We got lucky. By an unexpected act of kindness we were spending the night aboard a luxury boat all to ourselves.
On the Brahmaputra River | Moored at Nimati Ghat | Upper Assam | North East India
While we were in Majuli ,my cousin Ashish had got wind of us being in Assam and he whatsapped to ask where we were. Then he pinged back, ‘I’m sending a country boat to pick you guys up, you can stay on onboard my cruise ship stationed at Nimati’. We were thrilled.
At Nimati, we boarded Ashish’s country boat and slowly crossed the Brahmaputra, its grey waters like mirrored sheets, reflecting pink-edged clouds and rippled with little corrugations, cracks and whirls.
We sat on the roof and watched a jealous cloud cover the sunset over this majestic river, the ‘Son of Lord Brahma’, the lifeblood of the Assam valley.
A tricky river to navigate
Sailing across the river isn’t as simple as it looks; its not a case of just looking at the distant horizon, holding the tiller straight and avoiding any of the passing single-deck ferries loaded with cars, motorbikes and people.
No, navigating the Brahmaputra river, one of the most powerful rivers in the world, is a tricky business because it’s fraught with hazards; it has a strong current and in places it’s very shallow, just a few feet deep, and in others over 100 feet deep; it takes many years to understand its continually changing sand-bars and finding the deepwater channel needs a trained eye.
Our course zigzagged. We watch clumps of water-hyacinth in the strong current overtake us. The watermen, experts in charting the courses, survey the river every 3 days and plant bamboo poles in the bed which warn navigators: approach on the left of the pole mounted with two horizontal sticks, and to the right of a small rectangular sheet when you go downstream. Get this wrong and you’re grounded.
Slowly we got to the south bank and the features of the ABN Charaidew, India’s first river cruise ship became clearer; its four white decks, an upper deck of loungers and chairs; shuttered windows and green trim.
On the the ship a line of staff welcomed us with a tray of melon juice and cold face towels.
“Suddenly the clouds parted; sun rays shone down through them; the voice of angels sang. We had just crossed the border from backpackerville for pampercity. This was the closest I’d ever get to feeling like Prince William.”
The cruise ship was a bit like the ship on the 1970s film ‘Death on the Nile’ except it’s not a paddle steamer, it’s not on the Nile and no one gets murdered.
You might just expect Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot to come walking on deck and inspect you with his monocled eye while David Niven stands by and watches, all linen-suit and walking cane.
We lay on the sun loungers on the top deck overlooking the river. Occasionally there was a splash and the sound of a sharp exhalation of air from a blowhole.
River dolphins had come to say hello but looking for one is rather like looking for a shooting star; they’re much more shy than their marine cousins.
“Everything onboard was shiny; from the polished brass engine room to the varnished wooden floors and walls; the mirror behind the bar and even the surface of the Brahmaputra. It was all gleaming in the pink sunset light.”
So there we were. On loungers, looking at the day’s last rays to the splash of dolphins, having cold Kingfisher beers topped up by a man called Shah Jehan from Dhubri.
On a distant sandbank a glowing amber light flickered, a bonfire where men were fishing through the night till their 7.30am visit to the market.
Everything is sourced locally by the staff and the cook sent up a plate of small fried fish, boriola, like whitebait, and we chatted to the ship’s manager Nobojit.
Hints of the Raj with Assamese design
What I really liked on the boat were the details that fused both the Raj in the time of the river steamers ferrying up and down the river in the mid-1800s, and classy Assamese design-culture.
The 12 double berths are well planned (making use of the space in a thoughtful way) spotless and homely; they have double mosquito-proof screens that slide apart in the day, cane blinds in the en-suite shower and soap holders made of Assamese brassware with small sponges to keep the soap dry; the fabrics are local handloom cloths with geometrical edgings, in classic Assamese repeat designs. I’m sure I could see the influence of Ashish’s wife Manu, in its classy, understated Assamese elegance.
We sat in the wood panelled lounge on the middle deck before dinner and drank a glass (or two, maybe) of Chenin blanc; in the dining room the walls were adorned with portraits of maharajahs their handsome beards and curled moustaches the envy of hipsters anywhere.
Assamese food aboard
The main cook was away on compassionate leave, so the second cook, who was also one of the navigators, was in charge. He served a glittering array of Assamese dishes in small thaali, notable local delicacies were light orange pumpkin mash (ronga lao), red banana flowers (col dil) and ladies’ fingers (vendi). The dessert was bottle gourd (pani lao) delicately shredded to an almost vermicelli-like thickness, a subtle sweetness that pleased my tastebuds and pleased my girth.
A very brief foodies’ guide to Assamese food
A very brief foodies’ guide to Assamese food
Assamese food is different to mainstream Indian food; it’s lighter, healthier, uses no strong spices and minimal oil (mainly mustard oil) and relies on the flavour of the ingredients for taste. It has similarities to South East Asian food.
The cooking ingredients range from fish, lots of leaves like taco (kosu) and wild cardoamom leaf (tora paat), bamboo shoots (gaaj), red flowers of the banana tree (kol dil), ferns (dhekia) and tangy vegetables like the elephant apple (ou tenga).
The Assamese are rice-eaters and have all kinds of rice ranging from brown, sticky and white and this is traditionallly cooked and served inside a thick bamboo compartment called a soonga.
Famous Assamese dishes are mussor tenga unja, an orangey broth, made from tomatoes and fish, made tangy with elephant apples; and then there’s khar an alkaline dish made from a specific banana tree trunk which is eaten at the start of the meal and is great for heart-burn and indigestion. A colloquial name for the Assamese is khar khowa Oxomiya (Assamese khar eaters) because the rest of India must be on Rennie. That’s a lot of indigestion and heartburn going on.
The easiest way to sample Assamese food in the west is to befriend an Assamese expat because there are very few Assamese restaurants outside India.
It was a special evening, we had the ship to ourselves and it’s fair say we were spoilt rotten. So much for roughing it when you’re backpacking around Asia. I wished they’d sail to Thailand Sarah said.
We spent the morning lounging around and spotting dolphins, reading and drinking cups of tea on recliners overlooking the river.
We stayed for lunch which was bitter gourd (tita kerala), red spinach (morisa xaak) and Assam’s champion dish, mussor tenga unja with perfectly filleted pieces of fish.
By early afternoon it was too soon time to leave. Nobojit arranged for a taxi to Jorhat from where we dragged our backpacks on to a creaking state transport bus.
After one and a half hours we got off the bus at the world heritage site of Kaziranga National Park in central Assam, home of the great one horned rhinoceros.
We carried our backpacks along, feet firmly on the ground again in more than one sense.
The RV Charaidew and her sister ships are sailed by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company which was set up by Ashish and a partner in the UK; it has several other river cruises that sail up and down the Brahmaputra, Ganges and the Hooghly with moorings at places of interest.
5% of their profits go to local charities and they train and employ local youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to become staff on their ships.