12 July 2011

Trekking along the Choo-Choo Corridor

Trekking along the Choo-Choo Corridor
A Morning Walk on a future green link in urban Singapore

0500 hrs : The sharp ringtone of my iPhone alarm snapped me out of my blissful slumber as I muttered something unprintable, and reached for the "Snooze" button. I took a peek at the time through my sleep-deprived eyes, and it was 5:00am! A rather unearthly hour for a butterfly enthusiast, as butterflies, as most of us who watch them will know, would also be fast asleep like most of us.

A shot for the album - with BG Tan Chuan Jin along the Rail Corridor

Earlier in the week, I received an email from the Ministry of National Development to invite me to join the Minister of State, BG Tan Chuan Jin, on his walk on the Rail/Green Corridor - the railway track that used to belong to Malaysia. This rail corridor, totalling some 173Ha and stretching 24km from Tg Pagar to Woodlands, ceased functioning on 1 Jul 2011 and the land vested to Singapore after a long bilateral exchange and the agreement was finally settled.

It was still very dark when I got to the meeting point at 5:50am

0515 hrs : I got up and made myself a hot cuppa and had a quick breakfast before gearing up. I headed out for the meeting point at Silat Estate in Bukit Merah. It was still dark, and driving on our usually busy Singapore roads was a breeze at this time of the day. As I was unfamiliar with the area where we were supposed to meet, I decided to give myself a bit more time to get there and look for a carpark.

Some early birds waiting for the main group to assemble

0540 hrs : I parked at a Multi-Storey carpark, tore the requisite parking coupons and then took a brisk walk to the meeting point. The cool morning air and light breeze were refreshing and energising! I must remind myself to get up earlier to do this (but then again, getting up at 5am isn't something that I look forward to). When I got to the meeting point, there were already quite a few people there, and I met some friends from URA, MND, NParks and NSS.

This was the view at the start of the trek - looking towards the KTM railway line

0620 hrs : After a short wait, the group was almost 30-40 strong (just my estimate, as it was still dark, and my brain was supposed to be still asleep!). Led by BG Tan, the group set off into the darkness. Fortunately, there was just enough light from the street lamps and adjacent buildings to light up the railway track. My iPhone clock read 6:25am as the group hit the tracks and started walking on the gravelly trail.

Off into the darkness!

0630 hrs : There was the usual laughter and banter amongst friends and new-found acquaintances and the group was in high spirits. BG Tan zoomed off at SAF Road March pace, leaving the less fit amongst us (including yours truly) huffing and puffing behind. Fortunately, he eased off his pace and spent some time taking photos with his D700 (one up for Nikon!), and walking back to make sure that all the stragglers moved along.

We walked in the dim lighting of the street lights and nearby apartments as dawn was breaking

0645 hrs : As we pounded the loose gravel and skipped on the railway track sleepers, the natural scenery that unfolded was inspiring. The lush greenery that bounded both sides of the track offered a visual relief from the surroundings, and the morning air was alive with birds singing. My favourite butterflies however, were obviously still fast asleep.

Morning has broken!

0655 am : Just before 7:00am, the morning light took on a bluish pall, washing everything in its wake an unnatural pale mauve. The air was still, and the infamous tropical humidity started to take effect on the group. We passed the HDB flats at Bukit Merah, and walked briskly along the tracks, never far from the drone of the morning traffic that was beginning to build up.

Under the Queensway viaduct.

0720 hrs : A curve to right, and we passed Alexandra Hospital - an area that is most familiar to me (and the butterflies). A little further, and we were under the wide expanse of the undercroft of the Queensway viaduct. In the semi-darkness, I could hear crickets scurrying somewhere amongst the loose gravel.

Block 55, Commonwealth Drive

0740 hrs : Pressing on, we could see an Indian temple on the right (Sri Muneeswaran Temple) and other regious buildings. A little further, Block 55, Commonwealth Drive with its eye-catching colour, dominated the vista along the track. The rolling fields and lush greenery of Wessex Estate embraced the few bungalows on the left of the track.

Little house on the prairie?

0800 hrs : A short distance away, we were walking parallel to Tanglin Halt Road, and our first "pit-stop" at the Buona Vista viaduct came into view. Below the viaduct, we could see some "underground creativity" at work. Graffiti artists had left some of their signature work along the walls of the viaduct, totally obscured from public view. The "artwork" had me wondering if the authors were the same as those who had, not long ago, vandalised some MRT trains!

Having a break under the Buona Vista viaduct. Graffiti or Art?

