The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails - A Game of Two Halves
This is one of a series of pages on walking the hills of Penang, click here for the index. This is essentially a Grade 3 walk, but the first half has a totally unnecessary diversion which is decidedly Grade 4. 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.
From a web search, an Environmental Impact Assessment for a golf course at Gertak Sanggul was commissioned by Kasumidai (the name of a Japanese Country Club with a golf course) in 1991. It was submitted by 'Total Resort Sdn Bhd' and accepted in 1992 (the company has since vanished without trace). I had assumed that the project was started some time after that but collapsed in the late 1990s when the economies of the South-East Asian nations were in total melt down and their currencies near worthless, unable to service dollar denominated loans. However, its demise may predate that. It is well established that successive State Governments in Penang (and no doubt the British authorities before them) have had no regard for the welfare of the green hills that make the island so special and presumably such permissions as were necessary were easily procured. Quite how the tiny streams that make up the small Sungai Gertak Sanggul were ever going to supply the necessary water for a thirsty golf course is beyond my understanding but I'm not an 'eco' professional. The project initially involved clearing a hilltop completely and building an access road. Unfortunately for both the hill and the developer, the road was never completed and the hill left bare, a situation that remains the same today some 20 years later. Currently, the land belongs to E&O Holdings who obviously know what a crock of shit it represents and are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to sell it on.
The link above concerning the demise of the project gave its reason as 'landslides on the approach road'. From what we saw today, I can categorically state that such an excuse is a complete load of 'bollocks', the odd boulder on the road there may be but nothing that could not have been sorted at minimal cost. It is hard not to conclude that the developers had insufficient capital and that they failed to persuade their bankers and investors to stump up the extra money they needed when it ran out. It's a longstanding problem in South-East Asia that projects are started 'on a shoestring' with the hope that extra finance can be acquired as the project progresses.
I love Gertak Sanggul, I hope that's obvious from the blogs I have written over the last couple of months. Today, we wanted to add an important piece to the jigsaw that is the golf course project. We knew that parts of the access road higher up were still passable 20 years after it was abandoned but a web search had failed to provide any information on the lower section. We had asked about this in the Heng Soon coffee shop but were told it was totally overgrown. That sounded like a challenge to us and the only way it was going to be sorted was from the top down as no-one seemed to know where in the village it had started. A wise decision indeed as we could have wandered round looking for it for a week and never found it. If your interest is solely the abandoned road, you can skip the first half and jump directly to that section.
We parked just up the estate road at electricity pole JGS 144. It's been a while since we had walked up but we had walked down a little earlier in the visit and had been reminded how pleasant it is.
The rule is to follow the electricity poles which actually keep to the main route.
At one point I did check out a path to the left but it led down only to a durian orchard. We continued upwards.
We got the traditional view of Gertak Sanggul and Pulau Kendi before turning left. (Right would have led to the ridge from where you can take jungle routes to Bukit Pulau Betong, Kampung Pulaau Betong or Bukit Gemuroh.)
The passed the bamboo migrant workers' hut and this time turned right. We'd only done this once before and I had no intention of letting Yuehong go very far along it.
It had recently been cut back and we met the assumed owner on a motorbike. He was happier in English than Mandarin and was most concerned because as far as he was concerned the path went nowhere. I assured him that we had been before, we knew the house and the orchard and what was beyond them.
This is the orchard and this is the house. Peter van der Lans has told me that turning right just before it eventually leads to the minor peak on the ridge up to Bukit Pulau Betong from the east side, I'm happy to take his word for that.
We'd seen a second motorbike with workers and it was clear they had no interest in this second class durian. Yuehong and I enjoyed the better bits, there will be a lot more like in the south of the island in the coming weeks but we won't be around to enjoy them. Yuehong now went back to the junction, turned right and waited for me to make a fool of myself. I estimated two hours, but I hoped for less.
