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Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 16 : 00 PM [IST]

Riding the River Wave

hugh_and_colleen_gantzer.jpgEveryone was fascinated.

Every person we spoke to during the recent TAAI Conference, wanted to know more about what we had experienced just before flying into Bengaluru. For 14 days, we had cruised down the Ganga from Patna to Kolkata. It had been a memorable encounter with the river, and the people of one of the most ancient river-valleys on earth. For us it was a wonderful eye-opening experience.

Just in case you’ve forgotten it in the hurly-burly of the elections, all great civilizations began in river valleys. Rivers provided for their people what elections do for the elected: a better lifestyle. Everyone wants a better lifestyle and is prepared to fight for it. And so the river valleys became the focal points of conflicts, conquests, and a kaleidoscope of cultures.

This is the sort of heady mix that tourists delight in. Sadly, they can’t always get what they want because those places are no longer easily accessible: they have been bypassed by history. But not by the river which made them important in the first place. There were no PWD-maintained roads when Robert Clive brought his troops down the river and changed the course of Indian history at Plassey. Thanks to the river, we visited Plassey and re-lived that critical battle through the graphic description of our on-board guide, NIiv. A convoy of cycle rickshaws brought us from the river landing to the incredible terracotta-temples of Kalna. Without the RV Sukapha we would have had a long, jolting and pot-holed road journey. The entertaining Bol Singers came to us one evening, we did not have to go to them.

riding_the_river_wave.jpgThat is one of the major attractions of a river cruise. Your floating home takes you from destination to destination, you don’t have to pack up and leave to visit attractions separated by arduous miles of driving. “But then” one of our questioners remarked, “a lot of foreign operators have tried running cruises on our West coast, some even on the East, but none of them have succeeded. Why?”

One reason could be that that they used deep-draught, ocean-going ships. They can’t risk sailing close to the shore. Consequently their passengers lost out on the myriad activities of the coastal villages. On the rather shallow-draught river vessels, however, the daily life of the riverine people is a constant, unreeling, delight. This really, is the USP of all internal waterway cruises and is what has made Kerala’s backwater cruises such an international success.

Here we would like to make a very essential point. The cruises on the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, by the Assam Bengal Navigation company, are not for the budget traveller. Their ships are sophisticated boutique hotels. Their services and routines are tailored to the needs of the affluent, aware, foreign traveller, particularly the silver-haired Brit with a certain nostalgia for the ‘Lost Days of the Raj.’ A very elegant woman with a Mayfair accent was re-reading Kipling’s, Kim, someone else had read Vilkram Seth’s, A Suitable Boy and when they learnt that we were travel writers they wanted to read our books and locate our little Himalayan town on the large map of India in the Saloon where we met every evening before dinner.

For a very short leg of the cruise there was another Indian couple on board: a former ambassador and his wife. Judging from their reactions, their wide circle of friends would be delighted with this cruise, provided it was tailored to suit their needs. They would like a more leisurely pace. Just one excursion every day, breakfast at 8 or 9 rather than at 7.30, a selection of single malts in the bar, dinner at the more acceptable Indian hour of 8.30 or 9 rather than the Brit preference of 7.30. Also plenty of time to unwind in a cosseted environment reasonably insulated from electronic intrusion. You can always say “Connectivity is very uncertain when you’re sailing on the Ganga!”

Given the varying needs of the domestic and the international traveller, it will be difficult to cater to both well-heeled foreigners and Indians in the same cruise. The ship could, however, be chartered for a specific purpose, as a group of wildlife enthusiasts have done. The on-board routine could then be tailored to the needs of the passengers, provided they do not endanger the safety of the vessel. Because of the nature of the river, the ship does not sail at night.

We did the whole 14-day cruise from Patna to Kolkata because that suited us as travel writers. Many of the other passengers did much less. Everyone we spoke to said that they had enjoyed the cruise and most were determined to sign on for the Brahmaputra cruise which we had delighted in last year.

Both the cruises are new and totally fascinating experiences.
 
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