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 my backyard in Pasir Ris

The tides didn’t line up with when we wanted to go out to explore the mangroves of Pulau Ubin. Rather than wait another weekend though, we decided to venture out anyway. Even if we couldn’t find a river to cut through the island, it still would be a great way to get in some fresh air and workout.

The rain overnight did not clear the clouds, which still loomed low in the sky. The air also felt still and heavy, but at least we had a smooth crossing from Pasir Ris over to Pulau Ubin. Within a half hour of launch, we entered the river fronting the abandoned PA chalets. As soon as we rounded the first bend, the chirping of the crickets enveloped us. We spotted our first pair of otters placidly swimming past.

As always, the cacophony of crickets enveloped us when we entered the mangroves

On our past forays into the mangroves, we had friends guide us. This time, my brother and I were alone. With the help of a grainy Google Earth (Google Maps did not offer enough detail here) and a compass though, we felt confident enough to map our way out of the labyrinth network of riverlets.

We squeezed past narrow gaps in search of navigable routes to the northern shores of Pulau Ubin

Alas, no matter what small channel we managed to squeeze past, the tide was just a little too low, the mangrove roots too exposed. Oh well. We retraced our path, following a brilliant blue kingfisher that flitted just ahead of us with every quiet stroke of our paddles.

On a whim, when we got back to Pasir Ris, we decided to venture up the canal bisecting Pasir Ris Park. We’d crossed the main bridge hundreds of times in the years past, but never did venture up its length. But the canal is much cleaner now, evidenced by another pair of otters that ducked between the mangroves alongside the water’s edge, watchfully eyeing us as we paddled past.

Going up the Pasir Ris River

We were so astounded by the quiet beauty of the river, and of the uniquely Singaporean sight of the colourful housing blocks peeking from above the trees. What a lovely view these residents enjoyed of the river, with the resident egrets and herons nesting on the high branches. My brother spotted another otter, this one bravely swimming right under his kayak and then popping its head out of the water to stare at him.

Beautiful morning.

Kayaking: Pasir Ris to Ubin

With Covid cases flaring back up in countries that had already eased restrictions, we are resigned to the fact that for the foreseeable future, we will be stuck here in Singapore.

A friend reminded us the other day though, that it’s important to find pleasures where we can, otherwise life will be miserable. True that.

So we try to be in the present, to continue to count our blessings that we otherwise are healthy and have jobs, have still the freedom to meet with small group of friends for in-person catch-ups, and the freedom to take to the waters to explore.

In the past couple of months, we have made a half dozen paddles over to Pulau Ubin from Pasir Ris, eagerly squeezing under low bridges to dive deeper into the lush mangroves. Each time that we bring new friends along to explore, we delight in the wonder and excitement they enthuse as the cacophony of cricket calls and overhanging branches envelope us, transporting us into a different world.

If we’d have the flexibility to travel, we would not have been able to explore as deeply as we have the wondrous environment right at our doorstep, so there’s something to be thankful for!

Kayaking: Exploring the Rivers of Pulau Ubin

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.

Kampong by the mangrove’s edge
Photo credit Jeff
Jeff contemplating our green waterway – photo credit Jingyi
Me, happy to be on the water – photo credit Jeff

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.

A beautiful blue bird day to explore the Mamam River

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!

Jeff just managing to squeeze under the bridge, a manoeuvre that required him to slide all the way into the front of his kayak, so that he lay flat in his kayak
Our route from Pasir Ris to Ubin and back. We were all excited that the water levels were low enough for us to squeeze under the two bridges that bisected the River Mamam, so we didn’t have to get out into the muddy mangroves to make a portage – or to retrace our route to circumnavigate the eastern flank of the island

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!

Kayaking: Exploring the mangroves of Pulau Ubin

When we launched early Friday morning from Pasir Ris, the water was still. The air hung, weighty and heavy and silent. Dark clouds filled the sky, ominous.

But it was a holiday weekend (Hari Raya Haji), so our spirits were high. We just needed to make that 2+km crossing over to Pulau Ubin. Given that our destination was to explore the heavily wooded mangrove rivers of the island, a bit of rain didn’t faze us.

The calm before the storm

As it was, as soon as we started the crossing, the winds picked up, flattening the left side of my wide brim hat against my face, so that I had to physically turn my head port side to look out for the rolling white caps that had formed, and which slammed repeatedly into my kayak.

We powered on without stopping, for a brief rest meant getting immediately pushed eastwards by the strong currents. As it was, to make the narrow slit of land that bisected Pulau Ketnam at high tide, we had to paddle full steam upstream.

But as soon as we crossed the channel, the howls of the winds abruptly subsided and the waters become glossy smooth again. Protected by the islands of Pulau Ketnam and Pulau Ubin, it was as if we’d crossed into another world.

Shan and Caroline had just explored the area with Huey of Kayak Asia the week before, so they were familiar with the windy route. We ventured up the river Sungei Puaka, and as the river narrowed, the sounds of the mangrove surrounded us. Crickets in their never ending chorus, unknown birds hidden in the dense foliage calling out to one another. We spied herons, sea eagles, a swimming otter. Shan and Caroline, in the lead, also spotted a wild boar in the waters.

Midway up the river, the skies opened up. But protected by the trees, we only felt light droplets on our heads. We delighted in moving slowly through the increasingly narrow river, up through sections where we almost had to navigate by pushing ourselves off the exposed roots, because it was too tight to get in a sweep on our paddles.

The passing rain showers had cleared though, by the time we pushed out of the mangroves into the northern side of Pulau Ubin. Soft golden light lit up our kayaks, and a gentle breeze played about. We could either round the island back to the southern side facing Singapore, or wend our way through another set of rivers in the mangroves again. It was a unanimous decision – back into the magical mangroves we went!

Our route

Finding peace and contentment in the present

The Singapore Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong, came out this past weekend to advise us not to expect to travel this side of 2020. 😦 I guess it’s no big surprise, but still a somewhat depressing to hear.

That said, we had a blast this weekend. If every weekend went down like that, we really have nothing to complain about being stuck in Singapore.

  • Kicked it off bright and early Saturday morning with a 15km paddle to Pulau Ubin and back from Pasir Ris. We went with some friends, and with the high tide, decided to venture into the mangroves for a bit of exploration. We all had wide grins on our faces as we sliced our paddles through the still waters, a reflection of the blue skies above. Around us, the sounds of crickets filled the air, and hawks and hornbills flitted from tree to tree as our kayaks glided by. Overhead, we caught glimpses of the fighter jets and choppers bearing the Singapore flag as they flew past, practicing for the upcoming National Day celebrations. Otherwise, in the middle of the verdant oasis, we felt transported into another world, a Singapore of a century past.
  • In the evening, while Jeff caught up with some coworkers for tennis and dinner, I met up with a couple of college buddies for much missed catch ups, drinks and food. So glad to be able to start socialising in small groups again outside.
  • Sunday morning, I watched the streaming of the Santa Fe Opera Gala (bit boring to be honest), and Jonas Kaufmann’s recital in Bavaria, hosted by the Metropolitan Opera (so good, I’m watching it again).
  • In the afternoon, Julia came over again for our usual Sunday routine since Phase 2: tennis, refreshing dips in the pools, dinner (bunless lamb burgers with rosti and sautéed zucchini, and freshly baked almond cake), and board games. Washed down with a deliciously smooth and potent bottle of peppercorn negroni from No Sleep Club.

Life is good.

(Featured image photo from Huey, who took of Shan’s group when they visited the mangroves a day later – I used it because I didn’t bring a camera or my phone out when we went out, but it perfectly shows the serene and beautiful conditions when we went out ourselves the day before)

Back on the water after lockdown

Friday, June 19. After more than two months of lockdown, we were finally allowed back out on the water. I couldn’t wait, and so took the morning off to go kayaking with three other similarly anxious friends. (Good thing we did too, as it’s pouring buckets this Saturday morning!)

I walked through Pasir Ris Park to my parents’, where I store my kayaks. It’s rained overnight, so the ground was still wet, but the air cool and fresh. There were a few other early morning joggers about.

Whilst we were in lockdown, the park services had stopped most essential services, including the cutting of grass. As a result, we tromped through knee high bunches of wild mimosas and dewy bunches of morning glory to get to the beach. One upside of the enforced stay-at-home orders: beaches free of trash.

Wild morning glory by the beach

I pushed off quickly once I laid my kayak at the water edge, eager to float once again. I pulled on my buff to cover my mouth, though wondering at the government’s logic in this directive, given that I was more than at arm’s length from anything else.

We couldn’t stop grinning. It felt glorious, so glorious, to be twisting our core, feeling our boats glide forward underneath us and hearing the comforting swish of water as our blades sliced through the calm seas. The Malay fishermen were back on the jetties and along the beach fronts too, and we cheered one another on with merry waves.

Our merry crew of four

It was a short 5.5km paddle to Changi Village. Where normally the water there was rough due to heavy bum boat traffic, we had calm landings. The hawker center had also just reopened for sit down meals, so we enjoyed a breakfast of champions: nasi lemak (coconut rice with fried chicken), coffee, and a celebratory bottle of sweating beer.

Brunch at Changi Village. Nasi lemak, coffee and beer

What a beautiful morning! The paddle back was uneventful as well, and the threatening clouds that had looked overhead on our paddle over had blown past us to the northwestern side of Singapore. I got a bit sunburnt, but it was worth it.

[Photo credit: Shirley] Mussels clinging to the bottom of the bouys lining most of the Pasir Ris beachfront, a deterrent to would-be illegal immigrants attempting to swim across from Malaysia. Those bouys are an eyesore, and make crossing over to the island across, Pulau Ubin, a pain, since we couldn’t just cut straight across. But it was lovely to see those mussels. If the water was cleaner, we would have been tempted to pluck them for dinner, as we used to do years ago by the kelongs (houses built on bamboo in the ocean).

Kayaking for social distancing

Since I last wrote, the world has completely changed. The financial markets are in free fall, many countries have instituted bans on foreigners coming in and mandating that returning residents and citizens quarantine themselves for 14 days. Travel has essentially ground to a halt, and most companies have instituted work from home policies.

I couldn’t have predicted this a month ago. Then, I’d just come back from a spat of international travels, and still anticipating a couple more kayaking trips to Phuket and Ningaloo over the next couple of months. Then, we’d thought colleagues who decided to skip our work conference in LA as being overly cautious – I could not have predicted that just a week after, the US would shut down travel to Europe etc.

Of course, none of this should have been a surprise to me. Most of China has already been in lockdown since end January. But things only really hit home for me a relative got diagnosed with covid, and all his family and friends who had had contact with him had to go into home quarantine. Then a friend could not come home from Europe to be with her family, who is undergoing radiation. Another friend in the States has early stage cancer, but hospitals have told her they need to delay her surgery, indefinitely, because they need the beds for Covid patients. I realized too, that if anything happened to my own relatives here in Singapore, our family from overseas would be unable to come back.

So, we count our lucky stars that we are still healthy, still with stable jobs. Having to cut down on going out, on traveling, is just a minor inconvenience, in the broader scheme of things.

In the meantime, to practice social distancing, we can still go kayaking. We have our own kayaks that we carry to the beach, and once in the water, we are in our own vessels, plenty safe away from everyone else.

So we did. And it was glorious. We went the week before too, but the water was disgustingly dirty then. Yesterday, it was clean – I’m not sure if less people have been out and about or if the current swept everything downstream, but it was a beautiful paddle yesterday. We did around 20km, and got back to the beach right as the heavens opened up.

At least here, we can still go outdoors. But I did also read articles where some national and state parks are shutting down as well – to reduce the strain on rangers and the impact on local communities. That was definitely more food for thought for how every little action could have vast trickling impacts.

Kayaking: Sembawang to Pasir Ris, Singapore

One of our kayaking friends put together this ambitious plan – to kayak from Sembawang, the northern tip of Singapore, to Changi Village via the back side of Pulau Ubin. And then back to Sembawang. That journey would have been roughly 56km.

Not something I’d have undertaken, not in the heavy humidity of Singapore. Since we were going by Pasir Ris though, Jeff and I thought we could just load up our foldable Oru Kayaks into the car to Sembawang, then paddle home to Pasir Ris. Our two other friends who had their own kayaks as well also elected to pull out at Pasir Ris.

Credit: Carol, from Sembawang Park. The rain threatened, but never fell while we were paddling

The four of us with our own kayaks launched early Saturday morning, from the newly renovated Sembawang Park. We drifted just outside the park, on the Singapore side of the channel, waiting for the others who were renting from Sembawang Yacht Club. A Police Coast Guard came charging up the channel, towards us. They cut their engine and floated alongside us, asking for our trip itinerary. Malaysia loomed large just a couple of kilometers away – and in fact our phones had already jumped to the Malaysian networks.

Credit: Shan. The Singapore Coast Guard checking in on our itinerary

Satisfied with our answers, the coast guard soon departed as the others caught up.

It was a fun paddle, along a side of Singapore I’d never visited before. The winds and current were a bit against us, but nothing we couldn’t handle. We hit Pasir Ris after a leisurely 4 hour paddle, around 18km. By then, it was past noon, and the team who had to return back to Sembawang decided not to cull back their ambitious plans. Instead, we decamped as a group to the zichar food court by the beach for a quick lunch just as the skies opened.