TUTONG – Deep in the black waters of Tutong’s Tasek Merimbun, lurks hidden a white crocodile believed to be the protector of the lake.

The reptile is no myth to the descendants of the community that once thrived around the lake shore, with its rare appearance taken as a sign of impending tragedy.

“It was sometime after 1994, when I retired from the military and came back to Merimbun [for good]. I was chatting with a relative near the lake when we saw a white creature drifting,” said Tanggi Kawang, the custodian of the lake.

At 63 years old, Tanggi has roamed the grounds of Brunei’s iconic natural landmark for most of his life. Today, the lake has become a sanctuary for biodiversity, but for centuries it has been home to generations of a single Dusun family.

When asked about the elusive crocodile, the senior citizen recalled with glee the stories as passed down to him by his ancestors. Like Tanggi, the white creature was once the protector of the lake and the village.

“Almost as if it was warning us [villagers] of any impending trouble,” he explained.

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A view of the black water lake from the balcony of Balai Purun at the Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

A different past

“Life was so simple back then,” he said, recounting the days of his childhood before Tasek Merimbun became a heritage park.

Before the arrival of modern infrastructure and roads, the village of hunter-gatherers were self-sufficient, their living revolving around the lake and all it could offer them.

“We didn’t have any money, no shops. We had to use whatever resources we had in our surroundings as a means of survival”.

Orphaned when he was barely four months old, Tanggi was raised by his grandfather, Madah Dagang, who was a leader of the Dusun community in the Merimbun village at the time.

“Back in the 1960s, I remember following my grandfather to the forest everyday after coming back from school. We would hunt for animals and gather wild vegetables like lamiding, pucuk ubi and umbut hutan”.

Tanggi Kawang posing with a picture of his younger self from ‘Tasek Merimbun: The Black Beauty of Brunei’, a book that he also contributed to. The Scoop/Wardi Wasil

The trip to school itself was no easy feat with the nearest school located at Kampong Panchong, a three-hour journey by foot and boat.

“My grandfather and I would brave the sun and rain for hours everyday in order to go to school,” he said as he peered through his spectacles.

The lake was packed, he recalled, always bustling with people and activities. Dusun households littered the lake shore, with some even built on one of the islands, housing three or more families.

Tanggi and the other children would be seen swimming in the lake, or playing around it to while away the time before the day ended.

“Sometimes, if we were feeling adventurous, we would swim all the way to Pulau Jelundong because the waters weren’t as deep.”

It was on Pulau Jelundong that archaeological remains of a sacred ancestral site were discovered, with Tasek Merimbun believed to be one of the Dusun people’s first settlements in Tutong.

A quiet future

Today, Tanggi sits in his weathered house on stilts, just a stone’s throw away from the country’s first and only ASEAN Heritage Site.

Taking his side, his wife diligently conveyed anything lost in conversation due to her husband’s hearing loss. Voices were raised to accommodate Tanggi’s preference to not wear his hearing aid, which he said crackles from time to time.

After he retired from his 20-year stint in the army at the age of 38, Tanggi came under the employment of the Museums Department. The government put him in charge of the day-to-day upkeep of Tasek Merimbun.

“I felt that the job was perfect,” he remarked. “If not for us [natives of the area], who else would take care of this place? This is our land, this is our home.”

Proud as he is of his birthplace, Tanggi cannot help but feel a sense of sadness at Tasek Merimbun’s increasing quietness.

A bridge that connects to Pulau Jelundong and the small group of islands at the lake’s centre has fallen into disrepair, he said.

The dilapidated bridge leading from the shore of Tasek Merimbun to Pulau Jelundong. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

“Even until this day, we keep seeing people coming into the village to visit the lake, only for them to fall back as they see the dilapidated bridge, some even expressing their disappointment directly to us.”

However, it is not only visitors who have gradually turned away from Tasek Merimbun. Tanggi lamented that the number of villagers have dwindled, with only about 20 people living around the lake, most of them senior citizens.

“We used to have a lot of residents here [between the 1950s and 1980s] with 50 or more people living in big wooden households.

“Now, the only ones who reside here permanently are the elderly. Most of the young ones have moved to Bandar [Brunei-Muara] or around the Tutong town area, only returning to the lake during weekends or school holidays”.

A wooden bridge that spans the breadth of Tasek Merimbun and leading to Pulau Jelundong has fallen into disrepair in recent years. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

An unwavering hope

Despite the exodus, the community that has remained is adamant about preserving the lake and intend to repair the bridge to Pulau Jelundong. Tanggi admitted their efforts may be slow moving, but they still wish to see the iconic lake return to its former glory.

As recently as last year, a joint effort by government agencies, the private sector and NGOs was undertaken to repair and spruce up the bridge to Pulau Jelundong and the surrounding areas. However, the complete repair of the bridge was never realised.

“We long for the days when the lake would have new visitors almost every week. There’s something fulfilling in seeing others enjoy the beauty of our birthplace. It’s the beauty we grew up around, one we have cherished most of our lives”.

Like the legendary crocodile said to lie in the black depths of Tasek Merimbun, Tanggi will continue to take care of his ancestral home, hoping the day will come when it is revived to its glory days.