A cruise on the tempestuous Brahmaputra River leaves an indelible impression on our contributors Anita and Mandip Singh Soin—a responsible travel champion and T+L India’s A-List member.
A cruise across the Brahmaputra to soak in some natural beauty
In December 2021, our 22-member team of Ibex Expeditions set off on a mesmerising five-day journey. Flying into Guwahati, we drove straight to Pandu Port, where our 12-cabin boat called Sukapha was anchored. After a brief welcome and cabin allocation, we heard the thrilling purr of the boat’s engine. Our journey was northwards and upstream, towards Tezpur. The Brahmaputra—or ‘son of Brahma,’ creator of the universe—is special for many reasons. Twenty nine kilometres wide from June to October, it creates a vast monochrome landscape threaded with sandbanks. We knew that cruising on it would be challenging but deeply rewarding.
The Brahmaputra carves its course through the green-gold landscape of hilly cruise Assam in India’s far Northeast—a world of tea plantations, ancient temples, and wildlife, offering an enticing blend of culture, scenery, and adventure. The river shapes the destiny of the land and the lives of the people living there. We could immediately see the links between the changing course of the river and the lifestyle of the people living near it. Villages were built away from the banks, on bamboo stilts, ensuring safety from rising water levels. Human activity was sparse but fascinating. We spotted the occasional ferry and fishermen dunking their nets while nomads grew lentils on the sandbanks.
During our five days of sailing, I felt a sense of space, a rejuvenation of the soul. Sunsets were special. The hazy light of the day gave way to burnt orange skies, and the river became a shimmering mass of burnished gold. We glided lazily past forests, paddy fields, and villages. Our travelling companions were from across India, US, and Dubai. Friendships were struck on the boat while basking on the deck and over conservations at mealtimes—spreads of Assamese, Asian, and other cuisines.
Rural Assam is home to many tribal groups, with whom we could interact during village visits and learn their ways of making traditional handicrafts. On an excursion to the village of Sualkuchi, for instance, local dancers welcomed us before we set out on e-rickshaws to witness the indigenous art of silk weaving.
Every time we returned from an excursion, we were unfailingly greeted with cold towels and refreshing beverages. On our second day, we sailed to the shore to drive up to Nilachal Hills and visit the Kamakhya Temple. This pilgrimage site is dedicated to Kamakhya Devi—the ‘bleeding goddess’—and celebrates womanhood. The inner sanctum is believed to house the womb of the Hindu goddess Sati. You see ‘menstruating’ statues and offerings of red hibiscus flowers, as devotees arrive to be purged of black magic by tantric rituals.
On our third evening, we stopped at an uninhabited sandbank to enjoy sundowners and a barbeque. The moon shone above us like a soft natural torchlight, and all we could hear was the rustle of the wind. We chose not to have a bonfire, keeping the wood for the locals who need it in their daily lives. This was in line with our oath of following responsible-travel guidelines and keeping a small carbon footprint.
As the river was unpredictable, we could cruise only during the day and had to anchor the boat to safety at night. Our evenings were peppered with talks by expert naturalists. The journey was gentle and flexible. Some travellers enjoyed a spa massage on board, while others took classes in Assamese cuisine.
The Brahmaputra River’s total length is a whopping 2,897 kilometres, through three countries. It enters India from Tibet where it is the Tsang Po, flows through Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang, and expands in width once it arrives at Assam. Here, it makes one of its most interesting journeys as it splits the state into two halves, creating a north and south bank. It is also instrumental to the sustenance of the state’s wildlife habitats.
One morning, we drove to the famed Nameri National Park, which is home to over 400 species of birds, like the silver-backed needletail and the blue-naped pitta. We arrived at the starting point of the Jia Bhoroli River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra that rushes along the park. Slowly, the sun disappeared, and the mist lifted above us with a gentle drizzle, which we hoped would go away. We turned our rafts into A-shaped tents and took shelter, listening to the ominous thunder in the sky and hoping for the rain to stop.
When the rain doubled down, we had to abort the expedition and take shelter in a bamboo hut. What initially seemed like a damp squib turned into an adventure, with all of us trekking through fields and wilderness to reach the place where our transport would finally meet us. The villagers were warm and welcoming, inviting us in for a hot drink.
We met one of the ethnic indigenous tribes of Assam called Mising, who belong to a group of hill dweller tribes from the Indo-Tibetan border. Their history lies in their folk songs and stories that have trickled down through generations. On another adventure, we drove to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park (nagaon.gov.in). The park stretches across the Golaghat, Karbi Anglong, and Nagaon districts of Assam. On our drive, we had the rare opportunity to see a hoolock gibbon, an elusive arboreal creature. It spends most of its life on trees, swinging on high canopies without setting foot on the forest floor for months at a time. As we watched the lesser ape, five to six more appeared!
Perched on the periphery of the Kaziranga National Park was our home for two nights, the charming Diphlu River Lodge. We were keen to see and photograph as much wildlife as possible, and we had our hearts set on catching a glimpse of the royal Bengal tiger. With more than 100 tigers, 2,200 Indian one-horned rhinos—two-thirds of the world’s entire population—and the last surviving population of eastern swamp deer, Kaziranga’s marshy, wooded landscape is understandably heavily protected. The park also supports large populations of Indian elephants, Indian bison, barasingha (swamp deer), wild water buffalo, and capped langur, along with myriad birds, including the oriental honey buzzard, black-shouldered kite, white-tailed eagle, and Himalayan griffon.
Alas, the royal Bengal tiger remained elusive, but we drove back to the Guwahati airport full of memories of a region that is blessed with unparalleled natural beauty.
Guwahati International Airport is well connected to all the metros of India.
The 24-passenger Sukapha is comfortable, with a bar, a dining room, and deck loungers. The decor is simple and organic, made mostly with cane and bamboo. The next departure of Ibex Expeditions’ Crossing Borders cruise is scheduled for November 11-20, 2022.