It all started in Kolkatta. You would think that when I am in a different state my senses would awaken soon enough. But of course, I was proved wrong. My eyelids refused to open and my body froze at the sound of the alarm ringing at 4 in the morning. With less than few hours of sleep to my credit, it was surprising that I even got up. I rushed on with my morning routine and left for the station. With the humidity almost too much to bear, I was thankful to my host for providing me with an AC room.
On arriving a bit early at the railway station, I had the pleasure of roaming around in search of familiar faces. It was not difficult to spot my ‘gang’ as they were loaded with huge backpacks and looked ready for an adventure. After the initial niceties, we boarded the local train to Canning from where a tempo will take us to the port. The travel in the tempo was the fun part, with a few of us sitting on top as there was no space inside. All through the way, I heard interesting stories from my fellow traveler who proved to be an intelligent source of information throughout the trip.
Sunderbans, known for its tigers, is largely a mangrove forest. As this was my first visit of a mangrove forest, I did not know that traveling across this forest is not like any other. This 4,143 square kilometre-forest is dense and can be traveled only by boats. My mind was working overtime as I was just imagining sitting near a water hole and waiting for a tiger to come by. My youthful imagination of spotting a tiger in Sunderbans as often I come across a traffic jam in Bangalore was crashed when I realized that we would be traveling in a motor boat for three days and spiritually hoping for a tiger to cross our paths.
For a guy who had explored tropical forests down south, the very idea of expecting animals to come out in the open sounded absurd. Not long after we reached the place where the boat would pick us up, a man from a curious group of bystanders walked towards us. It did not take long for him to attract the group’s attention as he had the ‘magic words’. No sooner than we heard the words monocle cobras, we decided to drop by his village and visit his snakes. The walk to the village was tiresome with the sun beating down on us. But it was a worthy effort as we got to handle two cobras. Our snake expert advised the villagers on handling of the snakes. Finally, we got into the waiting boat and started off on our Sunderban safari (if I can call it that!).
The owner of the camp where we would be staying was on the boat with us. In what seemed like a moment of stamping one’s authority he started off on his do’s and don’ts of the stay. He sounded like a pan-chewing guide with poor English pronunciation, trying to exert the importance of leaving back your shoes in the vehicle before going into the temple. Hence nicknamed “Captain Obvious”.
An uneventful day followed with our afternoon filled with photographing water lizards in a nature reserve. After we reached our camps, we dumped off our luggage, had dinner and went out for an uneventful night walk. The purpose of the night walk was to find nocturnal snakes.
We split up into two groups with “Captain Obvious” joining our group. “Captain Obvious” turned into “Captain Contradict all” and touched a few nerves among my group members. In the end we returned empty-handed. Though it was impossible to sleep due to the poor ventilation that room suffered from, all of us managed to doze off soon enough.
I woke up to the screams of people yelling ‘Snake’! I rushed out to find that a rat snake that had sneaked into the camp site was caught. The snake was bagged so that it can be shown to others. The rest of us went for a ‘birding’ session before breakfast during which I was taught some fundamentals of the activity. After a brief session of rat snake handling, we headed off to the boat. The morning session was quite uneventful and most of us dozed off. The post-lunch lethargy was warded off with sudden rainfall and the weather change made the boat ride fun. Fuelling our excitement was the sight of a huge crocodile that was lazing around in the mud.
We reached camp for our evening snack and were greeted by two more people who joined the group, who after a tiresome journey preferred to rest. By this time “Captain Contradict all” had annoyed enough people and was asked to lay low for a while. Our evening stroll along the farms adjacent to the camp did not yield good results as far as spotting snakes is concerned.
The next morning we took a stroll along the road for another session of birding. The walk was pepped up by the little ghost shrimps that cleaned our legs that were dipped into the water.
While some of us were contemplating our misfortune over not spotting a tiger after a trip to the Sunderbans, reprieve came in the form of tiger footprints that we spotted. The prints that looked fresh, we decided, should have been left by a tiger that had swam across the islands and disappeared into the jungle. Disappointed, we retuned to the camp.
The evening was spent listening to a wonderful presentation by a fellow traveller about the Sunderbans. The next day we packed off our bags, loaded the boat and sped off into civilization leaving behind the mystic sense that Sunderbans invokes in every soul that dared to navigate its way through the dense jungle. As I heard sounds of ‘goodbyes’ and ‘yas’, I realised that it was time to go. The short vacation has come to an end.
To me, and few others it was not over yet. A perfect tigerless vacation does not of course come to an end, without a heady dose of famed Kolkatta sweets and some maniacal driving by taxi drivers to reach the airport. The tiger still remained a distant dream. Hopefully, I will get to see them soon, before they become extinct that is!
Additional Photos Shot By Subroto Mukherjee:
A special thanks to Subroto and Sanghita for their contribution to this post.