Eco tours in high-rise Singapore

More companies are offering nature appreciation tours in Singapore as people are amazed by the wildlife found in the city state

Kayak through the tranquil mangroves of Ubin, embark on a night walk to spot owls at Bukit Brown Cemetery or dive in the waters around Pulau Hantu to explore its rich marine life.

These are just some of the experiences offered by specialist nature tours in Singapore.

There are now 18 licensed tourist guides specialising in nature and at least three organisations that offer eco-tours here.

This is a far cry from 26 years ago, when nature guides and tours were non-existent, says freelance licensed tourist guide Subaraj Rajathurai, 53.

Since 1990, he has been taking Singaporeans and foreigners on tours to various nature areas in Singapore, including Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

He believes nature tours are getting more popular among Singaporeans because nature has become a rare commodity in the urbanised city state.

"Those who grew up in kampungs especially miss nature."

Tourists, too, are increasingly open to the idea of eco-explorations here.

Mr Rajathurai says: "People say there is little nature in Singapore and we cannot compete with the bigger national parks in neighbouring countries. But not everybody wants to go to such parks, which take many days to explore. Some want an experience that combines many things in one day, for instance, a city tour with food stops and a little nature thrown in."

And it is possible to achieve this in Singapore, he says, where one can go from a five-star hotel in the city to a rainforest or mangrove swamp in less than 30 minutes.

Mr Leong Kwok Khuen, 49, from Edu Outdoor Activities, which leads nature walks, agrees. "Many of our participants are often amazed that there's still so much nature to be seen in urban Singapore."

The Sunday Times talks to three organisations that offer eco-tours here.


KAYAK AND CYCLE AROUND UBIN

Pulau Ubin's rich heritage and rustic charm make it a natural home ground for outdoor adventure company Asian Detours.

The company has been leading mangrove kayaking and cycling trips there since 2010.

The expeditions combine a good workout and nature appreciation, with professional guides pointing out flora and fauna and historical landmarks, says Ms Nicole Chua, 36, the company's director of sales and marketing.

Its three-hour cycling trip takes participants to what is called the German Girl's shrine, which used to hold the remains of a young woman who lived on the island before World War I; Butterfly Hill, a knoll created out of wasteland to conserve butterflies; and the Chek Jawa wetlands.

Those who want more out of their trip can hike up to the highest point at Puaka Hill to get a bird's eye view of the Ubin Quarry.

Another trip takes kayakers on a 21/2-hour journey through mangroves in the western part of Ubin, where they might spot kingfishers, hornbills, otters and monitor lizards.

The more challenging four-hour "bisect kayaking" session follows a north-to- south route "bisecting" the island, with a short stretch where participants have to lift their kayaks overland.

Each trip is limited to about 10 to 30 people, depending on the activity, to minimise the disturbance to the delicate natural landscape, says Ms Chua.

As mangrove kayaking must be done during high tide, the company introduced a 31/2-hour trip round the nearby Ketam island. This can be done at any time and takes up to 40 people.

Mr Marcus Tun, 44, an operational project manager in a financial institution, went mangrove kayaking with his wife and two daughters, aged seven and 11, in June.

He says: "It was interesting to understand the make-up of the mangroves, their uses, how they propagate and their ability to prevent coastal erosion.

"One of the biggest takeaways was that the kids saw a part of Singapore they had never seen before, even though it is not far from where we live."

Price: Mangrove Kayaking Adventure, $79.50 (adult) and $59 (child); Ubin Bisect Kayaking Adventure, $95 (adult and child); Round Ketam Kayaking Adventure, $85 (adult) and $65 (child); Ubin Bike Trail Adventure, $79.50 (adult) and $64 (child)

Info:  adventures.asiandetours.com


DIVING TO SEE MARINE LIFE

If you dive deep into the waters around Pulau Hantu, you might come across sea stars, sea turtles, sea horses, shrimp and sponges.

A great way to explore the rich marine eco-system is to follow a dive tour led by non-profit, volunteer-run group Hantu Blog, which has been leading regular trips there since 2003.

The organisation uses the money it earns from the dives - it costs $110 a person - to fund its public education work.

Pulau Hantu is south of Sentosa and a 45-minute boat ride from the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club.

From the club, volunteers take participants out on a chartered boat to the waters around Pulau Hantu. Because the boat is small, each group is limited to eight divers.

To ensure the safety and quality of the dives, all buddy pairs have their own guide.

Day dives are done at least once a month and night dives about once a year. Private and corporate charters are also available.

Hantu Blog was founded by photojournalist Debbie Ng, 34, in 2003.

She says: "Participants not only get to dive, but they also learn the value of protecting Singapore's natural shores and get the chance to meet rare and secretive animals such as octopuses, cuttlefish and sharks."

There are two dives a trip. An educational talk is given on the boat before the first dive. In between dives, participants are taken to the shores of Hantu to look at crabs, mudskippers and other wildlife there.

Price: A trip, which includes two dives, costs about $110

Info: www.pulauhantu.sg


NATURE WALKS

Not many would know that the former quarry at Dairy Farm is now a grassland or that you can spot owls at night at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

These nuggets of information are shared by guides at Edu Outdoor Activities, who have been leading walks to these places as well as better-known ones such as Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Rail Corridor .

The private company, which has three full-time guides and 15 part-timers, was started in 2001 by a group of nature lovers.

One of them, Mr Leong Kwok Khuen, 49, says: "Most of us grew up in kampungs. Nature was our playground. But we feel that not many Singaporeans want to, or know how to, appreciate nature and we want to change that."

The company also runs nature camps and expeditions in Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong. It owns a campsite called Mawai Eco Camp in Johor.

Engineer Wong Kum Hong, 48, who went on a guided walk to Dairy Farm last year, says he learnt more from the guides at Edu Outdoor Activities than he would have if he had gone on his own.

He says: "I learnt which plants are edible and which are not and why lichens grow on one part of the tree and not another."

He has since joined the company for trips to Mawai Eco Camp and Gunung Panti in Johor.

Price: A nature walk costs $20 to $40 a person

Info: Go to www.edu-sg.org or call 9681-0491

Kayaking through the mangroves at Pulau Ubin. Go to http://str.sg/4YQ9

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Nature beckons'. Print Edition | Subscribe