Forest Reserve sign.
There is a trail up Bukit Relau that is truly hidden, but no less fantastic.
The Penang State Forestry Department actively protects three areas of virgin rainforest – that is, forest which has never been cleared for logging, agriculture or development and so contains ancient trees and undisturbed ecosystems. These are at Pantai Aceh (within the National Park), in the forest park at Teluk Bahang, and on Government Hill. In addition, it manages the forest parks at Teluk Bahang on the island and at Air Hitam Dalam and Bukit Panchor in Seberang Perai.
But there are various other patches of forest reserve that are less known, less managed and rarely monitored. The popularly hiked ones are around the Botanic Gardens, but I had also wandered into the one on Bukit Penara (Penang Monthly, December 2016) and another at Bukit Juru (Penang Monthly, October 2016), so I became curious about the others.
I found a map in the Forestry Department’s 2013 annual report (the most recent available on their website): the question then became how to hike to these other forest reserves. Rob Dickinson came to my rescue. He and his wife Yuehong hike every other day for the four months of the year they live in Penang and he documents his hikes on his website, www.internationalsteam.co.uk. His speciality is finding trails that link with other trails, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hills and paths on the island and how they interconnect. He was kind enough to offer to take me to the forest reserve at Bukit Relau, above Paya Terubong.
We met at a bus stop on Jalan Paya Terubong on a rainy morning in December last year. After a short way up the road we turned right onto a concrete motorcycle path which climbed further into the hills. Rob told us that when he first lived in Penang in the 1970s, none of these paths were concreted. Instead there were steps cut into the hills for farmers to bring their produce to the market.
We took the first fork left and turned right, always following the concrete paths and in the shade, with tall trees on either side. Within half an hour the view opened up again as we reached a farm. Rob led us up a small path beside a dilapidated farm hut. After following this through the crops and back into the jungle, 20 minutes later, we entered a very well-maintained fruit and flower farm where we were greeted by cheerful Indonesian workers. We walked through plantations of passion fruit growing on trellises above our heads and passed a huge tree tomato (or tamarillo), its vine extending to the treetops, shedding ripe fruit at our feet.
Another path beside another hut led us to the right onto a shady trail where Bukit Penara was visible, but with its radio towers enshrouded by dark grey clouds. Twenty minutes later we reached a broad tarmac path. We turned left at a bend in the road back onto a cluttered path and, with the sky clearing, were rewarded with the sight of the radio towers across the valley. Ten minutes later we stopped for lunch. Rob and Yuehong knew a great spot – a hut on top of the ridge with a glorious view, and plastic stools we could sit on while enjoying our sandwiches. Inside the hut we glimpsed a worker sorting through his cucumber harvest.
Rob then led us along an overgrown path and chose a gap in the undergrowth to clamber into the Bukit Relau Forest Reserve. I had already realised the article I planned to write for Penang Monthly would never serve as a trail guide as it would be impossible to describe how to find the right route. Once inside the reserve it became even more impossible, as we twisted and turned through the undergrowth. Ancient trees soared above us, but we did also see plenty of evidence of younger trees having been cut down.
We spent 30 minutes making our way through the forest reserve. In one section we saw the paper trail evidence of a recent hash – it was a mystery to us where the hash had entered the forest and where they left, but it was reassuring to know that there are others making use of the otherwise deserted forest of Bukit Relau. Once we emerged on the other side, we saw lying against the foot of a tree a signboard declaring this area to be a permanent forest reserve. Rob joked that farmers move the sign back a few metres every year so that they can clear more of the land for farming. At least, I hope he was joking.
From here on, it was downhill all the way. We were in a field of young rubber trees, perhaps five years old, which had been grafted onto older root stock. We cut across this field and joined another of the many concrete motorbike paths to begin our descent through actively worked rubber plantations. Sometimes we went under the trees, sometimes we beat through the undergrowth to get to the next level below us in the plantation, and sometimes we kept to the concrete paths which were covered in moss and were very slippery after the recent rains. We all found it hard going and fell several times. “This is probably a better path for the dry season in January-February,” remarked Rob.
After an hour, the skies cleared. By this time, we were in an area planted with mature nutmeg trees. We saw the Nibbinda forest monastery poking above the tree line, and a huge swiftlet farm below us. As Rob directed us off the path and down a slope with steps made from recycled tyres, I once more reflected on the fact that this was a hike I would never be able to repeat without him as guide.
It took us two hours to come down from the forest reserve and to reach Balik Pulau. We knew we were almost there when we smelled the pungent odour of the chicken farm behind the spice house on Jalan Bukit Penara, our final destination. The whole remarkable journey of about 8.5km had taken us five hours at a slow and steady pace. One of our party had diligently recorded every left and right turn, and told me there were 16 in total, not including our convolutions inside the forest reserve. The turns were: left, right, left, right, right, right, left, left, left, left, left, right, right, left, left and left. I defy anyone to find the way using that information, or by following Rob’s own description and map of the way (http:// www.internationalsteam.co.uk/penang/ penanghills111.htm). Better perhaps just to set off with a good sense of direction, plenty of time, food and water, and a big appetite for adventure!
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.