Climbing the Tiger

loading A scenic waterfall pouring into the Air Itam Dam.

Breath-taking sights await the Tiger Hill hiker – from its quaint waterfall and botanic delights to historic engineering marvels.

A cyclist freewheeling down the cement trail to Air Itam Dam from the Iron Cross.

Penang Hill is a series of peaks separated by small valleys, rivulets and steep slopes, reaching its highest point at Western Hill. While some of these summits were named during Penang’s colonial days, other less prominent ones still remain unnamed and unnoticed.

The more famous peaks include Government Hill, Bukit Laksamana, Flagstaff Hill and Tiger Hill. Each of these peaks has an illustrious story to tell, but Tiger Hill in particular is one that exudes charm and fascination like no other. While its name may raise a red flag, rest assured, the closest thing to a tiger to be found on its slopes are probably the clumps of giant tiger orchids (Grammatophyllum speciosum) perched on the taller trees near the peak.

The hike to Tiger Hill starts along the road to the Kek Lok Si Temple, about half a kilometre after Air Itam Market. For this long hike, I took along a friend for company. We left our vehicle at the sprawling car park beside the Kim Hai Thong Cafe and walked along the main road for about two minutes uphill before coming to our trail on the right side of the road; it is a wide cement path beside the colourfully signposted Po Lin Buddhist Temple.

After a quick warm up, we trudged along the cement path that meanders in a leftward ascent to the Air Itam Dam. Along the way, it passed through numerous houses and temples perched on the hill. These dwellings have been there for generations and while some have been refurbished, many of its dwellers continue in the footsteps of their forefathers, planting flowers, vegetables and occasionally fruit trees which produce are then sold in the market below.

The initial ascent appeared difficult. The exposed slope and steep climb made for a torturous mix. However, this difficulty only lasted about five minutes before thick groves of rubber trees welcomed us into shady territory. From there on, the trail was a more pleasant one to follow. Air Itam Dam is a popular climb, so we passed a good number of hikers as we inched our way up.

Morning walk around Air Itam Dam.

After about 30 minutes, we reached Air Itam Dam. Located about 210m above sea level, this is one of George Town City Council’s first major engineering projects, post-Merdeka. It was built to meet the burgeoning water needs of Penang in the 1960s. Now, almost 55 years after its completion, it has also morphed into a favourite hiking and jogging spot.

We then turned right and followed the tarred road skirting the dam in an anti-clockwise direction for about 20 minutes as it wound its way along the hillside and crossed a stream before coming to a junction where a cement trail branched off to the right. After a short rest, we marched up this trail deep into the catchment forests.

Accompanied by views of bubbling streams, the sound of birds chirping away in the trees and a cacophony of insects, this part of the hike was like a journey through paradise. Only the occasional sounds of a motorcycle or a mountain biker freewheeling down the slope would break the serenity. Soon, yellow forestry signboards, placed by the Penang State Forestry Department, loudly proclaimed our entry into the Bukit Kerajaan Permanent Forest Reserve, the largest protected reserve in Penang.

As we continued walking, we spotted a beautiful waterfall gushing down a large and slippery rock to the left of the trail. We stopped here for a while to soak in its beauty. After snapping a few photos and selfies, we continued our ascent. This pretty waterfall has no official name, but is instead just referred to as Mount Elvira Waterfall by hikers in honour of the hill from which it springs.

The writer checking out Mount Elvira Waterfall.

After about an hour on this cement trail, we were standing at a major four-way junction – the Iron Cross that hikers refer to. In front of us were two cement roads that lead to the peaks of Mount Elvira and Titi Kerawang, while a smaller unpaved trail to our right would lead us to our ultimate destination, Tiger Hill. Near this junction, a few old marker stones, covered in lichen and hidden in the undergrowth, showed that parts of this area were actually surveyed by the famous French surveyor, Michel Jules Moniot, in the mid-nineteenth century. Exhausted from the continuous two-hour ascent, we stopped for a serving of typical Malaysian backpacking food: roti canai and roti bakar.

Refuelled and re-energised, we continued along the unpaved trail to the right. Keeping to the main trail at all times and ignoring diversions to the left and right, we began descending into a forested valley, crossing a few small streams along the way. Occasionally, friendly farm workers passed by, but for most of the time it was just the two of us walking the clear trail. About 40 minutes from the Iron Cross, we found ourselves standing at the entrance to a huge farmland spread out on the slopes. This was a valley of expansive farmland surrounded by towering peaks and high ridges on all sides.

As we walked in, we could see Bukit Laksamana towering to the west and Tiger Hill's triangular peak to the east. While the upper edges of the valley remained densely forested, most of the lower parts were cleared over a century ago by pioneers who saw its potential as fertile farmland. Their early work survives, and the valley vegetation is still dominated by a mix of torch ginger (bunga kantan), chillies and even durian trees. As we climbed through the dense torch ginger groves, we came across old farm houses, some well-maintained some not. Many of these dwellings were built by the pioneers and reminded us of the struggles these early settlers had to endure to eke out a living on these hills.

Twenty minutes uphill through the hidden valley brought us to another junction – a left turn leads to the Tiger Hill Reservoir and a right turn to Tiger Hill’s peak. The Tiger Hill Reservoir was built soon after the first settlers started moving into the valley. Drawing water from the crystal-clear source of Sungai Pinang West, this reservoir pumps its water reserves to the peak of Tiger Hill to be channelled for general consumer usage on Penang Hill. It is a sheer marvel of colonial engineering, as not just the dam but also the age-old pump house continues to work without the slightest defect.

We continued right up Tiger Hill. This part is again a cement trail that meandered steeply through dense forest that forms the last slope of hill. Exhausted by three hours of walking, we decided to go slow, taking numerous pit stops along this stretch. Tall meranti trees, elegant tree ferns and numerous terrestrial orchids that thrive in the mild climate makes this stretch a very botanical journey.

Twenty five minutes later, we were finally at Penang Hill Summit Road. Knowing our destination was within arm’s reach, we took a right turn at Summit Road and followed a smaller tarred path up to the peak of Tiger Hill. Five minutes later, we could see the storage dam at the peak. The dam is a restricted area, overseen by the Penang Water Works Authority (PBAPP). We celebrated our accomplishment with snacks and a few photos. We then followed the gentle Summit Road to the Penang Hill Cafe for a fulfilling bowl of ice kacang. A Saturday well spent!

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