These two pictures are from December 2012 at which time the house was occupied and the old rubber in the area ahead was reasonably clear, but this does show one of the better bits, the 'old' Yuehong had not enjoyed the experience and there was no way I was going to ask her to repeat it..
This time, I would start as before as there is (was) a path upward and to the left, it must have been quite good once as there is a concrete bridge here.
The secateurs were brought into use, I was determined to stick to the same contour / terrace as far as possible.
It's rarely easy to follow a hillside terrace for some distance as you're bound to meet rocks and / or a stream bed, but I did my best. I even found groups of old rubber trees at times. I think now I would have been better to have climbed a bit (which is what we did last time) but not knowing how far I had gone I got tempted to follow tappers' paths downwards and invariably that led to areas which had been cleared some time back and planted with bananas which had then been forgotten. However, I could see durian trees below too. It was all very time consuming and when I came to the point which I knew to be almost the end of the open area in the valley below, I realised I had almost exhausted my time budget and that If I carried on to my original intended destination at the bottom of the climb to the Bukit Pulau Betong ridge, I would be seriously late. So I opted to go down.
It was 'fun' of a kind, this is one part after I had been through it, there are bits of trees under it, some rotten some not. Anyway, this was the 'last durian' and beyond there was a good path out as we found earlier.
The flat valley floor would have been damp if had rained more, hence the concrete where normally it would be just sand. Yuehong was waiting where I expected and I was almost exactly on time. I needed a lunch break.
She had been a little bored and had explored the path ahead from here which we hadn't used this time. It leads to this house, now abandoned but lived in at the end of 2012 (second picture) and afterwards curves left and down to the path I had just come along.
We now needed to go up the short distance to the abandoned road.
From even a short distance things didn't look good, but as we got closer we could see it was an illusion, there were most trees growing over it and where a small amount of light penetrated, our friends the prickly vines had grown up. New and old growth alike quickly succumbed to the secateurs.
We came to a part where the road surface was very uneven, this seemed to be a small landslip, the trees had gone and we had to find a way (easily) through the long grass.
For much of this initial section we were walking under a canopy of trees, crash barriers were still present. The gradient was gentle so we were going to cover quite a distance to get down to the village. There were some boulders ahead of Yuehong in the second picture. these were the largest we saw and represented no real problem to clear had anyone wanted to do that. The next open area was the first U-bend, at each of these we found the road a little more overgrown as they occupied a greater area and more trees had been removed.
Round to the right we went and now the crash barriers were on the left. But conditions otherwise were unchanged.
Another bend, more long grass and then back under the canopy. Where the prickly vines had occupied the middle of the road, I snipped them, I would like to come back up here next time around. In fact, this road would be perfect for mountain bikers and it would not take much effort to make it clear enough for them to pass easily.
By now we could see the roofs of houses below us and there was one last U-bend to negotiate.
I have to say that at this point the road disappeared but we could see a house ahead and stepped out into the sunlight. It had taken 75 minutes from when we started on the road, we could have done it a lot quicker if I had kept the snipping to the bare minimum needed to get through.
This is the house behind which the road climbs to the right, there is absolutely no indication that it exists. It's the last house on the left on this road that runs back from the beach area.
This is where it starts, I recall the electricity pole here is JGS 164. Actually, it couldn't have been better because the Heng Soon is just 50 metres away to the right. They had just started a siesta but an old gentleman sitting outside gestured us across and banged on the door which swung open. We were very welcome as were another small group which then materialised. Yuehong regaled them with tales of our 'adventure', we finished our drinks and promised to return later in the year. Somehow I doubt much will have changed in the interim although in the long term I do fear for what the state government and developers will manage to do wreck to the ambience.
Yuehong needed a 'fruit run', I needed a final visit to the Magic Tiger Tree and afterwards we had dinner in Sungai Pinang and drove home. I, at least, was rather tired after my efforts. The secateurs are overdue for a rest.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson