With the pandemic, travel styles are changing enormously. In 2020 I hardly travelled and in 2021 I had decided to start with day trips from Kolkata, my home town. So my first trip of 2021 was a day trip to Sundarbans. Tourists can even spend nights at government run and/or private guest houses or home stays and also on the tour boats itself. We, however made a great day trip and came back at night to the warmth and comfort of our home.
Sundarbans, World’s Largest Mangrove:
A 3.5 hours’ drive covering a distance of little lesser than 100 kilometers from Kolkata takes us to world’s largest Mangrove Forest, the Sundarbans. It covers an area of about 10,000 km2 out of which a little more than 4,000 km2 is in India and the remaining 6,000 km2 is in Bangladesh. The Indian part is in the North and South 24 Pargana Districts of the State of West Bengal. Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are Sundarbans National Park, Sundarbans West, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans East Wildlife Sanctuaries.
My first trip of 2021 gave me some unique experiences. We spent the whole day at Sunderbans on a boat. The Sundarbans is a delta with mangroves formed by the confluence of three rivers – Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna in the Bay of Bengal. It comprises of closed and open mangrove forests mostly comprising of sundari trees (Heritiera fomes).There are some land used for agricultural purpose, mudflats and barren land, and is intersected by multiple tidal streams and channels. The dense forests of Sunderbans are popular for the Royal Bengal Tiger. Well, besides Bengal Tigers, there are dreadful crocodiles and snakes too. It is habitat to variety of animals; mammals, reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians.
Life at Sundarbans:
Sundarbans is also famous for honey. Honey and bee wax collecting, wood collecting, fishing, crustacean and mollusc collecting and a bit of one-crop farming are what make the livelihood of the people of Sundarbans. They have a difficult life, fighting with odds every day. Day in and out they face tigers or crocodiles. Lack of clean drinking water is a major challenge. The cyclones make it even worse for them every year. Despite government aids and protections, the Indian Sundarbans were considered endangered in a 2020 assessment under the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems framework.
We, a group of eighteen, left from Jadavpur, Kolkata, at 6 am. It is better to leave as early as possible. We reached Jharkhali via Canning at 9.45 am. From the parking, the Jharkhali Jetty is a kilometer’s walk. We had reserved our boat from Kolkata itself. From 10.30 am to 5 pm we were on board. The boat had two levels – the deck to sit and observe the forest around and the lower level with some beds and rest rooms for boarders. Breakfast, sumptuous lunch, snacks and evening tea were served on board. On board cooking made this possible. The total cost was approximately Rs.30,000 where the vehicle charged almost Rs.8,000 and the boat and food cost the remaining. It is ideal to go in a group to the Sundarbans.
Sighting at Sundarbans:
The experience of the mangroves was unique as we were on board for the whole day. Out boat travelled on extremely wide river as well as narrow creeks. Narrower creeks provide better chance of animal sighting. We could spot wild boars, numerous spotted deer, porcupines and a viper. Sighting Gangetic dolphins, water monitor lizards and red crabs that made the muddy bank look red, was fun. The deadly crocodiles, lazing and sun bathing on the muddy shores looked like logs. Several water birds like herons, varieties of kingfishers, ducks and cranes were common. We also spotted different kinds of kites and eagles. Probability of a tiger sighting is low in Sundarbans as compared to other forests in India. We were fortunate or unfortunate to have not spotted a tiger. The Royal Bengal Tigers of the mangroves are the most ferocious and unpredictable breed of tigers.
Watchtowers of Sunarbans:
We landed on an island, the Dobanki Camp of Sundarban Tiger Reserve. There are array of pathways which are alleviated from the ground leading to a watch tower from which we saw the vast extent of the forest. The watch towers of Sajnekhali and Sudhanyakhali are two top attractions of the safari. Sajnekhali has a bird sanctuary too. There are a some wild animals park or mini zoos maintained by the Government of West Bengal for breeding, medication and keeping rescued animals from the forests. Few more watch towers and islands are also there which can be visited if time permits. Pakhiralaya is a tiny village developed for eco tourism and is popular for night stay.
Food and Fun:
Regarding the food on board, we had prefixed the menu. We were more interested in having fish and crustaceans as they are fresh and easily available there compared to that in Kolkata. One can customize accordingly. Bengali home cooked style food is available.
It was a different day, a day well spent; the whole day spent on waters. Besides wildlife, it was wilderness that we soaked into. The wide river, the breathing roots, the sundari trees, an animal, bird or a reptile, here and there, conjured the magic. Watching the sun go down from the deck was pure bliss. Even if you are a gang, it is advisable to maintain silence. Animal sighting is possible if one remains silent, alert and observant. Music on board is prohibited and be careful not to litter into the river.
Unique Experience at Sundarbans:
At some turns through the creeks we noted red bordered white sarees tied to trees but didn’t know what those signified. We found out from the boat man that a saree is tied to a Sundari tree for a person who has been killed by a tiger in the name of Bono Bibi, the goddess of the mangroves. Something crumbled inside the heart. Every day that passes in a villager’s life is a day which they count as one lived. This is their struggle. We boarded our bus after paying our homage to Bono Bibi, who is believed to be the goddess who protects the villagers from the deadly big cats. Bono Bibi is beyond religion, for in the mangroves of Bengal, survival strategy is of utmost priority and beyond most other thing.