A Goat Farm Past Penang

Eric Thorsby

© Copyright 2004 by Eric Thorsby 

Photo of a market in Penang.

Pudu Raya is where one catches the long-distance buses. It is the main bus station in the heart of the bustling Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Our seats have been booked in advance and we now pay at the terminal office. We look at the neon signboards to determine the platform where our bus will leave from. The languages on the signs reflect this diverse, multicultural country; Malay, Chinese, Tamil and always English. Whites are invariably addressed in English, from the hubbub of other languages. People who look like me: very fair Northern European types; are usually addressed as John and attract a lot of attention. My companion, Hamid, is a Muslim of Indian descent, termed Mamak in Malaysia. He is shorter than me, almost black and unlike me, not at all conspicuous here.

Ticket sellers, food vendors and hawkers of all sorts and shades, join in the mêlée, as we make our way to the bus, which is at the platform ready to go to Penang. We check our tickets with the driver, stow our luggage and have time to soak in the atmosphere and grab something to eat. It is hot, equatorial and very humid.

The air-conditioned bus is cold by comparison and familiar, well lit, landmarks form points of interest, until we quickly clear the city lights and enter the black velvet glove of the Malaysian night. I am awakened at our first stop along the northern highway. We debus, blinking into the lights of the modern and clean rest area, with toilets, stalls and food shops. It never sleeps. After the bus gets under way, we pass the huge monolithic limestone formations around Ipoh and know that Penang is not far.

Hamid, hopes to negotiate a catering contract, with the army. To supply meals and sundry items for National Service personnel based in the town of Sik, in the state of Kedah, near the border with Thailand and has arranged a meeting with the government agents. Hamid and his partner, Mat,-short for Mohamed- own land near the Thai border and are establishing a goat farm there, which I am looking forward to visiting. Mat lives in Penang, which is a beautiful island, city and well known fleshpot, about five kilometers off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. He will meet us at the first bus stop over the Penang Bridge and we will continue our journey in his car. Hamid contacts him on his mobile phone.

Soon, we are crossing the bridge to Penang and can see the city with its well lit modern high-rise buildings and dock facilities, to the north. We disembark before the city and wait for Mat by a deep, monsoon drain at the side of the road. The bus journey took about five hours. It is early morning, still dark and relatively cool. Mat meets us and we go to a cafe, drink tea and eat before heading back across the bridge and north east. He is a Mamak, like Hamid, but is shorter and thickset with a graying beard and spectacles. He is an easygoing intellectual, who embodies the true spirit of Islam, in helping people whenever he can and does not make the acquisition of wealth a priority. Mat knows our route well and makes comment as the road follows the course of the unseen Muda River, which rises in the distant hills on the border with Thailand.

We pass the well-lit airbase of Butterworth and associated urban areas and then the country becomes progressively more rugged and sparsely inhabited, the closer we get to our destination. Many villages have been removed to make way for the second Muda Dam, which will eventually flood much of the country we are now passing through. This area has been evacuated and stripped of anything of value. Only skeletal fragments, surrounded by overgrown gardens and orchards remain. People still return to pick the fruit and perhaps linger with old memories, before all vanishes under the rising waters of the dam.

The Government has compensated them well, but it is always heart wrenching to finally turn ones back on a home and heritage of infinite generations. The Malays call themselves Bumiputra-children of the soil. I do not miss this significance, but keep it to myself. Where the soil is deep and fertile, the burgeoning jungle is rapidly reclaiming territory lost over the millennia since settlement. The abandoned areas have a ghostlike quality and as dawn breaks, one can almost see the people, their animals and kampongs-villages- in the eerie half light.

We keep our eyes skinned, for wild animals have also reclaimed these areas in the vacuum left by the human evacuation. Mat speaks of sighting a leopard, a huge python and other rarely seen wildlife, at first light on previous trips, but we only see the river, with the new concrete road bridges crossing it much higher up in the hills. Soon, the new road will open and the old road, we are now on, will be submerged for ever, as monsoon rains saturate the catchment’s area. We are looking at this haunted area, for probably the last time.

The road climbs higher, above the proposed high water mark. Before us, somewhere in those scrub covered foothills, is our destination. The equatorial sun is already establishing its dominance, as we stop at a lone cafe to eat. The locals know Mat and exchange friendly greetings and banter. He catches up with the local news and we start on the final leg of our journey. Soon, we turn onto a rough, gravel patched track, which winds into a fastness of hills, scrubby jungle, orchards and rubber estates.

Slowly, the car rolls along this track that must become impassable with prolonged rain. Mat seems to know every bump and pothole and we crawl up to a crude farmhouse, at the head of a blind valley. This is the goat farm and there is a long, elevated goat shed, or kandang, at one end of the cleared land, but close enough to the farmhouse, to deter would be goat rustlers. Thick, secondary- jungle shrouds the rugged hills, which surround the area like an amphitheatre. Moisture vapors rise up like smoke, from the thickly forested gullies, to coalesce with the gathering storm clouds, racing along the ridge top.

The house is built on a concrete pad, has single brick walls and a corrugated iron roof. A wooden upper story rises like an island in the middle of the small building. Most of the building materials have been salvaged and reused. Three small fish ponds are between the house and the goat shed and saplings of fruit trees are spaced around. A cement mixer, formwork and piles of sand and gravel, indicate ongoing construction.

We meet Mat’s helper, a young Indonesian farmhand named Ahmad; a strong, active, good looking Malay, with the eyes of a tiger. He is twenty two and has more opportunity in Malaysia than neighboring Indonesia. The majority of people in this region are Malay and the Indonesians and Malays share what are virtually the same language, religion and culture. The main difference being that Malaysia was colonized by the British and Indonesia by the Dutch. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world and in Malaysia, virtually all Malays are Muslim. Here, it is law that a Non-Muslim must convert to Islam before they are allowed to marry a Muslim.

The people in these rural areas are invariably Malays and only speak Malay, or Bahasa Malaysia; which is the politically correct term, but that is rather like saying, The Language of England ,when you mean English. However, this terminology is understandable, as Malaysia is a racially diverse country, trying to promote harmony. Thailand has an entirely different culture, language and background.

The house is well designed and was built by Mat, Ahmad and others. The open kitchen is at the far end and so is an enclosed toilet/bathroom, with a septic system on the downhill side of the house. Clear, clean, drinkable water is piped via a 50mm polythene conduit, from a dam high in the surrounding hills. Overhead cables bring electricity and bottled gas supplies the stove. Bags of goat pellets are stacked in the lounge and make good seats.

Mat and Ahmad introduce us to the goats. They are still building and acquiring stock, but there are twenty five goats, including several new born kids. The shed, is newly built and is elevated on steel stilts, so that the whole construction sits at least two meters from the ground. The narrow hardwood floorboards are staggered, leaving a gap between each board, so that waste does not accumulate. Already, goat urine is corroding the steel stilts and so the next shed will have reinforced concrete stilts, or piles, instead of steel. A cleated, wooden ramp, allows easy access to the shed, which is divided into twelve separate stalls, with a walkway along the centre.

Mat has kept a few goats before and has had help from the government, with advice and specially published books and pamphlets. The operation could support a lot more goats, but it is wise to learn the finer points and gain expertise whilst the numbers are small. Eventually, as the herd increases, the meat and milk will be sold for human consumption.

The three ponds are stocked with edible fish. Surplus piped water is held in a fourth and highest pond, across the track and slowly passes through the three fish ponds in succession and then gradually seeps back to the creek, about a hundred meters farther down the slope. Mixed with the ubiquitous clay, the pond water is mud-colored. The fish churn up the surface as handfuls of goat pellets are thrown to them. The fish ponds are covered with mesh, to prevent predatory birds-mainly cormorants-from cleaning the fish out.

