A Hike Filled with Fruity Delights


The southern part of Penang Island is very hilly, with peaks like Bukit Genting, Bukit Papan and Bukit Gambir rising up gently from a strip of flat land along the sea front. These hills are collectively called the Relau hills and rise up to about 400m above sea level forming the southern end of Penang’s hilly spine.

While there is no mouth-watering ice kacang waiting at the end of your hike or a fast train ride down to “civilisation” from these hills, they are no less interesting as they offer a very unique experience: fruits galore!

The Relau hills have been farmed for over a century, with records as early as the 1860s showing the existence of large spice plantations here. While these famed spice plantations have disappeared altogether, they have been replaced by crops no less attractive: acres and acres of fruit trees, supplying Penang’s finest durians, mangosteens, jackfruits and the like.

My hike starts along a small cement road off Jalan Kenari in Sungai Ara, near a newly renovated Hindu temple. As this trail is almost entirely cemented, it has become more of a haunt for cyclists than hikers, who seem to enjoy the strenuous uphill ascent and the adrenaline rush of the freewheel downhill.

The Sungai Ara waterfall.

Traditional Malay houses along the path.

The path begins by meandering along the sides of Sungai Ara River, and soon leads to the beautiful cascades of the Sungai Ara waterfall. Relatively unknown to most outside Sungai Ara, the waterfall is a total delight to behold, a small cascade pouring into a large pool – apt for some splashing fun. Unlike down in the heart of Bayan Baru where the river is grossly polluted, this upper stretch is crystal clear. A few kids are having a splashing time in the water and watching all the fun gets very tempting! Alas, as I have no change of clothes with me, I have to keep the fun for another day and so I continue with the hike.

The walk enters thick durian territory, and coincidentally it is durian season as well, so the trees are all full of fruits. As I keep walking, I notice that many of the trees are fitted with large safety nets, which almost look like large animal traps. I soon find out that these are indeed traps – not to catch animals, but durians! When a durian ripens, it naturally falls to the ground and this often results in the fruit splitting or cracking open, making it unsellable. Realising this persistent problem, farmers invented the “durian trap” – an ingenious technique of using safety nets to catch falling durians before they hit the ground.

The trail soon comes to a small rest shed where I take the right turn up the slope. Soon what is entirely durian territory starts making way for different kinds of trees: a mix of mangosteens, jackfruits, ciku and rambutans – and they too are fruiting as well.

This potpourri of fruity delights continues as the trail winds its way up a series of zig zags popularly known among cyclists as “The 12 Corners” for its 12 sharp corners, and finally makes its way up to a beautiful rest spot located atop a small hillock, aptly called “The Carpet”.

Maintained and funded by the community, The Carpet is one of many rest spots tucked away in the heart of Relau hills, where hikers and cyclists alike can find respite after a thorough workout. A well-manicured lawn complete with flowering plants and several steel chairs greet me as I reach The Carpet. It is about 11.30am by this time and the last of the hikers and cyclists have left and I am only accompanied by a few farm dogs, who seem to enjoy the beautiful landscape as much as I do.

Most hikers and cyclists end their workout at The Carpet and head back down the same way. However, I am in search of more adventure and continue onward. The trail beyond The Carpet goes slightly downward before going up to the top of a ridge. This ridge is literally the “backbone of Penang” as it stands right in the middle of the densely populated eastern coast and the relatively agrarian western plains. In fact, with much persistence and time, it is possible to hike up all the way to Penang Hill following the top of the ridge from here, though that will have to be the agenda for another hike. Reaching the ridge top I am greeted by a hazy view of the green Balik Pulau plains and the sea beyond.

The Atlas Moth, the largest moth in the world.

Realising that it is almost lunch time by now, I quickly continue down along the cement trail leading into the Balik Pulau valley. The landscape is similar, dominated by orchards and occasional rubber estates albeit with more varieties of fruit trees. Between the rambutan and durian trees are numerous dokong and nutmeg trees, the latter an important vestige from Penang’s spice trading days.

As I walk, I notice a huge moth sitting on the leaves of a tree. On closer look, I see that it is an Atlas Moth, the largest moth in the world! It has distinctly shaped wings, the tips of which are curved like a snake’s head – a tactic the moth uses to scare away predators. I can’t miss the opportunity to take a much coveted photo of this rare find as it sits motionless on a leaf.

The trail slopes steeply and the cement road becomes broader as it goes down. Apart from a few alarmed dogs and the occasional cyclist along the way, this stretch is relatively empty. The path soon connectes up to a small Malay village at the foothills, which has a good number of its century-old Malay houses still intact.

It is total bliss walking this stretch, among the coconut palms, traditional stilt houses and the occasional chicken darting across the road, a window into the Penang of the past. The path finally connectes with Pondok Upeh, a booming satellite town just south of Balik Pulau. It is about 1pm by the time I reach here, and I quickly walk over to Peladang Restaurant, Pondok Upeh’s most famous lunch spot. Digging into a plate full of authentic nasi campur is the perfect way to end my little adventure at Relau hills.

Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.

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