8 places to experience nature without pitching a tent
- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
Bangladesh has some of the most hazardous waterways on the planet, but the people there still cling to the ancient paddlewheel steamers that were constructed over a century ago.
The first danger first dimly appeared just after dusk. The captain yelled, "Starboard right!" as he peered through wire-rimmed spectacles into the pitch-black waters of Bangladesh's Buriganga River. Man, the pumps in the boiler room!" He improbably navigated a course to avoid an approaching ferry that was significantly overloaded while sailing fully blind, without shipping lights, and only with the resounding blast of a foghorn for assistance.
It could have been a tremendous catastrophe given the chaos on the water, which included a continual stream of torpedo-shaped taxis, multi-story barges, wide-loaded junks, fragile rubber ships, and shoddy freighters going between Dhaka and the Bay of Bengal. But this was no accident. The PS Ostrich, a vintage paddle-wheel steamer from Bangladesh, has been able to navigate through the middle of this mayhem every night for decades, as though caught up in a real-life Battleship game. Such attention to detail keeps the nation with the densest population afloat. 8,000 km of navigable rivers and streams crisscross Bangladesh, forming an aquatic plain that rivals any seascape Turner could have depicted. The only way to navigate its enormous and incomprehensible deltas is by boat.
And the PS Ostrich has never sunk or collapsed. The steamer's epic 20-hour journey from Dhaka to Morrelganj, a city on the edge of the Sundarbans, the largest belt of mangrove forest in the world, is a remarkable feat of maritime engineering and blind trust. The PS Ostrich might be said to as the nation's greatest survival. One of just four remaining paddlewheel steamers in the nation, it is steeped in history and is known as "the Rockets" because it was formerly the quickest boat on the water. The PS Mahsud, PS Lepcha, and PS Tern are all still in service, but it is the steampunk PS Ostrich with its dirty-yellow veneer that draws attention from the crowded wharves of Dhaka's Sadarghat boat terminal.
The ship is everything but a marvel of preservation when viewed up close, sitting low, and on the verge of sinking. An unlikely colonial relic from the British East India Company's tenure in Bengal, this two-tiered, decaying building was constructed in 1929 in the dockyards of Clydebank, Scotland, and then transported to the Bay of Bengal as a passenger ferry. The Scottish shipyard employees had no idea that more than 85 years later, the ship would still be a lifeline in Bangladesh.
Even after having had its roof rebuilt (although with rusted tin sheets) and having its large paddlewheels powered by a crude diesel engine since 1996, the vessel still has an antique appearance. When loaded with goods like three-piece suites, washing machines, grain bags, and rusty bicycles, the boat functions like a floating hamlet full of people, drama, and encounters. There is space for 700 passengers, but that number can increase to 3,000 on Islamic festivals like Eid.
Bangladesh's economy is based on the water, and Bangladesh requires faster, more streamlined ships, which is an issue for the Rockets. There is escalating rivalry from nearby nations India and China, whose shiny-white, multi-tiered vessels are enticing passengers to emerging companies. With better schedules and extremely affordable costs, these deep-hulled boats may travel from Dhaka to the delta cities of Chittagong, Chandpur, Barisal, Hularhat, and Morrelganj in up to half the time of the Rockets. These boats have established themselves as the driving force behind the nation's modernization with hallmarks like these. The Rockets, in contrast, are antiquated and unnecessary.
However, this past itself could be their rescuer. The Rockets are rich with memories for Bangladeshis of all ages and are ancient relics in a contemporary environment. Since before World War II, the elderly have journeyed aboard them, and families still enjoy the romance and thrill of life on deck.
Chandpur, a city near a confluence of the Buriganga, Padma, and Meghna rivers, is well known for significant boat collisions involving ferries and barges, although none that have so far resulted in the decommissioning of the Rockets. The passengers of the PS Ostrich concur on that point. Rajib Ahmed Khan, a worker with the forestry department travelling from Barisal to Hularhat, asserted that "The Rockets are more dependable" because they had never experienced an accident throughout all of this time. "It is constructed by the British, although the more contemporary boats have numerous issues. That has to be significant.
Contrary to popular belief, the Rockets' lifeline might also be their lack of speed. Numerous small settlements would be cut off without the Rockets' extensive service because the quicker boats only dock at big entrances. Even if all that exists here are mud hut settlements surrounded by fruit trees and soggy rice paddies, the trusty PS Ostrich navigates the backwaters and makes stops at the crude tug boat landing pontoons to make sure that everyone can go where they need to go.
And for the foreign visitor, the trek is a romantic window into a world that has partially submerged, a tour that is difficult to compare to elsewhere. Borne by the current, one can float past inundated riverbeds and besieged paddy fields on the way to the vast mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, the last remaining habitat for the Royal Bengal Tiger in the nation. A rickety paddle-wheel steamer like the PS Ostrich might yet have a place if keeping afloat is the price of survival in Bangladesh. May she continue to navigate these waters.