Kayaking the River Ganges

An adventure flowing through the heart of India.


Within 5 minutes of being on the water we were upside down, holding on for our lives. We had capsized our boat.

This was not the ideal start to a 2000km trip down one of the world’s most iconic and polluted rivers – the Ganges. Our journey started in the famous pilgrimage town of Haridwar where the Beatles once visited and finished in the former colonial capital of India, Calcutta. The adventure would see us cross the agricultural northern states of the country, weaving through remote villages and countryside, and reveal a vast wilderness and incredible hospitality rarely spoken of.

For those who visit India, the attraction of ancient Hindu temples, the vibrant colours and exotic spices paralleled with the frantic pace of life would satisfy most intrepid travellers. But we wanted to venture away from the ever predictable traveller-trail and experience the real India. So we decided to kayak the River Ganges. It was unfamiliar, unpredictable and unexplored – everything we were looking for.

Family and friends quite rightly questioned our choice of adventure holiday with fears of man eating crocodiles and cholera consuming us. So we bought an inflatable kayak, packed our sense of adventure and gathered all the water purification tablets we could.

6 week later, we were off to live our Indian adventure.

We were off to the worst start imaginable. Within 5 minutes of getting on the water we were upside down, trapped in a whirlpool that would not release us. This was not part of the romantic cruise we had envisioned. We were not wearing life jackets. We could not see each other and thoughts of horror were passing through us with the dirty water. We called out to each other and heard the fear in our voices. But we were both holding on. Kicking and pulling we dragged the boat to the bank under the watchful eyes of the locals who undoubtedly predicted our fate. We reached land shaken and soaked.

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Local fishermen trawling the Ganga at sunrise

It is easy to take your own idea and overlook the realities. We were complacent and zealous; we had our plan and nothing would stop us. We were extremely fortunate to escape with only damaged egos and wet sleeping bags with most of our belongings secured in their dry bags. The many bodies we later encountered in the river were a sobering reminder of how lucky we were.

The river is an exceptional place. It teams with wildlife from start to finish, dawn till dusk. The nature is so unfamiliar and colourful that it could be mistaken for an exotic fairytale. The locals residing along its banks use the supposedly spiritual waters for everything: drinking, washing, cleaning, cooking and defecating in; sometimes all at the same time. The undisputed scientific facts about the water quality, as well as just knowing that doing the toilet in the same water that you drink from is not healthy, are irrelevant when you start to appreciate the spirituality of those worshiping the Goddess Ganga and her holy waters.

 


Gangetic dolphins, Indian soft-shell turtles, and countless river birds dominated the landscapes for the most part. Even in the city limits as raw sewage poured out alongside us, we witnessed many animals and marine life thriving. The infamous Kingfisher bird was everywhere and aptly followed us right to the very end with its vivid blue feathers appearing in the most unexpected places. We could not believe what we were seeing after the horror stories of the deadly, toxic Ganges. One day we disturbed two thin-snouted crocodiles sheltering in the shallows. The trip was alive and we were visitors in one of the most diverse and endangered regions in the world.

Every day we never knew where we would stay. Freedom and unpredictability is what we were looking for letting the river dictate our route and routines. The remote and isolated villages along the banks were often our homes for the evenings. These rural hamlets spoke little to no English and had the most primitive amenities. No electricity, no sanitation, and no English were not a problem when you have basic Hindi and know the international sign-language for eat and sleep. Who needs a flushing toilet when you have a head torch and a dense grass field to squat in?

 

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‘Guests are Gods’ is a phrase that defines Indians. Villagers would sacrifice their own beds and sometimes entire homes to accommodate us before insisting we eat their incredible homemade food. Chai tea, biscuits, roti, rice, curd and curry so spicy that you could not feel your face were often on the menu. But what made each village so unique and memorable is how many of them are living in poverty with little education or basic amenities. These villages were the happiest places and so receptive to our visit. The hundreds of startled faces perplexed at our arrival became well rehearsed meetings that eventually exhausted us when kayaking 9 hours a day in temperatures reaching over 35°C.

The alternative was to camp on the small remote islands that interrupt the flowing river. This became our favourite choice of accommodation offering peace, security and sunsets worthy of a mention. These sandy plots of land change every year and therefore do not exist on maps. We would beach our boat, drag it in five meters and pitch our camp in the middle of nowhere with no one around expect the Ganga herself and the sounds of nature. A country with over 1 billion inhabitants and so densely populated it felt strange, almost unbelievable, to have our own private island.

 

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The Ganges is interrupted by 5 main dams controlling the flow which we had to hurdle on several occasions. To traverse with all our equipment required assistance from bewildered locals taking the form of buffalo carts, tractors, and even a tuk-tuk with the kayak strapped to the roof. The locals who help us would go above and beyond to ensure us, and our boat, were transported and able to continue our journey expecting nothing in return, except the obligatory ‘selfie’ that would follow most encounters with a local.

