Sanctuary lost in time

Pulau Ubin is part of a protected area far removed from busy urban life, writes Pete Spurrier

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 5:40pm

The Lion City is not all bright lights and shopping, as you will discover on Pulau Ubin, an island off the northeast coast which is a throwback to the Singapore of the 1960s.

The wooded island contains Singapore's very last kampongs (villages) and was spared from development 10 years ago when the rich wetland environment around Chek Jawa was given protection.

Once known as Granite Island, the stone mined there was used to build the original causeway from Singapore to Malaysia. The quarries were abandoned in the 1960s and gradually filled up with water. Today, Pulau Ubin is a nature reserve of lakes, mangroves and forest, which can be visited as part of a day trip from the urban area. I go on a Saturday morning, and though plenty of local visitors are enjoying the island by foot and bike, it is not at all crowded.

You depart from Changi Village, which is close to the airport and accessible by bus from the city. Bumboats carrying 12 passengers leave from the Changi pier whenever they fill up. The fare is S$2.50 (HK$15.60).

The crossing takes 15 minutes, but you cross a gulf of 40 years on the way. Pulau Ubin still has no mains electricity or water, so residents rely on wells and diesel generators. Dogs wander the dusty village streets and macaques hoot high up in the trees. This is not the Singapore you thought you knew.

After buying water and snacks in the village at the pier, I head northwards on foot, passing rubber trees, bamboo, termite mounds and orchards. There are about 50 families living on Pulau Ubin, scattered in flower-edged farmsteads across the island. The wooden houses with carved balconies, shaded by palms and painted in sun-bleached pastels, wouldn't look out of place in a country town in Thailand. At weekends, residents sell cold drinks from their verandas. I stop at a roadside stall to buy a young coconut.

There's a sudden downpour and I run up a flight of steps to what looks like a rain shelter. It turns out to be part of the island's Pak Kung temple. Here I meet Mr Ng, a man in his 50s who moved from Hong Kong to Singapore years ago. His wife is busy making offerings at the altar. "Every month I come here," he says, "because I need more luck at gambling."

Singapore's National Parks Board has placed signposts at all the junctions, so it's easy to find your way around. Chek Jawa is the environmental jewel of the island. The intertidal flats here support an unusual ecosystem formed by six different habitats: sandy beach, rocky shore, seagrass lagoon, coral, mangrove and coastal forest. Its importance to local biodiversity can't be understated - owing to widespread reclamation elsewhere, this is some of the last natural shoreline in Singapore.

A boardwalk system allows you to explore this colourful environment. Creatures that live here include starfish, anemones and sea cucumbers. There's a viewing tower that gives you a chance to see into the forest canopy. Look out for the Oriental pied hornbill, a large bird that has mostly disappeared from mainland Singapore.

Nearer the pier, you can follow the Sensory Trail, a circular route that takes about an hour to complete. Plaques point out fruit trees, aromatic herbs used in cooking, leaves used in traditional medicine and other plants native to the forest. The overgrown orchards of Pulau Ubin are an ideal habitat for bats and other rarely seen animals such as pangolins and leopard cats.

The main village has half a dozen restaurants serving seafood dishes. Take your time eating, for the bumboats back to Changi keep operating until about 9pm.