Singapore River comes alive in 8km and 3 hours

The tongkangshaped Alkaff Bridge at Robertson Quay is one of the markers on the revamped Singapore River Walk.
The tongkangshaped Alkaff Bridge at Robertson Quay is one of the markers on the revamped Singapore River Walk. ST PHOTO: NABILAH SAID

After attending five guided Monumental Walking Tours, I decided to go solo: to try the self-guided, newly refreshed Singapore River Walk which was launched last month.

It is a 2.8km trail from Robertson Quay to Collyer Quay which has been around since 2005.

Recently, with a US$160,000 (S$224,700) grant by the American Express Foundation, seven new markers were added to the route, such as at the oldest mosque in Singapore, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka.

There are 14 markers in total, and I planned to cover them all.

Armed with a map loaded on my phone, a cap and an iced tea in a takeaway cup, I made my way to the starting point at the colourful tongkang-shaped Alkaff Bridge at Robertson Quay.

The first few blue-and-white markers were easy to spot. They contained information and old photos of the heritage sites.

I uncovered interesting facts such as how Magazine Road was not named after glossy periodicals as I had thought, but after the ammunition that used to be stored there.

I did not know that Elgin Bridge, near Boat Quay, was the site of the first bridge to be built over the Singapore River in 1819, believed to have been a narrow footbridge.

I liked that I could go at my own pace - starting quite leisurely and then speeding up as it got hotter.

While most of the markers are located along the river, there are others located off the beaten path such as the mosque.

Google Maps failed me at some points, causing me to backtrack a few times.

Because of this, as well as my need to read all the information on the plaques, a walk that should have taken two hours took almost three. An activity tracker on my phone said I covered a distance of almost 8km.

However, I realised that there is a trick to enjoying a self-guided tour - which is to forget about "clearing" all the available stops.

Instead, focus on the story the tour is telling and let your imagination run free.

The new Singapore River Walk is about the evolution of the river, from its importance to the different communities which developed alongside it, to the development of Singapore's commercial industry in the Central Business District.

As I walked past a replica of Whampoa's Ice House in Clarke Quay, I thought about merchant Hoo Ah Kay's (known as Whampoa) short-lived ice business, where supply, in the form of ice imported from New England in America, outstripped demand in the pre-refrigerator age.

In Market Street at Raffles Place, - I was there during a very busy Monday lunch hour - I imagined the roar of the Chettiar bankers in the 1900s offering capital for new businesses.

It was only then that the tour started coming alive for me. At my endpoint at Clifford Pier in Collyer Quay, I swore that I started seeing the world in black and white.

Collyer Quay was the first thing that maritime travellers would see when they sailed to Singapore.

Though it was my last stop on the tour, my mind continued to wander long after, thinking of all the history the river witnessed.

Nabilah Said

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore River comes alive in 8km and 3 hours'. Print Edition | Subscribe