Searching For Tigers in the Sundarbans

 

Exploring the Sundarbans

Just over 100km from the frantic streets of Kolkata (former name Calcutta) lies a truly unique, magical place.

That place is the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the world’s largest mangrove forest that lies on the Delta of India’s most sacred river – the Holy River Ganges. The Sundarbans is perhaps most famous for being home to the world’s largest concentration of Royal Bengal Tigers and although that was my initial reason for visiting, along on the way I found a whole lot more to fall in love with in the Sundarbans.

Me at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. Did you know that (former name Calcutta ) was the first capital of British India

Me at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. Did you know that (former name Calcutta ) was the first capital of British India

The Tour De Sundarbans

My adventure into the Sundarbans starts in Kolkata where I met my guides with the amazing Tour De Sundarbans.

In India, often the journey is all part of the experience and here was no different. It was a bit of an eye opening and hair raising 3 hour ride from Kolkata we bumped through an industrious scene of lucrative shrimp farms against a horizon dotted with the chimney stacks of brick factories. We passed through dusty villages full of life and swerved past an assortment of improvised, over loaded vehicles where whole families were crowded onto a flat bed truck like thing fashioned out of a motorbike.

A new road is being built, once this is finished it will make for a much quicker, smoother ride to the Sundarbans.

Improvised transport options in West Bengal

Improvised transport options in West Bengal

After about 1.5 hours the scenery started to become less industrial and more idyllically rural with green paddy fields, hay stacks and mud houses.

Then, at Godkhali our journey into the Sundarbans really began as the road ended and we switched onto a local boat and crossed the river onto an island.

We walked through a small town and hopped onto one of the motorbike cart things and rode for about 30 mins across the island past idyllically rural life before boarding their boat, Elmer to cross the river to the eco village.

Transport through the Sundarbans was interesting, not hugely comfortable, but allowed us to get an insight into how the locals live

Transport through the Sundarbans was interesting, not hugely comfortable, but allowed us to get an insight into how the locals live

Backpackers Eco Village

I feel immediately in love with the eco village! A cluster of cute mud huts with thatched roofs and fluttering prayer flags  overlooking green paddy fields on one side and the river on the other. The eco village was really the highlight of my trip to the Sundarbans.

Entering the Eco Village

Entering the Eco Village

The welcome we received was heart warming, the food delicious and plentiful, and being surrounded by the sound of silence and fresh air was such a welcome contrast to the noisy, dirty streets of Kolkata.

As I settled down in a hammock overlooking the village I immediately felt my pulse drop, sometimes it just feels so right to escape the stresses of modern life, perhaps peace, being at one with nature and simplicity is exactly what we need.

The view from my hammock over the eco village

The view from my hammock over the eco village

Later in the afternoon as the sun cast a golden glow over the islands we walked around the nearby village. I was amazed by the inventiveness and ingenuity of these people as they have tamed a difficult environment to their needs without harming it. Houses, walls, fences, channels, embankments and roads are all made out of the mud from the delta while the bright lime green paddy fields glisten in contrast to the brown mud huts, yellow straw roofs and black mud of the mangroves.

How refreshing it was to be surrounded by idyllic rural scenes like this

How refreshing it was to be surrounded by idyllic rural scenes like this

As we ambled through women and children paused from collected water or just gossiping with neighbours to smile and wave, one auntie even insisting that we come to her house.

I’ve never been any where quite like this, it’s hard to describe just how much it captivated me, of course they must not have an easy life here, with environmental disasters like tidal surges and tiger attacks still a very real threat to the villagers, but to me it seemed so idyllic, so peaceful.

I fell in love with these beautiful people and their simple, happy way of life.

I fell in love with these beautiful people and their simple, happy way of life.

It’s feels almost surreal to find somewhere so untouched,  unhurried and unworried by modernity. The simple life and the happy smiles will stay with me for a long time.

At sunset we look a ride on a small boat deep into the mangroves, enjoying the bird life twittering all around us against the backdrop of the setting set glistening on the water. We returned to the eco village for traditional Bengali folk songs and another generous, tasty dinner cooked by the local women.

Going deep into the mangroves

Going deep into the mangroves

The night safari was also amazing as phosphorescent plankton glittered and shone all around the boat. It’s not possible to take photos of this so you will just have to go to see for yourself!

Day 2 – Cruising the Sundarban Delta

My mud hut for the night was actually really comfortable

My mud hut for the night was actually really comfortable

After an actually really comfortable nights sleep in a mud hut we woke early with the sunrise and in the cool of the early morning set out boating through the mangroves to the uninhabited islands of the Sundarban Delta, the anticipation building as we kept our eyes peeled looking for the Royal Bengal Tiger!

looking for tigers on sundarban

Looking out for the tiger

The low tide left the mud flats exposed and early on we were luckily enough to see a saltwater crocodile slip down effortlessly into the water. As the boat puttered slowly on through the narrower channels birds perched up in the greenery or flitted over head.

The crocdile as it slipped into the water. sorry my wildlife photography is not great - you have to be so quick!

The crocodile as it slipped into the water. sorry my wildlife photography is not great – you have to be so quick!

Tiger Tracks

The anticipation and excitement built up at the sight of fresh tiger tracks in the mud leading down the water!

The boat slowed as we scanned the mangrove forest eagerly in anticipation but, although the tracks were so fresh he was probably very close, perhaps he could even see us! But sadly the tiger did not make an appearance.

Fresh tiger paw prints in the mud

Fresh tiger paw prints in the mud

The Sundarbans does have the highest concentration of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world and with Project Tiger, the tiger population is increasing. Even so, you do need to be lucky to see a tiger here because of the dense mangrove forests in which they can hide.

Later on in the afternoon we stepped off the boat and climbed up a watch tower. Below, a man made sweet water pool had been made for the animals and some areas of the forest had been cleared to allow for good sighting of wildlife. We watched as deer and monkeys and a monitor lizard came to drink at the pool.

A deer and a monkey take it in turns to drink

A deer and a monkey take it in turns to drink

Sadly, no tiger appeared but to be honest I don’t blame him! If I was a tiger I would be lying in the shade in this heat too.

I was told that, for a better chance of seeing a tiger, it’s better to come in the cooler months of the winter (Dec to Feb) when both tigers and crocodiles are more likely to appear to sun themselves on the banks.

Falling in love with rural life

Waving to everyone

3 generations, grandmother, mother and child, waving at us?

As the late afternoon sun cast a golden glow over the idyllic countryside sadly it was time to head back to Kolkata.

We passed men gathered around a single TV set in the dusty village glued to the cricket, young, immaculately dressed girls, rode side saddle on the back of a wobbly bicycle through the lanes, while women smiled at us as they gossiped around the water pumps and children waved with wide eyed, open, innocent joy before, reluctantly, we boarded the boat and headed back to reality.

Wonderful smiles and greetings from the children

Wonderful smiles and greetings from the children

I came to the Sundarbans for the tigers, but actually I fell in love with this countryside and the amazing people in it.

It was just so magical to find a place so removed from the modern world only a few hours from one of India’s busiest metropolises. I was so mesmerised by the local life, by people who have so little but have huge smiles on their faces and who are so welcoming. I wish I could have spent a lot longer in the eco village and getting to know this incredible, unique place that is home to 4 million  inventive, wonderful people.

The innocent, whole hearted, smiles among the dusty mud huts will remain with me for a long time.

Collected water in at sunset in the idyllic Sundarbans villages

ollecting water in at sunset in the idyllic Sundarbans villages

 

If you want to explore the Sundarbans and see the eco village for yourself I would definitely recommend the excellent Tour de Sundarbans. Our guide’s passion for the area, the people and the wildlife really shone through with infectious optimism and energy. They made sure that everything ran smoothly and staying in their eco village was an unforgettable, unique, rural Indian experience; seeing a tiger would just have been the icing on the cake.

6 Comments

  • Raw Hasan says:

    Hi Anna,

    Seems like you’ve enjoyed the Sundarbans and life on it’s nearby village on the Indian part. This is the largest mangrove swamp on earth, and the last natural inhabitant of the mighty Bengal tigers.

    Many people do not know that only forty percent of the forest is located in India, and sixty percent is in another country named Bangladesh. If you really want to enjoy Sundarbans, you need to visit it from the Bangladesh part, where forest is more dense and diverse. The experience of visiting Sundarbans from Bangladesh is completely different. Instead of staying on an Eco village, you need to stay full three days on a house boat, which will take you deep inside the forest, explore it’s narrow canals with small wooden rowboat in search of wildlife, trek inside the forest, spot wildlife from watch towers.

    The experience will be completely different, and beyond imagination. People do not know this because there is no promotion of tourism from Bangladesh part. Your readers can have an idea of the tours from Bangladesh part from here: http://bit.ly/1Bru9KM

    Regards from Bangladesh! 🙂

    • Anna says:

      Thank you, wow that sounds amazing and I still have yet to see a tiger!

      • Raw Hasan says:

        Now, seeing a tiger is another story! As they are one of the most endangered animal and only few of them are left there, and also being nocturnal animal, they are very rare to see. You’ll probably end up seeing fresh tiger paws. But I was lucky enough to spot a tiger in September, 2014. It was one of the tiger spotting in last couple of years. It was a matured female tiger crossing the river in front of our boat in broad day light. No one could believe what they were seeing! And no one was prepared with their cameras!! So we ended up getting some quick blurry shots of the tigress! 🙂

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