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

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