Climbing the Back Left Flipper of Penang Island

Drone shot of the south-western tip of Penang, Tanjung Gertak Sanggul.

If you are to look at Penang on a map, it becomes immediately apparent that Penang Island is shaped like a turtle, with four flippers strategically positioned at each geographical extreme of the island. The most accessible of these four “flippers” does not require much walking, as this is George Town, a flat promontory that converges near the historic Fort Cornwallis. The other three “flippers” – Tanjung Puchat Muka (quite literally “Pale Face Cape”!) on the north-west where the Penang National Park is, Tanjung Teluk Tempoyak on the south-east and Tanjung Gertak Sanggul on the south-west – are lesser known and much less visited, tucked away by dense greenery and steep rocky terrain.

My obsession with wanting to get to the far-flung corners of Penang got me interested in wanting to tick the checkbox of these last three flippers of Penang. Having extensively hiked through the northern coast, it was time for me to explore the southern side.

Wave-battered rocks of Tanjung Gertak Sanggul.

The southern coast, shaped roughly like a crescent, is flanked by undulating hills with limited flat land. This is the very first bit of Penang Island that any visitor by air sees. Guarded watchfully by Pulau Rimau and Pulau Kendi at either ends, this coast is rich in marine resources. It is also one of the very few areas in Malaysia where Olive Ridley turtles come to nest, with the most recent set of hatchlings being set free there in March 2019. I had a hard time deciding between Tanjung Teluk Tempoyak and Tanjung Gertak Sanggul, but after some research, I finally decide to visit the southwestern tip, Tanjung Gertak Sanggul. This is a cape that protrudes out as a narrow peninsula into the southern sea. What makes it all the more interesting is found close to this tip. On the map, there is what looks like a strip of sandy shore, tucked away behind a narrow hill ridge, facing the Indian Ocean. A hidden beach! Everything about this place made perfect sense to explore.

We start on a lazy Saturday morning from Gertak Sanggul, a small village in the south-west corner. It only takes a 30-minute drive from suburban Batu Uban to get here on a traffic-free Saturday. There are barely any cars on the road yet, and the old kampung houses occupy large, unfenced plots of land, complete with lush durian, mango and rambutan trees.

The hike starts at the very end of the road in Gertak Sanggul, where the road meets an abrupt roundabout. Starting off as an easy uphill cement track, the trail goes westward away from the roundabout. This trek is one that is very popular with cyclists and hikers alike, who use the same trek to get to Pulau Betong, which is on the other side of the “flipper”. Our plan however is not to go all the way to Pulau Betong, but instead to get to the top of the ridge and make a southward descent to Tanjung Gertak Sanggul, along this narrow ridgeline.

Pasir Pandak, the hidden beach.

As we approach the ridge top, we take a southward turn along a side track which leads us gently downhill. Soon, the sight of rubber trees is replaced by that of durian and petai trees, as we approach a small orchard. It is well into durian season, and the place is alive with fragrance of Malaysia’s favourite fruit. What really catches our attention however are the petai trees, which are also in fruit. Petai trees are huge, sometimes growing up to 30m high, and the fruits dangle down as long twisted pods in clusters. Quite ironically, the petai, a delicacy in local cuisine, is referred to as “stink beans” in English for its pungent, “natural gas”-like smell! We continue straight ahead along the clear path through the orchard, and soon join a smaller trail which brings us right to the edge of the coastline.

Here, we get a breathtaking view of the Gertak Sanggul bay, sheltered by the Tanjung Gertak Sanggul and Tanjung Gemuroh capes. The waters are clear and inviting, and the stillness of the bay is interrupted only by the occasional buzzing sounds of the blue fishing boats which ply the waters.

To our astonishment, there is a clear trail along this coast, right up to Tanjung Gertak Sanggul, the very tip. We soon find out from the numerous anglers we meet along the trail that this trail was established by generations of anglers stomping along these footpaths to their favourite fishing spots.

Petai (Parkia speciosa) seed pods.

After about 30 minutes walking along this meandering trail, interspersed by views of the bay, we finally reach the very tip of Tanjung Gertak Sanggul. Beyond us, about two nautical miles south, is Pulau Kendi, Penang’s most isolated satellite island. The island earns the name “kendi” from looking like an earthen vessel used to store water – albeit one that has been turned over. Owing to its remote location, the island is steeped in folklore and mystery, with local fishermen telling curious visitors to Pulau Kendi to be “humble” when they visit, in order to avoid any untoward incidents.

We take a short break and gaze in awe upon the beauty of this remote tip of Penang before continuing our journey along the rugged landscape to our next destination – the hidden beach. Pasir Pandak is a small cove on the other side of this narrow peninsula which faces west onto the Strait of Malacca. For this second leg of the journey, we trace our steps back to the ridge line and look for a connection down to the coast. After a few unsuccessful tries, we effectively find the connection – a small unassuming trail going steeply down.

It takes barely 15 minutes along this steep trail to reach Pasir Pandak’s golden shores. The beach seems so remote and untouched that, as we arrive, we get the whole beach to ourselves! Pasir Pandak is barely 300m across, but it offers such an amazing sight. Here, the fine sand glows in the mid-day sun, kissed by the open waters which extend all the way to Sumatra.

Unfortunately, even here, hidden away in the bushes behind the beach, are evidences of Man’s most pertinent environmental problem: single-use plastics. These have been brought in by the high tides. It is a clear reminder of how timely Penang’s “No Single-use Plastic” campaign is – a wakeup call for us to throw away our “disposable” habits, to ensure not only our cities but even these most remote areas remain free from trash.

We break for a quick celebratory lunch to end our expedition to the southwestern tip of Penang. This may be a part of the island that is remote and often overlooked, but there is an opportunity to discover hidden gems at every corner!

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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