Singapore: Walking a wild path at Pulau Ubin

Jim Eagles New Zealand Herald 21 Oct 15;

At Pulau Ubin, away from Singapore's glossy towers, Jim Eagles comes face to face with some local wildlife.

In a clearing beside the track was a massive old tree which soared above the surrounding forest. Around its base were clustered the carved stones of a Muslim burial area.

And, this being Singapore, up its trunk climbed the wires and insulators of a lightning conductor.

"This is a pulai tree," said Alan, the national parks conservation officer who was showing us round the island of Pulau Ubin. "It is very old and very precious."

That, presumably, was why it was protected by a lightning conductor? "Yes. Many of our finest trees are struck by lightning and destroyed. So for this tree we spent $10,000 to keep it safe. We brought in some expert tree climbers to take the wire right to the top."

Looking up at the way the tree disappeared out of sight high above the jungle canopy I thought that must have been some climb. And I asked Alan if the effort had been worthwhile.

"Oh, yes," he said. "It has been struck by lightning several times. You can see on the counter."

Looking at the little counter I saw it registered "5". So, but for the lightning conductor, the tree would have been hit by lightning five times. "Yes," said Alan. "It would have been destroyed."

But this is Singapore, where more than five million people live in an area the size of Lake Taupo, a place where they don't do things by halves.

During the decades when all effort was concentrated on transforming this cluster of tropical islands into a modern city, Pulau Ubin was almost obliterated, its stone - the name means Granite Island - dug out of six huge quarries, its forests cut down to make way for rubber, pineapple and coffee plantations, its bays dammed for prawn farming,

But 50 or so years ago, when the Government decided to make Singapore a garden city, that process went into reverse. The quarries are now tranquil lakes where waterfowl play. The jungle has largely grown back and native birds and animals have returned. The coastline has been restored.

These days Pulau Ubin provides Singaporeans and visitors with a taste of what Singapore was like before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 and transformed the peaceful island off the coast of Asia into a global trading hub.

To get there involves taking a ride in a bumboat - small wooden craft able to carry a dozen passengers - from the Changi Point Ferry Terminal.

We headed for the jewel in the island's crown, the 100ha Chek Jawa Wetlands, pausing only to inspect some of the most interesting trees, including one of the surviving rubber trees, still dripping its sticky white juice into a bowl, and a cluster of durian trees

The restoration of the island has attracted back mischievous monkeys and the magnificent oriental pied hornbill - black and white birds with huge yellow beaks.

As we did the 600m coastal boardwalk, Alan pointed out an inlet "where a family of otters often comes to play" - sadly not today - and a bay where the red jungle fowls - ancestors of today's domestic chickens - feed when the tide is out.

Ironically, these ancient chickens are now the only fowls on the island because, Alan said, "after the last bird flu outbreak all the domestic chickens were slaughtered.

At one point the boardwalk crosses a big area of seagrass where "the biologists have found the feeding trails of dugong - seacows - though I have never seen any dugong here myself."

Because the tide was in we weren't able to spot the dugong trails or enjoy the many species that flourish on the mudflats but we did get to see plenty of fish including a large shoal of fine fat yellowtails.

Towards the end, when we got closer to shore, we were able to enjoy the antics of the mudskippers, amphibians with legs and fishtails, equally at home on land or in the sea, foraging along the water's edge.

The coastal walk leads on to another 500m of boardwalk through a forest of several types of mangrove - some of them massive trees with equally massive aerial root systems - and other coastal plants.

Among them was the nipa palm whose fruit, which grows in picturesque brown clusters, makes a famous local dessert.

I was intrigued by what looked like mud volcanoes along the way. "Those are the homes of mud lobsters. You are not likely to see them because they come out when their homes are covered in water."

Suddenly I saw what might be a mud lobster coming out of one of the volcanoes. "Sorry, no," said Alan. "That is only a crab. That is the tenant. The owner is about a metre down under the mud."

There was a flurry of excitement when some youngsters walking behind us spotted a monitor lizard prowling along the edge of the wetland under the boardwalk, its blue tongue flicking out, looking for titbits left by the falling tide.

And there was even more excitement at the end of the walk when a sow and half a dozen large piglets emerged from the forest seemingly keen to pose for pictures. Alan, who had earlier told us we were highly unlikely to see any of the wild pigs on the island, sighed. "Someone has been feeding them. We tell them not to. There are signs up saying it is forbidden. But it is still happening."

Some of the other species on the island that we hadn't seen were on display in the visitor centre which occupies an extraordinary tudor-style house built by English colonial officials in the 1930s and famous for having probably the only genuine fireplace in Singapore.

The fireplace no longer works - I can't imagine why anyone would ever have wanted to light a fire with temperatures in the 30s and humidity in the 90s - because the chimney has been closed off to protect a family of pouched tomb bats that have made a home there.

When I expressed interest in the bats one of the park officials told me the water tower for the house was home to a family of Malayan false vampire bats.

Thank goodness, I thought, that they weren't real vampire bats.

But then, this being Singapore, if they were real vampire bats they'd probably be fixed up with an artificial supply of blood to keep them healthy and the locals safe.


Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Singapore.

Where to stay: Hotel Fort Canning is a modern hotel set in a tranquil historic park in the heart of downtown Singapore.

For more information: Visit

The writer travelled with help from Singapore Airlines and Singapore Tourism Board.