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Tuesday December 12, 2006

Tiny island of historical gems


THERE were tiny impressions on the hard red soil. Our guide, Amir Mohamad, paused in his tracks and bent down to check the imprints.  

“A huge wild boar passed here,” he said as we approached the foot of Bukit Batu Kawan. 

Since Batu Kawan was chosen by the government as the site on the mainland for the second Pe- nang bridge, its development and progress have come under intense scrutiny.  

But many people may not know that this tiny island has many historical gems, taking one back to the days of the British colonial masters. 

Batu Kawan had sugar-cane, coconut and rubber plantations in the 1800s and was among the oldest towns in Penang.  

A view of the newly completed jetty in Batu Kawan. In the background is Pulau Aman.
INVITING:A scenic view of Pantai Kelab in Batu Kawan.
STREET SCENE:A row of old shophouses in the main street of Batu Kawan.
A local resident, Chew Joo Leong, 50, said the Batu Musang jetty was once used by tongkang (junks) transporting quarry stones from nearby hills to the island to build George Town.  

When I looked at the foot of Bukit Batu Kawan, the area was barren and full of rock formations. But as we trudged on, vegetation started to cover the landscape.  

I was knee-deep in weeds. Soon, the grass was towering above my height and I had to use my hand to part them like curtains. In front of us, Amir and his friend, Ahmad Sukor Embi, were cutting down vegetation in our path with their parang.  

We had a climb ahead us as we were tracing the remnants of a structure believed to have been built 200 years ago.  

Locals in Batu Kawan would have heard about Tangga Seribu (a thousand steps) which charted a path up Bukit Batu Kawan but few outsiders have knowledge about it.  

According to one of the oldest residents in Batu Kawan, Teng Kheng Hong, 90, the steps were believed to have been built by a rich quarry owner.  

“On top of the hill once sat a village and the steps were built to enable the villagers to come down to work,” he said.  

But as we climbed up the 776ft-high hill, we could barely see the steps. Forest vegetation and soil had covered up most of the steps.  

Only left were some stone structures to indicate that someone had tried making a pathway up the hill.  

“There used to be a waterfall here but since rubber trees were planted at the top of the hill 30 years ago, the waterfall had dried up,” said Amir.  

He added that when he first started venturing up the hill to collect plants, there were nice smells in the air.  

“The first two times that happened, I was scared and quickly left the scene but in the end, I rationalised that it was most probably due to the cengkih that was rumoured to have been planted here in the old days,” chuckled Amir.  

According to old wives’ tales, when one smells something in the forest, it is a sign of the presence of something supernatural.  

Though we did not climb to the top of the hill, the rock structures of the steps were evident once we scraped away dirt and leaves from the trail.  

According to Amir, the steps continued to the top of the hill and down the other side, end- ing at the beach near Batu Musang jetty. 

The short strip of beach was once popularly known as the Club beach but recently, the locals have been referring to it as Batu Musang beach.  

“Back in the olden days, there was a clubhouse frequented by the Europeans who worked and lived on this island. They would go to the club to dance and dine at night,” said Amir.  

Hence, the beach was named after the clubhouse built near the beach. The clubhouse is no longer there and the only structure evident near this secluded beach is the newly built Batu Musang jetty.  

And if you want to escape your worldly woes for a while, this secluded beach would be the perfect spot.  

As you laze on the beach, calmed by the lapping of the waves, you can see the ikan belacak or mudskippers sunning themselves on the rocks by the sea.  

Amir also took us on a walk around the kampung and pointed out several age-old bullock- powered stone grinders that were used in the past to crush sugar cane to extract the juice.  

Though the stone grinders were missing, the granite base of the contraptions was still intact.  

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