For the nature enthusiast, no trip to Singapore is complete without having visited the country’s most celebrated offshore island of Pulau Ubin. Off the northeast end of the Little Red Dot extends this 1,020 hectare island that mesmerizes visitors with its picturesque kampong villages and, one of Singapore’s most valuable ecosystems, the Chek Jawa Wetlands.
A journey to the past
Cherishing all the varieties of races, cultures and worldviews is a key part of sustainability. In fact, it is equally important to conserving habitats and the diversity of species which reside in them. If biodiversity is the base of a healthy ecosystem, human diversity is the foundation of a healthy society.
Unfortunately, Singapore hasn’t just seen its natural wonders disappear over years of industrial development, it has also lost its villages along the way. Some of the country’s last villages and kampongs, however, can be found in Pulau Ubin; a location that – despite of having a total of just 38 inhabitants – holds a vast cultural heritage. Some recall their visit to the island as stepping back in time and heading to the 1960s.
The island’s villagers way of life might as well be a synonym for simple, yet graceful, living. Their livelihoods revolve around traditional farming and fishing or catering to the needs of tourists, they live in their charming wooden homes, source their water from wells and their electricity from diesel generators. Knowledge about local wildlife as well as cultivation of indigenous fruits, herbs and spices is held by these people.
The annual six-day festival, Tua Pek Kong, which presents the Teochew opera and Getai performance, a lion dance and ritual by the sea, is the perfect showcase of this region’s rich cultural heritage. This festivity is held around May of every year.
In order to enrich yourself with the island’s culture you can join the Kampong Tour offered by National Parks volunteers every third Saturday of the month from 9:30am to 11:30am. You can also pass by one of the local eateries to try their cuisine or by one of their provision stores to stock up before going back to mainland.
An impeccable assemblage of habitats
You can stroll all you want around Singapore’s National Parks, but very few will hold as much biodiversity as the one found in the Chek Jawa Wetlands, at the eastern end of Pulau Ubin. Around 700 species of native plants, 175 species of butterflies, 50 species of damselflies and dragonflies, 215 species of birds, 40 species of reptiles, and 30 species of mammals reside in a span of just 100 hectares.
A few resilient Crab-eating Macaques or Wild Boars may wait for you at the gate to Chek Jawa; but, if you walk quietly and keep your wildlife radar on, maybe you will be able to spot a wonderful Leopard Cat, exotic Large Flying Fox, or stunning Barred Woodpecker. Flashy critters like the Changeable Lizzard, Sumatran Flying Dragon, and Paradise Gliding Snake also inhabit the area.
The marine biodiversity of this region is also known to be extremely rich with about 500 different species soaking in its waters, including the charismatic Dugong.
A reason why this area is teeming with life is the existence of six major habitats on its grounds: coastal forests, mangroves, rocky shores, sandy shores and sand banks, seagrass lagoons, and coral rubble.
In order to make your way to this untouched paradise you can choose to walk, cycle, or reach it aboard a rental van. Bicycles and vans can be hired in kiosks at Pulau Ubin’s village. If you choose to embark on a walk, bear in mind that it will take you approximately 40 minutes to reach Chek Jawa.
Once at Chek Jawa you will find the 21 meter tall Jejawi (viewing) Tower, a visitors center, and a boardwalk that runs 1.1 kilometers into the coastal forest and mangrove. If you happen to feel adventurous, be sure to check out the intertidal zone exploration guided tour offered by National Park Board volunteers. Note that booking it in advance is recommended to secure a spot.
Applauding the eco-warrior behind the scenes
In the early 2000s, when the local government announced the possibility of converting the island into an industrial and residential site, natural science experts along with the Singaporean people took the matter into their own hands to peacefully strive for its preservation. As a consequence, a Concept Plan drafted in 2001 expressed the state’s plan to keep Pulau Ubin in its rustic state for as long as it was possible.
One of the individuals who did all he could to successfully secure the safeguarding of this unique oasis, was self-taught naturalist and wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai.
In an interview with Passion Made Possible, Subaraj shared that “Pulau Ubin is [like a time capsule] of good old Singapore, as it was 40 years ago”, further explaining that “nature co-exists with humans here. You’ll find wildlife in the fruit orchards, hornbills in the villages, and grey herons in its quarries”.
Lastly, he thanked the people of Singapore for making the preservation of Pulau Ubin possible, highlighting that “lawmakers went to Chek Jawa and saw 700 people watching nature, so they couldn’t deny [its importance]. Let us thank such eco-warriors and the Singaporean people for giving us the chance to admire their country’s natural and cultural heritage, and hope that Pulau Ubin along with many other wild places remain protected for many generations to appreciate. Because, as Subaraj said, “you become responsible for nature the moment you visit it”.
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