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Published: November 23rd 2005
Please excuse the bad quality of pictures put up. The scanner is pretty bad. I will put up good pictures in a couple of days.
I vaguely knew about the Sunderban area as the home of the royal bengal tigers. But only when i read 'The Hungry Tide' by Amitaav Ghosh, did i actually learn about this fascinating place. I was drawn to the place while reading the book and started doing research online to plan a trip.
Some facts about the sunderbans that i learned were: It is the largest mangrove forest in the world; Part of the worlds largest delta formed by the Ganges, Bhramaputra & Meghna; 3. It is the largest national park in India (40%!o(MISSING)f the Sunderbans is in India the rest is in Bangladesh); It is home to somewhere between 250-300 tigers (man-eaters, more about them later).
Too many other fasincating facts but i'll stop here.
Also, I learned that it was a dangerous and inhospitable place which explains why it is not as popular as other national parks in India. Also, some web sites had warnings against mosquitoes, diseases and I had to put up some fight with my parents because
i had just recovered from typhoid.
So once I decided that i want to go, the biggest challenge was to get someone to accompany me for the trip which was probably the most difficult part of the trip. I had almost given up when one night months later i was sitting with a couple of my friends who were interested in going right away. But it was not easy. I could write a book on the month pre-sunderbans. After all the 'what could wrong, will and did' finally 3 of us went to the sunderbans. 3 of us being me and 2 other friends (I'll call them Micky and Minnie.. for some reason they don't want their identity to be disclosed) Leaving for Kolkata (Calcutta)
Sunderbans is on the southern tip of West Bengal the closest city being Kolkata. We took an early morning flight from Mumbai (by the way that's where i'm from) to Kolkata. We stayed in Kolkata for 2 days. Kolkata i was told is a dirty crowded place.. but coming from Bombay (and the people who told me were from bombay too) i thought it was exaggerated ..i infact liked how much of Calcutta
Picture taken from the bus on the way to the Sunderbans
I saw in those 2 days. It had some character... charm of an old city.. a city with history... a city of intellectuals (Minnie kept saying this) ... had empty spaces .. oh ya and had this nice bar 'someplace else'. But i really won't get into the details of what i did in calcutta for 2 days coz this is supposed to be about the Sunderbans. Few memories of Calcutta(oh sorry Kolkata): the marble palace (excellent privately owned musuem), victoria memorial (the musuem and the area in general), food in the chinatown area where they run these restaraunts that were previously factories and cook everything with pig fat (being a vegetarian myself it is kind of important), the trams, the metro/subway (great considering transport elsewhere in India), Naom's (jewish bakery in new market), the sweet shops, the people, college street, breakfast at flury's, ... the only let down i can think of was the indian museum (i was told it's the largest musuem in India)
There's not too much choice when it comes to accomodation in the Sunderban area. You can either stay at the Sajnekhali tourist lodge (which is pretty run down), the cruises organized by the
Called out to me and asked me to take his picture.
West Bengal Tourism or a couple of privately owned lodges (Sunderban Tiger Camp being one of them). We chose the Sunderban Tiger camp (http://www.sunderbantigercamp.com) as they had a balanced iternary and it looked nicer to stay in. Day 1
The Sunderban Tiger camp had arranged for pick up from Priya theatre in Kolkata at 7 am. We got there early and waited for the others. The others being 2 groups; 3 teachers from Kolkata and a family. The 3 teachers took a liking to Minnie instantly and Micky took a liking to them. A lot of people had cancelled because of the heavy floods the previous week in the area. We left punctually at 7 am. We were to drive to Sonakhali from where we would take a boat to the sunderban tiger camp. We travelled through this most picturesque stretch of greenery while we passed through these nice looking villages (well most of them) at regular intervals. We didn't even realize the 4 hour journey. I personally couldn't get enough of that ride. We got lots of it on the digicam that unfortunately i can't share with you'll. Not sure when i'll get to see it either. Once
On the Boat
Left - Me, Right - Micky. Our spot on the boat
we reached Sonakhali the Sunderban tiger camp boat was docked and waiting for us to get on board.
