By the turn of the 19th century, Penang had usurped Malacca as the most important spice trading hub on the Malacca Straits. Ships would drop anchor at Batu Feringgi as crews came ashore for food and water, guided by lamps waved from the beach-side boulders which give the area its name meaning "foreigners' rocks".
A short drive along the coast, more than 500 species of plants grow in rainforest which stretches back from the beach at the Tropical Spice Garden. Three marked trails, Oriental, Spice and Jungle, weave through the 3ha gardens and each takes about half an hour to walk. Many of the plants are identified by signs detailing the culinary, medical or religious use of the species. The dense foliage is soothing on a tropical afternoon and the air carries the scent of pepper, true cinnamon, torch ginger or lime berry.
_The air flashes with colour in the foothills near Batu Feringgi where the Penang Butterfly Park is said to be the world's oldest live insect sanctuary. Clouds of Tree Nymphs, Common Sailors and Rajah Brooke's Birdwings flit between flowers in a vast garden of palms and birds of paradise. _
_ Each caterpillar species prefers the leaf from a specific tree and every morning pupae can be seen in the final stages of metamorphosis from which they emerge as butterflies. There are thought to be 120 varieties at the farm but that's a relative handful compared with the 1000-plus species of butterfly in the Malaysian jungles. Other animals include alligator garfish, frogs and scorpions. _
_The world's smallest national park is a pocket of protected land at Penang's Muka Head with five distinct ecosystems and home to two sub-species of wild cat, two varieties of tortoise, 46 species of birds and troops of crab-eating macaques. _
_There are plenty of snakes, too, says guide Fauzi Yakob, as he leads me on a trek along the coastal path and up into the dense dipterocarp jungle. _
_"You'll notice there are lianas (vines) hanging everywhere," Fauzi says. "Be careful, the green snakes have very good camouflage - before you grab a vine for support, make sure it doesn't have a head or tail." _
_Many visitors head straight to Pantai Kerachut, where the isolated fingernails of beach are the nesting grounds of both green and Olive Ridley turtles. But Fauzi and I are trekking a 3km short course through the thick rainforest which is wet after an overnight downpour. Light barely penetrates the canopy which rings with the power drill whirr of cicadas looking for a mate and the screeches of white-bellied sea eagles. _
_The son of a local fisherman, Fauzi has been guiding treks through this forest since before the park's inception. He has an intuitive understanding of the complex links between animal, plant and environment. As a boy, he spent hours looking out to sea, scanning the horizon for water spouts through his father's old army binoculars. _
_"One lens was broken, only one eye worked. When I finally saw a water spout I remembered the weather conditions at the time and then was able to know when to spot them again," he said. __His knowledge of the forest has been honed through his studies and by listening to the stories of the old village men. He now trains guides at national parks throughout Malaysia. And he is the perfect walking partner for this forest; pointing out the spiky pandanus palms that the villagers once used for fishing hooks, explaining how the crab-eating macaques get refreshment from a sea pineapple that would leave me hung-over for three days and warning me not to walk below a rather inconspicuous stick-like tree known locally as the prostitute. _
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