Navigating Pulau Ubin without GPS: A first-hand account

Pausing at one of the control markers are Life! reporter Nabilah Said and Ubin Wayfinder organiser Sebastian Wong (both above). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LUI
Pausing at one of the control markers are Life! reporter Nabilah Said and Ubin Wayfinder organiser Sebastian Wong (both above). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LUI

It is a warm Friday morning in Pulau Ubin and Mr Sebastian Wong is giving me a crash course on orienteering. My eyes widen as he brandishes a compass - the last time I used one was probably for a science class in primary school.

Mr Wong, 33, the director of outdoor sports company Osportz that is behind the Ubin Wayfinder navigational race taking place in Pulau Ubin tomorrow, has devised a simple race with four checkpoints to test my skills.

I start to sweat and it is not just because of the weather - the memory of getting lost while driving to MacRitchie Reservoir from Tampines in August, even with a GPS-enabled mobile phone, is still fresh on my mind. (I ended up in Bukit Batok).

I have run multiple marathons and climbed Mount Kinabalu last year, mainly just by following signs or the person in front of me.

Orienteering, however, is new to me.

But Mr Wong, who is also the treasurer of the Orienteering Federation of Singapore, assures me that I will be fine.

His passion is evident and he is familiar with the island - he is greeted often by the residents, who recognise him from his multiple recce trips. At least if I do get lost, I will be in good hands.

He teaches me how to "set" my map first. This involves lining up North on the compass with the North on the map.

This ensures that the map is in line with the actual ground you are standing on. Then, he shows me how to keep the map pointing north whenever I move, to keep the map set.

This is where I stumble a bit, having always been reliant on technology. The mobile phone's GPS turns the map automatically when you move, but a physical map has to be rotated manually.

I take a while to practise this, which involves me turning round and round like a vacuum cleaning robot on the blink. All this, before I have even begun the "race".

With that nice start, I look at my first checkpoint on the map. It is next to the sea and I should be looking for a white and orange marker, which is an international orienteering marker used in races worldwide.

Easy peasy, I think to myself. The map is marked with road names, so I figure I just have to follow the signs.

But as we proceed on bicycle (yes, I am mercifully spared from running), I realise there are not that many signs after all.

Instead, I have to keep my eyes peeled for physical landmarks, checking them against the map. When there is a fork in the road, I have to stop and check that I am going the right way.

What I like about the experience is that it is so different from being on mainland Singapore, where we tend to overlook our physical surroundings in the daily bustle.

As I navigate my way around Pulau Ubin, I start to feel a strong sense of connection with the island.

"I see water," I exclaim excitedly as I find the first checkpoint.

I insert the key on my finger into a device called the control marker, which will record my timing and serve as proof that I have been there. This a special timing device called Sportident, of which Mr Wong is the sole distributor.

The next checkpoint, located on a hill, is more challenging as I have to climb a forested area on foot to find it.

Staying behind me, he gives me some helpful hints on how to read the contour lines on the map and use them to gauge where I am.

Mosquitoes are having a field day feasting on my blood, but I hardly notice them as I focus on finding the next control marker.

When I finally catch sight of the orange and white flag, I punch the air in satisfaction. I'm slowly starting to realise how this can be fun.

I also begin to feel a little more confident, correcting Mr Wong when he identifies a road wrongly, pointing to my map as proof.

He seems proud - I am probably like one of the little kids he teaches regularly.

The next two checkpoints are not too hard to find either. But 30 minutes in, fatigue starts to set in, which makes me less alert. Also, it is getting hotter and I am thankful when we end just before noon.

I punch out at the finishing point and receive a slip of paper which tells me I have found four checkpoints in about an hour.

With a sense of accomplishment, I down two bottles of water and hold on to the paper like a medal.

I might stick to my GPS on normal days, but I am encouraged to sign up for another orienteering session soon.

Nabilah Said