The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails - 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.
We have reported on our climb to the summit of Pulau Betong in January 2016, approaching from the east side and coming up from the Gertak Sanggul side. There are reports on our ascent to the ridge at the west end of the hill below the summit, Gertak Sanggul Quickie and Pulau Betong Lollipop, neither of which owed anything to elegance or planning, but no reports of two abject failures from the Pulau Betong side and a third visit which simply confirmed the route down in the first of the two. In fact, Peter van der Lans and I consider this area to be a bit of a pig in more senses than one. The place is now infested with hundreds of wild boar (Babi Hutan) as the direct result of a local (from Gertak Sanggul) releasing two adult males and two adult females some years back. He was a hunter of such creatures and thought it would be a good idea to be able to catch them on his doorstep rather than in other areas of the island where they were already long established. He is now the least popular man in the village, they have wreaked devastation on the fruit orchards particularly the bananas, they are also very partial to durians. At one stage a hunt was organised with dogs and a number of shooters but it failed completely. We haven't seen any yet here, but Peter I know has seen a family of about 10, remember the sows can have up to three large litters a year... Anyway, while the main hill is original jungle, the upper areas around it are basically abandoned rubber terraces and there are no established paths save occasionally used tappers trails which are only used by migrant workers when the rubber price is exceptionally high. Parts of the area below are fruit orchards, mainly durian but also nutmeg and citrus fruit.
We rarely get down this way owing to the poor bus connections, but as we were off to Ipoh at the weekend, we had the use of a hire car which we parked at the bottom of the climb out of Kampung Pulau Betong near my favourite Hai Ching restaurant. This also meant that we were on our way much earlier than usual, by 09.30 before it got too hot. Initially the path goes through rather tired oil palm before going through rubber and the first durians of the day as it started to level out.
For the time being we were following the 'famous path' towards Gertak Sanngul which meant bearing right at the first serious junction. The next section is old rubber so Yuehong stopped to apply mosquito repellant. Very soon we were into the first full fruit orchard turning right across a small concrete bridge. As it's barely 2 weeks since the heavy rains finally finished, the stream below was running well. Round the corner we could see what happened when the government appropriated the land next to Penang's best hidden beach for a training camp. Once the golden sands could only be enjoyed by hikers, now there's a road and rubbish all over the place. The bananas serve as a cash crop until young fruit trees mature.
Then there was more rubber and as we entered the next orchard, a junction on the left. There are two paths off here, the furthest left goes maybe 200 metres and finishes. The lower one between the bamboo is what we wanted, the famous path continued on the right. There are dogs here but of the exceptionally cowardly kind, they yap and then flee.
I had only been here once, three years ago and that by accident when I got lost on the other side of the hill. However, I did remember coming down through some young rubber which I could see up ahead.
Now the area we wanted was roughly east of our position and of course there are no helpful sign posts here. We went to the point at the top of the rubber which is sort of a corner and peered in. Yuehong liked the look of the undergrowth to the left, I concurred and we started off. Almost immediately we found what for us is indeed a signpost.
In fact we were on a narrow ridge with drops on both sides. We then decided instead of going up directly to follow what looked like a track to the left, but it just led to an old well.
Never mind, it was easy to climb up a short way and we found old rubber terraces running round the side of a small summit, at this time not losing height was paramount. We could have gone up but correctly assumed that some kind of path would come down to us in due course, which it did, although it's not immediately obvious from the picture.
We were just above a small col and when we went down we found the direct route blocked by a stand of bamboo. No problem, it was easy to go round the side and start climbing.
It was actually a lot easier than the pictures suggest, I heard not a word of complaint although admittedly I had warned Yuehong in advance that today would be more challenging than our recent walks (which she said had been 'too easy'). Now she has contact lenses Yuehong is as good as I am at spotting the easier ways through and regularly puts me right. At which point I am sent ahead to remove spiders.
Now some people wonder why we don't use a GPS, but frankly it's a useless piece of dead weight in conditions like this. I could see for myself which way the ridge was going but sometimes it was easier on the right and sometimes to the left, it was all ancient rubber after all. Finally we had a breakthrough, to the left was significantly less overgrown rubber and we needed no second invitation.
We followed the terrace round for about 100 metres or so and then we came to what looked like a long lost trail up. It even had a marker stone and up we went. When I suggested that another 15 minutes would bring us to the top, I got the usual derisory laugh, but this time I was correct and I had made the connection I was aiming for.
Now one rubber terrace looks like another and there are not many land marks here and certainly no views. However, I did recognise this boulder even though it's never featured on these pages. We went a short way further and paused for a rest. Let's just say that when I suggested we had come to the point where we had to turn back, it was somewhat misinterpreted.
We were not equipped to go further which was mainly real jungle with a ridge down which we had only ever been up once and which I knew would be hard to follow. I just needed a few minutes to look ahead for further confirmation of our position. On the left is today's picture and on the right one taken a year ago and in fact the area ahead was rather more overgrown than it had been then. There was no point to climb the rest of Bukit Pulau Betong and I returned to Yuehong.
Resigned to her fate, we set off to look for a path down to Pulau Betong. I should mention that before today we had used three routes and only the first time was satisfactory and that was only because the rubber was being tapped, albeit occasionally. I knew that going too early had been disastrous so this time I went too late and chalked up a fourth one.
We agreed that this 'slope' didn't look too bad and headed down. The trick is not to rush these things, we go down a couple or more terraces and when things look less pleasant, we check left (not a good idea here) or right (much better) and then continue down. In this case, very soon we came to a flat and quite open area and to our right was considerable brightness.
Now before the Greenpeace Warriors start complaining about this clearance, it so happens that we know the background. This area was formerly overgrown old rubber and of no use to anyone or anything, I climbed through it before it was cut and it was no different from the crap that we had been walking through for the last couple of hours.
We had met the young, new owner here at this hut last year and he had talked about his plans to convert the area into a productive durian estate, the same as the area just below the hut which needed rehabilitation after years of neglect. Now, I am sure he had some help removing the old rubber, but he is undertaking all the replanting himself and proudly showed us some of his young trees which he comes up every day to check and if necessary (as now) to water. Now that's seriously hard work and it will be three years before the ordinary durians and five years before the special ones show any return at all. In ten years it will look great and barring accidents he will have a much deserved return on the time and effort invested. Which is more than can be said for the thousands of government servants twiddling their thumbs in air conditioned offices in Komtar.
We left him to continue his watering and walked down through old rubber and fruit orchards back to our outward route and down to Pulau Betong.
The Hai Ching does a roaring trade these days, cooking sea food for foreign (Asian) tourists who buy it direct from local fishermen. Instead we enjoyed the house signature dish, a delicious Koay Teow Soup, an absolute snip at MYR 3.50. Our friend from the hill arrived later and tucked into the same dish before returning to his home nearby.
I'm still not sure if Yuehong understands why we did this walk at all, but for me, after a number of failures, it was very satisfying and I am now a lot closer to understanding this difficult area.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson