Nature's world in Singapore

20:58, Nov 11 2012
singapore: gardens by the bay
MAN MADE: Three supertrees beside the Dragonfly Lake in the Gardens by the Bay. In the background is the Flower Dome.
singapore: gardens by the bay
MAN MADE: Supertrees beside the Dragonfly Lake in the Gardens by the Bay.
singapore: gardens by the bay
CREATION: The Flower Dome is the largest pillarless glasshouse in the world. It houses a collection of plants from Mediterranean and sub-tropical climates.
singapore: gardens by the bay
IN SEASON: Temporary floral exhibits in the Flower Dome change with the seasons.

There's a 35-metre-high waterfall cascading down the mountain in front of me, its sides blanketed in orchids, bromeliads and sinister-looking carnivorous pitcher plants.

The air is laden with moisture and in the distance huge trees, up to 16 storeys high, loom up beyond the mist. Physically I'm in Singapore, but my senses are telling me I've stumbled on to the moon Pandora and any minute now a sleek blue Avatar is going to stalk into view.

This is the Gardens by the Bay, a horticultural Disneyland in the very best sense of the word, where a quarter of a million trees, flowers and other plants grow against almost surreal surroundings of man-made giant trees clothed in natural greenery and sensuously curved glass giomes (glasshouses).

singapore: gardens by the bay
UP HIGH: An aerial walkway appears to float in the mist around the central "mountain" of the Cloud Forest dome.

One of Singapore's newest attractions, the 101-hectare gardens cost about $1 billion and took six years to create. It's a jaw-dropping place and remarkably, a considerable portion of the complex can be enjoyed free of charge.

The gardens' two giant conservatories are spectacular in their own right, but it's the grove of supertrees that steal the show. There are 12 of these clustered together (and a further six through the rest of the site), ranging from 25-metres to 50-metres tall.

These massive structures have "trunks" clothed in more than 160,000 plants in total - bromeliads, orchids, ferns and climbers. However, they are far more than just a "pretty face".

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singapore: gardens by the bay
PRETTY IN PINK: Carnivorous pitcher plants grow in profusion in the Cloud Forest dome.

The trunks fan out at the top and function as raincatchers. They are also fitted with solar panels and work as air exhausts for the huge glasshouses.

There's a 128-metre-long aerial walkway connecting two of the "trees", which provides a stunning view of not only the gardens, but the Marina Bay Sands complex (you can see people swimming in the infinity edge pool that spans across the top of the towers) and a vast expanse of the ever-changing Singapore skyline. The central and tallest tree will house a restaurant on its upper levels - this was still a work in progress when I was there recently.

Don't venture up to the walkway if you suffer from vertigo. I occasionally succumb to a moderate fear of heights and I'd developed sweaty palms about halfway across, at which point I did seriously consider crawling the rest of the way.

Down at ground level the supertree grove is surrounded by four heritage gardens set beside the Dragonfly Lake. These symbolise Singapore's rich history by recreating Chinese, Malay, Indian and colonial gardens. Many of the mature trees here have clearly been in position for only a matter of months, but in Singapore's tropical climate will soon be growing rampantly; as will the underplanting of flowering plants, groundcovers and shrubs.

The Dragonfly Lake, which forms a moat around much of the garden, is, like the supertrees, not only for decoration. It's designed to be a habitat for insect and birdlife, but the reed beds around its edge also serve as filters for wastewater from the conservatories.

As we tend to associate conservatories with warm, moist conditions, (an almost perpetual state of being in Singapore, anyway) I was almost reluctant to enter the Flower Dome, expecting to be dripping with sweat in no time. So it was a surprise to find, in contrast to the outside temperature, it was positively cool.

The dome is temperature-controlled to create conditions suitable for cool, dry Mediterranean plants and species happy in semi-arid and sub-tropical conditions, which means it's also a haven for hot, sticky New Zealanders.

This dome is billed as the world's largest columnless greenhouse and it too has state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly features.

It's cooled by chilled water circulating through ground slabs and covered with special glass that lets in sufficient light, but repels heat.

Along with the extensive plant collections from south-east Australia, Chile, California, the Mediterranean and South Africa, there are also seasonal exhibits of flowers and produce.

When I was there, the centre of the dome looked like a harvest festival scene on a grand scale, complete with multicoloured pumpkins, artistic pillars of corn cobs, swathes of chrysanthemums and among it all, scarecrows, assorted fake poultry and a huge cornucopia spilling with autumn bounty.

It was clear that this was the place for the locals (who have been quick to embrace the gardens as a favourite destination) to pose for photos and strategically placed benches and bowers were everywhere to provide suitable photography spots.

Next door, the Cloud Forest dome was, like the supertree grove, real Avatar territory.

A waterfall spilled down the 35-metre-high flank of the artificial mountain in the centre of the dome, misting the plants that covered its sides. It's the largest indoor waterfall in the world. Epiphytes of all kinds, including orchids, were flowering on the walls, along with the carnivorous pitcher plants and begonias. Aerial walkways snaked around the mountains taking visitors beneath the waterfall, through a cave of giant quartz crystals, stalactites and stalagmites and past banks of a rainbow array of vireya rhododendrons.

There's only the occasional lurch into kitsch (which considering Singapore is home to the rather odd Merlion statues and other similar excess on Sentosa Island, are mercifully few) with lifesize wooden crocodiles making an appearance in the ground-level pools, along with a land snail that if for real would be able to mow down small children.

Singapore's authorities want to promote the gardens as one of the premier outdoor recreation spots for its citizens, as well as serving as the lungs of the city. It's clear the locals are responding, but I predict the gardens will also become one of the island state's most popular overseas visitor attractions too. You don't need to be a plant geek to be astonished by the breathtaking design of the supertrees and to enjoy the sheer audacity of the whole place.

With its seasonal displays in the Flower Dome and the fascination of watching the trees and other plants mature over time, it will also be a place to visit more than once.

THE DETAILS

If you're a first-time visitor don't skimp on buying tickets for both the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest – they are well worth the money.

If heights are not a problem also make sure you purchase tickets for the Skyway. But be warned, this aerial walkway is very high and is not recommended if you suffer from vertigo.

If you buy tickets for the two conservatories and the walkway the total cost is about $NZ33.

Go early in the day and explore the outside gardens first before the temperature and humidity build up. The two domes are ideal havens when it is hot and sticky outside.

Do visit the gardens at night to see the supertree lightshow. As access to the outdoor gardens is free you won't have to pay to enjoy this.

You can walk to the gardens via a bridge linking them with the Marina Bay Sands complex, or take the MRT train line to the Bayfront Station. Taxis are another convenient and inexpensive option.

The Timaru Herald