iDiscern | A Tour Of The Sundarbans

Bengal tiger. Mangroves. Marshland. Delta. And therefore, exotic.

At the risk of seeming somewhat ignorant, my interest and curiosity about the Sundarbans has been fuelled and held together by those very words being strung together since the good old geography days in school. It was therefore but natural for me to seize the opportunity during my relatively longish stay in the City of Joy. Google search then pointed me in the direction of ‘Tour de Sundarbans’. Emails and a few phone calls later I’d reserved a spot for myself for a 1 night 2 day weekend tour of the Sundarbans.

N.B.: It takes about 4 hours and 4 modes of locomotion to reach the Sundarbans from Calcutta city.

The beginning:
3 different nationalities on a 3 hour road trip in a vintage ambassador –
A shiver ran down my spine when I was told that we were a group of 30 headed towards the Sundarbans. This was solely because I’d had my fair share of organized group tours and knew how they’d panned out. #NuffSaid

However I’d tide over (pun intended, geddit?)  this experience too is what I heard myself say. In what seemed like a random assignment of sorts, it was me, a lady from Denmark and a Scotsman who were ushered away into a moss green ambassador. The ambassador I would learn later while chatting up with the driver (while my European co-travellers were engrossed sharing notes about their solo travel experiences in ‘quirky’ India) was a 1960s model – and of whose brakes the less we knew the better.
Ahem! I would also learn that our driver was allegedly a Tollywood actor.

The ambassador that needs no further introduction

The road trip is enjoyable as it takes you through an ever-changing landscape through the lanes of Calcutta then its outskirts where our driver warned us that what seem like hills in the distance are actually landfills – we had to believe him because our olfactory senses already knew that. I continued to cringe at ‘urban mania’ when we passed by the leather tanneries and chemical factories emitting effluents in the nearby waterbodies. At one place I could only shake my head in disbelief because all I saw was pink soap-like foam floating atop the waters!

Of my co-travellers I learnt that the lady from Denmark had spent a blissful 6 weeks in the Andamans that she wouldn’t stop raving about while the Scotsman had been around South India, was aboard a bus from Hampi that met with an accident and regretted travelling non-AC Sleeper coach to Calcutta!

The journey with the road ends and the one with water begins –
Around 11:30 AM with the sun at its infernal best (read: I was scaled in the seat next to the driver through the windscreen) we got off at Godkhali, the last road point to hop into a local ferry that would take us to the island of Gosaba.

Exploring all forms of locomotion 

Stepping out of my own kid-in-the-candy-store moment, I let it sink in that this was everyday life for people who lived on these islands. You had to wait in a queue to be seated on a ferry. Gosaba, we were told, is where locals come from all over the Sundarbans to purchase all they need. It is the Big Bazaar and Walmart of this part of the world. At the same time I was familiarizing myself with the other folks on the tour – a bunch of 5 friends, a family of 4, a group of 15 from an IT company and a bunch of 5 from France, another from Spain and one from New Zealand.
From Gosaba we were then loaded on to auto-rickshaws (of a somewhat mutated breed) to take us closer to the island of Satjelia where we’d be docking ourselves that night. However it wasn’t until another boat ride that we were finally at the Backpackers’ Eco Village. It was closer to 1:30 PM and we were all famished.

The middle:
The Eco-Village and the Solo Traveller –
The eco-village is a modest facility that is solar generated and has been developed on a plot of land that the villagers helped build and maintain for tourists. There are hammocks to lounge on as the humid gust of wind manages to lull your senses after a sumptuous meal.

Rest and recreation - The Eco Village

Towards the evening we set out for a walk through the village – sleepy and serene were the only two words that popped in the thought bubble above my head. It was also around the same time that two girls struck up a conversation with me and were rather surprised to learn that I had solo’d my way through to the Sundarbans (and no, I wasn’t travelling with the family). I couldn’t help but contrast that with a conversation I had with the non-Indians in the group and whose only questions to me were, “So what’s your story? How long have you been travelling around in India? Where’s next?”
These incidentally are questions I am never asked by my fellow countrymen!

The Night Safari –
Post dinner, the tour organizers threw open to us the idea of setting out for a night safari through the mangroves. In a boat. Over the water that was home to the saltwater crocodiles, we were told. A couple of us were up for the adventure in spite of the fatigue and the impending early morning start the next day.

In what seemed like poetry in motion, we entrusted ourselves to our oarsman under the star-lit night-sky, slightly shifty every time something trembled at the surface of the water. It was ethereal. That was before our oarsman deftly motioned the boat and our already jumpy-selves somewhere further into the mangroves. And then he was still. For a while. Until he took his oar out and then lightly traced it over the water which radiated. We were probably over the bioluminescent microorganisms that dwelt in the waters beneath us.
I wish I could paint a picture – starry skies above, bioluminescence below.
Something tells me I am not going to be able to top this experience for a very long time

The oarsman

Elmar is a fish trawler innovatively converted into a cruise boat

The Sundarbans National Park –
Early next morning we were all aboard Elmar (a fish trawler innovatively converted into a cruise boat) and set out for a good nine hours into the backwaters of the Bay of Bengal peering through the mangroves to spot a life form or two –  and we did spot a stork, some monkeys and deers.
But it was the aerial roots (also known as breathing roots) that captivated me. Vine-like and above the surface of the ground, the roots perform the function of providing support to the plant while receiving water and nutrient in-take from the air.
These are the times I wish our educational system was a little less drab than it has been!

The swamps

Aerial roots

The ending:
The journey back to land –
…was one that was more adventuresome than the entire weekend put together at the Sundarbans. At 6:30 PM we were no more than a few yards away from the jetty when we realised that owing to the low tide, Elmar wouldn’t be able to get us across. And so we were redirected to another jetty. By this time it was just us and the crescent above. Finding our way off and back on to a ferry to take us back to Godkhali included one too many a slippery slope (and the odd chance that we might lose someone to the crowd of locals and the dark).

And our way back to land we did find – almost an hour later but we were relieved. We couldn’t wait to get started and simply head back to wherever we’d come from. It was 7:30 PM and that meant ‘home’ was a good 3 hours away.
Or so we thought.
Because no sooner had our Tempo Traveller begun to speed away into the night, we were made to pull our vehicle to a side. We’d barely been on the road for 30 minutes and clearly had no more of an appetite for more (mis)adventures! The locals who’d made us pull to the side informed us that a live electric wire had come undone and was hanging loosely mid-air! We had to wait another 30 minutes while alternative arrangements could be made for the vehicular traffic to pass by without any ghastly outcomes.

No who says you need to spot a Royal Bengal tiger to add oomph to a trip like this one?

P.S.: A forest ranger from the Sundarbans National Park who’d accompanied us through the safari that morning explained to us the reason why they’re called the Royal Bengal tiger – apparently these felines kill anything that moves, even if they are not hungry (unlike most other predators).

Stop and stare...


Have some of your own adventuresome stories to share?

More from the West Bengal diaries:
Holi at Santiniketan
Walking through Calcutta

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