A maniacal drive in the auto whose driver thought he was Schumacher and Alonso rolled in one and we were off to Kolkata and then Sunderbans.
We started off from Kolkata in a Qualis and were at Sonakhali after two hours; a boat awaited us there to take us to island Bali where we had booked our accommodation. Sunderbans comprise of 102 islands, out of which homo-sapiens habit 54 – the rest are off limits, wildlife rule the others. There are no roads in Sunderbans; all transport is through the water. Boats are the only way to move around, and all boats sport the Indian Flag – being so near to border it is mandatory. Frequently we would pass by the Border Security Forces boats. Two more hours on the Hogol river and we alighted at Bali. We were actually living in cottages in a village. There was no network, the only phone booth on the island relied on an antenna, and to top it off – there was no electricity. Solar cells generated electricity, and once the stored electricity ran out, lanterns were the only source of light. Got a taste of life in village, and I must say even though it is difficult, I loved it. All days I woke up to the chirping of birds and cry of rooster – it sure is a different experience.
It was already afternoon when we reached Bali, after a hasty lunch (being a vegetarian we ate lots of rice and lots of potato all the days) we went off to Sanjekhali – the place where we would get permission to enter Sunderbans. There is a watchtower there, but it is total waste, it has just 3 floors! And that day being a Saturday the whole place was very crowded and very noisy. There was no chance of spotting any animal or bird in such noise. We escaped as soon as possible, and had to return back as the other watchtower was closed and sun sets at about 5:00 – it is dark by 5:30… The only significant spotting that day was of the Common Kingfisher. We also saw Wild Boars and Cheetal, but I was not able to get any good photograph.
6:00 pm and it was pitch dark. Armed with a lantern we went ahead to explore the island. The total visible area was about 1 foot around the person carrying the lantern. The road that we had taken was actually a sort of dam built around the island. Floods lash Sunderbans every year, and hence all islands have a mud dam built around to prevent the flooding. On our way back a pup followed us to our guesthouse, a family of dogs living in the guesthouse became our pets for three days. After dark we had to tread very carefully lest we step on any dog. Since there was no electricity, and stored solar energy had also been used up, there was nothing left to do but sleep. It has been years since I last slept at 9 p.m.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we packed our lunch and left. The plan was to roam around whole day in the boat in Sunderbans, spot as many birds and animals as we can, and be back by 5:30, the closing time. Never had any inclination that the day had much more in store for us. The day started off well.
a Pied Kingfisher (very rare),
Lesser Adjutant Stork,
a pair of White Bellied Sea Eagle,
many Black Capped Kingfishers,
plenty of Egrets,
Brown Winged Kingfisher (again rare; did not get picture), many Green Bee Eaters (they were really tiny, very colourful – I would have loved to click any photo of them – and very fast, so was not able to get any photo), White Breasted Water Hen, White Throated Kingfisher, and Whistling Duck
After lunch (I had no idea bird spotting was such a tiring job, I was famished – two platefuls of food disappeared in minutes), I was eager to spot a crocodile. We passed kilometers of mud flats, but we were not able to see any crocodile. Finally our guide suggested a creek that is accessible only at the time of tides – Sunderbans being a delta, lots of activities are dependant on the tide. So we went in the creek and many Indian Cormorants, and Eastern Curlews greeted us. Within few minutes we were able to spot a small crocodile – just about 4 feet long. But by the time we slowed and turned the boat around, the croc had slipped into water. (This is one major disadvantage of spotting wildlife from boats, no reverse gear, and no brakes that will stop you instantly.) Emboldened by this small success, we surged ahead and hardly 5 minutes later we spotted a big crocodile (not huge, it was just about 10 feet long). It is next to impossible to spot a tiger in Sunderbans (our guide had seen four in four years), but at least we spotted a big crocodile and were able to see it from near. And then lady luck deserted us.
We got stuck. The creek we were in was accessible only during tides, and as luck would have it, the tide ebbed away – leaving us stuck in a boat in the center of a dry creek. Five minutes back we were surrounded with water, and now we were grounded. There was another boat about 200 meters away; so we had two options. One to wade through the knee deep mud banks, swim about 5-10 strokes and reach the other boat, or two – to wait till high tide comes in and rescues us – a wait of about 6 hours in pitch dark. The guide suggested waiting, as walking in that mud was akin to giving a invite to animals – and Sunderbans is famous for man-eating tigers. We agreed, and started our 5-hour vigil. We got stuck at about 4:00, the sun set at 5:00, and it was dark and very cold by 5:30. We had two candles, one lantern, and one torch. Both the candles had been used up by about 6:30. We kept on flashing the torch around us waiting for animals to make an appearance, but the few lights and many sounds (surprisingly we were getting very good reception of Radio Mirchi there) seems to have kept them away. It was so dark that I was not able to see who was sitting just beside me; it could have been very well any animal. Sadakkhali (the place where we got stuck) remained true to its name; the sadak (road) was khali (empty) throughout. I had a great sleep waiting for the tide to come – trust me to sleep anywhere, anytime; I had a nice nap at the edge of the boat too. Finally the tide came up, and we started towards Bali at 9:00 p.m. A five-hour wait in pitch dark, and then a boat ride in pitch dark for 2 hrs, and we were back at our base Bali Island at 11 p.m. The only thing on our mind that time was sleep.
Next day morning, I was up again early – this time with no help from the rooster. A morning tea, and we went off bird spotting within the island. Apart from the aforementioned kingfishers spotted Babbler, Oriental Magpie Robin, Jungle Myna, Drongo, Chestnut Headed Bee Eater and Flameback Woodpecker. After gorging myself on the omelets and alu-parathas (I know a weird combo, but it tasted good!), it was time for the last bird-spotting venture. This time we went off in a small rowboat so that we could be as near to coast as possible. I tried my hand at rowing, and it really is very difficult and very tiring. I experimented with taking photographs through a binoculars (holding the binoculars with left hand, the camera with right hand, and focusing through the eyepiece), surprisingly I was able to take proper photographs. This time around we spotted the common Spotted Dove, Indian Pond Heron,
Eurasian Collared Dove,
the elusive Black Hooded Oriole,
and the only breed of kingfisher we had missed –
Sunderbans has converted me to a bird lover, and bird spotter. Back to cottages, we packed our bags, a quick game of Cricket in the village, and we were back to civilization again in few hours – wish I could have stayed there forever.
Help Tourism – the people who were our hosts – have a great system of ecotourism. Instead of blatantly commercializing the tourism, these guys help in developing the Bali Island. They buy all the raw food materials from the villagers; they have setup a school for the kids there, have setup a hospital, and are working in tandem with the habitants of Bali to develop it. It really is a great initiative by Help Tourism. And to add to it, they are awesome hosts. All our bookings were done through IT Nature Club, and everything worked seamlessly. Thanks to Arun for initiating, and organizing the whole trip 🙂