Visitors to the Malaysian heartland cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the beauty of its natural landscape and the spectacular topographical formations. From the scenic coastline to the mangrove swamps and deeper inland into the sprawling rainforests right up its rugged mountains, the terrain changes systematically offering richness in resources and biological diversity.
The backbone of Peninsular Malaysia is known as Banjaran Titiwangsa or the Main Range. Running from the Malaysia-Thai border in the north to the southern state of Negeri Sembilan, this central spine effectively separates the eastern and western part of the Peninsula. The highest peak in the range is Gunung Tahan (2,187m.) situated in the central Malaysian state of Pahang. Other high peaks include Gunung Jerai in Kedah, Bukit Larut in Perak and the legendary Gunung Ledang (Mount Ophir) which straddles the Melaka-Johor border.
In Sabah, the most prominent highlands are the Crocker Range with average heights ranging from 457 to 914 metres. Also situated in the range are the three highest mountains in Malaysia: Mount Kinabalu (4,101m), Gunung Trus Madi (2,597m) and Gunung Tambuyukon (2,579m)
In Sarawak, home to one of the world’s largest natural cave systems, the two highest peaks are Gunung Murud (2,425m.) and Gunung Mulu (2,371m.)
The heavy rainfall combined with the natural configuration of the land has given birth to many rivers which barely a century ago served as the main arteries for trade and travel. Almost all the states in Malaysia have adopted the names of the principal rivers flowing through their respective territories. In the Peninsula, the longest river is Sungai Pahang (475km) followed closely by Sungai Perak (400km).
Malaysia’s longest river, Sungai Rejang (563km), is in Sarawak. It is navigable by small coastal steamers as far as Kapit, 100km upstream.
* Coastline: The Malaysian coastline is 4,800 kilometres long. On the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, muddy beaches and large tracts of alluvial flats are a common sight; while on the east coast there are many sandy beaches some measuring a few hundred metres in width. There is a continuous series of asymmetrically curved bays joining one headland to the other. Exposed to the forces of nature since time immemorial, the shoreline presents a gallery of the most varied and rapidly changing landforms in the region.
In Sabah, the rugged coastline is dotted with inlets or bays of different sizes. The beaches are either sandy or muddy, and are distributed evenly along the coast. In Sarawak, tidal creeks traverse most of the muddy beaches.
** Mangrove: The mangrove forests serve as a dynamic yet extremely fragile ecosystem, more than 50 per cent of which is found in Sabah. They support over 60 species of trees and a host of invertebrate animals. In Sarawak, the wetlands cover an extensive area with the most part classified as peatswamp forests covering some 1.2 million hectares. Cosidering their significance as freshwater habitats, the area has been placed under protection laws.
*** Cave systems: Malaysia has some of the most fascinating cave systems in the world. Among the more famous are the Niah, Mulu and Clearwater caves. With a mapped length of 100 kilometres, the latter is considered Asia’s longest cave system and ranks tenth in the world. The Clearwater River, which flows through this cave system, is one of the world’s biggest known underground river.
The Malaysian climate, with its combination of heavy rainfall and high temperatures, sets ideal conditions for the formation of limestone caves. When rainwater comes into contact with limestone, the carbonic acid it contains starts to chemically corrode the rock, seeping through the cracks and fissures slowly dissolving it and enlarging existing openings. Sometimes, the whole water table drops forming new levels in the subterranean passageways as found in the Clearwater Cave.
At other times, the roof collapses further enlarging the cave and creating enormous chambers, a classic example being the Sarawak Chamber which is the largest underground chamber in the world measuring 600 metres long, 415 metres wide and with a roof span of 300 metres. Even the most powerful lamps fail to penetrate the pitch black to see from wall to wall or from floor to ceiling of the entire cavern. Constant water drip in the caves have created some magnificient pieces of art, such as in the Mulu Caves, where stalactites, stalagmites, columns and drip curtains are standard features.
**** Sungai Rejang: The source of Sungai Rejang is situated in the highlands on the Sarawak-Kalimantan border in the eastern part of the state. Together with its major tributaries - the Baleh, Balui, Belaga, Murum and Linau, the Rejang river system flows west across one-third of the state irrigating an area of 40,000 square kilometres in the Kapit, Sibu and Sarikei divisions. After flowing mostly straight in the upper reaches, the river system fans out across an alluvial plain into a web of smaller rivers before finally pouring itself into the South China Sea. The Rejang serves as an important river transportation system linking the coastal towns with the settlements and timber camps further inland.