I woke early enough to go downstairs and have a decent breakfast in my hotel and as I’d packed the night before there was no real rush when I made my way across Penang Island to get to the entrance of the National park. I made sure I was starting well hydrated and also liberally applied sunscreen and mosquito repellent while on the bus. Good advice for anyone hiking here but absolutely essential for a Scotsman that’s more at home on a cold and damp mountainside.
I signed in at the visitor centre/ranger station, changed my footwear to something more appropriate for jungle trekking and set off. Initially the going was very easy with a paved path following the coast. Shortly I crossed over a small bridge and following the sign to Pantai Kerachut, headed off to the left. Immediately the walking took on a different feel as I was plunged into the rainforest and enveloped by the greenery.
The claustrophobic, hemmed in feeling with the lush green canopy all around in every direction coupled with extreme heat and humidity took a little getting used to...and then there’s the noise of the insects! You hear the noise of the jungle depicted in countless films but this was an aural assault like no other. I mean, I’m married to an Aussie and have spent quite a lot of time over the years in various parts of the Australian bush and my most memorable noisy insect experience, camping in the rainforest on Fraser Island doesn’t even come close. The best way I can think to describe it is like this. Imagine a dentist’s drill with its high pitched whistling and screaming. Now imagine a thousand of them all going off at the same time except all those evil dentists are hidden out of sight in the trees. But you know when you get close to them as the volume and pitch suddenly gets louder and more angrily intense as you stumble your way through the undergrowth.
Speaking of undergrowth, the trail is well signed and maintained (even has the occasional rope to assist in the steeper sections) but a sensible head and attention to foot placement is required as you could easily take a tumble over the tree roots and uneven ground. Despite it being the world’s smallest national park I wouldn’t recommend leaving the trail as I imagine it would be next to impossible to navigate through the dense forest and I wouldn’t fancy your chances of being found quickly.
I hit the first steep incline and within a few seconds I almost collapsed in a sweaty heap on the ground. My furious sucking at the hot, wet air gave little to no relief and I had to take a few seconds to gather myself. By this point I was a slimy and slippery mess as my sunscreen and mosquito spray was literally all sliding off me. All my clothes were wringing wet and with no cooling breeze, I was wilting fast. I’ve often spoken about how one of the secrets (well it is for me anyway) to making decent progress in the mountains is to deliberately slow your pace so that you can control your breathing and just chip away at the gradient step by step. The steady pace is what wins the day here. I gulped down some water and set off again, this time at a more sensible pace and with the saying “How do you eat an elephant again? That’s right, one bite at a time.” springing to mind. As always, using this mental approach, my feet were soon settling into a steady rhythm and I was starting to enjoy myself as I threaded my way along the trail.
When I’m walking at home I like to almost treat the experience like an exercise in mindfulness so that I can best enjoy everything nature is doing around me whether it’s the wind blowing clouds or mist around, the earthy smell you get as the first rains come down, the gentle warmth of the sun on your back, birdsong or any other number of experiences pleasant or otherwise. That’s what makes an adventure outdoors memorable. At first this felt different, like I was cut off from everything underneath the canopy in the debilitating heat and distracting noise but then gradually as I slowed everything down I started becoming aware of the little things around me. The pop of a red coloured tree bark (Gelam tree possibly?) in amongst the lush vegetation, the subtle differences in the insect noises now accompanied by the gurgle of a nearby spring I hadn’t noticed before and the tiny but determined stream of ants flowing across the trail under my feet. All would have been missed if I hadn’t been paying attention and by now the camera (or mobile phone as it was on Saturday) was being deployed often.
The kilometres went by quicker than I would’ve liked and soon I was hearing the excited whoops of folks drifting through the trees. I was nearing Pantai Kerachut beach and I’d been walking for just less than 2 hours. Subtract all the time spent footering with my phone camera and I’d arrived in pretty much the time quoted on the boards. Seems like all the hours I’ve spent taking advantage of the cross trainer in the hotel gym here over the past couple of weeks were paying off. (For me these days, guide book times are a target to be achieved)
After one final very steep descent I arrived at the suspension bridge that takes you over the meromictic lake to the beach beyond. The lake was dry and just a mud bed which I’ve read happens often. Apparently the best time to see it is during the change of the monsoon (April/May & October/November). Once over the bridge I had a quick look at the beach and then found myself a picnic bench in the shade where I enjoyed the view out to sea and scoffed down my lunch which consisted of some more water and a 6 inch chicken tandoori sandwich purchased from Subway the night before. Not my usual fare but I wasn’t exactly feeling the need for a hot cuppa out here.
Feeling refreshed after my short sit down I went off to explore the beach and found the turtle sanctuary where they help protect the turtle eggs (from predators including, sadly, us humans) and keep the hatched babies in ponds until they are old enough to stand a better chance of survival on their own before being released back into the wild. To be honest there wasn’t much to see but it was interesting and best of all free. They had a few exhibits and a couple of babies swimming around a small paddling pool and I had an interesting conversation with the attendant about the work they do protecting Green Sea, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles. Afterwards I went for a wander about and to poke about the jetty too. I ended up deploying my umbrella to fend the sun off as it was even more fierce now that I was out from under the tree canopy.
After a while I was starting to think about getting back to civilisation for beers and dinner. I briefly flirted with the idea of catching a lift in one of the boats back to the park entrance but it somehow felt like I’d be cheating if I did that and besides, I’d used the boats on a previous trip out to Penang National Park to come back from Monkey Beach so I wouldn’t be missing anything. Back into the jungle I went, puffing and panting my way back up the hill. I was stopped a few times by friendly locals also out for the day who wanted to say hello and were determined that they take a “Selfie” with me. After ruining everybody’s holiday photos I again made quite good time back through the forest despite a couple of brief encounters with some other “locals”, i.e. noisy Macaque’s and a 3 to 4 foot long Monitor Lizard. Sadly there’s no photo’s of the lizard as I’ll freely admit that I was far too busy sh*tting myself and trying to stay out of it’s way to get the camera out.