Silk Road of the Sea

There is a particular magic to the English autumn: it is the guest that dances into the party, rearranges the furniture, and spirits itself away before you can ask it any questions. Even now, as November approaches, there are still plenty of wild sights to see, but it also feels like a good time to sit back with a hot chocolate and reflect upon far away places.

Come back to springtime in south-east Asia…

SE Asia map

March 2017

Malacca: the strait where you take Asia’s pulse. It is a funnel, a pinch-point, a sulky vein of blue-grey water where the Pacific and Indian Oceans reach through the East’s jumbled islands to uneasily shake hands. The plane turns into final approach above it, clouds parting to reveal the golf course and crowded harbour of Singapore.

This most famously clean of cities sits poised like a hunting dragon on the Silk Road of the Sea. A quarter of the world’s traded goods travel through its claws and along the Strait of Malacca; oil and coffee may dominate now, but it was not so very long ago that Sir Stamford Raffles’ newborn town was brightened by the painted tongkang and twakow boats of lightermen, delivering spices, rubber, coral and palm heart to godowns upriver.

Trade has a habit of choking water and air. By the late 20th century, Singapore was an ecological wreck. As we all know, wrecked lands are quite common. What Singapore has become after vigorous campaigns at greening up is far more novel. Out of the jungle has grown a city threaded with trees.

Singapore Bugis

This is what a real ‘garden city’ looks like – everywhere that can be brightened with wild living things, is. And where there are trees and flowers, animals will follow.

Crab eating macaque3 Bukit Timah 17 March 2017

Crab-eating macaques wander Singapore’s quieter streets.

Crab eating macaque5 Bukit Timah 17 March 2017

Crab eating macaque2 Bukit Timah 17 March 2017

They are the boldest of the wild creatures here and endure the same conflict as urban wildlife in the West. Signs order people not to feed monkeys, but clearly some tourists still do.

SG park regs

Behind them is a corner of Singapore that few visitors to downtown can possibly imagine. Bukit Timah is tiger country, now sans tigers but with that throbbing, humid, complex air that characteristics tropical forests everywhere.

Bukit Timah Mar 2017

Where the great cats once left tear-shaped tracks, monstrous flowers now bloom. I think this is a batflower.

Giant flower SG Mar 2017

Other predators still lurk. Water monitors are one of the world’s largest lizards.

Malayan water monitor juv3 SG Mar 2017

Somewhere within Bukit Timah’s jungle, leopard cats and palm civets sleep. They are shy, but a waking cologu spies me. This strange creature is also known as a flying lemur although it is not one of that family. It can glide over 200 feet between trees.

Colugo Bukit Timah SG 170318

It is hot, humid-hot, and the paths are steep.

Bukit Timah path SG Mar 2017

A few miles away, the city continues its life, oblivious or accepting of so much nature next door.

Singapore riverside