OF TEA & TOFFS
Stylish: Replica steamer MV Sukapha is part of the ABN river cruising fleet.
India’s mysterious Brahmaputra River is a gateway to the seldom-visited region of Assam. RODERICK EIME goes in search of tea and tigers and finds plenty for the pot
“Ah, yes, that. A Jap sniper got me just as I was about to toss him a grenade,” he says. As the discussion unfolds, I learn I am taking tea with Colonel James “Jimmy” Evans (retired), who served as a young officer with the Gurkha Rifles when the Japanese made their last ditch effort to invade India in 1944. I find his tales enthralling as he relates the story of a largely forgotten campaign during which he was awarded the he engines pushed and pushed, Military Cross. churning great clouds of silt in the Jimmy and his charming wife, Jenifer, water, but we were stuck. are accompanied by more retired Gurkha The Brahmaputra River, a wide Rifles officers and our entourage soon voluminous waterway, carries enormous takes on a jolly “Carry On Up the River” amounts of water and silt all the way from feel. The tone is lifted further with the Tibet on its journey to the Bay of Bengal, arrival of the British High Commissioner, where it joins forces with the mighty his wife and son. Ganges just north of Calcutta. Apart from tea and toffs along the river, The current flows strongly around the the itinerary expands into numerous shore “May I?” inquired a dapper old chap port town of Guwahati and spreads out to excursions that include village visits, with a Sandhurst accent. create immense sandbars – and the MV wildlife safaris and temple tramps. Charaidew is stuck on one. I indicate the chair is free and as he At the farthest extent of our travel, we The local newspaper trumpets our sits, careful not to spill his steaming cup overnight 32km past Tezpur at Diphlu misfortune with headlines like “Ship of chai, I notice a nasty scar across his River Lodge, ABN’s newest jungle lodge, stuck in sand, foreigners taste the Orient” shoulder. strategically placed to allow access to nearby Orang and Kaziranga National Parks. Both are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage catalogue and home to species of endangered Asian rhinoceros, barking deer, tiger, birds and elephants. Take an elephant-back safari and be sure to see the elephant feeding as the infant pachyderms scramble around the grounds playing tag with visitors while their mothers, munching contentedly, look on unperturbed. Among the surrounding villages are acres of tea POOL REEF CLUB TRINITY BEACH PACIFIC plantations. 1 bed $375 for 2 guests 1 bed $ 298 for 2 guests Studio $299 for 2 guests The produce, described as 2 bed $475 for 4 guests 2 bed $398 for 4 guests Family Room $399 for 4 guests red, black and white is often Port Douglas Port Douglas Trinity Beach marketed under the breakfast T: 4084 3400 T: 4099 4900 T: 4057 8666 tag and can be purchased www.poolportdouglas.com.au www.reefclubportdouglas.com.au 730364so directly from the factory door.
while two heroic river tugs work noisily throughout the night to free us. But by breakfast we are under way, embarrassed, but otherwise undamaged. The 24-berth MV Charaidew is one half of Assam Bengal Navigations fleet of classic river steamers plying both the Brahmaputra and Ganges on cultural and nature-based itineraries throughout the region. In 2003, the ABN found her languishing sadly in the mud and duly rescued her from despair. The subject of a complete refit, her life of toil was over and new adventures on the river awaited. Our snail-paced journey upstream allows us plenty of leisure time on the broad rooftop sundeck. We mingle with fellow passengers and generally take it easy, enjoying the delicious local tea by the gallon.
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Assamese tea, as distinct from highland varieties, has a strong, brisk taste, bright colour with a characteristic maltiness due to the hot, humid weather. Ladies in bright saris move slowly among the bushes, their arms delicately caressing the branches as they pick and stow their tiny harvest. On a good day, a woman will pick 20kg and earn about $3. While travel in India is a test of patience and endurance for many, Assam is devoid of much of the intense, fatiguing tourist experience common in the major centres. While poverty is ubiquitous throughout rural India, Assam seems less affected by obvious hardship. Even the usually nail-biting road travel is a little more docile here. My pack crammed and wafting fragrant aromas, from now on every simple cup of tea will transport me back to Assam and my many riverside adventures. The writer was a guest of Assam Bengal Navigation and India Tourism.
If you go ■ Travel in India is subject to Australian DFAT warnings. Check the latest updates at smarttraveller.gov.au ■ Assam Bengal Navigation conducts four, seven and 10-night cruises along the Brahmaputra combined between October and April with lodge stays and wildlife safaris. Prices are calculated at $US350 ($379) 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). ■ Active Travel, visit: www.activetravel. com.au or visit 02 9264 1231.