Bukit Susu: A Hike through Penang’s History and Agricultural Heritage

By Rexy Prakash Chacko

June 2024 PEAKS AND PARKS
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Parts of the hike are exposed.
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THE NARROW AND densely populated Paya Terubong valley is characterised by steep hills to its east and west. The eastern flank rises to the peaks of Bukit Kukus and Bukit Relau, while on the western flank, Bukit Penara and Bukit Susu feature prominently. The latter is directly south of Penang Hill’s towering peaks and is largely agricultural land, which in colonial times, was referred to as the “Pentlands”. These days, locals in Paya Terubong call it “Nanshan” or South Hill—possibly a reference to it being south of Penang Hill.

In recent years, the network of cement roads connecting the farms on these hills have become popular with hikers. After researching the area’s trails on my hiking application and told by historian Mike Gibby about the possible existence of a substantial 19th century dwelling in these hills, I decide to explore the trail that leads up to Bukit Susu.

Why is it called Bukit Susu? I am determined to find out on this hike.

The cement road which branches off from Jalan Oriental 6.

We start our hike in the morning, from Jalan Oriental 6 in Paya Terubong. Joining me are two friends, Eugene Quah and Khai Xi. We trudge up the steep cement road bounded on both sides by a variety of fruit trees such as bananas, cempedak and durians. As I take in the sights along the trail, a slight ruffle in the leaves alerts me to the presence of a well-camouflaged Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor), a common inhabitant of the hills.

A well-camouflaged Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor).

As we keep heading up, sections of the trail become more exposed and offer a panoramic view. Turning around, we see the Paya Terubong and Air Itam valleys, a cityscape flanked by lush green hills. It takes us about 40 minutes to hit our first landmark—the Nan Shan Tua Pek Kong shrine. Tired, we take a short break here, and as we do, a few friendly dogs (farm dogs are not always friendly!) from the nearby farm come to sniff and greet us.

As we continue our journey beyond this point, the trail becomes more levelled and the gentle breeze brings welcomed relief. We are now heading in a southward direction and soon spot the silhouette of the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge in a distance, while in our foreground the hill ridges form a “V” shaped col, a natural boundary between Paya Terubong and Relau. As we glance at the col, Eugene and I quickly realise that what we are looking at is the purported site of the 19th century-Great Tree, a historic landmark we’ve been trying to locate through old maps and articles!

Nan Shan Tua Pek Kong shrine.
The “V” shaped col, a natural boundary between Paya Terubong and Relau. It was here that the Great Tree once stood.

The Great Tree—possibly a Jelutong (Dyera costulata)—was one of the three “Lions of Penang” (an archaic term for a “must-see” spot). It is immortalised in many artworks of the period, and was a sight visitors to Penang in the 19th century would have never failed to behold. This tree stood at 143ft tall, had a girth of 33ft and even its lowest branch was at least 120ft above ground! I can only imagine how awestruck any traveller would have been looking at this giant! Alas, this tree no longer exists today; it had died a century ago, weakened by old age and vandalism; the final blow was a fire lit at its base.

Interestingly, the Great Tree was also known as “Poko Soosoo” (or Pokok Susu, which translates to Milk Tree) as it was known to produce a milky sap, which was apparently sweet and drinkable.

View of the Great Tree, Prince of Wales Island. A 19th century illustration by William Daniell. Photo sourced from Persatuan Kartografi Melaka’s Facebook page.

From this point, the trail starts turning westward up the summit ridge. The slopes appear more denuded than the lower parts, and the landscape is dominated by shorter crops like dahlias, bananas and torch gingers. The only vestiges of the forest cling to the very top of the peaks.

Approaching the main junction along the hike.
Wildflowers along the trail.
A section of the trail with Fortress Hill and Bukit Penara in the background.
A more exposed section along the hike.

It takes 30 minutes from the previous landmark to reach a main junction, where the path branches off in four directions. To our right, the path leads to Fortress Hill, a farmer-run hiker’s haunt, while to our left, a newly cemented trail heads southward. We take the southward trail which winds gently along the forest fringe. At certain spots, we get a view of the Penang International Airport and Batu Maung.

View towards the Paya Terubong and Air Itam valleys.
Heavily cultivated section along the trail.
Pulau Jerejak can be seen in the background.

We reach another junction, where we take the ascending right fork to get to Bukit Susu’s peak. In front of us, we see an uninterrupted view of the farms of Nanshan as well as the densely forested, taller peaks of Penang Hill. While we celebrate the completion of our hike with some snacks, I am reminded that there is one last thing to complete—a search for that mystery dwelling.

An uninterrupted view of the farms of Nanshan as well as the densely forested taller peaks of Penang Hill from the peak of Bukit Susu.

Mike Gibby had earlier shared about a 19th century brick house named Belmont situated “in the Pentlands at an elevation of 1,650ft, belonging to G. Browne Esq”. Examining old maps as well as comparing the elevation profile, we are able to determine that the marked location of Belmont matches that of Bukit Susu’s peak. However, even by the late 1850s, Belmont was in ruins, “a mere shell—no doors, no windows and only part of a roof”.

Though fully expecting to not find anything substantial, we scour the farmed area to look for clues and very quickly spot many old bricks, some broken and scattered while others are still intact and stacked on top of each other. Soon, we also find cut granite blocks, a few clay roof tiles and what appears to be a long and rusted nail— all of which hint at a 19th century structure. But are these really the ruins of Belmont? I would like to think so—but I am open to anyone who wishes to refute this. Anyhow, we proceed to meticulously document our finds.

Old relics found on the peak of Bukit Susu, possibly from the 19th century dwelling called Belmont which stood here.

This hike to Bukit Susu brought us through the agricultural heartland of Penang, offered splendid views and left us with a niggling mystery to solve; it is one I will certainly repeat!

Hike At A Glance

Length: 3 hours (both ways)

Difficulty : Moderate

Interest Level : High. 

Signposting : No

Likelihood of getting lost: Low, since most of the hike follows a cemented farmer’s path

Number of hikers : A few

*Note: Special thanks to Lau Pei Ling, who helped translate the Mandarin terms.

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.


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