Getting “Lost” in Singapore’s Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

When I told the man at the taxi stand that I wanted to go to Buhkit Timah, he said, “Don’t get lost, sir.” What he didn’t realize was the taxi driver was the one who didn’t know where to go. Fifteen minutes later I was outside Old Ford Factory, having failed communicating in both English and Mandarin that the driver dropped me in the wrong place.

A half mile hike back the way we just came brought me to the park entrance, already sweating from the humidity. As you walk up to the ranger station where the park officially starts, you pass four comical monkey faces, which represent the four faces a monkey will likely make if you encounter any. Bared teeth is the one you need to worry about most, because that’s an aggressive reaction. I saw it later in the day when a monkey started getting uncomfortable about a guy who wouldn’t stop looking at him.

Bukit Timah is the Central Park of Singapore. A vast green space surrounded by encroaching city. It’s the highest point in Singapore and also some of the last remnants of rain forest. Bukit Timah plays a role more vital than Central Park, in that it also offers protection to many native island plants and animals now found only in the nature preserve. It’s a reprieve from the surrounding city, organically disguised from noise pollution by a consistent drone of cicadas.

While there is a paved trail leading to the summit, 163 meters above sea level, the real experience of Bukit Timah is all the loop trails along the way. Most of these side trails consist of steep inclines and declines. In some cases the path is paved with medium sized rocks that presumably help prevent erosion due to foot traffic, but in many cases the trail is composed of sandy soil interspersed with jutting tree roots.

The trails are definitely not an easy hike. There’s no predictability to the stair step arrangement of concrete erosion steps, making navigation more complicated than it should be. There’s enough challenge to the paths that North Face hosted an ultra-running event the day before I arrived. Combining a 6k mountain biking loop and the various side trails, you could probably spend a day putting in 10 miles of asent and decent. I wore Vibram Five Fingers for the hike and other than the occasional sharp rock jutting into my foot, found the “barefoot” experience to be quite enjoyable.

Monitor lizard hunting in the underbrush in Bukit Timah

While Bukit Timah is a nature preserve, I was surprised at how little wildlife I actually encountered. Within minutes of walking past the parking lot, I watched a monitor lizard hunting in the foliage just off the path. The cicadas were a constant droning in the trees. Occasionally you could hear the call of the native squirrels, but it was a long time before I saw anything living.

I had gone hoping to see monkeys, because I was curious what it would be like to see them in the wild. It wasn’t until I started my descent from the top of the trail that I encountered the first group of long-tailed macaques, which were spread throughout the foliage on both sides of the path. I was lucky enough to see them with no other park-goers around, so I could quietly observe without too many people. As long as you don’t make eye contact with the monkeys, they largely ignore your presence.

Monkey in leaves in Bukit Timah

As soon as other people appeared on the trail and started pointing and making clucking noises to draw attention, the monkeys started getting nervous. Apparently no one else had paid attention to the signs, or they were simply overcome with curiosity. Only one macaque seemed really distraught, baring its teeth at a guy who kept inching closer with his camera. Nothing serious occurred and the monkey eventually climbed a tree and ignored the guy.

I didn’t see any of the Malayan flying lemurs who reside in the park, but they stay closer to the top of the tree line and blend with the bark. The squirrels also stayed out of site. While I returned from my hike drenched with sweat and exhausted from a combination of 17 hours of flying the previous day and a short night of sleep, Bukit Timah was definitely the highlight of my trip to Singapore. The city itself feels like it could be anywhere in the English-speaking world, but the park felt like I had lost myself in a distinctly different place.