SINGAPORE — In 1907 a tiger was discovered hiding beneath the billiard table in the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel. Probably. Some have questioned the tiger’s authenticity. Particularly if they have visited the Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar. It is on the second and third floor. Not traditional tiger country.
But . . . The Johor Straight that separates Singapore Island from peninsular Malaysia is narrow. Tigers did swim across to raise cubs in Singapore’s forested hills. Wild elephants swam across too, the latest excursion occurring as recently as 1990. Even today, and this is the point, an estuarine crocodile, the largest reptile on earth, turns up from time to time.
Singapore has a wild side. You just need to look.
In deference to history we began our search in Raffles Hotel’s lofty Billiards Bar. There we assembled maps, books, the obligatory Singapore Sling (Raffles’ contribution to the cocktail culture) and a Tiger, (A good local beer brand, not Panthera tigris). As we browsed through Kelvin Lim’s “Amphibians and Reptiles” and Peter Ng’s “Threatened Animals,” something queer and atmospheric occurred. Perhaps it was the elegant colonial furnishings, the high ceiling fans turning slowly overhead, and the fruity British accents drifting lazily in through the open French windows from the veranda. Or maybe it was the dim emptiness of the place. Or the Tiger beer. Whatever. The years fell away.
It could be 1942 here, I thought. General Yamashita’s bicycle army pushing south from Khota Baru toward the holocausts of Changi and the Burma railroad. Or the 1920s — pink gins with planters. Noel Coward tinkling away on the piano — Was there a piano ? — I craned my neck. The place was so large it was hard to tell.
Or it could be 1907, when tigers abounded. I felt, most distinctly, the presence of ghosts. And I was suddenly sure that this place was the Long Bar — not the cheerful, “it’s traditional to throw peanut shells on the floor” watering hole upstairs and across the tropical gardens.
The waiter confirmed my sudden insight. I checked under the billiard tables. Nothing. Darn. The ghosts receded. But as we left I nodded acknowledgment to Somerset Maugham’s assessment: “Raffles stands for all the fables of the East.”
Morning came and with it a taxi to Bukit Timah, Singapore’s National Park, “once plagued by man-eating tigers” according to Ng. This was the tiger cubbing habitat in days past. No tigers now. The last was shot in 1930. But the place still has unquestionable mystique. It is Singapore’s last original forest cover, gazetted as a forest reserve by the far-sighted Nathaniel Cantley, superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, back in 1884.
The main paths through Bukit Timah are good places to spot long-tailed macaque troupes and Singapore joggers. Easily distinguished by their distended red faces, Singapore joggers are most practically photographed on uphill stretches or when feigning death at territorially marked “rest points.” Their call is a distinctive, hacking “Urgh. Hyugh. Urrr.”
On the side paths, there is considerably less large primate activity. “Birds are particularly active in the early morning, and that means sunrise,” advises the excellent “Guide to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.”
“Later in the day it is too hot for most creatures and, like you, they seek shady hiding places.” This is about the only comment the book makes that I urgently disagree with. Sunrise is when I want a shady hiding place. By high noon, I am fully active.
So too are some of Bukit Timah’s species. You won’t see the reclusive pangolins (scaly anteaters), civets, or flying lemurs. The mouse deer that the official Singapore Guide advises visitors “is waiting to be discovered,” may well be extinct, so I wouldn’t, if I were you, exert myself mousedeer spotting.
But the insects put on a show: stick insects, large millipedes (all millipedes are vegetarian and harmless), solitary giant forest ants (also harmless). There’s a fair amount of reptile life, too: sun lizards, and the very occasional, rapidly receding snake. Tree shrews, actually squirrel-sized primates, may have been spotted. Or they might have been tree shrew-sized squirrels. Rather tricky to tell them apart.
Tread softly, walk slowly, and Bukit Timah rewards you. Make time for the plants. Apparently, more species occur in this 164 hectare reserve than in the entire north American continent. And it is the only rainforest within city limits this side of Rio de Janeiro.
We left Bukit Timah late and thoughtful. Ng has this to say, “When I was a student in the 1960s, neighbors used to show me giant squirrels, leopard cats, pangolins and civet cats they had trapped in Bukit Timah. Today this memory haunts me. Especially when the giant squirrel, with perhaps less than 10 individuals, is almost certainly doomed to extinction.”
The ecological importance of Bukit Timah is such that if it and the Nee Soon swamp forest were destroyed (which they won’t be), Singapore would lose 30 percent of its mammal species, 45 percent of its bird species and 70 percent of its freshwater fish.
Sungei Buloh, Singapore’s first designated wetlands nature reserve, is not yet a household name, but for Singapore wildlife (particularly birds) its 87 hectares of mangroves, swamp forest and shrimp ponds are spectacular. Your taxi driver will probably get lost too, so tell him, “It’s on the other side of the Kranji Reservoir. Near the BBC Asia relay station. Out where all the cemeteries are. And the garden centers. That quiet, sleepy part of Singapore, facing Johor across the Straight.”
When that doesn’t help, you can suggest he phone 793-7377. The Sungei Buloh folks will guide him in to what for many Singaporeans is still undiscovered territory.
Halfbeaks are long, pencil-thin fish. There are literally millions of them in the creeks at Sungei Buloh. Walkways lead through the mangrove stands, there is a first class information center, many well situated bird hides and 12 separate walking routes. The longest is 7 km. One can see horseshoe crabs trundling through the mud at low tide. An encounter with a 3.4- meter-long dugong or sea cow is unlikely, but it shouldn’t stop you looking.
It was in Sungei Buloh that I had my second Singapore brush with the supernatural — or so I first thought. Mist licked the mangrove roots, the clouds were low and threatening, and through the tangled trees drifted a woman, all in flowing white.
This, on closer inspection, proved to be a Sungei Buloh phenomenon known as “the wedding nature photo”: brides and grooms are brought out by professional photographers who then take bizarre photos. The groom pretending to run through the swamp forest with a bouquet and a cheesy grin while his bride-to-be simpers prettily among the mudskippers. The pair of them mincing through the mangroves. And so on.
But, hey, why not? There are many sillier ways to get photographed on one’s wedding day.