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.

Check out our Instagram accounts for more pictures!

Published by varnicamathur

A visual effects artist by profession, I am on the road for a new adventure every free moment. For me, journey is as enjoyable as the destination. Sometimes even more. Beginning from the first moment when an idea of a trip comes in my head to the time I crash back on my bed after the trip, each moment is worth the money, the energy and the time. All my travels are shared by my wild life photographer husband who enjoys and shares my love for wandering 'when on a break'.

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