Dec 02, 2015

Ganges hosts global river expedition of women adventurers

Eight women from six continents have embarked on a global river expedition.


Meesha Holley

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Access Water aims to explore a river in every continent, spreading awareness on keeping our water sources clean. A journalist accompanies the team for a part of their journey on the Ganges.

It’s Diwali night. To the sound of exploding fireworks and with lungs struggling to cope with the thick smoke that fills Delhi, I settle into my bunk relieved to know that I’ll be waking up in the morning to remotely cleaner air. As I alight the train in Allahabad I am greeted by Rency from Mercury Himalayan Explorations who was waiting to take me and Kim; the South African member of the group, to the campsite. Due to visa issues, Kim could only join the team on day thirty; over half of the way through the fifty-five day river expedition down the Ganges.

Sun setting over the Ganges in Varanasi

We arrived at the campsite; situated beside one of the three bridges that cross over the Ganges. All of a sudden, beaming faces emerge as the team members rush over to throw their arms around Kim. The Access Water team is finally complete.

Thursday 12/11/15
Ann feeding the seagulls at the confluence between the Yamuna and Ganges rivers

After a hearty breakfast we all bundle into the boats and make our way down to the Triveni Sangam, the confluence where the Yamuna river joins the Ganges. The confluences along the Ganges are highly sacred for Hindus, where thousands come to get blessings and take a dip in the river to cleanse them from sin.

Witnessing the contrasting shades of the two rivers as they merge, was my first realisation of how filthy the Ganges is, as the Yamuna (of which runs passed Delhi) looks considerably cleaner than the dull beige water that it is adjoining to. All considered, I still happily jumped out to tow the boat every time we beached on a hidden sandbank. I have always had a deep fascination and love for water.

The Access Water river expedition is led by polar explorers and educators Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen who have been partnered together for the last 15 years in Bancroft Arnesen Explore, forming inspiring education programs such as Dare to Dream and the Antarctica Curriculum.

In 2000/01 Arnesen and Bancroft crossed Antarctica on a ninety-seven day expedition reaching out to three million students worldwide. Here they are with their latest environmentally surged expedition; Access Water, eight women from six continents coming from completely different backgrounds, have started out in India for the first source to sea of seven of the world’s rivers, with a great purpose of igniting the youth in protecting our water sources for future generations.

Krushnaa towing the boat in shallow water

In curiosity I ask Ann and Liv what was the motive behind forming an all women team for this expedition; “women have an amazing ability to think differently; think creatively; come at challenges with a new perspective, and we wanted that, because there’s so much cynicism. We are able to open up a different type of discussion. We sort of think we’re the ‘peace-makers’, and we do inherently care for Mother Earth in a more maternal way, and that’s just who we are as a gender.”

Access to water - Ganga
Chhatt puja taking place beside the Ganges in Varanasi. A hindu ceremony of worshipping the Sun God, where prayer offerings are given to the rising and setting sun.

Due to Ann & Liv’s reputation as polar women, the team originally had intended to cross Antarctica, but later decided to start the 14 year expedition on one of the world’s most worshipped rivers – The Ganges. The expedition of travelling the entire length from source to sea will take the team 55 days of trekking, rafting and boating down the 2525 km long river. The symbolic nature of beginning this lengthy journey on a river that is called ‘ma Ganga’ by the locals, transcends as they travel down the river; the women of the world set out on a mission to enlighten the local youth on this impending global issue.

The campsite at Vindhyachal – our last stop before Varanasi.

I can’t imagine now doing a major expedition without that sense of a broader purpose, it just falls flat. I’ve achieved enough that I feel satisfied in that way, and I want to keep pushing myself, but the push is less about the summit or a destination, it’s more about what can I do as I exist on this planet? It doesn’t have to be huge, but I want to make a positive mark, I don’t want to just exist. – Ann Bancroft, USA

The people of the Ganges

The teams have partnered with the renewable energy NGO – TERI to host interactive days with schools all along the Ganges, to inspire the future generations and get the discussion started on what we as individuals can do to protect our water sources. What has truly struck the women as they’ve been interacting with the locals living alongside the Ganges is this complete contradiction of admitting the Ganga is polluted, and yet deny it being dirty. This denial is evident that they can’t face that they’re harming something they worship so greatly, their source of life.

17/11/15; Ganga; Access to water; India; meesha holley; TOJ
Family preparing for the Chhatt puja sunset ceremony

In the short amount of time I was with the women we came across some very strong willed youths, one being twelve year old Aman, who bravely approached us to voice his opinions on the condition of the Ganges. He states that everyone must take responsibility. He tells Ann privately that he has been told by the elders to stop speaking out about such matters, the elders know better; the river will clean itself.  These incidences of stumbling across such brave and outspoken young villagers are the center of conversation for some time after, motivating more spontaneous village visits wherever the explorers take breaks.

