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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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. 😦
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.
Waning moon phase with a high tide at 940am. With mild currents predicted, we were in a good place to launch off from Pasir Ris at 730am to leisurely explore the mangroves in Pulau Ubin.
Unlike the stormy conditions from a couple of weeks before, the air was still and the water glassy. It made for an easy and light-hearted crossing to Pulau Ketam, from which we crossed over to Pulau Ubin.
Our goal was to explore another river of Pulau Ubin – river Mamam. The mouth of that river opens up from the northern end of the island, but not wanting to do the lengthy circumnavigation, we opted to cut through the island via Sungei Juletong and under Juletong Bridge next to the famous Ah Ma Drink Stall.
The twisty streams are a challenge to navigate, especially with rough maps that don’t show all the detail. But Shan led the way with aplomb, and a few false but fun turns later, we found our way through to the northern end at around 1030am.
Initially, we worried that the tide might not be high enough to traverse the mangroves, and indeed in certain stretches our paddle tips kept striking the mangrove roots in the shallow water. But the lower water levels proved a blessing, for it enabled us to squeeze under the two bridges that bisected the river, so that we needn’t step out onto the muddy banks to portage across. Win!
Such a fun paddle! Animals sighted: egrets, wild boar crossing the river, family of otters feasting on fish near the river banks, iguanas floating in the water.
We’ve now kayaked the major rivers of Pulau Ubin, but there remains plenty more twisty turns to get lost in!