Frozen solid to the spot, it dawned on me that neither fight nor flight was an option. As I sat on my paddleboard at the side of the big river, a snake reared its head from the water, just inches away from my left knee. It looked across the board, then up at me. I had a two-metre-long paddle on my lap, but I couldn’t move quickly enough to defend myself against this creature. I couldn’t even escape its stare. Was I going to end up in the heavily polluted waters of the river? I kept as still as possible.
The snake decided not to attack, and slowly swam right past me and around the stand-up paddleboard. Once it was gone, I swiftly reversed out from the bank into the main channel.
We were nearing the end of a 98-day expedition down the River Ganges, just one day from the port of Kolkata. I hadn’t fallen in since the clean, glacial flow of the white-water sections in the Himalayan foothills. We hadn’t encountered any crocodiles, although we’d seen evidence of them, and we had no interactions with other dangerous species on or off the water. Until now. Luckily I escaped unharmed, but I was shaken by the experience.
Thirteen months beforehand, I had been sitting on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, acclimatising to the region before leading a tour in Bhutan. Each year, thousands of Hindus travel to the sacred city to cleanse their sins in the holy waters. Th e river was muddy, flowing slowly; I wondered if anybody had ever travelled its length on a stand-up paddleboard. Later research showed they hadn’t.
Back in London, Shilpika Gautam, Pascal Dubois, and I formed an international team, including members from Ireland, Germany, India, the UK, and the US. The number in the team on any given day would vary from three to nine people, plus a support vehicle that would follow us most of the way. More than 500 million people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin, making it the most populated in the world. Unfortunately, this population has grown faster than basic services have been able to cope with. We decided to target one particular element of the pollution: single-use plastics, the adoption of which has increased hugely in India in the last 15 years. There simply aren’t sufficient waste-management systems to cope with the problem. When you buy a chai for ten rupees at the roadside, you are now given it in a little plastic cup. After the sweet tea is finished, you ask the seller where the bin is.
‘Just throw it on the street,’ he replies. ‘You don’t have a bin?’ you ask. ‘No, don’t worry; it’s fine!’
Large quantities of these and other single-use plastics end up in the river revered by the Hindu population, and from there make their way into the Indian Ocean. Our primary aim was to raise awareness of this, and reduce it; our expedition featured on the BBC’s Travel Show and in the UK press, and we had a series of shorts broadcast on Discovery Channel India focusing on this aim. We were also lucky to work with WaterAid throughout, visiting villages and deprived urban areas near the river, where we witnessed the vital work the charity is doing to improve sanitation and access to clean water.
In preparation for the expedition, Shilpika, Pascal, and I undertook a training mission, paddleboarding down the River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles. While it was a world away from the Ganges (and with many more riverside pubs), it had also never been fully navigated in this manner before. Next, we arranged the logistics of sourcing our paddleboards from our sponsors Starboard, in Thailand, and set up a base for our gear in Rishikesh, where the Ganges meets the plains. From there we set out, like many pilgrims, to the source of the river: the Gangotri Glacier, at 4,000 metres, from which point we hiked down beside the raging, unpaddleable torrent for ten days. Then, on retro Indian bikes, we cycled down to Devprayag over three days, where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers converge to form the Ganges proper. Here we could launch onto our white- water-specific paddleboards and ride the mighty rapids down the gorge. Some were so big we couldn’t remain standing; others just threw us in.
When we reached Rishikesh, we transferred to our long-distance touring boards. Laden with many kilos of equipment, safely wrapped in Aquapac drybags, we pushed out and continued our journey, the river now meandering out across the plains of northern India. We started every day breaking camp and carrying our paddleboards down to the sandy banks. At 14 feet (over four metres) in length they were long, but surprisingly easy to carry. Even fully loaded, they slid beautifully through the muddy waters. Our days often began with fog hanging heavily over the river; as we started paddling we couldn’t see more than 20 metres ahead, let alone to the other side. Combined with the cold weather, this was a very different India from the one most people imagine.
