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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
Garden of Eden
The MacRitchie area is a veritable treasure chest of plant and animal life which are now made more accessible by the aerial bridge that grazes the top of the forest
By Chang Ai-Lien

NOT a single tree was placed on the chopping block when the National Parks Board created its aerial walkway through MacRitchie's verdant jungle.

But getting this done seemed impossible at first, and had the board stumped for a while. 'The builders insisted on bulldozing the entire area to get their machinery in. That was not an option,' said Ms Sharon Chan, NParks' assistant director of the Central Nature Reserve.
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'What's the point in creating something to bring people close to nature when you're destroying exactly what you want them to enjoy?' So contractors were forced to go back to basics.

First, they tried using bows and arrows to get ropes from one side of the proposed bridge to the other. But it didn't work, so they moved on to Plan B: Getting workers to cast lines using fishing rods from the two towers on opposite sides of the hills on either side of the planned walkway route.

The fragile lines met in the middle, bridging the 150-m gap and creating a pulley system that was the first step towards building the $1.6 million structure. The pulleys were used to put in place nylon string, which then carried across sturdy metal cables, one by one. Up to seven cables were linked to form foundations of the bridge, and to haul 'gondolas' across the stretch for construction.

Now, the 300m stretch of cable and steel links Bukit Peirce and Bukit Kalang, swaying gently as visitors enjoy a bird's-eye view of rainforest that has remained virtually untouched since the time of Raffles. Visitors can almost reach out and touch the animal and plant life fringing the bridge.

Look carefully at that dead tree in the middle. A hollow cunningly covered by a stretch of loose bark is an owl's bedroom. And that slender tree with the radiating leaves? It's the famed aphrodisiac, Tongkat Ali. The lush green foliage nearby belongs to the cheng tng tree, whose fruits are used to make the jelly in the refreshing dessert.

The fauna one can see while traversing the trail is impressive. On the way to the bridge, the trails are lined with figs, bamboo, liana, ferns and palms. Lianas are a good indication of the age of the forest. They start off as delicate green threads, but grow very slowly thicker over the years. Those here can be as thick as a man's thigh.

There are other uses for the foliage. Some people pick up fallen leaves from the giant leaf tree to use as ecologically-friendly umbrellas. While the plant itself isn't very impressive, its huge leaves can grow to 1m in length and width, making them among the biggest in the forest.

The Singapore rhododendron, with its delicate pink blooms, is a photographer's dream. The sugary fruit get fermented in the sun so that when butterflies feed on them, they become stupefied and, for once, stay still for shutterbugs. There's also the kiasu, or leaf-litter, plant, which creates its own food by trapping fallen leaves, so it doesn't have to fight with other plants for nutrients.

Animals abound too. Those with sharp eyes might spot the clouded monitor lizard as it digs for worms, or the tree nymph, the only gliding butterfly which floats like a piece of tissue paper.

People who are really interested in identifying trees and plants tend to look to their feet. The soft floor is carpeted with leaves and forest fruit, such as the slim brown pod which floats down on a tuft of white hair like a parachute, the fruit of an unnamed tree.

At last count, the 3,043-ha central catchment area holds about 1,600 varieties of plants, and 400 species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, says NParks Senior Conservation Officer Benjamin Lee.

But the life here is so rich that even the experts feel they have just begun to scratch the surface. They are constantly discovering species new to Singapore, such as the beautiful blue bronzeback snake discovered slithering around just outside Mr Lee's office on the fringes of the reserve last year. 'If we can find something like this in our backyard, imagine what else there is out there,' he said.

More about the Tree Top Walk
Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore

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