Sunday, June 2, 2013

The heart of Bengal – Sundarbans

If you ever see a tiger in the Sundarbans, chances are it is the last thing you’ll ever see!
- Amitav Ghosh (The HungryTide)
 (words to that effect)

I wish I could have proven him wrong. I wish I could say, I saw a Royal Bengal Tiger and just escaped from the skin of my teeth and my fingers are quaking with fear as I write this. Sadly, no such thing happened. All I can say is I could not disprove those words.

The journey

Kolkata (train) -> Canning (bus / tata magic)-> Godhkali (ferry)-> Gosaba (Rickshaw van)-> Pakhirala Tiger Mod (ferry) -> Sajnekhali (Sundarbans Tiger Reserve)

A journey to Sundarbans is as interesting as the final destination itself. Since I was travelling alone, I was dependent on public transport. From Kolkata, a local train to Canning takes around 1.5 hours. I took this train at 9.20am and reached around 11.

Canning is a very small town with the market area immediately adjacent to the station. Amidst all the chaos and without understanding Bengali, I figured out where to get a bus or Tata Magic for the next intermediate hop – Godhkali. Since no bus was forthcoming, I made over for the Tata Magic also believing them to be faster.

I found a Tata Magic (amongst many bound for other destinations) making way to Godhkali and sat on it. Replace Tata Magic from the above destination summary by “roof of Tata Magic”. Of course, this is not usually the case, but at that point with a heavy crowd, there was no space inside; hence I went upstairs. And it was good fun!

Until I realized that Godhkali was ~30kms away and this was to be my mode of transport for the next hour or so. Well, it was still good fun with a healthy village breeze and an occasional bump on roads where a good grip is advisable!

The area around Sundarbans is divided into numerous islands with Godhkali being the last point reachable directly by mainland (car). Thereafter, one needs to take a ferry to Gosaba (another island  - 10 minutes by ferry). Gosaba is like an average Indian village and one needs to take a rickshaw cart to an ominous sounding place named Tiger Mod.

The rickshaw cart (a journey of 40 minutes) goes right through the heart of the village and being my first village from close quarters, I took in everything with great interest. It is exactly as one would imagine – lots of small huts, lots of small ponds with hens and ducks, travel mostly on foot or cycle; an occasional motor cycle would make way; people mostly friendly and shouting familiar greetings to everyone; and most importantly something not visible in cities – people smile more.

Finally reaching the desolate looking Tiger Mod, we had to take another ferry to reach the neighboring island of Sajnekhali where my stay was booked. Essentially, that marked the official start of the forest area beyond which there weren’t much human settlement.

I reached my destination at 2pm approximately 4.5 hours after leaving Kolkata.

Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (starting Sajnekhali)

The lodge was a pretty decent one, only sparsely occupied due to storm season; mostly by middle aged Bengali families all of whom inspected me like a curious specimen unable to fathom how can one travel alone and asking the same question over!

All safaris in Sundarbans happen on boat; since the islands are not easily accessible plus there is no easy roads access and also tigers in Sundarbans are more notorious than their other Indian counterparts.

The manager of the lodge “helped” me (and himself with my money) share a boat with other folks and I left for a boat safari to Jyotirampur Bird Sanctuary and Sunset point (a couple of hours in all) from Sajnekali in the evening. There was beautiful scenery but little else to speak off, since it started to rain towards the late evening and we had to make our way back.

Heavy rain clouds hovering in the evening
The next day morning we ventured for a full day safari into the forest area; and for some time I was spell-bound. There is a calm serenity about the place as one looks at the all the mangrove trees around and the boat moves quietly amidst them across narrow creeks.

The guide clearly told us that sightings were unlikely since rain ensured animals didn’t need to come up to the river bank for drinking water. And so it proved!

Glistening water under the sun
We ventured to different areas and bypassed several islands. With craning necks and straining eyes, we continued to search for signs of movements, of any animal activity; I utilized my new all-powerful binoculars to good effect but to no avail. We saw several logs of wood each of which was perfectly shaped to be a lethal crocodile but none of them could be confirmed. At the end, I can satisfactorily say that if nothing was visible, it wasn’t due to lack of effort.

We ended the visit spotting a few spotted deers, a few mongoose, a couple of monitor lizards, number of birds (though not many) – egrets, pond herons, magpie robins, jungle myna etc. The swamps provided an opportunity to inspect some of their dwellers – red fiddler crabs, hermit crabs etc.
Spotted deer

The red fiddler crab

The other really interesting thing which defines life in the Sundarbans is the tide. In the mornings, at high tide, the swamps were full of water with land hidden underneath the mangroves at many places. 
High tide in the mornings
Swampy marsh lands visible when the water has left
By evening, the water levels had receded leaving behind the marshy swamps fully on display.

Towards afternoon on our boat safari, we nearly reached the Bay of Bengal at a five-point junction (places of meeting of 5 rivers) where our landscape changed from narrow river creeks to a gigantic vast ocean-like expanse with no land visible in any direction.

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink!
The river at these areas where it hits the sea is also known to be the home of the famous Gangetic Dolphins. Well, if there were any, they were well hidden.

At such places, one is reminded of Leonardo Di Caprio’s outstretched arms in the Titanic, but attempting to imitate him only caused rashes on my forearms off holding on to the roof of the boat.

As we made our way back, I thought of my previously successful tiger sightings at Tadoba and Ranthambore; and then realized that this was one place where the tiger was really the king. At every step, I imagined a tiger watching us from the stealth of the mangroves; at every step our tiring eyes searched him; and then I realized – at this landscape, a tiger had to really put himself on a plate and appear in front of us humans so that we could get a glimpse. He could be just sitting camouflaged underneath the nearest mangrove which we went past, and we wouldn’t have inkling.

Good luck trying to spot anything through that
Or maybe, all this was just wishful thinking and all tigers had either been long poached off or were happily roaming in an entirely inhabited area within the core forest (note, what we covered was mostly the outskirts).

Well, if I were a tiger; I would do just that!

PS: Don’t go with any expectations of tiger sightings; just enjoy the serenity and the forest area which makes for a very enjoyable experience.