A Sojourn With Surjokonna

Photographs by Md Ashraful Haque


The river was calm. A thin layer of mist hovered over the water. There was enough light for the crew of the cargo boats around us to gear us up for the day’s journey. We needed to prepare as well. However, the location our tent was pitched being and we were swarmed with women of all ages; some being only teenagers. These women came in groups to partake in a ceremonial bath at the Meghna river’s ghat. We weren’t expecting this. My friend Masud was still inside the tent. Given the situation I couldn’t go back and neither could my friend come out.
Finally when we got started, it took us nearly two hours to get Surjokonna, the solar powered boat ready for the journey downstream. We packed our stuff, loaded the boat, wiped the solar panels and connected the batteries. The boat is a home-made fiberglass-built micro catamaran, 10 feet long and 7 feet wide. Between the hulls are solar panels that power the brushless direct current (BLDC) motor via a battery bank. Built in 2012, it was the first solar powered boat in the country to have made trips across a number of rivers.
As we navigated through the heavy traffic of the Bhairab Meghna launch terminal, people looked at us with curiosity. The river was calm, the sky was clear and the sun was getting brighter.
As we entered the Narsingdi district, the river split in two directions. We took the one on the right, since the Dhaka-Sylhet highway wasn’t very far from it. If faced with any mechanical failures, we could easily pack our collapsible boat and get a ride back home. However, we weren’t expecting any trouble; the whole system underwent many tests over the past two years.
All that was left now was to enjoy the scenery. The monsoons just ended, and the fishermen were busy collecting their catch. Cormorants, egrets and kingfishers seemed to want a share of that as well. As we rode the waves human activity decreased and biodiversity increased, which was a very welcoming experience.
As the sun shifted to the west horizon, we began to look for a suitable place to camp for the night. We wanted a peaceful place, away from human habitats. We found the potential campsite near a sharp bend of the river. The site was covered in tall grass which acted as a make shift fence between the camp and the river. We didn’t want to be seen by many people as burglaries were commonplace. The tall grass would stop the cold winds as well. After we took a quick bath, we needed to cook something, but decided against it, for safety reasons. Dinner therefore was dry food under the starlit sky.
We fell asleep and Masud woke me up in the middle of the night. Some men with flashlights were approaching our tent. A bit tensed, I stepped out. The leader had a sharp spear-like thing in his right hand. Someone saw us and reported at the nearby village of “suspicious activities.” So the villagers sent these fishermen to check us out. After a friendly banter we bade them goodbye and went to bed.
We woke up very early next morning, packed our stuff and set sail again. We needed to find a bazaar to get some food into our bellies. The river was as calm as it was yesterday. We saw more birds here. Eagles, kites, cormorants and what not. After breakfast, we even spotted a river dolphin!
On the final night we were at Baliar Char in Narsingdi. Later, we camped at Moricha Kandi in Brahmanbaria. Like the previous night, we planned to camp at a remote place, but the farmers kept insisting that we stay near the village, as it was safer. Some of them even invited us to stay in their homes, but we declined politely and told them that we needed to be near our boat.
Next morning we decided to go back. When we set out two days ago, we wanted to test Surjokonna while enjoying a ride totally free of transportation cost. Of course, we wished to go all the way to the confluence, but we weren’t ready for it. We needed more solar panels to generate more electricity in the late hours of the day, so the boat wouldn’t slow down. Security would also become an issue, as we hadn’t planned much towards it. Perhaps we can plan a better trip across the country next time.
The writer is an environmental researcher and adventurer . He builds and design kayaks and solar powered boats.He can be reached at tanimashraf@live.com