Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: Crocodile Spotting

Although the main attraction of the acclaimed wetland reserve is its birds – more than 260 local and migratory bird species have been recorded at Sungei Buloh, of late it is another type of wildlife that has been stealing the limelight at the reserve.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveEver since a newspaper reported in December 2013 that a group of young schoolchildren on a field trip came within 20m of a 3m long crocodile across a footpath, other visitors have been visiting the reserve in search of crocodiles too.

On a trip to the wetland reserve just last month, I too secretly hoped to be able to spot a croc. As luck would have it, my friend and I saw not one but 2 of these magnificent creatures, and thankfully both were in the water at a more than safe distance away.

THE LOWDOWN

The coastal areas of Singapore were largely swamp land in the 1800s, with mangroves especially abundant in the north and west coasts. As Singapore developed rapidly over the years however the island became increasingly urbanized, and much of the coastal areas were redeveloped.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

In 1986 a group of nature-loving bird enthusiasts realised the importance of the swamp area around the Sungei Buloh river as a migratory bird stopping ground, and petitioned the government to protect the site, which had been zoned as an agro-technology park. The government surprisingly acquiesced, and the Sungei Buloh Nature Park was created in 1989 as a bird sanctuary and nature haven. The park was officially opened in December 1993.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveIn 2001 the park was accorded nature reserve status, and with an enlarged area was renamed the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in 2002. The reserve went on to become Singapore’s first ASEAN (Association for South East Asian Nations) Heritage Park in 2003, and is now one of thirty-three parks in the region recognised as an important nature conservation site (Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is Singapore’s other contribution to the ASEAN Heritage Park list). The Sungei Buloh reserve is also one of only two conserved mangrove swamps in Singapore today, with the much smaller Pasir Ris Mangrove Swamp being the other.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 130 hectare reserve in the far north-west is a rare piece of wild Singapore preserved. Bursting with flora indigenous to the wetlands in the region (approximately 250 native and naturalized mangrove species have been recorded), the reserve is also replete with wildlife.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

East Asian-Australasian Flyaway

Most importantly and prominently are the birds, for which the wetlands were primarily conserved for. The reserve’s annual bird census has recorded up to 5000 birds in a month at the reserve, although in recent years the numbers have declined significantly. Birds on the East Asian-Australasian flyaway use the mangroves as an important refuelling stop, on their travels from Australia all the way up north to Russia. At low tides the mudflats teem with life, from shellfish, worms and snakes, to mud-skippers, crabs and mud-lobsters, much of it rich pickings for the weary birds.

On land all manner of insects, as well as squirrels and monitor lizards roam freely, while the occasional wild boar and even otters have been spotted in the reserve.

The recent star however has been the estuarine or saltwater crocodile. These seemingly menacing reptiles have added a dash of dangerous excitement to the reserve for visitors. Although crocodiles have long been reported at the reserve, the numbers that have taken up residence in the reserve have risen from 2 in 2008 to about 10-12 today, heightening interest in the wetland reserve’s newest “attraction”.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveVISITING

I visited the reserve early in the morning (8 am) when there was hardly anyone around, and the air was cool and pleasant for a walk in the reserve’s secondary forest. Plenty of birds were already up and about and were singing up a storm, creating quite the din. The tide was out though so the landscape was just brown and muddy, not altogether attractive.

The entire trail throughout the reserve is about 7km long, however you can choose to do shorter sections of the trail. We covered most of the park trails, however some of it frankly wasn’t very interesting. There is a prawn pond at the far end of the trail for instance as the area had once been used for prawn farming, however this turned out really to be just another murky pond.

There are viewing hideouts around the trail for you to sit quietly and observe the birds and other wildlife, as well as an 18 metre high lookout tower called the Aerie in the centre of the reserve. Not having any birdwatching equipment, we found it hard to spot many interesting birds with the naked eye. We did catch a glimpse of what might have been an Osprey or Grey Eagle perched high on a branch in the distance though, thanks to a birdwatcher’s telescope.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

About the crocodile sightings, as soon as we entered the reserve we spotted a submerged croc off the main bridge in the shallow water, although this one appeared to have had its tail nipped. Some 3 hours later as we crossed the main bridge again to leave, this time when the tide had come in, we saw a bunch of school kids excitedly pointing to something in the water and realised it was another croc floating among the mangroves. There was also a photographer with some serious equipment training his lens on the croc, which didn’t seem to be moving at all however. Here’s a pic of a less restful croc taken at the reserves recently though.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Be sure not to mistake the Malayan Water Monitor for a croc though. The reserve is full of these monitor lizards, known to grow to as large as 2 metres long. When the sun came out and it got warmer towards late morning, more of these cold-blooded reptiles crawled out to soak up the warmth from the sun. As you walk along the trails you’ll probably encounter a few monitor lizards along the path, and if you hear rustling in the bushes there’s a high chance it will be one of these giant pre-historic looking lizards. Beware these carnivorous creatures, they swallow their prey whole!

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The wetland reserve is undergoing a transformation at the moment, so construction works are taking place and some areas were closed (the theatrette, and parts of the boardwalk trail). According to the Sungei Buloh Masterplan unveiled in 2008, the authorities are upgrading the wetland reserve to make it much more than just a nature park. Instead it aims for the reserve to be a premier wetland hub, with a state-of-the-art education and research facility. There were plans mooted to include guest accommodation even, for students and researchers to conduct studies in the reserve.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The wetland reserve will be much larger, and will include the newly upgraded Kranji trail on the east side, and the Lim Chu Kang coastal area on the west side. In the news recently in fact was the announcement that 5 developers have expressed interest in the project to develop the historic Cashin house on the pier to be linked to the Sungei Buloh trails.

According to the masterplan, the current Sungei Buloh reserve will be considered a core conservation area with reduced access by the public to protect the sensitive ecosystem, while the new Kranji area will be earmarked as the recreational area. The intent of the overall plan seems to be to do much more with the wetland reserve, after all ecotourism is all the rage now – and there is money to be made from this. The new bigger and better phase one enhancements of the wetland reserve is scheduled to open in the last quarter of 2014.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Aerial View – Pic courtesy of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Do visit the wetland reserve now while entrance is free. Once the upgrades are completed an entrance fee will be charged. Singapore’s Night Safari, our popular nocturnal zoo which sees 1.1 million visitors annually, charges about US$30 per adult entrance ticket. Do the math and you’ll understand why the Singapore Government is shelling out big bucks to enhance the reserve and turn it into a major attraction.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Grey Heron

LOCATION

301 Neo Tiew Crescent

This is a remote road in a remote corner of Singapore, deep in the heart of Singapore’s farm area.

Open:
7.30am to 7.00pm – Monday to Saturday
7.00am to 7.00pm – Sundays & Public Holidays

HOW MUCH TIME

About 3 – 4 hours to walk to the end of the park and back, at a pretty leisurely pace.

TAKE NOTE

  • There are no toilets along the trail, so be sure to visit the loo at the main visitor centre before you set off. The trail map provided did indicate a toilet along the trail however we could not locate it, possibly because of the current construction and redevelopment works at the reserve.
  • The lone cafe is currently closed so bring your own refreshments. There is a vending machine and a water fountain in the visitor centre though.
  • Mosquito repellent – absolutely necessary.
  • There are free guided tours organised every Saturday at 9.30am, as well as pre-booked guided tours available for S$6. The tours are fairly short though (1 hour), so you might want to just explore the reserve on your own.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveTIDBITS

  • Singapore is ranked 6th out of 100 countries for mangrove diversity. Our mangrove forests contain half of the world’s recognised native mangrove species.
  • Monitor lizards are considered a delicacy in some cultures. The Filipinos eat it fried (tastes like fried chicken), the Indonesians make it into a curry, and I’ve read that Foochows and other Chinese traditionally drink monitor lizard soup to improve their skin. Yums.

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* Thanks to Miin and her new Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera for some of these awesome pics!

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Seletar Reservoirs: That Rocket Ship Lookout Tower

Upper Seletar Reservoir, Rocket Ship Tower

On July 20, 1969 the Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to take “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That same year, Singapore’s Public Works Department (PWD) built a rocket ship shaped lookout tower for Seletar Reservoir (now named Upper Seletar Reservoir), in time for the reservoir’s official opening which coincided with celebrations for Singapore’s 150th anniversary since its founding as a British trading post. Princess Alexandra of Britain, representing Queen Elizabeth II, officiated at the reservoir’s grand opening ceremony.

