Exploring the Isle of Gedung

By Rexy Prakash Chacko

Published on 2021-05-29 Updated 2021-06-22

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Pulau Gedung’s rocky beach.

THE TURQUOISE BLUE waters around Penang are dotted with tiny islands, many of which are thickly forested and not easily accessed. Only two have been featured in Penang Monthly so far; Pulau Jerejak (August 2016) and Pulau Aman (March 2019).

I am now in search of a new island adventure and after a quick scroll through Google Earth, I see my obvious choice – Pulau Gedung. This is a long, narrowed island, just a stone’s throw from Pulau Aman, along the Penang Strait.

A few friends and I depart from the Batu Musang Jetty in Batu Kawan, which even in the early morning is already abuzz with anglers and several tourists milling about. A point to note: unlike the regular boat service to Pulau Aman, trips to Pulau Gedung are on a chartered basis since very few people visit the Island. Our boatman and guide for the day happens to be the Pulau Aman village head, Saibi.

The old Ammunition Depot or Gedung Peluru in Pulau Gedung.
The old explosives storage.

Pulau Gedung, or Warehouse Island in English, was once known as North Kra Island. But when in 1949, the neighbouring island Pulau Kra (Monkey Island) adopted the name Pulau Aman, it too assumed its current moniker. The Island is uninhabited today but its past is steep in folklore, chief of which is the story of Panglima Garang (The Fierce Commander).

During the colonial era, both Pulau Gedung and Aman were hives of activity for pirates – passing trading vessels fell prey easily to pirates waiting at these strategically located islands. Legend has it that Panglima Garang hid his loot in Pulau Gedung, and was also laid to rest here. Adding an intimidating air to the Island’s chequered past are ominous-sounding landmarks such as the ancient tomb Gua Lanun (Pirate’s Cave) and Batu Perompak (Robber’s Rock). But what intrigues me more is why the Island is named Gedung?

The rocks at Pulau Gedung are unique with various colours and layers.

We hop onto Saibi’s boat and in 10 minutes, reach Pulau Gedung at an isthmus near its now defunct jetty. As the boat comes to a stop between the lush mangrove trees, our attention is drawn to a large storage building in front of us. This is the old Ammunition Depot or in Malay, Gedung Peluru, which promptly resolves the name mystery.

Standing at the height of 14ft, the structure was built by the British Imperial Chemical Industries (I.C.I.) in 1901 to store ammunition; it also functioned as a strategic lookout across the Penang Strait. While it is evident that restoration work has been carried out, the building retains its original character, with century-old metal railings still visible, though rusted.

A mudskipper.
The panoramic view from the Southern ridge of Pulau Gedung. Pulau Aman is seen in the foreground and the Second Penang Bridge in the background.

Saibi calls out to us, there is another interesting piece of history to discover! We trail behind him along the rocky beach where we glimpse another structure, tucked away in the lush foliage, right by the seashore. This building is an old explosives storage. We wander in, which cause several bats to fly out erratically, giving us the chills.

Retracing our steps, we begin our hike along a trail up the Southern ridge that forms part of the Island’s backbone. While hilly areas of Penang Island are almost entirely Granitic, Pulau Gedung is unique in that it is made up of Argillaceous Schist, a type of Metamorphic rock of different colours and layers, with a tendency to break off very easily.

Mangroves on the south-eastern coast of Pulau Gedung.

As the ridge rapidly rises, the trail becomes a steep trudge. Here, we encounter our first obstacle, fallen trees blanketed by a “curtain” of vines. This is passable only after we cut through the tangle with a parang. Forty-five minutes later, we reach the highest peak of the Island. The trail now descends gently.

I came with the expectation of seeing a pristine and mature forest, but to my surprise none of the trees along the way are very tall or big, except for a stand of Bayas palm (Oncosperma horridum). There might have been some disturbances in the past, I realise. We also come across rubber trees, all bearing tapping marks, indicating that even if Pulau Gedung is presently unoccupied, there had been agricultural activity on the Island. That could not have been an easy task. Those who tapped rubber here would have needed to go to great lengths to transport it to the mainland.

The ridge trail to the northern end of Pulau Gedung.

The ridge now gets steep, leading us to a thick patch of ferns at the top of a cliff. Since the Island’s rocky core is naturally prone to erosion, large sections of hill are susceptible to breaking off and in the process, form precarious cliffs such as this. Keeping a safe distance from the edge, we take in the panoramic view of Pulau Aman to the east and Penang’s Second Bridge to the south.

After a hearty lunch and plenty of photos, we backtrack to the old Ammunition Depot, with a pit-stop by the lush mangroves on the south-eastern coast. From the Depot, we continue on the second leg of the hike, this time to the Northern ridge of Pulau Gedung.

Unlike the first half of the hike, this second leg is much gentler, though sections of the trail are open but narrow. The walk eases into a pleasant ridge top stroll and we make quick progress, reaching several minor summits with the sound of crashing waves clearly audible.

Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia).

Interestingly, we see an abundance of Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) here, a popular ingredient in folk medicine. In about 40 minutes from the Depot, we reach the end of the Northern ridge. Just like the Southern tip, this ridge is also characterised by a steep cliff.

From our vantage point, the view before us now is of mainland Seberang Perai, with Bukit Mertajam and Bukit Juru in the distance. Bobbing in the waters below are blue fishing boats. As we sit there soaking in the sight, I go through my mental checklist. Uphill climbing? Check. Historical sights? Check. Panoramic views? Check. A sprinkling of folklore to make Pulau Gedung an island worth visiting? Check and check!

The view from the north of Pulau Gedung looking to the mainland of Seberang Perai.

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.