The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails - Going Back (Again)
Please visit my Penang buses page for information on accessing the starting point.
Exactly 15 years ago on 11th December 2003 I boarded a train at Jinzhou in Liaoning, China, as I had a dinner date in Beijing with a lady I had met some 10 months earlier on the Weihe Forestry railway. We'd then spent a couple of hours standing in a snow drift waiting to record a steam hauled train passing and of course eventually the train turned up.
The wait had gone quickly while we'd compared notes on all sorts of subjects, we continued to chat (with a rather larger gathering) over dinner in the evening and we were both more than happy to meet again although SARS had delayed my return to China. The dinner was a magical success and suffice to say it changed our lives such that Yuehong and I have now been married for 13 years. These days we are invariably in Penang for the anniversary and this year we returned to Pulau Betong at my request. The walk to the beach at Pasir Panjang (no road and no development at all then) was one of my favourites when I lived and worked here in the 1970s.
We have a season ticket for the temple car park and have learned to dodge the farmers' motorbikes on the first climb. Today, for a change, we turned left at the top; we've recorded coming down this way several times, it's impossible to get lost. We've actually been up several times, but never recorded it on these pages, it does need a little care.
It's counterintuitive to take the right fork here as the left path appears to follow a ridge up but in fact it terminates in a durian orchard well below the jungle covered summit of Bukit Puau Betong. At the next junction, the right fork goes down a short way to a house.
It's a very gentle climb through the orchards, at the next junction we kept right again, I can't remember trying left but it shouldn't go very far.
I had annoyed Yuehong by asking her to take the lead so I could tell where a newcomer might go wrong... As we went through the old rubber I was told to go first to remove the morning spiders' webs. When we came to the next cleared area, she said to me "Left?" but I knew she was winding me up, we've been down from that side just once and it was such an unpleasant and steep experience that we've not been back. Straight ahead is the way.
Note the sticks which these days are normally carried and I could tell from the body language that she was a little frustrated at my need to record the route.
At this point, we could have continued on to the new concrete path but it takes its time to climb not very far and it's easier to follow the old route on the left up to the cleared area where the lower slopes are full of bananas.
The charred stumps are abandoned rubber, the terraces are still visible. As we came to the end of the path, the body language changed completely, ahead was 'the real stuff'. A year ago I would have got an earful for bringing Yuehong to such a place.
Now while I dithered over how to get to the rocks where we had emerged a few days earlier, she marched across and by the time I got there she was busy applying the mosquito repellant.
What passed for a path here is buried under the clearance, but never mind, we just blasted straight up.
It was a 'breeze', we noted these plants normally found up trees occupying a large boulder.
A few more steps and we were on the ridge. We knew we had to turn right here but first I wanted to have a look at the top of the cleared area on our left.
It runs to within a couple of terraces of the ridge. It doesn't look very beautiful now but in a couple of years time there will be a proper path up and access to Bukit Pulau Betong will be much easier, not that many hikers are likely to avail themselves of the opportunity. In 10 years, it will be just another durian estate but more attractive and 'balanced' than it has been for a long time.
I had one last task; nearby I found my landmark red tree, these tend to flourish in places like this as old rubber reverts to some kind of jungle. It's a solitary example at the moment and I had always used it to locate what had once been a path down although now that ran for just a few yards to the cleared area.
Turning around, the ridge here runs westwards and slightly down, 5 years ago the rubber was occasionally tapped on an informal basis but now the prickly vines are invading. We had been here recently and knew we would come to a slightly open area from where the hillside falls all around. It would have been very easy to go wrong here, there is no obvious ridge and the required direction is about 45 degrees off to the left.
Fortunately, on our visit we had come up hill and while the Hash leaves a temporary trail of paper, we leave just a few snipped gingers, creepers and especially prickly vines.
As a result the route was pretty clear and as it's not as steep as the north side, Yuehong had no problems at all.
Soon we could see rubber which was last tapped just a couple of years ago, there's plastic waste and old cans and for confirmation we passed a boundary stone.
Here's an example of our earlier handy work, these plants will rip open any exposed skin if you try to brush past them. I'm pleased to say that our descent ended exactly where we wanted to be. If we had gone too far east we would have ended up in the overgrown half flooded flat valley, too far west and we would have had to fight our way through prickly vines for maybe half an hour before finding another path out.
Straight ahead was the edge of the fern patch leading to the moonscape. That's the hill we had just come down, you can see how rounded the end is.
The secateurs could go away now and we had our traditional lunch. Yuehong led the way out through the ferns which are now (temporarily) almost squashed flat.
She skipped over the last remaining horizontal tree trunk and went through the vine hole into the durian orchard.
No amount of visits just by us is ever going to open the path up and even the junction (right is the Da Ba Gong shrine) was invisible.
"Watch out for wild boar!" I whispered to Yuehong as I stopped to blow my nose. Before I could catch up again, a medium sized one had rushed across the path barely 10 metres in front of her. They like damp overgrown valleys and they would like these pineapples even more if they could easily get at them.
We had decided to use the famous path so Yuehong could chalk up some extra kilometres. We played 'spot the clove tree', there are very few left in Penang and even fewer are in good condition. December is the best time to see them as it is the flowering / fruiting season. They are somewhat nondescript and the best way to confirm their identity is to crush a leaf and smell it.
Yuehong didn't believe me when I said this was a cocoa pod, later I supervised her as she did an appropriate image search. Right again, Mr. Rob! This middle section is not up to much, it's hemmed in by old rubber and the concrete is disintegrating in places so we were glad to get to the first northern orchard, the rest of the path is in much better condition.
It was Yuehong's turn to spot the clove tree and when we passed the bamboo we knew we hadn't far to go.
A little bit of interest was provided by this lizard and then we were on the last stroll down to Pulau Betong. We had far exceeded Yuehong's daily 'mileage' allowance and for the first time this trip, her right knee was sore and I left her to make her own way down, even so I only had 5 minutes to myself.
In November and early December it is still rather wet in Penang but it mostly affects the higher parts of the north end of the island, hence our preoccupation with the south and south-west so far. I declared a day off to digest our anniversary dinner and rest our knees, at the moment it looks a good decision as the skies above our home on the north coast are very grey.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson