the life jacket stays in place and doesn’t hike up to our faces once submerged in water).
We walked down a sloping concrete path into our boat — two large canoes secured to each other side by side. Our guy’s torchlight was our only source of light as we gingerly stepped into the boats and took our places. Our guy’s assistant untied the rope that moored our boat to a post somewhere under the bridge and we started moving slowly into the river.
The boats moved smoothly and noiselessly in the still waters of the river. We couldn’t even hear a single muted whirr from its motor. I somehow assumed there was a motor somewhere because we didn’t have any paddles.
The darkness that enshrouded us like a thick blanket made me feel afraid. It didn’t help when our guy identified a large swooping figure in the sky as a bat. (Vampire in disguise?? Inwardly I cursed all the horror movies that I’ve seen as a child.) But I had no choice; I had to put on a brave front for my children. So I turned my eyes upwards and pointed at the crescent moon. “The crescent moon makes the sky like a happy face!” Twin2 exclaimed. I smiled at my 4-year old son’s observation and started to relax.
As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, I became aware of the presence of a small cluster of the tiniest flickering lights in the vegetation beside the river. The fireflies! How aptly named they are in the Malay language: kelip-kelip, i.e. flickering.
Our guide explained that their numbers are at their highest from May to July and that what we were seeing only comprised about half of the usual number of fireflies in the area. Hence, some bushes were adorned with those flickering lights, most had none, although one towering tree was lit up all the way to the top like a giant Christmas tree.
So what was it like seeing the fireflies? Imagine Christmas lights. But imagine them as small pinpoints, faintly flickering, as though lightly covered by mist. Now imagine being in a canoe, in total darkness, silently gliding towards those lights. Then imagine yourself being surrounded by those lights as your boat stops beneath a small canopy of leaves. Imagine yourself lightly cupping a stray flickering light in your hands, seeing the minuscule flash of light moving between your fingers yet barely feeling the tiny creature from whence the light came. For a fleeting moment, I felt like being surrounded by fairies, then capturing Tinkerbell in my hands. Suddenly, I wished that I was sitting all alone in the boat with DH in our honeymoon…
Unfortunately, it was absolutely impossible to take any photographs. It was just simply too dark to see anything. And a flash would have overpowered the fireflies’ flickering display. All I have are my memories of this one unforgettable, magical night with nature’s fairies.