(This article was originally published in Time Out Magazine - Annual Guide to Penang, 2014)
The Welsh poet William Henry Davies began his 1911 poem ‘Leisure’ with a poignant couplet:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
So if you ever find yourself on the trails of the Penang National Park, don’t forget to look up and take a moment to stand and stare, if only for a few moments. Majestic trees – Chengal, Meranti Seraya, Merpauh – have stood here since before the industrial revolution, seen two world wars and the decline of the British empire. It would be a pity if you did not pause to admire these quiet giants watching over their ancient kingdom as you navigate the trails in this beautiful tropical rainforest. Here, trees are only fully mature when they are a half-century old or more, and their lifespans may extend to hundreds of years.
Occupying a total area of about 25 square kilometres, the Penang National Park is the smallest national park in the world. But within its boundaries, protected as a forest reserve under the 1980 National Parks Act and gazetted as a national park in 2003, this area is home to a remarkably colourful spectrum of tropical plants and animals.
Here you will find lowland mangrove swamps that fringe the rocky shoreline, and ancient dipterocarp forests, named for the families of tropical hardwood trees prized for their timber and resin. Once, buffaloes dragged massive logs along the forest trails, and the deep furrows they carved into the ground can still be seen alongside some trails today. Logging was carried out in this area until 1962, but about eighty hectares of virgin rainforest have remain untouched in an area now known as the Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve.
It is here, in their ancestral hunting grounds, that long-tailed macaque monkeys, civet cats and flying lemurs forage. White-bellied sea eagles, brahminy kites and crested serpent eagles soar from high nests. Human footsteps, loud on the leaf-strewn jungle floor, will sometimes send shy monitor lizards and squirrels suddenly skittering into the undergrowth.
At the expanses of sandy beaches that flank the park along its coastline – Pantai Kerachut, Teluk Duyung, Teluk Tukun, Tanjung Aling, Teluk Ketapang, Teluk Kampi, Pantai Mas – the lucky visitor may also spot wild dolphins and otters at play in the sea.
From George Town, it is reasonably easy to get to this park, located on the north-western corner of Penang island: a forty-five minute drive will transport you from the hubbub of traffic and urban activity to this scenic natural haven. The modern, well-kept entrance to the park, which also features an educational centre, belies the natural wonders within it, and the trails that lead into the jungle begin easily enough, with a paved half-kilometre-long path that meanders gently along the coastline.
At the end of the paved path, a little suspension bridge signals the start of the two main trails that will take the visitor into the park proper, whether through winding trails deep in the green jungle towards Pantai Kerachut or along the wave-lapped shore towards Muka Head. At this point, the paved and landscaped path gives way to narrow dirt trails.
The Right Turn: Teluk Aling / Monkey Beach / Muka Head Lighthouse Trail
If you turn right after the bridge, the trail snakes along the northern shoreline towards Teluk Aling, Teluk Duyung and, at the north-western tip of the island, a nineteenth-century lighthouse at Muka Head.
At Teluk Aling, the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS), under the aegis of Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malaysian Science University), manages a turtle sanctuary and hatchery. The centre, set on the sandy beach fringing Teluk Aling, was established in 1991 as a permanent base for marine research.
Traverse this beach and come to the jungle again. Here, the path heads inland, narrows and gets challenging, with the occasional boulder or fallen tree to vault over. The path takes you further along the coastline towards coconut tree-fringed Teluk Duyung, also popularly known as Monkey Beach for the troops of omnivorous long-tailed macaques that sometimes swarm the beaches and raid hapless beachgoers’ picnics.
Monkey Beach is about a kilometer-long stretch of sand that is a popular daytrip destination for local and foreign tourists. This remote beach, nestled in a picturesque bay and fringed by dense rainforest, is not accessible by any other means except the dirt trail from the park entrance, or by sea: most tourists are ferried here by the boatload in a ten-minute ride from the Teluk Bahang jetty, or from the Batu Feringghi resort hotels, so the beach can get crowded on weekends and holidays.
Walk to the far end of Monkey Beach, and the trail leads inland again toward the lighthouse at Muka Head. Almost immediately the trail starts to ascend, and will continue to rise until it reaches the top of the promontory, at an elevation of 242 metres. The trail to the lighthouse is about 1.2 kilometres long, and can be steep – it takes a hard thirty-minute climb to reach the top. It is mostly a well-marked path with steps cut into the earth, laid with stone slabs or with rocks providing a tree-shaded stairway in the dappled sunlight. Don’t let its fairly vertiginous nature daunt you; this is an enchantingly lovely, sylvan trail.
In a remarkable feat of engineering, the squat, fourteen metre-tall Muka Head lighthouse was built by British engineers in 1883. The lighthouse guided early steamships to safe harbour in Penang port, and is still operational today. Visitors can climb the short flights of spiral steps to the top.
Just under the lantern room, a thick wooden door leads to an outside gallery deck. Here, the fresh sea breeze quickly dries a sweaty brow, and the spectacular view of the Straits of Malacca and the pristine northwestern coastline of Penang make the strenuous uphill trek highly worthwhile.
This is also where the path ends, so head back downhill towards Monkey Beach. If you do not fancy another hour and a half’s walk back to the entrance of the park, ask at one of the refreshment kiosks dotted along the beach — they will help arrange a boat ride to the Teluk Bahang jetty, where the park entrance is. Hiring a boat costs around RM40.
The Left Turn: Pantai Kerachut / Meromictic Lake Trail
Back at the signposted start of the trail near the park entrance, the left turn will lead you into the lush green heart of the jungle, heading westward towards Pantai Kerachut. It takes about one and a half hours’ hike through the jungle to reach the white sandy beach.
Along the way, the trail undulates for approximately two kilometers under the canopy of the soaring dipterocarps with their straight trunks and, high above, their lofty crowns. You are in ancient rainforest now, and here is where you will see the tall tropical trees, with their lyrical Malay names – Petai, Jelutong, Bintangor.
Most have slender trunks reaching skyward in ceaseless competition for sunlight, but there are also old giants here. It is hard to tell the age of tropical trees — they do not have the seasonal growth rings of temperate forest trees – but some of them, with their great mottled trunks and buttressed roots, have been estimated to be more than a thousand years old.
The network of dirt trails that traverse the park are well marked, but can be challenging and, at times, strenuous even for the averagely-fit person. Some stretches can be steep and even slippery if it has been raining. Along the way, however, the intrepid visitor is rewarded by nature in three-dimensional, surround-sound beauty.
Here – solid grey counterpoints to the airy grace of the tall trees – mammoth granite boulders lie where they were likely hurled at the paroxysms of the earth’s creation, and now hulk over tranquil forest streams. In this timeless realm, insect species that predate the dinosaurs still sing their primordial song in the cool vegetation. Save for the cleared trails, much of this place has existed, unchanged, for millions of years.
At the end of the Pantai Kerachut trail, the path opens out to an expanse of water, or a muddy plain, depending on the time of year it is visited. This is the rare meromictic lake, one of fewer than twenty such lakes in the world.
Unlike the Black Sea, another true meromictic basin, this unusual, nearly three-kilometre square area is a dry plain during much of the year. During the monsoon season – from April to May and from October to November – winds and tides cause seawater and freshwater from five small creeks that flow into the lake bed to flood it. The fresh and salt water, of different densities, do not intermix and remain in distinct layers.
The Pantai Kerachut trail skirts around the perimeter of the meromictic lake, and a small suspension bridge straddling the mouth of the river is a nice spot for a photo-op view of it.
From Pantai Kerachut, you can hike through steep jungle paths to access the more remote areas of the park – the usually-deserted beaches of Teluk Kampi and Pantai Mas to the south, or Teluk Ketapang to the north.
Or, if you are feeling adventurous, from the highest point of the Pantai Kerachut trail, about midway, there is a newly-opened steep uphill trail to the highest point in the park — Batu Hitam, 450 metres (1500 feet) above sea level.
The trails are well marked, with shelters along the way for rest stops. It would be really hard to get lost here, but if you do, the good news is that this is the smallest national park in the world, so it would be quite difficult to get into too much trouble – you are never more than a few kilometers from the main park entrance.
Between the Muka Head and Pantai Kerachut trails, there is a connecting trail which will bring you to the Canopy Walkway, a narrow, 250-metre (820 feet) long suspension bridge almost hidden 15 metres (50 feet) up in the trees. A RM5 ticket, available at the park entrance, is required for access to the walkway.
From the canopy walkway, a reasonably easy, less than 1 kilometre (0.6 mile) hike along the shoreline takes you to start of the paved path that leads back to the park entrance.
Good things come in small packages, as the cliché goes. But this holds so true for this little national park, tucked away like a precious jewel in a small corner of Penang island. This is indeed a good place to stand and stare, if only for a little while.