Fireflies, River Selangor

*

We had just come from a meal that included fried water snails. I swear that these were just the same species as the Malayan Livebearing Snails that graced my aquarium years ago. Only these were much bigger, and surely meatier. Never mind, they tasted well enough. They were about the same price as those of my memory, as well.

Our meal had followed a long evening drive from the steamy heat of Kuala Lumpur to the smallish town of Kuala Selangor. Most car journeys in Malaysia involve paying forty pence or so at numerous 'Plaza Tolls'. This can be a bit irritating, but does at least ensure that your journey through the alarming traffic is along decent roads. But not this one. As yet there is no highway on this route and we had to find our way through a series of ordinary roads. 'Ordinary' is probably not the right word - you have to be on those roads to know what I mean.

So I was probably not in the right frame of mind to see the renowned fireflies on the River Selangor. Especially as the other passengers - my younger son Joseph, my sister-in-law Sook Yin, and her daughter Cheng Mun - promptly fell asleep in the back of the car. I would have liked to fall asleep too - I have been on Malaysian roads before and have developed nerves of steel - but I thought that this would hardly be polite to the driver, Cheng Mun's boyfriend Andrew. He had come to the big city from the rural northern state of Kedah a few years before. It was probably his dearest wish that I would go to sleep. As it was he had to play his part in a conversation with someone he must have thought was an eccentric from the other side of the world, as well as force his way through the stream of headlights that only sometimes kept to the right side of the road. Let me record that Andrew did well with both this combative form of driving and his display of verbal skills.

It was after ten o'clock before we found the entrance to 'the fireflies', which turned out to be in a dark village called Kampong Kuantan, a few miles out of Kuala Selangor. I was tired; I did not relish going down the steep, ill-lit wooden steps to the boat; and the prospect of having to don a lifejacket in the humidity and heat of the Malaysian night - and you really find out all about humidity and heat in Malaysia - was not exactly welcome. So you could say that I probably wasn't best prepared for this new experience.

All this fell away from me with the first few strokes of the oars by our Malay boatman, Achmed. The river had its own local environment, and was wonderfully cool, though not too cool, compared to what we had just come from. As we rounded the bend and left the few smoky lamps of the landing-point behind it was dark and peaceful. We could see the stars standing out pin-sharp in the black heavens above - something you rarely see in the cloudy skies of Kuala Lumpur - despite the tropical thunderstorm that grumbled away somewhere in the distance.

Then, as we rounded the next bend, we saw them. Fireflies. There were hundreds of them, lighting up the riverside mangroves like Christmas Trees. More and more of them came into view and it really did look like the gaudy poster at the entrance. I thought for a minute that the lights were artificial, and had been put there by some enterprising local businessman.

Still, there were far too many of them for that - the economics wouldn't have added up - and a commercial scam of this nature would be beneath Malaysians. But no, our boatman rowed near to the water's edge and we could see that the flickering lights came from insects less than half-an-inch long. 'Fireflies' is something of a misnomer - they were in fact beetles with the unpronounceable Latin name of Pteroptyx Tener. You would say that they looked like nothing so much as some kind of less offensive earwig. They threw out a prodigious beam for their size. Joseph and Cheng Mun had a couple of the insects on the palms of their hands, and even their fingertips were illuminated in the night.

Achmed was giving an explanation of it all in Malay, and my sister-in-law and niece were translating (from their third language) for our benefit. It seemed that the male insects gave out a stronger light than the females, and pulsed at a more vigorous rate whilst hovering around the female. The flashing was amazingly synchronised, as we could see at a glance. I've forgotten most of the rest of the biology lesson. Our sampan went to and fro at a leisurely pace, crossing and re-crossing the river. Achmed was in no hurry at all, and punctuated his commentary with snorts and high-pitched laughter. It was a Sunday night, and there were few visitors. He said we could stay on the river until one o'clock if we liked. You had the distinct impression that he wouldn't have hurried even if it had been a busy period.

Then he was talking about what lay ahead in the future. It seemed that developers had their eyes on the land near here, and it was likely that a shopping mall, or what the Malaysians like to call 'condominiums' (flats) would be standing on the site in a few years' time. That would mean goodbye to the mangroves and so to the fireflies.

The journey back to Kuala Lumpur seemed even longer than the journey to Kuala Selangor after that.

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