Our trip to the Sundarbans with Guide Tours Ltd. began with a bus journey to Khulna. Travelling alongside several families with children we had all packed in a ‘minimalist’ fashion though our efforts momentarily lapsed as carrier bags of crisps were purchased for children to nibble on en-route. Our group numbered twenty and we gladly took up root in two-thirds of the private Salsabil bus scheduled to depart from Malibag at 9pm. The Dhaka traffic was heavy but moving and following further pick-ups in Badda and Uttara the coach pushed North and our batch of voyagers headed to the ferry terminal in Paturia for the Padma River crossing.
We eventually arrived at the port entry in the early hours of the next morning. Drifting in and out of sleep I saw that our coach was parked in queue waiting for our call to board. We passed cargo lorries parked, it seemed, ready for a much longer wait. These drivers either slept or took ‘cha’ ( tea) and snacks at nearby tea stalls. When our coach was allocated a space the driver slowly rolled the coach aboard the ferry from a muddy bank. Fruit sellers lined the very edges of the boat resting themselves and their wares on low lying surfaces under naked light bulbs. Vendors were selling similar fruits in a tight space and trade seemed slow. I guessed that most had been there throughout the night. Desperation showed on the faces of these men – desperate for money and desperate for sleep, catching a few short minutes rest before the transfer of passengers for the next crossing.
My family took a short flight of stairs away from the fruit sellers up to a seated dining area. My husband and daughter ordered Dhal (Dal), Bhat (Rice) and Hilsha Mach (a favourite fish in Bangladesh) whilst I sipped a sweet tea made with condensed milk and sugar! There was a storm outside blowing fresh air inside but the crossing was smooth. After 40 minutes or so we were in Daulatdia heading west and then south towards Jessore and Khulna.
South west Bangladesh is comparatively less prosperous due to the lack of large scale industries; the only major source of income being generated is from shrimp collection and export. The area has been known to house communist insurgencies in response to the inequality felt by the regions poorest and local bandits have been known to forcibly stop buses to extort valuables. As such, like other bus operators we were supplied with a police guard to ensure a safe passage south. After some delay due to a suspension fault on the coach we were again on our way – in the end it was a blessing as by now the sun had risen and we could take in the beauty of this rural region of Bangladesh. After a ‘pee’ stop (complete with resident camel!) we headed on to Khulna passing numerous wood merchants carving charming furniture pieces by hand. In Khulna we took an electric tom-tom (similar to a tuk–tuk) down to the waterfront and got a flavor of this major town with a real village feel at its heart. At Jail Thana Ghat (Jail Port – known as such as the local jail sits along the port entry) we boarded a small engine vessel which transferred us on to the larger M.V.Chhuti, one of several boats in the Guide Tours Ltd. fleet. The riverbank was a dream – local merchants selling fresh fruit including enormous watermelons and there was a lot of excitement as the port welcomed new arrivals and said farewell to others. A busy, buzzing river ghat with all manner of vessels providing a feast for the eye.
M.V. Chhuti is a ship is specially designed for Sundarban tours, its smaller engine vessel (tide behind the main launch) provided the perfect vehicle to creep silently along the creeks and canals of the Sundarban basin. Aboard the boat we were warmly welcomed by the staff on board and we made our way to rooms. Our home was a twin bunk bed cabin with river facing windows. Complete with fans, mosquito nets and table storage we knew we would enjoy a very comfortable stay. Little did we know how well we would be looked after over the next few days..
Bags dropped and lashings of sunscreen applied we relaxed on the sunny upper deck, my daughter enjoying the thrill of running around naked except for a life jacket. At Mongla the accompanying jet boat sped off to collect our group’s forest entry permission (free for Bangladeshi citizens and 4,600 taka/ 58 USD for foreigners) whilst we sat watching dolphins leaping out of the water near the entrance to the ‘official’ Sundarban boundary. The entry point we took began with the splitting of the river into two branches. The boundary at which it splits trees supporting the famous mangrove roots jotted vertically out of the river bed – almost a warning of what lay ahead.
We spent several hours cruising south beyond sunset and into the night. The embankments were heavily lined with thick silt followed by dense jungle made up of many varieties of tree and vegetation. Different mangrove shrubs, trees and grasses all seemed to fight for attention – flashing an array of greens and browns. As the boat sailed into the night I fell asleep early – full of food and fresh air. I am told that we finally anchored at Katka on the Bay of Bengal around 11pm and that everyone collapsed into their bed soon after me following our long journey.
The next morning I woke early, not long after sunrise the excitement of glimpsing the view willing me out of bed. On one side was a full view of the Bay of Bengal, the other a dramatic swathe of river lined with beautiful, unspoilt forest. One side carried on the line of thick jungle whilst the other gave way to several spotted deer grazing on debris left by the tide and leaves of the lush glades. The trees in this spot were cropped underneath to a particular level. Our guide Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur filled us in, explaining that this was the level that the deer could reach up on their hind legs to graze. It gave us the perfect view through this bank of the river where rows and rows of trees had been delicately trimmed.
After a wake-up coffee (and then another which I took with me!), the whole group alighted on to the smaller vessel and we cruised by engine at first and then by single ore along a series of canals. By cutting off the engine noise animals were more likely to be seen. The joy of our cruise with Guide Tours Ltd. was the fact that we could just completely relax and be ourselves. Bed head, coffee in hand and still in the clothes I slept in we could just ‘be’ – the point was to just enjoy the moment and to take in all that the forest had to offer. As we cruised up the narrow canal we were treated to a glorious display of mangroves – species from the old world and the new. Our guide explained that one of the major differences is the root systems where some grow vertical roots which project out above salt tidal waters whilst others extend their roots down following germination. Beautiful Golpatas (Nypa Palms) sat proudly – trunks immersed in water and leaves curvaciously framing globular flowers. All the while the sound of birds hung in the air – the whole area was a literal hub of nature. Our guide periodically informed us of the names of flora and fauna as we passed and spotted animal markings that were otherwise unidentifiable to the untrained eye. There was so much to take through with all the senses – including a taste of the salty water!
The first thing that people ask when they hear you have been to the Sundarbans is “Did you see any tigers?” followed shortly after by “what animals DID you see?”. I learned that animals are actually a bonus to what is an already enchanted place. Straight from the material of the infamous National Geographic, the atmosphere in these remote jungle areas is unique and somewhat moving on an emotional level – a place of peace, tranquility and of untampered natural beauty. Drifting along the waterways dazed in amazement at the sheer variety of the foliage anticipating what you will see next is unforgettable for me. Seeking out the small details – a mud-skipper using suction to move along the river bank, the beautiful reds and blues (yes blues!) of the tiny male fiddler crab whose enlarged claw you can just make out, the fine prints of the otter just visible above the tidal water is what makes this a thoroughly enriching and rewarding experience. The Sundarbans is not a zoo to see the animals in captive, it is a 6,000 KM₂ forest in Bangladesh alone, covered in dense mangrove which is largely impenetrable by all but the bravest and most experienced of individuals whose lives depend on the bounty the terrain has to offer. The impermeability means that it is near impossible to look deep into the forest with the naked eye – despite seeing so much on the outlaying frontier it is left to the imagination what treasures lay at the heart of the wilderness.
So, in addition to the beauty and reverberations of the forest we were privileged to glimpse some Sundarbani inhabitants – mudskippers, crabs, monkeys, deer and many species of birds – though, as I will re-emphasise, this was just the tip of the iceberg of a place teaming with life. As we entered further into the forest the creek narrowed, imposing mangrove closing in – I could have cruised these idealic waterways for hours. Late morning we headed to Tiger Point for a 3km walk on land to Kachikhali beach. On the way our guide Rubai Mansur spotted tiger prints which he estimated to be around two days old – half water filled, he said that these prints must have been here before high tide.
During our excursions we were accompanied by a Forest Department guard. Whilst we assumed that their presence was for our own protection our guides explained that their role was often to protect animals from humans – poachers and other individuals conducting illegal activity! They escorted us overnight on the main launch as well as on excursions through the waterways and over land. As we marched through open terrain we were able to appreciate the dramatic rise in saltwater during the rainy season. A large part of the guided walk in this area would be underwater at the time of monsoon. Stopping midway for water and shade we reached the beach area a geologically significant site with layers of silt and sand interspersed with large segments of clay. Our group enjoyed getting messy in the sludgy silt – a mineral rich paste that resembled melted chocolate. Of the view that this was Mother Nature’s own face mask(!) I applied an impromptu face pack. My daughter as well as the other children from our team completely covered themselves – walking grey mummies with bright white smiles. After our fun we enjoyed fresh watermelon and chilled beer carried all the way the the beachfront by the wonderful staff.
After recharging our batteries the group were treated to a sunset cruise – the cool weather and beautiful lighting made this another fantastic opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of the jungle.
Please see my post Sundarbans Part-2