Exploring the Wilderness in Singapore: Discovering Bamboo Bats, Coral Reefs & the Nation’s Solo Village

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By 3pm, I’ve traversed a boardwalk hovering over a coral reef, spotted myriad rare butterflies, and enjoyed views of secluded beaches from a watchtower amidst the wildlife-rich wetlands. Yet, I’m not in an exotic far-flung locale like Borneo or Brazil but in Singapore.

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Pulau Ubin had always been on my radar, yet attractions on Singapore’s mainland, such as the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, often captivated my attention. There, I’ve lost whole days watching crocodiles and herons. But let’s not make excuses; after all, Pulau Ubin is a mere 15-minute boat ride from Singapore’s Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Despite its close proximity, Pulau Ubin feels miles away from the bustling mainland Singapore.

Once home to quarry workers, whose labor supplied granite for Singapore’s public housing, Pulau Ubin’s few remaining residents now make their livelihoods as fishermen or small business operators. Notable is the woman who runs a bicycle rental near the pier, amidst the island’s last kampong (village). With no hotels, visitors can stay at campsites on the island.

Pulau Ubin, largely free from motorised traffic, draws cyclists and hikers. Near an ancient wayang (Chinese opera) stage and a Chinese temple, I start my exploration, reminding me of the Chinese immigrants who once worked in the quarries.

These former industrial sites have transformed into verdant reserves. At the southern Pekan Quarry, now a lake, kingfishers and herons are a common sight. Butterfly Hill, once a barren land, now teems with butterflies, including the elusive Mangrove Tree Nymph, attracted by specially planted flora.

Stopping at Ah Ma drinks stand, I refresh myself with coconut juice, skillfully served by Madam Ong, a former prawn farmer turned snack vendor, using timber from derelict houses to construct her stand.

Pulau Ubin’s wildness isn’t just marked by durian warnings but also by its diverse fauna. At Chek Jawa Wetlands, I find a seagrass lagoon and coastal forest among its six ecosystems, housing over 500 species, from flying foxes to bamboo bats. Though I miss seeing dugongs, the mere possibility is thrilling.

A gang of macaques foils my attempt to navigate the boardwalk over the coral reef. After a standoff, I divert to the wetlands’ observation tower for sweeping views of the Malaysian coastline and Pulau Ubin’s lush landscape.

The next day brings me to Lazarus Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Marina South Pier. Recently, five solar-powered tiny houses have been introduced, providing an eco-friendly lodging option for island explorers. The island’s mangroves and a secluded palm-lined beach offer a tranquil escape, while the waters flourish with marine life.

After stocking up at Lazarus’s sole store, I venture to St John’s Island via a causeway, finding beaches and water sports options. Both Lazarus and St John’s have historical legacies as a penal colony and quarantine station, respectively, but are now largely reclaimed by nature.

On one adventurous afternoon, I stumble upon a dilapidated building, its eerie allure reminiscent of a video game set. Lazarus also connects to the smaller Kias Island, home to monitor lizards and offering serene nighttime views of Singapore’s skyline.

While Singapore captivates with its urban charm, its islands offer an unparalleled wild retreat – complete with unexpected wildlife encounters and remnants of history.

For a unique stay, Lazarus’s Tiny Houses are available from £166 per night at escapeatlazarus.com, with flights from London Heathrow to Singapore starting at £650 via Singapore Airlines.

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