Here, the creek bed is about ten meters wide and sunk in a deeply gouged flood-channel, with high banks. The slightly milky water is low, but still flows powerfully between hard granite boulders, depositing deep, yellow, coarse- grained sand, in pools between the rocks and forming narrow sandbars and beaches on the slower stretches. We are able to wade upstream, following submerged sandbars and avoiding the deep swirling pools and fast flowing channels. As in most rainforest streams, the water is surprisingly cold, compared with the hot, steamy atmosphere. From the creek, one has the impression of a dark tunnel through impenetrable jungle; with vines, fallen logs, huge trees and anonymous, raucous calls from the dense, green, mysterious unknown.

I gradually realize that this trackless jungle is just the vegetation fringing the creek, a narrow corridor hemmed in by cultivated land and homesteads built of bamboo, hardwood and attap, or woven palm leaves. We wade to a wooden bridge crossing the creek and follow the dusty track, past several rustic houses, set in the midst of shady fruit trees, such as; durian, rambutan and langsat. Durians are my and most people’s favorite fruit. Some Westerners are nauseated by their strong smell; rather like overripe apples fermented in urine and never get to taste the smooth, creamy, delicious, almost addictive, fruit. Once one tastes and savors the fruit, the smell conjures a new connotation and some eat so much as to experience an overdose. I am always extra happy, when a trip to Malaysia coincides with a durian season.

Once out of the cool tunnel of vegetation, it is stiflingly hot in the sun. We visit a few of the people living in this extended kampong of about seventeen families. Each family cultivates a vegetable garden; growing, maize, cassava, hot chilies and such. They have trucks and cars, but mainly motorbikes. It is not unusual to see a whole family; parents and three or more children, balanced around the bike, as it slowly takes them on their way. Compared with most of the West and urban Malaysians, these people lead an almost primitive life. That is not to say that the quality of their lives, or they themselves are lacking. It is a different world here, but change is inevitable and one can only hope and work to make changes acceptable and beneficial to all.

Economic development has been much better orchestrated in Malaysia; with a population of twenty six million, than the surrounding, Indonesia, with its teeming two hundred and thirty million plus, across a sprawling archipelago and a reputation for economic and political mismanagement.

Booming Malaysia, has attracted millions of Indonesian workers, who do much of the construction laboring and usually squat on the work-site, where they improvise rough but comfortable living quarters and stay until the job is finished. Most send money back to their families in Indonesia, but some families migrate to Malaysia and are quickly absorbed into the Malay melting pot.

Certainly, there is opportunity for Indonesians, like Ahmad, to save money, buy a farm or business and establish themselves in Malaysia. It will be a long time, if ever, before the poor, the majority of Indonesians, escape the circle of poverty at home. Ahmad is young and is slowly educating himself with the guidance of people with vision, energy and enterprise, such as, Mat, Hamid and others. It is a two way street. We all learn from one another.

The Malaysian government has increased its intake of National Service recruits. Their barracks and associated facilities are being constructed in the small town of Sik, which is the regional centre and about forty five minutes drive away. We drive there in the late afternoon, as Hamid and Mat will attend a meeting regarding the catering contract. The goat farm is a sideline. The catering contract is most important and requires hard work and expertise, but would be a good proposition and bring long term employment to at least ten permanent staff and others would benefit from the contracts, involving supply and so on.

Whilst the others were involved in discussion, I explore Sik, which has a lot of parkland, rainforest and waterfalls. As the meeting ends, I join the participants in inspecting the tree-shaded, ten acre site, where accommodation and dining facilities are being built and prepared. A lot of the builders are Thai- called Orang Siam by the Malaysians. This meeting is only a preliminary, but everyone concerned seems happy. Malaysians seldom make firm agreements in a hurry.  Deals evolve over a period of time, until everybody is comfortable or they are not made at all.

We drive back to our cafe for an evening meal. We talk and joke with the locals, who rarely see white people and treat me as a celebrity. I feel honored and even humble, because at this moment, I seem to represent the outside world. I think we all enjoyed ourselves and if and when the opportunity arises; I will be back.

This area is given mainly to rubber, fruit and grazing, but the poor clay, gravel soils do not promote the luxuriant growth one associates with the jungles of equatorial regions. Once the forest is cleared, the poor soil is opened to the elements and is eroded and leached by the torrential rainfall. Parts of the country are virtually wet deserts, supporting stunted fruit trees that need to be boosted with expensive fertilizers from outside. It is only then, the heavy rainfall, constant high humidity and temperatures promote amazing growth.

When we return to the farm it is past midnight. Thunder and lightening are crashing in from over the hills. It is normal for Malaysia to experience at least some rain-usually a storm- every day, even in the dry seasons. We attend to the goats and then prepare to sleep. Most of us sleep on mattresses or what else is handy. It is comfortable, with few, if any, mosquitoes, which is unusual. I sleep like a log and wake up to a surprisingly cool dawn. The temperature regularly drops to as low as 17 degrees Celsius, here at night, which is cool, when Kuala Lumpur rarely goes below about 25 degrees. The bulk of hills are to the east and the sun bursts from behind, later than on the open plains. It had rained during the night and mist mutes the morning light. The only sounds are the trickling water, occasional bird calls and bleating of goats. It is still and tiny droplets of water hang on cobwebs, waiting for the first wind. It could have been the first day of creation. It is a good time to explore the immediate surroundings, before the sun comes up and melts the mist.

I examine the Napier grass growing in a small field behind the house. It is like a thin sugar cane and as it grows, it is cut, fed into a petrol driven shredder and then given to the goats as supplementary food to the bagged goat pellets and grazing.

The sun, like an ominous red ball, gradually climbs higher and turns fiery yellow as the mist dissipates into high humidity and another hot day begins in earnest. We cook and let the goats out of the shed to browse within the parameters of an electric fence, which is progressively moved to allow the grass to recover. The goats are all nannies, except for two studs and the kids. Most are colored a rich combination of chocolate browns, ranging from creamed coffee to black.

Mat and Rahman, a wiry, tough looking local of piratical appearance, with a shaven head, bandana, drooping moustache and scared face, invite me to climb along the track beside the water conduit to the dam, which is about 1500meters up the hill. It is a stiff climb, but can be negotiated by a four wheel drive. The brick colored clay is eroded and the track is potholed and deeply scared. The water pipe is laid on the surface about a meter off the track and is now protected by the undergrowth and accumulated leaves and debris. Mat and Rahman know exactly where it is and have installed markers at regular intervals.  The surrounding area has been long logged for the valuable hardwoods and now it is mainly scrub; but we pass through groves of young trees, showing potential for greatness, as we leave the track and slither down the steep, forested ravine to the dam.

The dam is a low concrete wall built across a deep channel in solid rock, with three 100mm outlet holes and a wicker basket, as a filter for the water pipe. It merely increases the water level enough to be able to facilitate the flow of water into the 50mm conduit. We drink the water directly from the reservoir and it tastes all the sweeter, because of the sweat, the heat and grind of the climb. Shoals of small fish swim warily in the clear water. It is cool in this fern-draped dungeon at the top of a 30 meter high waterfall, which would look spectacular after heavy rain. We clear debris that has built up around the dam. Rahman , expertly cuts through saplings, with several slashes of his razor sharp golak, which is an all purpose jungle knife akin to the machete. He cannot suppress a smile, as I take the golak and attempt to emulate his efficiency. It looked so easy and effortless, when he did it. I grin and hand the golak back to the master. Words would be wasted.

Careful not to slip on the wet, moss-covered rocks, we pick our way down the sides of the waterfall and start to negotiate a passage back down the hill, following the course of the stream. It is not an easy passage. We cautiously clamber over huge boulders, polished as smooth as glass by the water, leap across deep canyons, squash through tight crevices, wade through swirling pools of water and crawl under and over logs and other debris. I linger to look at the large flecks of quartz in the pink granite and realize I am left behind.  I hurry and gasp for breath as I catch up.

When we stop to rest, a slight itch on my calf leads to the discovery of clusters of leeches in various stages of engorgement. I carefully pick them off, teasing them to release themselves, and throw them in the water. I can smell the fresh blood. One learns to accept such apparent horrors as being normal in the jungle. So far, their bites have always healed without infection. I assume that the others may also be infested, but I save my breath and concentration for the trail. It would be easy to break a leg here. The leeches are nothing. Despite the heat and humidity, a lot of the Malays wear high gum boots in the muddy, wet, leech infested jungle, but they are too bulky to carry when traveling light.

