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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pedal Ubin

Ubin Quarry
It was a morning of cycling and exploration at Pulau Ubin. The last time I was there was about 15 years ago, and I was glad to see that not much had changed. The island still retained its rustic feel, resisting most efforts to "modernise" it.

The cycling trip was organised by Pedal Ubin. A friend had come across the group and suggested joining the next trip, which was this morning. We arrived at Changi Jetty at 8am, took the ferry to the island, then put down $10 for a whole-day rental for a bicycle each.

Waiting outside volunteer centreWaiting outside volunteer centre
We nearly missed the rest of the group, because we had mistakenly thought that the meeting point was at the Information Kiosk, when it was actually at the Volunteer Centre. Fortunately, we found out in time. About 40 other people had already congregated there, including some families with young children.

Mangrove swamp at Sungei JelutongSungei Jelutong
We broke up into groups of 10. After a brief orientation session at the ex-basketball court, we proceeded westwards. First stop: Sungei Jelutong, the river that "cuts" Pulau Ubin in two. We were taught about the many uses of mangrove plants, from providing firewood to desalinating water to -- and this had been drummed into our heads three years ago -- acting as a natural breakwater against tidal waves, especially those caused by a tsunami.

We were also told the importance of the sluice gate in managing the height of the river. The current at the gate was so strong that, even though the rest of the river looked calm, we could see little fishes struggling to swim against the flow. A guide recounted how a girl who had been kayaking there was pulled through the gate, hit her head on it, and passed away.

Before leaving for the next stop, we saw a few mudskippers and tiny crabs along the river bed. The crabs could only be noticed when they scurried about, and even those were for brief moments, so it seemed like we were seeing things.

Fig treeAlong the way to Ubin Quarry, the guide pointed out a fig tree. He told us about how the fig is both a flower and a fruit. I personally have never liked eating figs, but that didn't stop me from looking at one that had been split open -- or getting sticky sap on my fingers!

Ubin QuarryUbin Quarry
At Ubin Quarry, we were treated to a very... still... lake. Of course, being an old granite quarry, any water that accumulated there, for example, from rainfall, couldn't flow anywhere. Neither was it affected by tides. As a result, the water made for an eerie mirror of the sky and surrounding forest. The authorities had fenced up the area, but adventurous explorers had already made a hole in it. We were, of course, advised to stay away. Years of mining with dynamite had resulted in cracks in the surrounding land, so it didn't exactly provide firm support.

Inside German Girl ShrineGerman Girl Shrine
We cycled on along the road, then turned off at a gravel track. This area had apparently been filled with soil that was extracted during the construction of the underground MRT network. And in the midst of this was a peculiar, yellow shrine called "German Girl Shrine" (that's what the sign called it too!). According to the guide, the story goes like this:

During World War One, the British rounded up any Germans who were living in Singapore. This included a Germany family that lived in Pulau Ubin. Frightened, the young daughter ran away in the middle of the night... and never returned. Villagers found her doll, dress and other accessories (and maybe her body too). These items were placed in an urn, and a shrine constructed for the girl. Since then, though the shrine has moved from place to place in the island, it is still visited by devotees who seek blessings and good fortune.

Fishing huts
That would be one of several stories of the island. We hiked down to the coast, where Pulau Ketam was visible to the left, behind some fishing huts. There, we were treated to another story:

An elephant, a pig, a frog and a crab decided to cross from Singapore to Malaysia. Unfortunately, none of them made it. The elephant became Pulau Tekong, the pig became Pulau Ubin, the frog Pulau Sekudu and the crab turned into Pulau Ketam.

While at the coast, we were also taught the importance of not throwing litter into the sea, especially plastic, because such debris inevitably wind up along beaches and other coastlines. And since plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, the pollution builds up, which could make the environment toxic.

Bodhi tree and shrine at Thai TempleJalan Wat Siam (Thai Temple Road) signpost
After a short break, we cycled on to the Thai Temple. Apparently, a monk from Chiangmai walked all the way down to Singapore, then decided to set up a temple on Pulau Ubin. And this monk apparently still lived in this temple. Whether the story was true or not, I thought it was pretty remarkable to find such a place there, especially since it had its own postal code!

Monarch butterflyFacing Johor Bahru
We cycled further along a gravel path to arrive at our northernmost destination. From here, we had a good view of Johor Bahru... from behind a metal fence. After the events of 9/11, the authorities had erected this fence to make it difficult for illegal immigrants to enter the island, and then Singapore. The coast guard had also stepped up patrols, though we didn't see any while we were there.

Kekek/HDB Quarry lakeTerrapin in Kekek/HDB Quarry lakeTerrapin in Kekek/HDB Quarry lake
After that, it was on to another quarry lake, Kekek Quarry or HDB Quarry (because most of the granite mined there had been used to construct HDB flats). Again, somebody had made a whole in the triple-lined fence, which allowed us to step onto a small patch of empty ground. The water level had risen much higher, perhaps due to the recent showers, so we couldn't step out to the platform. While we were there, a curious terrapin swam up, and one of my friends lured it further in by feeding it bread. This gave us some good close-up photographic moments. (Yes, we were certainly urban dwellers who oohed-and-aahed over nature!)

Drinks stall sign
This surprisingly brought us to the four-hour point, meaning that our trip had officially ended. Time really flew while we were having fun cycling, exploring and learning. We stopped by the drinks stall at Sungei Jelutong for coconut juice and to cool off. Due to its prominent sign, visitors are more likely to know this stall as "Y u so like that?"

Goddess of Mercy at Ubin QuarryGoddess of Mercy at Ubin QuarryUbin Quarry
Opposite this drink stall was another view of Ubin Quarry. This one was special because we could see a white rock formation that apparently resembled the Goddess of Mercy. So much so that, yes, there was a shrine. The formation was unlikely to have been sculpted purposely. That meant it was formed through mining activities, which meant dynamite explosions. Sheer luck or divine will?

Pulau Ubin from ferry
And that was it for our trip there. All in all, it had been an enjoyable learning experience. There's still so much to see and know at Pulau Ubin. It's probably the last true kampung (village) in Singapore, and I think it'd be a shame if the rest of the 50 villagers left the island. Of course, it'd be an even bigger shame if the island's natural beauty was razed in the name of modernisation.

Now, I just needed to get some rest and go easy on my tired legs.

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