The reservoir park with its iconic lookout tower promptly became a family favourite in the 1970s. Many Singaporeans aged 40 and above would have photos of themselves at the tower when they were young. Although I didn’t manage to find any photos of my own family trip there, I was glad to be able to make a trip to this old dame again, some 30+ years after I’d last visited it.

The rocket ship tower looked just the same, although a little weathered, and much smaller than I remembered it to be.

THE LOWDOWN

Seletar is one of the oldest place names in Singapore, with the first mention of the Seletar River in the Malay Annals (Sejara Melayu) in 1401. Seletar means “straits” in Malay.

National Library Archives - Photo from Chua Ai Lin

The opening ceremony in 1969 – Photo from the National Library Archives

The Seletar area itself, in the northern reaches of Singapore, is an area steeped in history. The Seletar River and the coastal waters were inhabited by nomadic sea gypsies in the 1800s called the Orang Seletar – a tribe which took their name from the area they plied. Most of the Orang Seletar were eventually resettled in Johor, Malaysia, across the straits.

Aviation also features richly in Seletar’s past. The British had set up the Royal Air Force Seletar in 1928, boasting the first airfield in Singapore and the first British air base in the Far East. In 1968 the British handed the airport and the military base over to the Singapore government, and Seletar Airport has since operated as a secondary airport used by private charter planes and flying schools.

The Seletar area today is earmarked for further redevelopment as a northern regional hub, with the Seletar Aerospace Park taking prime of place. An industrial park catering to the aerospace industry, the aerospace park is slated to be fully operational by 2018, and will help to bolster Singapore’s position as a world-class aviation hub.

There are 2 Seletar Reservoirs – Upper Seletar Reservoir and Lower Seletar Reservoir. With their wide expanse of water and surrounding greenery, the reservoir parks provide the nearby residential towns of Yishun and Woodlands some very scenic views.

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Upper Seletar Reservoir

View of Upper Seletar Reservoir from the rocket ship tower

The older of the 2 reservoirs, Upper Seletar Reservoir was originally built in 1920 and then enlarged several times. Singapore’s 3rd reservoir (after MacRitchie and Pierce Reservoirs), it was built to cater to the nation’s booming demand for water after World War I. The 17 m deep, 324 ha (hectare) surface area reservoir was officially opened in 1969, when the 18 m tall, 6-level rocket ship tower was added.

Upper Seletar Reservoir

The reservoir and park became a “marked historic site”by the National Heritage Board (NHB) in 1999, denoting it as a place of historical significance with a blue heritage marker or plaque outlining the history of the site.

In December of 2009, the tower was recognized by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as a heritage structure and awarded conservation status. Earlier this year, the National Heritage Board (NHB) announced that it was also starting a documentation project on the tower, one of 4 historic lookout towers the NHB is documenting as part of its aim to capture more of Singapore’s built heritage.

Sadly, the PUB draughtsman who designed the tower, Mr Goh Peng Koon passed away recently on 29 December 2013, at the ripe old age of 92.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

This was a much later addition, built in 1986. First known as the Sungei Seletar Reservoir (“Sungei” means “river” in Malay) before it was renamed, it was formed by damming up the Seletar River. The newer reservoir is slightly larger than its older brother at 360 ha, although it is far shallower at an average depth of only 2 m and going to as deep as 5.5 m only.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

The reservoir is flanked by 2 private golf and country clubs, the Orchid Country Club and the Seletar Country Club on each side of the reservoir.

In April 2010, Singapore’s national water agency the PUB enhanced the recreational facilities around the Lower Seletar Reservoir park, building a Family Bay with a multi-purpose stage and water play area, and a Rower’s Bay along Seletar Club road offering a venue for competitive rowing or radio-controlled boating. There is a 3 ha park on the bank of the reservoir, with a 1.3 km jogging track.

Of interest also is the Heritage Bridge, a bridge resembling the old-fashioned “kelongs” of old – Malay style fishing platforms on stilts, complete with information panels outlining the history of the area. There is also a spacious fishing jetty, and the reservoir is known as a good fishing spot.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

VISITING

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Kapok tree, Upper Seletar Reservoir

Drive up an old road called “Track 7” past the Executive Golf Course. You will soon arrive at the car park, with the rocket ship tower looming into view.

The Singapore Zoo and Night Safari both sit on the edges of the reservoir. If you cock your ears you might just hear a lion or tiger roar (okay maybe not).

There is a nice straight jogging track along the reservoir shore. The 15 ha reservoir park is ringed by forests, however entrance to the forests is off-limits – although by the looks of it people have not been heeding the warning signs. The was a large pile of discarded durian husks by the waste bins, putting paid to the rumour that there are wild durians to be had in the forest for the adventurous.

Do remember to take a look at the humongous Kapok Tree by the washrooms near the car park. Set on a slope, this 30 m tall tree with its expansive trunk covered in characteristic thorns has been endorsed by Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) as a Heritage Tree.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Apart from being an angler’s favourite, the reservoir is also a popular water sports venue offering kayaking and dragon-boating, run by the People’s Association (PA) Water-Venture. Be careful however to stay within the safety boundaries lest you encounter difficulties such as this couple did.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Lower Seletar Reservoir

The 3 ha park is a nice spot to indulge in some train-spotting, or bird spotting, if you’re not up to the fishing.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

A lovely pair of White-collared Kingfishers

LOCATION

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Track 7, off Mandai Road.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Main park entrance and car park is along Yishun Avenue 1, although you can also enter the park on foot on Lentor Avenue, near the junction with Yishun Avenue 1.

HOW MUCH TIME

45 minutes at each reservoir should be sufficient if you’re just visiting. You can of course plan to stay longer if you want to participate in any of the water sport activities, or perhaps spend the day fishing at the reservoir.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Freshly caught! Poor fella.

TIDBITS

  • The Orang Seletar were an indigenous people already settled on the northern coasts of Singapore and the Straits of Johor at the time Sir Stamford Raffles arrived on our island in 1819. The tribe is thought to be Austronesian in racial origins, with similar roots to the aboriginal tribes of Papua New Guinea and Australia. They have dark skin and wavy hair. They are also non-Muslims and worship sea deities, although their language sounds a little similar to the Malay language.
  • There is now a Seletar Cultural Centre in Johor across the causeway in Malaysia, to catalogue and showcase the rich heritage of the Orang Seletar tribal culture.
  • The Orchid Country Club opened in Yishun in 1993 for union members. The idea for the club was mooted in August 1991, when the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, then Secretary-General of the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress) and ex-Singapore President suggested having a golf and country club for ordinary workers.

TAKE NOTE

  • There are washroom facilities in each of the reservoir parks (1 in each).
  • Lower Seletar Reservoir is a smoke-free park. It was declared smoke-free in December 2013, and smokers caught flouting the ban can be fined up to S$2,000.
  • The parks are lit from 7pm to 7am.
Lower Seletar Reservoir

Peacock Bass

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Casuarina Sumatrana – larger and more interesting cones than the common casuarina variety

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Sembawang Park: Lovely Leafy Park Makes Connection To Rich Naval History

The Sembawang area, in the northern reaches of Singapore is an area steeped in naval history. The massive Sembawang Shipyard which dominates the coast and faces the Johor Strait, actually started life as a British naval base pre-World War II (WWII) in 1938.

It’s no wonder then that the streets in the Sembawang area have naval-themed names or names linked to the British Empire. Admiralty Road is probably the most well-known, referencing the British government’s naval authority, while Deptford Road is named after the first Royal Navy Dockyard. Other roads are named after former British colonies and territories, and British Commonwealth countries and cities, not to mention “King’s Avenue” and “Queen’s Avenue” after the British monarchy.

Sembawang Park

In a fitting tribute to the area’s rich naval history, the recently upgraded Sembawang Park neighbouring the shipyard features a new children’s playground with an adventure climbing structure in a battleship design.

