Rexy’s Thoughts: Penang Hill Special Area Plan (SAP)

In the last one month Penang Hill has made headlines again. Not for landslides this time though,but instead for a revival of development plans on its slopes which include among many others building a cable car which runs from Botanic Gardens all the way to Teluk Bahang.

While special care has been taken when dishing out this new set of plans to develop Penang Hill under the ecotourism banner, questions remain as to how the implementation of the many projects under this plan will impact the health and continued existence of hills. A recreational spot for thousands of Penangites,we are not willing to see this hill of ours become a barren moonscape.

Anyway the plan is still in its draft stages and for the last few weeks,the Penang State government has taken the proactive step of engaging the public in getting feedback for the implementation of these plans for Penang Hill.

ImageThe Penang Hill Special Area Plan (SAP) draft was up for viewing till the 11th of December 2013 in Komtar and the Penang Hill Lower Station

Well here is my take on two of the more questionable projects under this plan.

1. Proposal for the Construction and Completion of a Cable Car System to Bukit Bendera.

Cable cars are often mooted as a more eco friendly access uphill as compared to service roads. But while its green side may be applauded, there are a few points which require special attention.

a) Supporting Towers.
All cable car systems require supporting towers to carry the weight of each cable cart. Building of supporting towers are said to involve minimal damage to the surrounding eco system but :-

i) Will each supporting tower require a service road to upkeep their maintenance?

This will involve a lot of clearing of vegetation especially along environmentally sensitive ecosystems in parts of the cable car pathway 

ii) Penang Hill slope is very prone to landslides and slips especially along slopes with more than 25 degree inclination. How will the cable car be engineered to overcome this problem?

Lets take the example of the Mat Chinchang cable car in Langkawi. This model cannot be followed here in Penang as it consists of pillars which are directly drilled into the limestone mass of the mountain. Landslides are of a lesser chance in Mat Chinchang as the top soil is thinner than that of Penang Hill which is more of a granitic mass and has thicker top soil. The cable car route from Youth Park and Botanical Gardens would follow an already landslide prone slope and which was hit by 10+ landslides in the month of September 2013 alone.

While the slopes between Teluk Bahang and Penang Hill have little or no history of human induced landslides, they are sharply steeper than the slopes between Botanic Gardens/Youth Park and Penang Hill  with Class 4 slopes (gradients of more than 35 degrees) at many parts. Landslides are a certainty if any concrete structure is built on these slopes, as construction in the forest leaves gaps in the forest floor which are prone to landslide when it rains

ImageProposed route for the cable car consists of 3 separate streches between Penang Hill and Teluk Bahang (8km),Penang Hill and the Botanic Gardens (3km) and Penang Hill and Youth Park (3km)

Box in Yellow

Stretch between  Penang Hill and Bukit Laksamana and down to Taman Rimba Telok Bahang.Between Penang Hill and Bukit Laksamana hill slopes drop 250-300 meters steeply. Between Bukit Laksamana and Rimba Telok Bahang,the trail is also a steep drop of 350-400 meters. Part of the last non degraded stretch of rainforest left on Penang Island. Contains Class 4 Slopes

Box in Red

Part of the visible slope of Penang Hill and serviced by the jeep road and many natureGentle slopes but very prone to landslides. Has Class 4 slopes but lesser than yellow area.

Image

Landslide at Station 84,located in the Red area

How do you ensure fatal landslides do not occur along the path of cable car in such a landslide prone area?Will the path of the cable car crisscross current nature trails and will the nature trails be affected (i.e. public barred from using the particular trail)?

b) Impact of Cable Car on Biodiversity
Penang Hill’s ecosystem is the one of most well preserved and untouched natural landscape left on the island. Building this cable car network is inevitably going to create gaps in the forest which would be detrimental to the ecosystem and might result in erosion of forest floor soil

i) How many square meters of land will be cleared to make the base of the supporting towers?

 Bigger the base of the supporting tower, the more trees are cleared and more exposed soil.

