SINGAPORE: The soft crunch of footsteps on fallen leaves, the twitter of birds and the occasional rustling of branches as long-tailed macaques hop from tree to tree.
This is the soundtrack of 74-year-old Mathias Chay’s regular morning hikes around MacRitchie Reservoir.
“I appreciate the natural voices of nature. It calms you down,” said the veteran hiker, who walks 12km to 13km several times a week.
These sounds have remained largely unchanged since Mr Chay fell in love with hiking more than 40 years ago.
But heading into nature these days has otherwise become a “tremendously” different experience for him.
What used to be narrow, rugged paths – sometimes overrun with vegetation – have turned into wider, more well-formed trails, he said.
Over the decades, he has also found himself jostling with a growing number of visitors on these routes.
He added: "There were also not many signboards (in the past), so it was very easy (to get lost) if you were not careful."
The transformation in hiking infrastructure he has witnessed continues to take place across the country today.
Just a few weeks ago, a central stretch of the 24km Rail Corridor reopened with improved accessibility.
Shortly before that, the National Parks Board (NParks) announced it would be curating four more island wide routes, including a 62km route from Changi to Tuas that will be Singapore’s longest cross-island trail.
Overall, there will be about 360km of island wide recreational routes by 2030.
This complements Singapore’s ambitious goals of establishing 500km of park connectors by then too.
Such moves, in line with the country’s vision to be a “City in Nature”, are fertile ground for an interest in hiking to flourish.
Yet, given how commonplace the activity has already become, it might be hard to imagine that hiking on the island was once unheard of.
THE ROOTS OF THE STORY
Singapore has long prized its greenery but this was not always the case.
“A key story is that in the first 50 years of colonial rule, (nearly) the entirety of Singapore was deforested,” said Associate Professor Timothy Barnard from the National University of Singapore’s history department.
“The rural areas of Singapore or the non-urbanised areas … were nature and forests that needed to be used for the purposes of progress and modernity,” he said.
In this case, large-scale deforestation made way for cash crops such as gambier and pepper.
This “devastated” the land, Assoc Prof Barnard said. An 1883 survey showed that only 7 per cent of the island remained forested, according to a site under the National Library.
Shortly after, to mitigate the severity of the situation, one of the first nature reserves was established in Bukit Timah.
Reservoirs were also created with protected nature areas around them, Assoc Prof Barnard said.
But even then, these nature spots were not popular.
“No one really would go: ‘Oh let's go for a walk in the forest’,” joked Assoc Prof Barnard.
“People might go to the forest to go hunting, looking to shoot birds or deer or a tiger … But it was a place you went into with a gun … You didn't go there seeking peace and serenity.”
“So this idea of going in and enjoying nature by observing it for spiritual reasons, or your own mental health – we would say that's a new modern idea,” he said.
Such a change in attitudes only began budding in the century that followed.
THE BEGINNING OF AN ERA
The 1960s marked a key milestone, when greening the island received more attention amid then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of creating a “Garden City”.
By the mid-1970s, the creation of parks had become an additional focus, with a park development programme aiming to provide more recreational spaces and “green lungs” in built-up areas.
The result: between 1975 to March 2014, the area of parks and green spaces grew from 879 ha to 9,707ha, while the number of parks rose from 13 to 330, according to HistorySG.
All this happened in tandem with increasing urbanisation.
“(Green spaces) became an area you went to go to get away from (urban life). It's a place of respite, it’s a getaway,” said Assoc Prof Barnard.
Though this trend began growing around the world after World War II, in Singapore, it “really only took off in the last 20 or 30 years”, he said.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE LANDSCAPE
Today, Singapore has four nature reserves: the ones in Bukit Timah and Central Catchment were declared nature reserves in 1990, while the ones at Sungei Buloh and Labrador were gazetted in 2002.
To safeguard them, NParks has converted more than 350ha of forested area around the reserves into nature parks.
They act as complementary habitats and buffers to protect the nature reserves against the impact of urbanisation and human activities, NParks told CNA.
These parks also help “relieve visitorship pressure”, while allowing visitors to enjoy nature with “minimal disturbance to the more sensitive biodiversity areas” within the reserves, it said.
Other nature experts cited the creation of the Park Connector Network (PCN) as a key development in Singapore’s long-distance hiking scene.
