Philippines, March 2023
If heat has an anthem, perhaps it is something like this:
Coppersmith barbet, singing stories of feathered things in the land we call the Philippines. Birds know it better than we ever will, swooping and squabbling over trees that seem to be standing on tiptoes to outdo each other.
Past durian stalls and stray dogs, over telephone wires and construction sites.
Living their lives, learning their land, even as the millions of people in Mindanao do the same. In the heat and the hubbub, amidst the jeepneys and basketball courts, and the birds remain wild, but perched on the apparatus of humanity – or on the plants that we are pleased to provide.
Asian glossy starling
And the durian tree watches on, its fruits ready to fall.
Draw a squawk that squawks for the sheer love of squawking.
Roll it into bird-shape.
Dip it in a paintbox.
Set it loose in the trees.
Red-breasted parakeet – Singapore
Red-tailed black cockatoos – Litchfield National Park, Australia
Sulphur-crested cockatoo – Mary River National Park, Australia
Galah – Kakadu National Park, Australia
Little corellas – Mary River National Park, Australia
This, too, is Singapore.
Before the skyscrapers came, there were kampongs. On the little island of Pulau Ubin, old times are still here, and narrow roads shadowed with tropical forest twist between the village and the sea. You cycle up them, pausing to swallow buko and listen to the insects buzzing in abandoned fruit plantations. There is no mains electricity or tap water on Pulau Ubin, but there is something wilder, quieter, hotter.
It is not so many years since tigers and black leopards swam in these turquoise straits, but the largest predators today are white-bellied sea eagles.
It is stifling – always – and the skies are stiff and sullen.
Red rocks, smooth beach, hot waves – this is Singapore.
Long-tailed macaques exploiting the human presence – this is also Singapore. Nobody likes to see wildlife handling plastic, and it is rather depressing that monkeys are still affected by it even in the most anti-litter country on Earth.
Like wildlife conflict everywhere, it can be avoided with a little common sense.
But the crabs of Chek Jawa concentrate on the tides rather than people.
Pulau Ubin knew granite mining in the past. Picturesque quarries are silent reminders of an era of Chinese secret societies and massive construction in Singapore proper. Lighthouses on the main island were built out of Pulau Ubin’s bones.
The industry fell apart decades ago, and rain filled up the quarries. But nature, as ever, just carries on.
They stretch from sand to stormclouds with enough lordliness for hornbills to choose them as a throne.
They sprout nuts and fruit alien to the English visitor, but welcomed by a hungry plantain squirrel.
They clothe fences built by people, sheltering reptiles in their sprawl.
This is Singapore.
People have had creative ideas about what to do with this island for generations, but for all the skyscrapers, golf courses and godowns, there is no doubt that this is first and foremost a humid, beetle-buzzed, rain-lashed benevolent dictatorship run by plants. Every square metre where something can grow, something does. They even scramble over each other, climbing high like children.
Epiphytes – plants that live harmlessly on the surface of other plants, usually trees – are as common as daisies here. Amongst them, more lizards lurk.
It would take several lifetimes to document the bewildering variety of wild living things in south-east Asia. I’m travelling around the region for the next couple of weeks, revisiting some places, venturing into new ones.
There are many more moods of plants to learn.
Singapore’s water is everywhere, even in the air – it batters you with humidity. Water is never far away as a walking companion either; Singapore is, after all, a small island with a large river. Walk by the coast, and you never know who you’ll meet.
Paradise tree snakes are famous for flying – they can glide 300 feet between trees – but this one was weaving its way along footpath railings. They are mildly venomous but do not really pose a risk.
You may look upwards to detect snakes, but the crash in the undergrowth signals something much bigger…
Malayan water monitors are dragons of the sea: they can reach ten feet in length.
Oriental pied hornbills are giants of the feathered kind.
Their massive bills are surprisingly dextrous in handling fruit.
They share the trees with smaller birds such as bulbuls.
And tropical squirrels.
It’s so easy to forget that the city is just minutes away.