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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.