THE LOWDOWN

King George VI Graving Dock - Photo from E.A. Brown's collection

Opening ceremony of King George VI Graving Dock held on 14 February 1938

In the 1930s the British built a grand naval base in Singapore to counter Japan’s growing naval might. Constructed over 10 years, the naval base was intended to be an integral part of the British defence of the Far East. When completed in 1938, it boasted the largest dry dock in the world – the more than 300 meters long King George VI Graving Dock. The naval base also had the world’s 3rd largest floating dock measuring 275 metres in length, and was equipped with underground storage for ammunition, water and fuel, and additional above-ground storage tanks storing enough fuel to support the entire British Navy for 6 months. A town complete with churches, cinemas, hospitals and 17 soccer fields even was also built around the base to house the 12,000 local workers. Some 11,000 people including many dignitaries attended the opening ceremony of the dock.

Singapore_Naval_Base_June_1953

Singapore Naval Base – Photo from Australian War Memorial

The naval base unfortunately never lived up to its potential, as the British Navy continued to focus its resources on its main base in Europe. During WWII in 1942, Singapore also fell quickly to the Japanese troops who came over land via the Malayan Peninsula instead of the expected sea route.

Post-Singapore’s independence, the British began withdrawing from Singapore and in 1968 the British Admiralty handed the naval base over to the Singapore government, which then converted it into a commercial dockyard. Sembawang Shipyard, a government-linked company was established, and the shipyard today is part of the larger Sembcorp Marine.

VISITING

Sembawang Park was developed during the 1970s so there are lovely mature trees throughout the park, although the park itself is just 15 hectares large. Long-time residents such as a friend of mine who grew up in the area have many fond memories of the park – my friend let on that the park was a popular late night dating venue during her teen years way back when.

The almost 40-year-old park’s infrastructure was upgraded earlier this year, and the park now features better paths, toilet facilities, a made-over jetty, wooden seafront boardwalk, fitness exercise area, and the crowning glory battleship climbing feature in the children’s playground.

Sembawang Park

The historic Beaulieu House still stands, home to the same Chinese restaurant that has been there forever. Beaulieu House was built by a wealthy businessman in the early 1900s as a private seaside villa, and was later acquired and used by the British Navy as the residence for its senior naval officers. Meaning “beautiful place” in French, Beaulieu House, built in a lovely neo-classical Victorian style, received conservation status in 2005.

Sembawang Park - Beaulieu House

The historic 30 metre long Sembawang Jetty, started by the British and completed by the Japanese in the 1940s, has been given a new coat of paint and had its wooden floorboards replaced. The jetty remains a popular fishing spot, although the surrounding waters are frankly quite polluted due to the area’s proximity to the shipyard.

Sembawang Park - Sembawang Jetty

LOCATION

At the end of Sembawang Road.
There are 2 car parks – one at the front of the park where Tuah Road branches from Sembawang Road, and another right at the end of Sembawang Road closer to the beach.

Park is lit from 7pm to 7am.

Sembawang Park

Sembawang Park

HOW MUCH TIME

An hour to 2 should be plenty to stroll through the park, beachfront and jetty.

TIDBITS

  • Sembawang is named after the Sembawang tree – the Mesua Ferruginea. A type of ironwood or hardwood tree, it is a rare tree in Singapore and the only known specimen is in the middle of Car Park 1 (the one closer to the beach) at Sembawang Park.
  • Naval Base Secondary School, now located in Yishun, was initially in Sembawang when it opened in 1957. The British had set it up on the naval base for the children of the naval base employees. Today the school continues to salute its naval heritage by maintaining ties with the Republic of Singapore Navy for important events, educational visits for students to the naval base, and for career guidance.
  • According to Singapore’s URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) Draft Masterplan released in November 2013, the Sembawang Shipyard area has been rezoned and the valuable waterfront site is likely to be redeveloped into a residential and lifestyle area in the future. Sembawang Shipyard will probably be moved to the Tuas industrial area in the west.

TAKE NOTE

  • Although the small beach at Sembawang Park is apparently one of the few remaining natural beaches in Singapore, I have to say the beach is rather unattractive. The water was brackish as well, no surprise being right next to the shipyard.
  • Kampung Wak Hassan, the last surviving Malay Kampung (village) which used to be located next to Sembawang Park, is unfortunately no more. Cleared in 1998, all that remains today is a road sign.

Sembawang Park

Sembawang Park

Flower of the Cannonball Tree

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