India s remote river of tea
A woman and her son protect themselves from the rain with leaves in India's north-eastern state of Assam.

The engines pushed and pushed, churning great clouds of silt in the water, but we were stuck.

The Brahmaputra River, a wide voluminous waterway, carries enormous amounts of water and silt all the way from Tibet on its journey to the Bay of Bengal, where it joins forces with the mighty Ganges just north of Calcutta.

The current flows strongly around the port town of Guwahati and spreads out to create immense sand bars - and the MV Charaidew is stuck on one.

The local newspaper trumpets our misfortune with headlines like Ship stuck in sand, foreigners taste the Orient while two heroic river tugs work noisily throughout the night to free us. By breakfast, however, we are under way, embarrassed, but otherwise undamaged.

The 24-berth MV Charaidew is one half of Assam Bengal Navigation's fleet of classic river steamers plying both the Brahmaputra and Ganges on cultural and nature-based itineraries throughout the region.

In 2003, the ABN found her languishing sadly in the mud and duly rescued her from despair. The subject of a complete refit, her life of toil was over and new adventures on the river awaited.

Our snail-paced journey upstream allows us plenty of leisure time on the broad rooftop, sundeck. We mingle with the fellow passengers and generally take it easy, enjoying the delicious local tea by the gallon.

"May I?" inquired a dapper old chap with a Sandhurst accent.

I indicate the chair is free and as he sits, careful not to spill his steaming cup of chai, I notice a nasty scar across his shoulder.

"Ah, yes, that. A Jap sniper got me just as I was about to toss him a grenade."

As the discussion unfolds, I learn I am taking tea with Colonel James "Jimmy" Evans (retired) who served as a young officer with the Gurkha Rifles when the Japanese made their last ditch effort to invade India in 1944.

I find his tales enthralling as he relates to me the story of a largely forgotten campaign during which he was awarded the Military Cross.

Jimmy and his charming wife, Jenifer, are accompanied by more retired Gurkha Rifles officers and our entourage soon takes on a jolly "Carry On Up the River" feel.

The tone is lifted further with the arrival of the British High Commissioner, his wife and son.

Apart from tea and toffs along the river, the itinerary expands into numerous shore excursions that include village visits, wildlife safaris and temple tramps.

At the farthest extent of our travel, we overnight 32km past Tezpur at Diphlu River Lodge, ABN's newest jungle lodge, strategically placed to allow access to nearby Orang and Kaziranga National Parks.

Both are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage catalogue and home to species of endangered Asian rhinoceros, barking deer, tiger, birds and elephants.

Take an elephant-back safari and be sure to see the elephant feeding as the infant pachyderms scramble around the grounds playing tag with visitors while their mothers, munching contentedly, look on unperturbed.

Among the surrounding villages are acres of tea plantations. The produce, described as red, black and white is often marketed under the breakfast tag and can be purchased directly from the factory door.

Assamese tea, as distinct from highland varieties, has a strong brisk taste, bright colour with a characteristic maltiness due to the hot, humid weather.

Ladies in bright saris move slowly among the bushes, their arms delicately caressing the branches as they pick and stow their tiny harvest. On a good day, a woman will pick 20kg and earn about three dollars.

While travel in India is a test of patience and endurance for many, Assam is devoid of much of the intense, fatiguing tourist experience common in the major centres. While poverty is ubiquitous throughout rural India, Assam seems less affected by obvious hardship. Even the usually nail-biting road travel is a little more docile here.

My pack crammed and wafting fragrant aromas, from now on every simple cup of tea will transport me back to Assam and my many riverside adventures.

IF YOU GO

Travel in India is subject to Australian DFAT warnings. Check the latest updates at smarttraveller.gov.au.

Assam Bengal Navigation conducts four, seven and 10-night cruises along the Brahmaputra combined between October and April with lodge stays and wildlife safaris. Prices are calculated at $A379 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.

For more information, see www.activetravel.com.au or phone (02) 9264- 1231.

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

The West Australian

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