Paddling the Ganges: 05.10. - 30.10.04
Sixteen months ago we, Nadine and Martin, left
our hometown of Limburg a.d. Lahn in Germany for a trip around the world
on our bicycles. So far we have cycled about 19000 km through Eastern
Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and
Pakistan. We are now in India, and have been in Rishikesh for a few days.
Rishikesh is a small busy town at the foot of the mighty Himalayan Mountains.
Nadine is just returning from the local bazaar with with more vegetables
than usual, because starting tomorrow we will spend four weeks paddling
1000 km on the River Ganges, India's holy river. We will be traveling
from Rishikesh to Varanasi in a foldable, open canoe that fits on a bicycle
trailer when it is packed. When built up the canoe is 16.5 feet
long and large enough to carry us and all of our equipment including our
bicycles with the front wheel dismantled and 10 days of food. While
in Europe, we paddled both the Danube and Daude rivers ). I still
remeber the comments about the Ganges from some paddlers we met on the
River Danube in Eastern Europe (we paddled the Danube in a similar manner,
in this cannoe): "I would never paddle in that filthy slop! The river
is full of garbage and human bones, ....!" We are not sure what
to expect. Are we really going to paddle for four weeks in a filthy river
that no creature can survive in? Will we have a chance to escape India
with its overpopulation, its stinking big cities, its slums and its permanent
On the next morning we cycle to the banks of the River Ganges.
I get surrounded by a crowd of 20- 30 spectators as I try to build the
canoe, and also keep an eye on our equipment. Some are so curious
that they nearly crawl into the boat. While I am doing this, Nadine
cycles back to our guesthouse to fetch our remaining vegetables,
fruits and our 20 litre water container, but our room is empty! It may
be hard to believe, but the staff took everything. Nadine manages to get
most of our supplies back, but 1/3 is still missing. After the boat is
built, I also cycle to the guesthouse and after about 20 minutes and some
tough arguments, an employee of the guesthouse manages to "find" most
of the missing vegetables in some neighbouring houses and his own room.
Despite the time we spend getting back our supplies and all the spectators
who encircled us, the boat is ready and everything is packed. After two
hours we are heading onto the river. During the first couple of kilometers
of our trip, we paddled through a beautiful scenic landscape. This section
of the river splits several times so there are many small islands as well
as some shallow rapids. In the evening we stop on a gorgeous sandy beach
where we pitch up our tent, unload the boat and pull it out of the water.
After some pasta with tomatosauce and some yoghurt with apples and bananas
for dinner we crawl into our sleepingbags an fall asleep immediately.
Big Dam in Haridwar: On the second day early in the
morning we are stopped in Haridwar by a big dam. On the other side of
the dam there is almost no water so we decide to carry our things to a
sidearm of the Ganges, which seems to go back to the river after a couple
hundered meters. While unloading the boat, a ranger appears and tells
us that we were not supposed to paddle between Rishikesh and Haridwar,
because there the Ganges is a protected nature reserve. He checks our
passports and then leaves. We are afraid that he is going to report our
trip to other authorities who would call off our trip, so we hurry and
get our boat into the sidearm without further inquiries.
A Tunnel!!! After two hours of hard labour we get back on the water, but within meters we realize, that both sides of the sidearm are constructed with stones. I tell Nadine "I hope the river remains calm, because if we capsize it'll be nearly impossible to leave the water with the stony sides." As the sidearm turns towards the main river the banks are suddenly made of concrete and the current increases. Suddenly we have big waves and water coming into the canoe while we are speeding towards the next bend. The sidearm now turns away from the main river, and due to the strong current we have to deal with large waves. The big waves bring more water into the boat, but our major concern is now a black hole which is about 50m in fornt of us. The sidearm is going straight into a tunnel! I discover some bushes in a gap of the concrete and try to catch them to stop the canoe.The bushes are out of my reach so I jump into the water to catch them, but I miss them. Now I am in the water, hanging onto the stern of the boat, holding my paddle in one hand while trying to sabilisize the canoe with the other.We are heading at high speed through big rapids into the tunnel. As you may know there are two types of tunnels, one type where you can see the end and the other type which are so long that you can't. This tunnel is the second type and the entrance disappears around a bend. The tunnel is now pitch black, the current is still strong and the waves still high. After couple of minutes the river calms down and I'm able to put the paddle back into the boat, but I still don't want to risk to climb in. Nadine didn't realize, that I jumped out of the boat on purpose and feared already the worst, when I hear her trembling voice: "Are you still alive? ... Are we going to die here?". I swim towards her to comfort her and try to understand where we happed to be (may be we're in a hydroelectric power station?!!! ). After what feels like ages to me, I suddenly see a bit of light. Nadine can't see anything, although her eyes are much better. When the exit is in front of us Nadine realizes that the boat had turned around in the dark and that she had been looking the wrong way. Under the eyes of cheering kids, which are playing in the water, we finally exit the tunnel. Happy to have survived, we stop in the first reeds to scoop all the water out of the canoe.
