Saturday 23 June 2001 – Palau Ubin, Singapore
After a rather slow start to the day I decided that today was the day to visit Palau Ubin, the (relatively) undeveloped island of Singapore’s North-east coast where the locals go to ride bikes through the rain forest. It’s the Singaporean Wilderness Experience – one might be as far as three kilometers from the nearest food centre! Lots of groups of young Singaporeans were on the bum-boats (charming name) from Changi Beach, pouring over maps and compasses and receiving briefings from their team leaders.
It’s a popular (probably the only) venue for ‘adventure training’ and there are large camp sites used by scouts and other organised groups. Outward Bound Singapore owns a substantial chunk of the western end of the island. Once on Palau Ubin, hiring a bike was an easy matter, as was stocking up on bottled water, at the little ‘Ubin Village’, a collection of kampung-style shops, restaurants, bars and bike hire outlets. It was a pint-sized version of an Indonesian (or indeed any village in the region) without the inconvenience of a disruptive local population trying to foist unwanted goods and services onto visitors.
Thus provisioned I set off to pedal my way around the island, which is surprisingly large at around 7km by 3km at its widest. Most of the public areas are at the eastern end. The western end consists of some jungle but large amounts of degraded industrial land, quarries, fish farms and the OBS land. There are tracks, but quite rough. I was cycling near the far western tip of the island along a deserted, rough track with jungle all around when I heard a thrashing about in the undergrowth and caught a glimpse of the long, black tail of a large monitor lizard heading off out of the way.
Throughout the island there were lots of butterflies, but signs all over the island warned against fishing or swimming due to a large chemical (phenol) spill a day or two earlier. There was also a huge amount of garbage strewn about all over the island. Mainland Singapore maintains a very clean environment through imposing hefty fines for littering, and also deployment of teams of Indian guest workers to sweep public parks and beach areas. Guest workers don’t seem to have reached Palau Ubin.
I’ve heard it said that Palau Ubin holds a place dear to the hearts of many Singaporeans as it represents to them what Singapore itself was like only a few decades ago, before everyone was housed and worked in air-conditioned tower-blocks connected by high-speed trains. Indeed a few people still live in kampungs on the island, living a simple life of fishing and agriculture.
The experience of the island was quite refreshing and relaxing, despite the not inconsiderable effort of cycling on a pretty decrepit mountain bike. I had lunch at the village and cycled some distance around the south end of the island. Here I met a group of young Muslim women, all veiled, camping on Ubin from a Singapore college who chatted happily with me for a few minutes.
‘Have you come here from Singapore?’
‘Are you English?’
‘Have you been to the Great Singapore Sale?’
‘Did you find anything worth buying?’
The answer to the last was an emphatic ‘no’.
After a cold beer taken on the muddy and litter strewn waterfront of Ubin village, I caught a bum-boat back to Changi Beach about 6.00pm. It was still daylight, so I strolled along the beach to the end of the Changi Airport runway, watching numerous jets fly in low overhead. It was Saturday evening and many family picnics were in progress along the beach, always with extended family groups, tents, outdoor furniture and vast quantities of food. It might not be an Australian’s view of outdoor paradise, but given the size and population of Singapore, it’s not bad and seems to be appreciated. Tired but content I made my way home.