Monday, June 15, 2009

STI: Even the ants upgrade

June 14, 2009

Even the ants upgrade

By Linda Collins

I am standing on top of Mount Faber with about 20 people on a Singapore Press Club outing to explore the Southern Ridges walking trail.

A minibus has chugged up the hill, taking us above congested streets and concrete flyovers to the tropical environment of rainforest greenery.

This high point marks the start of a 4km section of the 9km Southern Ridges Trail that takes us on a jolly jaunt to the gardens of HortPark, just off Alexandra Road.

Our group consists of chattering, excited Singaporeans, and me, the sole ang moh, who is excited but not so chatty.

The Southern Ridges Trail is one of those 'must-do' things I had been meaning to experience ever since it opened to the public a year ago. But I never found the time to sit down and map out which part to do.

So the Press Club outing that came up one Saturday afternoon last month was timely.

It covers an easy stretch of the route, and I needn't worry about getting lost - welcoming us is a cheery, uniformed guide from the National Parks Board (NParks).

About 20 chattering locals and a taciturn-by-nature Kiwi climb out of the bus - and stumble into a side of Singapore most have never seen before.

Sure, we've all been on the cable car to Sentosa,├»¿½and admired the view from the wading pools atop VivoCity mall after a spot of retail therapy, but this is something├»¿½ different.

The view is jaw-droppingly panoramic. A breeze cools us as we 'ooh' and 'aah' at the emerald canopy of nature that clings to the hill, its untidy beauty a contrast to the angular roads and tower blocks below.

In the distance is the sea, dotted with ships, and the Southern Islands, dotted with petrochemical plants.

But it is the sensations that elevate this experience to new heights. We smell the perfume of wild flowers, brush against soft leaves, and hear the exotic shrieks of jungle birds and the late afternoon cries of joggers dodging capering kids and canoodling couples.

After taking in this botanical beauty, someone in the group mutters, 'Gee, I feel like a foreigner', and I, the bona fide foreign species of the group, find myself nodding in agreement.

Our next vista fiesta is the 12-storey-high Henderson Waves bridge, Singapore's highest pedestrian bridge linking Mount Faber with Telok Blangah Hill.

Its 'wavy' design is reason enough to visit the Southern Ridges, forget all that walking. Its long, undulating shape is like the body of a sinuous, whirling dragon that sometimes features in Chinese New Year lion dances.

Our NParks guide tells us that at night, the bridge is lit up, making it look even more like a dragon.

Around me, I note that the word 'dragon' is repeated by the Singaporeans, said with a mix of awe and delight.

As we amble along, the party listens intently as the guide rambles on about the bridge and the efforts to preserve its surroundings. She often stops to share tidbits about the fauna and flora.

I, in turn, observe that the Singaporeans in this outdoor habitat seem both relaxed and happy, and are keen to add their own unique comments to the proceedings.

For example, the guide points to a tree which has strange-shaped, leafy balls. These are nests made by red ants, she informs us. When the leafy balls turn brown and dry out, the ants build new homes of green leaves.

'See, even ants go en bloc', someone from the group notes proudly.

Noticing a bird perched high in a tree, another in the group says almost enviously: 'High floor. Got unblocked view'.

Some women in the group reminisce about a type of leaf they spot, noting that it was once used to wrap food in the days before plastic containers. They even mimic the action of kampung grandmothers folding the leaves.

I am also reminded of the pragmatic nature of the Singaporean as we descend on stylish wooden boardwalks through trees.

The guide informs us that it will take NParks five years to reforest a particular section and remove the non-native creepers strangling the greenery there.

She seems curiously happy at this lengthy timeframe, and seeing my puzzlement, explains: 'Five years, so I will not be retrenched'.

We are now at the Alexandra Arch, which goes one better than nature by being leaf-shaped, in steel. Ahead lie the manicured gardens, butterflies and other delights of HortPark.

But already I, and the others in the party, are planning further visits to this riveting trail through rainforest remnants.

This little walk on the wild side has shown me that even to those born here, there are new things to learn about the place we all call home.

The writer, a copy editor with Life!, has lived here for 15 years. She is of a sub-species called Kiwi, a flightless bird with a long beak.

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