Last weekend my wife and me travelled to Sundarbans with West Bengal Tourism. We booked 1-Night-2 Days package on the vessel M V Chitrarekha. The previous week was very cold, windy and foggy; hence we were little bit apprehensive and moderated our expectations as we set out for Dalhousie early Saturday morning. An AC bus were to take us for from the tourism center at Dalhousie to Sonakhali, where we will board the vessel.
We registered at the office and got on to the bus. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one my engineering friends, Arijit (and his wife), with whom I was out-of-touch for years, had booked the same package and seated opposite to us. The bus left at 8.45 AM and soon breakfast packets (containing cheese sandwich, boiled egg, cake, Chloromint and sweet) and water bottles were served. The bus raced through Basanti highway, past Cognizant office at Bantala as Baul songs, played on the vehicle's music system, greeted our ears. The fog vanished and the sun was up brightening our mood. Arjit and I chitchatted and exchanged information about our common friends. The bus went past small villages and towns. The green fields full of vegetables gave way to large water bodies for fishery as we neared Sundarbans. After about 3 hours we reached Sonakhali.
|Country boat carrying passengers to M V Chitrarekha|
We boarded a motorized country boat at Sonakhali ghat which took us to the vessel (M V Chitrarekha) , anchored mid-river a little away. The vessel is impressive. It has three decks - upper, middle and lower. The upper deck is where people assemble, sit and food is served. It also has the driver's cabin. The middle deck has the reception area, passenger berths, 2 cabins (each one for four persons), 1 private coupe (for two persons), toilets and bathrooms. The lower deck has 10 passenger berths, berths for crews, cooking area and the engine and generators. A small boat which is used to ferry passengers to and fro the ship is kept hanging at the back of the vessel.
The vessel started moving on the Hogal river as we, a total of 44 passengers, assembled on the upper deck for tea. Sonakhali and Basanti were on our two sides. Our destination for the day was the Dobanki watch tower, 3 hours away from Sonakhali. Soon we were welcomed by the mangrove forests on the islands. Lunch was served around 1.15 PM as the vessel left Hogal and entered Durgaduani river separating Gosaba and Bali islands. The lunch was elaborate - Deradun rice, Dal, 2 pieces of fish, Gobi sabji, fry, chatni, papad and sweets. There was one forest official-cum-guide, Mr. Ajit Mandal, who announced the name of the rivers and islands, mentioned some facts and answered passengers' questions. He told us that the total area of the Sundarbans is 26000 Sq.KM. of which 65% is in Bangladesh. 9630 Sq. KM belongs to India. There are 102 islands on the Indian side, of which 38 contains mangrove forests, rest are human habitats. As per 2002 census, there were 274 tigers in the Sundarbans. Mr. Mandal is awaiting the figures from 2011 census. Mr. Mandal also showed us the map of the Sundarbans. The Delta is divided into three zones - differently color-coded in the map. Only one zone, the northern most is accessible to tourists. Other two are reserved and for fishermen, respectively.
We left Durgaduani river and entered Gomdi river. We saw cargo ships carrying fly ash to Bangladesh. There were many small private vessels plying on the river. We spotted few species of birds like storks, sandpipers, jungle crows. The mangrove forests were full of sundari, kankra, gewa, goran, golpata and bain trees with their characteristic pneumatophores (aerial respiratory roots).
We reached Dobanki at around 3.15 PM. The small boat carried us to the shore in three trips. We walked to the watch tower passing by the Bonbibi (goddess of the forest) temple. A pond is visible from the tower. Animals come there to drink water. We observed two jungle spotted deers who quickly quenched their thrust and ran away. Another facility at Dobanki was the canopy walking. An elevated pathway with nets on both sides extended into the forest. People can walk into the forest in silence and can spot some jungle animals (including the royal bengal tiger), if they are lucky. However, the place was very crowded and people had hardly any regard for silence. (the guide said ruefully that the place has become a picnic spot). We could only see a herd of reared deers (food for tigers?) and one dead animal, which appeared to be a jungle cat!
Back into the vessel, we headed for Sajnekhali. The setting sun created a magnificent view with the water and the forest in the foreground. As darkness descended, the big yellow moon created another splendid sight. On the upper deck, we were served snacks - vegetable pakora, fish fries and tea/coffe. We reached Sajnekhali, a little after evening. The vessel anchored mid-river near the Sajnekhali ghat. The flow of water and tides gradually moved the vessel in circles. The movie Life of Pi was played on a TV set at the upper deck (followed by a horror movie). People huddled in groups. Some watched the movie, some chatted among themselves over Kalyani Black Label beer. We went to the lower deck and rested for sometime before we were called (the vessel has a public announcement system) to upper deck for having soup. The continuously running generator kept the lights on in the vessel. Outside it was pitch dark except for the lights of other anchored vessels nearby. Around nine, we were served dinner - fried rice, mutton, sabji, sweets. Next day we were to get up at 6 am and leave for the Sajnekhali watch tower at 6.30. We went to the lower deck.
The lower deck is the cheapest and get booked last. When we booked in November, only few Lower Deck berths were available. Lower deck has certain disadvantages - the main, I suppose is the accessibility. It is very difficult to get down there (and come out) thorough narrow almost vertical ladder. The problem is compounded if you have a large luggage. For old persons, it is not advisable to book lower deck. Another disadvantage is that it has no large windows; there are only four small circular fixed glass fitted windows at head height. The are just above the water level, which means when you are in the lower deck, you are actually under water! The lower deck is a bit stuffy, though there is mechanism for ventilation. However, it is quite warm in the winter. Looked at from cost-benefit angle, as you will be spending the whole day at upper deck and only at night you will be coming to lower deck for sleep, booking a lower deck is a good proposition!
We were transferred to Sajnekhali eco-tourism park at 6.45 am next morning. It was very foggy. So from the watch tower we could not see anything except for few birds. There were many langurs monkeying around the complex. There was a museum at Sajnekhali. Inside, there are illustrations of the flora and fauna available in the Sunderbans. There is a crocodile pond just beside the museum. However, the crocodiles, I suppose, were asleep as it was quite early in the morning.
|Spotted Deers at Dobanki|
We returned to the vessel and started our journey for the next destination - Sudhanyakhali, half an hour away. Breakfast was served soon - poori, alu dam, laddu and mixed fruit custard. When we reached Sudhanyakhali, the fog has cleared. From the watch tower, we saw two water monitors sunbathing beside the pond. In the adjoining park, there were many trees with name plates attached to them for identification. We also saw an abandoned ship, named Tiger garaged there.
Sudhanyakhali was the last spot in our itinerary. Once onboard, we resumed our return journey to Sonakhali through Gomdi, Durgaduani and Hogal river. At 11.15 AM lunch was served - rice, chicken, sabji, chatni, curd, sweets. We reached Sonakhali around 12.30 PM. We were hastily given the snacks box (containing a cake and a pocket Maaza pack) and ferried to the Sonakhali ghat by a country boat. The next set of passengers were waiting!
The AC bus took us back to Calcutta, this time through a different route - Sonakhali - Canning - Baruipur - EM Bypass - Ruby - Science City - Park Circus - Esplanade (K C Das Sweet shop).
|Sunset at Sundarbans|