It was T.S. Eliot who wrote, “The journey not the arrival matters.” He’d obviously never been on a long-haul flight with Iberia or TAP. Or had to deal with security at JFK. But when it comes to boats, I couldn’t agree with him more. Like trekking, it’s a great way of leaving road traffic behind and travelling much more lesiurely. It also gives you an insight into the life of local people who often depend on the waterways for their very livelihood.
I’ve been down the Amazon and the Nile, the Mekong and the Ganges, the Rhine and the Thames, but last year I finally got to ride down the great rivers of Malaysian Borneo. I stayed at a lodge on the River Kinabatangan where several boat rides were included each day, at dawn and dusk. It’s the longest river in the state of Sabah, but, sadly, much of the jungle is being destroyed and replanted with palm trees, endangering a lot of the wildlife. However, I was lucky enough to see not only pygmy elephants, but also some orang-utans in the wild.
I also went on a fabulous if pricey eco-tourist project called Orou Sapulot whose owners work closely with local people to make them see that tourism can be a much better and longer-lasting way of making money than selling their land to timber and palm oil companies. We went on a thrilling journey complete with unexpected rapids-shooting right to the border with Indonesia. There was not much wildlife to see, but the verdant jungle, which rises up from the chocolate-brown river, was pristine.
On the same trip I also visited the small town of Sengkang in Sulawesi, Indonesia. There’s nothing much to do there except take a boat trip on the Danau Tempe, a beautiful lake with fishermen’s floating reed houses and surrounded by wetlands. There are no organised trips, you just have to find a boatman and haggle a price. I was the only tourist that evening and I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen.
Staying on a house-boat in Kerala is a popular activity for many, but, if you’re on a budget, you can also just hire a local guy to show you round the Backwaters. It’s not as peaceful as you might expect (this is India!), but the glimpses you get into local life are fascinating. For example, you can see the Chinese fishing nets that have been used for centuries.
In the north of Uganda lie Murchison Falls, While not the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet, the sight of the Nile River squeezing through a narrow gorge is superb and the boat trip there takes you past plenty of wildlife, from African eagles to hippopotamuses. It was also used as a location for “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Sadly, a lot of classic boat trips are becoming a thing of the past like many great train journeys. Transportation needs to be quicker in today’s demand for speed and Chinese dam projects are threatening the sustainability and lives of villages along the Mekong for example. But boat trips are something I always seek out. It’s an essential part of “slow travel”.