SINGAPORE - Singapore's Southern Islands have seen a wave of interest from locals itching to travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ferry operators have pushed out more boats to meet the rise in demand. Earlier this month, a dozen people were charged with taking part in an excessively large gathering on Lazarus Island. The Sunday Times goes island-hopping to see what the excitement is about.
St John's Island
The waters here are cool, inviting and a deep aquamarine. Feeling the wind in my hair and the crunch of sand at my feet, I wonder why I don't come here more often.
It's been only an hour since I arrived on a ferry from the mainland, but I already feel happier and saner -so important in these stressful times.
It is early October and the mood on St John's is almost festive - a far cry from its history as a place of quarantine and political detention.
There is much flora and fauna to discover if you have the patience (and luck) - marine creatures in the intertidal zone, as well as birds such as the brahminy kite and great- billed heron. Mindless rest and relaxation, however, seems to be the main thing on people's minds. And who can blame them?
Some toss frisbees, while others wade in the water or sit at picnic tables with packed lunches. Young brawny scuba divers stand on the jetty like extras in a Mamma Mia! musical. Every so often, new arrivals stream in with bags of beer, chips and cold boxes. Someone plays the ukelele.
I later make my way down the causeway joining St John's Island with Lazarus Island. The stretch is popular with fishing hobbyists and I run into student Joshua Lee, 18, who is there for the first time. He shows me a needlefish, freshly caught by his cousin. They plan to eat it with instant noodles.
Lazarus Island, loved for its beach, might seem "natural" enough to some people, but in fact owes its current look - and sweeping arc of white sand - to a multi- million-dollar project that was completed some 15 years ago. Reclamation and infrastructure work on the Seringat, Kias, St John's, Lazarus, Kusu and Sisters' islands saw Lazarus endowed with a thousand coconut trees from Malaysia, as well as thousands of cubic metres of sand from Indonesia.
The area attracts its fair share of water sports enthusiasts, such as free-diving instructor Fu Xingqiang, 36, who was taking a break by the water with his students last week.
"More people are interested in learning free-diving now, since they can't leave the country," he says.
Also known as "turtle island", Kusu Island is a 15-minute ferry ride from St John's Island. Home to the Da Bo Gong (Tua Pek Kong) Temple and the Malay keramats or shrines, it is awash in an air of serenity that seems to permeate its visitors, such as a kind soul who shared her charging cable with me when my phone battery died. Tua Pek Kong Temple caretaker Seet Seng Huat, 72, a former bum-boat man who has worked at the temple for decades, lives on the island and relishes the peace and quiet. His affinity with the temple runs deep - he is a third-generation caretaker.
Things are busier since the month-long Kusu pilgrimage began this weekend. The season typically sees thousands of devotees flocking to the island to pray for health and prosperity. Childless couples also pray for children. They stop at the temple and often head to a nearby hillock where they climb 152 steps to the three keramats, built in honour of a 19th-century pious man, Syed Abdul Rahman, and his mother and sister.
I'm intrigued by the diversity at play here. At the keramats, I also spot a devotee throwing a pair of crescent-shaped divination blocks, which are typically used in Taoist temples to find out if a wish will be granted. One thing that catches your eye at the top of the steps (after you catch your breath) is a rocky wall painted in yellow and scribbled with messages left by visitors in English, Chinese and even Vietnamese.
"Hope Covid-19 will end soon so we can all return to Malaysia!" reads one Chinese message, possibly left by a migrant worker.
"Hope to give birth to a son soon," reads another. Others ask for love and good grades. A 77-year-old retired businessman, who gave his name only as Mr Chua, was at the shrines and temple last weekend to pray for safety and good health. The island has changed a lot since his younger days, he tells me, lamenting that it is now more "artificial" and does not have the same rustic feel anymore.
Big Sister's Island
My journey to Singapore's first marine park is off to a drizzly start. Consulting the National Environment Agency's tide timings on the eve of my visit last weekend, it occurs to me I might have picked the wrong time of the lunar month to make this trip.
It is neap tide, where the difference between high and low tides is smallest. This means the waters do not recede as far back as they do during the spring tide, which occurs at full moon and new moon.
My suspicions are confirmed when I speak to nature enthusiast Carol Phillips while waiting for my Marina South Ferries boat to Big Sister's Island. Of the two Sisters' Islands, this is the only one open to the public.
"In the really low spring tides, you can walk out into the lagoon and see the corals exposed," says the 55-year- old, who has also spotted fluted clams in the intertidal zone of the big lagoon.
"Today, if you are lucky, you'll see fish moving about - you might need to put your head underwater. You might want to walk on the rocky breakwater and look down to see if you can see anything swimming around. If the water is clear, you might spot anemone and the corals with their tentacles out feeding."
I don't see any fish when I'm there (then again, I didn't stick my head underwater), but am intrigued when nature and water sports enthusiast Adrian Chia, 41, who snorkels in the lagoon, tells me about a blacktip reef shark that once brushed against his leg when he was swimming in the shallows.
Walking around the island, I encounter several signs advising caution. One warns visitors about box jellyfish, which have recently been sighted in Singapore waters (off the beaches of Sentosa and Lazarus Island, for instance). Getting stung by them is no joke - their stings are highly venomous and potentially fatal. Victims, reeling from the pain or paralysis, are also in danger of drowning.
I'm in no mood to swim today, so I (reluctantly) get acquainted with the island's land residents - a troop of wild monkeys. Other island-hoppers had warned me about these aggressive fellows, which are known to stand at the pier in wait of passengers and prey on unattended backpacks, ripping or unzipping them. The alpha male gives me the evil eye before half-chasing me down the beach. Mr Chia finds me a wooden pole.
"We'll fight them on the beaches", I think grimly, feeling their eyes on my back as I walk down the shore. The monkeys eventually leave me alone and I spend the rest of my time watching hermit crabs on the beach.
I think of T. S. Eliot's The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." The lagoon waters are cool and inviting and I could linger here all day, polishing idle thoughts against the music of waves on the waves on the seashells.
But the tide is rising and I have other horizons to pursue.
Landlubbers, ahoy! Up north, Coney Island Park beckons - and you don't even have to sail to get there.
Coney Island got its name after it was sold to an Indian businessman who wanted to turn the island into a resort, naming it after the New York amusement park. But he was later fined for corruption and his plans never materialised. The park, which changed hands several times in the last century, reopened in 2015, and is now joined to the mainland by bridges at Punggol Promenade and Pasir Ris Coast Industrial Park 6.
When I arrive at the east entrance at 8.30am - after a brisk cycle from my home in Pasir Ris - I am surprised by how many other people are already there - droves of cyclists, joggers and other visitors. Early-bird Rajeev Kaushik, 50, an avid photographer, has been out - near the Serangoon Reservoir - since 6.30am.
"Most people, when they are walking around, don't realise that there are so many birds, but there are," says the Punggol resident, showing me his photos of eagles and herons, while a monitor lizard swims languidly in the water behind him.
In the park, I spot more creatures - a changeable lizard, king crow butterflies, a family of long-tailed macaques and what might have been a dwarf reed snake.
I'm struck by the wide variety of flora - from casuarina woodlands to mangroves, and coastal trees to cycads (which can live for as long as 1,000 years).
Coney Island has plenty of charm, even though two of its old attractions cannot be seen anymore. One is an elusive Brahman bull that roamed the island but died a few years ago in the middle of a health check-up. The other is the old Haw Par Beach Villa built by the Tiger Balm brothers who owned the island from the 1930s to 1950s. The building, which is derelict and structurally unsound, is closed off and nigh impossible to find.
Getting there: Both Marina South Ferries and Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services ply the waters between the mainland and the Southern Islands. A $15 two-way ticket typically gets you from Marina South Pier to St John's Island (joined to Lazarus Island by a causeway), as well as Kusu Island. Marina South Ferries also stops at Big Sister's Island (one of the two Sisters' Islands). It takes about 30 minutes to get to these Southern Islands from the mainland.
It is best to book your tickets online as they sometimes sell out.
Note that the usual routes will not stop at Kusu Island during the Kusu pilgrimage season, which began today (Oct 17) and runs till Nov 14. To visit Kusu during this period, reserve a seat here. Tickets are $16 (weekdays) or $18 (weekends and public holidays) for adults.
Info: Find out the boat schedules at the Marina South Ferries website, or the Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services website.
Tips: Take along your own water bottles and packed meals. Sunscreen, insect repellent, tissues, ground sheets and plastic bags for your trash will also come in handy. Do not feed the wild monkeys. The ones at Big Sister's Island are known to be aggressive, so give them a wide berth and don't leave your belongings unattended.
For a more flexible itinerary, you can charter a boat and get up close to other Southern Islands such as Pulau Hantu (Island of Ghosts), which is popular with divers. Be careful while swimming and walking around rocky areas.
Sea snakes, stonefish and box jellyfish - all of which are venomous - have been sighted in the area. As a precaution, do not swim or do sea sports alone. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, and carry a flotation device with you in the water.
Getting there: Coney Island Park is connected by bridges at its west and east ends to Punggol Promenade and near Pasir Ris Coast Industrial Park 6. You can walk or cycle in from either side. The park is open daily from 7am to 7pm.
Info: Visit the Nparks website here.
Tips: Head to the restroom before going, put on insect repellent and wear long trousers and covered shoes. Do not enter during bad weather and take along your own water.
There are restaurants and bicycle rental shops at The Punggol Settlement and its vicinity. It is a 15-minute walk from the west entrance.
The Coney Island Park Connector runs through the island, along Serangoon Reservoir. You can also explore the Lorong Halus Park Connector near the east entrance.