Ferryboat: After a couple of days we see the first ferryboat. The ferryboat, powered and steered by a long bamboo pole, lies about 15m off the bank in the river, which is about 100m wide at this point. All passengers have to cross the hip high water to reach the ferryboat. After a long time, the boat is finally full and the ferryman starts to push the boat across the Ganges. He manages to get the boat about 30m before the boat runs aground on a sandbank. Half of the male passengers now jump into the water to pull the boat back into the deeper water. In the meantime, more people arrive at the river crossing and instead of waiting, they walk straight to the ferryboat and help to pull it of the sandbank. The ferryman is not having a good day today, because now the boat is drifting towards a small island in the middle of the river. Again most of the men jump out of the boat, but while half of them try to pull the boat off the island the others just grab their belongings and walk straight to the other side of the river (maybe they are too busy to help). During the whole river crossing ceremony, we are sitting on the banks cooking some Dahl (Indian lentil dish) and Chapati (Indian bread).We manage to cook, to eat, to wash the dishes and get back on the water, by the time the ferry arrives on the other side.
Fauna in and around the Ganges: Due to the absence
of villages and towns and therefore of people, there are heaps of animals
in and aroud the Ganges. Hundreds of storkes, herons, kingfishers,
buzzards, parrots, and turtles were seen. We also saw a few cranes,
ibises, pelicans, sea eagles, owls, peacocks, crayfishes, mussels, eels,
snakes, scorpions, huge lizards (1m long), foxes and monkeys. There are
also strange fish around and it seems that they always comes to the surface
to breath, but the only thing we can see of it is a thick fin. In the
ocean we would be sure that these are dolphins. Could dolphins be
here on the Ganges? After about two weeks (on the river trip?, timeline
continuity) we started to paddle, when we again hear this strange breathing
sound. We have plenty of time, so we stop paddling to investigate
the strange fish. At first we don't want to trust our eyes, but there
is a whole dolphin family right next to our boat. While the older dolphins
come only to the surface to breathe, a small dolphin is jumps several
times out of the water. We are so fascinated from these beautiful creatures,
that we float with the current for at least 30 minutes just observing
Shopping: After 11 days we arrive in Fathegarh,
the first real town, in the afternoon. I walk to the local bazaar, one
of the kind where everything just lies on the ground. I buy fresh
vegetables, rice, pasta and milkpowder, while Nadine guards our boat which
was closely observed by many interested people. As is usual, although
some people are very close to the boat, nobody is talks to us. Everybody
just watches us, the strangers. After the shopping is finally done, I
go to fill up our water containers at a pump well. I pump for a coupleof
minutes, when I suddenly feel something warm dropping on my back. I look
into the tree above me and now the warm fluid is droping into my eyes.
I turn away, dry my eyes and when I'm look back into the tree, I see a
big monkey, slowly climbing away. A monkey had pissed on me, Great!
Fortunately I'm right next to the well and so it's not too difficult to
Beware corpses! Traditionally, Hindus are cremated
after they have died, and for pious Hindus it is very special, if their
ashes are scatterd into the Holy Ganges. As mentioned, we were told in
Europe that sometimes if the family has not enough money to buy the required
amount of wood for the cremation, there are just half burned bones floating
on the river. We were prepared to see some human bones, but close to Fathegarh
we see the whole corpse of a man. We are shocked and plan to report the
corpse to the police in the next town, but when some local farmers just
walked by without showing any interest, we thought, that everything must
be fine. We later we found out, that holy men, children, pregnant
woman, people killed by a snakebite and people who died from a highly
infective dicease are not cremated. Instead they are just thrown into
the Ganges, or just the next river. From this point forward we now meet
at least one corpse a day, everything from infants to old men, and on
busy days up to five. Although we manage somehow to get used to the sight
of a corpse, the smell is disgusting. Until this point, we washed ourselves,
our clothes and our dishes in the Ganges, but after this we decide better
to use our drinking water to wash the dishes.
Fazit: Looking back, our trip on Indias holy river, the Ganges, was absolutely amazing. We enjoyed the unexpected nature (landscape, flora and fauna), and the few fishermen, farmers and pilgrims just completed this idyllic scenery. Due to our slow pace we got great insights into India's culture and had enough time even for small things. After our experience, I would recommend a self-sufficient trip on the Ganges, but because of the dead corpses it's may not be for everyone.