One of my favourite roads to take a journey on in Singapore is a stretch of Mandai Road that has got to be one of the more gorgeous drives in Singapore. It is a stretch that takes you past an area that is reminiscent of an older world at its junction with Sembawang road, around a bend where the road starts to rise northwards to an area where a short stretch of it runs along a body of water that in reflecting the colours of the setting sun takes on the appearance of a magical world. It is a drive I have enjoyed for four decades now – my first encounters with the stretch dating back to the end of the 1960s when the road was diverted around what had been a newly expanded body of water – what then was Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir). Those first encounters had been ones that would have involved a visit to the area around the large dam that contributed to the reservoir’s expansion – then a manicured area that offered some wonderful views of the reservoir not just from the top of the 20 metre high dam, but also the panorama one got of it from the top of a newly constructed lookout tower which still stands today.
The area which later was developed into a park and the expanded reservoir, was opened by HRH Princess Alexandra in August 1969. The work to expand of the capacity reservoir which traces it origins back to the 1920s, resulted in an increase in its capacity from a previous expansion in 1940 by some 35 times, giving the northern fringe of Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve a large and very picturesque body of water. This was made possible by the erection of a larger dam across the Seletar valley which required a part of Mandai Road to be diverted. The reservoir started its life as a temporary source of water supply which was developed out of an abandoned effort in the 1920s to build a third impounding reservoir on the island. Work on that was halted when it became apparent that it was feasible to draw on the abundant sources of water across the Straits in Southern Johor with pipelines to feed much-needed resource integrated into the construction of the Causeway. It was in 1940 that the reservoir was made a permanent one having its capacity expanded to feed the island’s growing population.
The work which commenced in 1967 to expand the reservoir, also allowed its position on the northern fringe the Central Catchment Reserve to be exploited to provide a recreational area around it with access to large parts of it possible by road. Besides the park with its now iconic tower that was constructed, plans were also drawn up to use an area to the north-west of the reservoir for a zoological gardens what is today the highly acclaimed Singapore Zoo.
It is for the climbs up the lookout tower that I would look forward most to on my early visits to the area, my first visit being in October 1969 on the evidence of photographs that I have taken of my sister and me. It wasn’t however only the tower that occupied me during my visits to the park – the slope of the dam was a constant source of delight with the grasshoppers that seemed to thrive in the grass that lined the slope. The slope – or rather the road that ran down from the top of the dam where the tower is along the slop of the dam was also where I once, in the foolishness of youth, responded to a dare to go down the road on my roller-skates. Finding myself gaining momentum after setting off, it was probably fortunate that I decided not to go through with the dare and managed to pull out of it by turning into a turn-off not far from the top of the slope. Sliding across the rough surface as I lost my balance in turning off at speed, I was bloodied and bruised with abrasions that ran down the entire length of my right leg and a little embarrassed, but quite thankful that I had decided not to go through with the dare.
The park today is one that I still frequent, not so much for the tower which does still somehow fascinate me, but for the escape it offers from the concrete world that I find myself now surrounded by. And, in those escapes that I take, it is comforting to find that in a Singapore where the relentless winds of change have rendered many places of my childhood for which I had a fondness for unrecognisable, the area beneath the changes it has seen in the four decades that have passed, is a face from that world that I still am able to see.