I had never seen so much mud in all my life. When the thick fog allowed, I watched mile upon mile of the gloopy brown estuary slop, capped by tangled vegetation slide past the boat as we penetrated the small channels that make up the world’s largest mangrove forest. Exploring the Sunderbans by boat sounded far more exciting on paper than it was actually proving to be.
Whilst home to one of the world’s largest remaining populations of tigers, as well as crocodiles, monkeys and hundreds of species of bird, the wild residents of this fragile but crucial ecosystem were proving elusive. Despite being located a few hours’ journey from the hustle and bustle of central Calcutta in the Ganges delta, the Sunderbans is a little-known corner of the world.
Our journey there began by minivan from the backpacker ghetto of Sudder Street. Having passed through the post-apocalyptic dust and grime of what seemed like hundreds of brick factories, each with its attendant pool of black and fetid water, we switched to a ferry. We joined 150 other people, squatting around the sides of the large, open wooden boat. As there are no cars, we bumped across the island for a further forty-five minutes on the back of a flatbed cycle rickshaw, before taking another boat to the mud-brick village where we would be staying.
Mud. Aside from being everywhere, it was also clear that it had some pretty key uses in the region: everything was made of the stuff. From the one-room cottages to the ovens on which our simple fare was cooked. Walking around the village, the steep, banked levees that kept out the riverwater, the roads, the houses, the solitary school, the fields and fences, all were the sun-baked light chestnut of adobe. The only colour to break the ochre monotony was the yellow of the straw, stacked high in conical tepees by each house.
Our first night in the mangroves had been billed as an opportunity to enjoy the peace of rural life and listen to the sounds of the forest. Unfortunately, no-one had told the locals, and Bollywood favourites blared from an unseen speaker for fully thirty six hours straight. Eager to catch the many nocturnal animals that may still be out and about in the grey light of dawn, we were up bleary-eyed and early and headed for the reserve. We needn’t have bothered. The thick fog obscured everything. We could not even see the other side of the channel in which we were sailing.
The agencies in Calcutta are circumspect about your chances of seeing tigers: sightings are rare. To temper expectations early, they proudly display photos of paw prints in the mud rather than of actual tigers. Our guide really brought home the enormity of the task at hand when I pressed him on how often he had actually seen a tiger. His answer of three times in thirteen months brought abject resignation. As the fog thickened throughout the morning, we reached the nadir of our search, its hopelessness highlighted when the guide challenged me to a game of rummy, sat cross-legged on the deck.
It was freezing too. During months of travelling in the sweltering Indian subcontinent, I had often dreamt of being cold. But when faced with it, it wasn’t either as much fun or as refreshing as I’d imagined. We went below, stripped blankets from the bunks and sat huddled on the deck in the murk, shivering through five hours’ fruitless sailing. Finally, about midday, the sun won the battle and started to burn off the mist. Our chances had improved, but were still depressingly slim. It was now high tide and the tangled undergrowth created an impenetrable, murky wall of vegetation that was the perfect hiding place for any camera-shy animal.
When the tide sinks, it exposes huge expanses of mudflats, and your best chance of seeing something is catching it out in the open on the river beach. But our guide blithely pointed out that the tidal estuary in which we were sailing was saline, so the animals would not even be coming down to the water’s edge to drink. Our only chance was if something happened to decide to swim between two of the islands at the same time as we happened to be sailing past that particular piece of thousands of miles of coastline: we would have to be very, very lucky.
We did see a few birds: the emergency fallback of any wildlife viewing trip. Egrets, electric blue kingfishers, a few waders and storks were all very nice, but I remain convinced that, pretty though they can be, no-one but the most ardent and die-hard twitcher would be satisfied with spotting colourful cat food when they secretly harboured hopes of spotting the star attraction itself. No matter how remote they know the chances to be.
Aside from the birds, the muddy monotony of the day was also broken by monkeys boarding the boat and attempting to steal food from our hands. We spotted a giant dinosaur-esque monitor lizard crawling away through the undergrowth. We saw a crocodile, lying on the mud in its reptilian ambivalence, but it didn’t even twitch. The sheer number of photos I have of mudskipper fish is indicative of the long hours endured without spotting anything that wasn’t brown and sticky.
Of course, for all my griping, the joy of the trip is the unique opportunity to be in the mangroves themselves. This amazing and unique ecosystem protects fragile coasts from erosion and traps sediment to create land from the sea. However, mangroves remain incredibly fragile and vulnerable to climate change as rising sea levels destroy the delicate balance that allows the pioneer vegetation to gain a toehold in the salty water. Having travelled thousands of miles to experience the Sunderbans, it is not just about bagging the headline animals: the sheer variety and beauty of the birds is amazing. But after nine and a half hours on a boat staring at the mud, it was still with more than a little disappointment that the end of our hunt was signalled as we chugged despondently past the reserve boundary, delineated by an enormous net strung around the islands to keep the tigers out of the villages.
But out of the corner of my eye I saw our guide signal to the captain for an about turn. I did not let my hopes rise, as I have encountered similar tactics elsewhere where the tourists are made to think they have come close to a spot in order to elicit a larger tip. I also couldn’t understand why a tiger, with literally thousands of miles in which to roam, would ever come to the boundary net to pose for photos.
But then stripes in the bushes, and the guide crowed, “tiger, tiger, tiger!” And there he was, our very own royal bengal tiger, strolling right along the edge of the whole reserve, come to survey his domain. The boat sailed parallel along the channel as he popped in and out of sight in the thick bush. One of the best memories was to see our guide over the moon at having delivered his fourth tiger spot. We shared his elation, snapping photos relentlessly, regardless of the fact that the boundary net makes them all look like they were shot in a zoo.
Indian wildlife viewing can somewhat lack the etiquette of an African safari, where the vehicles hang back from the animals affording even latecomers a good view. This is possibly understandable, given that there are far fewer headline animals that are much more difficult to find in the jungles of India,as the terrain is usually a lot less open than the African plains. So when it became clear we had seen something, the other boats leaving the reserve at the same time sailed straight at us to try and muscle in on the spot.
Everyone on our boat was absorbed in watching the tiger stroll nonchalantly along the edge of his domain. Sometimes he would pause near a clearing, or stop to leap over obstacles. Our boat had slowed and was staking out the next gap in the forest when another boat came steaming right between us and the island, blocking our view. They came so close and so quick that we collided.
There didn’t seem to be any damage, but a few minutes later they came alongside again, boarded us, and tied their boat to ours. A massive argument between the crews of both boats broke out, with bemused tourists on each side looking on. I was too absorbed in the tiger to worry too much about the rapidly escalating fight, and was at the stern on my own watching the next clearing. I was rewarded with the sight of our tiger leaping into the forest one last time, before the ongoing piracy incident robbed us of any further opportunity to enjoy that most rare, beautiful and exhilarating experience of spotting an elusive royal bengal tiger amongst the mangroves of the Sunderbans.
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Copyright © 2015 Alex Jones