India: Tea and Toffs on the Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra River in Assam sees few westerners yet delivers an unusual adventure as Roderick Eime discovers.

“The ambassador is missing!”

The urgent call came from somewhere within our little group, just disembarked from the tiny 4WDs used to carry us through RG Orang National Park. Deep in the backwaters of Assam, the thick undergrowth makes it difficult to see the vehicle behind and in front, let alone any wildlife that might be hiding just metres away.

“I didn’t see which way they went, anybody?”

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, for the moment at least, vanished into the dense foliage.

Minutes tick by and the possie of motley military men assigned to guard us gather 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 like Indian rhinoceros, Asiatic elephant, Bengal tiger and pygmy hog. Orang, at just 79 square kilometres, is but a breast pocket in the overall scheme, with the neighbouring 430 square kilometre Kaziranga, the better known of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed collection.

The armed escort I thought was a bit of theatrical overkill, but Jimmy (Colonel Jimmy Evans,10th Ghurkha 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 prior, we’d all been sipping the local equivalent of billy tea; choice freshly-picked Assamese black, while a pair of rhino explored timidly in the tall elephant grass a few hundreds metres in front of us. These days the rifles protect them, but the rhino remain unsurprisingly gun shy.

“Still a bit flighty, eh?” remarked Dicky, to the assembled tea drinkers, relaxed on wicker chairs. Charles, a bit fidgety, was ready to trade the chai for a pint to go with his fag.

MV Charaidew under way

MV Charaidew under way

We’d all arrived that morning aboard the delightful MV Charaidew from Guwahati along the Brahmaputra River which feeds into the mighty Ganges just north of Calcutta. The Brahmaputra flows nearly 3000 kilometres 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 both 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 thirty 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.

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.

Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra

Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra

To add to the adventure, the Charaidew had run aground on a sand bank within sight of the wharf at Guwahati just prior to 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 villages 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 unassumingly-dubbed, 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, 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. Rhino often crash about nearby and one woke me in the middle of the night as he trampled saplings in his frolic. I assume it was a ‘he’.

Exploration of Kaziranga was, fittingly, by elephant back safari and the mighty pachyderms cause less agitation among the rhino population, allowing much closer access. Taking a photo however from the swaying back of 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 toward us down the dusty track. Expecting to see panicked and ashen faces behind bullet-riddled windscreens, Dicky steps down from his mount apologetically and announces is his best Oxbridge; “Dreadfully sorry, seems we took a wrong turn, nothing to worry about. Hope you weren’t waiting long.”

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.”

Fact File

Assam Bengal Navigation conduct 4-, 7- and 10-night cruises along the Brahmaputra combined with lodge stays and wildlife safaris. Prices are calculated at US$350 per person per day plus taxes. Single supplement applies. Discounts are sometimes offered.

The RV Charaidew accommodates 24 passengers in 12 air-conditioned, 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 (

Contact: Active Travel +612 9264 1231

The writer was a guest of Assam Bengal Navigation and India Tourism


Sail in for a Solomon Island Surprise


The Solomon Islands are a mystery to most Pacific Island vacationers. Adventure cruiser, Roderick Eime, reckons all it takes is a little bit of curiosity and a sense of history to be bewitched by this emerging destination.

The ghostly group approached us timidly, looking curiously in all directions. Mainly young men and a couple of boys, all smeared head-to-toe in lurid orange mud, they scanned the bushes, the tree tops and the tall grass. Clearly in fear of being observed, they moved cautiously as if any or every movement would betray them.

While these orange interlopers patrolled the gathering, women and men in traditional village attire danced and chanted energetically. The women, in particular, cavorted in a way that would have the missionaries covering their eyes and rushing for their bibles. Their hands firmly on their hips, they gyrated unambiguously, throwing their heads back in mirth.

But it wasn’t long before the orange mudmen’s imagined bogeymen materialised. Slim, lithesome and painted as black as the proverbial, their mouths were bright crimson as if full of fresh blood. They stalked the citrus-coloured troupe, snarling and mocking the orange men with menacing, wide-mouthed laughs and jabbing long, sharp spears. Forced into a terrified huddle, they ducked and dodged the increasingly nasty thrusts.

The scenario played out for a just a few minutes and our alarm grew as the younger ones clung nervously to the quivering legs of the elders, but the finale was approaching and the assembled local villagers cat-calling and laughter grew more enthusiastic as the bewildered mudmen scurried off into the bush at the point of a lance.

The final act played out, the entire cast reassembled for a curtain call and our cameras clicked furiously. Those without cameras applauded appreciatively.

Here on Santa Ana Island in the eastern province of Makira Ulawa, the ancient traditions are preserved and gleefully recreated for the occasional tourist group. The significance of this performance is explained as a representation of the arrival of foreign people and their disruption of local custom. There is some dispute however whether the new arrivals are Europeans or Polynesians. I imagine they’re interchangeable.

Santa Ana is one of several outlying islands that maintain strong cultural traditions, as much for themselves as a marketable commodity for visitors. Either way, all parties are winners and our visiting group display great interest in the multitude of artefacts and handicrafts set out for perusal.

The islands in the immediate vicinity are theorised to have been first settled by the ubiquitous Lapita people around the time the Romans were getting underway in Europe. Scattering their trademark pottery throughout the Pacific, anthropologists still debate the actual migration route, but it is generally believed to have been from the west and dependant on the sea levels current at the time.

At the Busu Cultural Village on Alite Island in Malatia Province, the centuries-old tradition of shell jewellery and currency has its home - a kind of shell mint Again we are met by energetic dancers, although instead of mud, coral and animal teeth, these handsome performers are draped in intricate shell ornaments.

Certainly the most prominent example of shell currency is in the payment of bride price and to illustrate this ritual, a nervous young girl clings to her booty clad in a veil of tiny shells painstakingly woven together to form calciferous garments. She doesn’t appear too pleased at the drawn out ceremony and I must assume she’ll be more enthusiastic when the real day arrives.

The men of Busu Village adopt a decidedly threatening pose. Their job is to protect the women during any exchange or barter that involves transactions of the shell currency which they produce laboriously in the huts behind. Weapons and the skills required to use them are displayed, just in case we get any ideas.

The most significant confrontations and combat synonymous with the Solomon Islands are the furious and bloody battles fought between the Allied and invading Japanese forces during the Second World War. Some of the most ferocious fighting took place around the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal throughout 1943.

The war history of the Solomon Islands would easily occupy several articles and the history of the campaign and the many relics, wrecks and material left behind continues to attract amateur historians and sightseers. Overgrown and abandoned tanks, crashed aircraft, sunken vessels of all types and forlorn fortifications draw curious visitors all year around.

Many of the most interesting artefacts are below the waterline, particularly around the island of Gizo (also sometimes spelled Ghizo) in the Western Province. Local dive operator, Danny Kennedy, regales us with wartime tales, particularly his favourite one, that of his namesake President, which took place not far from his little shop in the township.

While patrolling nearby Blackett Strait in August 1943, the President-to-be was in command of PT-109 when it was cut in two by a speeding Japanese destroyer in the middle of the night. The surviving crew swam to what was then Plum Pudding Island before finally being rescued thanks to heroic efforts by two local village boys. The island is now named Kennedy Island.

Danny regularly takes divers to visit his catalogue of dive sites that includes both natural and manmade attractions. Fighter aircraft and various shipwrecks make up most of the program, but the Toa Maru, lying virtually intact in just a few metres of water is the piece de resistance. At 7000 tons, the Toa Maru is possibly the largest, best preserved and divable wreck in the Pacific.

The best way to travel the many islands that make up the Solomons is by small ship expedition. The experience of arriving by ship is hard to surpass as each arrival is usually accompanied by a flotilla of local canoes decorated with flowers and costumed “warriors”. Coral Princess Cruises’s flagship, Oceanic Discoverer, is now a familiar sight in Melanesian waters as she completes her itineraries between Papua New Guinea and Auckland.

Like its neighbours Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands share the natural hospitality and friendliness of its Melanesian population while offering greater depth and richness to the entire region thanks to its many natural and human attractions.

Getting There:

Fly Solomons


For information about small ship expeditions throughout the Solomon Islands and Melanesia, contact Coral Princess Cruises []


Battle of the Mekong

If you believe the industry hype, river cruising is riding the rocket of small ship and adventure products in a rapidly growing cruise market. I tend to agree. The anecdotal evidence points to more travellers seeking out products away from the traditional sea and coastal routes and looking inland to the great waterways.

Floating Village Mekong

Floating Village Mekong

One of the most famous Asian rivers, the Mekong, is set to stage a great showdown as operators from all over the globe take on locals in their own “warships” in an attempt to outdo each other for market share.

For those who didn’t get an A in geography, the Mekong is the 10th longest river in the world and stretches 4350km through Indochina. Working backwards from the massive delta at the bottom of Vietnam, it cuts a swathe through Cambodia, forms virtually the entire western border of Laos with Thailand and Burma before disappearing onto the Tibetan Plateau through China’s Yunnan Province.

Unfortunately the entire length is not navigable due to modern dams, rapids and shallows and most cruising is reserved to the lower reaches and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap.

“The French had a good crack at it though,” Trevor Lake of Discover Asia reminds me, “but like so many European adventurers, they were hopelessly under-equipped and it really was a comedy of errors.” (Read ‘River Road to China’ by Milton Osborne)

Trevor Lake on the Mekong in Laos

Trevor Lake on the Mekong in Laos

Trevor, by the look of him, has been travelling in Asia since forever and he makes several important observations about choosing a Mekong river cruise.

“With so many vessels and styles to choose from, and new ones launching all the time, travellers really need to discuss their plans with an experienced agent. It’s absolutely imperative that you find the right vessel to match your expectations.”

His company represents all the major cruise lines, many of the tiny ones too, and is one of the handful of agents able to speak independently for all products.

Robert Fletcher of Active Travel is another expert agency operating for over 25 years across the major lines who believes the Mekong cruise market is about to reach a defining moment.

“River cruising is a sound product and will remain so unless the Battle for the Mekong leads to ridiculous discounting and dilution of the concept and quality. I think 'The Battle' is on the brink - either the Mekong cruise market stays as a fairly exclusive experience with relatively high standards or it is reduced to a mass market, low cost, low service exercise with bums in berths as the driving force.”

The major players are:

La Marguerite

La Marguerite

La Marguerite, a brand new 46-cabin luxury cruiser, built locally to luxury standards and decorated to reflect the colonial elegance, although externally she resembles many modern river cruisers. Still some teething issues, but shows great promise.

Heritage Line’s opulent Jayavarman is certainly one of the most anticipated vessels claiming “a marriage of avant-garde French colonial design with enchanting Indochine architecture”. The launch date has been revised from September to November and its itineraries boast Angkor Wat and Mekong Delta explorations.

The well-known Pandaw cruise line operates two vessels, the RV Tonle Pandaw and the RV Mekong Pandaw. While they rate a more modest 3.5 stars, they offer a rustic elegance that is in perfect harmony with the surroundings.

Trevor’s tip however may not suit all types, but challenges how we view river cruising.

“I just adore the Toum Tiou vessels from Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong ( In my opinion they are the perfect way to experience the Mekong, compact, personal and thoroughly authentic. My other favourite would be to take a luxury private sampan – just the two of you – and travel undetected through the floating markets and villages. Brilliant!”

Both Richard and Trevor seem to be saying the same thing: choose carefully, consult an expert and avoid the cheaper alternatives. Meanwhile the ‘battle’ rages.

Active Travel

Discover Asia