Sunday, 2 June 2019

Singapore Botanic Gardens

On Hands
The Botanic Gardens in Singapore are rightly celebrated as one of the premier attractions of this city state and it was top of my list of places to visit on my recent trip.  What I was completely unprepared for is the scale of the place - I imagined that I would be visiting for a couple of hours to do it justice just as I had with its counterpart in Kuala Lumpur.  However, it wasn't long after getting off at the dedicated MRT (tube) stop that I realised that it would take a lot longer to see everything within the gardens.  It is probably twice the size of the Kuala Lumpur gardens and has a lot more to it, with areas dedicated to orchids, wetland plants, trees and even agricultural crops.

Water Gardens
The gardens were established in 1859 when English garden design was being exported to a number of the colonies in the British Empire.  The reason that the gardens started was mostly for agricultural reasons - one of its greatest success stories was to grow rubber after transplanting it from South America.  It did so well that within a few years Malaya was the largest producer in the world. It's transition from colonial garden to one of the foremost botanic gardens in the world was recognised with UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014.

Morning Exercises
Bukit Tanah gate is right outside the exit of the MRT station - no chance of getting lost!I started my journey at this point turning right just inside the gate and heading up into the Trellis Garden.  It was here that my eyes were drawn to some interesting sculptures - they were a couple of entries from a Polish art trail that had come to town.  They fitted their surroundings so well it was hard to believe that they weren't put here a lot longer ago than the previous autumn.  They were going to be short-lived too as they are due to be removed almost immediately having served their time.  My favourite one was called 'On Hands' an acrobatic figure clinging on to a tightrope.  I wandered around this small area of the garden for a while enjoying the flowering bougainvillea and trying to avoid a nursery school outing.  This was not because the children weren't delightful but because they formed a large snake as they held hands through the park.  I certainly didn't want to get in their way!

Meranti Tree
At the far end of the trellis garden I crossed a large open space and entered the herb and spices garden.  This was immediately more intimate than had gone before with the foliage from the plants alongside partially covering the path and a little further on was a small glade with a pool at the heart of it.  I walked through on a concrete boardwalk and enjoyed the ambience of a garden that I could only have seen from the artificiality of a greenhouse back in Europe.  Here the butterflies and tropical fish were right at home and not apparently in captivity.
Ginger Gardens Pond

It was a very hot day and it wasn't long before I needed to have a sit down.  I did so at what was once part of the garden that crop experiments were conducted at.  It has now transformed into a lovely green space that was a relaxing place for a seat.  I wasn't alone - a man had also chosen this spot for a nap.  I kept my distance as he looked out for the count.  Just below my position was some form of visitor centre with a coffee shop which looked very inviting.  I decided though that I wasn't quite ready for a coffee or indeed lunch and moved on wandering past some more mini-waterfalls.  I realised that just as I had done with the botanic gardens in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks earlier that water plays a big part in the landscape of a garden in these parts. I guess with so much to manage during rainy seasons that it is vital to channel the water somewhere and have plenty of capacity to deal with it.
Parasol Dragonfly

As I wandered away from the visitor centre I came upon a small group of older women doing their morning exercises. This is a sight that never fails to mesmerise and fascinate me - the slow movement of these Asian exercises (I think Tai Chi in this case) always looks so controlled and deliberate.  I didn't get long to watch in this case though - they were just about at the end of their session and they dispersed within a coupe of minutes.  I took a small path away from the main tarmac roads that led up into the rainforest part of the garden.  As its name suggests it is a small tract of rainforest of approximately 6 hectares in size that actually predates the garden.  Once up through the steps it was hard to believe that I was in the heart of a major world city.  Within this area are some remarkable trees, including a species of fig that relies on a specific species of wasp to pollinate it.  The was in turn is  wholly reliant on the fig tree for its survival - rather an amazing relationship.  Another was the enormous Meranti, a gigantic tree that  throws roots down from high up on its trunk.  There are approximately 50 of these trees in Singapore but despite wide scale searches no seedling or sapling has been found anywhere in Singapore and it could be that once the existing ones die it will become locally extinct.  This particular one is the only one that is publicly accessible anywhere in the city.

Orchid Garden
I could have spent a lot longer in the rain forest but I was conscious that there was an awful lot more to see and I went from here to the orchid garden, the only part of the site that you have to pay to access.  I cannot say that I am a particularly big fan of orchids but I think that is borne of the fact that I have rarely seen them growing in their natural climate zone.  This part of the garden was truly stunning and worth the fairly modest admission fee to access.  The gardens were beautifully kept and included imaginative planting schemes and sculptures to heighten interest throughout.  I eventually made my way towards the top of the slope that the garden is arranged on.  At the top is a rather palatial looking house,  once occupied by  the director of the gardens called Burkill Hall.  Nowadays it hosts a display of many of the hybrids that have been bred here.  There is a tradition of presenting these to visiting dignitaries and VIPs.  Some of these are the people you would expect including Queen Elizabeth II, but there were also ones for such people as the President of Bangladesh and the King of Lesotho.

Burkill Hall
I stayed in the orchid garden for about an hour and much of the time I spent there was under large threatening looking clouds.  The sun came out completely when I left and by now the day was getting really hot, necessitating regular stops for refreshment.  I wandered through the ginger garden next door to the orchid garden, where I saw plenty of what would become a familiar sight in Singapore - the rather dandy looking parasol dragonflies.  They aren't camera shy either - they rest for quite a while on leaves and rocks giving you all the time in the world to take a shot!  From the Ginger Garden I headed up towards the bonsai garden and then on to a rather British looking bandstand.  I'm not sure whether it is used but playing a big brass instrument in the tropics sounds like very hot work to me.  It is surrounded by some very beautiful trees though so if it is used it must be one of the most glorious places to listen to a band anywhere in the world.

Torch Ginger
Beyond the bandstand were a couple more heritage trees - the first was called the Cannonball Tree.  This giant tree develops snake like stems that grow from the trunk.  Each one has a huge flower at the end which is pretty hard for any bee to pollinate as they have to go right inside to achieve it.  When the flower dies it forms a fruit that resembles a rusty cannonball.  The Monkey-Pot tree is also one with unusual fruit - in fact pretty much as you might think they look given the name.  The fruits aren't very popular though - they certainly aren't used by monkeys and the flesh is rather tasteless.  Originally from Brazil there were brought to Singapore in the 1920s to establish whether they might have some use as an oil producing tree. Its neighbour was more intriguing - torch ginger.  This eye-catching plant had beautiful red flowers just starting to come into bloom.

Also at this end of the garden was a set of steps built by prisoners of war overseen by occupying Japanese troops in World War II.  They are a bit of a memorial to the thousands of PoWs who suffered the tyranny of the occupying forces.  A touch of defiance can still be seen in some of the bricks that have arrows imprinted in them to indicate that the forced labour was due to "detention by the authorities".  Just across from there is the most amazing looking palm tree - it almost resembles bamboo but clearly with palm shaped leaves.  Apparently it grows well on Borneo and yield black thorns that were used for blowpipe darts and fruits eaten by local tribes.
Monkey Pot Tree

By now I was feeling pretty hot and bothered and was thankful for a bit of time in the air-conditioned small museum a little further on in Holttum Hall.  The display in here describes the history of the garden from its early beginnings as an experimental commercial garden where species from all over the world were brought to see how they coped with the tropical climate of Singapore and how they might be used commercially.  The biggest success of these trials was with rubber but it was by no means the only one - various others including fruits, vegetables and spices.  After my air-conditioned interlude I felt refreshed enough to continue and made my way down to Swan Lake.

Little Lizard
Swan Lake is so called because it houses a couple of swans that were imported from Amsterdam.  Sadly I didn't see them but I did see the fabulous sculpture of swans taking off that adorns the middle of the lake.  This part of the garden has a very different feel from what had gone before - it was almost like I had made my way into a new park entirely.  At the head of the lake was yet another magnificent tree - there are so many in this park that it is impossible to mention them all.  However this one was memorable for all the vines that hung down from the branches.  It covered a part of the lake in shade and this was obviously to the liking of the fish in the lake that had all come to this end to enjoy the relative coolness of the water here.  They were massive carp too, many of them sucking in great gulps of air.

Palm - Or Bamboo?
From the lake to the treetops and another change of scenery courtesy of a set of steps that I decided to explore.  At the top my choice of routes was limited by the fact that one side of a loop had been closed off while the park staff were doing some maintenance.  I was promised sights of butterflies and birds according to the interpretation boards but in reality I saw few as I imagine most are not as silly as me as to be out during the heat of the day.  Nevertheless I really enjoyed the treetop walk and was a little disappointed when it slowly descended to ground level.  I took a right turn shortly after and crossed via a magnificent bridge to the other side of the valley and over what I found out later were the Keppel Discovery Wetlands.

Swan Lake
I retraced my steps across the bridge so I could continue through the forest for longer.  I bumped into a girl here who was anxious for a picture showing the surroundings.  I duly obliged and also watched a couple of workers below who were taking weed out of the lake.  Inexplicably on this warm day they were dressed in sweat shirts!  I continued through the trees around the top of the lake and across a fast flowing stream that I thought would be cold as they normally are when I am in the temperate zone.  Of course I was wrong - the water was the temperature of a warm bath!  As I looped around I passed an area of the gardens being developed as the next extension.  I also caught sight of a colourful small bird that teased me for a while, stopping on branches for a short time but not long enough for a picture before scuttling off.
Bridge Over Keppel Wetlands

I descended into the valley for a closer look at the wetlands and was pleased that I did for I saw a number of colourful dragonflies, a couple of which obliged me with a picture.  The boardwalks around the wetlands allowed plenty of opportunities to observe wildlife even though there wasn't actually much about.  When I had looped around I was surpised to find myself at the back end of the Ginger Garden once again.  The scale of the park is most deceptive - it seems a lot bigger than it actually is in parts.  I stopped briefly for a very welcome ice cream at the side of the Ginger Garden before wandering down through Palm Valley to the Symphony Stage.  Orchestral concerts are performed here - they must be quite a treat to see (making mental note to find out when they are).

Weed Clearance
As I wandered down the side of Symphony Lake I saw the most enormous fish jump out of the water and it gave me a bit of a fright.  At the far end I stopped in the pavilion where I saw a number of young women nattering.  They spoke to me as I think they realised I was English and it turned out that they were all students from Hull University here on a field trip to study how Singapore ticked.  I was surprised how much I enjoyed talking with some English people - it had been quite a few days since  I had.  We enjoyed watching the turtles and the monitor lizards at this end of the lake.  No doubt the latter are always on the lookout for the weaker ones of the former to nourish them.

Symphony Lake
We headed off in different directions - I took a section of the former Cluny Road that used to head through the park before it eventually closed in the late 1980s.  Its origins are unmistakable though - it is clearly a lot wider than most of the paths in the gardens.  It took me over to the visitor centre that I had been past earlier.  I went down to look at the Healing Garden beyond here only to find to my annoyance that it was closed on Tuesday.  I had to retrace my steps and wound my way around to the fragrance garden, which lived up to its name with the most beautiful smells emanating from the various flowers there.

Turtle Time
I was well and truly on the return path now and probably because I was hot and tired the last part of the walk was a bit perfunctory.  You shouldn't read into this that it was any less interesting than earlier in the walk - I passed by the ethnobotany garden which was devoted to the crops useful to people.  I also went around the Eco-Lake which looked rather short of water.  It is supposed to be a haven for wildlife but I only saw a few pigeons there and moved on.  In fact it wasn't far past here that I was back at the gate and on the MRT leaving.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and it was a bit of a whistle stop tour but in truth I think I would need 3-4 visits to really get the most from this place.  It will certainly be on future itineraries!

Banana Flower

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