Friday 13 January. Indian officials announce the start of the world’s longest river cruise, from Varanasi to Assam via Kolkata. Environmentalists have condemned the move, arguing that increased river traffic threatens the rare Gangetic dolphin.
The first time I saw one was when crossing the Ganges at Varanasi. Looking back I am not too sure why I ever started that swim. It was almost twenty-five years ago and even then the river was utterly filthy. Dead animals and humans floated downstream alongside rafts of vegetation that were tangled with rubbish. I had arranged for a boatman to row alongside in case I lost my nerve, but he was drunk by the time we left and our paths soon diverged. I began at Assi Ghat, upriver from the burning ghats, and did a rather upright breaststroke, my mouth and nose well clear of the water. It happened when I was about halfway across: a sudden disturbance of the surface dead ahead, then a pinkish grey dome appeared, a long toothy snout. The vision lasted less than a second and it did not reappear.
“Susu,” said the boatman when I eventually walked out on the far side. He had seen it too. It was his word for the Gangetic river dolphin. I had imagined they were long since extinct, but I was wrong.
My river swimming had started when I was eight. Encouraged by my Dad, I’d swum across the River Wye somewhere near the town of Ross. In those days the river was crystal clear and with my face mask on, I saw big fish. Nowadays it’s a murky polluted prospect although no one is quite sure why, not the herds of industrial dairy-unit owners, not the batteries of chicken-megafarm proprietors, not the sewage treatment plant operators, not even the herbicide manufacturers and their hordes of loyal sprayers, and certainly none of the rural councillors who approved all of this. It’s a total mystery.
I got a taste for adventure on that day. On later family holidays I swam across Lake Coniston, the Thames, the Trent and the Yorkshire Ouse. Our holidays were always in Britain. On the River Dochart in Scotland, which is not wide, I hung in the water, watching in amazement as glittering dappled trout darted around me. When I started travelling, I continued the tradition, although the Nile defeated me. I’d only done a few yards when some men appeared on the bank, waving their arms and shouting. I went back. “Crocodiles,” they said. After that I only swam in African mountain streams. The Congo at the Equator would have been a great achievement, but once again I chickened out: the far bank was so distant it was not even visible. I did manage the River Kwai and some small Asian rivers whose names I cannot remember. Once I had done the Ganges, however, I retired.
In 2017 I went back to the sacred river, this time to sail down the Hooghly which is really a side channel of the Gangetic delta. The two waters divide at the border with Bangladesh and then the Hooghly winds 260 km south towards Kolkata. I was part of a wonderful project called Silk River, travelling by old-fashioned river steamer and stopping in various towns along the way. The first dolphin caused giddy excitement on board, but soon they became commonplace. As we approached Kolkata and the pollution grew worse, I became more and more impressed by this animal’s ability to survive. In the 17 years since I’d swum the river it had become even more of a sewer than before. This time there were vast bergs composed, or rather decomposed, of plastics, vegetation, and dead creatures all glued together with great glutinous slabs of grey gunk. Herons would hitch lifts on these rotten rafts so presumably there were a few brave fish lurking beneath. Within sight of the famous Howrah Bridge in Kolkata I watched kingfishers. Nature’s capacity to withstand humanity’s brutal onslaught and still bounce back was humbling.
When it was suggested that a luxury river cruise ship would threaten the susu, I laughed. Probably the creature’s best hope, I mused, is that some wealthy, and influential, Indian tourists might actually take notice and start to care about their so-called sacred river, the one that millions of people dump their garbage into.
There are, however, reasons to be cautious. The dolphins are blind and use echolocation to navigate their world. Motor boats can interfere with that and the Indian authorities are said to be hoping for a ten-fold increase in tourist river traffic. It is a genuine threat. Let’s hope electric marine motors are adopted soon.
After an extended break, Backstory is back. I went travelling (Costa Rica and Panama), then caught covid - something of a surprise after dodging it for so long. Even more of a surprise to discover it does have a bit of a kick! I’ll be sending out weekly stories from now, except when I’m on the road. Looking forward to hearing your comments.