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Need to detox from hectic mainland living? At the Southern Islands, the only thing you’ll be bothered by is a talkative cat (or ten).

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You can keep your scents of newly-cut grass, baking bread, or a steaming cuppa. The greatest smell in the world is, without question, the fresh caress of salty sea air. How lucky, then, that the best sensation is the tickle of warm sand between your toes. And the best sound? The soothing hiss of waves breaking on a beach. We tend to forget these sensations in Singapore – despite the fact that we live on an island. Luckily, there are three reminders just a short ferry-ride away: St John’s Island, Lazarus Island and Pulau Seringat.

Animal island

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Ailurophobes (those afraid of cats) might not have a great time on St John’s Island. As the photographer, Wilson, and I step off the boat on a bright Thursday morning, we’re greeted by two of them. Walk off the jetty and there’re three more. And then another five, flitting under a bush. Well-fed by the caretakers, this army of pad-footed prowlers are friendly and incredibly talkative. One energetic grey tabby, who we dub “Weh-weh” for his constant chattering cry, follows us for nearly a kilometre, to the island’s cosy, quiet mosque. His last “weh-weh,” we realise later, probably meant, “You think there’re a lot of cats so far? Just you wait.”

Spread out like a carpet on the cool cement floor are dozens of the most relaxed animals I’ve ever seen. We step over them like traversing a fuzzy minefield, just so Wilson can get some shots. The calm and quiet and the Cheshire-cat grins of the catnappers lend this corner an Alice-in-Wonderland feel. That’s helped by two other sights: first, a totally unexpected peacock, who steps lazily into my line of vision with a distinctive mocking call. Second, a wooden door lashed between two branches in a copse of trees for no discernible reason. Nothing in front of it but the roaring surf. Nothing behind it but a patch of leaves.

Drink like a soldier

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Curioser and curioser, but it all adds up to a sense of adventure, a scavenger hunt air that you could never get on the more developed Sentosa Island.

“This looks like Survivor: Singapore. With a 7-Eleven nearby,” Wilson quips. Except there’s no 7-Eleven anywhere. If you want a drink, you’ve gotta go a bit MacGyver.

Wilson stops in a shady clearing piled high with logs. The compact photographer sheds his heavy camera load, stoops and comes up with a smooth green coconut. He scouts efficiently around for a rock to bash it against, jaw clenched. Suddenly it feels like we’re on military jungle training. (It helps that he’s taken to mock-seriously calling me Lieutenant, or LT for short. It would be rude not to reciprocate, so I dub him Sarge.)

“Sarge, you’ll never manage to –”

Quick as a flash, he bludgeons the coconut thrice against a rock. Clear, syrupy juice bleeds out.

“What was that, LT?” he asks with a smile, before kindly sharing the drink with me.

Doors to the past

We stop to take some shots of a caretaker, as nut-brown and gnarled as the tree he is standing under. This is Mohammed Shairi. He’s 82 and, as we find out, a piece of living history.

“He was here when the Japanese came,” Wilson says in awe, translating the caretaker’s husky Malay. Mohammed says something else, cataracts glistening. “They were very… naughty. Very bad.

“He’s been caretaker here for 50 years. His parents worked here as painters when [St John’s] was still a quarantine island (for screening Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca).”

Asked whether he prefers it here or on the mainland, his answer is instant. “Pulau!” the old man smiles toothily. The laid-back lifestyle here suits him; plus he has a small plantation where he grows bananas and vegetables. He also owns a fishing boat, which he proudly poses beside.

The sweetness of the coconut juice still lingers stickily at the edge of my mouth, and my parched throat is desperate for a cold can of something. Mohammed waves us along a kampong-like area, stopping to show us the house he used to live in. He points to a cheery-looking fellow scratching his generous belly. “He’ll sell us a drink,” Wilson translates. We grab a 100 Plus and H20 for a buck each, paying Saleh, the belly man. On the table next to Saleh are two gorgeous grey kittens, what look like pedigree Russian Blues. One stares at us with bright, mismatched eyes.

“How many cats do you actually have?” we ask incredulously, glancing at the two dozen around his house alone.

“Two,” he smiles.

“But… You… There…” I wave at a cluster of four cats, happily sleeping on top of each other. All told, I’ve counted about 75 mousers since I stepped off the boat.

“Those? The rest are just wildcats,” he chuckles, opening a tin of cat food for his grey kittens to munch on.

Do the cats fight each other? We ask as a rooster shakes a cloud of dust over its body.

“Nah. Though sometimes, the cats go for the little ones. You find the chicks disappear pretty regularly,” Saleh muses. He scratches his belly again, a man without a care in the world. And why shouldn’t he? I can feel my own blood pressure drop five points an hour here.

Three’s company

Linked together, St John’s, Lazarus and Seringat are like triplets, each with their own distinct personality. Go to St John’s for its cool, shadowy paths just waiting for a picnic, and its essence of kampong. Meanwhile, a beach linking Lazarus and Seringat comes with pillow-like sand so white it hurts your eyes. As well it should – the government imported thousands of cubic metres of the pristine stuff from Indonesia (after rigorously inspecting it for sandfly eggs, some say). Trek northeast to the tip of Seringat, and you’re rewarded with a gorgeous view of the mainland that puts things in perspective. In the distance, it’s all shiny steel, observation wheels, and stress. Not here.

Sweaty, sunburnt and tired, Wilson and I drink in the peaceful feeling of what seems like “real” island life. Here, cars don’t honk, peacocks do. Doors don’t lead anywhere except to the sea, and the few people who work on the islands uniformly agree that pulau living is where it’s at.