Exploring Gardens, Wetlands and ‘Island of Granite’

Before my eyes opened, I could hear the intro of Coldplay’s “Lover’s in Japan” playing on my phone as my 7:10 am alarm goes off. Yes, I know I’m in Singapore and not Japan, but I didn’t pick the song because of the name. I picked it because of the eight long, gentle chords that sound before the loud piano and guitar riffs begin. It allows me to take a couple extra moments to gain alertness before our hotel breakfast.

The day started off much like the song: slow and elegant. After a short MRT ride to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, we took a trip through time in the Evolution Garden. The path we followed brought us to several stations, each with a sign describing a different time-period as life evolved on Earth. From the bacteria of 3,500 million years ago and onward, we walked and saw the path’s flora change to mimic the time-period that each station described. Bacteria evolved to become land dwelling plants like algae, which evolved into ferns and cycads around 300 million years ago. We saw the cycad-and-conifer-rich environment of the dinosaurs as well as the dominance of flowering plants and the evolution of rainforests that began after the fall of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

Our next escapade was to the Orchid Garden, where we had an hour to explore. There were orchids of all different colors and they were presented in many ways throughout the garden. In some areas, there were overhead arches with golden orchids dangling down. In other areas, there were rows of multicolored orchids from around the world. A separate part of the garden was set aside for orchids named after celebrities and people of honor. The most prominent orchid that I saw was an orchid named after President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle (being an ignorant American, I could not appreciate some of the other foreign dignitaries mentioned in this garden because I did not know who they were). Some spots of the garden were under construction, and I noticed a couple orchid plants were covered by awnings to protect them from the heat before the plants reach maturity. The garden, which required a paid ticket to enter, was in pristine condition at the hands of the ten gardeners and maintenance workers who could be seen watering and trimming the plants.

As we left the gardens, the pace of the day began to quicken like the riffs in my wakeup song. A bus picked us up and took us to the north-east neighborhood of Changi and we had a quick lunch at the hawker center there. Looking up in the trees, my brother and I saw white parrot nesting in one of the trees. I easily spotted it by following the source of its loud squawking. After observing my feathered friend, the class walked to a nearby dock to go to Pulau Ubin, an island in the Straights of Johor near the border with Malaysia,

Pulau Ubin in the Malay language means “island of granite.” It was named after the granite quarry that resided there from the mid-1800s to the 1970s. Now abandoned, the quarries have filled with bright blue water and the lack of jobs has lowered the population of the island to less than fifty inhabitants. The 3.93-square-mile island now houses a campground to the west, fish farms in the middle of the island, a small village with a store and pub to the south, and the Chek Jawa wetlands to the east.

Our class started our walk going towards the east along the southern coast of the island. We walked along a beach that was mostly barnacle-covered rock,* indicating that the tide reaches all the way up the beach. As we continued walking, we came across a T-junction with two wild boars standing in the pathway. At first I was worried because they were bigger than large dogs and I didn’t know how aggressive they were. As we got closer, we realized that these boars were used to human presence and they didn’t make any indication that they would aggress. Leaving them behind, we turned right at the junction and followed the path along the Chek Jawa wetlands.

The Chek Jawa wetlands have an interesting history. In 2000, the land of Chek Jawa was set aside for land reclamation and eventual construction of high rise condominiums. Before construction went underway, botanists and volunteers published a report about Chek Jawa highlighting the high biodiversity that the wetlands offered. The Singaporean government called off the development project in 2001 and preserved it for further research to learn the wetland’s biological impact. The Singaporean government even invested seven million dollars to enhance facilities on Pulau Ubin and to install a boardwalk through the region to promote tourism to the area.

We walked upon that same boardwalk to view seagrass beds below and the views of Singapore and Malaysia in the distance. The seagrass beds were surrounded by many patches of bright green algae. This is a good thing, I thought. More algae means more life on the sandbar; however, I was mistaken. The algae blooms actually outcompete the seagrasses and take over more area on the sandbar because of its ability to efficiently use the water’s nutrients. The dwindling seagrass beds cause other organisms which rely on the seagrass—carpet anemones, sand dollars and sea stars—to decline in number. It is unclear what exactly is causing the increased nutrient levels that allow the algae to take over, but my professor hypothesizes that Malaysia may be contributing to this phenomenon by dumping waste into their side of the Straights of Johor.

At the end of the boardwalk, we had already walked ten miles in the day and we still had to walk a couple more to get back to the docks. We had to “soldier on,” as the Coldplay lyrics say, through the hot and humid jungle, past the filled granite quarries and finally back to the docks. We took a couple of minutes there to relax and sit under the umbrellas at the village store before taking the boat back to Changi.

After returning the hotel and eating dinner at a local Makan (Malaysian and Singaporean food) restaurant, my brother, our friend Andy and I went to a nearby mall to get boba. One of our classmates, Serene, got us addicted to milk tea boba with ice cream on top. It tastes like a milkshake with a soft tea aftertaste and it is quite refreshing. We also bought some food from the supermarket there so that we would have lunch materials for the following days.

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*we learned a day later that the reason most of the Singaporean coastline is made of rock is because the islands are actually hills or mountains that stick up from the bottom of the ocean. Therefore, the coastline usually tends to be steep rock that rises to a peak or a plateau.