I had always longed to go on Forest adventures, jungle safari’s across the national forests and jungles of India. But i haven’t been able to do any due to various reasons, reasons which are more related to planning out the logistics, itinerary, availability of leaves than anything to do with financial viability. Many of these forests reserves and sanctuaries are spread out so far apart from each other, across the length and breadth of the country, it would be very difficult for one to plan an itinerary involving more than one of these at a stretch. It would take you a life-time for you to visit all of these forests.
The stories of Jim corbett and his encounters with the man-eaters, stories of adventures of other hunters have always fascinated me. Stories of hunters perched upon trees in ambush and waiting for these man-eaters for days together. Well i cannot afford to be that adventurous, but i just wanted to witness this majestic animal in full glory in it’s home turf. Hence, when i chanced upon an opportunity which would make a visit to the ‘Sunderbans’ feasible being a part of our regular itinerary, with my wife Sushma,i did not want to miss it.
We had originally planned a trip of visiting Puri – Konark – Chilka lake, and then travel to Calcutta from there overnight for a sight-seeing tour of Calcutta for the next couple of days. However, we had to drop out Chilka lake from our plan and include a day trip to Sunderbans instead.
There were several excellent reviews of various tour organizers like Tour-de-sunderbans, Sunderbans Chalo (http://sundarbanchalo.com/) in tripadvisor. There were several packages they were offering, ranging from 1-day tour to 2-3 days tour with an home-stay accomodation in Sunderbans overnight. Due to our tight schedule we had to stick on to one-day tour. Tour-de-Sunderbans had some logistical problems in arranging a one-day trip for us since there were less number of people for a day tour on that particular day. However, ‘sunderbans Chalo’ group readily agreed and arranged a day trip for us.
The day prior to our Sunderbans trip, we visited Dakshineshwar Kali temple, Belur math, the Howrah bridge and did some shopping in Esplanade and the area around New Market. Our hotel, ‘The Heera International’ was close to the Park street, right in the heart of the city. It was at a walkable distance from most of the central shopping areas. The day was eventful, where we got to witness some unique sights of the city which makes it what it is. The metro ride, ultra-modern shopping outlets and restaurants along the park street showcase us the flecks of modernization amidst the narrow crowded streets, the tongawallah’s, compact little city-buses which are more or less just tin boxes with wheels, the trams, old dilipidated victorian buildings along the narrow gullies. Perhaps it is these images of such contrast which makes one love kolkata, the grand old city and the locals swear by their city.
The most memorable experience of the day for me was the boat ride across the Ganges from Dakshineshwar Kali temple to the Belur math. I had heard stories of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa swim across this river in order to worship Kali and i was awestruck as to how he could do it, looking at the magnitude of the breadth of the river.
We settled in our room after a good dinner, which we had ordered to our room itself. Overall, it was a satisfying and enjoyable day, however i had some apprehensions about the next day: How safe would be the trip to sunderbans, how trustworthy are these organizers and what kind of people would accompany us. My apprehensions were two-fold given that i would be travelling alone with my wife. I gave a call to ‘Sunderbans Chalo’ team and there was some respite. There would probably be one more couple who would be accompanying us on the trip. This was a welcome news and i had a good nights sleep. I fully hoped that the other couple would not miss out on the trip.
The trip – 31st March 2014
We woke up early at around 5 AM to get ready. I got a call at around 6 AM from the driver who was waiting for us. It was a green coloured Tata Safari, cozy and comfortable for a group of 4 people. The driver was a decent chap, did not speak much. Once we were in, we set off to pick up our companions for the trip, the second couple, Vipul and his wife. They were staying in an Indian oil guest house, a little far off from the city center. It seems Vipul worked for Indian oil and hence he was put up there. They too, like us, were relieved to see us, happy to know that they were not alone in the trip.
All set and all introductions done, we set off towards Sunderbans, southeast of Kolkata. Our gateway to Sunderbans was supposed to be a village called ‘Gosaba’, the last inhabited village in Sunderbans. However, we could see a few more small villages along the delta.
A few miles after we started from Kolkata, we were in the country-side. The road leading to sunderbans was mostly rough and worn-out in most of the parts with hardly any fully tarred, motorable road in the entire stretch. This is sad that the only accessible road to one of the world’s most famous landscape’s was in such a bad shape.
Sans the road, everything else was amazing. You’ll see a common landscape all across the stretch until you reach Gosaba. Huts with thatched roof”s, small tables of water in front of each hut, with fields for cultivation alongside these ponds. These small private ponds form a source of water for the fields. These form of huts seem to be typical across the bengal country-side.
We reached Gosaba at around 10 AM. The gateway to the Sunderbans is not a very welcome sight. If you expect a cozy tourist information center, hotels, line of food stalls, private yachts, luxury boats …etc, you’ll be in for a huge disappointment. Forget any high-end luxury, this place lacks even basic amenities.
A narrow concrete road opposite a parking lot takes you to the dock. There were many steam boats here. We got into a double decker steam boat, hired by the sunderban chalo team for us. We were lucky that not many people were there for the tour on that day. It was just us, two couples, and we had the entire boat for ourselves. The driver came along with us. They provided a modest breakfast for us in the boat, which consisted of a modest sandwich and banana.
