There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Turtles, Monkeys and the Penang National Park: Part 7 of the Malaysian Peninsula

After breakfast a driver arrived to take us to Penang National Park, which occupies a small peninsula at the north-west extremity of the island.

The position of Penang in Malaysia
Maps, like the one below, show George Town as a dot, though its urban sprawl covers the north-east quarter of the island.  Yesterday we were in Kek Lok Si on the city’s southern edge, today we travelled along the north coast. Batu Ferringhi (Foreigner’s Rock) is George Town’s outermost suburb and the island’s major beach resort. James Lancaster (the relevant ‘Foreigner’) arrived in 1592, almost a century before Francis Light (see yesterday’s post) and stayed for four months, cheerfully pillaging passing shipping. Sir James (as he became) was an important figure in the Age of Exploration and a founder of the East India Company though, in the spirit of the times, many of his exploits are indistinguishable from piracy. Ironically Batu Ferringhi is now home to a large and officially encouraged European expatriate community.

From the dot of central George Town we drove round the north coast to Teluk Bahang, then took to our feet.

The driver dropped us outside the park office in Teluk Bahang where we met A, our guide for the day and set off along a broad concrete path. The plan was to walk across the base of the peninsula to Kerachut Beach, then take a boat around the headland to Monkey Beach for lunch and another boat back to Teluk Bahang.
Into Penang National Park
The concrete did not last long and soon we were heading into the jungle on a well-worn track. Having made an involuntary blood donation to an opportunist leach in a Sri Lankan rainforest I had wondered if leach socks might be useful but decided just to swap my sandals for socks and trainers, though ordinary socks are no defence. The day was overcast – which meant hot and sweaty - so I wore zip-off shorts which could become long trousers if the guide suggested I was underdressed. I need not have fussed; our Sri Lankan guide may have worn leach socks like chain mail but A was more laid back in his clothing choices.
A models the best dressed jungle explorer kit, Penang National Park
We climbed some steps, paused to watch a scurrying squirrel - brown with a white flash on each side – climbed more steps and then followed a rough path before halting to inspect a rengas tree. A relative of cashews and mangoes, the black patches of dried sap on its reddish bark contain an irritant which produces a severe allergic reaction. The rengas is not a tree to hug, lean upon or shelter under in the rain.

Rengas tree (I think)
We certainly saw one, and this is exactly the right colour, but most Rengas tees are larger and straighter than this

Some of the path was roughly flagged…
Steps and a rough flagged path, Penang National Park

…though most of it wasn’t.
Slogging up a rough path, Penang National Park

There were sunken paths lined with tree roots to trip the unwary…
A minds the tree roots, Penang National Park
…a stony area…
Lynne on a stony area, Penang National Park
…and a section known as ‘the tunnel’,…
Lynne in 'the tunnel' Penang National Park
After 50mins of hot, sweaty uphill slog we reached the rest station at the junction of the Bukit Batu Itam (Black Rock Hill) trail where a brief sit down was welcome. We had reached the ridge running down the peninsula and here the path forked, left to climb along the ridge to the top of the hill, right to descend to the coast. We turned right.
A fat bald man and a sweaty woman take  break on the trail
There are more flattering photographs of us elsewhere on this blog (though none less)

For the next 90mins our path was mainly, though not entirely, gently downhill.
The path goes gently downhill, Penang National Park

We saw two hairy caterpillars sitting on a leaf – probably best not to touch these…
Hairy caterpillars, Penang National Park

…and crossed a small stream, happily seeing no sign of leaches.
Stream in the Penang National Park

A sturdy stone bridge crossed the next stream and we leaned on the parapet and looked down on pale, almost ghostly, fish swimming just hard enough to remain stationary in the current.
The park authorities provided a boardwalk to help with the more difficult ground….
A boardwalk over the most difficult ground, Penang National Park
….after which A decided to go off-piste. Lynne declined to cross the stream, leaving me to clamber over the fallen tree and pick my way from rock to rock.
Over the log and across the stream, Penang National Park
He wanted to show me the pitcher plants on the far side….
Pitcher plants. Penang National Park
…and we also discovered a millipede. Longer and thinner than the deeply scary Malaysian cherry red centipede we found in the Cameron Highlands, this looks benign but I still prefer it climbing over A’s hand than mine.
Millipede, Penang National Park
A little further on we reached the meromictic Kerachut Lake. ‘Meromictic’ was, I confess, a new word to me and for the equally ignorant Wikipedia says ‘a meromictic lake has layers of water that do not intermix. In ordinary, "holomictic" lakes, at least once each year, there is a physical mixing of the surface and the deep waters.’ ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that is strange’.
Kerachut meromictic lake has a layer of salt water sitting permanently below a layer of fresh water, at least that is the theory – early March being the end of the dry season, it had little water of any salinity. Apparently 1 in a 1,000 of the world’s lake are meromictic so it is not that rare, the biggest being the Black Sea, which is not even a lake.
Kerachut meromictic lake, Penang National Park
The sea was now visible, but before we reached the beach we had to step over a tortoise bumbling through the undergrowth…
There are lots of species of tortoise, this is one the less colourful, Kerachut, Penang National Park
…and admire a Tongkat Ali tree. It is good for men, A told us, claiming an infusion of roots is a ‘power drink’. [It is, apparently, widely available in the UK and according to the ‘supplement’ industry will cure pretty well everything. Much of it is said to be fake, though there is enough  genuine stuff around for the Malaysian government to be concerned that harvesting the roots is threatening the tree with extinction.]
Tongkat Ali tree, Kerachut, Penang National Park
As Kerachut beach can only be reached by foot or boat it was relatively sparsely populated. The cloudy sky might not attract beach-goers, but the temperature was far higher than the picture makes it look.
Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The beach is a turtle conservation area.
Turtle conservation station, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The sites where eggs have been laid are clearly marked and protected from predators….
Turtle egg sites, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
…but not all the eggs have been left in situ. The gender of the hatchlings depends on temperature and there is believed to be a shortage of male turtles so by bringing them into controlled surroundings the number of males can be boosted.
Turtle eggs under controlled conditions, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
Two infant turtles were swimming round a blue bath inside a shed. They looked uncomfortable in the constrained surroundings - I do not know why they were there, but I hope it was not just for the benefit of tourists.
Frustrated turtle, Kerachut Beach conservation station, Penang National Park
Kerachut has a substantial jetty…
Jetty, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
…but boats taking people back round the headland did not bother with it.
Not our boat, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
Boats came and went, and 40mins later we were still sitting in the sand. Most left less than half full, but A kept saying they were not for us. After 50mins I was becoming irritated and A seemed slightly on edge though trying to hide it. Then a boat arrived, he leapt to his feet and announced ‘This one.’ [The system, I learned, requires you to book a particular boat, not any seat on any boat, and if your boat is delayed, well so be it. I could improve their efficiency - but putting boat drivers out of work would make me unpopular.]
Leaving Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The sea was choppy and the boat sped along, leaping from wave crest to wave crest, sometimes not making it and plummeting into the trough with a spine jarring crash. After 5 uncomfortable minutes we reached the headland…
Towards the headland
… rounding it past crocodile rock.
Rounding the headland
Monkey beach was few minutes further.
Monkey Beach, Penang National Park
Despite the delay we arrived for lunch at 1 o’clock. The shack (pictured above) was basic, but the mee goreng (spicy stir-fried noodles) with vegetables and chicken was wholesome, filling and full of flavour. There was only lemonade to drink – until we discovered they had tender coconuts, so we drank those afterwards.

Disappointingly, the only monkeys on Monkey beach were two tied to a bed beside the shack. Leaping about, as monkeys do, they were becoming frustrated with the shortness of their tethers. Then one of them threaded himself – and the tether -  through the strings of the bed until he was upside down and trussed up like a turkey. Having no wish to be bitten by an increasingly panicky monkey, we called A over, expecting him to tell the cook, presumably their owner, but instead he squatted down, untied the end of the tether and carefully unravelled the knot. He did not expect gratitude from a monkey, but neither did he expected it to leap forward and make a grab for the headphones still stuck in his ears. He jumped back, dropping the tether and watched as the monkey climbed into a tree with part of his earphones in its mouth. I was happy to see it free, but the looped end of the tether caught among the branches and it was soon in trouble again. Eventually we coaxed it down and Lynne got hold of the tether.

Got him, Monkey Beach, Penang National Park

Having a dog on a lead is one thing, having a monkey is quite different. Dogs rarely climb their lead and try to bite your hand, but monkeys….
...but the monkey climbs the lead, Monkey Beach, Penang National Park
Lynne dropped the lead and in a flash the beast was back in the tree. I found the missing piece from A’s earphones in the sand, it had survived unscathed. The monkey had now re-tangled the tether in the branches and was in danger of strangling himself. The cook’s husband arrived with a machete and, despite being a bulky man, managed to climb the small tree far enough up to lop off the branch the monkey was entangled with - and standing on. Falling monkeys do not hit the ground, they catch a twig on the way down and swing back into the tree, but his momentary confusion allowed the tether to be grabbed. At this point our boat arrived and we said farewell, but I wished they had just let it go free - nobody should ‘own’ a wild animal.
It was a short and more gentle trip back to Teluk Bahang, passing a fish farm….

Fish farms, Teluk Bahang, Penang

….and several moored fishing boats....
Fishing boats, Teluk Bahang, Penang

Back on central George Town we walked to Armenian Street. Yesterday, E had told us that the Channel 4 series Indian Summers (shown on PBS in the US) while set Shimla, northern India in 1935/6, had been filmed in Penang with Armenian Street cast as Shimla’s Indian quarter.
Armenia Street, George Town, Penang

Some of the people looked the part, but even with all the cars, Malay and Chinese signage and assorted post 1930s paraphernalia cleared away only the magic of film making could make this place remotely like Shimla.
A most un-Indian corner of Armenia Street, George Town, Penang

We enjoyed the series, but too few others did, and it was cancelled in 2016 after only two of the projected 5 seasons.
Armenia Street, George Town, Penang

On the way back, we passed Nagore Dargha Sheriff. Built in the early 1800s it is the oldest Indian Muslim shrine in Penang.
Nagore Dargha Sheriff, George Town, Penag
In the evening we intended to seek out a Chinese restaurant but our quest failed and we found ourselves back in the Red Garden food court. Fortunately, we had far from exhausted the Red Garden’s possibilities and this time enjoyed Hainan white chicken with rice, mixed squid and prawns, vegetable spring rolls and ‘famous pork with bean sprouts.’
Despite three visits to the Red Garden Food Court we were not there on a Thursday so never saw the Ladyboy Show
Did we miss something?
Sadly, it was our last night in Penang. The diversity of the people and the food, the climate, and the relaxed atmosphere made Penang special and I would have happily stayed longer.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this one. I will show it to our children as you followed our footsteps from almost a year earlier - from trail to meromictic lake, turtles and the sights of George Town.