0815 hrs : After a quick rest, the group pushed on, passing the backyards of some nice bungalows that probably housed the rich and famous. The homeowners took full advantage of the borrowed views that the open rail tracks offered, some even appearing to encroach onto the side tables of the tracks for their own use! I wonder if any of these homeowners are having problems sleeping, without the rumble and tumble of the KTM trains passing just a few metres away from their windows daily.

Two big bungalows along the trail

0830 hrs : Moving past the Holland Road area, we reached a nice green patch of forest as the rail track straightened out, heading towards the Bukit Timah Station. Already there were many others on the track, young and old, on two feet and on wheels, out and about on this Saturday morning.

0845 hrs : As the government officially announced that most parts of the rail corridor will be off-limits to the public, to facilitate work on the tracks, I presume that many Singaporean residents took the opportunity to take a last look at a piece of Singapore's (and Malaysia's) history.

Visitors from all walks of life - on two legs, four legs and on wheels!

The Bukit Timah Railway Station

0900 hrs : The little solitary single-storeyed building that was the Bukit Timah Station came into view, as the track split and widened into three different tracks. There was a crowd around the whole area, making me wonder where they all came from!

BG Tan being interviewed by the Media, and surrounded by well-wishers and curious onlookers

A shot with Dr Shawn Lum, President of NSS. A most decent and likeable chap, unlike some unsavoury characters that we know from a certain interest group in NSS.

0915 hrs : The ChannelNewsAsia crew that was following us interviewed the people around, and very soon, there was a crowd around BG Tan as he spoke to the journalists and mingled with the largely Singaporean crowd. I recognised a few familiar faces amongst the nature photographers, toting their professional equipment and shooting everything that they considered worth digitally recording for posterity.

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?

1000 hrs : A little further, we crossed one of the iron bridges over Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads. The typical black-painted bridge is one of many along the route. There was a small crowd walking to and fro, taking photos and just enjoying the higher vantage point over the busy road.

BCA won't like the safety provisions on this bridge, for sure!

1010 hrs : I remarked to my friend from URA that the authorities would have concern at the level of safety (or lack thereof) on this bridge. The "railings" that stood between the curious visitors and a 5m drop onto two major roads was just a simple strand of barbed wire!

BG Tan (in blue) chatting with friends

10:30 hrs : The compass on my iPhone read NorthEast as we marched off over Bukit Timah Road, and towards our midway lunch stop. After crossing Bt Timah Road, we headed on towards Rifle Range Road. We moved onto a straight track, and I remember a veteran walker who was with us, telling me that the track ran straight for 2km along this stretch. The backyards of the condominiums along Upper Bukit Timah Road were on our left, as we walked on growling tummies towards the last lap of the first half of BG Tan's walk.

A straight 2km stretch of the rail track

This was a lush area, with the greenery of Bt Timah Nature Reserve on the right of the track, and I was beginning to see quite a few butterflies flying around, now that the weather is warmer and they have woken up. But the species were still mainly the urban common ones like the Chocolate Pansy, Striped Albatross, Psyche, Grass Yellows and several Bush Browns.

Makeshift Malaysian-style retaining wall? Using pieces of steel to hold up some planks. I wonder who the Professional Engineer who had to sign for this wall!

Not long after, we saw the tiled roofs of the single-storey buildings of the Rail Mall shops and we knew that it was the end of the first leg of this 24 km walk! A group of us had lunch at Cafe Epicurious and had the opportunity to chat with BG Tan.

Evidence of a "rail kill". This looks like a dog that was run over by a train, leaving a skeleton that was cut in half and a bit of fur left around the tracks. We also saw the skeletons of a dead cat, snake and even a turtle!

After a much needed rest and lunch, BG Tan and about 7 others from the original group continued on their way to Kranji and to the end of the Rail Corridor, whilst the rest of us less fit people hopped on to the chartered bus and headed back to the starting point at Silat Estate to collect our cars.

As for butterflies, a nature link like the Rail Corridor is something that would be useful, like many of NParks' Park Connectors that have been created. Correct planting in relation to the habitats and catchment areas where butterflies can breed, can certainly bring more species into the 24km line, particularly in the areas north of Queenstown.

A rustic kampung-like atmosphere complete with a zinc-roofed shack along the railway track

So what's coming round the bend for this Rail Corridor?

All in all, it was an interesting walk and a new perspective from the railway tracks. Those who are planning on making this walk, please wear robust hiking shoes! The tortuous pounding of trekking on the hard gravel has taken a toll on many poor hikers' shoes. BG Tan made an amusing comment about the number of "lost soles" that he saw along the track. And for those of you who have yet to experience this corridor of nature and history, be quick, before the railway tracks are removed.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK (taken with a Canon G12) & Ho Moon Shin

Further Reading :