Best from: Kolkata
You need: 3 days
The majestic MV Chitrarekha, going at a speed of barely five knots an hour, slowly came to a standstill. The engine stuttered to a halt, as softly as a three-storied luxury ferry can. Sixty pairs of ears strained hard and 60 pairs of eyes waited -- a seemingly endless wait. Then, there was a faint but unmistakable rustling sound in the mangroves to the left of us near the bank.
Then, there was a collective sharp intake of breath on the deck of the ship as a majestic Royal Bengal tiger appeared from behind the bushes, looked around cautiously, before plunging into the Matla river, as if it were his private swimming pool.
In many ways it is indeed his pool, albeit not private, with the river pretty much swarming with crocodile apart from various kinds of fish. Yet, despite the presence of a wide variety of flora and fauna, there is little doubt about who rules the largest mangroves forests of the world.
The Royal Bengal, one of the most elusive creatures in the world, is the star attraction of the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site. And on a warm summer’s day in April, a few of us, old college buddies from Kolkata, booked a luxury cabin for ourselves and set off from the City of Joy, looking forward to some serious thrills.
The Sundarban National Park as it is called, is roughly 130 km from the city, but because of the bad road conditions and the fact that one has to travel by road and then on water to reach the ferry, means it’s a nearly seven-hour journey. We went well prepared, cell phone batteries chargers, earplugs on, potato chips and chilled beer cans in the bag. The bus ride through rural south Bengal is pleasing to the eye, but by the time we were on the ferry from Basanti to Sajnekhali, the embarking point for the trip, we were already a bit tired. Three more hours later, as the clock struck three, we arrived at our first port of call. The white MV Chitrarekha gleamed in the midday sun, standing regally in the midst of the rampaging Matla river. The Matla and the Piyali are two of the most dreaded rivers in the region as every monsoon they invariably rise to fearsome levels and flood villages on either side of the delta in India and Bangladesh.
At the moment though, it looked relatively timid, a result of nine months of dry weather. Soon we were on our way, refreshed by a welcome drink that the chief mate offered each of us as we stepped onto the ferry. Our room was small and basic but comfortable. No suites like one gets on the Nile cruise for instance, but an air-conditioned room with four berths much like a AC first class compartment in a train and an en suite bathroom. Good enough for four 40-year-olds trying to roll back the years.
We were soon at the top deck though, braving the heat as we scanned the horizon for signs of life, almost as if a tiger would emerge from the dense forests that surrounded us on both sides, to say a roaring hello.
Day one was actually quiet, with lots of unnamed birds and an occasional deer (and a herd of wild pigs) giving us reasons to take out our cameras and binoculars. The captain, who knew these waters inside out, told us we had actually picked a great time to visit. “Summer is when most watering holes inside the forest dry up, and so, tigers venture out a lot more to drink water from the river,” he informed us, advising us to go easy on the beer so that we could wake up at the crack of dawn on the morrow. We nodded sagely, promptly downed our next can of Budweiser and then, hungry after a hard day’s travel headed for the scrumptious buffet.
Next morning, we were up at 4.30 am, even before the cocks crowed. Was this the Matla we had seen last evening? She had merged with Piyali as we sailed overnight and now resembled the sea, so wide that one could barely see the other bank. In the far horizon one could sea the open sea and what looked like large merchant vessels.
Suddenly, even as we watched a big crocodile sunning itself on the muddy left bank of the river, a herd of deer on the other bank, which had probably come to drink water, pricked their ears and the next moment broke into a run. Somewhere in the distance, we could hear the shrill shout of an animal. “That’s a group of monkeys warning the deer about a tiger in the vicinity,” one of the officers on board told us in a hushed tone, followed by a simple message: “shhhh”.
And then it happened. That bright orange and black striped skin, that huge fearsome face and those large strides—all that we had seen on Animal Planet and from the comfort of jeeps inside other reserve forests in India – all came back to us in a flurry. But the thrill of seeing a tiger in its natural habitat, and watching it, not from a jeep as it sat panting under the shade of a tree, but striding across the river banks in search of food and water, is a sight none of us will forget in a hurry.
The king sniffed the air, realised he had missed its prey by a few seconds. He (for this was a male of the species) then settled down for a drink, gave us a look of disdain and had a quick swim before heading back for the shore, disappearing from sight almost as noiselessly as he had arrived. There was a reason why the tiger had headed back for the safety of land though. In a few minutes a large crocodile, a cousin perhaps of the one chilling out on the opposite bank, poked its nose out of the water and regally walked on to the sandy beach, where another majestic beast had just given us a rare sighting. “You guys are all very lucky. Many people have come two or three times and still haven’t sighted a tiger here,” Captain Dutta told us.
After a fairly heavy breakfast at 7 am we headed for our only contact with land in the midst of the dense forest. The only people who venture into these forests are the woodcutters and honey gatherers, who regularly risk their lives for their livelihood. Even as we stepped on to the small boat to reach the banks, the boatman pointed to a place in the water where a long stick seemed to be sticking out. “The sticks warn locals that a tiger recently took away a person or a cattle from that spot, so that they are alert when they step out,” he said, sending a chill down our spine. We were almost at handshaking distance from the spot as he spoke!
Soon we were inside a netted, protected area inside the forest where we quickly climbed up a wooden ladder to reach the top of a machaan. The foliage was dense and we could hardly make out what lay even a 100 metres ahead of us. And this was at 9 am in the morning, on a bright and clear day! Once again, as we all strained our eyes, something moved in the midst of the riot of yellow and green. A deer emerged, and then another and another, happily chomping on some leaves and grass, oblivious to our presence, till then heard the sounds of a few dozen camera shutters. They quickly vanished from sight. We were left standing inside our barbed wire-surrounded machaan, wondering at the marvels of nature.
But it felt odd. We were inside a protected cage. The tigers and other wild animals, free on the outside. Perhaps this is for the best. For this is their land, the last safe haven for the endangered Royal Bengal. And it is only fair that humans be kept at a safe distance from these wonderful beasts in their natural habitat.
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More on tiger land
Named after the giant Sundari trees that dot the region, the Sundarbans National Park is a magnificent mangrove jungle—the only one of its kind in the world. This UNESCO world heritage site is spread over 54 islands and extends into neighbouring Bangladesh. Part of the Sundarbans is home to a 2,585 sq km Tiger Reserve, which includes a 1,330 sq km national park.
At the mouth of the Ganga (and several of its tributaries and distributaries such as the Matla and Piyali) the Sundarbans is 130 km from Kolkata. The nearest railway station is in Canning but the entrance to the Sundarbans national park is at Sajnekhali. If one leaves early in the morning, it takes around six hours to reach Sajnekhali, first by bus till Basanti village near Canning and then on a small ferry to the mouth of the awe-inspiring Matla.
Where to stay
The Sajnekhali tourist lodge is a good option if one wants to leave the ferry and camp a few nights in the midst of tigers. The Sundarban Tiger Camp and the Jungle Camp at Bali island are two more luxurious options. Depending on where one stays, the cost for a night could vary from Rs 900 to Rs 5,000 per room.