Image                        The thick forest between Bukit Laksamana and Penang Hill.       

ii)Most cable car paths require vegetation below it to be felled to prevent the cable cart from colliding with the trees. Will this be carried out for the Penang Cable Car? If so, a total of 14KM has to be cleared for the cable car path. How many hectares of forest will need to be cleared for this project? Will it affect environmentally sensitive areas especially near the summit of Penang Hill,Western Hill and Bukit Laksamana?

Image  An example of a cable car path.Note the blue box shows the area where the  vegetation has been cleared for smooth movement of  cable car.

c) Impact of Cable Car on Water Catchment Areas

i) The Cable Car from Botanic Gardens up to Penang Hill will cut through the Waterfall Catchment Area which feeds the reservoir in the Penang Botanic Gardens.

ii)  The stretch of Cable Car from Penang Hill to Teluk Bahang also cuts through two important water catchment areas on the island which are:-

-The stretch between Penang Hill Summit and Bukit Laksamana cuts through the Batu Ferringgi Catchment Area which feeds into the Batu Ferringghi Aquaduct and the Chin Farm Resevoir.

– The stretch between Bukit Laksamana and Teluk Bahang cuts through the catchment area for the Teluk Bahang Dam.

With this in mind, how do you ensure that while the construction of the cable car is carried out, siltation of these important catchment streams does not happen?

What would the implications of a service road to upkeep the Supporting Towers be towards these catchment rivers?

ImagePilling work upstream to build Supporting Towers for the Cable Car may result in siltation of rivers like the on shown which feeds into the Batu Ferringghi Aquaduct.

2. Proposal for the Development and Hiking of Existing Girdle Road and Forest Trails

I would applaud this idea but I would like to remind the authorities that while it has noble intentions to develop forest trails caution needs to be practiced such that the NATURAL CHARACTER of the trails are not disturbed

A few  suggestion on preserving trails include:-

i)Do not cement or tar existing nature trails
Most tourists/hikers love the feel of natural ground below their feet. Tarring or cementing trails only creates a non natural environment and leads to erosion and cutting of slopes. It is also a sore waste of taxpayers’ money to tar/cement  a trail in the jungle, when tourists/hikers come to experience “real” nature

Image

Cementing of trails is an unnecessary waste of taxpayers money.It also clears alot of vegetation in its path

ii)Markers should be placed at each 10-20 meter intervals along trails.

iii) When nature trails are widened, trees which are along the trail should not be cut down but instead the trail made to skirt around the tree.

Hike: Gunung Jerai

Gunung Jerai or also known as Kedah Peak is one of the nearer and more accessible 1000+ meter peaks near Penang. Topping 1217 meters near the coast,its jagged peak is visible from Tanjung Bungah,Batu Ferringgi and Penang Hill.During the Hindu Buddhist era,it was often considered a sacred mountain with a few temples built at the foothills and up near the summit.

Image

Gunung Jerai Peak from Kepala Angin Point.

 Even now it has not lost its mystical charm,with many legends and stories about meeting the invisible “Orang Bunian”. Well,legends and stories aside,this peak is still one of the more interesting 1000+ meter mountains which you can complete in a day with relative ease.There are a few paths which wind up to the top of Gunung Jerai,but this post will talk about the trail which starts from Merbok.

Image

Trail from Merbok to Gunung Jerai.The trail down to Yan is not shown in this picture

For this hike, I joined the V2 kembara Group,a relatively well known hiking group which organises hikes to many interesting mountains in the Peninsular. For those of you who are interested to know more about them  find out  here :-https://www.facebook.com/V2Kembara?fref=ts .

ImageGroup Photo with the V2 Kembara hikers

We started in the Lembah Bujang Archeological Site in Merbok which is on the Southern Slope and ended in Yan which was on the northern foothills of the mountain.To find out more about the Lembah Bujang Archeological site (or perhaps to get directions) just visit their website :- http://www.jmm.gov.my/en/museum/lembah-bujang-archaeological-museum

Image Lembah Bujang Archeological Site.

Park your car outside the Lembah Bujang Archeological site as the hike might take anywhere between 9-10 hours return.Standard time for most government agencies (Lembah Bujang is under the purview of the Department of Museums Malaysia) or departments to close is at 4.30pm or 5.00pm,so i’m pretty sure you do not want your car to be locked inside till the next morning. At the site,you’ll see a small waterfall.Cross this waterfall and you’ll see a old malay house across the waterfall.This is where the trail starts.

Image

Waterfall at Lembah Bujang Archeological Site.Cross this waterfall to reach the trail head.

Image
Waterfall Crossing

The trail goes up the slope behind the house and within 3-4 minutes you should be on a clear laterite track.Follow this track up the slope.There would be a small junction in 2-3 minutes from that point where you should take the right turn.

Image

Clear track  on the slope behind the Old Malay House.

Within 8-10 minutes from the first waterfall you will come across the second one.Continue along the path and within 1 minute you will reach a river crossing.Be careful when crossing as the rocks here might be a bit slippery.Once you cross the river you’ll notice that  the vegetation is thicker.

Image

2nd Waterfall along the trail.

Continue along this trail for the next 30-50 minutes. Along this stretch there might be certain parts which are overgrown but most of the way,the trail is wide. The gentle ascent slowly  gives way for more steeper and strenuous slopes. Be sure to take rest along the way.Finally after 30-50 minutes, you will come to a parched hill slope.A fire broke out on the ridge not to long ago and left a barren hill slope. Be sure to stop here a while to take a few shots as the fire created a gap in the forest where you can get a good view.

              Image

Majestic trees along the trail

Image

Result of fire-Destruction.

Image

In this burned out gap you could get awesome views of the surrounding slopes and occassionally a few outlying islands along the Kedah coast.

 Image

Ephyphytic orchids on the ground still firmly perched onto their burned out branch.

Image

The Kedah plains.

Keep going straight along the trail after this burned out patch and within 2-3 hours you will reach the next viewpoint,Kepala Angin Gunung Jerai. There would be uphill and downhill slopes along this stretch but most of it is gentle except for the final slope before Kepala Angin which might require some skill in negotiating the rocky slope. This is at KM 5.6-KM 5.8. Once you’ve overcome this rocky slope it would only be a short 5 minute walk along the ridge to reach Kepala Angin Point.

Image

Walking along the ridge towards Kepala Angin. Notice the different vegetation on the ridge.

Image

Pitcher Plants abound in the upper reaches of the mountain

Image

There are even “pine tree lookalikes” in Gunung Jerai!

Image

Kepala Angin Point.Awesome views,great for a Facebook Profile Picture.

Image
The lesser peaks of Gunung Jerai in the distance.

Image
Looking up to the Gunung Jerai Summit (1217 meter)

Enjoy the views at Kepala Angin Point and be sure to take loads of photos.If you’ve brought lunch,this would be an awesome place to break for lunch.From Kepala Angin it would take another 30-45 minutes to finally hit the Gunung Jerai Summit road where the trail ends.A 20 minute walk uphill along this road will bring you all the way up to the peak of Gunung Jerai where a small military outpost is located.Be sure not to cross beyond the gates of the military outpost or take any photos of it.

Image

Jewel Orchid (Anoectochilus sp)

Image

Padang Tok Sheikh is an interesting rocky area located 5-10 minutes uphill from the trail end.

Image

Interesting rock formations at Padang Tok Sheikh.

Image

Stunted tress dot the Padang Tok Sheikh area.

Image

At the Gunung Jerai summit.Slightly below 1217 meters.

Image

Gunung Jerai comes alive when the countless species of plants it hosts,bloom.

On your way down you have a few options.First you could follow the same trail back which would also take an equally long time.If you are looking at something shorter probably follow the tarred road down or take the “Tangga Kenari” trail down to Yan. To get to the Tangga Kenari trail follow the road down to the Gunung Jerai Resort. Just before you reach the resort you’ll see a wooden entrance on your right with a small  path winding down below it.Take this path and continue down for the next 2.30 to 3.00 hours before you finally reach Yan. Happy hiking!

Image

After reaching the end of the trail at Yan.We arrived slightly after 7.00pm.