Lily Pond at the Penang Botanic Gardens.
The Lily Pond Circular Walk is one of the most attractive and accessible hikes in Penang, and takes only a couple of hours even at our slow pace. For this reason it is one we come back to again and again. Recently we did the walk when my 69-year-old father was visiting us for a couple of weeks. He hikes regularly in the UK and is fit and healthy, but we didn’t want him to expire as a result of the heat and humidity, so a shorter hike than usual seemed to make the most sense.
Batu Ferringhi via aqueduct sign.
The trail starts at the main entrance to the Penang Botanic Gardens. We turned right and walked until we reached the orchid house, (which was closed as usual), and followed the path on our right, signposted to the Lily Pond. The Lily Pond has always been my favourite spot in the Botanic Gardens – peaceful, beautiful and shady – but until we started our hiking adventures, I had never noticed the signs tacked to a tree: to Mount Olivia, 46 and 84. These signs and quite a lot of others on the paths around this side of Penang Hill are marked LYK. LYK, sometimes known as Forest Lim, a keen hiker, marked out many trails a few years ago. Sadly the signs are already suffering from the weather and some are quite difficult to read now.
On this hike we didn’t actually go to Mount Olivia, 46 or 84 although other hikes have taken us there. Mount Olivia is one of the hills that encircle the Botanic Gardens; it was named after Sir Stamford Raffle’s wife, Olivia. The couple lived in a bungalow here for a while after they arrived in Penang in 1805. Someone told me the ruins of the bungalow are still in the forest but we haven’t been able to find them. 46 and 84 are the names of two of the rest stops part way up Penang Hill.
The entrance to the uphill path is just beside this sign but is quite overgrown. We could tell we were following the right path because of the occasional blue spots painted on the trees. There are ropes available, which we used to pull ourselves up the hill. Although this 30-minute climb is hard work, I love it! Using hands and feet to scramble up made me feel like a kid again. As we climbed out of the valley, gradually the forest around us became lighter and we could see the tree-tops of the jungle below us. There are a couple of conveniently fallen tree trunks just over halfway up where we sat, caught our breath, had a sip of water and enjoyed the complete lack of man-made noise around us.
Once we reached the top of the climb there was a flurry of LYK signs. We didn’t take the path pointing to the right (signposted Coronation Scout Camp), but the one going left (signposted 46 and Mount Erskine), which descended the hill for a few minutes then joins “the Highway” where we turned left. The Highway is a broad path that runs along the ridge top with the Botanic Gardens on the left and Tanjung Bungah on the right. Immediately I was struck by how noisy it was on the top of the hill – traffic and construction noise weren’t blocked out anymore, but the views over Tanjung Bungah on this crystal clear day were sensational.
The Highway is easy walking, fairly flat and shaded, and took us back into the forest after 20 minutes or so. There was gentler climbing for 10-15 minutes through the forest, but the path remained quite easy to follow. At the top of a rise, we reached the ruins of what we thought were military installations – maybe bunkers or weapons stores originally, but now just holes in the ground and bits of brick wall and floor. I was later told that these are in fact the remains of a Victorian era resort called "The Spout". People used to ride up here on horseback and bathe in the large square pool, hence the still-visible steps down into it. The resort was closed by the government in 1907 over concerns about contamination of the water catchment area. Possibly The Spout’s buildings were also demolished at that time. (Thanks to Mike Gibby for this insight.)
Climbing with ropes.
Soon after The Spout, the path started to climb again. We had to look out carefully for the LYK signpost on the right that used to indicate the trails to Penang Hill via Crag Hotel, and Batu Ferringhi via Aqueduct. Opposite this is an easy-tomiss path that goes back down to the Botanic Gardens.
From here we could already hear the sound of the famous waterfall, after which Waterfall Gardens (the original name for the Botanic Gardens) was named. I have only ever seen old paintings of the waterfall; access was forbidden by Penang’s water authority (PBA), either as a safety precaution during the 1960s Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation and during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s, or because too many people committed suicide there – depending on whom you ask. I understand there are certain ways to visit it though, both official and unofficial. One of these days…
Following the path downhill with the sound of water always to the left, we crossed over a stream using a narrow concrete bridge, and then reached a wider walkway. Here there is an old signpost in the middle of the path reminding us that we have just been in a restricted area. This happens a lot when hiking here, because so much of the hill forest area is critical to Penang’s water supply. I am just glad for myself and all the other hikers of Penang that the rules are honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
A few minutes later, a path led to the left going steeply down the hill, where steps have been built into the hillside. This was the only section of the trail where we met anyone; these steps are the first part of a popular path from the Botanic Gardens to Rest Stop 46, part way up Penang Hill. But like many of the trails in Penang, you have to know it is there as it is not signposted from the starting point, which is where we emerged 20 minutes later with aching calf muscles, back in the Botanic Gardens.
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for six years.