Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 60
We were in what is unkindly called the badlands of Bihar. Yes, these lands were made of legends, of stories of local gangsters, of complete lawlessness. Here lived people who had virtually no sense of worth of life and could and would kill for no other reason than for the sheer fun of it. Those days belong to the bygone era, and the law and order situation in the Munger-Bhagalpur section is much better than what used to be. However, I was not here to test the reality against the perception, and there was no urgent need to be a hero. I had paddle through to Munger and did not face any trouble at all. I, however, did have an incentive to paddle through Bhagalpur, for no other reason than that this section was designated as the dolphin sanctuary. However, since paddling down from Haridwar, I have been privileged to see more than a hundred dolphins, some of them very close to the canoe. I did not want to risk life and limb ... and time ... just in order to see a few dozen more dolphins on the Ganges. The team decided to transport to Sahibganj and skip the Bhagalpur section.
In fact, we stayed the night at Sahibganj in a run down hotel that I suspect deserved the name White House, given the current occupant of the one located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was literally the dregs, and even though I have stayed in worse places, this one was one of a kind. The entire structure was built like a maze and one could literally get lost trying to find one’s way from the room to the road. But that is what reality is. The Old Monk gave us a miss and in his stead stepped in Captain Morgan. A cheerful enough fellow, and a couple of stiff ones later, even the room at the White House did not seem to be as bad as it did at the outset!
With time at our disposal, we stayed a day in Sahibganj, we decided to check out a possible put in point. The National Highway turned out to be a test track for off-road aspirants. Tarmac or bitumen or even the semblance of what could be termed road builders had ever stepped into this region, and we were smack bang in the middle of it, looking for a way to get close to the banks of the Ganges. We drive through a dirt track that had mud huts on both sides, and Chandru was extremely cautious that he did not have the undercarriage hit the bumpy road more than was absolutely necessary. It was quite hard work, since at places there was no way but to go through deep craters.
We finally reached a spot close to the river but this did not seem like a possible put in option. Well, at a crunch, we could have launched from here, but there was a lot of construction work going on and access to the river itself was on very steep banks. Someone then told us of another spot a couple of kilometres away and we headed there, bumpy road and all. The car took a beating, Chandru grimaced at every sound the undercarriage made, and finally we found ourselves in the middle of virtually nowhere, but surrounded by hundreds of trucks.
On enquiring further, it turned out that this was a ferry crossing and the trucks were waiting to get on board a ferry to take them across to the town of Manihari, on the other side of the river, in Bihar. A walk in the area proved that this was indeed a spot from where we could launch, despite the crowds, dust, vehicles, etc.
Numerous cups of tea later, plan finalised, we decided to head back to Sahibganj to do justice to the remainder of Captain Morgan. Night happened quickly enough and tomorrow would be a long paddling day.
Morning happened to a cup of nice hot tea and by the time we were at Samda, it was a little before eight in the morning. Fog enveloped the river, but that was to be expected. I needed all the time I could get to reach as far as possible. The road support team would have a much more difficult time since the road and the river do not seem to say hi to each other for most of the distance. Chandru would have to find some country road or the other to be able to meet up with me. What would make matters worse is that the road distance and the paddling distance are at odds. The road meanders and so does the river. We were looking at about thirty kilometres by the river, which could be about ten kilometres by road ... or fifty. It would take some ingenuity to be able to ensure that we met up before dark.
With a lot of help from the locals, the paddle started around eight thirty in the morning. Enough time for the paddling to gain some reasonable distance, and for Chandru to find a decent enough point to meet up.
I had paddled a little over ten kilometres when I got a call from Chandru that he was next to the river. What was also a little surprising to me was that he said he had a visual on me. I reconfirmed that he could actually see my boat, and he answered in the affirmative. I looked around and did not see anything for miles around. Just flat flood plains. I trusted Chandru and spent some time looking around for him, Unfortunately, phone connectivity was very sketchy and I could not call him. I doubted that he could see me ... two hundred metres on the right bank, he told me he was ... since I could not see anything. Obviously he mistook some other boat to be me. Anyway, I did not hear from him on a visual sighting of my boat for the next twenty five kilometres.
However, there were a few occasions when we could communicate. Chandru had found a spot at a place called Sarkanda Ghat. The road was right next to the river and was the best extraction point. missing this would mean the next point would be another fifteen odd kilometres downstream. I was happy with that, but when the promised 200 metres passed me by and there was no sign of the ghat, I was getting a little confused. I asked a passing boatmen about Sarkanda Ghat, and he winced and said, “long way”. Every once in a while when there was phone connectivity, Chandru would guide me to take one or the other channel of the river. Trusting him, I followed his advice to go down an entirely wrong channel. I had to retrace and paddle back. Then he informed me that I was about to pass him by and would have to take a U-turn and paddle upstream to meet up. That certainly was not a possibility I was willing to encounter, and I found the nearest narrow channel to cross over to the right bank.
The river was very wide by now and full of sand bars. I nevertheless went down one channel where I was sure to get grounded, just to ensure that I did not overshoot Chandru’s location. Sure enough I got grounded, and I had to walk on the water bed and lug the canoe for almost a kilometre. Thankfully, the bed was made of firm sand and did not sink with my weight.
I paddled on, against a fairly robust headwind, towards what Chandru had said was two hundred metres. I was more than ten kilometres downstream, and Sarkanda Ghat was still some distance away, at least according to some local fishermen. One even admonished me for having taken the channel I was in. What happened was that I was being guided by Chandru, who was being guided by Google maps. He was looking at the map Google was throwing up and advising me on which channel I should take. I had told him earlier that Google map imagery was dated, but obviously he was still enamoured by the technology. I was hoping that his guidance was cross checked after conversations he was having with the locals. In any case, by the time I managed ot have Sarkanda Ghat in sight, I had paddle almost forty kilometres. By road, Chandru had travelled less than ten.
Today had been a tiring day. Every time I stopped paddling I was being drive back upstream thanks to the headwinds, which though not strong, was strong enough to ensure I did not drift forward. I had to carry on paddling every inch of the way if I wanted to move forward.
Once I reached Sarkanda Ghat I was greeted by a bunch of people who were obviously expecting me thanks to the amount of time Chandru and Raghu had spent there. There was a lot of help I got from the locals. Many of them wanted to paddle the boat, and I gladly obliged after unloaded the gear. The people were friendly, the ghat was newly constructed and clean, and I got a lot of help from everyone around.
Chandru and Raghu had become hungry waiting for me and had gone to a nearby village for lunch. Soon enough they were back and the boat was packed with a lot of help from the locals, and packed into the car. The drive to Farakka began in what was termed a National Highway, but was worse than a country road. Even a bullock cart would have had difficulty negotiating these treacherous roads, and it was hell on the car and the driver. After an inordinately long time we reached Farakka and checked into the Farakka Lodge for the night. A decent enough place to stay it has turned out to be. Not too far away from the river, reasonably friendly staff, and room service. Including organising the happy juice if we so desired. We did not, since our stock from last night was still ample.
I was too tired after a very hard day’s paddle and decided to stay an extra night at Farakka. We are in West Bengal, the last of the five States the Ganges flows through. This is the home stretch and the expedition in nearing its culmination. I need the blessings of the Mother Goddess for a few more days to ensure a successful completion of A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES.