Events in this story happened on Tuesday the 30th of June 2020. We hiked in Penang National Park to the meromictic lake at Turtle Beach (Pantai Keracut). This is during the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) during the easing of the restrictions during the coronavirus outbreak. You can read my pandemic in Penang diary here.
Preparations and Getting the Grab
We took three liters of water in my hydration bladder and another 1.5 liters in a bottle in Jonas’ bag. Our lessons from previous hikes in the hills of Penang and on its beaches taught us it’s a good idea to apply sunscreen before we go. We also packed a full bottle of mosquito spray, some snacks, hats, and a dry bag in case it rains. For the coronavirus check-in, we both needed to bring our phones, our passports (just in case), and our well-charged phones to check in with the QR code.
The drive from George Town to the entrance of Penang National Park is 21 kilometers from our condo. The park opens at 8:30 and closes at 12:00 during the RMCO and entrance is free. They had limited the number of visitors to 160 people per day during our visit. So we got up at 7:00 to drink a coffee and finish our morning routine before ordering a Grab for the ride at 8:30. The price of the Grab was RM 25 and took about 35 minutes. I napped in the car since my late-night activities as a digital nomad ghost had tired me.
Doing the Coronavirus Sign-in
We arrived at the national park at 8:55 and proceeded to do the sign-in at the tents. They made their own registration form with Google Forms instead of relying on the simplicity of PG Care. We needed to fill in a bit more than the usual information about our health, such as if we were in a good health condition to go hiking and we had to fill in our measured temperature. The form also inquired into our destination within the park, which was Pantai Keracut.
After signing in, there are the people that offer boat trips to Monkey Beach (Teluk Duyung) and Turtle Beach (Pantai Keracut) for RM 100–200. We told them we weren’t interested and – to our surprise – that was that. We kind of expected the boat people to be pushier since Penang National Park usually receives a lot of tourists, domestic and foreign.
Then we started our 3.4-kilometer hike to the meromictic lake at 9:15. The first 570 meters of the path was paved, wide, and flat enough for wheelchairs to come through.
But that ended at the bridge before the path split in two: one for Monkey Beach and the other for Turtle Beach and the meromictic lake. At the time of our visit, a sign informed us that the trail to Monkey Beach was closed for maintenance and that we should keep our clothes on.
Besides the nice path, there were many benches and picnic tables. We used one of them to douse ourselves in mosquito spray before we continued. So far we hadn’t seen any monkeys, thank goodness.
Hiking to the Meromictic Lake in Penang National Park
After the bridge, the quality of the path changed rapidly. This hike to Turtle Beach goes first up and then down and the steepest part is at the beginning here. I don’t think we were the first people that day to do this hike, but we did walk through quite a few spider webs. It starts with a section of washed-out stairs with a rope to pull yourself up if the steps are too big. This continued for a long stretch and we’d both broken out into a sweat. Even though it was still early, the temperatures in Penang don’t really cool down below 26°C at night. The warmth and humidity left our bodies no choice.
At 9:35, we reached the little waterfall where we took a break. Four Malaysian hikers arrived at the same spot and we encouraged them to overtake us. Since we were walking in the shadow of the forest, I decided to take off my hat for the time being. Then we continued further uphill, where the stairs became more sparse. There were signs in Malay and English explaining things about the forest and the trail, which was partially made by buffaloes. Parts of it were also pickaxed through. In the flatter spots, there was a little gazebo to sit down and rehydrate. We’d topped the summit of the ridge at 10:00 and were slowly going downhill to the meromictic lake. I was very excited.
On the other side of the peak, the downhill stretch flattens out and there are fewer stairs. Other Malaysian hikers overtook us. Most of them were teenagers and they were really fast. The schools were still closed in Malaysia, but meeting with friends was allowed again. That’s probably why they all went here to hang out.
Penang National Park was established in 2003 and is the smallest national park in Malaysia. It’s also one of the smallest national parks in the world but features great biodiversity. On the other trail to Monkey Beach at a bay called Teluk Aling, there’s the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies associated with a university.
At 10:30, we’d reached the fork in the trail that goes around the meromictic lake northward or southward. We chose northwards now and would probably loop around the other way later. The last stretch of the hike was a little more up and down, crossing streams that feed the meromictic lake with fresh water.
We could sometimes see the meromictic lake through the dense foliage but had to wait for the big reveal until we reached the bridge that crosses the mouth of the lake into the Strait of Malacca a little before 11:00.
Wow, very beautiful! But also quite dry?
About Meromictic Lakes
Meromictic lakes are a very rare natural phenomenon. Normally, the upper and lower layers of water mix constantly or a couple of times a year. The layers of water can either be salty (which sinks) and fresh (which lies atop), cold (sinks) and hot (floats), or oxygenated (top) or anoxic (bottom). There can also be a combination of these factors. This particular meromictic lake in Penang National Park has a fresh upper layer from rainfall and a salty lower layer from when sea waves enter the flat area. If you would ‘cut’ through the layers of water vertically, there would be an area with a freshwater-to-saltwater gradient, called a halocline.
The salinity of water decides what kind of species – both flora and fauna – can survive in it. That’s why this lake is also an object of study for the species that live in or near to it. All we saw were crabs and a few birds using the marshes for rest and food.
Penang’s meromictic lake isn’t always filled up because of the dry season. We thought the dry season had ended in April, but I don’t think the rainfall had been good enough during the lockdown to refill the freshwater layer. It still looked quite dry. There’s supposed to be two rainy seasons in Penang; one ‘small’ rainy season in April, and one bigger rainy season which starts in August and ends in November.
According to the signs in Penang National Park, there are only 19 of these lakes in the world and all of Asia only has three of them. Most of them are very different from this one because they only feature two different temperature layers instead of a difference in salinity. On a note of particular interest to Jonas and I, the Black Sea is apparently the world’s largest meromictic basin; the upper 50 meters receive oxygen from the atmosphere, but it doesn’t mix with the lower layers. At the Bosporus strait, dense saltwater from the Mediterranean Sea flows in below, while freshwater from the Black Sea flows out. This is salinity input is part of the Black Sea undersea river (yes, super whack!). I’ll probably write more about this once we continue the Kayak+Work trip to the Black Sea in 2021 or 2022.
Enjoying the Sea and Resting at Turtle Beach (Pantai Keracut)
More groups of teenagers arrived at the beach and occupied spots in the shadow of trees. There are signs that warn against swimming at this beach, which experiences dangerous currents. We walked down Turtle Beach keeping our eyes peeled for turtles or nests. There’s a little turtle hatchery at the southern end of the beach, but it was unmanned during our visit. Turtle Beach – or Pantai Keracut in Malay – is a beach where turtles normally lay eggs year-round, but even more so from April till August.
We walked past the jetty to some kind of meeting place to lie down in the shadow on the podium. There we ate our croissants, rehydrated, reapplied sunscreen and mosquito spray, and relaxed for half an hour. Then we walked onto the very large and shiny jetty that reaches from the middle of the beach into the sea. Perhaps someone else would charter a boat to the beach and we could try to take it back. We were okay with hiking back, but we thought it would also be nice to surround the cape by boat.
Out at sea, many fishing boats passed around the outlying rock Batu Kawah Laut. But no chartered national park boat stopped to drop off or pick up people. But we did see a giant seabird with a large fish in its beak flying over looking for a place to land.
We then encountered some large spiders in the toilet building. Then we continued our hike around the lake via the alternate path at 12:10. We passed by the campsite, where people can’t stay at without permission. I think it’s completely off-limits during the RMCO.
Hiking Back to Penang National Park Entrance
The hike around the southern end of the meromictic lake is pleasanter. It’s mostly flat, but also a little less maintained. A boardwalk covers the low-lying stretches, but it had moveable bits that probably shouldn’t move.
Once we approached the uphill part, we crossed a very nice broken bridge that used to be some kind of lookout. A freshly-fallen tree had smashed one end of the bridge and blocked the path we just crossed. Park maintenance had cut out a piece in the tree to allow us, hikers, to go through. The decay, nature’s reclamation, and the battle against human wants was very pleasing.
That path soon reconnected with the main trail we’d already walked. The signs with their distances and destinations were still barely readable. On the return, the small groups of fit teenagers overtook us again, jumping over the roots with great confidence and agility. My feet were still doing fine, considering the pain I developed hiking down Penang Hill a few weeks earlier. We also seemed to be faster on the way back from the meromictic lake. We arrived back at the summit gazebo at 13:10 and had to start the downhill stretch.
I stopped a lot for the butterflies that finally sat still for a bit. Only very few people – including one set of foreigners – were still going to the beach at this time. Meanwhile, the sound of thunder reverberated through the non-threatening skies. We were mentally prepared for rain, but it never came. Now the sunlight pierced the canopy from above, it lit up some of the vast spider webs above the trail. One had quite a massive spider in it that looked very hungry.
Before coming back to the waterfall, there’s a fork in the trail. We’re familiar with the one on the right, but the one on the left is the Canopy Walkway, which you usually have to pay extra for before you embark on the hike. I asked Jonas if he wanted to go back via the unfamiliar path, but he voted against it. The trail looked in a worse condition and if the suspension bridges there would be closed, we’d have to turn around and hike back uphill again. Perhaps if we’d return to the park we might check it out.
The stretch of stairs was harder to navigate downhill, especially because there was the sound of dogs barking coming from the trailhead. I was very terrified, so we picked up a rock to scare away the dogs if we encountered them on our path. The constant aggressive barking tired me out and demoralized me. Once back down at 14:00, we saw the dogs and managed to thankfully go unnoticed by them. That was very terrifying.
The walk back to the park entrance was nice as usual. I changed into my water shoes to counteract sore feet and walked back through the gate. I heard some animal sound at the entrance, looked up, and saw a monkey. This time it didn’t hiss at me.
Entry to the park had been closed for a few hours now, so it was strange to see that the whole health check and sign-up had been dismantled. There was one guy whose job it was to point at the proper exit gate and tell us which way it swings.
Taking a Grab Back to George Town
Outside the Penang National Park once again, Jonas was hungry. We sat down at the first open restaurant we saw and got a plate of noodles and some cold drinks. Getting a Grab back to George Town from this side of the island was surprisingly fast and easy.
Overview + Route Map + Packing Suggestions
- Penang National Park is free and open from 8:30 till 12:00 during the RMCO. A maximum of 160 people will be let in, so if you pick a busy weekend you might want to show up early.
- For the coronavirus outbreak, your temperature will be taken and you’ll have to sign in via an online or paper form. For this, you’ll need mobile internet. Here you can read about getting a Malaysian SIM card.
- Bring enough water. We finished our 4.5 liters of water as just two people.
- Pack some snacks that are in a closed packaging. Something completely sealed should avoid attracting human-fed monkeys to the smell.
- Take all your trash out of the park.
- There are toilets at the park entrance and at Turtle Beach. I would advise against washing your hands at the little water supply at Turtle Beach since it smelled like an animal had taken a dump in it. Use seawater or self-brought hand disinfectant gel instead.
- Bring a hat for the hike, especially on the beach.
- Use sunscreen and mosquito spray before you enter the park and touch up if you notice the mosquitoes are back.
- There’s no mobile internet reception at Turtle Beach.
- If you want to go by boat, you’ll need to arrange one beforehand. A round trip from the park entrance to Turtle Beach costs RM 200. You can’t assume you can hike it in one direction and then boat it back in the other direction.
- The best time to visit the meromictic lake is probably in the rainy season. This will make the hike more difficult, though.
- Manage your expectations about seeing actual turtles at Turtle Beach.
- The campsite at Turtle Beach wasn’t open yet during the RMCO.
- Pack a dry bag for your sensitive equipment such as passports and cameras.
- Keep your eyes peeled for monkeys and don’t feed them. Also, watch your step for ant trails.
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