Tuesday, September 17, 2013

June 2013 - Walking the rail corridor from Bukit Timah hill to Buona Vista

View Bukit Timah trek to Buona Vista - rail corridor in a larger map

After years of negotiation, the Singapore government has finally taken over the more than 25km  strip of land which  links Singapore’s south at Tanjong Pagar Station to Woodlands that was Malaysia’s in a historic land swap.

It has been more than a year since this rail corridor has been stripped of its sleepers.  After the initial excitement where almost everyone has descended on this corridor to walk, take photos and bike, the former railway is finally undergoing a recuperation period. Grass has grown on the parts where   sleepers previously laid and vegetation has encroached into the space where trains used to run. Had it not been for NEA’s maintenance, there would not have been any trace of the former railway tracks.

Starting from Bukit Timah :

We chose a weekday to check out the rail corridor in order to avoid the bikers  and joggers who were constantly jostling for space with each other.  From home, it was a kilometer walk to our starting point at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve at Hindhede Road. Hubs and I half crawled and climbed up the steep slope that led to the railway behind The Mondrian, clutching on tufts of overgrown grass.

We spied condos at the beginning of our trek. This point provides a chicken out if the going gets tough.
This sandy part was where the railway formerly ran

It was not the best spot to start our trek because there was no obvious trail or clearing leading to the tracks. A better access point would be the other side of the railway bridge but this we only discovered at a second trekking session a week later.

Tall grass obscured the sounds and sights from Bukit Timah Road once we were on the former track.  The black rail bridge is only the width of Hindhede Road below, but it is a poignant reminder that not too long ago, trains chugged along it to Malaysia.

We turned north and walked on the grass where ballast  previously ( granite bed for sleepers ) lie. This makes walking easier without the risk of twisted ankles. Bukit Timah Road flanked our right while the boundary of the nature reserve flanked our left. A couple of monkeys ignored us because  we did not carry plastic bags which they associate with food.

Near Dunearn and Bukit Timah junction. Standing on what was previously sleepers.
We walked on the green corridor that ran under the PIE turnoff from Bukit Timah Road. Graffiti artists had visited and left their indelible, artistic marks on the concrete walls. Tyre sounds boomed above our heads and colorful graffiti on both sides reminded me of some forgotten place in LA.

At Rifle Range Road, the trek opened up to a clearing. It was almost   road level and a pathway provided access to the bus stop on our right. Garden Vista was just before us and it was one section that is closest to ‘human civilization’.

Over Dunearn Road and the canal
The rail bridge over Dunearn Road and Bukit Timah Road was one of the longest on our trek. I like this section because   the enormity of the black truss  gives a feeling of reliability and security. At this juncture, we traipsed carefully over the remaining sleepers, some made of concrete and others of wood. The manufacturer’s imprint on the fasteners connecting the track to the sleepers was still visible.

Okay , we made the first km. Time to celebrate.
Bukit Timah Signalling Station
Now a property of SLA 
This sign must have meant a lot to different people over the past 
Sections of rails at the signaling stations are called blocks.
At the other end of the bridge stood the defunct Bukit Timah signalling station. This section forms the broadest part of the corridor, apart from the terminal at Tanjong Pagar. The sounds of the city ebbed and cries of birds took over time and space.

You won't believe it is meters away from Clementi Road.
We could see parts of King Albert Lodge and The Sterling at our right and left but what caught our attention was this ostensibly huge bungalow overlooking the rail blocks and the unused signalling house .  There were many fruiting banana trees in the clearing that got me planning my next visit so that  I can harvest the fruit.

Morning! Glory!
Beyond this clearing, the landscape resumed to a narrow corridor of grass now growing over the former ballast. A  patch of blue and purple morning glory carpeted the floor, attracting butterflies and sunbirds. The last time I saw so many morning glory was many decades ago on the fence of my primary school.

Immediately beyond Bukit Timah Signalling Station, off SIM
Take a break! Phew!
A lady walking her Labrador passed us by, followed by a jogger at the stretch near SIM at Clementi Road. Being close to nature do wonders to people and we greeted each other cheerfully.

I was particular thrilled to walk over the Pandan Canal. For years, I would peer at the windy canal from Clementi Road, wondering where it led beyond. This day I had my curiosity satisfied.

Every section actually looks different, contrary to what it seems here.
At the section of the trek near Clementi and Pandan Road, things got a little muddy. Rivulets of water near the undergrowth streamed here and there, making walking even on a sunny day a messy affair. We were lucky no cross country bikers were around this 5 m stretch to fight for space with us or we would end up in a muddy mess.

There! I always wanted to snoop the 'jungle' behind Clementi Road. Now I get my wish.
The trek led us under a service road that serves Holland Road. It was not a pretty section because  the space was only enough for the train. Vehicular sounds became more pronounced as we walked towards Holland Road above us. At Holland Green, a jogging path ran parallel to the trek for a couple of meters before parting ways.

Black Truss 
Near Pandan Canal, off Clementi Rd
Holland Rd above. We just navigated over the muddiest stretch of the walk.
The space that could accommodate a train
After the next underpass, we heard the school bells of Henry Park Primary School at our right. Caltex Station was at our left but all I could think of was Cold Storage behind the petrol kiosk where a cold drink or popsicle would be so possible. We were still below road level and the steep slopes pregnant with bushes made going up impossible. Now at 11 am, I was drying up inside and out. It made admiring the green corridor difficult.

We oohed and aahed at the back of huge houses with lush gardens. Some pockets of backyards were surreptitiously cordoned off as extended personal gardens in the days of the Malaysian rail. Hmm, I wonder what the Land Tax folks think.

Nearing the main thoroughfare at Holland Road.
At Bouna Vista Road, I decided to call an end to our walk. The last few hundred meters after Henry Park Primary School was flanked by high fence ( Ulu Pandan Community Center on our right and houses on our left ). I felt claustrophobic and hemmed in especially when the track is mostly below road level even though we were out in the sun and the high fences on both sides did not help either. Bouna Vista provided the first break and with hub’s help, I overcame the slope and a drain to  find myself in the middle of Bouna Vista Road facing the Civil Service College.

By then it was almost high noon. We made our way to The Star where we rewarded ourselves with a long cool drink and a pig-out at the hawker center.

In the 2 hours, we covered a modest distance of about 6 km. It was an undulated walk and other than the muddy section near Holland Park, was simply a walk in the park.