Review: RV Charaidew
Cruise - River Cruise
Passage Through Assam, India
129 people found this review helpful
As an aficionado of Noble-Caledonia’s small ship sea cruises (I’ve been on seven, another two booked for the future!!) I thought I would dip my toe in the water, as it were, and try a river cruise; so as a starter I chose the Brahmaputra River in Assam, north-eastern India.
The flight to Calcutta went via Dubai; what a huge airport that has become, it must be one of the biggest in the world, but luckily we had sufficient time to negotiate the long distance from the arrival to the departure terminal and there were plenty of English speaking staff with “May I Help You” signs. I would hate to have to do that long walk in a hurry. Calcutta Airport, dirty and scruffy, was a bit of a culture shock after Dubai; but in all fairness, a new terminal is under construction and nearly finished but don’t hold your breath waiting for the opening date.
We stayed two nights in Calcutta, or to use the current Bengali pronunciation Kolkata, at the four star Hotel Taj Bengal. On our first afternoon we had a tour of the city with an excellent local guide. He spoke knowledgably and luckily was quite tall (for an Indian) so when he held up the Noble Caledonia sign it was easy to see him through the crowds. The next morning we went to the flower market. I had been there on my last visit in 2000 but didn’t remember just how noisy, busy, crowded and colourful it was. But it was amazing and very entertaining with lots of photo opportunities. That day, January 26th was Independence Day and a national holiday which meant everyone was off work or away from school. Consequently there was very little traffic on the roads and our bus whizzed around town. It also meant a blessed relief from the incessant horn hooting. We were told there were colourful processions in the centre of the city in the morning with huge floats etc but we didn’t see any of them as we had our sightseeing schedule to keep to.
The next morning we had an early start to the domestic airport Dum Dum (great name!) Our tour leader and local agent looked after the luggage but then it was chaotic getting through security. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people milling around with a lot of pushing and shoving and men and women had to go through separate doors. In spite of which our one hour flight to Guwahati took off on time. On arrival we went by minibus and car to join our boat, the Charaidew, named after a holy place and burial ground of the Ahorn kings. But first we had to scramble down a steep sandy bank, with many willing helping hands, to board the “country boat”, a kind of longboat which those of us who had been on Noble-Caledonia’s small sea vessels called the “zodiac” (the inflatable dinghies used to go ashore from the ships). The country boat was to accompany us, tied to the side of the Charaidew, and would take us ashore when the mother boat was unable to moor.
Thus started a very enjoyable 12 days in which we covered approximately 250 miles of the Brahmaputra river through the region of Assam. This is the part of India in the north east with Bangladesh to the south, Myanmar (Burma) to the east and Bhutan to the north. The scenery was mainly flat agricultural land with glimpses of the Himalayas in the far distance on a couple of days. The daily programme on the boat usually started with the generator being switched on at about 6.30 a.m. Various kinds of tea (well, we were in Assam….) and coffee were available in the lounge/bar followed by breakfast at 7.30 a.m. except on days when we went to the National Park. Breakfast consisted of porridge or cereal, eggs cooked to ones choice, bacon or sausages and potatoes or similar, toast, butter and marmalade. Lunch was generally at 1 p.m. and dinner at 7.30 p.m. Both meals were self service buffet for the main course with soup at dinner and dessert at both meals served at the table. The food was excellent. Somewhat western style at lunch, cottage pie, fish in cream sauce with vegetables etc and dinner was always curries with at least four dishes of meat and vegetables plus rice – many different varieties; in fact I don’t think we had the same meal twice in the whole 12 days on board. Assam cuisine is not very spicy and was very acceptable to British tastes. One or two people who were not keen on curry were always offered an alternative and one couple who enjoyed hot curries had theirs spiced up. Alcoholic drinks were extra.
Every evening a briefing was held in the lounge/bar by our excellent local guide, Neev who was with us for the duration of the cruise. He was exceptionally knowledgeable and very helpful and patient. The other local guide, Babu, was a whiz kid at spotting and identifying birds. A day’s schedule for the following day was put in each cabin every evening. This gave the timetable for the day’s activities and also bits of information on the area, such as extracts from 18th and 19th century books at the time of the British in India and other documents of interest. The generator went off at 10.30 p.m. by which most people were in bed anyway. We always moored by the riverbank at night so everything was quiet without the noise of the engine or the generator.
Only one day was spent on the river without going ashore during the day and in the morning our chef Mangal, a drop dead gorgeous 29 year old. and the boat manager Barun, who I had mistakenly been calling Buran all week, gave a demonstration of Indian cooking. Curry (of course!!) and various types of chapattis; all very tasty. In the early evening our tour leader organised a quiz that was very entertaining and I was in the team which came second despite my contribution of wrong answers. As we had moored by a low sandy beach, and not by a steep bank, we were able to go ashore and walk around and where we spotted tiger footprints! A barbecue had been arranged on the “beach” in the evening and though the tiger might have been interested in the delicious smell of the cooking meat he was no doubt scared away by the noise we were making.
On all other days were went ashore to visit local villages, towns and temples and to the Kaziranga National Park. My diary for the second day on the boat reads “We left at 8.30 on the country boat to land on shore and walk around a local village called Kurua. Very interesting and it was obviously quite a well off area with people going off to market in Guwahati, the other side of the river. It was a large village, 10,000+ inhabitants, all very friendly and happy to be photographed. Children looking very clean and tidy going to school, old men smiling and revealing serious dental problems, cows going off to pasture somewhere. Neev, our guide, said they would all have electricity and even running water and there were plenty of satellite dishes. Lots of photo opportunities and many local people with mobile phones were taking photos of us!!”
This was to be the pattern when we visited villages. Our boat company very sensibly chooses to visit different riverside villages on each of its cruises so that no one place expects visits. We found local people friendly and welcoming and there was absolutely no begging. In two villages we visited a local school and were able to talk to the teachers and see the children doing their exercises and singing the national anthem before classes. At one place we came in to moor at the river bank as it was getting dark. Lots of children came running along the bank shouting with excitement. The next morning I was up at 6 a.m. and saw one boy with his bicycle and one woman with two small children on the bank. By 8.30 a.m. there must have been about 300 of them! We went ashore, scrambling up the sandy bank, to visit their village called Phulia Bari, apparently these people are Muslims and originally came over the border illegally from Bangladesh (so we are not the only country to have problems…) When the Brahmaputra floods, as it does most years, they have to move the whole village, lock, stock & barrel, including houses and livestock to higher ground. We walked around their village for nearly two hours accompanied by the crowd of inhabitants who then came to wave us off as we sailed on upstream. In the evening our tour leader and the boat manager had arranged a wine tasting of the Indian wines available on the boat. I’m not sure which flowery words Jilly Goolden would have found to describe them but I found the whites perfectly drinkable though personally I was not so keen on the reds. At least the tasting gave me an idea what to drink and what not to!
Two other villages we visited were inhabited by members of the Mishing tribe who build their houses on stilts. Several of the houses had weaving looms underneath. We saw these looms in many of the villages with the women working on them. They did sell their things to our group though they do the weaving for their own people, not for tourists of whom there really are very few. Apart from the villages we also visited a couple of larger towns: Tezpur where we visited a ruin of a 6th century temple and a park laid out by Colonel Cole of the British army in 1904, it fell into ruin but was renovated in 1996. Then we climbed on to cycle rickshaws to go to the local market. The rickshaws normally seat two people but we were allocated one each to accommodate large English bottoms. The other large town we visited was Jorhat a very busy place where we had a walk around before going on to visit a tea plantation. This was not the time of year for picking the leaves that occurs after the monsoons but we had a delicious lunch and looked around the factory.
The highlight of the cruise was to visit Kazaranga National Park. We were to make three visits hopefully to see one horned rhinos, elephants and, with a bit of luck, tigers. Our tour leader said that in the four times he had done this trip with Noble-Caledonia he had never seen a tiger so we didn’t hold out much hope. We had to go ashore and travel on two minibuses for over an hour on pretty awful roads then we climbed into jeeps to drive around the park. We saw the rhinos, elephants, water buffalo, deer and lots of birds. But no tigers. Our second visit to the park was to the central range where we went on an elephant ride. From the back of the elephants we had excellent views of the rhinos, some with babies. On for a tasty lunch at a lodge where we were surprised to see an elephant (tame this time) with his mahout come down to the river to bathe. We were due to visit yet another part of the park in the afternoon but it had suddenly closed as poachers had been sighted and the rangers were out looking for them. Even in this remote place poachers are caught killing rhinos for their (one) horn. So on to Plan B and back into our minibuses for another hour’s drive back to the part of the park we had visited in the morning on the elephants, but this time we went in jeeps. Just at the very end of the drive, huge excitement as a tiger was spotted (actually he was striped, not spotted but you know what I mean….). He came down through some trees to drink at a stream and those in all five of our jeeps managed to get a good view. A very happy group of people clicking away with their cameras.
So altogether this was a very successful and enjoyable trip. The weather was not as hot as I thought it would be but only on one day was it not warm enough to sit on the top deck on the comfortable sun loungers No question of putting towels on the seats at 6 a.m. there was plenty of room for everyone! Tea and coffee were available most of the time and Babu and Neev were always around doing their bird spotting as we cruised along. The only time we saw any other river boats was when we visited Majuli Island, allegedly the largest inhabited river island in the world. Ferris were laden with people and goods and going to the island from the mainland. But ours was the only tourist boat on the river for the entire 12 days.
So….. verdict of sea vessels versus river boats? Hard to say. But while I am still able to jump into the zodiacs on the expedition sea cruises I will put the river cruises on hold. Then many rivers will no doubt beckon: the Rhone, the Danube, the Elbe, the Volga, the Ganges, the Nile. Does any company go to the Congo?
129 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.
Silver Travel Advisor Recommended Partner: Noble Caledonia - Small Ship Cruises