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.
Two days earlier we had attempted to do this walk in the opposite direction and failed, principally because in the 5 years since we last did the southern section, the main path we wanted to use seems to have fallen out of use. Instead, we did an interesting lollipop walk utilising a path which was new to us. That gave me much food for thought and only after returning home and checking Google Maps carefully as well as looking at the traces logged by Yuehong's toy do I now have now a fair idea of what was and what was not going on. Suffice to say, I have completely redrawn the south-west corner of the map which appears at the bottom. I'd like to do this walk in the anti-clockwise direction too at some stage, just to see if I could manage it without getting lost.
We got to Pulau Betong quite early by our standards (09.45) and parked Mavis behind the Chinese school. It's very much a mixed kampung and almost the first building we passed was the local surau.
Last time we came this way, I turned off on too early on a new path. This time we held off, but the required path is actually 'hidden' because its concrete finishes short of the road, but simply if you get to the last house, you've missed it and the dogs will tell you that too.
It's a standard attractive durian orchard path and at least one point the traditional stone steps can be seen, they would have been used until the mid-1970s when cheap motorcycles made their appearance and revolutionised farming in the hills.
The hillside gets steeper higher up and we paused at the end of the path. This time, I decided to try a direct assault on the col as the forest looked quite open by the stream bed.
Yuehong always hangs back a bit when I try something 'different' as she know from experience that I don't always get it right first time. Here we found a sign for the (Pasir Panjang) forest reserve which was erected in 2017 when the forestry department yielded to pressure from concerned groups and actually did a survey to check the integrity of their charges. I don't think there was a problem here although the orchard runs right up to the boundary. The tree had come down naturally and we followed it up. Some consequential snipping was needed but the forest floor was generally quite clear.
There was even some kind of trail along the boundary and that meant more signs and trees with red flashes on them. It was the best passage I had had through here by some way.
I knew from past experience that the best route down from the col was to go to the left and go through the old rubber, but when we did this we found that the orchard below was getting a makeover and unwanted trees littered the ground in front of us.
This slowed us down of course, probably by next year they will have been burned but for the time being the path is covered. It's not far to the house where we found a couple of anonymous standard rubber rollers (presses), as usual one has plain rolls and the other grooved ones. Why, I'm not a rubber technologist? It's a good path down beyond.
Generally Yuehong leaves the photography to me, but this view looking down to Gertak Sanggul village was enchanting. We did a sharp right here, we didn't want to go down to the coast road.
We were now into 'rare track' we had only been this way three times ever and when we turned left at the next junction it was just twice, once each way and that 5 years earlier. My reports and photographs from the time were less comprehensive then and the maps were drawn much later. I knew we would go down to a stream in a valley and turn left, I did expect it to take us to the 'Pulau Betong Expressway' but it didn't.
In fact we came to first one bridge and then another and the path continued up a valley.
There was lush growth on the floor and to the right it seemed that a chemical attack had been mounted as we could walk almost to the end. Certainly our next target was the col beyond but the valley floor was anything but dry so we retraced our steps.
We hoped to use the small ridge to the south and as soon as we were on the other side of the stream we went straight up, to start with I wielded the secateurs to good effect, then we hit old rubber and finally the remains of the path I had been looking for and we emerged in the open.
This was the abandoned incomplete road supposedly built in the 1990s for a golf course project that deservedly failed. The first part had hardly changed since our previous visits, but further up nature was reclaiming ownership as the road surface had not been laid. It wasn't too difficult to pass but eventually there were parts which were blocked to a greater or lesser extent.
The road was intended to finish here where the hill top had been so severely scalped that it has never recovered - it is clearly visible in Google Maps (satellite view). I took the obligatory picture and we went through the forest to where we found the col as I expected. Previously, we had found a motorbike parked here while a rubber tapper worked above on the slopes of Bukit Pulau Betong. You couldn't get one here now but there was a piece of black plastic on the ground that might have been part of a number plate. It doesn't show too well in the last picture but the path on up is still in fair condition at least to start with.
The path up would be to the north, we wanted to go west and while it was quite open, there was no obvious path to follow. Instead we went gingerly downwards hoping something would turn up, I soon regretted having my celebratory Tiger just before.
On the right was a substantial two storey house, almost invisible to the camera, derelict and engulfed by the vegetation. On the left was a wide fern covered area of the sort which is best given a very wide berth. Later, when I checked my records, I was convinced that the path we used before had perished under it. As the open area was probably more than 100 metres across not only would a passage have had to be cut, but there would be no guarantee we could find the course of the path onwards. We should have come to the opposite side two days before but had taken an early right turn and completely missed it.
'Never go back' is one of my catch phrases even if we had beaten a retreat about an hour earlier. We had to find an alternative and this small gorge was all that was on offer, the fact that Yuehong spotted a small piece of blue cloth attached to a tree suggested we were not the first travellers here in recent years. We went down and up to get clear of the ferns and started to make our way down. There was a second, dry stream bed and more blue cloth.
As we clambered up again, I was able to bring a smile to Yuehong's face as in front of us was a cleared area with a durian tree. Yes, there would have been a path somewhere near at some stage but the orchards here are poorly maintained and it would have been nearly a year since anyone would have needed to be here.
I went towards the tree and looked for signs of human activity like a good 'Indian Scout'. Someone had been through the grass fairly recently and just up a short way, there was the path. The relief was overwhelming, I didn't know exactly where we were but we must have been rather more than 1km from the main Pulau Betong - Gertak Sanggul path. Very sensibly, Yuehong didn't ask me if I knew where we were.
When the path dropped to a bridge across a (hidden) stream and started to climb slightly, I finally twigged where we were and that news was very good indeed.
We would soon join another path (it leads to another orchard with a small Chinese shrine) and then shortly after we would come to the previous hike's overgrown junction.
Yuehong wasn't 100% convinced by my identification but when we came to the open area she had to agree. The cleared tree down was another familiar feature and I celebrated with another Tiger break.
Yuehong makes a point of pausing her trace so she can monitor her speed, I can assure you that otherwise it's kept off for the duration. With the degradation of the paths it had all taken a bit longer than I would have hoped and the proposed lunch in the Hai Ching was abandoned as Yuehong's preferred Red Bean soup would have gobbled up by eager customers as it was a Saturday.
We took the short cut to avoid the dog house and headed back north, the camera was packed away, we've done this walk many times.
Yuehong's bad knee was playing up as it always does once she goes past 6km so after the final refreshment break, I forged on ahead so I could recover Mavis and wait at the temple parking spot in Pulau Betong. In fact, by the time I had 'done the business' she pitched up less than five minutes later. We relaxed and she entertained a couple of locals who were preparing for some pre-Chinese New Year handouts to local pensioners.
Even though we had been out for some 6 hours, there was plenty of time for fruit purchase in Balik Pulau, dinner in Sungai Pinang and a drive home before dark.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson