We had a very early morning after a very short night. We were supposed to go to sleep early last night in anticipation of today’s expedition, but of course that didn’t happen. Instead we chatted until about 1:30am and then got up at 3:45am, ready to set off at 4:00am.
Today we went to the Sunderbans National Park. The park is inscribed on the UNESCO list and is famous for its Mangroves and Bengal Tigers. It covers a huge area, spreading between India and Bangladesh. The park is about 2.5 hours drive South of Kolkata.
We spent most of our day on a boat, hopping between various view points. The first stop had a big breeding pond for Terrapin Turtles (90 hatched last year!), a viewing platform, a temple dedicated to the tiger god and a small information gallery about the Sunderbans which teaches about the different species who live here. As well as the Bengal Tiger, the Sunderbans are also home to many types of birds, snakes, deer, hogs, crabs, to saline crocodiles and even to a species of shark! At the second stop we climbed another viewing platform and in the distance saw some grazing deer. The third stop was quite some distance from the first two. It took about two hours on the boat to get there. During this passage we saw several sleeping crocodiles, two wild hogs accompanied by a colourful, wild rooster, some people on our tour even saw a dolphin, but it was gone before I got to that side of the boat. We were also served very nice lunch on the boat. There was delicious prawn curry, mixed vegetables, popads, grilled aubergines and other goodies. The third stop was a canopy walkway – a pavement built above the level of the short mangrove trees. Our guide told us it was here he last seen the elusive Bengal Tiger, over a month ago on the 12th January. We were not so lucky, but we did get a very close look at a beautiful, spotted deer with ridiculously long antlers. By the time we returned to our boat we noticed the tide has come in and were before we could see muddy, brown banks with tree roots peeking up through the ground, now it seemed like the trees were half submerged and growing straight out of the water.
The bodies of water separating the areas of land in the Sunderbans vary greatly, from narrow passages to ones so vast that they more resemble lakes than rivers. It’s a serene, peaceful and very relaxed location – perfect for a lazy, chilled day.
But how did we end up at the Sunderbans? What if you want to go too?
Fairly early on we concluded that doing the Sunderbans independently wasn’t going to be at all time effective and wasn’t really going to save us much once permits, accommodation, boat trip etc. was all factored in. We decided in the end to go for a one day tour with one of the two main operators from Kolkata, Sunderbans Chola, mainly on the basis that they were somewhat cheaper than the other and still had decent ratings. We rang up only the evening before and were able to book a 1-day tour.
Getting to the Sunderbans is an adventure in itself. After the early morning drive we shuffled on to a wooden ferry boat which took us across one stretch of water. We then boarded the BMW.
This took us along some of the roughest roads going past many simple thatch huts with fields and animals. Occasionally we passed through tiny towns too. We eventually arrived and boarded our boat which was pleasant and not crowded. We were served numerous cups of Chai as well as the delicious food on board. At the end of the day we returned to Kolkata via the same route. This time we rode with the owner of the tour company, who turned out to be an interesting guy and entertained us with conversation about everything from his daughter and his former work for NGOs to Indian politics.
We chose to go for the one-day tour and despite the horrible early morning it actually worked well for us. The tone of the day is relaxed and it’s possible to snooze on the boat as Aleks and Philipp will attest. It is possible to do longer tours and stay in the village, apparently meeting and being entertained by local people. Having done something similar in the Moroccan desert before and felt all day like we were imposing we weren’t too keen to do this; genuine interaction with people doesn’t usually happen as a stop on a tour. However doing a longer tour would allow one to see the sunset and avoid the very early morning. Altogether we thought the 1-day option gave us a great experience and is well worth doing.