We were walking around the tropical garden of Anantara Desaru Coast, a resort in eastern Johor overlooking the South China Sea, and ‘Along’ Nur Wahyu Ramadah Othman was doling out household tips like Bear Grylls for the homemaker.
“That’s breadfruit,” Anantara’s resident naturalist and recreation supervisor said, pointing up to a green, spiny fruit hanging from a tree. “You can’t eat it raw, but when you fry it, it tastes like a potato.” Hibiscus, which bloomed at every turn, can be fashioned into a painkiller, shoe polish, and hair tonic. The flowers of a sea hibiscus tree can tell you when the dry season is. The bark can be used to fight off a lice infection.
Along was our guide during Anantara‘s nature walk tour, which was one of the eco experiences the resort organises daily. While Desaru’s main allure is its white sandy beaches, the area has an incredibly rich and resilient biodiversity, with the potential to be a wildlife sanctuary. Anantara, as well as certain tour operators and organisations, are banking that conservation will be as profitable as basking in the sun.
In recent years, the once-sleepy Desaru has been gussied up for visitors. Over 4,000 acres along a pristine 17-kilometre beachfront have been transformed into what is now called Desaru Coast to create an integrated destination aimed at regional travellers.
There is now a direct ferry service from Singapore‘s Tanah Merah terminal, and Grab drivers are willing to make the hour-long journey from Johor Bahru. Luxury resorts like Anantara and One&Only opened right before covid, joining The Westin and Hard Rock Hotel. Adventure Waterpark has over 20 rides and an astounding 900 parking lots. The Els Club boasts golf courses designed by Majors winners Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
The development has prompted Time magazine to name Desaru Coast as one of the World’s Greatest Places of 2021, and it is easy to see why. During a visit in September 2023, waves broke languidly on the shore, and the beach was stunningly tranquil, save for the occasional ghost crab streaking away.
The name Desaru is a portmanteau of the Malay words desa (village) and ru (casuarina). It is also known as Tanjung Penawar, or Curative Cape for the many medicinal plants that grow in the area, which Shahrool Anuar knows a little about.
We were waiting for a boat to take us down Sungai Lebam, a mangrove-flanked river 15 minutes inland, and he plucked a leaf off a cannonball mangrove tree. “This is like Panadol,” he said, and people traditionally used it as an anaesthetic. When the bark is turned into charcoal, it becomes a treatment for diarrhoea.
Hailing from the nearby Felda Kota Tinggi, Anuar is the lead guide for nature tour operator, Junglewalla Desaru, and a fervent naturalist. As we cruised on the brackish water, Anuar instructed the boat captain to slow down and drift into the dense stilted roots, and he clambered up the branches to pluck a long, tube-like fruit to show us how the trees reproduce. The area was home to 35 types of trees, five different primates, and over 100 bird species, which Anuar pointed out – black-shouldered kite, heron, the nest of a black-and-yellow broadbill – with just a glance.
Anuar is also part of Rewild Desaru, a non-profit organisation that wants to reintroduce native birds to Desaru Coast. “A lot of birds go to Singapore now because [the country] protects the fruit trees,” he said. Supported by Desaru Coast’s master developer and Anantara, the group has been planting native mangroves and rainforest trees to draw them back.
But they are up against major commercial interests. According to Malaysian environmental journalism site, Macaranga, Johor lost almost 10 percent of its primary forest cover from 2001 to 2019, which are some of the state’s most ecologically significant green spaces. Much of this has been taken over by oil palm plantations, which grow right up to the mangrove river’s edge.
“The law says the plantations must be more than 10 metres away from the river, but they have the money and power, so they do whatever they want,” Anuar said. “Now there are only 20 percent of the mangroves left.”
Desaru Coast’s beach is not immune. Every day, a tractor crawls up and down the sand to pick up debris indiscriminately. While this prevents plastic bottles from marring your perfect beach experience, it also dredges up seashells and other mollusk, which are essential to marine life, said a naturalist who was leading a tide pool tour.
But people like Anuar are not deterred. “[These oil palm plantations] don’t give us the land to plant [mangrove trees], so we just go in and plant,” he said.
It made me think back to what Along mentioned during the nature walk tour at Anantara a few days ago. Desaru Coast was a private airport for royalty before the resorts moved in, and part of the deal was restoring the land to its original state. By looking at these efforts as unique travel experiences instead of competing concerns, Desaru Coast can be a model for luxury ecotourism in the region.
(Hero and featured images credit: Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Villas)
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