The left turn: Pantai Kerachut and Meromictic Lake Trail
Back at the sign-posted start of the trail near the park entrance, the left turn will lead you into the lush green jungle, heading west towards Pantai Kerachut. It takes about one and a half hours’ hike through the jungle to reach the relatively quiet beach.
Along the way, the trail undulates for approximately two kilometres under the shady 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 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 a reasonably 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 all its threedimensional, surround-sound beauty.
Here – solid grey counterpoints to the airy grace of the tall trees – mammoth granite boulders lie where they probably fell at the paroxysms of the earth’s creation, and now hulk over limpid forest streams. In this timeless, tranquil realm, insect species that predate the dinosaurs sing their primordial song in the cool vegetation. Save for the cleared trails, much of this place has existed, unchanged, for millions of years.
Then, at the end of the 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 20 such lakes in the world.
Unlike the Black Sea, another true meromictic basin, this unusual, nearly threesquare- kilometre 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 different densities of fresh and salt water do not intermix and remain in distinct layers – fresh water lies suspended over the salt water. The Pantai Kerachut trail skirts around the perimeter of the lake, and a small suspension bridge straddling the mouth of the river is a good 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 usuallydeserted 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 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 kilometres from the main park entrance.
Between the Muka Head and Pantai Kerachut trails, there is a connecting trail that will bring you to the Canopy Walkway, a narrow, 250-metre-long suspension bridge almost hidden 15 metres 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 one kilometre hike along the shoreline takes you to the start of the paved path that leads back to the park entrance.
Good things come in small packages, as the cliché goes. 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.