A Walk into the Wetlands

• Dispatch #9 •
I turned the quiet wilderness of Pulau Ubin in Singapore into an eco-pilgrimage.

While living in Singapore, I confess that I had never gone to Sentosa. Instead, I often looked to the wilder side of the country away from the bustling citylife. I chose to spend my last free day in Pulau Ubin, an island at the northeast of Singapore. If the Lion City was a dot on the world map, this was probably invisible. I wanted to see something different, one that will be worlds away from the bright Marina Bay Sands, the congested malls, and the verdant National University of Singapore, whose residential Tembusu College was my home for a few months.

“Rustic” is the word they will often use to describe Pulau Ubin. “It’s so rustic, my friends who are into mountain biking came back all roughed up,” exclaimed an acquaintance. I took a very long bus ride to the northeast of Singapore and then on a short bumboat ride to the island. On the boat, I was with a few people who, like me, wanted to take a break from the dense city. “Rustic” was exactly what we wanted to sign up for.

Alighting from the boat at the jetty, I could see that the coastline of Pulau Ubin was dotted with bikes. Most tourists like to explore the island via bicycles, but I was ready to explore it on foot. Another, interesting thing that dotted the coast were little makeshift altars, whose red and orange hues contrasted starkly with the grey and green of their surroundings.

An altar on the coast of Pulau Ubin
An altar on the coast of Pulau Ubin

The day was cloudy, as it usually was in Singapore. Not far from the coast was a sensory trail that led to a garden of vegetables, herbs, and spices. The plants were labeled with what they cured, such as toothaches. Nearby, I saw several scarecrows next to patches of periwinkle. It was a friendly welcome.

A plant that alleviates toothache
A plant that alleviates toothache
A scarecrow next to a periwinkle patch
A scarecrow next to a periwinkle patch

Back on the trail, I had nothing else to see for a while except for trees. They grow differently here because for the most part, they are allowed to grow wild. The humidity and heat of Singapore allows many things to proliferate. The branches of trees seemed to be double that of what I was used to in other countries. Insects had stranger colors and bigger sizes.; I ran when I saw the size of their spiders. Epiphytic plants ran upward tree trunks. Patches of pink mushrooms appeared every few yards or so—I was tempted to eat them. For a while I felt I was in complete isolation, and some vestiges of human activity, such as the occasional rest stop, made me feel like I was in a Hayao Miyazaki film, and that Totoro was soon to arrive.

Beautiful Pulau Ubin!
Beautiful Pulau Ubin!
Trees branches, unhindered, soar to the sky
Trees branches, unhindered, soar to the sky
Bamboo
Bamboo

There were houses, too. Few families live in Pulau Ubin , and those that do lived mainly in one-story kampong houses, unlike the sandwiched claustrophobia of condominium living in the city. There was a peaceful isolation to it, not just because there were few inhabitants, but also because the houses were surrounded by trees that soared to the sky. While some looked abandoned and eerie, others had music coming from the inside. One even had a distressed sculpture of Cookie Monster outside.

An abandoned kampong house
An abandoned kampong house
An eerie kampong house
An eerie kampong house
Cookie Monster greets you outside this house. Music blares from the inside.
Cookie Monster greets you outside this house. Music blares from the inside.

I encountered at least two Muslim cemeteries on the trail, the gravestones small and peeking out, uneven and unkempt. They must have been here since the island’s heyday, I mused. Not far from them where some granite quarries that fueled the island’s industry in the 1960s. “Pulau Ubin” means “Granite Island” in Malay. Now, they looked peaceful and the air was clean and crisp, largely devoid of human activity.

While walking, I had the strange feeling that I was being followed, and not just by fellow tourists. Shadows and sounds came from the trees. And suddenly, I felt a thump a few steps behind. I turned, and there was a group of wild monkeys staring, as though ready to pounce. A passerby told me that they approach humans while listening for the sound of plastic bags—they would think it contained food.

An avid watcher of Planet of the Apes, I could only snap this blurry photo before I fled:

I hastily took a photo of this army of monkeys before I ran.
I hastily took a photo of this army of monkeys before I ran.

It had been a few hours and I was getting tired and I had had it with monkeys, but up ahead I saw a sign that pointed to my right, saying it was leading to Chek Jawa Wetlands. I wanted to turn back and go home, but something told me that this was what I had come for. I continued on. And on. And on.

Only one way to go and that is to the right.
Only one way to go and that is to the right.

And finally, I arrived. There were a few people parking their bicycles at the gate. If the trail felt wild and isolated, this one had a different atmosphere. It was quiet, but it felt very… alive. Several ecosystems inhabit Chek Jawa, with animals and plants that are rare in Singapore and the rest of the world. They are also fast disappearing, thanks to urbanization and climate change.

At Chek Jawa Wetlands.
At Chek Jawa Wetlands.

Except maybe for the wild boars. At least that’s what the new signs told me, as I nervously looked around. Move calmly away from it, the sign said. No flash photography and don’t feed them. As if the monkeys weren’t enough.

Up ahead, the coastal boardwalk was refreshing after the long walk. It was too cloudy to see very far ahead, but I enjoyed looking at the sandbar. Little crabs with one big claw surreptitiously climbed through holes, and strange seaweeds sprouted out of the wet sand near the mangroves, growing in an interesting formation. (I learned afterwards that they were pneumatophores, a type of aerial root.) The coastal forest could be seen from the boardwalk, and it was a fascinating sight, seeing wild trees stop at the rocks so suddenly, their tops lush and resembling animal silhouettes. Up ahead, I groaned at the sight of a plastic bottle, and gave the stink eye to two men smoking.

The coastal boardwalk
The coastal boardwalk
A lush coastal forest ran the edge of the wetlands.
A lush coastal forest ran the edge of the wetlands.
Aerial roots near the mangroves
Aerial roots near the mangroves

The mangroves were the highlight of Chek Jawa, mainly because I haven’t seen so many in one place. When I was younger, I remember thinking the trunks were upside down. Their roots plunged into the sand, holding it in place and preventing the coastline from eroding. When I’m doing my research on climate change, I often come across the importance of mangroves, especially when typhoons come.

Mangroves!
Mangroves!

Walking back, I passed by a cluster of palm trees. There was an observation dock a few stories high, which allowed me to see the tops of the trees and beyond. I felt like a flea seeing what lay beyond the realm of a dog.

At the top of the observation dock
At the top of the observation dock
Have you ever seen the top of a palm tree?
Have you ever seen the top of a palm tree?

Back on the trail leading to the jetty, my feet had reached their peak. People I encountered were surprised I walked to the wetlands and back. I had been plodding on for eight kilometers. Walking away from one’s destination is more difficult than walking towards it. I felt the journey before rewarded me with new discoveries but now I wished I had a bike. I felt like I was walking with two limp heads of cabbage. It was a relief to be on a bumboat, back to the main island of Singapore where there was hot water, an internet connection, and a bed. I had my fill of the jungle for now.

My feet felt like limp cabbage heads at the end of an 8-km walk.
My feet felt like limp cabbage heads at the end of an 8-km walk.
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