Cruising the Mighty Brahmaputra River

18th June 2013
Cruising the mighty Brahmaputra River in the remote north eastern Indian state of Assam is like taking a step back in time. Sitting on the cruise vessel’s panoramic sundeck at dawn, as the sun shows as an almost scarlet orb and the mist lifts to expose the remote landscape, one could be forgiven for imagining one’s travelling companions are Mahatma Gandhi or Rudyard Kipling.

The beauty of river cruises into remote areas is that they attract interesting passengers in the 50 plus age group, with my companions including a wealthy Italian businessman whose family dated back to the year 1000 when they were official millers to the Pope, Britain’s first female minister, an ex CIA operative, and the owner of one of the UK’s largest independently owned travel agencies.

The voyages, operated by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company (http://www.assambengalnavigation.com ) have strong appeal to serious travellers as opposed to tourists wanting to buy trinkets or to shop ‘til they drop. Rarely will passengers see another European face apart from those of their fellow travellers.

The ABN operates two vessels – the “Charaidew” and the “Sukapha” – both of which accommodate up to 24 passengers in 12 well-equipped and self-contained cabins. Voyages extend from four to 10 nights, and also can include the Hugli River. Prices range from $185US to $275US per night plus taxes, and include all meals and on-shore excursions.

The Brahmaputra cruises operate along various sections of this majestic river which, in the monsoon, swells to a vast inland sea with some sections expanding in width to more than 25 kilometres. The River Hugli cruises are between Kolkata and the Ganges, a more intimate waterway with an emphasis on monuments and culture, whether Hindu, Muslim or colonial.

My own cruise was seven nights aboard the “Sukapha” from Silghat to Sibsagar, and included Majuli Island, regarded as the world’s largest river island. It is an isolated stretch of Brahmaputra with views varying from lush jungle through to barren stretches of sand and rice paddies. Because of annual flooding, few villages at built on the river banks, and those that we visited were often about a 30 minute walk inland – easy treks with the reward being opportunities to mingle with tribes whose lifestyle has changed little over the past 50 years.

When not on-shore, the vessel’s splendid sun deck also affords superb river views. We often saw wild elephants, fresh water Gangetic dolphins breaking the surface, water buffalo and prolific birdlife, with the latter becoming totally absorbing – even for novice bird-watchers - because of the knowledgeable birding expert who travels on all cruises. On some cruises passengers have seen tigers roaming the riverbanks, although these eluded our voyage.

The deck also provides a marvellous photographic platform, especially for the sunrises and sunsets.

Over our 8 days aboard the “Sukapha”, we wandered through Mishing villages where Europeans are still a novelty, visited ancient temples and monasteries, saw monks dancing like dervishes as they played ancient musical instruments, and drove through Kaziringa National Park spotting several one horned rhinos, elephants, water buffalo, hog deer, langur monkeys, bison and giant Indian storks. These excursions were made even better because of our knowledgeable guides who spoke excellent English.

The well-equipped “Sukapha” has all modern facilities – 12 air conditioned self contained cabins, a comfortable saloon at the bow which became a pleasant informal club social for the passengers prior to breakfasts and after the evening meals (it also contains a well equipped library), a dining room with splendid panoramic views, and a small massage and spa centre.

While the “Sukapha” serves excellent Indian cuisine in its dining room, we also enjoyed a memorable on-shore tandoori barbecue one night and were entertained by villagers performing spectacular traditional dances.

All on-board meals take the form of serve yourself hot and cold buffets. The American-style breakfasts are filling and are an excellent way to start each day. Lunch and dinner always have a strong Indian flavour, with local dishes being the highlight.

The “Sukapha” also has its own tender – a beautifully and brightly decorated launch that took us ashore for our excursions.

ABN also operates a basic but very comfortable jungle lodge – Bansbari Lodge - at the entrance to Assam’s Manas National Park, one of India’s officially designated tiger breeding parks. We loved it, and it has great appeal to travellers wanting a genuine experience rather than pampered luxury. Cost is $100US a night which includes 3 meals a day, entry to the park, one jeep ride or one elephant ride daily, guided walks and government taxes.

Rooms are Spartan, and have twin beds, en-suite bathroom and toilet, and an outdoor area. Electricity tends to be tricky, although when the main supply cuts out, the Lodge’s generator cuts in. But this is yet another sign that you are in a remote area where luxuries are far outweighed by the memorable experiences.

The Lodge overlooks magnificent and expansive tea gardens, and provides some of the best guided walks I have ever undertaken. We stayed at Bansbari for four nights, and each day walked for several hours through local villages where we saw tea being picked and were made to feel welcome by the friendly and generous locals as they went about their daily routines.

We also undertook two half-day safaris through Manas national Park. Travelling in an open 4-wheel drive vehicle, the safaris terminate at the border of India and Bhutan – 20 kilometres from the Lodge but about a 90-minute journey due to the torrid road conditions.

Along the way we saw herds of wild elephant and Indian bison, monkeys, various species of deer, peacocks, mongooses and prolific and exotic birdlife. Luckier travellers have seen tigers and leopards. The highlight was arriving at the border at sunset and being able to walk a short distance into Bhutan. The border scenery is breath-takingly beautiful, especially dusk over the Himalayan foothills. It’s a photographer’s dream.

Assam is one of India’s forgotten states. But, by travelling with the Assam Bengal Navigation Company, it is a special adventure. We subsequently visited Agra and Jaipur – well known and popular tourist haunts. While we enjoyed the experience, they – apart from the Taj Mahal and Amber Fort – paled in comparison to our experience aboard the “Sukapha” and 4-night sojourn at Bansabari Lodge.

Assam is well off the usual tourist trail. It’s remote, and there are few tourist luxuries or facilities. Communication with the outside world is difficult. But by journey’s end, you know you have seen a side of India that only a lucky few have been adventurous enough to enjoy.

By flying with Singapore Airlines we were able to leave Adelaide mid morning, and arrived in Kolkata late the same night. By midday the following morning we were at the jungle lodge – amazing really, to leave the comforts of Adelaide and 24 hours later to be staying on the edge of tiger country in remote Assam!

Photos of the cruise, the vessels and Bansbari Lodge are located at http://jmprphotography.com

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