A hike to the top via Moongate

loading The viaduct.

Why take the train when you can hike?

Every hiker in Penang feels the irresistible urge at some point to climb to the highest point in Penang, and so they embark on one of the many routes leading to the summit of Penang Hill. At 735m above sea level, this is not in actual fact the highest point on the island; this accolade goes to Western Hill, which rises 833m above sea level. Western Hill is about a mile along the Summit Road from Penang Hill, but it is the site of an off-limits military radar station.

But don’t lose heart. If you are a height junky, the Penang Forest Hill Challenge from Teluk Bahang to Penang Hill enables you to pass close to the top of Western Hill, at an altitude of around 805m.

There are many, many paths to the top of Penang Hill. The shortest is the jeep track, a 5km road starting just outside the entrance to the Penang Botanic Gardens. It is a tarmac road, steep and boring because having trees on either side means that there are no views. The road is shared by bicycles, motorbikes and jeeps as well as pedestrians, making it noisy and occasionally dangerous. It is tiring and tedious, but will take you only around two hours to complete.

Slightly less boring, but very hard on the knees, is the newly built “Heritage Trail”, which consists of concrete steps following the course of the funicular train from Air Itam. Believe me, there are much, much more interesting and enjoyable ways to climb Penang Hill.

Many of these alternate trails snake their way through jungle. You can reach the top of the Hill on trails that start at various locations far and near, including Air Itam Dam, Tanjung Bungah, Balik Pulau and even Batu Feringghi.

Outdoor gym at Rest Stop 5.

The trail I describe here is easy to follow, and though challenging in places, is not much longer than taking the jeep track. We began at Moongate, which is a circular stone gateway along Jalan Kebun Bunga, on the left hand side of the road on the approach to the Penang Botanic Gardens. It was formerly the entrance to the grounds of the 19th century country house of Cheah Chen Eok, the Penang millionaire best known for building the Queen Victoria Memorial clock tower at the Esplanade to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee.

On the jungle side of Moongate is a stone path. Here we turned left and took the steps up the Hill. The steps are broad, shallow and well-shaded, and took us about 35 minutes to climb. We joined the wide, flat trail that brought us to Rest Stop 5, a popular morning and evening destination for fitness enthusiasts who use the outdoor gym after completing their climb. Here, we were invited to enjoy a cup of tea or water to refresh ourselves.

Passing through the rest stop and continuing straight on and up, we took the trail leading to Rest Stop 84. It skirted the side of the Hill and in places gave us magnificent views over George Town and Air Itam. The upward slopes are generally gentle and in places the trail is downhill. After about 30 minutes we reached Rest Stop 84, which is currently under reconstruction following a landslide. Rest Stop 84 apparently is the location of the former “Halfway House”, James Scott’s Penang Hill residence. The house is no longer there though.

Crossing a crevice.

The rest stop is at the junction of the trail we had just come along, the tarmac jeep track, a trail straight back down the Hill through the jungle and Moniot Road East. This Moniot “road”, as we read on its signpost, was an early bridle path, about 1km in length, laid out by British surveyor Major McNair in 1825. It was declared a Heritage Trail in 1989, but since then has been badly neglected. We took this path.

The trail ascended gradually at first. The walk was straightforward as parts of the steeper slopes are coated in concrete. After 10-15 minutes the trail forked. The left hand fork leads to a hut guarded by fierce dogs. I received a rather nasty bite on my leg years ago when I was foolishly exploring this path alone. Wiser this time, we took the right fork that climbs steeply up an earth bank covered in logs. The original bridle path was buried under a landslide many years ago, but intrepid hikers have beaten a new track over it.

After a few minutes of steep climbing, the path levelled out once more and continued through quiet and shady forest. We took the time to enjoy a beautiful view over the hills and Air Itam from a rocky outcrop on the left and to admire enormous colourful butterflies dancing in the breeze. Three bridges helped us to navigate over crevices and streams. After a final steep ascent we spotted a tarmac road ahead of us – Viaduct Road East. We turned left on this road and immediately saw the viaduct that transports the funicular train high above the road.

Penang Hill view.

Just on the other side of the viaduct, we spotted shallow mossy steps leading up the Hill on our right hand side, with a bungalow to the left of the steps and a storm drain to the right. The path continued beyond the steps, winding through overgrown gardens between other bungalows. It was remarkable for us to discover quite how many houses, occupied and unoccupied, there actually are on Penang Hill. One small section of the path was terribly narrow and adrenaline pumped through our veins as we tried not to slip and fall. Then the path opened onto a broad concrete path. From here, it was easy to follow and there were regular yellow signs pointing in the direction of “top station”, the funicular railway station at the top of Penang Hill.

The concrete path reached a junction. To our left we saw some newly built steps – part of the “Heritage Trail”. Within a few minutes these steps brought us to the summit of the Hill next to the hawker centre and its welcome cold drinks.

The descent from Penang Hill also offers many alternative routes. Feeling lazy on this occasion, we boarded the funicular train back down to Air Itam. We could, of course, have taken the jeep track, which is the fastest way to get down on foot. But another nicer alternative is to retrace your steps back to Rest Stop 84 and then take a shortcut, bypassing Rest Stop 5. Just beside the under-construction replacement rest stop is a stone pillar marking the start of a trail that descends through the forest more or less directly back down to Moongate. It takes about an hour from Rest Stop 84 to the bottom. The last 30 minutes are steep, and difficult and slippery if there has been a lot of rain. But it is definitely much more fun than taking the jeep track!

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

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