The Garden Where the City is Within

Singapore (17 – 21 February 2015)

While on a boat in Sweden many years ago I encountered a retired American couple. We chatted and I found out that their daughter-in-law was Singaporean.

The retired couple had never been to Singapore however and their impression of the country was based on postcards. I have no wonder how many postcards from Singapore they had seen but they thought that the country had hardly any trees.

I was quite taken aback. “There are trees everywhere in Singapore!” I protested. This shows how little many foreigners really know or even think about Singapore, contrary to what certain quarters of this country would have everyone believe.

One of the best and most correct things that the government has done for this country is I think to make the country green. The greenery softens and enlivens the greys and browns of a modern built up city. I really like their idea of making this country a city within a garden.

Over the long Chinese New Year weekend I decided to visit some of the natural sights of the country.

I started my visits where the efforts to make the country green were begun. The Singapore Botanic Gardens started as a pleasure garden built for the pleasure of members of the Agri Horticultural Society in 1859. It was in 1874 when the colonial government took over and it became a working botanic gardens. It was here that the saplings that started the Asian rubber plantation industry were grown. It was also here that the industrial methods of rubber cultivation and harvesting were invented. Years later, new methods of orchid hybridisation were developed here.

The Bandstand

The Bandstand

The gardens' frangipani collection

The gardens’ frangipani collection

Sundial Garden

Sundial Garden

The gardens may be 150 years old but nothing is ever left the same in Singapore forever. People always feel the need to widen a road, reroof the buildings or simply create a new feature. Understandably, no working botanic gardens can stay exactly the same always. However, I am not sure that there is a need for certain features which I thought were unnecessary to the operations and continued relevance of a working botanic gardens. What is that new stage doing there?

Palm Valley, planted from 1879, with the 2005 Shaw Symphony Stage behind

Palm Valley, planted from 1879, with the 2005 Shaw Symphony Stage behind

Sun Garden (built in 2004)

Sun Garden (built in 2004)

Holttum House (built 1921 as the Director's office and laboratory), named after Prof Eric Holttum, the gardens' Director from 1925 to 1949, who developed the innovative orchid breeding technique which enabled the efficient production of healthy seedlings in sterile flasks from a hybrid seed

Holttum House (built 1921 as the Director’s office and laboratory), named after Prof Eric Holttum, the gardens’ Director from 1925 to 1949, who developed the orchid breeding technique that enabled the efficient production of healthy seedlings in sterile flasks from a hybrid seed

EJH Corner House, the former residence of the Assistant Director of the gardens from 1929 to 1945, now a restaurant

EJH Corner House, the former residence of the Assistant Director of the gardens from 1929 to 1945, now a restaurant

1866 Swan Lake (Nibong palms in the middle planted in 1891) with 2006 installed "Flight of Swans" sculpture

1866 Swan Lake (Nibong palms in the middle planted in 1891) with 2006 installed “Flight of Swans” sculpture

I understand that the government has submitted (it is Singapore’s 50th year of independence and elections are coming) a nomination to UNESCO to make the gardens a world heritage site. The nomination is up for consideration in the middle of this year. I understand that authenticity is a big deal when it comes to deciding whether or not to give a place that world heritage label. I am quite eager to see what the advisory body has to say about the alterations in the gardens.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens, protected as a national park, is more cultivated than natural. Nevertheless, it is still a big place filled with all kinds of wonderful plants. I loved the yellow leaved rain trees surrounding the Bandstand. It definitely helped that I loved the glorious rain tree to begin with and the yellow leaves, caused by a genetic mutation, made these even more special. There is also a tiny patch of primary rainforest in the gardens and it is possible to spot certain animals there that I had never thought existed in the country.

Vanda Miss Joaquim

Vanda Miss Joaquim

Ferns at the Evolution Garden

Ferns at the Evolution Garden

Water lilies on Symphony Lake

Water lilies on Symphony Lake

The gardens' own tract of primary rainforest

The gardens’ own tract of primary rainforest

Greater racket-tailed drongo

Greater racket-tailed drongo

Brown shrikes

Brown shrikes

Kepayang tree from which the buah keluak is obtained

Kepayang tree from which the buah keluak is obtained

I visited the gardens twice in as many days but did not enter the National Orchid Garden on either visit. I had to pay to get in and I was feeling cheapskate. In any case I had visited there before although it was many years ago.

The second morning of Chinese New year was spent at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. I had visited the reserve once before more than ten years ago and thought that it was time for a revisit.

There is a bus from Woodlands Regional Centre that stops at the entrance of the reserve. I remember having to pay a small entrance fee when I last visited but entrance is now free.