We reached the half point and arrived into the city of Varanasi in good time for Diwali. The city is a pilgrimage bottleneck for those who come to participate in the ceremonial ‘dipping’ in the River. It is hard to imagine why you would enter the River with sewage and rubbish floating around you. But the faith and spirituality of those who believe in the healing powers of the Ganga is evidence of how important the river is to the millions who believe in it. And along its length we witnessed the same intimate belief of spirituality over science; a concept even we struggled to contend with.

 


The festival was a welcomed respite after a month of numerous village welcomes and island hopping but the river was about to change. The population now doubled, cities increased in size and frequency, injecting even more pollution and sewage. At least that’s what we were told. Dolphins, birds and fish were everywhere as man and nature coexisted side by side. The landscape faded from the exotic wild jungles and farmlands to a hive of human activity working along its banks with the wildlife very much withstanding the fecal matter and pollution that shared the water with them.

We had been spoiled from Haridwar to Varanasi as Goddess Ganges carried us through the midday heat, saving us from physical exertion. But the flow had ceased. The headwinds stopped us in our tracks and for the first time our bodies had to work together to propel us forward. Several weeks worth of food and water were being transported by our weakening bodies as we continued down the river.

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A widening, shallow river meant that this was a frequent picture

The human threat that any traveller faces when undertaking such an expedition was a concern. The increase in population made finding accommodation more challenging but the villages we stayed at offered a sense of security that was most unexpected in a country where murder and crime is reported constantly on local news. Indians would always appear surprised when we told our story and how we had not had any problems on the voyage. But this was about to change.

The river widened, shallowed and slowed as we continued our adventure downstream. One day we managed to find an island after a long, hard slog paddling into headwinds. The campsite wasn’t quite a room with a view especially since a gigantic thermal power plant roared across the water. Herders drove their buffaloes home for the evening as we set up camp and marveled at our private and remote Ganges island. We were ready to get our heads down for a good night’s sleep.

Just before we closed our tent, two men approached the camp from behind. One had a rifle and was aiming it right at me. Jess was ordered out the tent and money was demanded. We were being robbed. At gun point.

It happened very quickly but did not end quickly. For the next hour we were held hostage as the men demanded more money and kept the rifle fixed on us. We protested at being a target to the less erratic and aggressive accomplice but to no avail. What do you do when money and cameras are not enough to give you your freedom? Escaping was our only option.

 

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And we did. An argument finally broke out between the two robbers after we protested again at having a rifle aimed at us. They turned their backs. This was it. We ran and dragged the boat into the river, abandoned our tent and fled the island. No shots were fired as we floated away with a rifle still locked onto us. Jess had jumped into the kayak and was already steering us away from the island while I climbed in having swam with the boat as it entered the water. We had escaped. Fortunately, most of our kit was already on board as we were able to move our bags around while offering more material goods to the robbers while we prepared our escape plan.

Watch the news broadcast that was played on all news channels following the incident. We were sat in our hotel room when we suddenly saw ourselves on the television. Watch here.

This was a very scary situation that we were fortunate to escape with only the loss of a tent and some wet clothes. The week following, the two robbers were arrested and we found ourselves on the front page of many newspaper whilst the authorities kept us under police protection at the very same thermal power plant that had helped light up our escape route.

We did not let this stop us from continuing. After all, an adventure is about experiencing something totally different, being pushed outside your comfort zone, and ultimately reacting to these changes.

 


So we jumped on a train, left the crime scene and rejoined the river 100km downstream. The end was now in sight, all we had to do was traverse our final dam and we would be on our final approach to Calcutta.

As the river approaches the delta at the Bay of Bengal it gradually branches off into smaller channels and we had now joined the Hooghly River of West Bengal. With a fast flow assisting us and ample hospitable villages inviting us in, these helped appease our apprehensiveness as we continued to seek a real adventure so soon after our headline incident.

The Hooghly River mirrored the beginning of the adventure as rich grasslands and beautiful wildlife surrounded us while we meandered our way around bustling towns and navigated our way through increasing river traffic. Cruise ships carrying wealthy tourists up the River became more frequent and our adventure enjoyed a moment of luxury when we were invited on board to witness a life of exuberance and indulgence.

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The luxurious cruise ships offer a relaxing adventure up the Hooghly River

Calcutta was in sight. All we had to do was paddle against the now tidal river and avoid the stubborn passenger ferries that showed no mercy to our kayak.

And there it was… the iconic Howrah Bridge marking the end of our two month kayak adventure. We moored up and exited the water for the last time, packing away our trusty, inflatable boat that had carried us over 1500 miles through the heart of India.

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Jess and I with the Howrah Bridge marking the end of the adventure

A sense of relief, achievement, shock and exhaustion is what makes something an adventure. And this was a real adventure. It took us to villages that had never seen foreigners, shown us the generosity of a nation that is too often forgotten, and boasted wildlife that many would not believe exists. We had kayaked across one of the world’s most famous rivers together and this was only the start of our adventures.


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