Bengal tiger. Mangroves. Marshland. Delta. And
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.
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.
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
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 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
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,
Something tells me I am not going to be able to top
this experience for a very long time
|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 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
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.
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
|Stop and stare...|
Have some of your own adventuresome stories to share?
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Labels: Calcutta, female solo traveller, India, roadtrip, rural, solo travel, Sundarbans, travel, West Bengal