The lure of the striped felines in the estuarine national park of the Sunderbans pulled me out of bed early and into a car. Groggy-eyed but happily expectant, I turned my face towards the wind as the car drove down the three-hour distance till the end of the road at Godkhali.
The only way forward from there is by a local ferry. I met Manjit (who prefers to be known as MJ) at Gosaba when I got off the wobbly ferry. MJ was my tour guide and works at the eco-village there named 'Tour de Sunderbans'. Gosaba, a small island, can be easily traversed by a tuk-tuk, in a matter of 10-15 minutes.
The word Sunderbans translates in Bengali to ‘beautiful forest’. A glimpse of the world’s largest mangrove forest will make you realise that the name has stemmed from fact. As you row towards the dense and abundant wilderness, you’ll suddenly tumble down on the gnarly, twisted roots of the mangroves.
Eyes aflame, the Royal Bengal tigers watch every movement in the stillness of the jungle. Hidden in the sanctuary of the mangroves, they remain mostly unseen but for that itch on the back of your neck that tells you that you’re being watched.
Setting out on the ultimate quest
Trundling down the roads of Gosaba, MJ filled me in on the exciting life in Sundarbans. Another boat ride later, we set foot in the village of Satjelia where eco-village stands.
My sanctuary for the next two days
The eco-village has a pond occupied by a few water-buffaloes, deep in thought, thatched mud huts for you to stay in and some farmland where vegetables are grown. They make for delicious dishes that Manjit and his brothers serve to the tourists here. We immediately set off on foot to look around the village and found farmers tending to green rice fields.
Further down to the Gomor river, lay fishing boats with fishermen unloading their day's haul. We struck up a conversation with Binoy da, a very friendly local fisherman who let us sit on his boat awhile as he narrated adventures about delving deep into the dense mangroves for fishing.
Enjoying a fresh meal with a local
We made our way to the humble mud hut of Binoy da where his wife was cooking us a lovely curry of mud crab over a wood stove. Sitting cross-legged on the cool floor of the hut, Binoy da's wife ladled the fragrant smelling curry over heaps of rice.
After gorging shamelessly, we made our way towards the bank of Gomor for a boat ride to go bird watching. En route, we watched women throwing small squarish nets in the river in the hopes of bagging tiger prawn spawn. This is used to make a delicacy named bagda chingri.
A peek into the wild
We floated along in the small hand boat towards the trees to do some bird watching. With a pair of binoculars slung around my neck, I walked around amidst the calls of various birds merging into an almost orchestrated chorus.
The mud squished under my shoes as my binoculars helped me train my eyes on a bright blue kingfisher tittering on a branch. There were other vividly coloured birds which hopped around, possibly holding conversations about things we humans know nothing about.
As we started rowing back towards the village, the sun had started setting over the water, turning it into liquid gold. Everyone on the boat fell silent as we watched the vision unfold in front of us.
Ringing in the night at the Eco Village
As moonlight spilled on the grounds of the Eco Village, a few Baul singers were ushered in. With drums and the ektara (single-stringed instrument) their earthy voices rose high in harmony, singing of life and death and the eternal. The strains of Baul continued through the night.
Ready to spot the ferocious feline
Today was the day we had waited for and early next morning, Manjit brought around the brightly coloured motorboat named El Mar for an expedition to the tiger reserve.
We set off in high spirits through the maze of channels and creeks fringed by massive species of mangroves holding within a wealth of flora and fauna. We rowed deeper into the enormous delta which has the Ganges and the Brahmaputra draining into it after a long and weary journey from the Himalayas.
Gliding on the water, I spied on a water monitor with its forked tongue flickering in and out, as if tasting the air. A spotted deer made an appearance, walking to the water gracefully and dipping its head for a sip of cool water on a hot day. We floated by a green patch full of screeching monkeys swinging overhead. One of them took a look at us and scurried back into the forest to inform its residents about our arrival. An hour more passed until we saw a great saltwater crocodile with its bulbous amber eye surfacing, followed by its massive heaving body.
Beholding the majestic Royal Bengal tiger at last!
We approached one of the three watchtowers there, built exclusively to spot a tiger from a safe distance. The sight of the rich mangroves with their emerald shining under the sun, oozed paint into the faint picture of my mind. I forgot about the tiger for several moments, looking down from the height at the maze of creeks and channels glittering under the sun.
Suddenly, MJ grabbed my arm excitedly and pointed in the distance. I trained my binoculars in the direction he'd pointed, straining to see what he had spotted. Sure enough, the sinewy 'king of the forest' with his golden fur and black stripes was reclining by a tree.
At some point, the apex predator turned his head in my direction and my heart skipped a beat. Had he spotted me? We kept staring in the tiger's direction, spellbound and silent until he got on his feet and walked back into the darkness of the forest with almost liquid grace.
The hours had passed us by and the majestic tiger had finally granted us an audience. I was aglow inside with all I had seen. As if to round up a beautiful day, the skies burst forth in a riot of colours in front of my eyes.
The Eco Village has a two-storeyed cottage for stargazing and I hauled myself up to do just that later at night. Lying down comfortably, I trained my eyes upwards at the twinkling stars. There were so many visible against the inky darkness that I would keep losing count. Calls of wild animals echoed into the silent night, the forest was alive as the world slept.
After sleeping like a baby in my mud cottage, I emerged to see Binoy da smiling and holding a plate of fried bagda chingri. The prawns were fresh and piping hot and I shared them with Binoy da. After many promises of coming back to meet him and his wife, we started back on our journey.
The simple generosity of Binoy da filled my heart with love and appreciation as I savoured the briny breeze. Those with little don’t hesitate to share. The more we have, the more we clutch closer to heart, missing out on some cherished nuances of life. I was more thankful than anything else, for the enigmatic magic of the dark forest that I had witnessed, the love I had received and the beautiful but formidable 'king of the forest' who had humbled me with just a few moments of his presence.
Travelled to places that were a sight to behold? Narrate your experience here!
Puzzled about what should be next on your travel list? Check out Kitkat Travel Breaks on Tripoto here!
The readers are hereby informed that the views, thoughts, images and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author, and Nestlé India Limited assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions.