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Australian 3 Mar 07
Lost horizon: Pulau Ubin
Singapore's last undeveloped island won't remain unspoiled for long,
writes Richard Waters
THE decrepit bumboat moors at a rough timber wharf jutting out from a straggly beach dotted with the stumps of old jetties and fish traps.
Before me, the island is a hump of low hills smothered in thick jungle. Behind me, across the syrupy green water, urban Singapore's tower blocks resemble an unbroken line of white cliffs along the western horizon.
Only an hour from downtown Singapore's shopping centres, Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) simmers in the warm waters of the Strait of Johore like an exotic green vegetable, squeezed in between Singapore Island's northeast coast and Malaysia's southern shore.
There are more dogs than people in the island's dusty square, edged by a handful of shops and restaurants. The proprietors of bicycle shops spring to life on seeing me.
One wheels out a newish-looking racer. His sign proclaims "Mountain Bikes. Most Quality!" He feigns amazement at my height and indicates the size of the bike while seductively caressing the drop handlebars.
But although cycling is the most popular way of exploring the island (despite the hills), I've been told I'll see more if I walk.
The island's wildlife includes huge monitor lizards, two species of otter and the lesser false vampire bat, which looks scary but doesn't touch a drop of blood, preferring to suck on insects.
From the square, a narrow bitumen road edged with discarded coconut husks leads inland. Liquid green enfolds the roadway. The universal jungle smell of simultaneous growth and decay fills the air.
The island's vegetation is mostly regenerated forest rather than primary jungle, much of which was cleared for rubber plantations and crops such as coffee, pineapple, coconut and jasmine.
I'm glad to be on foot as two wheezing European tourists grind past on their hired bikes. They smile through gritted teeth.
The road passes a small lake, where insects skim and the water shimmers on the underside of the overhanging foliage. The road winds past big tin-roofed Chinese kampong houses, set on stilts in clearings of moist red soil. Towards the eastern end of the island, the forest gives way to an old rubber plantation.
I turn down a narrow dirt track between the neat rows of trees amid thick leaf litter. The constant drone of insects becomes higher pitched as whining mosquitoes join in. Blobs of blackened rubber run down the tree trunks from small circular holes like bullet wounds, where the rubber was once tapped.
The pathway emerges at the banks of a mangrove lagoon smelling strongly of brine and rotting vegetation. The sun hits the water in glinting pools of light, making it look like liquid milk chocolate. It plops and gurgles, insect whorls and filigree patterns playing across it.
Virtually every house on the island advertises cold drinks for sale, and I pause at an old fisherman's cottage farther down the creek. It's shabbier than most, all paint-bare timber and faded awnings. Rusted equipment, coils of wire, machinery and abandoned plastic drums lie around. Old wooden fish traps litter the creek bank like skeletons of beached animals.
It's 1pm and the air sings in the dripping heat. An elderly Chinese woman sells me a lukewarm Coke: 21st-century Singapore's office towers are just 18km but 40 years away across the water.
The only new things here are the red crepe banners and Chinese good luck lanterns that hang listlessly from the awning. Suspended in the shadows towards the back is a bird in an ancient bamboo cage, like a faded silkscreen artwork in an oriental exhibition. But the bird is brightly alive. It has a cherry-red chest and a long plumed tail. It jumps frantically from perch to perch.
The woman returns from the cool black gloom of the house's interior. She's not as old as I thought. I ask her if she has lived here a long time. "Probably," she says and flaps her hands vaguely, turning away. I get the message.
The path winds on along the edge of the mangroves, which protrude from the muddy water, their roots like skinny splayed fingers. They are part of the mere 1 per cent that remains of Singapore's original mangrove ecosystems.
With a clutch of excitement, I think I see a swimming otter, but it's only a small log pushing upstream on the incoming tide. The mangrove creek opens out at a sandy beach on the island's east coast.
Across the strait, the thickly forested Malaysian shore looks almost close enough to wade across.
Japanese soldiers launched their first assault on Fortress Singapore from there one moonless night in February 1942, invading Pulau Ubin in a diversionary attack before the main invasion force landed on the northwest coast.
Pulau Ubin was originally a cluster of five small islands separated by tidal rivers and mangrove swamps, but the building of bunds (dikes) for prawn farming eventually joined them into one island, covering 1020ha. Until the 1970s, granite mining and plantation farming supported a thriving population.
Back at the wharf, I talk to Mark Lim, the island's National Parks officer. He's a neat, friendly man with a quiet enthusiasm. I ask why he didn't choose a more traditional Singaporean career in business or finance. He says he always wanted to learn about the environment. Almost shyly, he shows me the book he is reading. It's titled Mangroves. "I'm 45 years old. I've got 17 more to go, then I want to retire and run nature tours," he tells me.
Lim says there were about 3000 island residents in the '50s, working in the granite quarries and rubber plantations. "Now there are maybe fewer than 50, though the Government's figure is higher."
Whatever the exact number, Pulau Ubin is Singapore's last outlying island with a longstanding resident population. The others have been forcibly depopulated and given over for military use or land reclamation for housing, recreation, port development or oil refining.
The latest round of depopulation of Pulau Ubin was in July 2005 when avian flu scared Singapore witless and poultry rearing was banned. Eight of the nine poultry farms closed when their owners accepted a resettlement offer and left for the mainland.
I ask Lim how long he thinks the island will remain unspoiled. "The Government has confirmed it will have to be developed for housing when Singapore's population reaches a certain number. But the trouble is," he says, laughing, "the Government is clever. It hasn't said what that number will be." Lim talks without anger, more with a quiet resignation, perhaps mindful of his position as a Singaporean public servant.
He tells me of the land reclamation scheme already designed for Pulau Ubin. It will obliterate the island's eastern end, including the Chek Jawa tidal wetland, its most important ecological habitat.
He points across the water at a landfill sandbar, naked and ugly, protruding from the mainland shore into the strait. "That wasn't there two years ago." Again, he sounds unimpressed but not angry. He shrugs. "People have to live somewhere."
It seems inevitable Pulau Ubin will not remain undeveloped for long.
Ironically, preservation of the island's original state is as much at risk from visitors as from the Government.
To its credit, National Parks is resisting visitor demands for the construction of a modern hawker centre (food court) in the village and for airconditioned ferries on a rigid timetable to replace the old bumboats with their unpredictable departure times.
At worst, the proposed Chek Jawa land reclamation scheme will proceed, and much of the island will be developed for housing or tourism.
On the way back to the city, I tell the taxi driver how much Singapore has changed in the 13 years since I was last here. He laughs and says that even Singaporeans can go overseas for two years, then return and not recognise the place.
He says he likes Pulau Ubin because it's an easy weekend rural escape. "Sometimes," he says, craning forward to squint up at the tower blocks lining the freeway, "you just have to get out of Singapore."
Pulau Ubin is about an hour from downtown Singapore, including a taxi to Changi Wharf and a 15-minute bumboat trip to the island. Boats depart daytime only as soon as they have 12 passengers. The only accommodation is at MCC Ubin Resort, which has single and twin chalets. Activities include abseiling, rock climbing, nature walks and canoeing. The island also has two free campsites.
The Chek Jawa wetlands can be visited by prior arrangement with National Parks.
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