There isn't usually much chance to linger by the path that winds through Pulau Semakau, linking the high bund of the landfill to the broad flat of mud and seagrass abutting the island's western shore. The sea beckons without regard for terrestrial attractions and the pull of the tide more often than not trumps the tug exerted by this sliver of soil that endured a perilous existence on old maps. The island persists, but kampong Tengah, which once supported more than a thousand souls and a bevy of unwashed children, has vanished from the charts, and after more than three decades of rural decay, all that remains of the village are crumbling beams on a loamy beach and low embankments which one might stumble over while wading through an understorey of ferns, rattans and gingers.
Despite more than a century of human settlement and the recent ravaging of its eastern rim, Pulau Semakau has assumed the mantle of an offshore haven for biodiversity, an outpost for habitats that once hugged Singapore's southwestern coastlines before their surrender to shipyards and chemical plants. Having survived in refugia on the fringes of the old village or arriving in later years on wave, wind or drifting wood, rare herbs, prickly climbers and grey mangroves now grow in the shade of sea almonds, pong pong trees and sprawling pandans, whose foliage provides a foothold for arboreal snakes and littoral songbirds. Clearings in the mangal reveal the tracks of smooth otters and the middens of mud crabs. Trapdoor spiders lurk in old stumps, while dragonflies in red and green livery float from the tips of rising fronds. Running, darting, buzzing and dancing amid the vegetation, too, are flies that revel in the damp and dark, that thrive on fresh prey and turn to the dead and dying for the chance to spread their quiet grubbery.
Robberflies, hoverflies, dolichopodids, signal flies, micropezids, crane flies, mosquitoes and bee flies are fairly easy to recognise in the field, though still a challenge to pin down beyond the family level. Other dipterans can be much harder to place. A tiny fly with an orbital infestation of mites, spotted on a fallen branch by the trail, was initially thought to be a chloropid. Its habitus and antennal features, however, match that of Allometopon, a genus of druid flies distributed throughout Southeast Asia. With about 400 species worldwide, Clusiidae contains small flies that, like their Celtic namesakes, gather in old growth forests to partake in rituals of mass distraction. Males dominate these leks, displaying and jousting for the right to couple with females, who ovideposit in dead wood or termite nests some distance away from these arenas. Adults subsist on nectar, sap and rotting matter, while the young are thought to predate on other insect larvae. Two genera, Czernyola and Heteromeringia, have been recorded locally, but little else is known about these minute insects and what drives them to perform on stages far from the heart of the city and a world away from the romance of vile things.