It was a perfect day with clear blue skies with patches of bright white clouds. We entered the boat and met our guide Mr. Raptan (http://www.raptan.com). He told us about the uniqueness of the Sunderbans his personal stories which made it all very interesting. He showed us his hand which had tiger marks. He was accompanying someone into the sunderbans when the tiger attacked them. He was saved with just a tiger mark on his hand (and haunting memories i'm sure) while the person who he was with was killed by the tiger. He was slightly conscious about his English and we had to reassure him that he was doing pretty well. Though i realized that he would first speak for 1/2 hour in Bengali to the other people and then the translation to us would last for 5 minutes. Minnie (to refresh ure memory the person who was with me on this trip who doesn't want to disclose her identity) is a writer for a newspaper in Mumbai and by nature a person who will start talking to someone and
keep talking to the person and get facts/information/stories from the person. So i got to hear a lot more then i would have if it wasn't for her. She had taken her notebook so that she could write while on the trip i don't think she really managed to write a lot though.
So we set out on the 2 1/2 hour journey into the Sunderbans. A beautiful day and beautiful surroundings. It was perfect. We got to the Sunderban Tiger Camp by around 1:30 pm. There were 3 types of accomodation available tents, huts and cottages. We took the hut somewhat midway. It was really nice. The most important thing is it was clean. As soon as we entered the room a guy came and gave all 3 of us a pouch which had toothbrush, toothpaste, a torch, shampoo, comb, pen, pad which i thought was great. We were starving so we rushed in for lunch which was a buffet set up. The food was very good (bengali food). Have to say the place was way better then what we had expected. It cost us Rs. 3,400 a person for 2 nights and 3 days (everything included) which
In the middle of nowhere
This guy had just built this house in the middle of nowhere. He was sleeping there while we crossed under it.
is very reasonable for the place and the kind of service we got.
We then rested for a while in the room before we were to assemble at 3:30 pm at the boat. The boat took us to the Sanjekhali tourist lodge area where there is a musuem, some enclosings that have the ridley turtles, crocodiles (we didn't see anything though... have no idea where they were) and a watchtower. The watchtower overlooked a man made fresh water enclosure. As 70% of the water in the area is saline the animals come to these ponds to drink water. Up on the watchtower we only spotted deers that were passign by. There was a bon bibi temple there too. Bon bibi is who the locals pray to in the region to protect them from tigers. It has an accompanying story that you could search for if you're interested or read 'The hungry tide'. The tourist lodge area wasn't that great really.
We went back to the camp pretty early (gets dark by around 5:30 in the winter). It's a very strict area and you are not allowed to be in the area after sunset and before sunrise. There was
They call this area the tiger's den. The tiger is most likely in this sort of vegetation.
not much to do in the camp so we went out on the boat while it was docked when it got dark. We were lying down on the boat and were just amazed looking up at the sky. It was clear, filled with stars. It depends where your from (how polluted it is, city lights) but where i come from, looking at the sky that night was one of the highlights of my trip. We were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by villages that don't have electricity. We could see this arch of stardust in the sky. And without exaggeration we saw a shooting star every 5 minutes on an average. The activity in the sky was unbelievable.
There was this folk dance show that the hotel had arranged. This family was singing and dancing on folk songs. One of the kids was really graceful and enthusiastic but it looked like the mom was performing at gunpoint. We had dinner which was great again and went back to the room. Minnie couldn't sleep and kept us awake most of the night because there were small bugs on the bed. For some reason i had sprayed brute on my
bed and i came to the conclusion that my bed had no bugs because of the brute. So at 3:00 am in the morning i was spraying brute on her bed and switched beds with her. I realized soon enough that brute had no effect on those bugs. Day 2
Sunderbans is an area which has many small islands formed by winding creeks. The water level rises sharply during high tide covering a lot of islands or forming floating forests (all you can see is the top of the trees). In low tide, many of the creeks get completely dried and the submerged forests re-emerge. This happens in a 6 hour cycle. It's brilliant. All animals in this region have adapted to this terrain and the changing tides and are expert swimmers. All of them, pretty amazing. Tigers are known to swim 6 kms at a stretch in the region. So being out in the water is not really safe if you're on a small fishing boat. The tigers are man eaters and no one has come up with a conclusive reason why though. There are many theories out there which make sense. It was interesting our guide was
Streets of Kolkata
On the way to the Marble Palace
telling us how the tiger attacks the right hand of a person first and then goes straight for the spine. It is said that if you see a tiger it is because the tiger wants you to see it. So hopefully you're on safe land when u do.
