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A gem hidden in plain sight: TODAY journalist checks out the wonders of Clementi Forest

SINGAPORE — The forest across my alma mater Ngee Ann Polytechnic has held some intrigue for me since I was a student there, close to two decades ago. What secrets lie hidden beyond those trees, I often wondered.

TODAY journalists with nature lovers Brice Li and Raj Bharathi at Clementi Forest on Jan 9, 2021.

TODAY journalists with nature lovers Brice Li and Raj Bharathi at Clementi Forest on Jan 9, 2021.

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  • Located along Clementi Road, a secondary forest with a beautiful interior is highly accessible
  • It is no walk in a park, and visitors should expect some rough terrain
  • While people may visit to appreciate its beauty and its historical past, they should respect the land by not leaving their garbage behind


SINGAPORE — The forest across my alma mater Ngee Ann Polytechnic has held some intrigue for me since I was a student there, close to two decades ago. What secrets lie hidden beyond those trees, I often wondered. 

I never found the courage to discover for myself, even in my adult years, for fear of getting lost or fined for some misdemeanor. I did not even know it was called Clementi Forest until recently.

This year though, I finally got the answers that my younger self sought, thanks to the man who propelled the 85-hectare secondary forest to national stardom — Mr Brice Li.

Early on Friday (Jan 8) at 6.30am, my colleagues and I met up with the sprightly 52-year-old, decked out in his running gear, and 39-year-old macro photographer and insect enthusiast Raj Bharathi to take a walk through the greenwoods.

Mr Li, a creative and art director, said that being there so early was our best chance to witness the forest bathed in the majesty of the golden hour when the sun rises at 7am.

We would also have the opportunity to observe the many species of birds hunting for their first meal of the day, he said. In other words, the early bird catches the worm in every sense of the metaphor.

However, our little expedition had one hiccup, which TODAY photojournalist Nuria Ling succinctly put it in a phone text message before we met: “I think will have heavy rain.”

Mercifully, the storm clouds mostly rolled over the eastern part of the island, leaving us with just a drizzle as we pushed through the forest’s periphery.

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Mere minutes into our trek, we were at the spot where Mr Li shot his iconic photograph that depicted a verdant landscape swathed in the glow of the morning light. The photo has gone viral on social media and drawn flocks of hikers to Clementi Forest.

While the overcast skies prevented me from seeing this with my own eyes, what amazed me was that this was just a couple of hundred metres away from the main road. Most of the scenic spots in our nature parks and reserves are nowhere near as accessible.

Fun fact: Did you know that the tallest tree visible in Mr Li’s photograph is an Albizia, and it is one of the fastest growing species of trees in the world?

Or that dragonflies, which hover in abundance in the forest, are great hunters of mosquitoes, which explains why a “mozzie-magnet” like myself escaped relatively unscathed?

These were just some of the nuggets of information that Mr Li and Mr Bharathi shared with us as we made our way to our end destination: A railway arch along the Jurong Line section of the former railway used by Malaysian rail operator Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

The going was slow. The soft mud sometimes swallowed our shoes and feet whole, and we found ourselves clambering over fallen trees, sliding off drop-offs or hopping over gaps along the 2km route.

It is definitely not for those who are not prepared to perspire profusely, or anyone who may have health conditions or are at risk of getting injuries.

Even so, a 60-year-old grandmother — a recent fan of Clementi Forest — told me previously that it felt like an adventure just navigating the route, which brings hikers past a river, lush ferns and tall trees that knit into a ceiling over a submerged railway track.

It felt foreign, and flashbacks of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park came to mind for me. Little wonder that this forest has become popular with travel-starved Singaporeans!

At some point, traffic sounds gave way to birdsong, and the only traces of civilisation were artifacts such as a night soil jar (that was used to hold human faeces before collection), building foundations and rubber seeds — all reminders of the area’s past as a rubber tree plantation.

I watched flocks of long-tailed parakeets fly overhead and a lone white-throated kingfisher flit from tree to tree.

The forest is home to a host of other animals and rare plants such as the sunda pangolin and the Dienia ophrydis — an orchid that was presumed to be extinct here.

If you are an amateur entomologist like Mr Bharathi, a completely different world awaits with weird and wonderful insects such as the hammerhead fly or the hairy tussock moth caterpillar.

A pair of stilt-legged flies seen at Clementi Forest on Jan 9, 2021. Photo: Raj Bharathi

And there is the possibility that so much more exists, as both the Nature Society Singapore and researchers have said that the forest has yet to be fully surveyed.

Still, as I ruminate on the wonders of this gem, hidden in plain sight, I feel conflicted.

Recently, National Development Minister Desmond Lee said that the fate of the forest, which has been earmarked for residential development, will be left up to future generations to decide. Until then, it will be left untouched.

It brings me hope that the general sentiment largely favours its conservation, as opposed to its destruction for housing. We could certainly do more to spur greater appreciation for our limited green spaces.

Yet, I also worry that we might be loving the forest to death, and that its increased popularity might lead to more visitors who may inadvertently ruin it.

As it is, I was disappointed by the trash and the many lost soles (of shoes sucked by mud) that I had harvested along the way.

We have something unique here, but it will be ironic that even as we call on the authorities to conserve this forest, we defile it with our garbage.

So, come appreciate this beautiful forest and discover its secrets. But let’s all enter with respect.

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Clementi forest trekking green space

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