The towering tualang tree is best known as home of the Apis dorsatas, the world's largest honey bees with the reputation of being the most aggressive. Like most honey bees, they will attack if the nest is provoked, but unlike other honey bees, have never been domesticated. To judge by the difficulty in collecting the Tualang honey, this is one uncommercial trade. Most commercial honeys are collected through bee farming, with few exceptions like Manuka or Hawaiian Lehua Gold which are predominantly wild. Likewise, the Tualang honey is collected from the wild and is season-dependant. Sure, it may not seem like a profitable trade, but inside the deep jungle at Pedu Lake, the honey is a rare gem, and the trade has been sustaining the livelihood of collectors for 4 generations, involving a series of magnificent feats. It is definitely worth an exploration.
To see where an expedition to Pedu Lake would take place, run your finger on a map of Kedah until you hit Kuala Nerang and then veer sharply down east. Forty five kilometres past the mountainous highway you will find Pedu Lake, a 75 km² man-made lake that sits inside one of the oldest virgin forests in the country. This vast belt of fresh water connects civilisation to the jungle. The journey in is a harsh one for the collectors, as the destination is accessible only by a small wooden sampan on a trip that can last 30 – 45 minutes. But for a native like Mr. Nawawi Abdullah, who spends most of his time travelling across the jungle on boat, this lake means more to him than just a channel.
The season for collecting spans from December to May, as the bees are said to return to the same tree, year after year. Still, not all tualang trees are suitable for building nests. When the bees arrive, they look for the tallest tree to nest on, away from predators like birds or wasps, and from honey bears, that would find the slippery trunk of the tree hard to climb. But the tall trunk which can reach over 200 feet does not stop collectors from hunting the honey. The challenging feat to collect the Tualang honey propelled the editorial team to set up an expedition with the Kuala Nerang district members of FAMA (Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority), led by Norazian Mustafa, the Director of Communications, to an exploration which, for the editorial team was a first of its kind.
As the clock was about to strike noon, the expedition crew which included honey collector Mr. Nawawi gathered at the parking lot overlooking the jetty. After a brief introduction for all parties involved in the expedition, attention was drawn to the man-made wooden “sampans” lying calmly by the shoreline of the lake, the breathtaking view of the vast open water ahead struck us with the feeling that we were about to embark on a journey back into the past, when collecting wild honey was just as ancient a sport as hunting and fishing. According to Nawawi, each sampan has the capacity to ferry up to three people.
As the motor struggled to come to life, the journey into the deep began. The 40 minutes ride across the lake was less choppy around this time, according to Norazian, my assigned sampan ride companion. According to her, this man-made lake was originally a home to many wild animals, and also one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. In addition, the natives that were leading this expedition have always lived in harmony with their land. For at least three generations, the natives have depended on hunting as a source of survival and hunting for bee hives and collect the honey was a profitable and favourite pastime.
After a breathtaking but scorching ride under the sun that showcased nature at its best, the boat operator pointed at the direction of a vast, savage looking jungle and announced to us “Itu dia (There it is)”. Right before our eyes stood the uninviting wilderness of the jungle. A couple of humongous animal footprints were at the shore line vanishing into the forest, indicating an elephant must have sauntered past the shore possibly looking for water. According to Nawawi, there are wild elephants residing in the jungle. At that moment, some of the crew were terrified for their safety as reality started sinking into their minds that this was not a reserved forest but a forest inhabited with territorial savage animals. The only weapons that we were equipped with to defend ourselves against the wild were some “parang” blades. Hence, the journey into the unknown began.
The team started off walking the path that had been taken by Nawawi and his forefather for generations. As expected, the terrain of the forest was hostile and the path was besieged by savageness from the plants. The pressure was intense, and the varying steepness and slippery surfaces of different countour levels of the forest ground makes it even harder to advance further. As the team continued to move further deep into the woods, the landscape changes from shrublands to tropical woodlands with bamboo trees being very ubiquitious, and an occasional branches riddled with deadly looking thorns sticking out like a monster arm trying grab any by passers. On the ground, thickets of ferns, bushes, fungi and other shrubplants rise from dense mats of soil forms from decayed leaves and bark, nourishing a forest ecosystem since the beginning of time.
After the long walk in the uninviting terrain, the teams were forced to cross small streams running through tiny rocks, fallen branches, wood bark and possibly the home to abundant of leaches. Then, the expedition led us to face with one of the toughest obstacles during the hike. The prospect of enduring a seemingly slow and steady walk across an old tree trunk that had fallen between two existing ravines without losing balance! It has become clear that the expedition was more than just an exploration, it was a test of one's determination and to experience the hardship collectors have to go through to bring us the wild honey. Approximately after an hour of tracking into the jungle, we had finally arrived at our destination where the jewel of the forest, the Tualang Honey was harvested. Standing at 250 feet tall or higher than a 30-storey building, the Tualang Tree (Koompassia excelsa) had the crews overwhelmed with a deep sense of admiration over its splendid view. The tualang is a majestic emergent and a stand alone tree of south-East Asian rainforests and is found in the lowland forests of Malaysia and southern Thailand. As Nawawi puts it, a standing tualang is more valuable for its honey than use for its timber as the wood is brittle and often splinters when it is cut down. On top of the tree, disc shaped honeycombs of amber colored hang from the horizontal branches, some combs can stretch 6 feet across and may contain as many as 30,000 bees, and one tualang tree can contain more than 80 – 100 nests.
The tualang seems like a giant beanstalk shooting up to the sky, their trunk is greyish white, and the bottom bore thick ropy bark, holding on firmly into the ground. This tree could at least be over 300 years old. Said Nawawi. Lucky for us, on this glorious March day, it is just the beginning of the honey harvesting process for the natives. With an array of wood planks-acting as staircase-skywards to the tree tops where the nests are, one could only imagine the danger involved when climbing them. As night descends in, Nawawi and his fellow collectors climbed up the tree with a smoldering torches made of hay, and swept the end towards the comb on the blanket of bees, tapping it on the branches above the nests and sent a rain of sparks down to forest floor, this awakened the bees and caused them to be enraged and as they took off to defend their nests, they dived down with the rain of fires, creating a crescendo of stirring buzz, echoing into the surrounding forest. The ashes and smoke caused the bees to be disoriented and remained on the floor till dawn.
Nawawi reached out to the unprotected nest, using a blade made of wood, and cut out half of the comb packed with amber colored sweet liquid. “That harvest alone yielded about 10 kg of raw honey, that is really not a bad yield for all the effort,” said Nawawi. As we observed these collectors performing a fearless act, the prices these men are paying to harvest these jewels from the tree might be their own life. They are not only exposed to the dangers of the wilderness and lethal bees, but also risk falling to their deaths if a misstep occurs during the honey harvesting process.
The journey back to the lakeshore was less difficult as compared to the journey towards the heart of the jungle. Maybe descending from the forest required less energy, or maybe, we were all astonished by the gallant courage shown by these guys, that walking down the trails seemed almost effortless. Still, a slight lack of attention by any of the trackers would deem injury. After quick stop back at our temporary camp site to hydrate ourselves, we headed out to the lakeshore and ready to head back. So, never mind the scorching sun and the shaky ride, sitting inside the virgin jungle, the Tualang honey collectors is not just going about their business. Like any self-respecting traditional trade, it strives to keep legacy alive and that, allows us to have a taste of the wilderness – all in a bottle of dark ambered honey.