Penang’s Balik Pulau is famous for its durian. Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal gets some final whiffs of the king of fruits just before the season ends
THUD. Then... silence. As I peer into the inky darkness in front of me from the spacious wooden deck at 4am (I’m getting ready to prepare for sahur), I wait expectantly for a second drop. Somewhere in the dark distance, dogs howl in eager unison. I wonder whether they too are as excited as I am about the falling durians.
Then, another thud crashes above me on the roof. But this time, the sound is different. Whatever it is that landed seems to be moving on four padded paws. And then it’s gone.
Pulling my cardigan tightly around me, I force my mind to steer itself to less morbid assumptions. “It’s just a civet cat,” I whisper to myself, finding solace in this explanation, as I recall my conversation earlier in the day with husband and wife, Eric Chong and Kim Wong, the owners of Green Acres eco-lodge in Balik Pulau.
They had told me that “we have all kinds of animals here — flying squirrels, monitor lizards, bats... The civet cats love our fruits”.
In an attempt to appease my wildly-thumping heart, I let my mind wander to the durian-tasting session earlier in the night. I smile at the memory of us huddling around like vultures over a collection of thorny fruit and salivating at the thought of rich, and creamy-tasting “branded” durian, relishing the eat-as-much-as-you-can prospect, while Chong went through a marathon durian opening exercise.
Then, a softer-sounding thud and yet another — this time from a tall, gangly tree ahead — startles me, bringing me back to the present. As I train my eyes once again on the darkness, my attention is drawn to a spot in the distant hills where a light is flashing, blinking intermittently in a pattern that reminds me of a Morse code. I crane my neck for a better look. The light seems to be moving steadily down the hill. I reach for my mini torch and swing its beam towards the moving light.
To my surprise, my flashes are reciprocated. “Oh, oh,” I suddenly get a touch of the heebie-jeebies and quickly switch off my torch. I decide to abandon the deck in favour of the kitchen inside. Perhaps I should just get on with preparing sahur before the cockerels start their incessant crowing to usher in the first light of day, signalling the start of fasting.
I later learn that the “Morse code agent” descending the hill is among one of the many durian pickers who come out in the wee hours of the morning to collect fallen fruit.
It all started much earlier...
As my Matrix wound and spluttered itself up the partially cemented, and occasionally steep terrain towards Green Acres, I could barely contain my excitement.
Having left the bustling Balik Pulau town centre minutes earlier, it would be another three kilometres before we hit the pesticide-free farm owned by Eric Chong and his wife, Kim. The former is a corporate trainer by day and farmer on weekends. The orchard, with over 500 trees, is located just off the district of Titi Serong in Balik Pulau, which is synonymous with good quality durian.
It’s durian season. Unfortunately, the season, which normally runs for three months, is being cut short due to inclement weather. Continuous heavy rain had caused the flowers to drop, resulting in a lower harvest. Production is said to be down by 50 per cent compared with a normal season.
But I was not about to let that little nugget of info hamper my enthusiasm. After all, it had been a long time since I’ve been on a real fruit orchard. My recollection of being this whisker’s close to durian heaven goes back to when my late granddad was still alive many years ago. Then, armed with his trusty rifle, he’d take my cousin and me deep into his kebun near his home in Sungei Pelik, Sepang, (it felt like the jungle for a small girl) where there was a “pondok” waiting for us in a clearing where we could wait for the durians to fall. The sound of the king of fruits hitting the ground without skipping a beat was like music to our ears. Those were the days...
As the car, driven by hubby, ground to a halt in front of a make-shift sign for the farm, I couldn’t wait to get out. Before us, with arms extended in welcome were the Chongs and their 8-year-old son, Adric.
The sweet smell of durians permeated the air and I spotted with delight dense canopies of rambutan and duku langsat ahead as well as cempedak, ciku and nutmeg trees ladened with their respective fruits. In a rattan basket were mountains of ripe mangosteen, plucked especially for us by the couple for buka puasa later. I was SO going to love this.
Our first sight of Titi Serong Ecolodge, our night’s accommodation, draws squeals of delight from my children. The two-storey structure is a restoration and reconstruction of a 50-year-old traditional Malay kampung house completely without nails. Spacious and airy, with full length windows and balconies, it has a living area leading out to a sizable wooden viewing deck that overlooks a breathtaking view of the hills beyond.
A modest fresh water dipping pool complete with darting fish inside is located in one corner of the deck, partially hidden by virtue of its size.
As my kids gallop off to explore their new surroundings, I run an appreciative eye over the rest of the lodge, charmed by its sheer simplicity. Rattan chairs and recliners, a hammock and book shelves lend the place a homely feel. The flooring meanwhile, is of solid durian wood, with some of the walls made up of wooden planks, fashioned from old, unproductive durian trees.
Located on an elevated land and with its open structure providing plenty of ventilation, there’s little need for air-conditioning at the lodge. The light breeze provides a dreamy caress to all who shelter inside. Just for those townies who may recoil at the thought of the lack of modern cooling mechanisms, there are plenty of tiny little fans running on 1.5 watts placed in various strategic parts of the house.
“Mama!” my youngest daughter’s urgent tugging of my sleeves snapped me out of my reverie. Literally dragging me in her excitement, she wanted to show me the amazing tree house constructed across from the house. It’s the Musang Loft, a self-contained structure made entirely of recycled wood and complete with the branch of a durian tree draped lazily across it, which transports me back to some wonderful childhood memories.
The farm has over 300 matured durian trees of more than 30 varieties — Musang King, Red Prawn, Hor Lor, Kun Por, Ganja, D24, Ang Bak Kia (the farm’s signature durian) — you name it, the farm has it.
The evening was balmy and the walk, incredibly pleasant. Skirting around fallen durians and cempedak, reaching out to low hanging rambutans and nutmegs, I revelled in the tranquillity.
Admittedly, this isn’t the place to come to if high-octane action is what you’re after. But, if you’re content to while the time away enjoying nature’s bounty and learning to rediscover the real meaning of relaxing, Green Acres offers all that and more. Failing which, Chong will be more than happy to take you on a thrilling ride on his trusty kapchai through plantations, traversing narrow paths lined with fallen leaves and wider cemented lanes (that’ll have you holding your breath at the sight of oncoming vehicles), and around the scenic Balik Pulau loop leading to the picturesque Air Itam Dam. The first dam to be built on Penang Island, this reservoir’s a popular recreational venue.
As our walk neared its end and we arrived once again by the unassuming entrance to the house, Wong had a word of advice for me — not to be startled should I happen to hear noises in the night. Comforting words since I was planning to wake up in the early hours of the morning to rustle up some sahur fare. “We have all kinds of animals here — flying squirrels, monitor lizards, bats... The civet cats love our fruits. But they won’t disturb you,” she had said reassuringly.
Those very words would later, rear its head again, no doubt, to comfort me...