We woke up early in the morning (well i don't think we really slept) at around 5 to see the sunrise. We walked around in the nearby area which was beautiful. I've put some pictures up. They were very amused with Minnie as she got her slippers stuck in the muck and was washing her legs and almost slipped and wanted a flower that Mickey tried to get for her and some other village kid got it in a second and you get the idea. We put on a good show while the locals (some with a toothbrush in the mouth) were standing and watching us early in the morning.
Then we left for the sunderbans tiger reserve area. We saw quite a few types of Kingfishers on the way and other birds that i don't recollect the names of. They served breakfast on the boat (idli's: south indian rice dumplings, sandwiches, coffee/tea). I had my eyes focussed in the direction of the jungle hoping to spot a tiger. We didn't spot any tigers at the end of it. It is actually the most difficult terrain to spot animals because it is a very dense forest and your only hope to spot them is if they are crossing the river. The chances are very low. Then we went to another watchtower. We didn't spot anything from there either. Crocodiles are usually easy to spot in the area but we didn't even spot any. Even though it was a picturesque boat ride we were slightly disappointed. But then it happened. On our way back we spotted river dolphin! Only 2 places in the world where u can spot them and this is one of them. We were extremely lucky to spot them. They are much smaller in size compared to regular dolphins. They were 2 that we spotted that were appearing every few minutes on the surface of the water. The rest of the journey we were just lying down on the boat enjoying the ride and got back to the camp at 2 pm.
In the evening that day we were to go and visit the near by village. It was nice road to the village. What i really liked about it was that it was very clean. The authorities are very strict. It is a no plastic zone and i think the locals are conscious about it too. The market in the village had the most minimal things. I was looking for any chocolate cream biscuit (which are very common anywhere in India) and they didn't have any we were just lucky to get these mini chocolate bars. There were kids playing ludo in one corner, the other people in the market probably used to tourists coming by all the time were quite amused. At night we went back to the boat though the sky was not as clear as the previous night. Day 3
We were to leave the next morning to go to another part of the tiger reserve hoping to spot something. It was like the previous day but no complaints I couldn't get enough of the place. The boat ride through those creeks was worth every minute of it.
Being a protected area i advise anyone travelling to spot wildlife to get special permission from the autorities to go into restricted areas of the park. The government restricts tourist boats to go into only 2 creeks. This limits the possibility of spotting wildlife. Also, you could get special permission to stay overnight at the watchtowers which increases the chances to spot a tiger. Though, summer is a better time as the water is more saline and the animals come to the freshwater enclosures near the watchtowers.
We finally left the sunderbans knowing in our minds that we will really miss the simplicity, excitement, fresh air, silence and occasional shrieks of the place. On the bus journey back while we were entering Calcutta I felt the same feeling.. the wierd feeling in my stomach everytime i return from a trip like this.... i don't know how to explain it... a struggle within me..... or maybe i was just hungry. Final words
If your only focus when you go to the Sunderbans is to spot wildlife you might be disappointed. There are many other forest reserves in India where the chances of spotting wildlife is much easier. The Sunderbans is not a place for everyone, but it is one of the most unique places i have been to. It didn't seem as crowded as the other jungles i have been to as it is still not exploited which is the most positive thing about the place. It's for the slightly more adventurous and people who can soak in nature. A good time to go there is November - March. I went there in the end of October and it was pretty warm.
I think what made the trip even better was the company. Thanks Micky and Minnie!
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