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Heading south to discover Raffles Lighthouse

Heading south to discover Raffles Lighthouse

jeresinex

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"Before you venture overseas, why not tour your own backyard first?"

This line, from a gregarious guide, resonated with me prior to the start of the Raffles Lighthouse tour, which is organised by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

Now, everyone knows that Singapore is a maritime trade powerhouse, but few realise that apart from the Tanjong Pagar and Tuas ports, our coastline is also dotted with docks and jetties.

And as the second-busiest port in the world (Shanghai is the busiest), Singapore is home to several lighthouses, too. Five of them, including Raffles Lighthouse, are operated by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

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You'll travel by ferry from Marina South Pier to reach the Southern Islands

Getting there

First things first: Raffles Lighthouse is not the lighthouse you'll find in Raffles Marina.

Raffles Lighthouse is the second oldest of the five lighthouses operated by MPA. It is located on Pulau Satumu, an island about 23km away from the mainland. It is the southernmost point of Singapore.

To get here, one must join an MPA tour which costs around S$50 per person. The five-hour tour includes a guided visit to the Maritime Gallery, plus ferry passage to and from Pulau Satumu.

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Lighthouses operated by MPA, as seen on this map in the Maritime Gallery

Prior to the tour, I mistakenly assumed that the entire trip took five hours because there was plenty to see and do at the lighthouse, and perhaps lunch would be catered as well.

However, most of the time was spent travelling from Marina South Pier to Pulau Satumu and back. Three hours, to be exact, as it is a 1.5-hour ride each way.

While the ferry chugged along, our guide enthusiastically pointed out the different types of ships (LNG, LPG, bulk carrier, etc.) we passed. Of greater interest were the outlying islands or Southern Islands. It didn't take long to see St John's Island, Kusu Island, and Lazarus Island.

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The Singapore skyline looks cool from this angle, too. The building in the foreground is Marina Bay Cruise Centre.

In the distance, we saw Pasir Panjang Port, Brani Island, Jurong Island, and Pulau Bukom, home to the Shell Refinery. This part was the eye-opener for me. We all know that Singapore has other islands, but how many do you think we have in all?

10? 20? 30? Nope. My jaw dropped when our guide said we have 64 islands! Singapore is small relative to the rest of the world, but man, the geography lesson that afternoon was an eye-opener.

Seeing the outlying islands and massive vessels anchored offshore was truly an experience. Here we are, a little red dot on the world map, yet all these vessels are on the way to one of our ports. Even if you regularly fly, the many ships dotting the sea is something you might not really notice, especially if you typically fly at night.

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You'll only have 40-45 minutes on Pulau Satumu, so take in the views while you can

One-tree island

'Satumu' means 'one tree' in Malay. As the ferry approached the dock, the lighthouse seemed to shine in the sunlight. Completed in 1855, Raffles Lighthouse was designed by John Bennett, who also built Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca.

Next to the lighthouse are two network antennas. Photographing these structures is forbidden due to 'security issues' and attempting to feature them on social media could land you in trouble. At the very least, you might find parts of your pictures censored by the powers that be. At least that's what we were told.

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The waters surrounding the island are surprisingly clear

Now, the lighthouse itself is not very large and unfortunately, you're no longer allowed to climb to the top. We were, however, ushered into an air-conditioned room and shown a collection of artifacts and memorabilia to add to the nostalgic feel.

Interestingly, one of the 'museum pieces' was an unused armoury locker. Lightkeepers in the past must have needed rifles to defend themselves against marauding pirates in search of booty (or booze?).

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Each lightkeeper works on Pulau Satumu for 10 days before returning to mainland Singapore. If you despise crowds and love solitude, a career as a lightkeeper might appeal to you.

It's too bad we couldn't interview the lightkeepers. But from what I could see, the cleaner air and gentle sounds of the waves lapping the shore make for idyllic surroundings. And even if you're far from civilisation, civilisation isn't far from you. I had 5G coverage the entire time, so you'll always be connected.

I was glad that there was no souvenir shop, as it would have made the experience touristy (and not in a good way). But MPA obviously considered visitors' needs, as there were at least three toilets.

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Hoarding is good (sometimes) because we get to see stuff like this 4th Order Optic from 1968

Explore more

I may have spent more time on the ferry than I did at Raffles Lighthouse, but that's not a bad thing. If I were on a faster vessel with a shorter travel time, I wouldn't have been able to hear the guide's stories.

Knowing that Singapore is the second-busiest port in the world is one thing; seeing the vessel traffic is another. And learning a bit about our other islands was another pleasant surprise.

Most of us don't know or don't care to know about the ports and maritime issues because they happen beyond our sight. But if there's one thing I learned, it's that without our maritime trade, commerce and life as we know it would slow to a crawl.

Could I have learned about Raffles Lighthouse and our other islands online? Sure, but the experience wouldn't be the same. It's just like watching a travel vlog - you get ideas from the videos, but nothing beats travelling there yourself.

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