Sunderbans: Worth a brisk visit for the sake of a Spectacular Starlit Sky, if not for the Royal Bengal Tiger
And why do I say that? Because, contrary to Census reports of about 400 tigers inhabiting the region, in reality these tigers are a rare view (in fact almost nil) in this vast landscape of salty water and mangrove forests. Often, tourist guides can be heard saying that if anyone has ever been successful in spotting a tiger in Sunderbans they are the white skinned tourists (or the Non Indian tourists). This happens primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the population density of tigers is quite low in this vast expanse of estuarine forests and saline mud flats spread across numerous tiny islands. However, in terms of absolute numbers, this region has the highest population of tigers compared to any other natural reserve in the country. Sunderbans cover an area of around 26,000 square kilometers with only 40% of the area lying within Indian territory, the remaining lie within Bangladesh. Secondly, most of these foreign tourists, being adventure seekers in true spirit, often dig in deep into the forests via smaller boats to reach places where larger boats cannot access and where regular tour operators wouldn’t escort their customers to. It has also been heard that these tourists patiently wait in safe shelters till they get that one fortunate glimpse.
For those tourists visiting the Sunderbans for the sake of the Royal Bengal Tiger, it is advisable that they limit their expectations, or else lift up their travel spirit and prepare to embrace some risks and adventure if they must see the wild cat. But this should certainly not dampen the spirit of the regular tourist seeking some exquisite holidaying experience. Because, here, in this corner of the earth, tourists get bestowed with some extraordinary experience which one doesn't come looking for but can only discover with open eyes, heart and senses.
The Travel Map
The recommended way to tour the Sunderbans is through organized tours conducted by either private operators or the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC). These operators offer complete packages including transport to and from Kolkata to Sonakhali jetty (17 km from Canning Station) where cruising begins. However, when safety & security are the key concerns for a group of young female travelers or for those travelling with aged family members, the tour packages offered by WBTDC are highly recommended.
I visited Sunderbans this year with two other female friends towards the end of January on the 1 night – 2 days packaged tour conducted by WBTDC and I must admit that the trip has been much more than comfortable. WBTDC conducts these tours on specific dates in a year which are announced in their website and can be reserved online through their portal. The usual travel months are from November to March. Our cruising experience on vessel M.V Chitrarekha, hosted by WBTDC, was brilliant with good food, hospitality and splendid visuals as the vessel lurked deeper into the swamps along the distributaries Hogol, Gomor, Durgaduani, Bidya and the Gumdi and stopping over Dobanki, Sajnekhali and Sudhyanakhali watch towers.
What you will see
Sunderbans, the largest tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world, derived its name from the dominant mangrove species ‘Sundri’. Because of its ecological significance, it is now listed with UNESCO as a Natural World Heritage Site. This vast deltaic coastal region is a complex network of wide and narrow channels of brackish water, semi submerged mangrove forests and mudflats. While cruising through it, the visual frame will keep changing from the initial visual chaos created by concrete blocks, buildings and mobile towers along the banks up to Gosaba island which is the last point of human settlement and beyond where the landscape transforms to a vast expanse of water spotted with meandering fishing and tourist boats. Watching the sunrise or sunset while cruising along these waters is a visual treat. Subsequently the cruise will turn into deeper and narrower channels bordered by chunks of stout mangrove trees and mud flats. Occasionally, one can spot hoardings put up by the Forest Department on the nearest approachable part of these islands.