The Island Next Door

National Geographic (c) 2011.

A bike through Singapore's Pulau Ubin.



You should choose your bike wisely. Some have two seats and no gears. Some have brakes that don't tell the wheels when to stop, merely suggest it in a squeaky voice. This is fine on the paved cul-de-sacs of Singapore, but less so on the stony slopes of Pulau Ubin. The Lion City next door is known for economic miracles and mammoth shopping malls. Sentosa, its largest surrounding island, is home to theme parks, casinos and synthetic beaches. Pulau Ubin, the green islet, west of Changi, gets less press and far fewer visitors. And this is most certainly a good thing. If Sentosa is the symbol of Singapore's consumerism, Pulau Ubin is a snapshot of the city-state before the malls. A study in how unlike Singapore, Singapore once was. Five islets connected by mangroves and prawn farming bunds, it was once home to the quarries that built the causeways that connected Singapore to Malaysia. When industry abandoned these granite mills in the 1960s, the island's population dwindled from the thousands to the hundreds, and the fingers of nature re-colonised the land in all its shades of green. And what a sight it is. A forgotten backyard overgrown with palm and jambu bol trees, branches aflutter with parrots and woodpeckers, with pathways snaking through lakes and plantations. The first clue that you've stepped off the beaten track is the very typically Singaporean queue for the boat. There isn't one. Just a motley gathering of tourists with backpacks and locals with picnic baskets. All herded into a wooden raft with tyres down its side. The security guys watch with their feet up. They don't care what we take there. But for the return journey there's an x-ray machine and two alert men in uniform. What could we possibly bring back from this abandoned isle that'd threaten the metropolis next door? Was it a pirate's cove from the 19th century, when the Malays set up kampongs along the islet? Is there treasure? Or is this like the island in the TV show Lost? A mythical power source that feeds the blooming economies in the mainland? A group of us have arisen before 8 am on a Saturday to bike around an island. We intend to investigate. The boat ride takes its time, which is very strange behavior in these parts. Singapore reminds us that it is close by. We pass oil tankers doing three-point turns, and a lone yacht with young people pretending to fish. Overhead aircrafts charge into Changi Airport. We notice it as soon as we step off the jetty. There's more wood here than concrete; more smiling, less bustling. We come to a signpost with 15 arrows pointing in different directions. There's a sensory walk, a tree trail, two resorts named Celestial and a Butterfly hill. Further along are three campsites, a mountain biking range and the infamous Chek Jawa wetlands. Do we start with a sensory spice garden or begin by a lake in a coconut grove? The inclines are few and very manageable, despite overcautious signs urging us to dismount our bikes. Do that and we'd miss out on all the glorious downhill floats into the breeze. There are many pathways. Take the tree trail and follow the jack, banana and banyan trees that reach across the pathway. Cruise past plantations for rubber, pineapple, and jasmine: some thriving, some idle. Pass a Malay kampong house painted in schoolyard colours, roofed in corrugated iron and selling fresh fruit and king coconut. We recommend you lose the headphones. While they may be essential cocoons for city dwellers, out here, the creaking of branches, the harmonizing of birds and the peal of tyre on pebble will trump any manufactured beat. Pulau Ubin did catch the eyes of developers in the 90s and several reclamation claims passed tables. But a strong environmental lobby and growing tourist interest has thus far kept the bulldozers at bay. The government wisely deciding that the country needs a verdant eco-park far more than it needs an island mall. The conservation centre at Chek Jawa is a charming Tudor style building that highlights the many projects on the island. These include saving the sea horses, hornbills, redheaded woodpeckers and crab-eating frogs. At least this boomerang-shaped island lives up to its name: Granite Island. The two islets on either side are named Pulau Ketan and Pula Sekudu. (Crab Island and Frog Island) There is a sketchy creation myth of the islands being formed after a fatal race between these creatures off the tip of Singapore. Visible in varying shapes at different times of the tide, neither Pulau Ketan nor Pulau Sekudu look anything remotely like crab or frog, even on the map. We carry water and begin with a