March 16, 2013

The Hungry Tide - Sundarbans

The Sundarbans are the largest continuous mangrove network on Earth, covering an area of over 6000 square kilometres. Two centuries ago, it was three times its present size. A combination of human development and natural phenomena have led to its shrinkage, threatening the very existence of the royal Bengal tigers and other wildlife that call these mangroves home. I took a tour of the Sundarbans while visiting with family in Kolkata.

Spread across a delta cutting its way through India and Bangladesh, it opens up to the Bay of Bengal. India's largest tiger reserve and national park can be found here. Dozens of small communities are scattered throughout the region. Boats are the primary form of transportation from one islet to another, through the Sundarbans' many rivers, streams, and vast expanses of open water.

I usually abhor the elementary school nature of organized tours, with their set timetables, unnecessary hand-holding, and annoying companions who you are forced to spend large tracts of time with in close quarters. However this tour was organized by West Bengal Tourism, so it was bound to be entertaining and unpredictable. After some initial bumbling, the tour operators did redeem themselves with generous servings of hearty Bengali fare during each meal.

After a long bus ride from West Bengal Tourism's head office in Kolkata, we were dropped off on the main street of a dusty village. A ten minute walk later we reached the pier, and waited for our ship for  a lengthy period of time. There were no bathroom facilities around, and the bladders of many a lady were bursting at the seams. They had to go aboard a docked ship and use the toilet there.

News slowly traveled through the tour group that we would have to take another boat to reach our actual ship, as there was a bridge on the river that was too low for our vessel to sail under. A rickety raft was overloaded with the tourists, who were then transferred to the barge where we would spend the next two days and one night. On the return journey, the raft had been freshly painted. I was left with an irremovable black tar stain along the backside of my designer jeans as a souvenir.

We enjoyed the tranquil scenes of the idyllic coastline as we slowly sailed by, stopping at several nature reserves on the way. As darkness fell, the boat anchored for the night. Everyone came to the top deck to enjoy a night viewing of Bodyguard, an entertaining Bollywood flick about the musclebound titular character and his seduction by (not of) the lady he was protecting.

Famed for its man-eating tigers, the Sundarbans can be a dangerous place. Many villagers have lost their lives to tiger attacks. At one point, 50-60 victims were consumed annually. Why the tigers of this region enjoy human flesh as part of their meal plan is not yet known, but is believed to be hereditary. Despite repeated efforts, I did not spot any of the magnificent beasts.