The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails - Pulau Betong
Please visit my Penang buses page for information on accessing the starting point.
IMPORTANT – This is a connoisseur's walk put together as a cumulation of a number of other shorter walks, some of which involved in getting lost or spending more time than we would have liked looking for ways through overgrown fruit orchards, rubber estates or even jungle. Normally I say that it would not be too difficult for other serious hikers without previous knowledge of the area to use my account to follow the same route but this is probably not the case here. It's a marvellous walk with literally a bit of everything, but not one to be attempted casually without knowing the alternative exit points should a turning be missed or interpreted wrongly.
Not so many moons ago (February 2018) we did a circular walk around Bukit Pulau Betong starting and finishing in Pulau Betong itself, it took rather longer than we would have liked as we managed to lose our way a couple of times as the paths had changed so much since we had been in the area previously. Now, having invested serious time, we would do something similar again, hopefully without errors and with a nifty little short cut thrown in. All this was intended for the benefit of a couple of irregular walkers who wanted to see the infamous Gertak Sanggul golf course and its abandoned access road. To reduce the chances of an uncomfortable experience, we had even checked out a key section a couple of days earlier.
In the event we had a single guest, Mike Gibby, who professes to find no pleasure going 'off piste' but who is prepared to accept it in small amounts 'in the interests of science'. We gave him a gentle start, parking Mavis just up from the Chinese Primary School in Pulau Betong and heading off past the Dragon Fruit farm.
There is a modest development happening at the end of the road, land has been cleared for a house and a small Chinese temple is being built. This time, we knew to go past the small lean-to shelter to access the path to the durian estate above. It was not long after 09.00 and the dogs here obviously had yet to wake up.
It's a gentle climb and as it was an overcast day we could make good speed without overheating.
This is where it gets interesting at the top of the orchard, we've done this section several times before, Mike though must have been a little apprehensive. Yuehong is happy with it as long as she is going up.
Others had been here, but possibly on official duty.
I am sure there used to be more signs here, maybe some hikers have taken them home as a souvenir. Certainly no-one from the State Forestry Department will have been back here to check them after they were erected in 2017 following a public campaign to get them to do their job and check the condition of their forest reserves.
Over the top, we found this interesting plant, it looks to me to be related to the (red) Anthurium often found in pots in Malaysian gardens.
Going down the other side here had been tricky on our last visit as the top of the orchard was being cleared for overdue replanting. At the second attempt I found an acceptable route through it, we had spent just 30 minutes since leaving the path at the top of the other durian orchard.
The Burmese family were still living in the hut where the next concrete path starts, they have a young child and I did wonder what sort of education she was likely to get in their present circumstances. Mike was somewhat concerned that we might be going all the way down to the bottom.
Suitably reassured we set off west along the excellent path, the other Burmese family were at home, the last people we were to see on the hike. This section is quite delightful, finishing at the first of two small streams which will join to become the Sungai Gertak Sanggul.
We now kept left twice, passing a tree whose epiphytic ferns I remember from our original visit.
When we came to the tall grass across it, Yuehong and I knew it was time to leave this friendly path. Needless to say, Mike was disappointed but it was necessary to scramble a couple of metres up to the left to join the other path whose bottom section had become completely overgrown, the original junction has disappeared completely.
Never mind, we were rewarded with this beautiful fungus (Mike's photo) and very quickly we joined what is truly Penang's quietest road.
We'd removed the worst of the prickly vines two days earlier and we readily weaved our way through the small trees.
I got to a point which appeared to be unexpectedly somewhat unclear ahead, looked left and realised that we had reached the entry point for the cleared area. I don't think Mike had ever expected the opportunity to walk on the Moon.
We had made excellent progress even at our modest pace and took a break before heading into the well hidden trail which had so delayed us two days before. We gave Mike the honour of leading the way and two seconds after I took the picture, he vanished from view. Fortunately, he had only slipped and the ferns cushioned his contact with the ground. He must have enjoyed the experience as five minutes later he trod on a rotten log and repeated it,
This is one of the biggest wild boar wallows we have met, I guess it fills with water when it rains. After our prolonged efforts on our earlier walk, we roared down the wide trail.
In just 10 minutes we came to our familiar 'gate', I realised that, coming the other way, we should have turned sharp left immediately after it which would have saved us quite a few minutes unnecessary heavy snipping. However, the trail as a whole would still have needed a fair amount of attention. Below us to the right lay the somewhat overgrown orchard we would pass through next. When we said there was a path underneath it, by now Mike had obviously realised that we did know what we were doing and another 10 minutes without mishap brought us to the junction.
We turned right on the path to the Da Ba Gong shrine, making sure we turned left at the only remaining functioning junction. There was very little evidence of activity here, the obligatory plate of oranges was very tired.
I think Mike expected to carry on round the corner, but of course this is actually the end of the path. We had to cross the stream and go up through the abandoned rubber. There's every opportunity to get badly lost here, but we knew to go up keeping slightly left until reaching an almost imperceptible small valley, at which point there's some sort of old trail barely visible.
Crossing to the other side and following a very short way we emerged 10 minutes after leaving the shrine. Clearly needing instructions, I told Mike to 'go up keeping to the left and you'll find the path' and of course he did, it was reasonably clear as the rubber trees were being tapped. Yuehong just plodded on behind enjoying the walk and posing for the pictures.
We went down the path and I diced with disaster when I lost adhesion on a steep, slippery part; I found myself 'running' at an unsustainable long forgotten full Hash House Harrier speed. Yuehong watched aghast as I managed to divert off the path and aim for a rubber tree against which I could either brake with my hands and arms or wipe myself out – much better than tripping and falling flat. Fortunately, I came to a controlled halt and only considerable face was lost.
After which, we joined the main Gertak Sanggul - Pulau Betong path and the rest of the walk passed without incident. We'd spent about 4½ hours covering rather more than 8km, a measure of our pace and the conditions of the route. The good news was that Yuehong's bad knee seemed to have passed its test, despite the nasty steep final concrete path down to Pulau Betong. As for Mike, I think the many good parts justified putting up with the bits which average hikers would have preferred not to suffer. For us it was a chance to showcase our researches and an excuse to enjoy the Hai Ching's simple but delicious culinary delights, a bowl of Koay Teow soup and sticky black rice with coconut milk.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson