Sunday, 16 June 2019

Pulau Ubin

Arrival at Pulau Ubin
While I was in Singapore I was keen to see a very different side to this tiny nation and so I took myself to the small island of Pulau Ubin, a very rustic and quiet corner that feels a million miles from the uber-modern city.  The island is just off the north east coast of the main island of Singapore just beyond Changi Airport.  I took the MRT from the city centre and got off at Tanah Merah where I had to catch a bus to Changi Point.  The bus ride took nearly 30 minutes and deposited me just a stone's throw from the ferry terminal.  I took the opportunity to have a little something to eat before my crossing at the well appointed food court by the bus station.  The stalls were reminiscent of those I normally frequent in Bangkok and were a far cry from the shiny restaurants in the main city.

Pekan Quarry
The ferry terminal offered two alternative routes (the other goes to a port in Malaysia) and there were already a number of people waiting to across to the island.  There is no schedule - the boat goes only when it is full.  As we crossed over the water I wanted to take some pictures and found to my cost that the air conditioning in the public transport played havoc with the lens of my camera and I had condensation in it for a very long time afterwards.  At the other side I wandered down to the end of the jetty and immediately found the bicycle hire places and coffee shops.  I had a quick coffee (or kopi as it is called locally) while I waited for the condensation to correct itself.  After a jolt of caffeine and sugar (kopi is extremely sweet) I was ready to make my way around the island by bicycle.

Wei Tuo Fa Gong Shrine
Pulau Ubin was once a granite quarrying community and the scars of this activity are still evident in the landscape, albeit softened by nature taking over once again.  The quarries are filled in by beautiful azure lakes surrounded by forest and with employment mostly gone the communities have largely gone too, leaving only a small number of people to appreciate the quiet life of the island.  Most of the people left behind look after the natural environment or serve the tourists that make their way here, especially at weekends.  There are few cars here as only those that live here can have them and very honestly the distances are so short that the best way of getting around is by bicycle.  The whole island is only 10 square miles and the furthest points apart are only about 5 miles.  Renting a bike was very cheap - it only cost me $12SPD for the day (approximately £5).

From the main settlement of Pulau Ubin there are two options - to turn left or turn right.  I decided initially to turn left and head west.  I didn't have to go far before the first viewpoint alongside Pekan Quarry.  Looking out over the calm blue water it was hard to believe that this was once full of machinery gouging out granite as now it seems like an oasis of tranquility just a stone's throw from a city of 8 million people.  I paused for a moment before pushing on along a largely flat road through the forest.  The roads have all seen better days but with few cars here now I don't suppose it makes much sense to spend much money on them.

The road looped around the lake until I came to a junction where I took a left (straight on would be take me back around to the road that would head right from the main settlement).  The road led down through a palm forest and soon I came upon a small bridge across some fast flowing water.  There was a group of locals here fishing and all looking intently down in the water.  I took a look too on the other side of the bridge and could see the water teeming with pipe fish.  I wasn't sure they were what were being fished for though as they looked a bit small to be worth eating.

Bukit Puaka View

A little way past the bridge and I took a right hand turn along an unmade track to a Chinese Temple.  It didn't make for such easy cycling especially as I quickly realised that the gears didn't work!  However it was worth the side trip for the ambience and colour of the place.  When I got close I was greeted with the sound of clanging bells, the sight of colourful flags and streamers decorating the shrine and the smell of incense burning from within.  There were a few worshippers around and so I gave them plenty of space and tried not to intrude.  Surrounding the temple were vibrant pink bougainvillea providing another layer of colour and in the stream dividing the two parts of the temple were a number of turtles basking in the sun or lazily swimming about.

Research Station
I retraced my route back to the main road as the temple was effectively at the end of a cul-de-sac.  I went a short distance eastwards stopping again not much further down the road to take a look at Bukit Puaka.  I knew this was going to be a climb and was a bit relieved when it said that no bikes were allowed up the track.  I left it at the bottom and soon realised why it said that when the path got a lot narrower and eventually became a steep footpath.  About half way up was a view point and I stopped briefly to admire the view across the lake that was once a granite quarry.  As with the last one it was difficult to imagine as nature had almost completely repaired the scene.  I didn't stay too longas I sensed there was a better viewpoint further up and that was indeed the case.  On the way up the din of the cicadas started and unusually I got to see one this time.  They seemed to like floating between the trees and on one tree I got to see what I took to be a dead one only to discover that it was discarded skin!  The view at the top was really good as you could additionally see across to the urban part of Singapore, standing in stark contrast to the rural idyll I found myself in.

German Girl Shrine
After a few minutes I headed back down to the bottom and recovered the bike before heading further west.  The road curved around past a research institute, which looked rather deserted.  I could imagine teams of scientists and/ or students staying here looking at the wildlife or testing environmental conditions.  Their quarters were much as you would imagine - basic but with adequate facilities given the location.  I wonder what it is like when full of researchers?  It looks like there are plenty of things to look at with evidence of plant trials and water quality experiments.  I pushed on across another bridge, very similar in nature to the earlier one, and even including a set of fishermen trying their luck.

Chinese Cemetery
Just past the bridge I took the left hand turn at a fork and continued along a road that was on a causeway between mangrove swamps.  These specialised trees help protect the low lying coast from tidal surges and tsunamis.  In the areas where these proliferate the coast took much less of a battering from the extreme tsunami of 2004 which devastated much of the region.  Much of the destruction was made worse by removal of mangrove swamps from large swathes of the coastline in the march of progress.  They were so thick alongside the road that in some places it was difficult to see the water at all.  As I left the shoreline the road deteriorated into an unmade track rather than tarmac but it was fairly good riding still despite the incline.  There is a mountain bike track that continues around the nearby reservoir here but I decided that my bike and its lack of working gears wasn't really up to the job.

Army Camp
What I came for was a look at the so-called German Girl Shrine.  This rather strange little place is just off the main track and has recently had its centenary.  The story began in the 1910s, just before the First World War (1914-1918). There was a German family living on Pulau Ubin who owned a coffee plantation. According to historical research, the plot of land used to belong to two German families, Daniel Brandt’s and Hermann Muhlingan’s, but the identity of the German girl remains unknown.  When war broke out, the British military rounded up the German plantation owner and his family. His frightened daughter, who was about 18 years old, escaped into the woods. The rest of her family was sent to a detention barrack on mainland Singapore. A few days later, the girl’s body was found covered with ants by the plantation workers. It was believed that she had lost her way and fell to her death from a cliff. Her corpse was discovered by Boyanese plantation labourers, who threw sand over her body and offered prayers, flowers and incense as a gesture of goodwill each time they passed her.  Eventually, a group of Chinese workers on the island carted her remains to the crest of the quarry's hill and gave her a proper burial.  Interestingly the shrine looks a lot more Chinese than German - the only clue to its past is the title Berlin Heiligtum which appears above the entrance.  

Pulau Homesteads
Before heading back I pushed on a little further to the reservoir a little further over.  I had the whole place to myself and enjoyed the sight of a large heron swooping in to what I assume was a roosting spot by the shore.  The only other sign of life was the incessant din from the local cicadas - they really are incredibly  noisy!  This was the furthest extent I could go along this shore so I retraced my route back to the earlier fork in the road and took the other turn.  This rather cracked and broken looking road looked as if it had suffered a lot from water incursion and drying out - it was in terrible shape.  It was put out of its misery as a through route a little further on with a gate across the road at a rather random looking spot.  I thought I would go on a little further to the beach and so left my bike at this point (they weren't allowed further on) and walked up hill initially.  I soon passed by an old Chinese cemetery, still tended by loved ones judging by its appearance.  Most of the workers on the island were Chinese, so a cemetery devoted to their needs was no great surprise.  It was more remote than I would have expected though.

Chek Jawa Boardwalks
My attempt at finding the beach was fruitless.  Eventually the road ran out and I continued along a path for a while but when I got close to the beach I discovered a rather large pile of army looking rucksacks and voices on what I took to be the beach just behind the trees.  I decided not to investigate further for I wasn't totally sure I was supposed to be there.  It was rather an unsatisfying end to the journey west on the island for I couldn't go any further.  I wandered back and reclaimed my bike and retraced my route all the way back to the turn off at the first reservoir I had come upon.  On the way I took a brief look at the second reservoir from the other side of where I had been earlier.  I cannot say that the view was particularly interesting though and I didn't linger long especially as the heat was quite fierce by now.

Ministry of Silly Walks
At the turning where I had made my earlier choice I took the left hand turn and came upon some more cyclists as I did so.  They were puffing their way up the hill just beyond and as I had seen them from some distance away I decided not to make the same mistake and built up speed so that momentum carried me half way up.  I was glad I did for the setting of the one gear that I had wasn't conducive to hills - I did just about have enough strength to get up though and was relieved to see that the onward route was downhill and not further up.  At the bottom of the hill I had to take a sharp left and passed a small group of houses that had a number of barking dogs.  I was relieved to see that they were behind fences for there is nothing that scares me more when on a bike than a marauding dog.

Fiddler Crabs
The ride over to the eastern end of the island was undulating and I soon came upon a section that was unmade and one way.  This definitely helped with the undulations as the downhill sections were a little bumpy and the uphill required a bit of weaving to give me enough oomph to get up them.  It was very hot too - what would have been a fairly untaxing ride in the UK was made quite tough on account of the bike and the heat.  All that counted in my favour was the fact that the ride was largely through the shade of some very tall trees.  I was mightily relieved when I got to the bike park at the eastern end of the island.  I had to leave the bike here so that I could explore the Chek Jawa wetlands.  This part of the park is quite special for you can walk out across a specially designed boardwalk that allows for an examination of the life that calls this area home, without disturbing it.  I took this section slowly to enjoy the seascape of other islands in Singapore and Malaysia beyond as well as the wildlife below.  In particular I enjoyed watch the herons fishing and the fiddler crabs scuttling across the mudflats.  At the end of the boardwalk the path took a route through more mangrove swamps where rather bizarrely a family of monkeys had made their home.  They are clearly resourceful creatures for on the face of it this was not obvious monkey territory.

Jejawi View
Just before getting back to the information kiosk I came upon the Jejawi Tower, an observation point that is high above the trees that takes quite a bit of climbing.  It was definitely worth it though - the view out across the wetlands was breathtaking.  The importance of this small island can also be appreciated when you see the influence of humans in this area with industry and shipping all around.  After a few minutes I climbed down and completed the loop to House Number 1.  Located at the entrance of Chek Jawa, the visitor centre was converted from a Tudor-style house built in the 1930s. Fondly known as House No. 1 (its postal address in Ubin), the building was awarded conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in December 2003, and was carefully restored. The house now hosts a display about the development of the island and interpretation boards about the wildlife to be found here.  There is also a concrete jetty here that can be accessed for another view of the seaside.  I had decided that I had seen enough of it and didn't walk to the end.

House No 1
I rejoined my bike and headed back towards the jetty via the return loop which went via quite a stiff climb that I was forced to walk up.  I was brave enough to go down the slope on the other side although there were warnings to consider walking downhill too.  I felt in control enough not to worry about that for it was far from being a mountain bike trail.  I paused briefly at the last quarry I was to see today, the rather lonelier Balai Quarry.  I was the only person here but sadly there was no wildlife to see and so I pushed on going non-stop all the way to the bike hire place to drop off the bike.

Police Station
I wasn't quite done with the island though - I wanted to take a look around the sensory garden just to the east of the main settlement.  As I wandered around I walked past the police station, surely the easiest and most picturesque posting in this small nation.  The sensory garden was an easy walk that took me through the backyard planting of the Pulau Ubin village home, where fruit trees such as papaya, banana, rambutan and breadfruit etc are planted. Sadly there wasn't a huge amount to see - I think I was in the wrong season for most of the crops and fruit.  I wandered around for a short while before heading back to the jetty for the boat back to the mainland.  It had been a great day of discovery and I was really pleased I had made the not inconsiderable effort to get here from the city centre.  If you plan to spend a few days in Singapore and the bright lights of the city wear a bit thin I can highly recommend this place.

Sensory Garden

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