A Haunt in the Hills

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Trail entrance.

Dear climbers, here’s a trail in Tanjung Bungah that’s both hidden and intriguing.

The hills of Penang are dotted with “haunted houses” – bungalows built as retreats from the heat of the lowlands in the days before air conditioning was ubiquitous. They’ve since been abandoned, and are now slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.

One such bungalow is on the little-hiked Bukit Lang (also known as Bukit Zizai) in Tanjung Bungah. This haunted house – never particularly easy to reach – was made even more inaccessible when a construction project in Lembah Permai bulldozed through the lower reaches of the trail.

Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu, known for trying to get his constituents out of their cars and onto their bicycles, is a keen hiker himself. With support from Jawatankuasa Keselamatan dan Kesihatan (JKKK) Tanjung Bungah and plenty of volunteers, the trail was recently re-routed and re-opened. The haunted house was given a coat of paint and a new roof; and with its availability of fresh water the trail has the potential to become a regular destination for local hikers and fitness enthusiasts, much like rest stops 5 and 46 on Penang Hill.

This haunted house was officially re-opened on April 17 this year. I joined the opening hiking party at the start of the new trail, which lies at the very end of Lorong Lembah Permai 3, past Tunku Abdul Rahman College. It is clearly marked between two large rocks with a signboard stating “Zizai Lodge, 1,650 kaki”. This 1,650 feet (about 500m) is the altitude of the haunted house. For comparison, Penang Hill is at 2,411 feet (734m).

The new trail descends slightly towards an aluminium fence that encloses a stagnant pond, and we needed to cross a stream using a makeshift bridge made from tree logs and bamboo. On the other side we scrambled up the bank. Ahead of us, “Zi Zai” and its Chinese characters were painted on another large rock accompanied by yellow arrows. Beyond this the trail climbed steeply up into the forest above. From here on upwards the entire trail is marked by DAP rocket flags, making it very easy to follow.

The lower reaches of the trail are really quite steep and as the trail is newly-made, tree roots haven’t had the chance to grow and form convenient footholds for hikers. But ropes have been tied between trees in many places to serve as handrails and hoists: in only one spot did we have to help haul each other up a steep bank.

After 30 minutes of climbing we passed several huge boulders, one with the word “Peace” taped onto it, and a board telling us we had reached 740 feet (about one third of the elevation we were to ascend). Among these boulders is a large flat rock, with a view of Straits Quay between the trees. The Chinese character for Buddha told us that this would make a wonderful meditation spot. We rested here for a few minutes before continuing on upwards.

Helping hands required.

Newly painted haunted house.

As we went higher it became cooler. A breeze occasionally reached us in clearings between the trees, and the trail remained very shady the whole way with occasional glimpses of the sun through the trees – all quite beautiful.

Forty-five minutes of climbing brought us at last to the haunted house, now gaily painted and ready to welcome day-trippers and possibly even campers in future. For those with plenty of energy, it is possible at this point to continue hiking and join the trail leading to Penang Hill’s old Crag Hotel. This takes another two and a half hours.

Resting at the Buddha platform

It is also possible to hike from here back along the mountain bike trail into Tanjung Bungah coming out in Fettes Park near Jalan Mount Erskine, or to hike down into the Botanical Gardens via the Lily Pond Trail or the 1,500 steps. To do this, you continue on the Rocket Trail path on the other side of the haunted house and keep walking steeply upwards once the flags come to an end. In about 15 to 20 minutes, the trail reaches a T-junction. There are signs on the tree in front, pointing to RG9 to your right, and RG4 to your left (RG stands for rain gauge). RG9 will take you to the Crag Hotel; RG4 to the Botanical Gardens or Tanjung Bungah. On this occasion, we simply retraced our steps back the way we came.

Two years ago however, in the days when the haunted house really did look haunted, we tried to find a circular route back to where we had started but without retracing our steps. We followed the trail on upwards beyond the haunted house and turned left at the T-junction. The trail descended quite quickly and was narrow and very eroded, and slippery when wet. We saw occasional milestones dating from the time this trail was actually a main road across the hills.

Trail map.

Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu sweeping the Buddha platform.

After passing the rain gauges about 30 into the descent, the path widened out as we reached the so-called “highway” – a broad path that loops around the Botanic Gardens on the ridge of the hill and passes an almost illegible sign pointing the way to the Botanic Gardens via the 1,500 steps.

Soon, we began to hear the sounds of Teik Quarry below and to our left. Being with a particularly adventurous group of hikers, we struck out down the hill on what was more like an animal path than a real trail. Keeping the sound of the quarry on our left we followed a fairly clear path for a while, and when we could just see the quarry through the trees we turned right and walked downwards. We lost the path completely at this point and made our way through the trees and undergrowth trying to find the safest route downhill. Soon we heard dogs barking loudly. This is not normally good news when out hiking but in this case it was, as the dogs were at a rescue shelter in a banana plantation close to the quarry.

We continued to scramble downwards and towards the sound of the dogs, knowing we were reaching civilisation as the number of trees being tapped for rubber increased. Eventually we reached the path around the banana plantation and, giving the dogs a wide berth, took the wide white road down the hill, through the quarry and out the other side, emerging back on Lorong Lembah Permai almost directly opposite the Chinese Temple.

So, hikers of Tanjung Bungah, adventurous or not, there is no excuse for you not to go out and explore your hills!

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.



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