In the animal kingdom, only one rule guides them all - lunch.
By that token, they're not all that different from humans, laughs Aidi Abdullah - self-taught naturalist, former flight instructor and veritable guardian/curator of the lush living exhibit that is Langkawi's Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. To hear him tell it, a day in this rich, wild ecosystem sounds like a day in the office - with its occupants slugging it out to get ahead, establishing a hierarchy, changing to stay relevant and survive, forming cliques and looking for tasty things to eat at meal times.
The whole scenario plays out in a three-hour boat tour of the Kilim Karst - the kind of landscape that only Mother Nature can carve out on a good day. Or in this case, over 500 million years. That's how old these limestone formations are - once solid rock whittled down by acid rain-and-salt dissolution into a breathtaking series of jagged cliffs, with rivers forming between them in the geological process. But what really ups your respect for the power and mystery of nature is the sight of the flora and fauna whose genetic make-up evolved against the odds over millennia to become the flourishing species seen today.
Take the mangrove trees, explains Abdullah as the powerboat we're in quietly nudges against a tangle of reeds and roots forming an impromptu barricade. Growing where no normal trees can, mangroves are like the kampung houses of the swamps - sitting firm on roots pushing up over the water like gangly stilts. Thanks to an ingenious membrane over their roots, saltwater is filtered out and nutrients are sucked in which send these strapping tall specimens growing up into the sky.
And how about the mudskippers - fish engineered to "walk" on the muddy shores by pushing themselves with their pectoral fins, their balloon-like gills acting as an air tank. Or skittish fiddler crabs with their trademark single large claw like a musketeer with a hand behind his back and a sword in the other. They're everywhere - darting into little holes when they're not chomping incessantly on unseen tidbits. If you're lucky (we weren't), dolphins and otters make an appearance, but even without them, the sight of mighty brahminy kites soaring overhead is a sight to behold, unless you're a fish under the water's surface, that is.
"When you look at the sheer beauty and scale of this little corner of Langkawi - it would be a terrible shame to lose it," says the weather-beaten Abdullah who scans a speeding boat cutting across the water with some resignation. The geoforest park has already got a Unesco stamp on it, and Abdullah is working with them to maintain the status. He's already drawn up a list of tasks - chief of which is to enforce speeding limits on powerboats to prevent damage to the fragile environment.
The erudite 50-something is so well-known on the island - officially he is the resident naturalist at the upscale Four Seasons Resort Langkawi - that he is the go-to guy for both tourists and scientists who want to know a little or a lot about the natural wonders of this self-contained island that's a quick ferry or plane ride from Penang. The only ones who hate him are the monkeys. Not the cute dusky-leaf primates with their bright orange babies - "so their parents can pick them out in an emergency" - but the calculative macaques who seem to be as calculative whether they're from MacRitchie or across the Causeway.
You can literally see the scorn on their faces as Abdullah's boat passes by. They look away, only to perk up when another boat comes by, filled with tourists bearing snacks. "They know I won't feed them," he says. "So they don't bother with me."
For the former flight instructor and photographer, the call of nature has been an all-consuming one, which is why when the Four Seasons asked him to join them as a naturalist in 2004, they didn't have to ask him twice. He and his two proteges organise the resort's highly popular Mangroves and Eagles boat safari, while also manning its geoforest discovery centre on the sprawling beach front grounds that has an unfettered view of Kilim Karst.
His philosophy is a perfect fit for the Four Seasons with its emphasis on sustainability even as it doesn't cut any corners on the luxury front. It's got one of the nicest spots on the island, with individual villas bigger than some apartments, complete with a view of the Andaman sea. Sunset photos are a shoo-in, as you can easily get your best shot from a vantage spot at the Rhu Bar (with a commensurate cocktail) or out on the beach itself where a Rajasthani tent can be set up to take the concept of private dining a step further. In another setting, the tent would come off as cheesy, but here it's surprisingly laid-back and natural. And there's no denying the allure of a personal barbecue served to you, and a finale of toasting marshmallows over a little bonfire.