I was actually almost disappointed that I was not greeted by a swarm of water monitors when I entered the park. And where are all the humongous spiders? The area also looked somewhat different from how I remembered it but I soon realised that it was actually a new extension to the reserve.

The first animal to greet me at the reserve was this white-bellied sea eagle

The first animal to greet me at the reserve was this white-bellied sea eagle

Looking across to JB

Looking across to JB

Straits of Johor with Singapore on the right

Straits of Johor with Singapore on the right

It is amazing that the authorities would agree to extend a protected natural area. The only extensions that I am familiar with in this country are to residential and industrial areas, or at least areas that generate revenue. I definitely applaud this one to nature, and I applaud even more that the reserve is free to visit.

Mangrove forest extending into the Straits of Johor

Mangrove forest extending into the Straits of Johor

Mangrove forest in the new extension

Mangrove forest in the new extension

Some crabs and a mudskipper taking a breather from the high tide

Some crabs and a mudskipper taking a breather from the high tide

Mangrove forest in the new extension

Mangrove forest in the new extension

Some spiders at last

Some spiders at last

I soon found myself at the old entrance to the reserve and saw my first monitors for the day. There was a really fat one lying on a platform in the middle of the fish pond basking in the sun. There were also more varieties of fish in the pond. When I last visited there were only kois and arowanas.

Resident water monitors

Resident water monitors

The original reserve area looked much the same except that this time there were more visitors. I think that scared off most of the lizards although I did still see some wandering about that day. Actually I would be quite happy to not see them at all. I have an irrational fear of lizards. Hate them!

On the trail at the reserve

On the trail at the reserve

The mangrove forest

The mangrove forest

Running off with its catch

Running off with its catch

The waterbirds, which are really the highlights of the reserve, were all safely wandering about in the sand far away from the walking trail and therefore could not be closely observed except with a pair of binoculars.

Great egrets

Great egrets

Wetland waterbirds

Wetland waterbirds

More great egrets

More great egrets

Wetland waterbirds

Wetland waterbirds

Wetland waterbirds

Wetland waterbirds

I was however most excited about spotting the local crocodiles, not once but twice. The two might have been the same crocodile since I spotted them both swimming along the same creek though not at the same spot. It was wonderful for me since I had never seen a crocodile in the wild before that day.

Crocodile 1

Crocodile 1

Crocodile 2

Crocodile 2

I have to say that I was actually more excited about seeing crocodiles than my own relatives.

Golden web spider

Golden web spider

Revisiting Sungei Buloh was a wonderful experience. However I noticed that there was a lot more rubbish there than I remembered. There were also quite a few dead fishes floating by the shores among the rubbish. It was really quite depressing.

I made the mistake of going on the TreeTop Walk on a Saturday. I had stupidly thought that most people would still be busy celebrating Chinese New Year that day and I only realised my mistake when I approached the entrance to the trek into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to reach the walk. Everyone was there!

Very serious looking installation just outside the forest

Very serious looking installation just outside the forest

Local monkeys guarding the approach to the TreeTop Walk

Local monkeys guarding the approach to the TreeTop Walk

On the bridge

On the bridge

The Central Catchment Nature Reserve serves the reservoirs of MacRitche, Upper Seletar, Upper Pierce and Lower Pierce. It consists of secondary forests surrounding those reservoirs. The TreeTop Walk refers to this suspension bridge built high among the canopy of the secondary forest. The bridge is but a short 250 metres, but the trek through the forest took me about two and a half hours.

Forest canopy

Forest canopy

Reservoir peeking behind the forest

Reservoir peeking behind the forest

I enjoy walking through forests. Half a lifetime ago I had to trudge through similar forests while undergoing navigation training in the army and I remember wishing that I was doing it on my own for leisure. Unfortunately I doubt that they will open up those forests for public use so I will have to make do with the ones that are.

On the forest trail

On the forest trail

Walking along the trail near the MacRitchie Reservoir also reminded me of those days when I was forced to run the 4.8 km through the forest once a year. I never enjoyed running and those once a year events were to me heavy penance for all the sins that I had committed in the year. It was definitely more enjoyable walking.

Quiet corner of MacRitchie Reservoir

Quiet corner of MacRitchie Reservoir

An arm of MacRitchie Reservoir

An arm of MacRitchie Reservoir

I overheard two foreign women commenting that the central catchment area was nicer than Stanley Park. I honestly would not make any comparisons, and I have been to Stanley Park, but I have to say that the central catchment area was really quite lovely.

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