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Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Sunderban Saga



December 2012 – Two hours through the villages, dodging ducklings following their moms on the roads, breathing in the pleasantly chilly morning air and eying giant guavas being packed for transport in banana leaves, I was in Kolkata , on my way to the banks of the Ganges to board a steamer to Sunderban.   
With the poem ‘Tiger Tiger burning bright ….’ resounding in my mind as I walked the plank (literally) to board the steamer that would take us to the Sunderban Forest Reserve, I knew I was in for 2 days of complete unadulterated, rustic ,pure discovery. Having booked a backpack tour to the acclaimed mangrove forest famous for housing the biggest and more ferocious species of the royal cat-the Royal Bengal Tiger, we had set sail with a call to my mom saying that I will not be accessible on the phone for the next 2 days and her still absorbing the fact that I wanted to spend my 1st anniversary in a jungle.





For those who do not know, the Sunderbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering part of Bangladesh and Indian state of West Bengal. The 3 hour boat ride through the Ganges delta would land us at our camp – a village called Dayapur, which I shall talk more about in a bit. Our guide, Mowgli (who refused to feel cold, clad in a sleeveless green jacked secured with a casual knot and funky cargos) talked us through the history of the swamps as I enthusiastically fixed up my camera lens, ready for some shooting action. The varieties of the forests that exist in Sunderbans include mangrove scrublittoral forestsaltwater mixed forestbrackish water mixed forest and swamp forest. Just as he was about to tell us some more, he spotted a blue feathered creature with a determined, long beak and a black crown for a head – our first spotting – the Black Capped Kingfisher!! 




The Sunderban mangroves are known for the abundant species of kingfisher, including some species which migrate here during winter months. As we moved along the waters, we managed to get a few good shots of the varieties of kingfisher perched on the half submerged tree branches mysteriously emerging from the waters, herons and pure white specs of egrets darting off the surface, fishing.


As we reached our ecovillage – Dayapur – a candidly delicious traditional Bengali treat of dal, rice, fish and veges awaited our hungry bellies. The speed with which the foreigners in our group of about 15 seated themselves on ‘chattais’ laid out for the meal made me hungrier and the food smelt simply welcoming. The ecovillage was well – an ecovillage – no electricity, hurricane lamps for light at night and beautifully comfortable mud huts with mosquito nets, with the option to sleep on the boat if we wanted to.  Bag and baggage settled into our hut named ‘Elvis Presley’ (gawk!) with our 2 American roommates (community quarters) Mowgli called out for a walk through the village. 



Village kids and a dog in tow, our group walked around the island village and boarded small boats which would take us for a short trip through the mangroves till sundown. Negotiating the river to enter the mangroves, our 3 boats stopped in the middle of all the serenity and eeriness as our guide narrated a true story of how 20 fishermen were killed somewhere in the middle of this mystifying forest when they ignored the tide timings. It’s simply a lost situation if one lands on the sand, since it just sucks in your body, just like quicksand. A few minutes of silence and not a word said, we were all in a world with our minds running reels on the beauty, bustle and unknowns of the mangroves of Sunderban. Suddenly…. We wear a shriek from the last boat, in the midst of the silence-Its one of the guide’s voiced dilemma on whether to buy beer bottles or cans for the night’s bonfire! After quite a few giggles and stares at the man, our boats moved on to head back to camp. What awaited us was Mowgli sitting in the dark in the middle of our camp, with a bonfire and a kettle – tea time! Stories and cups of tea later, the folk dance group’s instrument tunings made us turn towards them. The Bengali folk program in the form of a storytelling play left us enthralled and entertained and hungry for dinner. Hurricane lamps lit and mosquito nets pulled down , it was the end of day 1!

Our 2nd day at Sunderbans started off at 5.30 am with both breakfast and lunch cooked on the boat itself. This day, it was more than just feathers that we spotted. We came within a few feet of the great Indian crocodile (4 of them at different spots), beautiful spotted deer, the monitor lizard and a few more birds. Perched at the nose of our boat, camera zoom lense in place, we traversed the waters of the Sunderbans, keeping an eye out for streaks of yellow and black. Alas, after about 5 hours on the boat, the trip was coming to an end with no tiger spotted, but definitely an experience worth remembering and writing about.     

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