After a three-hour taxi ride from Kolkata, I stand on a narrow, bustling jetty along the West Bengal coast, at a village called Godkhali. Boatmen looking for business create a racket, calling out “Sundarbans? Tiger? Bagh?” But Robi, skipper of the boat I have pre-booked for a week, waves at me furiously from a striking red-green boat.
The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, is a 10,000-sq-km vast mangrove forest split between Bangladesh and India. There are 104 islands on the Indian side; 54 lie within the protected area of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and of them, 48 are inhabited by humans.
I slowly get used to the steady rumble of the diesel engine of Robi’s humble two-storeyed motorboat. There is an open deck on top, and three basic wooden beds and a makeshift kitchen on the lower level. All week, I sit on the deck, soaking in the landscape, while Neelima, Robi’s wife and the cook on board, serves up food and endless cups of black coffee. I spend my nights at a community-run resort.
Mornings begin just before dawn breaks. We first stop to pick up safari permits to enter Sanjnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, a demarcated area within the tiger reserve, and meet the forest guide assigned to us by the department. “Whether we see the tiger or not depends on the luck of the tourist. Are you lucky?” teases Ramkrishna Mondal, my forest guide for the week.
Soon we are chugging along an endless, sea-green labyrinth of rivers. The islands are lined with an army of mangroves guarding the forest’s deepest secrets. “What you are seeing is only a tiny sliver of the Sundarbans”, Mondal tells me, the rest lies not just beyond the impenetrable mangrove wall on the islands, but also in the waters beneath our boat. He shows me little fish darting close to the banks. “Halfbeaks,” he says. Their lower jaw is much longer than their upper jaw, earning them the moniker. However, the stars of the Sundarbans — the saltwater crocodile, the Bengal tiger, the king cobra and the water monitor — remain hidden.
Every day, as I ride through the forest, I watch the dance of tides — the incoming tidewaters submerge hundreds of kilometres of forest. The forest is hauntingly still, but as the tide recedes and sandy shores rise out of the green waters, it comes alive. An astonishing world of mangrove roots emerges. From the sanctuary of these roots, the oddest creatures crawl out. Mudskippers hop out of the water and walk on land. Male fiddler crabs eagerly wave their single, big claw to attract females. Watchful kingfishers perch on branches that lean into the waters. Around the corner, a saltwater crocodile, basks in the sun. A little ahead, a water monitor swaggers along silver sandbanks. Myth is that these lizards bring tiger-spotters luck. Soon, I see three more. That is more tiger luck than I could have hoped for.
Sure enough, a couple of hours later, Mondal directs the boat towards a narrow stream. And then, a large, heavy tiger, soaked in silt, emerges. Awestruck, we follow it for thirty memorable minutes, as it travels from island to island, leaping over narrow streams, until it vanishes behind thickets. The next morning, the high tide has drowned the spot where the tiger walked the day before. The forest is renewed.
The Sundarbans is rich in flora and fauna. It’s also brimming with myths and stories centred around the tiger and other wild inhabitants. Day-long boat safaris with a dawn-to-dusk permits are a must.
Within the reserve, visit the Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower, overlooking a man-made freshwater pond. On my trip I spotted a young tigress, rhesus macaques, and a chital with her fawn at the waterbody.
Dobanki Watch Tower is a 20-foot-long canopy walk flanked by mangroves on both sides. It might also be one of the few places you can see the endangered sundari tree, that has largely disappeared from the landscape.
Sajnekhali Watch Tower is yet another coveted spot. Visit it specially to see northern river terrapins, critically endangered turtles bred in captivity. Ask a local officer to share the success story that brought them back from the brink.
Adjacent to the Sajnekhali Watch Tower is a simple Mangrove Interpretation Centre that showcases the variety of mangrove species in the forest. At every watch tower there’s a temple of the local forest goddess, Bonbibi. Ask your guide to tell you her incredible story.
Though most popularly known for the Bengal tiger, the forest also has chitals, wild boars, fishing cats, rhesus macaques, leopard cats, Indian grey mongooses and pangolins. The salt-water crocodile and the water monitor lizard are also commonly sighted. Snakes such as the Indian python and king cobra exist but are rarely seen. The Sundarbans is a favourite among birders for kingfishers, raptors, shorebirds, and migratory birds.
The park remains open all year round, but the best time to visit is from October to March, when there’s a slight nip in the air and the skies are crisp blue. Summers (April to June) are hot and humid. While the monsoon (June to September) turns the forest a bright emerald it also brings turbulent winds that may disrupt your trip.
By Air: Kolkata is the nearest airport. Take taxi to Godkhali Ferry Ghat (about 120 km/3 hours away) from where you can hire a motorboat into the Sundarbans (1 hour to reach the islands on the tiger reserve’s periphery).
By Train: Canning is the closest railway station to the Sundarbans. You can hire a motorboat into the Sundarbans from Canning jetty (1 hour to the islands on the tiger reserve’s periphery).
The only way to get around the forest is by motorboat, which can be pre-booked or hired either at Godkhali Ferry Ghat or Canning. The boatman is usually a great resource for stories of the forest and the villages around it. Chances are that the cook (in my case it was the boatman’s wife) will live on the boat as well, and serve hot lucchis, sabzi, and fish curry, with endless cups of coffee. You can also choose to stay overnight on the boat. It typically can house three to four people. For the rates given below, the living arrangements are usually extremely basic.
Safari entry permit charges: Rs 600 per day
Boat charges: Rs 4,000 to 5,000 per day (food and generator charged extra)
If it is your first time, it is best to explore the Sundarbans on a guided tour with an experienced operator.
Going Wild organizes regular as well as specialised photography tours (Contact: Soumyajit Nandy; +91 8017 804 277; website: www.goingwild.in).
Tora Eco Resort Run by a local activist Anil Mistry; organises regular tours into the forest
(Contact: + 91 98839 33033; website: www.toraresort.in)
In the Sundarbans, you will stay either on boats, or one of the resorts on the 54 inhabited islands.
Tora Eco Resort: Located on Bali island, the resort employs and is run by locals and adds to the local economy. It has comfortable rooms and conducts guided tours (Contact: + 91 98839 33033; website: www.toraresort.in ).
Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge: Run by the West Bengal Tourism Department, the lodge is located on Sajnekhali island, and is closest to the sanctuary entrance. It is equipped with all basic facilities. (Website: https://www.wbtdcl.com/home/lodge_search?Lodge_id=Mjc&Lodge_destinationName=MjU).