Friday, July 25, 2014

Sundarban trip-A pleasant diversion

Sundarban trip-A pleasant diversion
”We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we can seek them with our eyes open.”
Picnic, excursion, trip, expedition, jaunt-whatever you name it, are pleasant diversions. They break the monotony of life and bring into one’s daily life a touch of variety, for they carry us away from our everyday mundane world of daily existence into a world that is exotic, rejuvenating and exhilarating. Such short and  sweet jaunts give a touch of prose to the boring chapters of  life as they release the springs of joy chained down by the burden of duties and responsibilities.
            My trip to Sundarbans exactly gave me the same fresh lease of new exhilarating life and boundless energy as the muddy eddies of estuarine Ganges and the brilliant green of the sundari trees swept away the dreary cobwebs of city life.
            We decided to spend the nights amidst the natural environs of the mangrove forest to experience the nature at its best. An online research left us spoilt for choices from Government tourist lodges to a multitude of private resorts and there was varied accommodation to choose from AC cottages, huts , tents to executive rooms with prices ranging from 4000 to 7000/ per head(2days and one night) which included pick up from Kolkata in an AC bus to Godkhali from where you ride a luxury boat, to the resort just opposite the revered Sajnekhali Tiger Resort Camp . The package included cost of accommodation,transport, guides, entry fees to the tiger watch towers, food minus the beverages, boat rides and the deal if you look at it retrospectively it was a steal.
            As soon as the reservations was confirmed online, we started to pack our bags with little essentials, mosquito repellants, antivomiting, antidiarrhoeal tablets ,extra pair of shoes-lest we decided to tread thru the mangroves, light woolen jackets, sunscreens, binoculars, cameras just to name a few.
            Following the sermons of the tour operators we were in front of the Priya Cinema,Rashbehari Avenue  at 07:45AM, as Kolkata was stirring itself up from sleep and getting ready for the daily grind.At exactly 08:00 AM we were picked up by a luxury AC bus complete with a guide , fresh refreshments and  juices onboard (be sure to evacuate your bladder on the paid toilet opposite the Priya Cinema before you board the bus as first stop for refreshments is almost 2 hours away).  The morning hour traffic being light , the bus soon snaked its way in front of Ruby hospital and then towards Science City, taking a U turn in front of Paroma island its weaved its way to Basanti Highway finally for a 65Km journey to our boarding point at Godkhali .
            As we enter the Basanti Highway (under the bridge) all the way through striking countryside and bucolic bazaar with a brief stopover for tea and refreshments at Ghatakpukur, it is a sight to behold and consider by the environmentalists. The first view is the farming land on the right side which is called Dhapa where vegetables are grown on recycled land. This is followed by a local market which supplies a variety of local fish to Kolkata and the adjoining areas. Further down the road one notices the fisheries which are one of the main feeding centers for the range of an array of fish (prawn, Telapia, Tangra, Big Puti,and Catfish) to the fish loving Kolkatan appetite. On the left side throughout the journey you will find a sweet rain water canal running which supplies water to the farm lands on the left. As the bus glides its way, one notices the pyramid structure which forms the entry to the Calcutta Leather Complex which also happens to be the biggest in Eastern India. The later part of the drive includes a peek of the brick kilns and fisheries where prawn farming and local fish such as Telapia and Cat fish are cultured. The specialty of these brick kilns is that handmade mud cakes are baked and converted into bricks---these brick kilns are movable and are initially constructed on highlands which eventually become fisheries. As we pass through Malancha which is the biggest fishing village, it is a treat to the eye as local fish from the farms is auctioned in baskets with the highest bidder getting the basket. The paddy fields, the rural ethnic thatched mud houses along with few made of handmade bamboo sheets are a clear indication of life getting simpler and full of hardships as we move from the madding crowd of the city. The boat pickup point-Gadhkali arrives---a well equipped Help Tourism motor fitted country boat named Sundari after the mangrove which has also given the delta its name with packed food and fruits is what you need to be able to swan around in this barren land run through by rivers and rivulets and a skilled tour operator to fall back on, who is a multitasker and can guide you through the splendor of the Sundarbans. (It is impossible to travel in this dense, wild forest without organized assistance.)The eerie still of the forest shattered often by the chirping birds, deer and monkeys or the roaring Royal Bengal Tiger can only be found in this part of the world close somewhat to civilization.
            The cruise boat at Godkhali boarding point with a double deck, fitted with comfortable chairs at the upper deck, with a yawning in place, a neat and clean toilet at the back, an onboard guide, food and drinks to order completely relaxes the tired sinews of the bus journey as the silent propeller driven engine effortlessly guides your boat into the muddy estuarine waters past the last inhabitant island of Gosaba into the bowels of Sundarbans. Forget about remembering the myriad of islands dotting the myriad of estuarine tributaries(Google and Wikepedia is there to take care of it), just sit back relax and enjoy the panorama which the eternal being so effortlessly paints it in front of you. Doubtlessly the whole lot you will happen to see or come across in the feral mangrove forests of the Sundarbans will beguilingly draw you towards them. The astounding expanse of green, the blue heaven above your head congregating into the horizon, the eddying muddy waters of  waterways holding a promise of rich marine life, and the sinuous creeks lined by the sundari trees with resplendent fauna and flora-----all have a propensity to titillate your senses.
The Sundarban Forest- the largest mangrove forest in the world is situated in the south-west corner of Bangladesh. There are three wildlife sanctuary areas-‘KOTKA KACHIKHALI’, ‘HIRON  POINT’ and ‘MANDERBARIA’, number of unexplored natural beaches, innumerable rivers canals and creeks in the forest which are punctuated by tiger watching towers at places like Sajnekhali or Sudhanyakhali, one-third of which is water body making the waterways as the only means to go through the forest. It is famous as the habitat of its semi-aquatic tigers popularly known as the Royal Bengal Tiger-the biggest of the cat family which plays a very imperative role in the forest ecology as well as in the country’s rich mythology and legend. The forest treasures a reasonable quantity of spotted deer, wild boar, rhesus monkey, salt water crocodile, water monitor lizard, pythons etc amidst a mammoth sum of plant species- the Sal tree whose leaves are still used as plates and called ‘patal’ in Hindi, the Sundari mangrove with its aerial roots being the focal one for both the botanist as well as the photography enthusiast sharing the photos with friends or posting it on face book.(This forest plays an imperative role in the economy of the south-west region of Bangladesh as well as in the national economy for being the single largest source of forest produce in the country. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.
            After an impressive ride down the creek as human habitat gave away to swampy dense mangrove forests, we could see these waterways were much less polluted and congested, were the lifeline for the people who dotted the embankments, still to recover from the devastating effects of Aila and you become a bit saddened by the Janus face of tourism.
            The one and half hour drive on the waterways went like a jiffy where we saw a multitude of boats from cruise liners, merchant vessels to small fishing vessels dotting the estuarine tributaries as we turned towards the Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve whose embankment had been firmly cordoned off by steel mesh to keep out the ever elusive Royal Bengal Tiger to swim across the human habitats on either side.
            The tourist lodge is ensconced in island of Dayapur just opposite the Sajnekhali Tiger camp in tiny island of green-neatly laid down AC cottages, huts, tents with grass embossed  cobblestone paths and a garden containing flora and fauna that could rival any Mughal garden.A neatly laid down dining room under a thatched shelter and a well stocked bar, a pool table and the lodge was an ideal retreat to soak in the real essence of the isolation and wilderness and also an ideal panacea to the jungle weary limbs and body after a daylong jaunt at the Sunderbans. After a lazy sumptuous lunch we set out again on a boat cruise towards the Sajnekhali tiger reserve-which has animal enclosures for deers, crocodiles and even  monitor lizards. The reserve has a well stocked museum depicting the history of rich biodiversity of the jungles including life size figurines and rare snapshots of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. The fourstory watch tower was a dampner as shoddy constructional design had rendered the supporting pillars unsafe and as a result we were deprived of a bird’s eye view of the reserve forest.Be careful of the monkeys around the reserves,as the tourists feed them on the leftovers- these guys have an uncanny habit of snapping at your heels or snatch away any bags you are carrying with impunity.
            The cruise again takes down the river and is a titanic moment of splendor as you silently plough down into the setting sun and as the sun sets the boat brings you back towards the resort, for a funfilled campfired evening of adivasi dance and sumptuous food.  To de-stress the weary mind and body of the tourists, the lodge offers an indulgence to a dance programme by the native adivasis of the region where they feel too thrilled to teach you some dance steps towards the end of the show. The group dances as girls jointly take part like a segment of a garland in perfect rhythm with the beating of the drums locally known as madal and sing along with some folk saga-you will notice that the dance sequences are energetic and dynamic depicting a range of a feature of life in their simplest form and full of human emotional outburst and dreams on life in general. Sumptuous food with drink of your preference is palatable, thus soothing and calming every sense for a goodnight rest.
            You are awakened from your deep siesta early next morning with the energetic chirping of the birds, cackle of geese and  with the aroma of tea (again of your choice-herbal/green/black/milk) and freshly baked biscuits hitting your nostril. Dab on your sunscreen, put on your wide brimmed hut, arm yourself with your binoculars and camera and you are ready to take on the wilderness. It’s a full day river cruise with packed food and fruits and the boat maneuvering its way down the broader and narrower creaks with the early morning sun rays resplendent on the face and the cold breeze wafting. The river banks were full of variety of flora and fauna especially I was fascinated by the wide variety of kingfishers,deers, gazelles and river crocodiles.Although we missed sighting of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger- the trepidation of sighting one, the darkgreen sundari trees, the haplophytic roots, the fresh cool breeze wafting at your face leaves you wanting for more, more and more.
             A brief halt at Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower which again was a great spirit dampener, courtesy the inferior construction material used by the contractors- the supporting pillars were unsafe to climb and we had to really tough time fending off the monkey menace. These forest dwellers have slowly but surely developed a culture of their own, having an isolated life from the main stream, which has expressed itself in many ways, markedly suited to the local forest ecosystem. Survival, in a place like this where there is no electricity in most of the inhabited islands, where the rivers abound with fish as well as preying crocodiles and sharks, where the man-eating tiger prowls on land and water too, where poisonous snakes too slide along  land and water; makes a person a combatant against inclement forces under the watchful eyes of Banabibi whose temples along with Dakshin Ray dots the length and breadth of the mangrove forest(the folklore is an interesting read on Google e-books).
            The scheduled programme was coming to the closing stages-we had to go back to the lodge for a sumptuous Bengali lunch of hot basmati rice,prawn cum bhetki curry, shukto,cholar dal, begun bhaja, papaya cum tomato chutney(to name a few) and chilled canned beer (drink of your choice). As we left, a feeling of nostalgia and reminiscence filled every individual and with a promise to come back again to this beautiful, rich heritage cum abode of Bengal, it was once again time to get back to the grind of one’s daily life.
Here I endeth this travelogue with a poem I had recently read on today’s much acclaimed issue—‘Conserving the Ecology’---
He stood beside the tiger
Holding the tail of a tiger
He tried to hold it fast
But it bit him on the ass
And said, Make LOVE not WAR!!!!!!!!


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