We paddled for about eight hours each day, usually stopping mid-morning and then later for lunch on little sandbars in the middle of the river. Every year the course of the Ganges shifts due to the monsoon rains; islands move or even disappear completely as the floodwaters wash across them. Like many maps, satellite imagery just a few months old is often no use for navigation, something that was key for charting our progress and connecting with our support vehicle.
Arjun and Kamal drove this Indian equivalent of a Land Rover Defender, and most nights we tried to rendezvous with the truck. We carried essentials for overnighting on our paddleboards, but they would rock up with a big gas stove and fresh food, and they usually had the chai bubbling away by the time we arrived in camp. Sipping a big mug of this sweet and spicy tea after paddling all day and getting the tents set up was most rewarding; less convenient were the dozens of people from the nearby villages who would often descend on our camp each evening shortly after our arrival. They would watch with fascination everything we did, and the absence of privacy for most of the expedition was tough at times.
Although the river basin is home to millions and there are many cities with populations over 100,000, much of the time we were paddling through rural India. Fields and plantations stretched off into the distance. Herds of cattle frequently crossed the water to fertile islands, and negotiating a way between them as they swam was often a challenge. There was little development on the riverbanks, as they were so changeable with the monsoon floods. This meant they were rich in wildlife, especially birds: raptors such as the rough-legged buzzard and the Indian eagle-owl, and plenty of pied and white-breasted kingfishers. On one particular morning, before we stopped for elevenses, I saw more kingfishers on the riverbank than I had previously seen in my entire life.
We were also lucky to see one of the most endangered aquatic mammals in the world: the Gangetic river dolphin. These blind creatures would surface mere metres from us as they navigated the murky waters with echolocation. Although there are fewer than 2,000 left, there were days when we spotted at least 15 of these beautiful animals.
Every day, we also witnessed the converse: funeral pyres burning on the banks, at ghats and in fields, the ashes pushed into the river each evening. Some families, unable to afford the 300 kilograms of wood required for cremation, simply slid the deceased into the Ganges at nightfall. We regularly saw these bodies, half-submerged or washed up on sandbars, an experience that will stay with us forever.
A large proportion of the Ganges flows through Bihar, India’s poorest state, and we were warned that we might come across violent gangs. In our wild camps on the riverside however the closest we came to this was the night we met a buffalo farmer. Tucked into his lungi, the cloth tied around his waist, he had a smart-phone and a rudimentary pistol.
In the city of Patna, Pascal and Neil Irwin, a photographer who’d joined us a month earlier with his packraft, decided to leave the expedition for personal reasons, and returned to the UK. They were much missed, especially when we came to celebrate Christmas and New Year. The remainder of the team, Shilpika, Kumaran Mahalingam from southern India, and I continued onwards.
The River Ganges has a huge delta, forming a large part of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. After much debate, the team opted to take the Hooghly River route to the Indian Ocean, following the course of the old Ganges. The huge barrage close to the India-Bangladesh border has been the cause of a long-term diplomatic dispute since its completion in 1975; near this point, we portaged the boards and all our gear into the Hooghly and headed south to Kolkata.
Once we reached the port, it became apparent that various team members had different priorities and competing visions of how the expedition should end. I needed to be back in London for work and so, left with no viable alternative, I pressed on to paddle the last stretch to the river’s mouth solo. On the penultimate day, after bivvying not far from a village, I set out at dawn. I paddled hard, not landing on the shore for a break until, after sunset, I pulled up for the night on Sagar Island, which sits at the mouth of the river. I had travelled 79 kilometres that day, and the end was almost in sight.
Another early start followed the next morning, and a four-hour sprint to the lighthouse at the south tip of Ganga Sagar completed the expedition. It was a bittersweet end to many months’ work; I’d have preferred to celebrate the achievement with the others. But the expedition was done. It was 98 days since the start, and I’d covered 2,943 kilometres (1,829 miles). It was the first time anyone had navigated the entire length of the River Ganges by stand-up paddleboard.