Penang Hill Forest Challenge signboard.
EVER WONDERED IF there is a hike in Penang that would push you to your mental and physical limits? One that is challenging, with long winding stretches along steep ridges near sheer cliffs that are interspersed with rewarding views? Look no further because the Penang Hill Forest Challenge is your “ultimate” answer.
Starting off at Teluk Bahang, this trail takes you on a meandering journey through the green heart of the Island and right to the top of Penang Hill. A word of caution before attempting this hike. Be sufficiently prepared for a long and tarrying journey; some prior hiking experience is necessary for this walk.
Since it is a long hike, it is only right to attempt it with a few companions. So I invite several friends to join along. We start early, leaving the pandemonium of the city and travel along the scenic coastal road of Batu Ferringhi to the Teluk Bahang Forest Eco Park (5.446450, 100.215397). Managed by the Penang Forestry Department, this Forest Eco Park, nestled right below the towering green hills near Teluk Bahang Dam is a 32-hectare treasure trove of trails, trickling streams, and rare flora and fauna.
A Virgin Jungle Reserve compartment along the trail..
The steep uphill ascent to the summit of Bukit Laksamana.
After checking in on the MySejahtera app, we walk along the main trail of the park, passing the forestry museum and the large bathing pool fed by a trickling stream. As water sport is still not allowed under the RMCO, the pools remain eerily quiet as we make our way to the trail head. We come to a series of cement steps where the trail starts. Numerous branching junctions lead off from the main trail, but it is almost impossible to get lost here, as each junction is meticulously marked with directional signboards.
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We head straight up the gentle slope in the direction of Simpang 11 (11th junction). It is an informative journey; the Penang Forestry Department has labelled many of the trees along the way and I am able to spot a few names like Bintangor, Karas and Rengas. We soon find out that this portion is a Virgin Jungle Reserve compartment, functioning primarily as a showcase for undisturbed Lowland Dipterocarp Forest1.
As we continue walking, we suddenly spot some “commotion” in the undergrowth. To our delight, it is a Common Sun Skink! Belonging to the Lizard family, skinks are quite common but they are generally evasive of humans. However, the skink we saw proudly posed for a few clicks before retreating abruptly into the bushes.
Reaching Simpang 11, the gentle terrain starts giving way to a more demanding ascent. Steep slopes, several fallen trees and safety ropes give us a first taste of “challenge” along this hike. In about an hour and a half, we reach a small hilltop labelled Station 10. This is the first of 10 stations (the stations are marked in descending order) that stretches to the point where the trail meets Summit Road.
Exhausted from the steep journey up, we stop for a short break. As I look around the hilltop, a blue signboard belonging to the Bahagian Kawal Selia Air (an arm of the State Secretariat) comes into view. It proudly proclaims the area as the Batu Ferringhi Water Catchment Area. It turns out that the hilltop I was standing on is at the rim of the water catchment area, with the slopes to my east being the “bowl” to which water from streams trickle down before collecting in the downstream reservoir. Thankfully, the lush forest here is protected as a forest reserve and a water catchment area, ensuring no disturbance to the water sources.
Common Sun Skink
The unique leaves of Dipteris conjugata, a common sight along the trail.
From Station 10, we continue the journey along a ridgeline trail. This trail snakes up along the “backbone” of Bukit Laksamana, one of the several 700m summits of Penang. It starts with an easy dip but steadily progresses to a steep ascent. Along this ascent, we come across Rain Gauge 14, and subsequently Rain Gauge 13, both of which are rain gauges that belong to the Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP). They serve the important function of measuring the amount of precipitation in water catchment areas, a pivotal indicator for the dams and reservoirs.
As the trail crawls up beyond Rain Gauge 13, it becomes steeper, almost vertical at parts. With every lung-busting step, we inch closer to the summit of Bukit Laksamana. As the group leader, I keep looking back to make sure no one is left behind. The daunting terrain soon brings us to the breath-taking viewpoint of Bukit Laksamana, a rewarding rest stop after three hours of trudging up.
To our left, beyond a deep valley, we see the 833m peak of Western Hill, the highest peak in Penang Island and the base of Squadron 312 of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. For this very reason, Western Hill is out of bounds to hikers. Towards the north, below the verdant hills, we see the coastal township of Batu Ferringhi. The view to our right is dominated by the largest dam in Penang Island, the Teluk Bahang Dam. Unfortunately, water level in the dam is alarmingly low (in August 2020) because of poor rainfall over the past year, a result of climate change.2 The dam is a visual reminder to practice prudent water usage, and of the importance of conserving the forest ecosystem which constitutes the water catchment. While taking in the views, we break for lunch at the summit, with the knowledge that the journey is far from complete.
After lunch, we continue ahead to reach Rain Gauge 12, beyond which the hike takes a steep descent into a valley. As Penang Hill is separated from Bukit Laksamana by a deep valley, the only way to reach the Penang Hill top is to descend into this valley before inching our way up to the top.
Panoramic view along the crest of Bukit Laksamana.
Bukit Laksamana in the foreground with Western Hill in the background.
This section of the walk is the most technical part of the climb; with several sections of weathered granite outcrops with little topsoil to anchor ourselves. We progress slowly and carefully, clinging onto the provided ropes for support. At points, we almost slip but thanks to the rope, we are able to hold on for support.
Large emergent granitic boulders along the descent from Bukit Laksamana.
Clinging onto ropes at a challenging part of the descent from Bukit Laksamana.
Two hours from the summit of Bukit Laksamana, we reach the bottom of the valley where Rain Gauge 11 stands. Here, the uphill push to Penang Hill begins. While we anticipate the worse, to our delight, this part of the walk climbs along a gentle ridge. We are able to spot the interesting flora which characterise the upper portions of Penang Hill’s Hill Dipterocarp Forest. One intriguing species which immediately catches my attention is Dacrydium elatum, a coniferous tree, which looks rather out of place with its characteristic “temperate plant” look. I also spot a colony of Begonia sinuata, a native Begonia species with attractive pale pink flowers.
An hour of gentle ascent is soon met by a descent down to a stream valley. This trickling stream is the source of Sungai Pinang Barat, which supplies Penang Hill’s top with its water. Numerous emergent boulders along the stream’s banks, a result of natural erosion by water flow, make this a tricky bit to pass.
Beyond the stream, the slope gently rises again. We push forward with whatever energy left in us and in 20 minutes, reach the Penang Hill Summit Road. Hooray! We made it! There is no better way to celebrate the moment than with a socially distanced group photo at the final signboard. We continue for another hour along the winding Summit Road to reach Penang Hill’s Cliff Cafe. My GPS tracking application reads 7 hours and 30 minutes just as we begin to dig into a victorious treat of Mango Ice and Penang Hill Ice Kacang. This is truly the ultimate hike of Penang, and one that should be included in every serious hiker’s bucket list!
A “socially distanced” selfie at the finish line.
1Penang State Forestry Department (2013). Laporan Tahunan 2013.
2Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang (PBAPP) (2020). Teluk Bahang Dam: Capacity is Abnormally Low Due To Low Rainfall Over The Past 12 Months [Press Release]. 7 August 2020.
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 Industrial Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.