The concept of a PCN, adopted in 1991, aims to link up green areas by capitalising on underused spaces along roads, canals and railway corridors. Today, there are 360km of park connectors.
Surveys by the National Parks Board (NParks) show that the proportion of people visiting the PCN rose from 4 per cent in 2007 to 21.2 per cent in 2017, the agency told CNA.
Another big win for hikers was the establishment of the 24km-long Rail Corridor, a former railway line that was returned to Singapore in 2011.
Experts welcomed having a continuous trail through the island – both for recreation and to support biodiversity.
In 2011, NParks also introduced Singapore's vision to become a "City in a Garden".
This goal would evolve to become a "City in Nature" in 2020, entailing a slew of targets to beef up nature parks, park connectors, nature ways and species recovery plans.
Prominent conservationist Dr Ho Hua Chew attested to the changes in the hiking landscape.
The 75-year-old said that in the past, hikes were usually done within nature reserves, non-urbanised areas like Pulau Ubin, or along cross-country routes – such as from Buangkok to Jalan Kayu, following the Punggol River.
“If you wanted to go on a hike, you had to join (adventurers’ clubs) because these places were rather forested with hardly any humans to be encountered in some stretches.
“You can get lost wandering along these trails or even along the country roads, in areas where farming was being phased out and things can look quite depopulated.”
“But nowadays, the situation is rather different,” he said.
More people are going it alone, without the need for experienced guides due to the accessibility of parks, connectors and green corridors, he said.
Many of these are along or near roads, and pass through some built-up areas so “there is less fear of getting lost or helpless if an accident occurred”, added Dr Ho.
Having more green spaces may not be the only reason people are taking up hiking.
Pandian Parthasarathy, who heads Nature Ramblers under the Nature Society, says he’s seen a marked increase in interest in hiking over the past decade, owing to social media.
“People get interested when their friends start to advertise. They have handphones with cameras, they take pictures, send here, send there - it becomes very popular,” said the 59-year-old.
But perhaps the largest factor that has fuelled interest in hiking as of late: the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Facebook group, Singapore Hikers, had about 2,000 members before Singapore’s Circuit Breaker started last April.
One year on, it now has 72,000 members, said the group’s administrator Joven Chiew.
This parallels the boom in visitors to green spaces.
“Today, weekdays are crowded, weekends are overcrowded,” said Mr Pandian.
NParks told CNA it has seen at least a 50 per cent increase in visitorship across gardens, parks and nature reserves since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve saw more than 700,000 visitors, compared to an annual average of 400,000.
The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve received more than 220,000 visitors, up from the annual average of 110,000, it said.
Last week, social media images showed throngs of hikers along multiple trails, including the newly-reopened Rail Corridor (Central).
Some netizens even likened the crowds to pre-pandemic traffic along the causeway to Johor Bahru.
Authorities responded by deploying over 500 NParks staff to patrol parks, nature reserves and green spaces, said Lim Liang Jim from the National Biodiversity Centre under NParks.
He was speaking in a Facebook video posted by MP Sim Ann (PAP-Holland Bukit Timah).
Mr Lim added that NParks would consider closing off sections of the green space if crowds there become too dense.
CASUAL VISITORS CREATING PROBLEMS FOR NATURE
The boom in newly-inducted hikers is worrying long-time enthusiasts.
Issues like littering have worsened, according to Mr Pandian, who said he has seen diapers strewn about in nature reserves.
“That is really a painful thing … I can show you all kinds of treasures from cigarette butts, which you should not be seeing: water bottles, sweet wrappers, tissues,” he said.
“I feel a bit sad because those people who go there - I don't think they love nature, but they go there for the purpose of saying: ‘I've been to a nature walk.’”
Seasoned hiker Mr Chay says another big problem is the noise pollution – be it from someone blasting music on a trail, or large groups talking loudly.
“Having more (hikers) is actually okay, but it’s the habits they bring with them. They treat it like a mall,” he said.
Many are also unaware of proper hiking etiquette, Mr Chay noted.
“It’s just like traffic rules. You should keep to your left all the time. And when you want to overtake, make sure it’s clear, then you say, ‘On your right.’”
In addition, some called out the irony in how many visitors appear to only be interested in hiking on man-made trails.
“We are so urbanised, we don’t want to get dirty. Singaporeans like palatable nature, not real nature,” said Mr Pandian.
This could contribute to a lack of understanding about the sanctity of natural spaces, he reasoned.
At the same time, adventure seekers who go off curated trails could be causing trouble.
This is so especially in nature reserves – where forest floors next to paths could be damaged, while human activity could affect animal movement or lead to plant saplings being trampled on, NParks said.
“Each visitor has a part to play in ensuring that the areas beside the paths or trails are not impacted by them.
“While the damage may not be immediately obvious, the incremental effects will result in the failure of vegetation leaving behind heavily compacted ground which may take a long time to recover, if at all,” NParks said.
But it notes that while there have been more visitors to green spaces, “most continue to practice good trail etiquette”, including staying on designated trails.
NParks encouraged visitors to adhere to rules and signs, while egging on others to do the same.
TO CULTIVATE THIS INTEREST, OR PRUNE IT?
Nature enthusiasts are now grappling with the tension between promoting an interest in nature and protecting it.
On one hand, Assoc Prof Barnard suggests: “The best thing that can be done to these areas is that we don't go in there."
He added that park facilities can be seen as a "manifestation of Singapore's larger love of infrastructure and progress placed upon nature”.
Yet, there is good that comes out of having more people interact with nature.
“Im half-half on this,” said Mr Pandian. “The more people there are walking, the more people tend to appreciate so at least we can protect (the forests).”
“Out of 10 who goes in there, one is just mischievous and just wants to be different from the nine.
“Whatever we can do is educate them,” he said.
Mr Chay echoed this, suggesting a national campaign on park etiquette.
MORE TRAILS ON THE CARDS
Social graces will have to keep up, especially as Singapore charges ahead with plans to achieve its "City in Nature" vision, experts said.
Four more island wide trails and corridors will be done by 2030.
Looking ahead to how and where more trails could be built in future, NParks said that in planning, it “tries to incorporate existing trails into the development instead of creating new ones so as to minimise disturbance to wildlife and their habitats”.
Other considerations include developing trails that will allow visitors to learn more about our native flora and fauna, it said.
It also considers vegetation types. “To avoid human-wildlife conflicts, trails will be located away from vegetation or native trees that are food sources to wildlife,” it said.
Narrower trails measuring 1.2m, could be used to encourage people to walk in a single file, also leading them to keep their noise levels down.
On the other hand, broader nature trails double the width are better-suited for urban areas or for emergency access, it added.
Ultimately, experts welcome the addition of more hiking trails.
“This will definitely help Singaporeans to get to know their country more in their leisure times and enjoy the remote corners of our lovely countryside.
“(It will also) perhaps quell, to some extent, the hankering for the exotic landscapes in other countries and instill a greater love for their own country,” said Dr Ho.
He added that there is plenty of untapped potential and space for more trails, but offered some advice.
To make long-distance trails and park connectors “more interesting and exciting”, Dr Ho believes they should be routed away from roads, highways or along canals running alongside an HDB estate.
Such routes do not provide an escape from concrete urban settings or noise and pollution from vehicles, he said, adding that some also lack greenery for shade or nature appreciation.
He raised examples of the long Coastal Park Connector from the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to the Changi Ferry Terminal.
READ: Lornie Nature Corridor opens as rewilding plan launched to introduce more naturalistic landscapes
There would be a lot more potential for exciting cross-island routes, Dr Ho said, “if land-owning authorities like the military or the (Singapore Land Authority) can open up and share their space in non-sensitive zones, which usually have extensive wooded landscape and hills and uncanalised streams with the presence of many wildlife”.
“The trails don’t have to intrude too much into these officially prohibited areas but can just be routed along the boundary zone, but within areas that are wooded that can provide shade, as well as crossing hills and natural streams or ponds for opportunities for interesting contact with wildlife.”
He also suggested providing camping facilities for those making long-distance trips, preferably in established parks where there are also toilets.
“This will be an added incentive to the hiking and cycling adventure created by these long-distance park-connectors,” he said.
While these will be exciting additions, nature lovers like Mr Pandian say they’re still enamoured by current routes.
“Every time I walk the same trail over and over again, I see something different … Sometimes the insects will appear differently, or I’ll see some animal I've not seen before.
“I love the trails. I feel part of it,” said Mr Pandian.