HULU TERENGGANU: FOR a man who is still mourning the loss of his wife, who died of bone cancer in 2005, living in solitude in a raft house in Tasik Kenyir is his way of trying to ease the pain.
“I am an idealist. I believe everyone has the right to choose the way they live. I choose to stay in a remote part of the lake because of many reasons, among them is my deteriorating health and my late wife,” said Royal Malaysian Air Force ex-warrant officer 1 Salehuddin Ahmad, 70.
As a soldier, he said, he had seen much blood and pain, but as a person, the pain of caring for his cancer-stricken wife, Salasiah Ibrahim, was too much to bear when the help he sought did not come, and it cost his wife her life.
“I have given so much to my country. The best part of my life was when I served in the air force for 19 years.
“That episode (wife’s death) is fresh in my mind. I watched her endure pain during a nine-hour trip to Kuala Lumpur,” said Salehuddin, who was a pilot examiner and a skilled Nuri helicopter pilot.
He helped his wife open a restaurant in Selayang Indah in 1982 and resigned from the air force in 1984 two years before his retirement to help his wife’s business, which lasted until 1990.
However, Salehuddin, who was responsible for inventing the bucket stretcher, now known as “Salleh Stretcher”, used by the air force and other agencies involved in rescue missions, decided to live a solitary life in Tasik Kenyir in 1986 after the Sultan Mahmud Hydroelectric Dam was completed.
He let his late wife handle the restaurant, while he lived the life of a hermit from 1986.
“My doctor advised me to go back and do what I loved most before I left for the air force, which was camping, jungle trekking, mountain climbing, diving and hunting. He said I must get rid of the fat clotting my blood vessels. I took that advice as a challenge.
“So I built something (a raft house) from nothing. Constructing the house took my mind off a lot of things. All the hard work, sweat and energy-sapping chores burned my fat. The oxygen from the surrounding and the lake water restored my health.
“My doctor was surprised when I returned for a check-up four years later and wanted to know my secret. I told him I drank the water in Tasik Kenyir, which is rich in nutrients, and did all the things that kept me healthy when I was in the air force.
“Tasik Kenyir is not an unfamiliar place to me. I flew above the lake and mapped the topography of the area to identify the best fishing spots with some friends before Tasik Kenyir became a dam. I usually go to the spots with fishing rods and camping gear.
“The real challenge was when my wife was diagnosed with stage three cancer and underwent chemotherapy. She lost her hair. Doctors gave her four years to live. I decided to take her to live with me in my raft house.”
He said his wife became happier the minute she saw Tasik Kenyir. Living by the lake despite the lack of modern facilities allowed her to live for 13 more years until she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which took her life.
“All the money in the world means nothing if you are not happy and healthy. I live with little luxuries, but I’m happy,” said Salehuddin, who survives on bread, eggs and fish from the lake.
His raft house in Pengkalan Galong can be accessed via the waterways and laterite road near Kampung Payang Kayu here.
The house has three rooms and can accommodate 10 people. It has a well-equipped kitchen. He does not charge those who want to stay overnight, but guests must bring and cook their own food.
“I get guests from Singapore and Europe. I take them hiking and to interesting places in Tasik Kenyir. Foreigners love our rainforest, and they take nothing but pictures,” he said, adding that the lakeside is rich in wildlife, including tigers, elephants, deer and bears.
Salehuddin hopes the government will limit development in the area. He fears it will affect the environment and make the lake more shallow from the sediments trapped by the dam.