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.
If you cornered me and asked where on Penang I had suffered most frequent cock ups, then undoubtedly I would answer 'the area between Gertak Sanggul and Pulau Betong'. I think it likely that Peter van der Lans would give the same answer. Today was intended as a circular walk around Bukit Pulau Betong, with the most southerly part on paths which we last used 5 years ago. At the time, the rubber price was quite buoyant and they were quite well used by migrant workers working as tappers. Since when, the price has gone down and the rubber trees and the paths have been abandoned, something which I was aware of but failed to factor in when I designed the walk. In hindsight, it's not surprising I got lost here again, but we did end up with a 'nice day out' and I discovered a new path, even if we were a mere 180 degrees out when we stumbled on it.
We had come here as Yuehong fancied some of the Hai Ching's red bean soup and again chose our parking spot at the Chinese temple so Mavis would be in the shade during the middle of the day. It's turned dry at last (and hot too) and the rubber trees have responded with a show of colour of almost New England Autumn proportions.
What's left of the oil palms on the initial climb gave us some much needed shade and I spotted evidence of a new group (at least to me) - The Balik Pulau Hikerz. We saw several pieces of their paper along this classic route.
Now this is a part of the route where I have yet to make a mistake, I find going south easier than coming north. There's wonderful mixed vegetation, in addition to the bamboo and fruit trees (mainly durian) there's rubber young and (very) old.
There's also the odd view of the sea. Last time we were here, we had taken the left fork which sort of leads to Bukit Pulau Betong, but it needs a strong masochistic streak to make it up. Instead we took the 'safe' right fork.
The path drops slightly and goes into a quite long section of old rubber. Organisers of exercise events are no doubt well meaning, but almost universally lazy and ignorant of the environmental consequences of erecting signage. These date from 2014 and no doubt it will be many years before they disappear naturally. Why can't they remove them immediately after the event?
Eventually we got to the first of the southern huts. Just below it is a junction which invites you to go left coming north - something Yuehong was to do later in the day. The consequences, though would never be serious as there's a house just round the corner and I don't think the path goes any further.
Next we came to one of Penang's notorious dog houses, I've never stopped to count them but there are lots and there always seems to be a young set of replacements present. Just around the corner we got what was supposed to be our only view of Pulau Kendi.
It was time to reverse direction, this path on the right is one I have mistakenly taken not once but twice coming north, all I can say in my defence is that if was roughly 4 years between the events. Those are pineapples in the foreground looking back down to the dog house.
It's a clear path as it runs under trees up to another durian orchard, there is one area with little vegetation which must have been heavily cleared once in anticipation of putting up a house.
These are not well maintained orchards and it's completely 'out of season'. This, believe it or not, is a junction, even a year ago it was clear of vegetation. In hindsight, it was a warning of what was to come. I knew to turn right and with care we could readily follow the 'path' which tended to reappear under the trees..
Up ahead, we could see the col and it was indeed correct to assume that the path would take a more or less direct line to it.
However, once we were beyond the end of the orchard, it was more or less an act of faith to follow it.
Quite soon, the climb was over and the fun began. That gap was the path, but now it needed a snip or two to get through. Compared with what was to come, it was trivial.
Well, I thought I knew that if we turned left we would be going up the old rubber towards the Bukit Pulau Betong ridge, that was no on today's agenda. I had hoped or even expected to see a path to the right of straight on but all I could see was prickly vines hanging down and growing rapidly across the ground, they have had a particularly fine year for some reason. The direction shown seemed to be a wide terrace, almost a former road, and I elected to try it, without the secateurs it would have been hell on earth. (In fact we were not in the place I thought at all, we were probably rather lucky to get out as easily as we did.)
As it was it represented extremely slow going and we must have wasted nearly half an hour before I realised that the terrace below still had its rubber trees and would be a better option. By now from the sounds below us, I knew we were well off course and it became a question of developing an 'exit strategy'. In this respect, I always keep an open mind but it seemed sensible to start to descend through the rubber where possible.
Several terraces below we found what could fairly be described as 'a path'. I appealed to the gods for a sign as to whether we should follow it right or left. I tried left and round the corner I found a huge blockage. I said my 'thank yous' to Tua Pek Kong and we decided right. The path curved round the side of the hill and by now we were heading south-west - the day's plan had envisaged going north-east at this stage! As we found on a later hike, it was a good decision to turn right.
Round and down we went, we could see a small valley with durian trees on our right and there below us was a hut which I had never seen before (they do exist).
I could guess where the access path would lead to but first it was lunchtime. Obviously, the circular walk had been long abandoned and now we would be largely retracing our steps from the morning.
Somebody had invested a lot of effort in putting in a wide track here but whatever project was intended had never even got started.
We joined the 'classic path' just above where it completes its ascent from Gertak Sanggul and just before it narrows. The worst thing we could have done today would have been to continue down across our 'rescue path', I don't think there are many paths at all going that way,..
After which, we ambled back to Pulau Betong. I got my Koay Teow Soup, but sadly Yuehong was just too late for her red bean soup which was why we had come here in the first place. Sungai Pinang did the job and yet again I drove home very carefully being somewhat tired in every sense.
This was actually a great day out, but it was a 'damned close run thing', we were quite close to having a rather unpleasant experience. It needs sorting of course, but in these circumstances, the answer is to try first from the other side and we shall go in with eyes wide open and take rather more care when things get less than obvious... Two days later, we did just that.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson