The Suffolk River Stour in East Anglia is where I grew up. Its meandering course gave our village its distinct character. It also led to secret spots shaded by willows, where I encountered the finned inhabitants of the mysterious world beneath the surface.
My growing fascination with fish led me to study them, then teach, and eventually I found myself presenting a TV series, River Monsters, about our planet’s largest and most outlandish freshwater fish.
So, here are some of my favourite rivers — and the best way to experience them . . .
YANGTZE: HISTORY IN THE MAKING
Breathtaking: The Yangtze river in China is the longest river in Asia
One of eight major rivers flowing off the Tibetan plateau, ‘the roof of the world’, the Yangtze runs south, parallel to the Mekong, before hitting a rock formation and being deflected to the east.
Looking down at the spectacular Great Bend, you’ll wonder how the history of China (and the world) might have been different without this diversion, which has been central to China’s economy and identity.
How to do it: Viking Cruises (vikingrivercruises.co.uk) has a 14-day Imperial Jewels Of China cruise, departing October 30, from £3,815pp based on two sharing, including return flights, excursions and three nights in a Beijing hotel, two in Xian, an internal flight, a six-day cruise on Viking Emerald and two nights in a Shanghai hotel.
GANGES: HEALING POWERS
Sacred: The holy city of Varansi (above) has recently launched a clean-up campaign
In the plains of North India it’s a wide, sluggish channel, but in the mountains it embodies a different character. Meltwater (released by the thawing of snow and ice) from the Himalayan snowfields churns and rushes past rock cliffs and boulders.
It is easy to appreciate why the river is worshipped as a goddess, and to meditate on the purity and cleansing power of water.
But in the lower reaches, this most sacred of rivers has been desecrated.
In response, a clean-up campaign was launched recently, and improvements are evident, notably at the holy city of Varanasi. Long may this continue.
How to do it: Pandaw (pandaw.com) has a 14-night Upper Ganges River cruise on Katha Pandaw, from Varanasi to Kolkata, from £3,963pp with no single supplement. Includes excursions and transfers but not flights.
DANUBE: WHERE BEASTS LURK BENEATH
Cry me a river: The Danube flows through ten countries. Pictured here is Durnstein in Wachau Valley, Austria
The world’s most international river, the Danube flows through ten countries.
Best known for its passenger cruises and postcard views of abbeys, castles and gorges, it’s the ancestral home of the Danubian (wels) catfish, which can grow to 9ft. And there’s a rare landlocked salmon, the huchen, which is coming back thanks to DIY fish-farming.
How to do it: Titan (titantravel.co.uk) has a ten-day Highlights Of Eastern Europe cruise on Uniworld’s SS Beatrice or River Duchess, from Budapest to Bucharest, from £3,279pp based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, excursions, drinks, gratuities and two nights in a Budapest hotel.
ZAMBEZI: WILD THING
Dramatic: Victoria Falls (above) is the largest waterfall in the world. It’s located on the Zambezi River
Originally seen as a way into the riches of Africa, the Zambezi has been protected from over-exploitation by its sheer wildness.
The largest waterfall in the world, the Victoria Falls — or ‘the smoke that thunders’ — meant river navigation was always a non-starter.
How to do it: AmaWaterways (amawaterways.co.uk) has a nine-night Discover Africa holiday on Zambezi Queen on regular dates throughout 2019, including three nights in Cape Town, four nights on a wildlife cruise and two nights in Victoria Falls, from £7,531pp (cruise only) based two sharing.
MISSISSIPPI: SPLENDID ISOLATION
Incredible: An aerial view of the mighty Mississippi. The main course of the river is obscured behind levees
Steeped in history (Mark Twain, paddle steamers, pivotal battles in the American Civil War), the main course of the Mississippi these days is shut off from the surrounding world: obscured behind levees, only visible from the bridges that cross it.
These days it is mostly the domain of the barges transporting grain, petroleum and coal.
But in quiet corners, prehistoric beasts lurk. In 2011 a commercial fisherman’s gill net set for carp-like buffalo fish entangled an 8½ft, 327lb alligator gar (a relative of the bowfin).
How to do it: Light Blue Travel (lightbluetravel.co.uk) has 11-day paddle boat cruises on American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen, between New Orleans and Memphis, from £2,895pp based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers and a two-night hotel stay in New Orleans
AMAZON: VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY
Sail away: ‘It’s hard to comprehend the Amazon’s sheer size,’ writes Jeremy
It’s hard to comprehend the Amazon’s sheer size. The best way is to travel at water level: sling your hammock on a boat at Belém at the river’s mouth and after five days you’ll arrive at Manaus, 900 miles upstream — but still 3,000 miles short (give or take) of the most distant sources.
The most interesting parts are up the tributaries. The 2,000-mile Rio Purús, in places, has a 50ft annual variation between low and high water — giving the opportunity of paddling a wooden canoe through tree tops.
How to do it: Iglu Cruise (iglucruise.com) has a 23-night Edens & The Amazon package on Oceania Cruises’ Marina, from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, departing Jan 21, 2020, from £5,499pp (two sharing), including return flights, transfers and a hotel in Miami.
FITZROY: RIVER OF EXTREMES
Pictured is the Geikie Gorge where the Fitzroy River carves its way through the Napier Range in the Kimberley
The biggest great river you’ve never heard of flows through the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, between mountains to the north and the Great Sandy Desert.
The estuary experiences some of the biggest tides in the world, which alternately cover and reveal the 1,479-ton wreck of the SS Colac near the town of Derby.
Home to a veritable ‘predator soup’ (bull sharks, sawfish, stingrays, saltwater crocs), skip a swim here.
How to do it: Fishing charter company Reel Fishing CQ (reelfishingcq.com.au) has a new one-hour Sunset Cruise along the River Fitzroy, departing most days at 5pm and 6pm. Adults £19.45 and children £13.90.
FRASER: TEEMING WITH LIFE
The sun sets over Fraser River in Lytton, Canada. Lytton is situated in British Columbia at the confluence of the Thompson River and Fraser River
This river drains the southern half of the Canadian province of British Columbia, with its upper reaches in the Rocky Mountains and its mouth in Vancouver.
Thanks to enlightened management, it is a world-renowned destination for recreational fishing.
In addition to all five species of Pacific salmon, it is home to a thriving population of sea-running white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus). Specimens of 100lb are commonly caught (and released), and fish of 12ft/1,000lb are present.
How to do it: Vancouver Paddlewheeler (vancouverpaddlewheeler.com) offers 2½-hour Discover The Fraser cruises, including lunch, in a round trip from Vancouver to Douglas Island, from £45.76 for adults and £24.62 for children over five.
AMUR: A GLOBAL POWER
Amur (above) is the world’s tenth longest river. Jeremy recommends visiting via the Russian city of Khabarovsk
Taking in parts of China and Mongolia, and flowing into the far east of Russia, the Amur is the world’s tenth longest river. Easiest access is via the Russian city of Khabarovsk.
A few kaluga sturgeon cling on — an unusual predatory sturgeon that used to grow to huge sizes, but the hunting of them for caviar has rendered them almost extinct.
How to do it: Private one-hour cruises by Express to Russia (expresstorussia.com) from Khabarovsk, 30 miles from China, cost £98 or £32 per person for six.
- Jeremy Wade’s Mighty Rivers is on ITV at 8pm on Friday nights and catch up on the ITV Hub.
Fascination: Jeremy Wade, TV presenter of River Monsters and Mighty Rivers, holds a giant fish