Kayaking: Pulau Hantu and Semakau mangroves

So grateful for the opportunity to explore another area of Singapore this past Thursday: Pulau Hantu and Semakau, the latter which is Singapore’s first offshore and now remaining landfill.

We had to go through immigration to board a ferry to Hantu – it felt almost like international travel again, except that our identity cards sufficed, even though we had also brought our passports, just in case.

It was a gorgeous day on the water – the skies were a brilliant blue, with voluminous cumulus congestus clouds, a sure sign of rain to come. But the rains stayed away, even as we heard the ominous rumblings of thunder grow ever more urgent right after noon. We could see grey walls of rain in the far off distance, on the main island, but the skies remained clear where we were.

Which is to say it was a scorching hot day. I was just wearing a tank top initially, but after just a half hour lounging in my kayak, waiting for the others to set up their inflatable boats, I had to pull on my long sleeve rash guard to get some relief from the sun. Dipping into the water helped too. The tide was still low mid morning, so we could see the blanket of soft corals in the little bay on the southwestern side of Pulau Hantu. The water was silty – Huey said it is generally much better in the latter part of the year, but not having been able to see any coral reefs at all for over a year, this was a treat.

Our paddle wasn’t terribly long, just under 10km, but it was a beautiful one. We crossed the narrow strait between Pulau Hantu and Semakau, then leisurely meandered our way around the shallow coastal mangroves. Unlike on Pulau Ubin and even Khatib Bongsu, the mangrove trees here were sturdier, with broad gnarled trunks. Brown kites soared overhead, while in the waters we spotted the occasional schools of tiny silvery fish. A few in the group even saw a small black tip shark darting away in the shallows.

Semakau kayaking
Semakau kayaking
It was fun paddling on the clear shallow waters
Semakau kayaking
Semakau kayaking
Jeff all covered up to protect from the sun
Semakau kayaking

After, when we got back the Hantu, the rest of us lounged around – some seeking relief in the water; others went out for a bit more kayaking – while chef Desmond Foo whipped up some delicious spicy buttermilk chicken and prawn paste drumsticks on the barbie, accompanied with homemade toasted focaccia and corn veloute soup with bacon bits. Finished with super ripe mangos and coffee. Bliss. Especially since right after we returned to land, the government sent out a directive banning social bbqs for the next two weeks as we grapple with a rise in community cases again.

Chef Desmond’s spicy buttermilk quarter chicken, so deliciously succulent and smoky.

Kayaking the Four Rivers of Pulau Ubin

When the time and the tides align, one of our favorite paddles is to explore the four rivers of Pulau Ubin, where we’d cross over from Pasir Ris, and cut up from the southern side of the Island via Sungei Jelutong up through to the northern tip, then paddle back down through the island again on a couple other rivers.

On Sunday, we did just that. The gloomy weather predictions had mostly fizzled, such that we were offered a clear sunny window to mid morning. The crossing was easy – on flat waters under a partly cloudy sky after a beautiful orange-pink sunrise, and all too soon, we’d left behind the drone of power boats in the channel and entered another world, filled with the melodic chirpings of unseen birds and incessant calls of crickets.

Shan, as always, was our unflappable guide through the rivers, although on this day KayakAsia was also leading several groups up through the rivers as well, so we used them as our guideposts as we overtook the groups, exchanging pleasantries and greetings with our friends as we passed.

Jeff’s shot of me – love the lighting!

We made good time, even with stopping for a short snack by the narrow silver of beach on the northern side of the island (next to fresh wild boar tracks!) and floating around in the thick of mangroves for around 20 minutes or so, waiting for the tide to rise just high enough for us to paddle over a couple of half submerged tree branches that blocked our paths.

Busy day on the water: Waiting for the ship to cross the channel from west to east, and two sand barges to cross from east to west before we made our north to south crossing back to Pasir Ris

By the time we made it back out the southern end of the island via Sungei Puaka, we could see thick grey clouds overhead. And by the time we hit Pasir Ris and looked back, Pulau Ubin was shrouded in mist; the storm had descended upon the island. We got lucky; a few passing puffs of rain clouds hit us as we got our kayaks out of the water, but it was only after Jeff and I had just finished washing our kayaks that the rain really started to come down – just in time for a warm shower and lunch!

Kayaking to Kusu and Lazarus Islands

We went with some friends last Saturday on a KayakAsia led paddle from Sentosa to the Southern Islands. What a beautiful morning to set off!

The currents were mild on the way over, and we enjoyed blue skies and clear waters. The tides were really low when we got to Kusu Island though, such that we had to carry our kayaks midway into the lagoon – no soaking in the cool emerald green waters in the inner lagoon this time for us.

After a bit of a morning tea where we enjoyed fresh curry puffs, homemade four berry tarts, tangerines and coffee, we clambered back into our inflatable kayaks to cross over to Lazarus Island.

Shoe’s pic of us
Ling’s picture of us on the breakwaters on Lazarus Island

There, we poked around the tidal pools, admiring the sea anemones, nudibranches, and moon jellyfish.

Judy, Shoe and I

All too soon, it was time to make the slog back. I suppose it was too much to ask for mild currents again! My right arm was tired by the time we made it back to shore, having to pull against the currents the entire trip back. At least I earned those beers after!

Monica’s photo of the beautiful sea grass at low tide
Moon jellyfish

Quick Jaunt to Paulu Ubin from Pasir Ris by Kayak

When your company’s country head asks you for a 1-1 meeting done on the water, why would you ever say no? Especially on a brilliantly warm and breezeless day like it was last Monday, when the waters even in the middle of the channel looked absolutely flat and glassy?

So it was that we set off from Pasir Ris towards Pulau Ubin, me in my trusty Oru kayak, and Scott on his stand up paddle board.

Mid crossing pic from Scott
Scott on his paddle board, approaching Pulau Ketam

We had a couple of hours before other meetings, and so decided on a quick exploration of the mangroves in Pulau Ubin. We ventured up the river mid-tide, when the flow was still mild and in our favor, past a family of monkeys swinging through the trees alongside and overhead us.

This looks like a drone pic, or a pic from a bridge, but it’s actually just from Scott standing on his SUP

There are rivers that we could paddle up to bisect the island, but the turns are tricky, and without relying on maps, we found ourselves in disused prawn farms instead. No matter – it was time to head back to the mainland anyway.

We wandered through the old prawn farms on Pulau Ubin

As it was during the phase of the full moon, the tides were stronger than usual, and the head-on flow took us almost by surprise. The waters were still calm, but we had to exert much more energy to fight the currents all the way down the river and back across the channel to Pasir Ris.

But fun times – and we’ll be looking to do more of such meetings on the water!

Gourmet kayaking at Pulau Ubin

Our friends Shan and Desmond were inspired the other day. Let’s do a gourmet kayaking trip, they suggested. That is, load our kayaks full of provisions and drinks, and paddle from Singapore to Pulau Ubin, and cook up a storm there.

Desmond, a professional cook by training, was more than up for the challenge. His menu, ambitious by normal standards, blew our minds for this being an outdoor setting:

  • Baby Spinach Salad with a Tomato and Bacon Dressing
  • Celeriac Veloute (Soup)
  • Foie Gras
  • Ballontine of Chicken with Herb Jus
  • Prime Rib of Angus Beef, Red Wine Sauce
  • Roast Potatoes and Onions
  • Marinated Mushrooms
  • Burnt Cheesecake

We set off bright and early from Pasir Ris. The weather window looked clear for us in the morning, with ominous threats of thunderstorms later in the day – hopefully when we’re back safely on the mainland and all cleaned up.

Launching from Pasir Ris beach. The calm and flat waters were a welcome change from the prior week
Approaching Pulau Ubin

After a leisurely paddle to Ubin, we beached up by the old PA chalets and unloaded our kayaks. Desmond quickly got to work, starting a fire on his charcoal stove to heat up the soup and grill the steaks.

Chef at work. Look at those gorgeous hunks of meat

Meanwhile, the rest of us got busy with setting up our drinks table. Champagne, Bordeaux, espresso martinis, cold brew boulevardier, gin and tonics with freshly smashed peppercorns…

We’re serious about our drinks
While waiting for our meal, Sarah, Judy and I decided to go for a short paddle up the river

Desmond truly outdid himself! After all that food and the drinks, it was a struggle to paddle back to Pasir Ris. Haha, but what a fun morning out with a fantastic bunch of kayaking and food buddies.

Kayaking: First paddle of 2021 at Pulau Ubin

We rang in the new year with relentless rain. Literally, from the first day of the 2021 till pretty much last Thursday, it poured buckets everyday. Heavy, pounding rain that lashed against our windows, along with howling winds and startling claps of thunder and angry flashes of lightning.

We ended up cancelling all our outdoor activities and hunkered down indoors, spending the first weekend painting away.

Paint by numbers of our favorite Sydney sunrise from my kayak

Last Saturday though, the weather finally cleared, and eight of us (yay for relaxed covid restrictions!) eagerly got into our kayaks for a paddle to Pulau Ubin.

Photo by: Jingyi

After weeks away, our muscles definitely felt it. The strong currents and headwinds didn’t help either, so after battling our way to Ubin, we abandoned our plan to get to the Chek Jawa reserves and instead turned to go with the currents to explore Sungei Tiga, one of the many rivers on the island.

After, we beached up on Ubin itself, in the hopes of some belly warming Mee Rebus from the Muslim lady in the store by the jetty. Alas, she was closed for business, so we just found another store for some refreshments.

Felt almost like we were in another country – Malaysia / Philippines / Thailand
Our paddles neatly lined up

Felt so good to be back out on the water, even though I was honestly wiped out and had to nap the rest of the afternoon. 😂

(Mostly) virtual explorations in 2020

I barely took any photographs with my cameras this year except on my phone. Once Covid shut down all travel, we mostly just hunkered down at home. So since March, all our exploration has been local, or virtually, via books and movies and TV shows.

I managed to read 61 books to date this year (maybe 61 by year end if I get started on any one of the three books on my phone now).

Skiing in the Dolomites in February
Enjoying an aperitif in Venice, 3 days before the government shut down the Carnivale and the city due to the spreading virus

Top Fiction

  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: This book was really visceral for me, and really helped me empathise with the migrants’ travails north across the border into America. It also turned out to be a very controversial book, with many people protesting against the heralding of a book about the migrant experience that is written by a white woman. Personally, I think sometimes people are way too sensitive. If a book is well written and can help raise awareness of such pressing issues, is that not a good thing?
  • [Update: December 29] Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: Learnt a new genre – “autofiction”, where the author blurs his autobiography and fiction, such that it’s hard to find out what’s real and what’s not. I tried, googling some of the characters and trying to read up on him but in the end, gave up, and just went with the flow. After all, there’s so much to unpack in this book already. Of his struggles as an ethnic minority trying to reconcile the opposing cultures – one of his birth place, and the other of his ancestors. The process which is not helped by the increasingly strident voices on both sides of the ideological divide which brook no room for nuanced conversations.
  • Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins: Prequel to the Hunger Games series. I loved the Hunger Games, and I loved the world she painted in the prequel. Well not literally, since that world is also pretty messed up, but she managed to give more dimensions to the main villain of the later Hunger Games.
Star gazing in Joshua Tree on Feb 28, a week before the US shut down travel to Europe, and two before the Singapore government placed all travelers into Singapore on quarantine notices

Top Non-Fiction

  • Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger: This is my top book of 2020. I really enjoy how he talks not only about how he climbed through the ranks from the bottom at ABC to the top job at Disney, but distills it into lessons he’s learnt along the way. Because of that, and because of his clear, engaging writing that saw me race through the book in a single weekend – which never happens for a non-fiction book!
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado PerezThis highlights all the data gaps that result in the sometimes unconscious designs of everyday things / policies that are biased against women. It’s food for thought for the different ways we can and should go about design.
  • The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hermet – This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals she and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane. Loved reading this especially in lock-down.
  • Land of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – Another awesome travel book to read in lockdown, about two women’s bike ride across the Silk Road.
  • Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth –  The opening paragraphs grabbed me right from the beginning:

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen. 

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

One thing we’re definitely grateful for this year: the addition to our family, puppy LL. Technically, she’s my parents’ dog, but she’s brought so much joy (and some headaches, like the time the Roomba “ate” and then “spit out” her poop)
Kayaking – our main mode of exploration this year

Here’s hoping for the resumption of in person adventures in 2021!

Boxing day paddle up Sungei Api Api

Brought my friends’ kids out for a socially distant paddle up Sungei Api Api. We’d gone once a few weeks ago, and the winds and currents that day were really challenging, especially for first timers.

Today though, the sun was out and the winds much calmer, so with much more confidence, we decided to venture past the bouys to round one of the nearby kelongs (houses on the water) for a bit of adventure.

Afterwards, we turned back in to paddle up the Sungei Api Api. We didn’t spot any hawks or otters this time around, but everyone still had fun leisurely floating up the river, peering into the murky depths for fishes or into the mangroves for the flashes of brilliant blue kingfishers as they flitted from root to root. Also spotted: an iguana and a tortoise, plus a couple of egrets.

Short paddle for me, but it was nice to see friends and their kids take to the new sport!

Kayaking: Pasir Ris to Changi Village

Month 9 of no overseas travel. Every time I start to feel remotely sorry for myself though, I think about how lucky we are to be here in Singapore, where the government has managed to get the virus under control especially when compared to the (non) responses of some other governments. Except for the trying month in May where we were all placed on lockdowns, we have been able to resume most activities – swimming, tennis, kayaking, and meeting with small groups of friends and family. I caught up with friends Stateside last week for Thanksgiving, and found out that most of them had essentially been self-isolating since March! 😦

So yes, even though we aren’t able to explore the crystal clear waters of Raja Ampat, Ningaloo, Phuket, or the Greek Islands this year (all itineraries we’d planned for), we have had the opportunities to explore the sea and rivers close to home.

One recent Saturday morning, our group of kayaking buddies met at Pasir Ris park for another mini expedition. Nothing ambitious this time – just a short paddle along the coast eastwards to Changi Village. We beached up and dragged our kayaks high up on the sand, carrying our paddles and life vests for the short stroll to Changi Village hawker centre for a mid-morning meal and coffee. Yum.

Stomachs filled and feeling sleepy from food coma, we refreshed ourselves in the cool waters before climbing back into our kayaks for the trip back to Pasir Ris. Along the way, we branched up Sungei Api Api (River of Fire) where we marvelled at the lucky residents whose apartments overlook this serenity, a haven of egrets, herons, and eagles.

Perfect jaunt for a hot, sunny morning, before the afternoon monsoons set in.

Kayaking: Exploring Sungei Khatib Bongsu

My company gave us Friday the 13th off, as one of the 6 “wellness” days they’d designated for the remainder of the year, as a response to the burnout some of us was feeling from the extended global lockdown courtesy of Covid-19. We made the most of it – 8 of us got together to do a clean up paddle of Sungei Khatib Bongsu with Kayakasia.

According to our guide Ling, the Khatib Bongsu mangrove is a very special place, not least because it, along with Palau Ubin, is one of the remaining untouched mangrove forests in Singapore. Today, mangrove forests make up just 0.5% of the total land mass area in Singapore, down from 13% in the 1820s. Sungei Khatib Bongsu and its maze of estuarine channels is one of the last few un-dammed rivers in Singapore, and the only way to explore it is by kayak. The government though, has announced plans to develop the area into a nature park, ala Sungei Buloh. Having experienced the quiet, unspoiled beauty of it yesterday, I agree with Ling and the Kayakasia crew that it’ll be very sad and a real pity if that means cleared trees, transformed habitats and built-up board walks for crowds to throng through. I don’t want a “natural landscape design”. I just want natural!

We assembled bright and early on the grassy banks on the Yishun canal between the intersection of Yishun Ave 8 and 9
We waited patiently in an orderly line to clamber aboard our 2-man inflatable kayaks

Our journey began immediately right off the canal. After some quick paddling techniques tips for those of us new to kayaking, Ling steered us down a narrow waterway. The drone of motorcars disappeared, replaced by the more melodic chirping of crickets and calls of the dozens of bright blue kingfishers that darted about us. Though some had initially been fighting off yawns from their early morning alarms, everyone had now perked up and awed by the lush greenery, a markedly different world from what we were used to.

Back in the 70s, prawn farms dotted the area. We could still see remnants: the half rotted stakes and collapsed sluiced gates that we squeezed past as we navigated the lush labyrinth of waterways. Otherwise, the only other signs of inhabitation now were the plastic bottles and styrofoam bits that the tide brought in. 😦

After a week of rain, we were really lucky to have a such a gorgeous morning to be paddling. The early morning light filtered through the dense canopy, lending a sparkly and other-worldly feel

I’ve paddled the mangrove rivers of Pulau Ubin at least a dozen times already this year, but this mangrove forest at Khatib Bongsu is really something else! Kayakasia bills this as one of the most beautiful river trails in Singapore, and I have to agree. We paddled past gigantic fig trees, traversed in and around a mix of different flooded forests. They seemed oversized compared to the more delicate habitats on Palau Ubin.

Ling knows this area by heart now, having led hundreds of tours here through her 6.5 years with Kayakasia, but for the rest of us, our sense of direction were completely out of whack. I had absolutely no idea where we were, for she’d randomly direct us off a narrow but free waterway into a thicket of trees, or placidly slink under a mess of branches. We were not nearly as graceful or deft with our paddles, and the mangrove was often pierced with shrieks and laughter as people smacked themselves in the face with the low hanging branches as they tried to extricate their kayaks from exposed roots that seemed to loom up suddenly in the middle of nowhere.

But that’s the beauty of kayaking in the mangrove forests. There were literally no paths to follow. We could literally chart our own journey.

After 3.5 hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the mangroves, Ling led us out to the coast. We reluctantly left behind the glassy flat waters and the blissful shade of the trees and promptly met with chop and wake from the half dozen wakeboarding boats gunning down the river. It was a bit of a rude shock to the group, for now they also had to contend with a head on current and wind as they re-adjusted to coastal kayaking. After the leisurely paddle of the mangroves, we had to work against the current to paddle the 4km to our ending point at Sembawang Park. We did have a bit of a break midway through though, stopping at a tiny sandy beach (sadly littered with bits of plastic and other detritus the tides left behind) for a breather and late morning tea of curry puffs and fruits.

Overall, a magical experience, and a great team bonding to boot! And I will say this again: for all the grief about not being able to travel, I am grateful that this lockdown has enabled me to more fully explore where I call home. We may not boast of stunning vistas and soaring mountains, but I’ve a newfound appreciation of our mangrove ecosystem.

Our rough route: Sungei Khatib Bongsu to Sembawang
Our rough route: Sungei Khatib Bongsu to Sembawang Park