The water monitor lizard, biawak locally, commands admiration. On Komodo, of course, his cousins grow to an enormous size, but here his max seems to be about seven feet. I’ve already seen several on this current visit to Malaysia. The first two were slinking in drains alongside the road, one of them right in the middle of town, bless him. But the finest one was yesterday.
The top left hand tip of theisland of Penang is jungle-covered hills slanting into the sea, and this is now designated a National Park. The northern westbound road, after servicing the tourist strip of Batu Ferringgi, approaches this point and then ducks left to pass the Penang Butterfly Farm and wind its way down to a town called Balik Pulau or The Back of Beyond as this must surely translate into English. Where it makes the left turn has always been called The End of The World. I had been here before, many years ago, driving a borrowed car, and at that time it was empty enough to justify a degree of self-congratulation simply in stopping here, leave alone undertaking a walk described in an old book about Penang Trails, a walk along a roughly beaten track skirting the shoreline, meeting no-one. Only on this return trip have I summoned the courage to repeat this walk, though I have often thought about it. I took the bus to Teluk Bahang, The End of The World, and was the last passenger aboard when we got there.
But far from being a spot of desolation, making one feel like Cary Grant in North By Northwest, the terminus is now transformed. You find yourself right outside the gates of a large centre for Penang National Park. You need to go into the reception area to register your intended itinerary, in case of emergency, and then you pass through the gateway and proceed down a concrete pathway, well swept and spacious. Those who have laid out this walkway allow you to luxuriate in it for a certain time, as the butterflies come and go and the cicadas keep up a background of noise. But just so you know – it won’t last, enjoy it while you may; it gives way to a proper Malaysian jungle trail just up round the bend past the river.
The efficient young official at the Centre has given me a permit, marked 1 Pax, but in fact no-one is sitting at the entrance to verify that I have one.
No pets, no littering, no inappropriate dressing, no lewd behaviour, OK? Lewd behaviour is snogging, to judge from the illustration on the notice.
We are heading out on the levellest trail, round the coastline to a deserted beach called Monkey Beach. Normally there is an option to strike left to a canopy walk, but thankfully this is presently tutup for maintenance (it’s busted). Be glad of this, as one has previously ascended to a canopy trail and it is very uphill work, and when you get to the canopy walk it is scary and wobbly. We will content ourselves with looking up at the jungle and not across to it, still less down on it.
The paved section ends all too soon and the hard work begins. Steps are provided for the steepest ups and downs as the path surmounts boulders by the beach and seeks passage between soaring palms and goodness-knows-what trees. Elsewhere you pick your own way amongst tree roots and stones.
A rustling below; stand and watch. Thick, long, cautious, orange-spotted, sharp-nosed, a biawak emerges from the undergrowth and inquires with his tongue of the crab holes in the sand. His feet are twice the size of my hands.
I am a king of the tropical rainforest. Yes, I know about all that redevelopment over there, about those sky high white buildings, and I have occasionally been annoyed by those boats that come and go, but let me assure you of this: you can build all you like, let off fireworks, drive your buses, but this is only a flash in the pan. Time will come when me and my fellows will inspect the vestiges of your activities with all of the unconcern with which I currently overlook these old dead shells on the beach here.
Ti-i-ime is on my side, Yes it is!
The End of the World is nigh.
Up and down, up and down, the fat white tourist proceeds, sweating. His hat is soggy. His bag is irritating. He is overtaken by troops of healthy youngsters from Europe. Not one of them pauses to ask: Fancy a snog? Would you like to see me in less appropriate clothing? I got some! On they go, undoubtedly to reach Monkey Beach with success, a consummation, alas, totally outwith my own capabilities, as I turn back having reached only the jetty belonging to the University Marine Research Facility, where I was able to photograph an enormous hermit crab and glare at a half-hearted macaque. Well, it’s a beach isn’t it? And that’s a monkey, right? So I got to Monkey Beach, didn’t I? I should cocoa!
One pax returned to the office to sign out. If accompanied I would have been two pax. A pax is a person. An Italian is a pax Romana. Pax in Terra is somebody who is very frightened.
Written in paradise. Illustrations to follow.