Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Taipings Mangrove Swamps and Charcol Factory (2 of 3)

June 10th- June 15th, 2012

We drove out of town and into the rural outskirts down the paved road in between acres of Mangrove Swamps.  The impressive root systems standing far above the level of the water supporting sturdy trees above and penetrating the murky saline waters below. The low tide offered incredible perspective into these important eco systems which protect these tropical costal areas from erosion. 

This unique experience Peter showed us had me in awe; its like the kind of stuff you read in National Geographic or see on the Discovery Channel, and here we are, in the heart of it; living it.  This was only the beginning of what Peter managed to pull of of his hat that day. He pulled into a sandy driveway and parked at the end of a long waterway in-between two tin roofed factories.  When I say 'factory' please don't envision a modern operation on a large scale, using heavy machinery, fork lifts and transport trucks.  This is far from such a place and a stage or two further on in scale to the simple charcoal making of centuries passed. Labour intensive, time consuming and of a finite yield, as we were to find out, government regulated to ensure survival both of resources and of the industry.

The sun already was taking its toll on me after just a few minutes out of the car air-con, I headed towards to first shelter available as we made our way to the building.  Expecting the shade to provide relief I was hit with a wall of heat more intense than that outside.  As my eyes adjusted to the light I raised my eyebrows at the sight laid out in front of us.  A row of brick kilns spread down the entire length of the enclosure; one in the process of being built, some completely sealed with plumes of steam rising from them, others with fires at their entrances and still another being filled with the raw materials.  On the wall hung numerous newspaper and magazine articles featuring this location.  A dark soot littered the dirt floor as we walked slowly down the walkway.  The owner of the factory was initially busy but soon came to meet us; a friend to Peter who played tennis together. Michael is a well educated man, heading towards his 60th birthday I would estimate. He has worked in this industry for some 35 years and regularly it turned out, accepts groups of students from Kuala Lumpar, Penang and as far away as BC, Canada to tour his facilities. We could not have stumbled upon a better or more enthusiastic teacher if we had searched the world over. His passion for his industry is infectious, his English impeccable and he welcomed us into his factory, giving us freely an hour or more of his time to explain the process from start to finish

Three men worked at building a kiln.  We learned that the government regulates the sizes of the kilns, limiting its maximum size to seven meters high to 6.7 meters in diameter to help conserve the mangrove forests.  I was relieved and pleased to hear that re-planting of these forests is very important to them; each tree being replanted to preserve the forests and the future of their business. Outside, long, narrow wooden boats float down the canal at high tides, bringing the wood from deep in the swamps to the factory side.  A young boy was scooping leaves from the bottom of a boat while his sister sat in the shade.  The logs are cut to size and stripped of bark before being shipped to the factory, and there were piles of material already prepared on the dockside ready to be loaded into a waiting kiln. 200m up the canal and on the opposite side, a slender woman rolled the logs end over end into a wooden barrow before shifting them, a dozen or so at a time into another factory across from Michaels. Backbreaking work in temperatures approaching 35C.

Michael lead us to a completed kiln which was in the process of being loaded.  He encouraged us to walk inside through the low doorway and the air was dramatically different.  A heavy moisture thick with the aroma of fresh wood hung in the air.  My pores opened fully to accept the moisture; the inside of the kiln feeling very much like the interior of steam room.  Interestingly it felt amazing which was unexpected due to the constant heat of the tropics which we are subject to on a daily basis. I lingered in this room, breathing deeply and completely taking in the energy built up inside this small space.   The logs, all of uniform size, stood vertically on top of small flat stones; a gap between the floor and the wood to allow for air circulation.  Similarly, five to six meters remained at the top of the beehive shaped kiln for the same reason.  

Once filled, a fire is set at the mouth of the kiln and fed with a mixture of imported, slower burning wood and offcuts from the Mangroves.  They continue feeding the fire for approximately ten days until the temperature inside the kiln reaches an ideal 85C.  Interestingly, no thermometers are used here.  Sticking to ancient tradition, a skilled supervisor will judge the temperature of the kilns by smelling the steam rising from a small chimney at the side of the kiln.  Michael tells us that different aromas are produced which helps in telling the state of the wood; coffee, chocolate and vinegar.  As we approached the chimney the aroma of vinegar is evident to me (though I tend to have a particularly accurate nose for stuff like that).  He encouraged us to approach the chimney, feel the steam rising and smell for ourselves.  The stream kissed my hand as I wafted the air towards my face, breathing it in, Peter and Julian following suit. 

"So, what do you smell? Who smells Chocolate? Coffee?"  He asked with a smile.  I shook my head. 
"No, definitely vinegar."  I told him to which he responded by offering me a job testing the temperatures of his kilns. 

Once a kiln reaches the desired temperature the fire is reduced in size to maintain a constant heat which will continue to bake the wood for about 12 days.  A higher temperature would burn the wood and a lower one would give uneven heat distribution and poor quality product.  The kiln is closely observed; when the constant plumes of steam coming from the three chimneys around the kiln dissipate and the scent mellowed to chocolate it is evident that the wood has been completely dehydrated and ready for the next step.  The fire is removed from the entrance of the kiln which is then sealed completely allowing the cooling process to occur at a very slow rate, taking about 6 days to reveal about 11 tons of the best charcoal in the world ready to be weighed, packed and distributed to consumers. 

Finally we reached the end product, a small room set at one end of the factory building where two women sat on small stools packing by hand, the charcoal into 4kg paper packets for shipment (in this case) to Kuala Lumpur. It is a dusty, dirty job in a tin roofed room in the tropical heat and once more I count my blessings. A five ton truck waited alongside and was gradually filled with these paper parcels before heading out on the long journey south.

We stood next to the swamp, admiring the these gorgeous trees.  This experience at the Mangrove Swamps and Charcoal Factory was an unexpected and completely fascinating experience.  

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