SINGAPORE: It started off with a five-kilometre walk around the neighbourhood to stay active during the “circuit breaker” period earlier in the year.
Slowly, the distance doubled as Ms Coreen Wong began exploring further through the park connectors and embarking on trails at nature spots like the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
“I’m quite an active person and I used to travel a lot, mostly diving trips. But now that I’m grounded in Singapore, the only way for me to take a breather is to go out for a walk,” she said.
Ms Wong has been going a step further these days. Together with two friends, she is attempting to complete a round-the-island journey of about 150km over five 10-hour walks this month.
To add some fun to the long walks, the trio came up with a “scavenger hunt” and made their own game cards.
“We pretend that we are hunting for ‘monsters’ and we’ll need to reach checkpoints to capture all of them,” the jovial 44-year-old said with a chuckle.
“So we picked 24 places of interests – it can be a landmark or just a place with a toilet to rest – and created 24 ‘monsters’. This is more for us to have some fun along the way and keep us going, especially at the 25km-mark where you’ll feel especially lethargic,” she added.
Ms Wong is not alone in turning to long walks or hikes around Singapore to satisfy their wanderlust or thirst for adventure, with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting trips abroad.
For Ms Sara Joseph, the past few months have been a “discovery” of the country’s nature spots when she visited the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Central Catchment area for the first time.
“I’m quite embarrassed to say that before this, I’ve never been much of an explorer in my own country,” she told CNA while on a walk around MacRitchie Reservoir.
While she would visit nature spots when overseas, the 27-year-old said she “never had the urge” to do the same back home. Until she went on a walk in MacRitchie Reservoir Park a few months back.
The walk in the lush surrounds of the reservoir was a “much-needed change in scenery” to clear her mind after feeling burnt out from work, said Ms Joseph, adding that she has made it a point to try out the other trails since then.
WILD ABOUT NATURE
The National Parks Board (NParks) said visits to the country’s parks, gardens and nature reserves have seen a “significant increase” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, for instance, received 75,000 visitors in November, up from 38,000 during the circuit breaker in April and more than double the average of 33,000 for November over the past few years.
Other nature spots that keep track of visitor numbers have seen similar trends.
Sightseers at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve rose from 5,000 in April to 33,000 last month, while Pulau Ubin saw a jump from 5,700 to 47,000 over the same period.
Compared with past Novembers, the number of visitors at both locations have tripled and nearly doubled, respectively.
Correspondingly, related hobby groups on Facebook have seen a spike in new members.
A women-only group called HERs Hiking, Exercising and Running Singapore now has about 3,500 members, up from 2,000 in April, said founder and moderator Ms Felicia Janecek. Posts in the Facebook group showed that quite a number are attempting long walks or hikes in Singapore for the first time, and are looking for like-minded individuals or advice on how to get started.
Another called the Singapore Hikers Facebook group, which started in early-2018, saw an even larger jump – from roughly 2,000 members in June to almost 40,000 this month.
The pandemic has thrown up an opportunity for Singaporeans to explore the country’s nature spots, which are now “more vibrant” with a mixture of old and new trails, said the group’s founder Joven Chiew.
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More are also signing up for nature tours.
Travel activities and services booking site Klook said it noted a “rising trend” of Singaporeans taking to nature experiences when ferry services to the country’s Southern islands became one of its most popular offerings. Ferry bookings were up eight folds in November versus July.
Other activities like mangrove kayaking and kelong tours, are seeing more interest as well. To cater to increasing demand, Klook said it has since added more than 30 new nature tour-related products.
The Untamed Paths, which offers local wildlife tours, is fully booked for December. It has about 16 trips lined up this month as bookings picked up gradually since August, said its owner Dennis Chan.
Most of the participants are new to such tours and a majority are parents keen on activities that are “interesting and enriching” for their children, added Mr Chan who started the eco-exploration company in April with the aim of providing “a crash course” on the wildlife here.
“We observe from a safe distance and we will help you to understand their habitat, their characteristics like what they eat and whether they are under threat.
“Not many people know about the local wildlife and I don’t think there was an avenue for anyone interested to get started on,” added the 26-year-old, whose knowledge came from years of roaming about the local forests on his own. “There’s definitely more interest now that everyone can’t travel.”
But with more embracing nature, some old-timers are finding their favourite spots much more crowded these days.
“We used to be able to find a parking lot if we reach Bukit Timah at around 7am or 7.15am but these days even if you reach before 7am, the carpark is full,” said retiree Lim Heng Toh who has made walks at the nature reserve part of his Sunday morning routine for many years now.
The 68-year-old has since ventured out to other alternatives, like Lower Pierce Reservoir Park.
“These walks are good relaxation time for me and my wife. More Singaporeans are heading out to the nature these days, and I think it’s good. We always go overseas to look for what we call scenic nature places but now we know, we have them in Singapore too.
“The only thing is that sometimes there are fairly big groups that occupy the entire place, or people can get carried away and start speaking very loudly,” he said.
Others have spotted more litter, ranging from tissue paper, wet wipes, plastic bottles and bags.
Avid hiker Lina R, who has the habit of picking up trash while hiking, said: “We used to carry around one small bag for litter if we see any, and it used to be only sweet wrappers. We need a bigger bag now.”
Mr Lee Yung Ming echoed that, although the mountain bike instructor who frequents the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Chestnut Nature Park pointed out that the littering problem seemed to have improved of late.
“I’ve seen groups going around with big trash bags to pick up litter over the past few weeks. Not just that, I think all the posts about litter on social media are making people more conscious,” he said.
Those who CNA spoke with have also noticed some nature trails being “more worn out” or “widened”.
But a bigger issue lies with eager hikers deviating from designated paths to make their own. Some concerned hikers have taken to Facebook groups like the Singapore Hikers, to urge people to stay on well-trodden trails.
Said Mr Lee: “There seems to be a little bit of a problem from overuse … so certain trails (in Bukit Timah) have become more worn out with vegetation on the sides being trampled on.”
Ms Lina R has observed plants and tree branches being “cut” or broken as new paths are being explored, or even graffiti.
“It’s a mixed feeling. It’s nice to see more people being outdoors but it can get a bit too crowded,” she said.
“But it is also sad when people don’t care about the environment. Some see exercise or Instagram photos as their main goal for hiking, but they forget that hiking connects one with nature and you need to take care of it.”
NParks said with the increase in visitor numbers, more maintenance was needed for boardwalks and designated trails to ensure public safety and to reduce the likelihood of people venturing off these trails.
It has also installed more railings along some trails, as well as reminder signs at nature reserves and parks.
But it noted that there has not been an increase in people straying off designated trails.
“While there have been more visitors in our parks, gardens and nature reserves in Phase 2, we are encouraged to see that most continue to practise good trail etiquette, including staying on designated trails,” it told CNA, noting that it has taken enforcement action on about 140 people for going off trails a year for the past five years.
Anyone caught doing so in the nature reserves may be liable to a fine of up to S$2,000.
Meanwhile, NParks said it has been deploying more safe distancing enforcement officers and safe distancing ambassadors at green spaces with high visitorship levels.
“Our parks, gardens and nature reserves are for all to enjoy. We encourage all visitors to be considerate of others and the environment while enjoying these areas,” it said.
DO’S AND DON’TS AT NATURE SPOTS
NParks and nature lovers on how to enjoy the green spaces in a responsible manner:
- Keep your volume down: Loud chatter ruins the peace and serenity of these nature spots, and scares off small animals. Appreciate the sound of nature and respect other park goers.
- Stay on the trails: The country’s nature reserves house a diverse range of flora and fauna, including critically endangered ones. Going off designated trails could cause damage to the forest floors or the trampling of plant saplings, some of which could be endangered.
Even if the damage is not immediately obvious, the incremental effects will result in the failure of vegetation and leave behind heavily compacted ground that may take a long time to recover, if at all.
“Each visitor has a part to play in ensuring that the areas beside the paths or trails are not impacted by them,” NParks said.
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- Don’t litter: Litter spoils the beauty of the nature spots and may be harmful to the animals. Remember: “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints”.
- No feeding: Feeding alters the natural behaviour of wildlife and habituates a reliance on humans for an easy source of food. This could mean an “increased propensity to approach humans” and may lead to animals displaying aggressive behavior or venturing into urban areas, said NParks.
Giving wildlife processed foods can also cause health problems to the animals, or cause them to lose their natural foraging skills.
In addition, many animals fulfill ecological roles such as pollinators and seed dispersers. These processes are disrupted when they rely on humans for food.
The best practice is to appreciate and observe all animals from a distance.