The surreal vistas of Bukit Katak (Frog Hill)
Jim Richardson once noted that if you want to be a better photographer, "you should stand in front of more interesting stuff". Richardson is a renowned photographer for the National Geographic Magazine. Many would agree with Richardson and with the advent of social media, it is easy to turn an unknown location like Bukit Katak (Frog Hill) into one of Penang's much sought after Instagrammable hotspots.
Frog Hill, located in Kampung Guar Petai near Tasek Gelugor, is about 15 km north-east of Butterworth town. The hill was once a thriving rubber plantation covering a large area of Bukit Tok Alang Estate. Today, oil palm has replaced rubber as the cash crop for the land. In the early 1970s, part of the land was cleared and turned into a quarry to harvest raw materials for a nearby clay brick factory. The mining operations ceased about a decade back and the extraction site was left to the elements. As a result of the excavation works, huge pools have developed at the abandoned quarry.
The serene azure ponds stand out clearly against the red dusty land sprinkled with shrubs and wild grasses. The land must be hard, void of fertile topsoil to support large trees as none is visible in the vicinity. On any clear day, nevertheless the surprising crystal clear water of the ponds is a sight to behold. The bluish-turquoise hues of the water are set against the backdrop of Bukit Mertajam, soaring from a blanket of palm oil trees and emerald green forest beyond. In the distance, sprawling paddy fields with buffaloes and a passing freight train (if you are lucky) adds to the rustic charm of this rather surreal landscape.
These unintentional man-made ponds have made Frog Hill an instant sensation among Instagrammers and photo enthusiasts. The hill tends to get crowded especially on mornings and evenings during weekends, when it is much cooler and the blazing sun is less intense. The stunning vistas have also become a popular location for bridal photography. Mountain bikers are regular visitors as well, taking up the challenge to ride up the hill and paused for a moment to enjoy nature's beauty before continuing on their journey.
Some have gone as far as to call Frog Hill the "Jiuzhaigou of Penang”. To me, however, Frog Hill is nothing compared to the stellar beauty of Jiuzhaigou National Park. The network of valleys in China’s Sichuan province is truly awe-inspiring. From the thousands of photographs available on the internet, they reveal the sublime beauty of the northern Shuzheng Valley, the Nuorilang Waterfall cascading from the edge of a large tree-fringed lake, the Zharu Monastery of Tibetan villages, the south Rize Valley’s mountains and the multicoloured Five Flower Lake. I am accordingly of the opinion that such a comparison is simply out of place.
Standing at the highest point at Frog Hill, I know I am looking down at something horrific man has done, raping the land from all its splendour and beauty. Given ample time, nevertheless, nature has somewhat bounced back to reclaim her dignity in a spectacular fashion. Although filled with mixed emotions, I somehow felt at peace taking in what was before me.
I visited Frog Hill on an assignment with Himanshu Bhatt in 2017, covering hidden treasures and unsung heroes of Buterworth and the mainland of Penang. The insightful stories written by Himanshu and photographed by me are live on butterworthguide.com.my. This website is a treasure trove of stories, mooted and funded by Think City.
Being in the tropics, the weather can be scorchingly hot with nowhere to take refuge. As such, it is advisable to bring along a cap and apply some sunblock. If it rains, come prepared with an umbrella. The access road is unpaved and it gets muddy after the rain. Take extra care as well because the red laterite and rocky hillslopes can get rather slippery and tricky to manage at times. Safety first always.
For those who fancy a dip in the tempting cool pools or wish to try their hand at cliff diving for an adrenaline rush, weigh your risk carefully. To begin with, this is a mining pond and who knows what lies beneath.
On 25 October 2015, 13-year-old Muhammad Aliff Yusoff from Kampung Lahar Yooi drowned in one of these pool. Tragedy struck again on 14 July 2019, claiming a life as reported in local dailies the following day. A spokesman for the State Fire and Rescue Department (SFRD) said that a 16-year-old boy, Mohamad Danial Hakim Yusof from Guar Perahu, drowned in the pool in Bukit Katak near Jalan Jarak Atas while swimming with several friends. Although the incident happened around 2:30 pm, authorities were only notified at 8:00 pm. SFRD Tasek Gelugor, SFRD Bandar Perda and SFRD Kepala Batas took two hours to retrieve the body of the victim using grappling iron.
Another thing to consider before taking the plunge is the composition of the water itself. Through some research, I have learnt that manganese, barium carbonate and other additives are commonly used in brick-making processes. Bearing in mind that this is a mining facility for clay brick making, who knows what chemicals lace the waters of the ponds? When I was there, I noticed that the ponds were not teaming with much life such as frogs or fishes. It was clear and very still although fishing by locals is not uncommon.
There is also a possibility that the stagnated water in the ponds runs the risk of being contaminated with bacteria from animal urine that is harmful to humans. I would definitely not swim in these mining ponds!
On 16 December 2020, Feng Zhiyun wrote in an article in Buletin Mutiara stating that since Frog Hill is currently a private land, the state government is unable to carry out any upgrading project. However, for now, the place is still open to the public to visit and take photographs.
How does one get to Frog Hill? The journey from Bukit Mertajam to Frog Hill is about a 30-minute drive. It is advisable to use Google Maps or Waze to find your way there. Park your vehicle before the start of a short climb to the top of a hillock to enjoy the view.
What will the owner of the land do with Frog Hill? Develop it into a housing estate or turn it into a tourism site? Some responsible global mining companies deploy good corporate governance in restoring the land once mining is done. Responsible restoration efforts would be carried out to produce fertile and productive farmland as well as creating ponds and streams to support wildlife.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 31 August 2021