Free durians for the picking

It's durian season now, but some Singaporeans prefer to head to the jungle for their fix
Frankie Chee, Straits Times 20 Jul 08;

It is a scene happening across the island: Grown men - and sometimes, women - sneaking through the jungle at night.

All the while, their ears are pricked for a special sound - the snap and crackle of breaking branches that signal a certain prickly fruit has fallen to the ground.

Yes, it is durian season once more.

It happens twice a year here and folks of all ages and walks of life leave Singapore's urban jungle to venture into the real green stuff to drool and even duel over durians.

Being able to harvest the pungent fruit and prise open its treasure of creamy flesh - rather than shell out for it at a shop - holds a powerful appeal for them.

Take insurance agent Christopher Peh, 40. On nights when he should be resting after a day's work, the former commando specialist puts on his army slacks and rubber boots, crosses under a Bukit Timah Expressway bridge near his home and scouts the nature reserve behind it for durians.

It has been his ritual for more than 10 years. This season, he has been out almost every night for the past three weeks.

Either trekking with a couple of his neighbours or sometimes alone, he can gather as many as 80 durians in one trip. He explained: 'This was something I first started doing when I was young and living in a kampung nearby. Since then, every year I will go durian picking.'

He added: 'It's near my place, plus I treat it as exercise. It's also for the fun of it.'

When LifeStyle caught up with him last Tuesday night, he was with neighbour Henry Lim, 40.

Lim's grey T-shirt was drenched in perspiration after lugging two of a three-bag haul, and he said: 'Since I started, I've lost a bit of weight. We lose all the calories we get from the durians by hunting for them.'

The National Parks Board says it is not illegal to pick up fallen fruit in places under its purview. Many of the durian trees are in forested areas which are military training grounds. It is illegal to venture into military training areas which are gazetted as protected areas.

Under the Protected Areas And Protected Places Act, trespassers can be fined $1,000 or jailed two years, or both.

Occasional fights

When LifeStyle visited one durian hot spot, the wooded area behind Yew Tee and Gali Batu flyovers on the Kranji Expressway (KJE), it was like a 'market' for fallen fruit.

About 20 people were milling around. Some were already hauling anything from handfuls of durians to bulging sacks.

Two middle-aged women refused to be named, saying it would be embarrassing. One said: 'My kids like durians so I followed my friend here for fun. It's my first time.'

Lim Chu Kang, Mandai, Yishun, Bukit Batok and Upper Thomson are other locales of tall durian trees and eager pickers.

Packer Soo Poh Soon goes to Yishun, the KJE area or Kranji twice a week to hunt for his favourite fruit. The 40-year-old, who has been doing this for the past three years, said: 'I was in an armoured unit in the army so I am used to these areas.'

He echoed the opinion of many when he said: 'I do this for the fun of it. The wild ones are natural and do not contain pesticides or additives so they're healthier.'

Seasoned pickers can even tell which tree produces good fruit, although they also highlight that fruit from a good tree may not always be good. They reveal that several breeds are found in the wild, even desirable ones such as XO and red-fleshed ones.

There are two modes of operation: Some go treasure hunting - searching from tree to tree, led by their nose or instincts; others sit under a fruit-laden one and wait.

An odd-job labourer in his 30s, who wanted to be known as Tan, was seen sitting patiently under a tree, but bolted forward to pick up a durian that dropped.

He said: 'I stay about three to four hours each time but I also walk around too. It depends on your luck. There's no way of saying which method is better.'

However, quarrels about ownership of the fruit or territory occasionally happen, say pickers. Some even camp overnight to gain 'territorial rights', chasing away intruders by flashing torches or harassing them.

Whether they are reliving their kampung days, satisfying their hunger for its distinctive taste or simply want some free makan, one thing is for sure: The fruit frenzy is short and sweet.

The season lasts only about a month.

Soo lamented: 'Yishun area is already drying up. There's just another two weeks more or so left here, then there'll be no more durians to pick.'