A trail charming and delightful


Bukit Mertajam is a difficult but definitely worthwhile hike.

You can see its distinctive peak with its radio towers from miles away, jutting up from the lowlands. Easily visible even from the island, Bukit Mertajam is 545m above sea level. It sits in Seberang Perai’s 37ha Bukit Mertajam Forest Park a few kilometres outside the town of the same name.

The tarmac road to the summit begins at the park’s car park on Jalan Kolam and can be hiked in just over an hour. But hiking (or cycling) up to the top this way is boring and very hot. There is little shade and the heat reflects from the black surface. So with an expert guide, Fisol, we decided to take a longer, more difficult and much more interesting route.

At the entrance to the Forest Park there is a small recreational area, with rocky swimming pools and kiosks selling fruit and tea. From here there are perhaps dozens of different hikes around and up to the top of the hill, but none of them are clearly marked. We set off on a gentle uphill path through the huts opposite the food kiosks. The path is not signposted but, strangely, there are lampposts stationed at intervals beside it.

After a couple of minutes we join a concrete trail that leads us to an old dam. This attractive dam with its crenellated tower was in use before the huge Mengkuang Dam was built in the 1980s. It now offers picturesque views of the valley that formed the reservoir before the jungle reclaimed it.

On the other side of the dam we continue to follow paths through the dense forest, climbing at first gradually and then ever more steeply as we near the top. Paths branch off in many different directions. “Don’t worry,” laughs our guide, “you can’t get lost if you keep heading uphill!” But I am not so sure and am glad to be able to leave the navigating to him.

Mengkuang Dam view.

Fifty minutes later we reach a plateau, known to regular hikers as “Three Big Rocks”. Charmingly, some of them have installed a swing on one of the trees, and there are a few red plastic chairs gratefully used by those of our party who need a rest. We wait here for about 20 minutes until the stragglers in our group catch up.

The symbols “F3” and “F5”, no doubt trail indicators, are painted on a rock beside a narrow path leading through a crevice. We clamber up the rocks at this point, using ropes thoughtfully attached by other hikers to pull ourselves up. Just above this point, we catch a magnificent view through a gap in the foliage over the sprawling Bukit Mertajam housing estates and beyond. Ten minutes later I am delighted when someone points out to me a tortoise nestling at the base of a tree – the first time I have ever encountered one in the wild.

One can bump into interesting things at the Bukit Mertajam trail.

Thirty minutes after leaving the Three Big Rocks plateau, our path joins the tarmac road, just below the summit of the hill. Disappointingly, at the summit, we are greeted only by a high fence and a “No Entry” sign, the radio towers soaring above our heads being the only proof that we have indeed reached the top.

For our descent, we take the tarmac road. We walk for 10 minutes until we come to a trail branching off to the left. Very quickly this trail opens onto a wooden platform and shelter, with an incredible view over Mengkuang Dam and towards the Titiwangsa mountains that form the backbone of the Malaysian peninsula. I am told that some people hike to this platform in the evening and sleep there overnight in order to see the sun rise over the mountains the next morning. It must be a stupendous sight.

We return to the tarmac road and descend for another 10 minutes until we reach a “pondok rekreasi”, complete with a tea cabinet where regular hikers store their tea-making equipment. Here, for the first time, we see a trail signpost put up by the Forestry Department, for the “Denai hutan cherok to’kun” (Bukit Mertajam forest trail). The signpost indicated that this trail is 3.4km in length; we follow it back into the forest, grateful to be leaving the hot tarmac road at last. Five minutes later we reach a clearing where a makeshift gazebo that looks rather like a bus stop shelter has been constructed for some reason. A further 10 minutes down the trail we reach a clearing, marked by nothing but a large yellow sign to inform us that we have reached “Stesen 2”.

Bukit Mertajam Big Tree

In another 10 minutes and just after scrambling down over some very steep rocks, our guide leads us off the main trail and along a narrow path between the trees to our left. This pathway, almost impossible to find and rather difficult to follow, brings us to the “Big Tree”.

The Bukit Mertajam Big Tree is thought by hikers to be about 500 years old. It is a Tualang (Koompassia excelsa), a species of monumental tree that apparently can reach 80m in height, far above the rainforest canopy. It is impossible to judge from the ground how high the Big Tree is. We content ourselves with climbing on the enormous root buttresses that prevent the tree from falling over.

The Tualang is also known as the Honey Bee Tree. The Asian Giant Honeybee builds its nests in the branches, which are so far from the ground; the nests are equally protected by the smooth bark of the tree that makes it difficult for predators to climb. Needless to say, down on the ground, we catch no glimpse of the immense parabolic honeycombs that may be above our heads.

On the other side of the Big Tree, the narrow pathway through the trees continues and eventually rejoins the main signposted trail. The next 20 minutes are thoroughly enjoyable as we descend gently along a pretty trail, crossing pebbly streams, passing under natural vaults of bamboo and finally descending stone steps that lead us past the rock swimming pools of the recreational area close to the car park. A short drive away we finally rest our weary limbs and treat ourselves to a restorative plate of Bukit Mertajam speciality mee kuah ketam.

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

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