Andamans : Honeymoon destination 101

Date of the trip: 21st Nov 2013 to 27th Nov 2013

The first thought while going through the photographs of our trip to Andaman Islands was ‘out of the whole wide world, how did we ever decide on this destination?’ It was our honeymoon after all, our first adventure together after the roller coaster ride of a big fat Indian wedding. We had not travelled together before, and everyone who has travelled with companions knows how important their roles are in making or breaking the trip. For both of us, this was when we really realised that we had chosen the best companions for the longest journey of life and would love to be beside each other in all the future adventures of our lives and around the world. It all had to start from the beach! …Always the beach…

Two beach bums enjoying the perfect calm of the high tide. 🙂

 Inexperience and lack of time had been the reasons for us to book a package holiday from ‘Make My Trip’, a reliable tour operator. My cousins had been to the islands a couple of years back, and since then I always dreamt of visiting the Andaman islands. I did not want to go to a crowded honeymoon cliché, it was wedding season in India at that time and many popular honeymoon destinations would be overcrowded and overpriced. Sunny wanted to have a relaxed time and was not comfortable with low temperature locations at that time. So mountains were a no! – Oh, How he has grown into his glove since then! He was always inclined towards nature and wildlife but never had any close encounters nor got around to photographing them much. These were the hobbies which were yet to develop. On top of the list at that time was only spending quality time and trying to understand the new changes in our lives, strolling romantically on the beach and enjoying cocktails & beers! A tour package was perfect for this kind of holiday and I am glad now that we did not do a DIY stint. We literally did not use any brains during this trip and it was perfect!

‘Make my trip’ took care of our flights, accommodation, transport, food and a couple of activities during the trip. Our group was a small one, with 2 more honeymooners and a middle aged couple with a baby boy and a 10 year old daughter. They gave us enough time and space at every site so we could easily soak up everything and never felt rushed.

Tour map .

According to our one week itinerary we were to land at Vir Savarkar International Airport, Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Islands. After a night’s stay, we were to visit the Ross Island (now known as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island – longest name ever!) and then proceed to Neil Island (now known as Shaheed Island) where we were booked for only a night. The last destination was Havelock Island (now known as Swaraj Island) , that is where we were to spend the rest of the week, coming back to Port Blair only to fly back to Mumbai.

Fishermen back from their morning catch.

Andaman Islands are all rounders in every sense. They truly have something for everyone.

Andaman Islands are an important part of Indian history, holiday paradise for history buffs!

We tend to leave behind our sense of patriotism somewhere in our busy day to day life. A visit to the Cellular Jail (Kala pani) is a jolt to remind us of the freedom struggle and the rock strong will of our freedom fighters who stood up time and again against the mighty British Empire. ‘Make My Trip’ had arranged a guided tour to this site and it was a very informative one. It was the most depressing place we had been to by then. The guide did try to cheer us up in the end by taking us on the roof from where we could get a breath-taking view of the blue ocean in all four directions. It didn’t help though when he added that the blue ocean all around was in fact the reason this spot was chosen for the jail, any prisoner who tried to escape would die of exhaustion while swimming before he reached the nearest land.

The “light and sound show” at the prison is a must see. Spoiler alert! If you are like me, you might leave teary eyed.

Entrance to Cellular jail compound.

Even a half day visit to Ross Island is time well spent. It has a very long and intense history. Most recent contribution to Andaman Island’s history is that it was the barrier saving Port Blair when the December 2004 tsunami hit the Andaman Islands devastating most of the islands. Port Blair and its high density population owns it to Ross island for blocking and breaking the wave’s wrath so it did not hit the city in full intensity, wiping it out completely. The eerie ruins of the old township covered in roots make excellent photo ops. A short hike up the hillock where the town church was, is a good way to scan the whole island. The huge gothic style walls and arches may not be that pretty in the evenings when they look like a set for a spooky exorcist movie. Most of the tourists only walk around the base of this hillock. That is where the eateries are and visitors can feed the number of spotted deer and peacocks.

The ancient roots growing over the ruins of Ross island give it particularly eerie feel. I and Sunny enjoyed walking around clicking hundreds of pictures.

Drooling at that magazine photo of white beaches of Maldives and Mauritius? It’s closer (and cheaper) to home than you would think!

Early morning flight meant sleeping like an ogre till the destination, but we were wide eyed during our second leg of the trip from Chennai to Port Blair. We were flying over Bay of Bengal and could see small green islands spread across the vast blue ocean. That’s when we knew we had made the right choice and this is going to be an outstanding trip!

Picture perfect first glimpse of the islands. Both of us were stuck to the window glass like a pair of geckos!

All through the trip the ‘Make My Trip’ rep took us to many beaches and each one was more beautiful and dazzling than the other. Port Blair itself has only one tourist beach, Corbyn Cove . We reached there around sunset, it was like all tourist beaches with water sports, snacks and shell jewellery and handicraft stalls. We found our bliss in just sitting on a side wall and looking at the families having fun. It was our first day on the islands and the only beach we had seen in our lives before this was Juhu Beach back in Mumbai, it did not look much different and unfortunately was disappointing. It got us a bit worried if all the islands are going to be as overcrowded and full of pushy water-sports salesmen as this one. We couldn’t be more wrong! all the islands had their own beaches with white sand and water with all colours ranging from emerald green to turquoise blue and the peace and calm overwhelmed us.

Me in the white hat at Rajiv Gandhi sports complex pier, waiting for our ferry to Ross island (visible in the distance)

Even while walking on the pier of Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex (in Port Blair) we could see how clean the water was. A visible sea bed is very rare to us Mumbaikars. Red starfish were lazing everywhere on rocks while sea urchins lay cuddled between rocks calmly even though multiple boats and ferries to various islands were docked there. We took one to go to Ross Island from here.

Bharatpur beach, Neil island. Boats with glass base waiting for customers to show them the colourfull coral life of Andaman sea.

Bharatpur Beach in Neil island was the next beach we visited and it was stunning. Never in my life had I ever seen a beach so pretty. Although here too there were activities like glass base boat ride and snorkelling, it was quieter. In the daytime,the serene white sand and emerald blue sea was very welcoming even after the adventure we had the night before! (Read on, more on that later!). I may skip the glass boat a miss the next time around and opt for snorkelling instead. The tour operator had arranged a snorkelling session in Havelock so we skipped the paid one here (how we regret that decision, more on that later too!).

Radhanagar beach, Havelock island. Long white sand beach is ideal for a romantic stroll.

The serene Radhanagar Beach, Havelock island will always hold a special place in our hearts. I think even now when we have been to many beautiful places in our travels, it still comes in top five. The long uninterrupted stretch of clean sand with no one except our group was unbelievable.

The rocky beach reveals itself during low tide. The crooked tree trunks make the beach walk very interesting.

All our hotels on the island were adjacent to beaches. They were non touristy, side, rocky beaches. They were empty, calm and very pretty, but at the same time a bit creepy. During multiple cyclones (and the tsunami of 2004) many trees were uprooted along the beach. The authorities decided to let them lay there as they just added to the beauty of the beach – and we agree! They were amazing photo ops as the texture on each trunk was unique in its own way. These trees give shelter to various tiny marine creatures and walking along the beach became much more fascinating looking at them. We were just amazed by the colours and variety of fauna on these beaches. Oh, how Sunny wishes now to go back there and click better pictures! Really, all the beaches that we visited on this trip were mind blowing and had a very exotic feel to them. And hey! Andaman Islands are a cluster of many islands and most good sized ones are inhabited and are well connected. If you find a beach you don’t like, just go for the next one, I am sure all of them are soul soothing.

Interesting designs on the dead tree trunk.

Andaman Island spoilt my love for Mumbai beaches forever. I just can’t get myself to enjoy them anymore like I used to. 😦

Luxury comforts? check.

Accomodations booked by the tour operator were very luxurious and well maintained. Almost always we had a separate cottage to ourselves right next to the beach. They booked us into the Hotel chain SeaShell on all the islands. They managed to get us rooms in Hotel Sea Princes on the night of the rescue in Port Blair (Read on, more on that later too!). Rooms during the whole trip were very comfortable and amenities were well maintained. All hotels had scrumptious buffet meals and a view to die for! We spent some free evenings in Havelock enjoying the in-house bar overlooking the blue sea and had never felt so relaxed before (even at the time when we did not know how and when we were going to reach Mumbai 😀 – long story, coming up later!) It certainly was an unforgettable setting! Chefs in all the hotels were outstanding and the spread was always very delicious.

All the hotels we stayed in had cottages rooms and were on the beach, except the ones in Port Blair.

Inter island transportation gets you cruzin’!

We travelled within the island by the minibus arranged by ‘Make my trip’. But when we had to travel between islands, we would go the pier and board the bigger boats/small ships. Some of these were run by government and some were private ones. Comfort of the seats and ticket costs depends on which one it is. Our tickets were covered in the tour cost. Walking on the pier was always very exciting as we could see all the marine creatures on the sea bed till further away from the beach. We had never seen sea water so clear until then and we would spend many minutes trying to look for something unique swimming around.

The pier at Neil island, waiting to board the boat for Havelock island. Locals are always waiting around to help dock these big boats.

Yes mummy, it is safe!

Although Andaman Islands are closer to Myanmar than to India, we never felt the distance to our country even once. The islands are populated with Tamilians, Keralites, Andhrans and Bengalis. Hindi and English were well understood. Islands are completely safe for backpackers and tourists. People are helpful and courteous. We had left our phones and valuables on the beach whenever we went into the water and no one touched them. Economy is based on tourism alone, I don’t think they want to risk it!

‘All’s well that ends well’, nowhere it is true more than our trip to Andaman islands. November is the best time to visit the islands as temprature and humidity are low all through the day, visibility is clear and crowd and costs are low. BUT, November is also the month where cyclones may hit the island and there was one, Cyclone Leher, on it’s way the day we landed.

I cannot talk about the holiday on the islands without talking about our first adventure together. It started the very second day of our trip. We (I mean the whole tour group) started late from the hotel to go to Ross island, once we reached there, we missed the ferry back to Port Blair because the kid wanted to feed chips to the deer again. We were scheduled to take ‘once a day’ ferry to Neil island from Port Blair as soon as we were back, so we missed that too. The ‘Make My Trip’ rep came up with the idea of taking us back to Port Blair in a motor boat which was great and quick thinking. From there we got into a ship leaving for Havelock later in the afternoon.

Our ride to Havelock island.

It was a government run ship and we all had our seats booked but we were too excited and decided to take a tour of the ship and the deck. Our first ship ride, it was excellent! Sunny was ever so careful of where I was putting my feet with all the machinery and pipes everywhere. Little did he knew what was ahead of us :D.By sunset we had reached Havelock Island. They rushed us onto a jetty in a mini bus. We were not sure of where we were or where we’re going. I am sure they had told us the plan but we were too overwhelmed at the time to let it sink in. For me atleast, every leg of this journey was very exciting and I was very sporty about it.

The motor boat ride to Neil island into the sunset – a trip etched into our brains. Fun times!

There was a motor boat waiting for us at the jetty partially covered and just big enough to accommodate all of us, a helmsman and a navigator. Our luggage was dumped in the bow of the boat and we zoomed into the setting sun. Now imagine this, a low motor boat with 12 seats almost all occupied, a navigator sitting on the bow of the boat with a torch and the pilot half praying that the motor doesn’t stop or the diesel doesn’t dry up, jumping on waves 3-4 feet high with force of a fierce ocean. Each time the boat crashed into the wave it would break into our face. Flipsy – doozy, that’s exactly how our tiny motor boat was cutting through the ferocious high tide of the night. Sunny as well as other newlywed husbands were completely paranoid. Wives, including me were enjoying the wild ride, the other family was seriously sea sick and puking their stomachs out. As the night grew darker the stars twinkled above. No land or light in sight for miles, the stars filled up the sky from horizon to horizon. I wished secretly that we didn’t have the canvas over our heads, I would never get a better opportunity to see this magical sight above. Looking at Sunny’s worried face I instead wished we should reach land safely. Down below the froth made by the boat was glowing because of plankton’s luminescence. It was unbelievable and magical – straight out of a fantacy movie. We had the advantage sitting on the first set of seats, we could enjoy both, the glow in the sky and the glow in the sea. The navigator would switch on the torch light occasionally to see if there are any buoys visible to guide us to land. As the time passed, all the tour members started getting anxious to see land or lights but miles and miles of darkness was broken only with rumble of the motor and roars of the waves, and somewhere in the middle the pilot asked us if we had seen a plastic water bottle anywhere rolling on the floor of the boat. After further investigation we came to know that the boat had almost run out of diesel and the bottle had some spare in it. That was the trigger, everyone started searching for it very vigorously. There were high chances that it may have fallen off the boat in one of the jumps over the waves. The lady with the baby finally found it rolling near her feet and passed it to the pilot, everyone was hopeful of living again (phew!). All the dramatic parts of the movies Jaws, Castaway, Titanic were playing in our heads. A couple of miles more, and it was no more fun and games. We were now questioning the crew if they knew where they were going. Back of my head, obviously I knew, they are locals and they can navigate to each island with their eyes closed but the stress and anxiety on the boat was building up on me too. Their mumbling reply did not help either. No lights still in sight, once when the navigator put his torch on, we were only a feet away from a cemented pillar. All of us took a sigh of relief realising that land would be near now. In another couple of minutes and turns we saw some halogen lights, we were there finally! We had reached Neil Island jetty. Closer we approached the pier we saw there were people standing on it and waving at us with torches. And when we reached even closer, we realised the pier was almost 10 feet higher than the motor boat. It was a pier for cruise ships! The ladder came down only halfway and we all had to do some gymnastics to get on it balancing ourselves on the wobbly bow. The baby had to be tossed up first and the mother pulled herself up followed by the father and the daughter. Slowly we were all up and Sunny was visibly relieved that both of us were safe and alive. We were drenched and all our suitcases were soaked. After we reached the hotel he had the most relaxed night, dried all our clothes and slept like babies. 

View from the restaurant after breakfast on the day the cyclone hit.

This incident was followed by a bigger problem two days later when we were in Havelock Island when Cyclone Leher hit the island. October to February is the season for cyclones on these islands. The choppy sea during our motorboat stint was just the beginning of an upcoming storm. We got up on the morning of 24th November covered in coconut flakes and husks, they had flown in with the strong winds and squeezed in between the log walls of our room. We were told not to go out for the morning as the government was assessing the situation and it may not be safe to move around outside, falling coconuts were the real danger. Around noon the winds stopped blowing and as the morning sightseeing had been cancelled we decided to take a walk in the island township. The walk was beautiful and the tropical plants at the roadside were very new to us. We visited the market, did some shopping and returned only to find our tour operator waiting to take us to Radhanagar Beach. It was to be our last day on the island and he was reluctant to cancel the day’s plan completely, although it had started drizzling now, we jumped into our minibus and reached the most amazing looking beach. Remember all those Hollywood movies where the random extra is just standing in a wide open clearing and sees a dark cloud moving towards him which is actually a covering of an alien mothership, or a random girl playing on a pretty beach and sees this big wave of destruction coming towards her! Well, it was almost like that when the coast guard started banging the bell as the dark cloud of the actual cyclone was heading towards the land right in front of us. Although it was still many kilometres away, the scale of it was making it look very close. We hurried to the bus and back to our hotel. That evening the government announced cancelation and blocking of all inter island transport. Flights were postponed and all tourists were asked to stay where they were till further information. A meeting of the group was called and after much negotiation the ‘Make My Trip’ rep told us that the stay for another day will be borne by the operators and they will make sure all of us reach our destination safely. We called up our parents from the reception as cell phones were not working and updated them with the proceedings. The next day, we lounged in our rooms or in the veranda in front of our rooms, ordered room service, chilled and chit chatted. It was an unusual experience for us and although it was stressful at the time, it got Sunny and me closer. We learnt to depend on and trust each other, we were glad that we were together in this. It was good. When the sky was clear again the next day, the Indian Navy ships rescued all the foreign tourists, we were taken back to Port Blair in a cruise ship.

The big Navy ships docked on Havelock to rescue the tourists

The bay was choppier than ever and ferocious waves were tossing the ship playfully making everyone a bit sick. That night we were accommodated in a hotel in the outskirts of the city. Port Blair was stuffed with tourists rescued from every island. We were very tired that night and had wobbly legs from the jumpy voyage, we found it best just to crash and snore.

The view from the window on our last voyage through the angry seas. A fleet of ships to Port Blair with rescued the tourists.

Next morning we went to the adjacent beach to have a last look at the bay, now calm and soothing like before. The welcoming cool hues and bright sunshine was the perfect goodbye! When the runway had dried up, flights started taking off and we headed home in the first available flight managed by ‘Make My Trip’, our reliable tour operator.

A bright new day! Sadly, our last day 😦

Oooh! That was a very nostalgic write up! It leads to the next question,

Is Andaman islands circling back in our bucket list?

Obviously, we would not go back to Andaman Islands with a package tour again. We are all about DIYs now. However, I do admit, we may not have been able to handle the cyclone crisis without them. We would not know what to do and where to go during such an emergency. Although our trip was a booked tour and we had a limited kind of very touristy experiences (apart from the cray time during our motor boat ride offcourse!) it was still so much fun! and fit the requirement at the time perfectly. The place gave us so many amazing memories that we can not wait to get back and enjoy other experiences that the islands have to offer.

The amazing marine creatures with amazing accommodations on dead trees on the beaches.

Our list of ‘things to do in the next trip’ is really REALLY long, here is a short version:

  1. Taking a walk in the island towns. A day before the cyclone hit, Sunny and me went for a stroll around the sleepy town as all our days sights were cancelled due to govt. advisory. It was a short walk and we bought some fridge magnets and cup noodles incase we get stranded for too many days. Maybe next time we can explore more into towns and find some hidden gems!
  2. On the day we reached Havelock, we visited PADI certified scuba diving center and made our payments there for a trip underwater the next day. They were to take us in a boat to a coral island. Train us and take us diving. Of-course, none of that happened thanks to Cyclone Leher but it has now made it into our list for the next trip. It is very important to choose a certified dive company for a safe an memorable experience like Seahawks Scuba. They have training courses and offer multitudes of other unique activities.
  3. We had skipped a paid snorkeling session at Neil Island and were supposed to go for a complimentary one in Havelock, and guess what…??
  4. A visit to Jolly Buoy Island or Mahatma Gandhi Marine national park for exotic wildlife spotting is a must in the list!
  5. There are multiple exquisite museums in Port Blair which would be fun to visit but were not in our itinerary. Its great to see these to know more about the place you visit. So, always on our list.
  6. We have decided, next time we are here, we will hire a self drive (easily available, I have heard) and go bird watching. Some islands have conservatories made especially for birds which would surely be very very exciting to visit. I am sure these tropical islands are home to many many rare and exotic birds. Chidiya tapu is also a good birding destination.
  7. We hardly got a chance to taste some local cuisines during our stay there. As Make My Trip had our meals arranged in our stay hotels everywhere. Only once when we were rushing to catch the ship to Havelock from Port Blair, we stopped at a  restaurant for some lunch. I hardly remember it, gulped it down in a hurry. 😦
  8. I have heard of very rewarding hiking trails around Mt Harriet. Definitely adding that one!
  9. Volcano watching and scuba diving around Barren island. The only active volcano in India. Can you really miss it?
This adorable lady was always by our side on the beach during our extended stay in Havelock. 🙂

We are sure to visit the islands again soon, I am sure more things have changed there than their names. 🙂 . Feel free to give us some ideas of what to do there!

Visited Andaman Islands recently? Tell us all about it! Leave a reply below.

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Birdwatching in Sundarbans

Part 02

In continuation, to read part 01 of this post please read here

After a lovely but very short trip to Kolkata, we were even more excited about the second phase of our trip to where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal, the last stop in her long journey – The Sundarbans. Kilometres of mangroves and salty wide distributaries with a hardly known list of flora and fauna. Everyone talks about the ‘Bengal Tigers’ of Sundarbans and the upright reverse growing spiked like aerial roots of the mangroves. Is that all to see there? Or is there much more? The people and their survival stories, the food and faith of the locals, the economy and its struggles… There is so much to see here, maybe 4 days are not enough to really get into the depth of things. But just to get a glimpse of all, we had booked our stay with Backpackers Sundarbans Eco Village.

The morning at Red Arrow Residency was full of hustle and bustle., everyone hurriedly packing bags, taking bath, getting ready and finally sitting down for yummy breakfast, soaking in the last of a memorable trip. All of us had of course read, heard and talked about Sundarbans all our lives – but had never visited it before. It was the ‘Mysterious India’ to all of us. All of us were looking forward to different aspects of it. The elders wanted a relaxed lazy time off from northern winters. Us birders, wanted to see all the waders listed in our bird book, of course! (eh, nerds!). Although, everyone knew its a long shot, it was in all our hearts to see one glimpse of the majestic but feared king of the mangroves the Bengal Tiger of the mangrove. More about Sundarbans here.

So, according to the package the people from the camp we booked were to pick us up from Kolkata and drop us back after 4 days of wildlife watching and fun times! As we walked down the Red Arrow building with our luggage, we were greeted by a minibus, a driver and Ajay, friendly host and guide from the camp with a wide smile, ready to escort our family group of three generations to the most mysterious part of our country. When I look back at this moment I can’t help but think – maybe Ajay’s smile was just a way to hide his anxiety when he saw our group and feared what lay ahead of us. We were of course smiling because, hello! a family road trip in a minibus – best ever!!

9AM in the morning, all loaded up, before we knew it we were on Basanti highway speeding out of Kolkata. Soon Ajay introduced himself and the camp to us. He usually sits in the Kolkata city’s booking office and accompanies groups to the camp and gets them back. Ajay explained to us that the Sundarbans, named after the endangered tree species called Sundari, is essentially a group of islands within a mega delta formed by Ganges. Only a couple of them are inhabited by humans and most are under the forest department. Only a third of these islands come within India’s boundaries, rest belong to Bangladesh. It was great to hear information about Sundarbans from a guy born and brought up on one of these islands. He introduced us to harsh environmental challenges faced by the locals and what kind of wildlife we will be able to spot in this season. More than season, he explained that the, tides are important in Sundarbans. Full moon had passed and so tides were lower now increasing our chances of spotting birds and animals very near to the shores. As we drove on well maintained country roads the landscape changed from city to busy towns to agriculture land and finally to vast expanse of barren land with brick kilns in Malancha. As we approached the delta more and more fisheries were visible.

Ajay, like any other wildlife enthusiast, and grounded local resident of the forest had a certain pride while describing the Mangrove Bengal Tiger, the king of the mangrove forest. They are almost a separate evolved species than the rest of the Bengal Tigers residing in the rest of the country. They have evolved to live and thrive in salty waters and harsh hostile environment. Although, worldwide tigers are excellent swimmers but these are better adapted and have stronger muscles as it’s part of their daily routes and survival instincts. They are shorter and leaner than other Bengal tigers so they are more comfortable walking under shrubs and they don’t resort to man eating during sickness like the ones in Kumaon, they are fearless and bold and have humans part of their regular diet due to the harsh ecosystem and lack of food in salt marshes and as usual, land encroachment by fishermen and hoteliers doesn’t help either. Locals travel through the Sundarbans on low row boats gathering honey and fishing, making for easy prey. An average of 40-50 humans are killed by tigers annually in Indian Sundarbans. It is rumored that the saltiness of the water in this area has put the tigers in a state of constant discomfort, leading them to be extremely aggressive.

Due to the nature of our destination, our mode of transport was going to change multiple times till we reached the camp. We disembarked from the minibus at Godkhali, last point on the mainland where Basanti highway ends and took a boat to Gosaba (the last island before wildlife reserve starts). Canning is the closest railway station.
We crossed the island of Gosaba in a local transport, it was real fun – a modified bike turned into a cart. Me and my mother enjoyed jumping on the back of it. You may see some locals staring at you, but never mind, just smile back at them!
We then took another boat from Jotirampur pier, Gosaba across Datta river to reach the Backpacker’s camp in its eco village on Satjelia island (buffer zone to the tiger reserve) . This is the quickest way, other being a half day long boat journey around Gosaba island. The travel route was fun to hear from Ajay and unexpectedly more adventurous when we finally did it.
The small motor boat which got us across Datta river to the Backpacker’s camp was maybe named ‘Mastani’ because it moves like a drunken person across a river with heavy currents.

One tip of caution: This trip is not for the faint hearted luxury travelers with larger than life suitcases. When I say boats, I mean boats! Not ferries like you have at the Gateway of India in Mumbai – they are small boats, swindling with the tide’s force. And each pier is a bit of a trek and is a test for suitcase wheels. So travel light is all I can say! Dadu, was a warrior through it all, a bit of hand holding and she was rolling with the tide like a sailor lady! I wouldn’t say the experience was nerve wracking, Sunny and I never felt uneasy and scared and had fun throughout the journey. Of course until then we didn’t know the size of crocodiles in these rivers (LOL!) Ajay took every precaution and was calm in every situation – arranging transports ahead of our arrival. He was gentle and patient with the elders and made sure everyone was comfortable in whatever whacky mode of transport we were in.

The wooden bridge used to enter the camp. A great birding spot. They had bamboo sticks soaking in the pond so they could re-enforce the pier before monsoon season starts. Every monsoon the wild Datta river washes off the bamboo pier , the direct entry to the camp.

By the time we reached the camp it was 2:30 PM and aromas from the kitchen and friendly welcome by our host Rajesh relaxed our tired muscles and lifted our spirits.

Lunch menu was not simple, it was a feast but all home cooked. All local recipes using local fresh catch from the river and rice grown on the island. We were told that due to the salty water only a limited variety of veges grow on the islands. Cabbage, brinjal and potato are the only regulars.  Although I would continuously appreciate the food we had on this trip, I am sorry to say, none of us clicked any pictures of it. It was so amazing every-time that we would just start hogging on it the moment it would come on our table rather than first absorbing it through our other senses.

After a hearty lunch and checking our rooms (cute little cottages, basic and comfortable) we decided to go for a walk in the village. The villages on these islands are self sustaining but to get a bit of comfort in their living conditions they rely heavily on tourism. The fishermen double up as boat operators and farmer women help in upkeep and kitchens of the various camps/hotels around various islands. The money from these hotels and camps normally trickle back into these villages and that is how the financial ecosystem works around here.

It was almost sunset by the time we circled around the village clicking some birds and digesting the awesome lunch. A row boat was waiting for us at the camp’s pier to take us for a sunset ride. En route Ajay showed us nets put up by the villagers along the banks to filter out prawns during receding tide.

An orange sunset from a row boat.
Hats off to the hardy women of Sundarbans. This lady rowed this boat against the tide alone, using that pole and 7 of us healthy beings and Ajay sitting lazily on it enjoying the sunset. She was so cool when she saved the boat from crashing into the speeding giant Bangladeshi cargo ship honking crazily at us… as if we don’t see it! almost made us pee in our pants! 😀
If you are wondering, yes that’s the ship which was almost going to crush us!

From the next early morning onward our schedule was more or less the same for the next 3 days.

Para Sampare, the double decker boat next to Mastani was our second home for next 3 days and it became a part of our lives in these days.

Every morning around 6:30AM we would leave in ‘Para Sampare’, a double decker wooden boat from the camp’s slippery pier, escorted by Ajay, sit on comfy recycled car seats and start the day slowly drifting towards the Sajnekhali Sundarban Tiger Wildlife reserve forest department office to take the permit and pick up our forest guide Mr Mrinal Mondal. The upper deck was seating as well as captain’s cabin with the steering wheel and bow is from where we would board (be cautious not to step on the red tip of the bow, its the symbol of the fishermen deity, and needs to be respected). The lower deck had a bunk bed and a kitchen area with a clean toilet cubicle in the stern area. We then headed to the village pier on Pakhiralay to pick up a lady cook who would straightaway go into the lower deck.

Traveling using waterways is the usual way for almost all who live on these islands. There were always many people waiting for their ride at Pakhiralay pier when we used to go to pickup the cook lady.

Now slowly we would cruise along various distributaries around various islands listening to the forest guide or Ajay calling out wildlife spotting. The boat would slow even further and start going in circles till we got a good photograph of the spotting and then move on (there was no reverse gear on this boat, however I did see some other tourist boats which had it, but then they lacked the comforts of our boat).

Gate to the forest office. Daily permits are required to be sanctioned by the officials here for any boat to enter the reserve.

Just a couple of minutes after the cook was picked up, black tea was served followed by alloo puri (potato curry and puffed fried bread) and halwa for breakfast. Noon tea used to follow during the lazy early afternoon and thereafter a hearty lunch is served which included rice, daal, non vegetarian curry, chapati, fried brinjal (bhaja), papad and some vegetable sabzi all cooked by the lady single handedly on the lower deck.

Again, hats of to the women of Sundarbans. This lady in her little corner of the dungeon filled our tummies with delicious magic and fuelled our soul.

A heavy lunch, low to no chances of wildlife spotting, sun hitting the face delicately through the cold river breeze, comfortable seating and slow continuous rumble of the boat engine made it impossible for us to stay alert during afternoons. Snores and grunts filled up the air only to be broken by a sudden call of wildlife spotting by Ajay or the forest guidd. The day would pass discussing different aspects of life in the marshes and how the government is trying to help get the ecosystem balanced on the islands. Like one of the days, Mr Mondal told us that in the past, the government has tried introducing different kinds of animals like rhinos and elephants to the islands but not many have been able to survive through the salty harsh environment with a selective food supply and no fresh water supply. Our black tea and water being used for brushing teeth was salty too and we were just managing to get by it, we could hardly imagine how these creatures were living their whole lives in and around this water.

Salty it might be, but this black tea served with rusk kept us fuelled for the whole day. Best thing is that they kept them coming!

Around sunset we would call it a day, have our evening black tea with rusk and drop the cook and the guide to their respective piers, and head back to the camp. Datta river is the main route which is taken by the cargo ships from India to Bangladesh and they often were sighted around sunset. More than once we got in their way or in the middle of their convoy and they would honk relentlessly to get us out of the way. They were huge! And often scary as they would rock our boat violently with their wake.

The convoy of Bangladesh ships carrying ash via Datta river towards Bangladesh border.

Evening would go discussing the day’s sightings and listening to the local singers while enjoying a drink (there is no alcohol available near by and there is only a tiny tuck shop in the village. So, bring your own poison and snacks to go with it). Dinner as usual was all made in house by the ladies of the village and they excel in the local cuisine.

As the daily routine did not vary much, below are some moments experienced spread across the 3 days spent on the boat:

All mornings were very very misty and visibility was very low. It was magical, but sometimes could get a bit spooky with abandoned boats and no sound or movement around except the motor of your own boat. All scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were flashing in my mind.
Soon afterwards boat full of day-trippers would come along. Some tour groups operate only on boat. They sleep, eat and survive on the boat for a couple of days.

The mangrove forest covering the islands were very fascinating, although we had our eyes fixed on it trying to spot any movement, we observed many other features of the ecosystem. Looking at the aerial roots of the mangroves, we understood how they can be really painful for any creature trying to walk on them – just like walking on spikes! But then no other tree would survive this harsh environment other than these, they are also the reason these islands are still intact and have not been washed away by water. The highest reaches of the salty sea water during high tide was marked by discoloration of the leaves, it was pretty distinct. The vast expanse of water was overwhelming for all of us, almost like ‘water water everywhere, not a drop to drink’, it can be quite maddening for anyone.

It is tough living life in harsh conditions as available in Sundarbans. These were couple of birds and animals we spotted on our everyday route around the islands. We spotted 6 types of kingfishers on this trip, highest ever seen in one area. Ajay told us that during high tide and monsoon season many times sharks and other predatory fish come in these channels and many often are seen hunting crocodiles. Many times he has seen crocodiles with limbs or tails bitten off! All beings here have evolved to survive here like the spotted dear, which feeds standing on hind limbs for long periods of time as grass on the ground is very hard to find.

Dobanki, is an outpost of the tiger reserve , one of six. It houses a nursery to nurture and rehabilitate injured wildlife as well as artificially repopulating the endangered Sundari tree in the forest. It has many man made fresh water ponds to provide relief to all creatures of the forest from the salty water. There is a kilometre long canopy walkway to oversee all this. When we were there, the ponds were full off migratory whistling ducks. Along with tourist information center, it also houses a temple for Bonbibi and Dakshin ray. Like all such outposts, it has very clean bathrooms.
As we waited one day to drop the cook off on her pier, a boat carrying these idols docked along our boat. Mr Mondal told us these are idols for Bonbibi and Dakshin rai. The deities of Sundarbans.

The problems of Sundarbans are not based on religion and all humans, irrespective of their faith have the same fears. Bonbibi for muslims and Bandurga for hindus is the goddess of the forest. She is the one to pray to if you are going out anywhere near the forest as she would protect you from Dakshin rai the king of monsters and ruler of the forest depicted by the infamous Bengal Tiger.

One of the clear nights, Ajay took us for a night boat ride. The stars were magical, but more than that what was below us made our eyes wide open and made the night most magical. The luminescent plankton in Datta river lit up as our row boat cruised through the quiet dark water. There were tiny shrimps glowing and jumping all around us and to feed on these glowing microorganisms fishes would disturb the water making even more glowing ripples around us. The night was truly mesmerizing.
Although this is a photo from our last day, this was our circus act every morning to board our double decker boat. The high tide during night used to make the bamboo ramp extra slippery in the morning, making our boarding no less exciting than a water-slide at water kingdom.
As we docked in Jotirampur pier this over crowded boat crossed the river and docked next to us. Ajay told us this was the usual commute for many villagers and costs one rupee per seat. Gosaba has the closest government offices, hospitals.. etc..
The pug marks of Dakshin rai.

On the last day of our boat trip, our anxiety levels were high, when we picked up Mr Mondal in the morning, he informed us that there is a tiger drinking water near one of the forest offices 15 mins away. We started rumbling through the channels as fast as we could. Unfortunately, the speed of our boat was really slow, I could overtake it swimming! Really!! It was same like other days but we really wanted to reach this tiger before other hoards of tourist boats scare it away.. And the boat was not going fast enough! Anxiety and excitement was taking over the boat. Even after chasing around the whole morning we were not lucky enough to spot it. The speciality of Sundarban tiger reserve as Mr Mondal informed us is that tiger tracking is almost impossible here in this web of seawater channels. Unlike other sanctuaries all around the country the tigers here are untrackable, there are no trackers pinned to them, they don’t have a set route or territory as tides come and go and wash off any scents and sometimes submerge more land than usual, it creates new channels or reshapes islands. Everyday is a new journey for a tiger/tigress and it is almost always motivated either by hunger or search for a mate. What seemed possible that day was that maybe too many tourist boats trying to track a male tiger had disturbed his chase towards a female and had stopped midway in one of the dense islands. We came across two sets of tiger pug marks crossing the channels one after the other within half an hour. The forest department is very alert at such times and does not let any boat stop anywhere to wait for the tiger to come out of the forest to the water side. That’s another challenge while searching for a tiger. In other sanctuaries like Jim Corbett the jeeps can comb through the forest in search of the tiger but here you have to follow the water channel and hope that the tiger crosses it in front of you, that’s the only way. It’s very, VERY rare that that would happen (that’s the reason for the white boards everywhere with the last spotting, sometimes updated many months apart). Pugmarks remain only till the next tide and does not prove that the tiger is still on the island, it may be off it even before you spotted those marks. In short, probabilities are very low. Bird watching too can be a tedious task and depends highly on chance, chance of the bird coming and sitting right next to the boat on the hanging branches over the water. Most likely, kingfishers and waders and once in a while birds of prey.

Anxiously waiting with Mr Mondal to spot the Royal Bengal Tiger. Soon the word was out and many tourist boats started crowding in.

We took a chance and diverted our search from that of the tiger to the search for Buffy Fish Owl. Of Course, there was no way we could see the owl from the rumbling boat 20 meters away from the shoreline. Ajay was devastated, after all his moment of pride was shattered by facebook photos posted by his friends of the tiger spotted at the same spot where we abandoned the search for it, just couple of hours later. The local guides take pride in their skill to track, spot and chase the tiger on and off the islands with low shrubs. It needs immense patience and luck. 

The charming and relaxed Backpackers camp. Its an excellent example of an eco-village.

This trip to Sundarbans was extraordinary, and was made memorable by affection and service we received from people around us. Backpacker’s camp had been a good choice in many ways and I have taken a long time to decide in which inclination I should write this review. The passion by which each one in the team worked to make our stay and tour outstanding was commendable. Starting from transport to cottages to dining area, all were comfortable and were well thought off. All three generations in our group were kept safe and all of us enjoyed the trip in our own personal way. The food was excellent in the camp as well as on the boat. The surroundings and rooms were kept clean and the hosts and guides were very well informed. The only thing which I could think of as negative, was that although it is a camp, and not a hotel, each person coming to stay is a guest and expects and deserves a good state of living. Some basic things like heated clean water to bath delivered to room instead of us walking with heavy buckets early morning and safer wiring in the rooms so we don’t feel the fan is going to fall on us during the night would help. The situation about multiple changes in mode of transport and amount (and kind of things to be packed, like towels) of luggage to be bought should be given clearly on booking. The souvenir shop can be stocked with more local handicrafts, it would give a chance to expand scope of income. The hippie-retro feel to the place works great and the idea of letting guests paint the walls is also a good idea. It works great in adding the relaxed charm to the place.

Captain drives the Para Sampare as the first mate looks over. He also doubled up as the host and served us our meals.
Mr Mrinal Mondal and Ajay after the last sunset in Sundarbans.

I may not suggest three, but the trip is undoubtedly worth for two days at-least. Even if its not your first time. Days can be long on the boat and many hours may pass between two sightings from the boat. So, its definitely a good idea to pack a book or a pack of cards or canvas and paints to pass the time. I alternated between journaling and snoozing. Seats on the boat are very comfortable so no butt aches! If you require the whole boat, you need to be in a group of 8. Or you need to pay for all 8 seats. It costed us close to INR 12,500 per person for stay, food and tours for the three days. I would not suggest getting grandparents on this trip unless they are extremely sporty like my grandmother. She sat out the day tour on the last day and the night boat ride. Whole day sitting in a boat with nothing to do can get tiring for them. Every step you take while boarding and deboarding has to be done with lot of caution and balance. May get a bit exhausting.

The long hours going around islands after islands can be boring for some, but for me it was time for getting my journal up to date. Sipping on some chai and spending some time with me, myself!

We had some amazing and very rare sighting on this trip but a moment of wrong decision led to us missing the Royal Bengal tiger of the swamps of Sundarban. But, as I always say – we must always leave something for the next time…so the destination circles back up on our list.

Each artwork on the walls of the camp are worth clicking. They are a great way to experience the free spirits of this place.

Birds we saw on this trip to Sundarbans national park:

For more visual treat, make sure you follow us on Instagram and to see some great wildlife pictures check Sunny’s Instagram account too!

Check out the e-bird website link for bird list.

Are you planning a trip to the enchanting Sundarbans soon?

Let me know below in the comments section.

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