Wednesday January 2, 2013
One with nature
By LILIAN TAN
Rediscover fresh air, great views, solitude and all that really matter in life.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
BLIND in one eye, diabetic, hobbled by arthritis and gout, 64-year-old Major (Rtd) Ng Chun Hoo is not a man one would expect to see barrelling around rugged countryside in a pick-up truck. But twice a week, this is exactly what this former RMAF engineer and one-time corporate high-flier does.
After all, Ng is the pioneer, prime investor and chief caretaker of Orchard Heights, a homestead project in Karak, Pahang, and running it is not something he would trade for anything in the world.
The year 1995 was when it all began. Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was expected to hold at 8.5% and the country’s stock market was in the throes of a super bull run – making millionaires of many, including Ng and 27 of his friends. Besides a love of nature, they shared the vision of a homestead project close to the city where they could be neighbours and blissfully live off the land growing durians and breeding tilapia.
Sure enough, when word came that 75.67ha of palm oil and rubber estate land off the Karak-Mancis Road were up for sale, the group seized the opportunity and Orchard Heights was established.
However, as is often the case with the best laid plans, the venture had barely got off the ground when the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98 struck, crippling many of the shareholders. In 2001, they were dealt another huge blow by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
In the ensuing economic uncertainty, many wanted out and Ng had to take a huge bank loan to buy over their shares. He was himself hit hard financially, but Orchard Heights was simply too precious to give up.
Despite the threat of foreclosure and burden of loan repayments, Ng pressed on. By the end of 2011, there were scarcely any new buyers for the 0.4ha (one-acre) lots. However, this changed dramatically in 2012, when there was a sudden surge of interest in the project. The property market slowdown coupled with a spike in the price of freehold land in the Klang Valley spurred investors to look farther afield. By the end of the year, nearly all of the available 119 lots had been sold and Ng was able to pay off the bank, with a huge sigh of relief.
“As far as I know, Orchard Heights is the only homestead development bigger than 40.46ha in Malaysia that has been completed,” Ng declares proudly. He is even prouder that it has not attracted speculators, but genuine homesteaders, having stayed true to its inspired ideal of a community that truly respects the land and appreciates its rich bounty.
To date, six lot owners have constructed their homes, and their stories are as varied as they are unique.
In 2002, Jaswant Kaur and her planter husband Ragbhir Singh bought a lot when he was approaching retirement. However, one month after they moved into their bungalow, Ragbhir was persuaded by his former employer to extend his service and take up a position in Indonesia.
One-and-a-half years later, he died suddenly of a heart attack. Although devastated, Jaswant then made the decision to return to Orchard Heights, knowing that she would be living there all alone.
“I became brave,” she says. “Here, I leave my doors unlocked and my windows open and no one comes to disturb me.”
She cooks and watches television to occupy her time, but also relishes the quiet solitude and opportunity for reflection: “In the evening, after it rains, you should see the view of the mist coming over the hills. You also sometimes see a rainbow.”
Another homesteader is 70-year-old Major (Rtd) Tan Chee Seang, also a former RMAF engineer. Tan bought his lot in February 2009, started building his home in October that same year, and moved in exactly three months later. He is perfectly happy living here by himself from Sunday to Friday, and goes back to visit his family in Kuala Lumpur for the weekend.
For Tan, the day begins at 6.45am with a brisk walk and ends by 10pm. In between, he fills his time with leisure activities like surfing the Internet, watching TV, reading, meditating and doing what he loves best – looking after his garden, turkeys and chickens.
“I can get everything I want here. Durian trees, beautiful terrain, and most of all, peace,” he says.
By and large, it looks like the homesteaders have little to complain about. All the basic amenities are in place, and since priority was given to infrastructure right from the start, the drains and roads are in good condition.
Furthermore, there have been no security issues, thanks to the 2.4m-high perimeter fencing and a guard post at the entrance. Grass-cutting and the maintenance of fruit trees on each lot are also covered in the RM300 monthly management fee payable by each lot owner.
Twice a week, Ng journeys from KL to Orchard Heights to oversee his team of 20 Indonesian workers to make sure that “things that need to be done, get done”.
And indeed, for a small team, there is much ground to cover: 3,500 durian trees (more then 10 varieties, with 1,500 already fruiting), and 40,000 tilapia bred in four 0.68ha ponds. As a matter of principle, no poison or pesticides are used on the durian trees, and the tilapia are fed proper fish feed and not animal waste or innards (as is usually the practice in commercial aquaculture).
“Fresh air and a healthy lifestyle is our selling point,” says Ng. “You get panoramic views, all the tilapia you can catch with a hook-and-line and all the fruit you can eat – not just from your own lot, but the whole of Orchard Heights. We also have rambutan, mangosteen, nangka, cempedak, dukong and banana trees. All this comes with your little green acre on this earth!”
> For urbanites who want an occasional retreat to nature, Orchard Heights offers fully furnished, air-conditioned homestay facilities. A three-bedroom wooden bungalow can accommodate 10 persons (RM900 per night) and a stone bungalow, 17 (RM1,200 per night). For details contact Simon Chua at 010-2605123 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.