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Riverboats, rhinos and the Raj’s relics 24 Oct 2010


14 Escape.com.au

Cruise India

FULL STEAM: MV Charaidew on the Brahmaputra River in Assam; villagers (below) meet the vessel.

Riverboats, rhinos and the Raj’s relics

Dicky (Sir Richard Stagg, British High Commissioner to India, on his business card), Lady Arabella (that’s ARAbella, thank you, not ‘‘Bella’’) and their dashing, twenty-something lad, Charles, along with their armed escort have vanished into the foliage. Minutes tick by and the posse of motley military men assigned to guard us gathers for a discussion, cradling their collection of antique small arms. Not all seem to share our concern as one squad stands obligingly for my camera while I snap a photo. RG Orang National Park is one of several reserves put aside for endangered and vulnerable species such as Indian rhinoceros, Asiatic elephant, Bengal tiger and pygmy hog. Orang, at just 79sq km, is but a breast pocket in the overall scheme, beside neighbouring 430sq km Kaziranga, the better known of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed collection. The armed escort I thought was a bit of theatrical overkill, but Jimmy

The last days of the Raj are alive and well on the Charaidew, writes Roderick Eime ‘‘THE ambassador is missing!’’ The urgent call came from somewhere within our little group, just disembarked from the tiny fourwheel-drives used to carry us through RG Orang National Park. Deep in the

backwaters of Assam, the thick undergrowth makes it difficult to see the vehicles in your convoy, let alone any wildlife that might be hiding. ‘‘I didn’t see which way they went – anybody?’’

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(Colonel Jimmy Evans, 10th Gurkha Rifles, retd.) reminds me there are still rebels active in Assam. ‘‘These blighters still make a nuisance of themselves,’’ says Jimmy earnestly in a hushed tone. The last time Jimmy was here, he was throwing grenades at invading Japanese forces. He still has a scar from a sniper’s bullet and Military Cross as souvenirs. Not half an hour before, we’d been sipping the local equivalent of billy tea – choice freshly picked Assamese black – while a pair of rhinos explored timidly in the tall elephant grass a few hundred metres in front of us. These days the rifles protect them, but the rhinos remain unsurprisingly gun shy. ‘‘Still a bit flighty, eh?’’ remarked Dicky to the assembled tea drinkers, relaxed on wicker chairs. We’d all arrived that morning aboard the delightful MV Charaidew from Guwahati along the Brahmaputra River, which feeds into the Ganges just north of Calcutta.

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October 24, 2010

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The Brahmaputra flows nearly 3000km from Tibet and China and is an important transport route for local farmers and traders. The 24-berth Charaidew is one half of Assam Bengal Navigation’s (ABN) fleet of classic river steamers plying the Brahmaputra and Ganges on cultural and nature-based itineraries throughout the region. In 2003, the Charaidew was rescued from despair on the mudflats after 30 years of toil. After a lengthy restoration, it reappeared as a classic river steamer for the Indo-British joint-venture company and has served a much nobler purpose ever since. It’s not luxurious, but comfortable and perfectly at home in its new quasi-colonial role carrying loads of Anglos in this delightful throwback to the days of the Raj. Passengers are served authentic, mildly spiced local cuisine by charming young hosts and hostesses plucked from remote Assamese villages adjoining the Burmese border. Occasionally they are overheard chattering in their Dimapur village dialects, tongues totally foreign to Hindi and even Assamese-speaking Indians. Yet their English is cheery, clear and calm, more in keeping with their eastern cousins. To add to the adventure, the Charaidew had run aground on a sandbank within sight of the wharf at Guwahati just before our arrival. Harmlessly, but embarrassingly stuck, we became a headline news item in The Telegraph (of Calcutta): ‘‘Ship stuck in sand, foreigners taste the Orient,’’ the paper blurted. ‘‘Two Australians & seven Britons spend night in the middle of Brahmaputra after snag in vessel,’’ it continued, politely omitting our identities. Two stout river tugs worked noisily all that night to free us and our ever-cheerful host remarked in the morning with some relief: ‘‘With the river level falling, we would have been stuck until the next monsoon.’’ During our snail-paced passage upstream, we stopped at tiny villages and temples for an insight into rural life far from the major cities. Hordes of bemused villagers line the shore as we’re tied up to the crumbling bank. Once ashore, our excursions took us to tea plantations, craft workshops, rowdy markets and quaint cafes. My favourite local pub, the Drongo Wine Bar, served whiskey shots and local brew to a most discerning clientele. The ABN also owns the Bansbari and Diphlu river lodges, strategically positioned to enable easy access to the nearby wildlife reserves and which, interwoven with nights aboard Charaidew, form an enriching and highly unusual exploration of this seldom-visited region of India. Tasteful, even trendy, the lodges are stilted bungalows with expansive views of the river and floodplain. Rhinos often crash about nearby and one woke me in the middle of the night, trampling saplings. Exploration of Kaziranga was, fittingly, by elephant-back safari and the mighty pachyderms cause less agitation among the rhino population, allowing much closer access. However, taking a photo from the swaying back of a meandering elephant is a challenge in itself. Tigers, if they still populated this park, remained unseen. Back at Orang the consternation among our British colleagues is rising. Then, just as suddenly, the guards’ huddle breaks as two little Suzuki 4WDs roar towards us down the dusty track. We expect to see ashen faces behind bullet-riddled windscreens. Instead, Dicky steps down from his mount apologetically and announces in his best Oxbridge: ‘‘Dreadfully sorry, seems we took a wrong turn, nothing to worry about. Hope you weren’t waiting long.’’

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Charles, looking the most relieved of us all, turns to me and quietly remarks: ‘‘Had to make an urgent stop – you know, call of nature.’’ He opens his wallet and reveals a single 1000 rupee note. ‘‘And I was down to my last one! Expensive, that.’’ The writer was a guest of Assam Bengal Navigation and India Tourism

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Assam Bengal Navigation conduct four, seven and 10-night cruises along the Brahmaputra combined with lodge stays and wildlife safaris. Prices are calculated at $US350 a person a day plus taxes. Single supplement applies. Discounts are sometimes offered. The RV Charaidew accommodates 24 passengers in 12 airconditioned, twin cabins, each with private facilities. Included buffet meals are served in the dining room and there is a separate lounge/bar/ library in the bow plus a large rooftop sundeck. Singapore Airlines flies from Australia to Calcutta (Kolkata) via Singapore. Domestic link to Guwahati such as Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) Contact: Active Travel www.activetravel.com.au (02) 9264 1231.

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October 24, 2010

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Riverboats, rhinos and the Raj's relics