Mandal, our ranger
Sunderbans got its name from one of the mangrove plants known as Sundari (Heritiera Minor). The Sundarbans are a part of the world’s largest delta formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, and the world largest mangrove forest. Sundarban is a vast area covering 4262 square kms in India (West Bengali) alone, with a larger portion in Bangladesh. 2585 sq. kms of the Indian Sundarban forms the largest Tiger Reserve and National Park in India. The dense, inaccessible reserve is since ever free of any trace of human beings, not even tribal. 40 types of mammals (including tigers, diverse forms of wildcats, 3 types of dolphins, monkeys, beautifully spotted deers), 22 types of snakes (including deathly poisonous ones) , 4 types of sea turtles, a prehistorical crab from the times of dinosaurs (a fossil that has not undergone any evolution since 350 millions of years). No wifi, no doctors, little food facilities due to the harsh conditions. The water is slightly salty, the soil of the marsh soft, semi-liquid, the sun hot, humidity above 90%. The locals in the non reserve part are black goat elevators (the only species that supports the « salty » nature) and live from fishing. Formerly, the labyrinth of the Sunderbans have been the preferred hiding spot for criminals from Kolkata, with modern communication facilities hiding has become less successful. To get to the Sunderbans tiger reserve from Kolkata is a quite strenuous affair. We take a taxi on the polluted city belt highway (as always) until reaching a meeting point after 1 hour, from there the bus picks us up. 3 hours of bus drive to the South Kolkata countryside. Highly populated villages, wasteland and canalization odors mix with the fresh air of banana fields until the area becomes less and less populated. We reach a village at the border of the Ganges, where we take one of the old ferries that transports all sorts of items from living ducklings, rice, coconuts… It is low tide. I balance the long fragile plank between dock and ferry with my (heavy) camera backpacker. Thereafter we take a tuk, another ferry, and finally a wooden cart (motor-driven) on a bumpy road, sitting in the back on the hard wooden ground, normally foreseen for transporting goods. After a total of 6 hours we arrive at the lodge. The lodge consists of little clay huts, built and decorated only with local materials and arts & crafts (check backpackers sunderban tours / www.toursdesunderbans.com).
We get a hot ginger lemongrass tea served, slightly salty (definitely boiled with local water). The village is peaceful, we pass temples adoring gods for protection against all sorts of animals (snakes, crocodiles, tigers (tigers pursuant to our reserve ranger Mandal are man eaters when feeling threatened, and it still happens now and then). Women fish in the ponds. Children in uniform come from school. In order to get into the reserve we take the boat for about another hour at 6 am in the morning. Finally, we get rewarded for the exhausting arrival. The scenery changes, no traces of human beings any more for the next 9 hours in this old boat touring the Pancha Mukhani area of the reserve among smaller and larger side arms of the Ganges. Spectacular large water landscapes, jungle like small river branches that are longed by palms (the latter being the preferred hiding spot of tigers) or dense mangrove forest. Mandal is born in the Sunderbans. He is very concerned by the consequences of the climate change and the penetration of human habitat into the area. Erosion is visible everywhere. Tycoons and storms happen not only during the monsoon. Mandal says “Sunderbans last chance has come”.
Our Charming cook , I do not how she could cook next to the boat engine heating up at 50 C with such a serenity