Durian hunters

They smell, they prod and they wait - for hours if they must; it's the thrill of the hunt for the taste of the king of fruits that drives them

He prods the dense undergrowth with a broken branch while taking each step like a hunter on the prowl. Every so often he stops, looks up and sniffs the air.

"It must be here somewhere. I can smell it," mutters Mr Lim Cheng Meng in Mandarin.

Then true enough, the 51-year-old bends over, parts some leaves and pulls out a durian that has just fallen off the tree minutes earlier.

Mr Lim, who is unemployed, is one of the many regulars who make the biannual pilgrimage into the forested area along Old Punggol Road in search of the king of fruits.

Mr Peh Eng Choon, 53, a renovation contractor, waiting for durians to fall while resting on his hammock in the forested area along Punggol Road. He has been a regular face in the area for the last three years. According to him, it is not just the durians he is after, but also the thrill of the chase. Mr Peh sometimes wait up to eight hours a day during the durian season for the popular fruit. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Mr Peh (left) and his friend Lim Cheng Meng, 51, taking turns to sniff a durian that has just fallen off a tree to check the ripeness of the fruit. The forested area along Old Punggol Road has been attracting durian pickers such as Mr Peh and Mr Lim for decades, but this year may be the last for them to enjoy their hunt for the king of fruits. The area has been slated for development and soil testing has already begun. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
So near yet so far - durians hanging from the branches of a tree in Punggol during the durian season. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Mr Lim looking for fallen durians in the thick undergrowth of the forest in Punggol. He has been visiting the place for durians since a year ago. He says he enjoys waiting for durians to fall from trees and sees it as a form of recreation. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
A durian picker prying open a fruit that has just fallen off a tree. According to some, the taste of durians from the Punggol area is so good that once a person has tried it, he will not want to eat durians from Malaysia again. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
At close to midnight, a picker shows off his spoils after having waited close to five hours in the dark for ripened durians to fall from trees. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Durian season typically lasts for a couple of months in the middle and end of the year.

Prices for the pungent fruit hit a low this season due to a bumper harvest in Malaysia. But this has not stopped the Punggol durian pickers who come armed with boots, mosquito repellent and bags of food.

"Once you have tried the durians here, you would never want to have a Malaysian durian again," says Mr Peh Eng Choon, a renovation contractor who has been picking durians in the area for the last three years.

"It's also organic that's why it tastes so good," adds the 53-year-old.

While some are driven by the taste of the fruit, others join in for the thrill of the hunt. Mr Lim says: "It's really a matter of interest. Sometimes, you don't get much but I see it as a form of exercise."

Patience is key as pickers can wait for up to eight hours for a single fruit to fall.

There are also unspoken rules to abide by. "When a picker turns up and there are already others there. You either find another tree or wait in line," explains Mr Peh.

"It's like taking a queue number when you go to the doctor," he adds in Hokkien.

But the draw of the velvety yellow flesh from the fruit can sometimes lead to thorny situations.

Regular picker Mr Low, who declined to give his full name, recounts years ago when durian picking in Punggol was more territorial and fights between rival groups were not uncommon.

Several trees in the area also bore deep gashes on their trunks. Regulars say they were inflicted many years ago by feuding groups of pickers trying to kill each other's durian trees.

But Mr Low says pickers are now more cordial and often share their spoils with others.

It may also be one of the last few durian seasons for Mr Low and his Punggol durian kakis.

The area around Old Punggol Road has been slated for development and it is unclear if the durian trees will remain. Soil testing has already begun in some areas and portions of the forest have been cleared by bulldozers.

Mr Low says: "I hope the durian trees will be preserved. I have been picking durians here since I was 17. It will be a pity if they have to go."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline Durian hunters in search of king of fruits at Old Punggol Road. Subscribe