The itinerary for the day was supposed to be as follows: We are three main watch towers in the forest, Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali and Dobanki. Dobanki is the farthest and deeper in the forest. We would reach Sajnekhali first, take a permission from the forest officers there and then proceed on-to Sudhanyakhali and later onto Dobanki and back to Gosaba to head back. A guide would accompany us from Sajnekhali. But it so happened, the driver later told us that we will have to miss out Dobanki since we reached Gosaba late, as it would be difficult for us to make it back if we went to Dobanki. He told us, he would instead take us inside into the mangroves into some canals interior, where the water levels are shallow and the chances of sighting a tiger is more.
Thus began our steam boat safari. This was my wife’s most favourite part of the trip since it did not involve any walking or running around. She could just sit in the comfort of a soft cushioned chair and enjoy the views around…. he he. The boat started sailing along: for the first few minutes we were sailing along the banks of the village Gosaba. This gave us a few glimpses of the village life here: children running along the roads on the embankment, villagers commuting in cycles, typical village houses and there is a small boat docked alongside most of these houses.
The livelihood for most of the people along sunderbans is to venture deep into the forest to collect honey. This is dangerous but this is what most of the villagers do for their bread and butter. There have been many instances of the tigers killing fishermen and honey-collectors here.
The tigers of Sunderbans are man-eaters. They are usually small in size compared to other tigers but are more fierce. There is lack of other animals in these marshy wetlands and hence the tigers have evolved into man-eaters and they often prey upon the villagers and honey collectors here. They are excellent swimmers too. They often swim across these mighty rivers from one island into other and sometimes into the villages. Hence the forest department has placed nets all along the borders of these forests, bordering the villages. You can see these nets along the forests when you are sailing through.
All along these rivers and winding channels, you’ll see a lot of small boats and vessels belonging to fishermen and traders. All the fishing boats are similarly built. They are small, narrow and taper at the ends. Most of these boats have a temporary make-shift kind of shelter, a semicircular cylindrical object placed on the boat so that it can provide shelter. These fishermen and honey collectors, often venture into the forests for days together in search of honey and they carry along food, stove, cooking utensils and other ration along with them. Hence the necessity of these shelters on the boats.
After roughly an hour to an hour and half of sailing along the forests and villages, we reached the sajnekhali watch tower. This is also a small forest guards outpost and you would need a permit and a guide accompanying you from here onwards. There is also a small museum here, which displays models of various animals in sunderbans forests, mannequins showing the lifestyle of the villagers along sunderbans ..etc. You get a very beautiful panorama of the sundarbans from the watch tower. The guide accompanied us from here.
Here onwards, the forest became even more dense and the rivers much wider. We started getting actual glimpses of the unique ecosystem of Sunderbans here onwards. We spotted various birds like Egrets, storks and also a few monitor lizards, though we were not very lucky enough to spot tigers in the tiger reserve!!
There were several smaller canals branching out deeper into the forest from the main river. We went into one of the canals branching out, the breadth of the river was much smaller here and the water was supposedly much shallower.
You can see typical images of the mangroves here, with trees having aerial roots all along, marshy land. The banks along the forests were muddy and slippery, and the water levels rising and receding due to tides was evident here.
There were stilt roots and sharp cone roots rising out of the ground all along.
We wound along many shallow canals inside the forest, lucky enough to see a few birds like Egret’s, stork’s ..etc for a couple of hours. We were hoping to see some crocodile or Ganges and Irrawady Dolphins which are indigenous to this place, but we couldn’t spot any.
It was post noon by this time and we had our lunch. There was a small cabin beneath the deck of the boat, which consisted of a couple of beds, a kitchen and a toilet. It was a nice cozy little place. There was a cook along with the crew members of the boat. He had cooked some nice vegetarian fare for us. It consisted of rice, Dal, and a couple of different vegetables. The food was very tasty and i thoroughly enjoyed it.
Our next stop in the safari was Sudhanyakhali watch tower. After winding along many more canals, we finally made it to Sudhanyakhali by late noon. There was an abandoned military vessel docked here. There was a board here with all the details of the latest tiger sightings. A tiger was supposedly spotted here in the previous week as per the board. We were not lucky enough to spot any tiger here too. All we could see from the watch tower was yet another Monitor lizard.
After spending a few more minutes in the watch tower here, and in the park adjacent, we filled our bottled of water and header towards the boat again.
Then began the final leg of our safari back towards the Gosaba village. For a couple of hours again, it was the same sight of the mangroves, muddy river banks, trees all along with cone and stilt roots … but not even a slightest hint of a tiger, no matter how far we stretched our eye balls. These sights started getting a little boring to us by now.
Vipul, our companion, started making some animal sounds himself to drive away the boredom and keep us entertained. He said there were better chances of sighting at least a few crocodiles in one of the similar mangroves in somewhere in Orissa.
We sailed along for a couple of more hours and by now we were almost in the edge of the forest and some villages started becoming visible. Our guide got down in one of these villages along the way and we bade him good-bye and continued our journey.
We sailed for another hour before we reached Gosaba. There were evidence of severe tides this place experiences, from the sight of loose mud walls almost cracking all along the river. We reached Gosaba, and by this time, the sun was almost setting in the Sunderbans.
We bade good-bye to this place heavy heartedly with all hopes that we would come back to enjoy this place once again, and hoping even more that we are able to spot a tiger at-least then!!! 🙂