vague plan of which path to take. But the island entices us into a few let's-see-what's-over-there detours. The campsites, Jelutong, Noordin and Mamam, at different corners of the islet, offer sea views, campfire pits and butterflies, free of charge. All you need is to pitch a tent on sand. For meals, you could fish in the creek, take a 10-minute bike to the Seafood Court, or, if very hungry, you could try wrestling one of the wild pigs. If one were to hunt a boar with bare hands, these are the ones you'd consider. Pulau Ubin's porkers are as docile as daschunds and aren't camera shy. They drift onto the main road and trot along the trail like stray dogs. On our way to Chek Jawa, we encounter monitor lizards, brightly painted jungle fowl, and something that looks like an otter. We spot a hornbill near Ketam, the quarry turned mountain bike track, and spy an eagle, from the top of the five-storey lookout post, soaring towards the wetlands. There are said to be pangolins, vampire bats and leopard cats roaming these forests, but none cross our path. We abandon our bikes at the entrance to Chek Jawa, a feast of biodiversity and beauty. A wooden footpath curls through gnarled branch and swamp. Trees weave out through the undergrowth and breathe coolness into the air. This walk is best taken late afternoon, when the sunlight plays with shadow and everywhere you look becomes a postcard. The boardwalk curves around the coast, into the water, and back towards the mangrove palace. On a clear day you can see Malaysia; on a muggy one, at the very least, your phone will switch to Malaysian telecom. Chek Jawa is made up of 6 interdependent eco systems, a coastal forest, a mangrove swamp, a rocky shore, a sand bar, a seagrass lagoon and a coral bed. Guided tours of the area's biodiversity run at low tide in the early mornings and late afternoons. It's an exhilarating walk through a landscape teeming with marine life and many shades of bird. It is worth sticking around on the pier for when the sun goes down and the stars come up. On the way back from the wetland, we stumble upon another quarry, but this one has transformed into a gorgeous lake. The blue of the water looks photoshopped, as does the orange and emerald of the surrounding forest. The clearing does not appear to have a name, just a warning not to go swimming. If this was a mythical island, this is where the power source would be. Where the treasure would be buried. For the tourists, there's a nature gallery and a museum of coastal systems. For those needing a break from adventuring, the two Celestial resorts have villas for rent. For the cycle-weary, they offer fish spas, kayaks and well-stocked bars. Up north is a Police Cadets training camp and we see a few parked ambulances and some rookies going on patrol. Like most of Singapore, Pulau Ubin has more emergency services than emergencies. Invisible to travellers is an Outward Bound trail with wakeboarding, rock climbing, flying foxes and water sports. And off the brochure, there are secret gardens, spice trails and barbecue spots. Integral to the national psyche of Singapore is a concept called kiatsu. The need to do everything, to not miss out on anything ever. It's an attitude that grew a first-world nation, but one that needs to be checked at the jetty when entering Pulau Ubin. There is plenty of growth here, just not the type you can measure with GDP. We pass campers setting up tent and fire for an evening of barbecue, star gazing and ghost stories. We do a poor job of hiding our jealousy. The island cannot be squeezed into a day, perhaps not even into a weekend. Our backpacks are empty of the cans, bottles and packed feasts that we smuggled ashore. We pass them through metal detectors and x-ray machines. Maybe they are checking that we didn't steal rare flora or bring endangered insects into the metropolis. That we're not part of a chewing gum smuggling racket based in Malaysia. We exit security to return the world of taxis, trains, deadlines and concrete. But we return with that holiday feeling that usually takes a long weekend away to achieve. Here's what we did bring back from our ride through Singapore's island next door. Nibbled feet from the fish spa. A resolution to sit under a tree once a week. And a hope that developers will stay this side of the jetty. We leave Pulau Ubin, glad that we didn't do everything at once. Happy that we left something to come back to. Pulau Ubin Size: 10.6 km2 (1020 hectares) Co-ordinates 1'24'34?N 103'57'36?E Opening Hours: 8.30am - 6.00pm Boat from Changi $2.50 Cycle Hire $8-$40 Ubin National Parks: +65424108 Ubin Coastguard: +65428664


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