The other side of Sin­ga­pore

Beyond the soar­ing sky­line to a quiet lit­tle isle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - |

Pu­lau Ubin is an is­land 10 min­utes from, and about 50 years be­hind, the Sin­ga­pore most vis­i­tors know. While the city-state glo­ries in its ul­tra-mod­ern sky­line, shopping malls and hi-tech im­age, Pu­lau Ubin re­mains a unique re­minder of what Sin­ga­pore used to be like.

The MRT rail­way to Tanah Merah sta­tion be­gins your jour­ney. Then it’s a bus or taxi trip to Changi Point Ferry Ter­mi­nal to wait for a bum­boat driver to rus­tle up enough pas­sen­gers to make it worth­while start­ing his en­gine and chug­ging for 10 min­utes across a crowded ship­ping chan­nel to Pu­lau Ubin. Twelve peo­ple on board, at about $3 a pop, and we’re off, swap­ping a shore­line crammed with cookie-cut­ter hous­ing blocks for one of sand, co­ral and man­groves framed by thick rain­for­est, steer­ing a care­ful course be­tween gi­ant con­tainer ves­sels as air­craft land­ing at Changi Air­port de­scend over­head.

From Palau Ubin’s long pier you walk straight into the is­land’s main vil­lage, the last true Malay kam­pung in Sin­ga­pore, com­posed of a scat­ter­ing of houses, a ca­sual restau­rant or two perched above the wa­ter, a cou­ple of small gen­eral stores, an un­pre­pos­sess­ing Chi­nese tem­ple and a string of bi­cy­cle hire out­lets. Cy­cling is the way to get around the is­land. There are hun­dreds of bikes for hire, priced from $8 to $15 for a day, and frankly it’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the cheap and ex­pen­sive ones. The newer bikes are higher priced, but they are all pretty clunky, so you need to check the brakes and tyres be­fore rent­ing a steed.

The key desti­na­tion on the is­land is Chek Jawa Wet­lands, about 4km from the vil­lage, and at first there is a paved road that runs past ex­pan­sive lo­tus ponds and un­der a soar­ing canopy of trees. After a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres the track be­comes gravel and a fork takes you on to a cir­cu­lar track that leads to and from Chek Jawa. A cheer­ful chap hands out maps at a na­tional parks out­post where bikes can be stored and then you walk, ini­tially along a 100m pier that of­fers a view back at the dense tan­gle of man­groves and bush that lines the shore. If you need a break from the heat, there’s a quaint Tu­dor-style bun­ga­low that dou­bles as a vis­i­tors’ cen­tre and rest spot.

The real treat of Chek Jawa is the me­an­der­ing 1.1km board­walk that starts near the vis­i­tors’ cen­tre and loops around the coastal for­est, track­ing the co­ral-strewn shore­line. It’s here that much of Pu­lau Ubin’s in­trigu­ing wildlife can be dis­cov­ered. Some crea­tures are easy to see, such as the ori­en­tal-pied horn­bill that nests above, while oth­ers are found only when you stand still and stare at the sand and rock be­neath the walk­way; there are count­less tiny crabs scut­tling about, sea stars, sand dol­lars and a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of worms.

Along the board­walk route is Je­jawi Tower, a 20m-high ob­ser­va­tion post above the for­est canopy that gives a panoramic view across the is­land and a sense of the im­mense re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work that has been done to turn Pu­lau Ubin from gran­ite quarry to con­ser­va­tion ex­em­plar over the past 40 years. Back on that bike, you will al­most cer­tainly come across cheeky long-tailed macaque mon­keys, which loi­ter on the paths in search of food and trou­ble. And that snuf­fling and rustling in the bush is likely to be a wild boar, which are pro­lific on the is­land, es­pe­cially close to Chek Jawa.

These en­coun­ters are en­tirely com­mon, un­like the re­ported sight­ing of a tiger on Pu­lau Ubin in 1997, or the 1990 visit of some ele­phants that ap­par­ently swam across from neigh­bour­ing Jo­hor in Malaysia for a daytrip. The path back to the jetty and the bum­boat passes by old quar­ries that have be­come pretty lakes, and is shaded by im­mense bam­boo trees that arch glo­ri­ously over the road, giv­ing all that sweaty ped­alling a sense of oc­ca­sion.

It is pos­si­ble to stay overnight on the is­land, but I’m con­tent with a few hours at Chek Jawa and in the main vil­lage. For those with more time, there is a fish farm, Chi­nese and Mus­lim ceme­ter­ies and more wilder­ness to ex­plore, and a chance to con­vince your­self that Sin­ga­pore can do re­newal and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion just as well as it can do recla­ma­tion.

Pu­lau Ubin’s board­walk, main; kam­pung house, above; bi­cy­cles for rent, left; macaque mon­key on the trail, far left; wild boar piglet, be­low

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