I have been carefully watching for tracks in the damp clay and sand bars. I discover tracks and signs of wild pigs, superimposed with the tracks of a cat, about half the size of a leopard. It was probably a Golden Asian Cat, preying on piglets. I would like to investigate further, but my companions are now far ahead, without realizing I am no longer close behind. I descend as fast as I dare, down the treacherous gully, wading through chest high water to make time and soon catch up. I must look like and certainly feel like, a drowned rat. The others make no comment.  Most Malaysians are polite, discrete and diplomatic. I just catch the shadows of smiles and a few sly glances. They look as though they have merely taken a stroll in Hyde Park, in autumn. I just try to act as if I have.  I think I will be mentioned a fair bit in the future. At least I have a lot to think about and unravel. Despite the discomforts; I find this experience exhilarating.

No doubt, leopards and even tigers do come into this area, because these hills are foothills of the Main Range, the wild mountains that run down the Malay Peninsula and serve as a wildlife corridor. Malaysia still has enough unbroken wilderness to support a small population of tigers, as far south as Endau Rompin, in Johore, just north of Singapore. So, if these jungles still shelter tigers-which top a lot of lists, including Endangered Species- then my reasoning is, that just about every other Peninsula animal is also here. For how long, depends on how the Malaysians manage their country. Hoping to see a wild tiger, is like waiting for the cow to jump over the moon. I have seen a tiger once, in unusual circumstances, and am still watching for the cow.

Providing a few simple measures are taken, remaining habitat can be enhanced and a stable population of wildlife sustained in perpetuity. This would provide diversity and a genetic reservoir of plants and animals. The Malaysian government has done a good job in providing help and knowledge to further sustainable agriculture and could include the same concepts in managing its wilderness areas. Ecological tourism is dynamically sustainable and can be more profitable than short term, get rich quick industries, such as indiscriminate logging. This is still a beautiful area on the Hub of Asia. So, why not seize the opportunity now, before it is too late.

Once we emerge from the canopied ravine, I look back and see a pair of Serpent Eagles soaring on the thermals rising above the ridge. It is so humid, that one can actually see the hot moist air rising from the lost world we have just left. We make our way back to the goat farm through the extended kampong. Since, the bathroom is not being used; I bathe and wash my filthy clothes. They soon dry in the searing sun.

We worked on a few small jobs around the farm, bid our friends farewell and then started back to Penang via a different route from the way we came. We were going to just bypass Alor Star, the capital city of Kedah, but instead a direct route, we deviate to see as much country as we can and visit a friend’s farm, in the north of Kedah.

Ayam, owns a well established chicken farm; hence the nickname, Ayam, which means chicken. We look around and drink copious amounts of sweet Malaysian tea before leaving and driving through the area known as the “Rice Bowl of Malaysia.”   It is a vast alluvial plain; a rich prairie of rice paddies. Isolated groves of trees in the distance indicate human habitation. The yellow, ripening, ranks of rice, twisted trees and swirling storm clouds remind me of Van Gogh’s landscapes. We pass the gilded minarets and domes of several mosques, on the fringes of Alor Star, but before long are locked in heavy traffic all heading for Penang, like bees returning to the hive before darkness falls.

We funnel onto the bridge approaches and the resulting traffic- jam inches painfully through the toll gates. I secretly think that we might not make the bus stop in time for our return trip; but should not have worried. We arrive with about a minute to spare and like storm troopers, hit the ground running with all our gear to where the bus stands with its motor running and leap aboard just before it pulls out. I will ring Mat, to say goodbye, when we are home and hosed.

Once settled in the bus, we grin, relax and admire the lights of Penang, the lesser islands and rugged mountains in the dieing glow of day. It has been a good trip. By the time we cross the bridge it is night and Kuala Lumpur lies ahead.

Eric Thorsby is an Englishman living in Australia; has traveled the world and has a Malaysian wife.

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