Sunday 24 March 2024

The wild side of Mount Faber

A magical place...

The steps on this photo lead to one of my favourite places in Singapore, one I love to visit when I need some peace and quiet. Any idea where it can be? This rather wild place is very close to my own house. 

Urban jungle, concrete jungle, these are terms often used for highly urbanised Singapore. Visitors are always surprised to see how we live here, and how green this city is. Not only is there a plethora of parks, but also roadsides are lushly planted. Singapore aims to be a ‘City in a Garden’ and is succeeding admirably. We are lucky to live on the foothills of Mount Faber, in a house is surrounded by nature. Every morning we get woken by a cacophony of birds, with junglefowl roosters and koels fighting for the honour of being the loudest. During the day we are treated to choruses of bul buls, laughing thrushes, the occasional honk of a sea eagle, and many other birds that I struggle to identify. 

Lure of the jungle...

The other advantage of living in a nature park is the fabulous trails on our doorstep. For these I gladly tolerate the busloads of Chinese tourists that are ferried up the hill over the narrow road passing by our house, to the viewpoint at the top. Despite its formidable name, Mount Faber is ‘only’ a hill, stretching up all of 106 metres, but still the view from the top is magnificent, with central Singapore beside us, the suburbs behind and ahead Sentosa and the sea, with - on a clear day - glimpses of Indonesia’s Riau islands beyond.

For years my doctors have been telling me I needed to walk more, that this will improve my joint pains. But for some reason, people tend not to do things simply because they are ‘good for them.’ I needed a better reason, so we got a dog. And with this dog, I now take long walks almost every day. Those who know me better, know that nothing makes me more happy than hiking the deep jungle. I don’t have to go far.
Our 'hidden house' 

Exploring the back garden ...

Our house is built against the slope of Mount Faber, and the back of the garden is steep. Very steep, but not steep enough to stop me, and to discover the fence separating our garden from the nature park has collapsed years ago. Beyond, the forest lures me in. 

The south slopes of Mount Faber are overgrown with quite dense jungle. Interestingly, old photos show that this growth is quite recent. In the 19th century there were rubber and pineapple plantations on these foothills, a fact bought home to me by the loudly exploding seedpods of the rubber trees still surrounding the house – the first time I thought we were under siege. Later, the slopes were cleared for habitation. By the time our house was built in 1919, to house the staff of the Telegraph company, the view to the sea and Keppel Harbour was apparently unobstructed by either forest or the imposing Reflections condo. It must have been magnificent. 

Pathways at the bottom of Mt Faber, leading to... ?

I am not the only jungle enthusiast in Singapore, and this stretch of forest surrounding our house contains a plethora of informal pathways. Muddy, steep, full of rocks, overgrown with plants and unmaintained, on these trails it doesn’t take much to imagine oneself in deep dark Borneo or Sumatra. Despite the whole area only being several square miles, it is easy to get lost here. Trust me, I have done it. But if you keep going up, all paths will eventually lead you to Mount Faber Loop, the road circling the top of the hill. So unlike deep Borneo or Sumatra, getting lost here is a fun game. 

'Stairs to nowhere' with Alexandra bricks

There is another fun aspect to walking here: a hike on Mount Faber’s slopes feels like an exploration of the history of Singapore. In several places you will stumble over deserted stairways, overgrown with weeds and tree roots and leading nowhere, in red bricks with the name ‘Alexandra’ stamped on them. These were made by the Alexandra brickworks and likely date from the 1940s, showing that once this area was much more built up. There is a mysterious tomb, dedicated to a Japanese shipyard worker who died here in the war, and of whom little is known, let alone why he was buried here. There is an old concrete water tank, overgrow with fig stranglers, on which someone placed two plastic chairs, making it a nice platform for a rest mid-walk. There are old wartime bunkers you can sneak into. Every walk there feel like an adventure, an exploration. The most impressive spot? That is, no doubt, the old reservoir. 

Keppel House at Keppel Hill 

At the foot of Mount Faber, on Keppel Hill, sits Keppel House. A grand old colonial house that once was built to house one of the managers of one of the dock companies of Keppel Harbour. It was built a few decades before ours, in 1899, and its occupants must have been as grand as the mansion itself. Some distance behind the house, in what is now the nature park, is a deserted reservoir. It is said to have been one of three reservoirs that supplied water to the houses and harbour below. Later it became a swimming pool, concrete steps still lead to a diving board that is no longer there. 

The hidden Keppel Hill reservoir

The old reservoir feels like a place from a fairy land. The sunlight filtered by the trees above creates beautiful, swaying patterns on the dark water below. Quiet in a sheltered place with little wind, the only ripples on the water are created by the insects that dance over the surface. The dark cool water both lures me in and repels me, there is no knowing what lurks in the deep. A cesspool, or a fairy paradise? There are multiple stories of drownings here when it was used as a swimming pool, both in the 1930s and during the war. 

I love to sit here and contemplate. But then the dog, impatient to get home, nudges me, and we walk on. There is so much more to explore. Small streams cascading down muddy banks. A field with fragrant betel leaves to sample. Steep paths that friendly fellow wanderers have fitted with ropes, to enable walkers to hoist themselves up. A magnificent banyan tree that feels like a cathedral. 

Banyan cathedral 

I often list my favourite places in the world in my mind, and the wild south slopes of Mount Faber have definitely earned their place on it. I hope they won’t be ‘developed’ any time soon. I hope this place never loses its magic.