Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sensory Trail on Pulau Ubin

The Sensory Trail is a 1.5km nature trail at the southern part of Pulau Ubin, an island off the northeastern coast of Singapore. This trail allows visitors to uses their five senses - to see, touch, smell, and taste some of the plants along the trail, and also listen to the animal and bird calls. It was initially designed for the visually handicapped, was specially tailored to meet their needs - there was a guiding rope at the initial part of the trail; the authorities also ensured that the trail was leveled; and visitors can experience the trail using their various senses, and not just the sense of sight. And while the trail was designed for the visually handicapped, there is no doubt that other members of the public will enjoy a walk along the trail experiencing nature with all their five senses as well!

The Sensory Trail was eventually adopted by the Singapore American School and the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped under the National Parks Board's Adopt-a-Park Scheme in April 2000.

To visit the Sensory Trail, you will need to take a bumboat from Changi Point Ferry Terminal to reach Pulau Ubin, and then towards the eastern side of the island from the jetty towards the coast guard's office. More details and the map of the island can be found at National Parks Board Website.

Dos & Don'ts
  1. You may want to consider wearing long pants, e.g. light track pants etc. There could be mosquitoes.
  2. Please bring insect repellent. Mosquito pads are usually not very useful for such outdoor activities as the mosquitoes can be quite aggressive.
  3. Please bring a cap/hat in case of sunny weather, and raincoat/poncho in case of wet weather. Do not use umbrellas, as you will be a walking lightning conductor in the open seashore area. I would also recommend bringing a few plastic bags to keep your electronic products in case it rains.
  4. Bring water and some light snacks, as the trail is rather long.
  5. If you are prone to motion-sickness, remember to bring and take the medication before you board the boat.
  6. Bring a camera along, but remember to have a plastic bag to keep it dry in case it rains.
  7. Do not feed any animals, as they may become very dependent on human to feed them, and forget how to find food on their own. Some animals, such as the macaques, may even learn to snatch food from human.
  8. Keep your volume down, or you may disturb the very animals you want to see, and they may hide away from you.
  9. Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but foot prints. Bring your litter out with you, and never take anything from the forest. Poaching has resulted in severe reduction in the population of much wildlife in many places.

What to Expect at the Sensory Trail

The highlights of the Sensory Trails are the numerous interesting medicinal herbs, fruits trees, vegetables, ornamental plants and other useful plants planted or growing naturally along the trail. But more often than not, animals like insects, reptiles and birds are commonly seen too. Over here, I will just introduce a few of the many interesting plants and animals that can be seen along the trail.

Once you turn right out of the jetty, you will see a Collared Fig (Ficus crassiramea) growing near the beach. This extremely rare fig got its name from the stiff yellow bracts (modified leaves) wrapping around the base of the figs, like collars. The figs apparently take about half a year to ripen! Figs are often called the "no-flower fruits" by the Chinese, but in actual fact, they do flower. The fruit-like figs on the trees are basically a "container" for the flowers and the seeds. The flowers are pollinated by tiny fig wasp which will squeeze into the fig from a tiny hole at the bottom.

Near the entrance to the trail was this little shed used for storing the dynamite for blasting the granite at Ubin last time, with a beautiful fig tree (but somewhat eerie) growing over it. It was believed that before it was used to store dynamite, this shed was a breadmaking oven owned by a French family that lived and sold bread on Ubin like 100 years ago.

And here's the entrance to the trail. You can see that there is a rope on the left side of the trail. The right side of the trail here is basically a natural granite rock wall. Much of Pulau Ubin is made up of granite. Even the name of the island, "Ubin", means "tile" or "squared stone", as refering to the granite on the island which was used to make floor tiles.

There are a few Banana (Musa sp.) plants along the trail. Note that banana plants are not trees, since they do not have a woody tree trunk. The so-called "trunk" is actually made from leaves stack upon one another, and hence botanically it is a herb rather than a tree. This is a very useful plant - the fruits can be eaten raw or cooked; the flowers can be cooked; and the leaves can be used for wrapping food.

Up next is what was named the Pandan Valley, as the Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius) planted on both sides of the trail created some kind of a "valley" in the middle! The fresh leaves are used to add flavour to many local delicacies, such as pandan cake, various local desserts, and pandan rice. Fresh pandan leaves (not dried ones) are said to repel insects as well, especially cockroaches.

Leaving the Pandan Valley will bring you to a little herbal garden, where lots of medicinal plants are planted.

The Creat (Andrographis paniculata) is a herb commonly planted by villagers last time. Also known as 穿心莲 ("heart-piercing lotus") or 苦草 ("bitter grass") in Chinese, this herb is used to treat sore throats by chewing the very bitter leaves.

The Fishwort (Houttuynia cordata), called 鱼腥草 ("fishy smell grass") in Chinese, has a strong fishy smell and taste. It is used traditionally as a tonic tea for detoxification and to treat pneumonia.

The Moses-in-the-Cradle (Tradescantia spathacea), called 紫背万年青 ("purple-backed evergreen") in Chinese, got its English name from the little flowers within the cradle-like bracts. When I was a small boy, my mum used to make herbal tea with this, believed to help reduce heatiness, relief sore throat and cough.

The White Mulberry (Morus alba), directly translated as 白桑 in Chinese, is used to feed silkworms in China. But it is medicinal uses for human too! The fruit does not only taste good, but contains antioxidants as well. The leaves are traditionally used to treat reduce heatiness and used to treat liver problems.

A few Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia), a native tree, has also been planted here. This tree is well-known for the medicinal uses of its roots, said to improve blood circulation, increase testosterone levels and enhance sexual characteristics and performance. Studies have also shown that this plant has anti-malarial and anti-cancer properties.

The Aloe vera is a very popular herb as it is believed to have very good healing properties when applied over cuts, burns and other wounds. Recent studies have shown it to be toxic though, and may be cancer-causing. More studies need to be done on how badly it can affect human though.

The Cat's Whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus) is used in traditional medicine for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and has been used to treat kidney problems, bladder stone and urinary tract infection.

The Citronella (Cymbopogon nardus) can also be found here. The essential oil extracted from this plant is often used as an insect repellent, and also applied externally for its anti-fungal properties.

The Cotton Rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) is a type of hibiscus, which interesting has white flowers in the morning, but the colour slowly changes to pink in the late morning, and eventually to red in the evening and the next day. The flowers and leaves are used in Chinese medicine to expel phlegm and treat inflammation and snakebites.

Within the compound is a small gateway, which leads to what we call the "Secret Garden". Unlike the Herbal Garden which has medicinal plants, this garden showcases food plants instead.

By the sides of the gate way are several Garlic Vines (Mansoa alliacea) with showy purple flowers. The leaves have a garlic-like small and taste, and powdered leaves are used in cooking and also made into a tea.

There is a small patch of Toothache Plants (Acmella oleracea) here. This plant got its name from its numbing effect when the flowers or leaves are chewed, due to an analgesic agent in the plant. Not only is it used to treat toothache, it has some antibacterial properties as well. The leaves are used to add flavours salads, or eaten on its own as a vegetable when they lose the numbing effect after cooking.

There are a few Pomelo (Citrus maxima) trees, and emit a lovely fragrance when they are flowering. The fruits are eaten raw, after the thick skins are removed.

Climbing on a shelter over a well are some vines of the Passion Fruit (Passiflora laurifolia), also known as Buah Susu ("millk fruit") in Malay. The fruits are eaten fresh, or used in drinks and desserts.

The Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a hibiscus with pretty pinkish flowers with bright red fleshy calyx. The calyx enlarges as the fruit matures, and can be collected and made into jam or boiled to be made into a red-coloured hibiscus tea. The leaves are sometimes eaten as a vegetable.

Some Lady's Fingers (Abelmoschus esculentus) are also planted here. And unfortunately, the grasshoppers love them too!

The Torch Ginger (Etlingera elatior) is a huge species of ginger, and the flower buds are used in various local dishes, such as "Rojak", fried rice or fish curry.

The Lipstick Tree (Bixa orellana) bears rambutan-like fruits, but they are not edible. The seeds, on the other hand, can be made into a paste or powder (yellowish-orange in colour) for flavouring and colouring food. Extracts from the seeds have been used to dye cloths and even applied to the body and lips as body paints, and hence the common name "lipstick tree".

The Belimbing (Averrhoa bilimbi) is a small tree bearing sour fruits, which can be eaten fresh, cooked or dried.

The Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is the biggest fruit in the world, with some fruits weighing as much as 50kg. The flesh wrapping the seeds can be eaten fresh, while the seeds can be eaten after boiling in saltwater. Young fruits can also be eaten as a vegetable.

Pulau Ubin used to have a few Coffee (Coffea arabica) plantations, and cuttings from the old trees have been planted along the Sensory Trail as well. The seeds are processed through several procedures before they are finally roasted, ground and brewed into the much-loved coffee beverage.

The Jasmine (Jasminium sambac) is another commercial crop that was planted on Pulau Ubin last time. The attractive and sweetly fragrant flowers are used ornamental purpose and for making perfumes and jasmine tea.

Together with the Jasmine, several other plants with fragrant flowers are planted around the same area along the trail, including the Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). The flowers open white in colour, but gradually turn yellow, and hence they were also called 金銀花 ("gold silver flower") in Chinese. This plant is traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat fever, headache, cough, thirst, and sore throat.

The Nappy Plant (Claoxylon indicum) can be seen growing wildly along the trail. The large leaves were previously used by locals as nappies for their babies, while young leaves are eaten as a vegetable.

If you have the time to spare, you can venture beyond the cultivated area and follow the trail into a small patch secondary forest. You will be walking under the canopy for this part of the trail.

Senduduk (Melastoma malabathricum)
The Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum) can also be seen growing wildly along the trail. The seeds of this plant are used to produce a black dye, the roots, a pink dye. Both the fruits and the leaves of this plant can be eaten, though the fruits stain the tongue black (hence "melastoma", which means "black mouth"). While the leaves are edible, you should not eat too much, as they are also used to treat diarrhoea - in other words, there is the risk of getting constipation if too much is consumed.

Fishtail Palm (Caryota mitis)
The Fishtail Palm (Caryota mitis), a native secondary forest palm, is also common here. It got its name from the shape of its leaflets, which resemble fishtails with some imagination. Interestingly, this palm starts fruiting near the top of the tree, and then subsequently fruits lower down. Eventually, it will start fruiting near the base of the tree, after which it will die. Most parts of the palm contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals though, and can cause severe swelling when touched.

Great Morinda (Morinda citrifolia)
The Great Morinda (Morinda citrifolia) was previously cultivated by the villagers here, and many of them can still be found along the trail. Also called noni, the fruit has a strong smell and bitter taste, and is consumed either cooked or raw. Some people believe the juice to be highly nutritious, but so far studies done on the fruit have not produced any conclusive results on its health benefits. A yellowish dye can extracted from its roots.

Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
There used to be a small Coconut (Cocos nucifera) plantation along the trail and many of them are still growing well. The Coconut Palm is a plant of numerous uses. The coconut meat in the fruit can be eaten, while the coconut milk squeezed from the meat can be used in curries and various cuisines. Coconut water, from the fruit, is a refreshing drink and coconut oil extracted from the meat can be used for cooking. The sap derived from incising the flower clusters can be fermented and made into wine. The dried husk can be used for fuel and as a fire starter.

Eventually you will reach a more open area, where there is a mixture of mangrove, coastal and secondary forest plants along the trail.

Sea Hibiscus (Talipariti tiliaceum)
The Sea Hibiscus (Talipariti tiliaceum) can be found here too. It is a common coastal tree with heart-shaped leaves. The flowers are yellow, turning orange or red towards the end of the day, and will be shed usually by the next day. The fibre from the bark is used to make ropes and caulk boats.

Sea Gutta (Pouteria obovata)
The Sea Gutta (Pouteria obovata) can also be found here. The leaves exude a white sap when broken. The wood is sometimes used to make furniture, but is not very durable.

Paku midung (Stenochlaena palustris)
Keep a lookout for the huge patches of Paku Midung (Stenochlaena palustris) though. This ground fern can form extensive cover over the ground or climb up trees. The stem can be made into a durable rope, and young leaves are eaten as a vegetable.

Bakau Putih (Bruguiera cylindrica)
One of the most common mangrove trees in Singapore, Bakau Putih (Bruguiera cylindrica), can be seen here. Like the other Bruguiera species, it has exposed kneed roots. Bruguiera mangrove trees demonstrate vivipary, a condition whereby the young plant within the seed grows first to break through the seed coat then out of the fruit wall while still attached to the parent plant. Since the mangrove habitat is a very harsh environment, these plants have adapted such that the parent plants prepare their young as much as possible to increase their chances of survival.

Api-api Putih (Avicennia alba)
The Api-api (Avicennia alba.), another common mangrove tree, is also found here. "Api-api" means "fire-fire" or "firefly" in Malay, as some Avicennia species are noted to attract fireflies.

The trail runs along the side of a tidal river, and more mangrove plants can be found here.

Tumu Putih (Bruguiera sexangula)
The Tumu Putih (Bruguiera sexangula), a critically endangered mangrove tree, can be seen here. The wood of this tree is used for firewood, poles and making charcoal, while the fruit is boiled and eaten as a vegetable.

Gedabu (Sonneratia ovata)
The Gedabu (Sonneratia ovata), another rare mangrove tree, is also found here. The wood of this tree is used for firewood, and the fruit is eaten by locals, and hence the tree is often cultivated in Malay villages.

Bakau Pasir (Rhizophora stylosa)
Other mangrove trees found here include the Bakau Pasir (Rhizophora stylosa) with its prop roots and stilt root. The seedlings are eaten fresh, while the wood can be made into charcoal.

Along the trail, there were also a few disused prawn ponds that were converted into fresh water ponds, and several water plants can be seen along the edges.

Here, you can see the Water Horn Fern (Ceratopteris thalictroides) growing among the other water plants. This plant is eaten as a vegetable in some places, and is also widely planted as an aquarium plant.

Piai Raya (Acrostichum aureum)
The Piai Raya (Acrostichum aureum), a fern found both in the mangroves and in fresh water marshes, can be seen at the edges of the pond too. This fern can grow as tall as 4m, and prefers sunny sites. Like other ferns, they reproduce from spores, and large sporangia cover the undersides of fertile fronds.

You will eventually reach the main road, Jalan Ubin, with kampong trees and kampong houses on both sides of the road.

You can find the Cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree here, and this is the tree that you get your chocolate from! The seeds of this plant are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate.

Many Durian (Durio spp.) trees are planted by the villagers here, though you would have already seen many in the Secret Garden earlier. If you come in the middle of the year or the beginning of the year, you may even see the fruits hanging from the branches!

As mentioned earlier, the plants are the highlights of this trail, but you can usually find a few animals as well.

Keep a lookout for the insects on the plants, including moths, dragonflies, butterflies, beetles and bugs.

There are usually several interesting spiders along the way as well!

On a sunny day, lizards, such as he Malayan Water Monitor (Varanus salvator) can be easily seen.

And not to forget the birds! If any of the trees are fruiting, keep a lookout for frugivorous birds like the Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans) above.

By the sides of the river, water birds, such as the Striated Heron (Butorides striata) may be seen.

And usually, raptors such as this White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) can be seen soaring above every now and then.

If you are lucky, you may even chance upon migratory birds, including some really rare visitors such as this Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia)!

Mammals wise, you can sometimes see the Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and Wild Boars (Sus scrofa). Please do not feed these animals as well if you see them. Once they have become more dependent on human for food, they may become more aggressive and even attack people for food. If we leave them alone, they will leave you alone too.

The trail eventually ends in Ubin Town, where you can get a cold drink, have some refreshing coconuts, or eat at one of the seafood restaurants.

The Sensory Trail indeed makes a very easy and enjoyable walk, and especially useful for introducing the original kampong lifestyle to children, or for adults to refresh their memories of their kampong days.

No comments: