Saturday, June 19, 2010

SUNDARBANS – WORLD’S LARGEST MANGROVE

I arrived in Sundarbans, the World’s largest mangrove forest, famous for its chief inhabitant – the Royal Bengal Tiger, on a hot morning in April 2010. Now, getting here can be an adventure and perhaps a challenge in itself, because of the remoteness of this place. If you look at the map of India and its Eastern border with Bangladesh, you’d notice a string of marshy islands with hundreds, perhaps thousands of minor rivulets cutting in and around the various islands. These low level islands constitute the Sundarbans- a word in Bengali that means “beautiful forest” but the name is actually derived from a mangrove tree called Sundari, which also means beautiful. There are many ways of getting here from Kolkata, the nearest major city, all of those ways are somewhat complicated but I will provide those details at the end of this blog. Here I am going to recount the route I took and the method that seemed the shortest way to get to the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve on Sajenkhali Island.


(Islands of the Sundarbans)

I rented a vehicle, air-conditioned of course, the April heat this year being exceptionally hot on record, I was not going to rough it out like I would have in my younger days or in better weather. I don’t mind roughing it out once I get to my destination but if I can avoid a rough ride to get there, I’ll do it any day. Driving down, one heads South from Kolkata on a narrow state highway that passes through the outer fringes of Kolkata, passing through stinking areas of leather processing plants, brick kilns, small and very congested fish and vegetable markets, grubby satellite towns and so on. After about 40 kilometers from Kolkata we seemed to have left everything behind and all that I could see were vegetable gardens, water pools, canals and for some time we paralleled a river that was quite polluted, a river that leaves India and goes into Bangladesh at some point. Apparently it’s our polluted gift to the people there!

(Chimneys belching smoke-brick kilns)

The small villages of Bengal are neat, with mud walled huts and clean surroundings, a far cry from dirty villages that I have seen in many parts of Southern India. These villages were neat and tidy and one is surprised at the level of cleanliness after leaving the dirty polluted environment of a big city like Kolkata. Each mud house has a small pond near it, called a “pukur”. I suppose this water is used for many things, I saw people swimming in it, bathing in it and even cleaning their vessels and clothes in it.
We passed through several such villages, some of them the driver knew by name and most he didn’t. What mattered to me was that he was able to find the route correctly, even choosing the right forks in the road and so on, since signboards were entirely missing.


The last town and it’s a really small town is Basanti and possibly the last place where one can use their ATM cards to withdraw cash, I saw a new one being installed in the town, off the main highway, at the State Bank of India. 10 Kms from Basanti is the waterfront, a place called Godkhali where one can park their hired cars for a fee, at sheltered car parking areas. A short distance away at the waterside is a bus stop type shelter for the country boats and water taxis that ply between Godkhali and Gosaba. Gosaba is a large island and gateway to the Sundarbans. Overloaded, open to air/sun ferries with people and bikes cross the waterway between Godkhali and Gosaba, one look at the engine and one can start praying straightaway to their favorite God because the entire thing looks too rickety to support that many people.

(Country boat before people, livestock, motorcycles etc get on it)

The system is strange, they go a short distance and collect more people from what looks like sand bank and then cross a larger section of water to Gosaba. When one gets off at Gosaba, a guy with a wooden table sits at the point of exit and I noticed that everyone placed a One Rupee coin on his table as they exit. I too did the same, do as the locals do, I thought. One Rupee is a great deal for 20 minutes in the Sun on an overloaded country boat indeed.



Now, just so that I don’t scare the bejesus out of you readers, let me tell you that if you are in a group or booked through a resort that’s on Bali Island, one can proceed by a covered vessel that starts from Godkhali to the resort directly. I was alone and did not want to take one large boat to go to Sajnekhali, that’s where the Government run Forest Guest House is, inside the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where I planned to stay. For one person, it would have cost me a few thousand Rupees in this offseason. Anyway, the adventurous side in me wouldn’t have it. I really wanted to experience this as the locals do.

Once on Gosaba, I was told that I needed to take a “van” ride to the Southern part of the Island and catch another water taxi to Sajnekhali. So, I set off to hunt for a van. On the way, I passed through a small lane market, bustling with people and goods exhibited like a fair was going on. This seems to be a normal affair everyday, with Islanders flocking to buy everything from medicines to groceries to Vegetables and fish of course. At the end of the market, it just suddenly stops, I spotted a State Bank of India with an ATM there! Imagine, you are in the middle of nowhere, village island at the edge of the Sundarbans and there was 21st Century convenience! That euphoria was short lived when I found out that the ATM had broken down and had not been fixed for some time! Carrying some cash is a prudent thing to do when you are going to visit the boondocks.
video
(Riding on a cycle van through Gosaba)

Backtracking to the market and not seeing any “van”, I asked a local yokel where I could find a van and being a good Samaritan that he was, led me to a group of cycle rickshaws at the stand and told me in Bengali and sign language that I had to get on it. This cycle rickshaw is a bicycle hinged to a flat bed made of wood. One sits all around it, I believe 9 people can share a ride! I thought that this wiry bloke on the cycle rickshaw was going to take me to another place where one could continue in a Van. It struck me a little while later, during the 45 minutes cycling this guy did, with me and my bag on the flatbed and trying a conversation, to realize that this contraption was indeed “the van”, it’s a cycle van, he told me, sweat dripping off his legs as he pumped furiously, speeding on the narrow road, dodging people and other “vans” coming from the opposite side.
video
(Cycle van perspective)

The two videos posted above gives a good idea of what it feels like bumping along on the van for 45 minutes, going through many neat villages of Gosaba before finally ending up at what they call Sajnekhali ghat (or Pakhirala - another name for this place), the place to catch another open to air country boat to Sajnekhali Island, home to the Sajnekhali Tiger Camp, a part of the core area of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. This time, however, I was the lone paying occupant of the country boat and accompanying me were two others who worked on Sajnekhali island which has no other occupants or villages. Check out this video of the boat and its engine.
video
(Boat from Pakhirala to Sajnekhali Tiger Camp)

The next part will have stories about my boat trip into the Sudhanyakhali Tiger Reserve in the core area of the Sundarbans, my animal encounters in the Sundarbans, Legend of Bon Bibi and will have videos and more pictures of these things. Coming soon!