Carrying small logs and branches that they have found, Ethan Seow, 12, and his eight-year-old brother, Ean, are building a fire to cook pasta outdoors.
The outing last month to Pulau Ubin, organised by travel agency Beyond Expeditions, was a chance for the boys and their parents to learn outdoor survival skills, which are attracting more interest in Singapore in these volatile times.
The boys’ mother, Ms Gina Pang, 44, says: “It’s something new and I’m always looking for adventurous stuff for them to try.”
Ms Pang, managing director of marketing and communications firm Resolute Communications, has gone to places like Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave, the world’s largest cave. Two years ago, her family of four visited Mongolia, experiencing minus 40 deg C weather, reindeer herding and dog sledding.
Besides slaking the thirst of adventure travellers unable to head overseas due to Covid-19, the draw of wilderness training lies partly in its appeal to self-reliance amid the societal upheaval wrought by the pandemic, industry insiders say.
A niche market in highly urbanised Singapore, there are several outdoor survival skills programmes available for adults and children. With prices that typically start at $200, participants range in age from pre-schoolers to 60-year-olds.
Bushcraft skills include making a fire, building a waterproof shelter from scratch, reading compasses and knowing what to do when a crocodile is in the vicinity (Short answer: Stay calm and step away).
Due to Covid-19, outdoor camping is not allowed across Singapore and campfires are permitted only within designated campfire pits on Pulau Ubin and at Pasir Ris Park. Only twigs and other pieces of wood found on the ground can be used for such fires.
Covid-19 restrictions notwithstanding, Mr Glen Poh, 31, has seen a 30 per cent uptick in inquiries and sign-ups for the wilderness survival courses he offers, compared with last year, before the pandemic broke out.
Wilderness survival training is now the most popular service at his company, Training By Glen (www.trainingbyglen.com). They start at $200 a head for a four-hour “crash course”. Previously, other courses like parkour and swimming were more hotly subscribed.
Mr Poh says the destabilising uncertainty thrown up by the pandemic enhances the appeal of relying on oneself and being less dependent on society at large.
“Participants have told me they want to learn survival skills to feel self-reliant. It’s about being more confident on relying on yourself for things like finding water or building a shelter to protect yourself from the elements – even if you don’t need to,” he adds.
Mr Poh, who is also a fitness instructor, learnt outdoor survival skills camping in the wilderness in countries like Greenland, Zambia and Malaysia, where he also trained with local bushcraft practitioners. He has trained participants from about age 18 to 60.
Covid-19 left Mr Scott Tay, director of travel firm Beyond Expeditions (www.facebook.com/beyondexpeditionssg), unable to organise overseas trips to places like Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
It made him rethink the concept of adventure travel, where local guides often set up camp and prepare food for tourists in remote locations.
“Covid-19 got me reflecting more deeply on what adventure travel means, if participants can’t start a fire or set up a tent. It’s a good opportunity to prepare people with basic survival skills for future travel,” says Mr Tay, 28.
His company did a soft launch offering outdoor survival skills sessions early last month, which start at $250 a head.
Besides making a campfire and cooking dishes like aglio olio pasta, dhal and masala tea al fresco, options such as learning woodcarving are available. Beyond Expeditions also offers local tours to explore abandoned bunkers.
At Outdoor School Singapore (outdoorschool.sg) by Seed Institute, which offers holiday programmes focusing on outdoor survival skills for children aged five to nine, it is not just about teaching kids to tie knots and ropes to build a forest shelter.
Bushcraft training also teaches life skills like risk management and teamwork, says Ms Ann Phang, its programme architect.
The organisation saw a 60 per cent increase in participation for its holiday programme in September, compared with its programme in March, before the circuit breaker took effect. Its year-end programmes cost $300.
Biology teacher Robin Seoh’s son, Keldon, has attended a few holiday courses by Outdoor School Singapore. Mr Seoh, who is married to a 38-year-old finance manager, also has a 12-year-old daughter.
Besides keeping his eight-year-old son occupied at a time when borders are closed, Mr Seoh, 44, says the courses have “opened up doors in tiny ways” for Keldon.
He has a deeper appreciation of nature now and was recently able to identify the Simpor Air plant, whose large leaves can be used to wrap food, during a walk.
Earlier this year, the Primary 2 pupil, who learnt knot-tying with Outdoor School Singapore, was able to switch almost immediately from shoes with Velcro fasteners to those with laces too.