The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails - Bukit Pulau Betong
This is one of a series of pages on walking the hills of Penang, click here for the index. This is a Grade 4 walk unsuitable for those without experience of off-piste hiking. There is a sketch map at the bottom showing the route followed.
Please visit my Penang buses page for information on accessing the starting point.
One of the features of this trip's hikes has been a gradual establishment of a mastery of the ridge that runs west from Bukit Genting towards the south-west corner of the island. It is almost unreported on the web and has only become possible for us because Yuehong now has the confidence to tackle such countryside. While there are a few paths up to the ridge from both sides, only at the far end and once in the middle do they allow a simple 'up and over' route. In other words, this is not an area for the faint hearted or the inexperienced.
For a change, we travelled via Komtar on 101, 401 and 308 buses to just before Gertak Sanggul. The final 308 is one of Rapid Penang's least reliable services, it has no public timetable and officially runs every 40 minutes according to signs at the bus stops. In which case, we must have just missed one. Never mind, we were able to set off at 12.00, knowing that if things went well we would need to be in Pulau Betong by 15.30 (preferably) or 17.30 (riskily) for our last 501 bus to Telok Bahang.
The turn off is at electricity pole JGS 144, we've never had any problem getting a bus to stop here. After which it was a question of walking up the shady road until the poles stopped. The path ahead is obvious.
There was just time for the obligatory standard view before we turned right and continued climbing. Amazingly, it was three years since we last went up here although we come down in the opposite direction quite recently.
The concrete path soon finishes at this house, Yuehong being a trusting soul was happy to carry on climbing on a very old stone path.
The body language said "You must be mad" but that's a long established truth and in no time we had the ginger in front of us. Fortunately, the rubber above is occasionally tapped and there is a path to the right side.
At this point, we needed to turn left and head for the col. I knew from my solo visit that we could get out and down to the north quite easily if the ascent went pear shaped. I knew also that there was rubber a little bit further up the ridge but had no idea how far it stretched or what kind coverage there was beyond. I decided that a 'consent' shot would be a good idea and so we started to climb.
I'm now a great fan of Penang's ridge trails even if that word rather overstates things. To most of you that probably looks like nothing on earth but in fact the canopy is surprisingly open.
Unlike some ridge trails further north, this one has had almost no human interference. Trees fall down in the fullness of time, but in due course they rot through.
After 20 minutes we came to what I soon decided was a minor summit, as such that meant keeping slightly right even if there was a tree in the way as we headed down a bit. In this case, we had to go left slightly around its base but the narrow ridge started to climb again almost immediately.
The jungle is constantly evolving. Sometimes the trees come down clearing a path for you, in other places what was once a tree becomes an area colonised by ginger which is best skirted.
In places there was almost no undergrowth and there are enough superb trees to suggest that maybe this area had never been cleared.
Some parts looked like a wild boar highway, but in 40 minutes (60 minutes of climbing in the forest) we came to a stone which indicated we had reached the true summit. After a recent unpleasant encounter with a prickly vine, Yuehong was wearing her glasses, they not only gave her protection but also allowed her to do some back seat driving when she felt my chosen route was sub-optimal.
It was time for refreshment, despite her best intentions, I seduced Yuehong with a strawberry jam sandwich which gave me time to enjoy mine and a can of sustaining liquid. Now if there's one thing I have learned about ridge trails it's that it's far easier to get lost going down them than it is going up. My terrain map had told me that we should go left at an angle of some 60 degrees from straight ahead. Going to the right at all would lead into what I knew to be extremely steep jungle, while going too far left would mean a descent which eventually would lead to very overgrown rubber. Mindful of this, we went very slowly making note of landmarks as we went. However, it all seemed pretty straightforward.
From what I knew, we didn't have anything like so far to go down as we had coming up. Indeed, when the trail levelled out, I looked right and left and I knew it was almost 'game over', we were between two old rubber plantations, not that Yuehong noticed until I pointed it out.
Now today, we were just on a proving run, there was no need to follow the ridge all the way down, that could wait. From previous experience I knew that in general, the rubber on the right was more likely to lead quickly to a currently cultivated area There was even a rock for a landmark for when we did the walk in reverse. The theory was that if we followed a terrace then we would find the path out...
Unfortunately, in practice the first few seemed to end in boulders or vines and so we were forced downwards on what must have once been stone steps. Few became several which became many in Yuehong's mind and I was getting an earful. Lifting my eyes to the heavens for ideas, I noticed that there was a cleared durian estate 50 metres to the left. The interface with the rubber was overgrown as it always is but I soon found a way through and out we came, just in time to save my face. In fact, we had come out right opposite the access path which soon turned to somewhat decayed concrete. If I was expecting thanks for a safe deliverance, then the best I got was the sort of look that said it was no less than she had expected...
We soon joined a major path at the blue awning and at last Yuehong was enjoying herself on on her favourite kind of path. I just made a note that the path up might be a better bet another time, even if it meant spending a little longer on the ridge.
We came to the first house, outside it was an old rubber press which Yuehong reckoned had been made in Jelutong.
I was feeling pretty smug as the path was looking increasingly familiar as each junction we came to was exactly as I expected.
Eventually, Yuehong too knew where she was as we looked out and then passed the local 'dog house'. As we joined the better known path from Gertak Sanggul, we pressed on at what passes for our top speed, there was now a sporting chance of making the return working of the 403 bus which should have left Balik Puau at 15.00.
The camera went away and we shot down the hill coming out on the main road at 15.35. Plan B was to while away the next hour or more at the Hai Ching near by if necessary, but when we got there a lady was waiting for the bus and we were told it would come 'very soon'. And so it did, which removed the uncertainty about making our connection with the later bus. It had not been an easy walk but neither had it been a long one and in the near future we'll do it in reverse as the sooner that is done the better before the memory fades. Adding new and revised sections to the map below was extremely satisfying, almost as satisfying as toasting the walk in the traditional manner.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson