About the Sunderbans
From Calcutta it is only 100 km (i.e. about three hours ;)) to the shores of the Sunderbans – a region in the southernmost West Bengal and in Bangladesh, which is home to the largest mangrove population in the world on an area of 10,000 km².
The name “Sunderbans” can be derived from the Bengali language and means “Beautiful Forest”.
It consist of the extensive river delta of seven rivers, including the two main rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra, which flow into the Bay of Bengal.
Between the river arms and canals there are countless smaller and larger islands, of which the 50 larger ones are inhabited. The locals live from fishing, honey picking and rice cultivation.
Each family has its own small pond, which serves both fish farming and daily laundry (dishes, clothes and body).
In addition to the traditional life of the locals, the Sunderbans National Park is of particular interest to tourists. Here there is the highest density of tigers – 103 specimens are supposed to exist by now.
The so-called Royal Tiger has become accustomed here to drink the salt water of the backwater, what else is left for him?! This not only gives him a shorter life expectancy, but also a higher aggressiveness – they say! On average, 50 to 60 people fall victim to the tiger in the Sunderbans every year.
In addition to the tiger, there are also huge saltwater crocodiles, the Ganges dolphin, sharks, wild boar, deer, as well as countless bird and fish varieties at home.
But the national park is very special because of its mangroves. Mangroves are plants that have adapted to the life of tropical coastal regions in the tidal range and have a very large salt tolerance range. In the Sunderbans alone there are 30 different species!
Our adventure to the Sunderbans begins: An eventful journey from Calcutta
Although the Sunderbans National Park is only 100 kilometres from Calcutta, it took some time to arrive at our small eco-village on one of the 50 or so inhabited islands of the Sunderbans.
First we went for three hours by car to the border of the Sunderbans to Godkhali – exactly where the road ends! From there we took a small ferry and crossed the first river arm to the other bank of the island of Gosaba. There is the largest market in the area and hundreds of villagers flock here every day by ferry from their islands to do important shopping. We walked curiously through the busy market atmosphere and set out on the next travel leg this time with the rickshaw.
But not just such a normal Indian rickshaw – oh no. Here on the islands of the Sunderbans people have very special companions. You could almost compare them to carts, but with no horses infront, but old motorcycles.
Over bumpy paths we went onfor 8 km across the island to the next ferry. The ferry took us directly to our eco-village on the island of Satjelia.
The Eco Village
Small, traditional, simple cottages serve here as accommodation, hammocks invite you to relax on the roof terraces, there is a small outdoor dining area and overall the entire complex of the small eco-village fits perfectly into the scenery of the Sunderbans.
There are vegetable gardens, a kitchen where the local women cook delicious traditional meals on an open fire, and a small stage where the men from the village give a small musical performance every evening.
The first day
All in all, the local inhabitants from the surrounding villages are fully involved in the operation of the Eco-Village for tourists and a wonderful exchange takes place between the foreign tourists and their local hosts.
When we arrived just in time for lunch, we were pretty hungry! This was a good thing, because immediately after our arrival, huge bowls with a wide variety of dishes were applied. In addition to three different vegetable dishes, there was chutney, fresh fish, sliced fresh vegetables, as well as rice and chapati. Yummy! Especially the Indian Karela, a typical Indian vegetable, which is externally reminiscent of a crippled cucumber and has an interesting bitter taste, had struck me.
After a well-deserved rest in the hammocks we went in the form of a small guided walk across the island and we had the opportunity to get a little insight into the traditional village life, as well as a look at the mangrove trees up close.
Every year, the currents, as well as the tides, constantly drain and wash away land – probably the natural course of things, but for the islanders the loss of their living and mining area is a real problem.
Through dams, they try not only to protect themselves from flooding, but also from loss of soil – with little success.
Just in time – an hour before sunset we change to a small boat and enjoy the evening atmosphere on the water. We observe rare birds, such as the kingfisher, the swamp-frankolin and the shore-snipe. Komorane, sea eagles and grey herons also showed up.
I found the sighting of a 1 1/2 meter long waran – one of the largest lizards still alive today – particularly exciting!
While the red sunball brought the day to an end, we slowly sailed back towards the shore.
Back in the village, the next program point awaited us: Two villagers got their instruments and held an informal concert. They performed their local songs and ballads to us and it wasn’t long before some of us reached for the traditional instruments and tuned in amateurishly, the others clapped along in rhythm or started dancing.
It was a nice uncomplicated evening, which ended with a delicious dinner together!
Day 2: By boat on safari through the Sunderbans
Early at 6 o’clock we went with the houseboat “Elmsar” into the national park. Along the way, we not only collected our cook and guide for today, but also obtained the permits for the entry into the park.
Our group was very excited about what the day in the natural paradise between mangroves and tigers would bring us. Quietly we sat in our places and tried to spot wild animals on the right and left in the mangrove forests through the thick morning fog.
Meanwhile, our guide provided us with information about the park and our cook with a hearty breakfast and tea.
The National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. No human influence is allowed in the core zone, while in the buffer zone locals can apply for permits to fish, collect wood and honey.
Here it is also, where most tiger attacks on the locals happen.
When I asked the guide how and if the locals would protect themselves from the tiger attacks, he said, that the main protection was the goddess Bonbibi. When I looked a little in disbelieve, he explained that all the locals would pray fervently to the goddess.
In addition, the government would have handed out masks that people strapped to their backs to confuse the tigers, because they would usually attack from behind. But that measure wouldn’t have helped for long, he said, adding that the Tigers had quickly seen through the trick. Even human dummies made of wood would not help much, as would the metal neck protection. Only stretched nets from the inhabited islands provided some protection – and of course Bonbibi.
Suddenly, the guide paused in his narrative. Our boatman suddenly became very excited and pointed his finger frantically forward. We all jumped up and looked in the designated direction, but couldn’t see anything. Now everyone shouted “Tiger, Tiger” and the boat put a tooth on. But when we finally reached the place, the tiger had long since disappeared in the bushes of the mangroves and had left only a foot print in the soft mud.
Bad luck! But at least we were very close.
The Bengal tiger, the second largest after the Siberian tiger by the way, is an excellent swimmer and the best chances to see him from the boat are when he swims from one side to the other.
Well, yes. Now of course we were awake again and tried to spot wild animals in the now clear daylight. We stopped at an observation tower and here we had some luck for the first time. At the artificial fresh water lake we could observe a deer, as well as a wild boar. Well, nothing we wouldn’t see as well in Germany, but a small start.
Later on the boat we had our lunch. Amazing what our cook created in the small boat kitchen!
And then finally our luck began. First we saw the endangered Ganges dolphins, a little later we spotted a crocodile about three meters long, which sunbathed in the sun. What a fascinating creature. When it came into sight, it slipped smoothly into the water, despite its mass.
In the late afternoon our safari ended by boat. We were happy with the day. It was a beautiful day in nature with some interesting sightings.
Back we went exactly as we had come: by ferry, rickshah and car until we reached Calcutta again late in the evening!