Navigating Pulau Ubin without GPS

Navigating Pulau Ubin without GPS
Ms Nabilah Muhammad Said (right), a Straits Times journalist, queries director of Osportz, Sebastian Wong, over a control marker during a demonstration of the upcoming Ubin Wayfinder 2014 at Pulau Ubin on 24 October 2014.

It is a warm Friday morning in Pulau Ubin and Mr Sebastian Wong is giving me a crash course on orienteering.

My eyes widen as he brandishes a compass - the last time I used one was probably for a science class in primary school.

Mr Wong, 33, the director of outdoor sports company Osportz that is behind the Ubin Wayfinder navigational race taking place in Pulau Ubin tomorrow, has devised a simple race with four checkpoints to test my skills.

I start to sweat and it is not just because of the weather - the memory of getting lost while driving to MacRitchie Reservoir from Tampines in August, even with a GPS-enabled mobile phone, is still fresh on my mind. (I ended up in Bukit Batok).

I have run multiple marathons and climbed Mount Kinabalu last year, mainly just by following signs or the person in front of me. Orienteering, however, is new to me.

But Mr Wong, who is also the treasurer of the Orienteering Federation of Singapore, assures me that I will be fine.

His passion is evident and he is familiar with the island - he is greeted often by the residents, who recognise him from his multiple recce trips. At least if I do get lost, I will be in good hands.

He teaches me how to "set" my map first. This involves lining up North on the compass with the North on the map.

This ensures that the map is in line with the actual ground you are standing on. Then, he shows me how to keep the map pointing north whenever I move, to keep the map set.

This is where I stumble a bit, having always been reliant on technology. The mobile phone's GPS turns the map automatically when you move, but a physical map has to be rotated manually.

I take a while to practise this, which involves me turning round and round like a vacuum cleaning robot on the blink. All this, before I have even begun the "race".

With that nice start, I look at my first checkpoint on the map. It is next to the sea and I should be looking for a white and orange marker, which is an international orienteering marker used in races worldwide.

Easy peasy, I think to myself. The map is marked with road names, so I figure I just have to follow the signs.

But as we proceed on bicycle (yes, I am mercifully spared from running), I realise there are not that many signs after all.

Instead, I have to keep my eyes peeled for physical landmarks, checking them against the map. When there is a fork in the road, I have to stop and check that I am going the right way.

What I like about the experience is that it is so different from being on mainland Singapore, where we tend to overlook our physical surroundings in the daily bustle.

As I navigate my way around Pulau Ubin, I start to feel a strong sense of connection with the island.

"I see water," I exclaim excitedly as I find the first checkpoint.

I insert the key on my finger into a device called the control marker, which will record my timing and serve as proof that I have been there.

This a special timing device called Sportident, of which Mr Wong is the sole distributor.

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