A family of fishermen greet us at Sankar

The monotony of the motor a soundtrack to the journey

En route Varanasi, the encroachment of man on the landscape becomes more and more evident; half constructed bridges, towns and ancient villages that overlook the river, with a waterfall of litter overspilling into the Ganges, like multiple tributary streams.

The river expedition team has been communicating with the fishermen and have found that the fish have proven to be carrying diseases from the high pollution levels that are in the water, from chemical waste, the untreated sewage and litter that gets pumped into the water daily. Liv kept on reiterating that in Uttar Pradesh alone, 873.9MLD (million litres per day) of untreated sewage and industrial waste is being pumped into the Ganges. I couldn’t even fathom how so much untreated pollution is being pumped into the river daily, and yet the water is teeming with river dolphins and flying fish that greet us along our way. I concluded that only mutant ninja turtle-like creatures would be to survive in such conditions. This entertains my thoughts for awhile, as I gaze curiously at the vastness of the river before us.

The burning ghats at Varanasi

The drone of the boat’s motor; for some of whom are the true adventurers is the most testing part of the day. The lull provides the time for the explorers to absorb and comprehend the sensory overload that comes with India, with a myriad of people, cultures and rituals, all surrounding the sacred water. I also find myself drifting into deep thought – The lives of the Indian people is so heavily surrounded by what they call ‘ma Ganga’, it’s their source of life and death. So many ashes have flown into the river; the soil and sand coexisting with our remains, feeds the fish & livestock. If we are what we eat, then why are we so carelessly polluting it with chemical waste, untreated sewage and litter?

A  issue with many of the world’s rivers are the barrages that have been put up to redirect the waterflow into agriculture and irrigation. For the Ganga, this has lessened the water levels so greatly that it is affecting the marine life in the river, it also means that the pollution is unable to get flushed out and gets sedimented in the riverbed.

After September the reduced water levels mean that the river between Haridwar down to the confluence at Allahabad is almost impossible to travel down. The team were prepared for a much greater physically challenging expedition, but a week prior to their expedition the barrages were removed for construction purposes, meaning they were able to boat down the river without much problem. The barrages are making the river non-navigable for water transports and secondly once the barrages are erected, the course and water flow changes automatically, leaving little water for the ecosystem to wander freely. When the barrages are removed the water flows freely and is able to flush out all the pollutants, before getting it sedimented in the river bed, and when the force of water reduces then the pollution gets stagnant and settles. – Rency Thomas of Mercury Himalayan Explorations (MHE).

Access to water - Ganga
Boys bathing up river from the burning ghats in Varanasi

Patches of froth skirt the Ganga, where pockets of stagnant water festers, similar to what we recently saw in Bangalore where the Bellandur Amani lake caught on fire from the high level of untreated sewage that’s being pumped into the lake daily, causing a methane buildup. But because the water is constantly moving, such obvious conditions aren’t apparent. Instead they’re being filtered into the Bay of Bengal – delightful.

The team at Chunar Fort From left to right – Lisa (New Zealand), Olfat (Israel), Liv (Norway), Krushnaa (India), Ann (USA), JiaoJiao (China), Marcia (South America) and Kim (South Africa).

A team formed from completely different cultures, inevitably the intrigue and discussion of each other’s traditions arise very appropriately around the campfire. As I join the women one night, they are in mid-conversation about their native marriage ceremonies,  Kim shares her experience of recently attended a traditional South African wedding for the first time. She tells the group rituals around the joining of the families; the bartering of dowry; how couples dress use the same piece of material, so you can distinctly identify who’s married to whom.

I had become so impressed by each of their life achievements and how driven they are in what they pursue, I had placed them on a pedestal. And yet as I discovered, for many of these women, building a family plays huge importance in their future plans, revealing that ultimately they have the same goals as most women. Without any real intention, they are such wonderful role models to these young women they meet along the river, helping them to think beyond their homely duties.

View of our campsite beside the Ganges in Allahabad with an evening ceremony going on downstream

For Ann and Liv organising this ambitious expedition hasn’t been smooth sailing, year after year the expedition has been delayed for multiple reasons mainly watering down to sponsors backing out, right to the last moment. Instead of terminating the expedition, Ann & Liv have had to take out a $60,000 loan to fund the venture.

You can sponsor the women through The real challenge of the expedition is a matter of keeping the momentum going once they leave the Ganges. Creating connections and a following as they travel the globe over the next 14 years, you become a part of the journey.

Story and Images: Meesha Holley