Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sunderbans Tiger Reserve - Boat Safari on a Shoestring Budget

The Spotted Deer

Sunderbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its dense mangrove forests and the Royal Bengal Tigers, which are man-eaters and not found anywhere else in the world. Having my roots in West Bengal, this place has been on my visit-list for long, but only recently did I manage to finally be here.

The place has a very raw, untouched beauty; it is underdeveloped and not very commercialized – you will probably not even find a bottle of mineral water easily. But that is the charm of this place – to be away from our fast lives amidst the birds, the trees, and the boundless stretch of water.

One of the many Creeks. Imagine the Tiger Walking towards you through this Creek!

 Since this place is so oblivious to the outside world, it could be quite a challenge to find basic stuff such as snacks to munch on or mineral water. Everything needs to be arranged while traveling from Kolkata.  However, the tour boats would usually arrange all the basic things for you, hence it is all the more important to go with a reliable tour agency.

Boat Safari – the way it works here is that each tour agent has their own boats. During the day you get into the creeks and the mangroves in your boat. Most times the boats have a few rooms for overnight stay. The bathrooms are common and can practically only be used to lighten yourself. If you want to stay in hotels, the boat owners and tour agents would usually have tie-ups with hotels in this place called pakhiralaya. Our tour agent was however unique, and had its own resort. Boat Safari is the only way to go around and into the forests in Sunderbans.

Our Boat at Sunderbans

We were three of us, and went with this travel website – India Beacons, details of which I will leave towards the end of this blog. I would have to admit that the hospitality that they have shown throughout the trip – the amazing food, friendly tour guide, persistence to spot exotic animals has compelled me to recommend them to each one who happens to read this post. They have their own resort in a small village called Bali. While it is very basic (doesn’t have an AC or a geyser), the rooms are big, clean, and tastefully decorated. Be it bed-tea or hot water in the mornings, the resort staff is at your call 24 X 7, and again, the hospitality they offered has made the trip really memorable for us.

The India Beacons Resort from Outside
A Glimpse of the Huge Resort Rooms

Alternatively, there is also the option of staying in the boat. They have small rooms with double beds in the boat, but bathrooms are common for use. In fact, they are as small as what you would find in an airplane. I would not recommend staying in the boats, since firstly, they did not look to be the most comfortable to me, and secondly, the Safari ends by 4-5 PM. Not sure what one could do to keep themselves occupied after that, if you stay in the boat. Safety seemed to be another issue which made us very skeptical to stay in the boat overnight.

Food - The other thing I really wanted to bring up before moving on to our Safari experience is food. We Bengalis quite literally live to eat. And India Beacons kept us so well fed throughout, that just the thought of it is making me feel full. They would cook breakfast and lunch in the boat, and serve evening snacks and dinner back in the resort. I have lost count of the number of teas and coffees served between meals. It was exceptionally satisfying to have the homely meal in the boat while cherishing the wind in our hair. My husband is a vegetarian, and the only thing I was afraid of was if there would be a proper course for him as well (we Bengalis like our fish and chicken). I was surprised, that every day there was an additional vegetarian item for the likes of my husband. Not to miss, was the dessert at the end of each meal J

Price per person~INR 6,200 inclusive of taxes for 2 nights, 3 days.
Inclusions –Food, stay, transport, entry to watch towers, etc. (literally everything)

Day 1 – We were picked up at around 9 AM by an India Beacons SUV for a 2.5 hour ride to Godkhali. This is where our Boat Safari started from. We were overall about 15-17 folks in the boat, along with some of the boat staff and a govt. tourist guide. He was a very friendly chap and went out of his way to tell us about the history of the place, about the animals, and showed us some pretty exciting videos on his camera of tigers and other animals.

The Walking Trees With Aerial Roots 
Our first (and only) stop for the day was at the Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve. It is a small enclosing with a museum and some very exotic animals in their natural habitats. The River terrapin turtle is an endangered species and there are less than 100 in Sunderbans left at the moment. We also spotted some monitor lizards, crocodiles, and the pneumatophore roots (roots coming out of the ground) of mangrove trees from up close. It is here, that our guide narrated to us the story of Bonbibi – a goddess worshipped by the locals before they go fishing or collecting honey into the forests, in order to save themselves from the man-eaters of the land. We also spotted a few birds while on the boat.

View of the Sunset from the Boat

In the evening, after reaching the resort, we took a 30 minute walk into the village area nearby, walking through the cottages, the farm animals, the ponds. There was a tribal dance presentation at the resort as well, followed by a bonfire. The tribal dance was nothing out of the world, but gave a sneak peak into the lives of the villages in Sunderbans.

Day 2 – We had an early start at 8 AM. Today we were supposed to venture into the depths of the mangroves, thereby increasing our chances of spotting animals and birds. We did spot a few birds, deers, wild boars and crocodiles, but what was most exciting was spotting fresh tiger footprints by the water. The tiger seemed to have crossed the river less than an hour ago, according to our guide. We got all excited and spent some time looking around for any more signs, but without any success.

A Boat Selfie
Our first stop for the day was at the Jharkhali Watch Tower. There is a vet clinic here and it had 2 tigers at the time being treated, one of which was for a broken spinal cord. We were able to see one of those tigers. Even though we were looking at it from the other side of the cage, I was stumped by its size and those fiery eyes!

Can you Spot the Huge Crocodile?
Our second stop for the day was at the Dobanki Watch Tower. We could spot quite a few deers and wild boars here. There were times when the deers were making their alarm noises and running away from a spot, as if from some danger. Our guide told us that he could almost feel presence of a man-eater somewhere around us, but just couldn’t spot it.

At the Dobanki Watch Tower

The Canopy Way at Dobanki
Today evening at the resort, there was a very interesting enactment of the story of Goddess Bonbibi. And then we played some cards, before taking off for the day.

Day 3 – Day 3 was actually pretty uneventful for us. Neither were we able to spot many birds or animals, nor were there a lot of stops at watch towers. The only stop was at the Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower, but by the time we reached there, it was so crowded with tourists and noisy, that even before getting off the boat we had given up hope of spotting anything there. While the first half was pretty relaxed, towards the end of the day it got a bit stretched.

Another Short from the Boat
We were dropped off at the shore around 5 PM, from where a car took us back to Kolkata.

Overall it was a fun and relaxed trip very close to mother nature. We of course did not manage to spot any tigers, but then with the few no. of them left, one has to be pretty darn lucky to spot one! I would recommend a 2.5 trip to Sunderbans. 1 night and 2 days is too short while 2 nights and 3 full days is a bit of an overkill.

Key Tips & Tricks:

1.      Wear shoes. One of my biggest regrets was wearing slippers and not carrying any shoes. It was a pain while walking through the muddy roads around the watch towers and the resort
2.      Carry some warm clothes or atleast a windcheater. It can get quite windy during the safari
3.      Carry some snacks and bottled water if you have to. Don’t bank on buying from Sunderbans. ‘India Beacons’ had great arrangements and we did not feel the need to buy water, but I know friends and relatives who have had really bad experiences with drinking water when booked through other tours
4.      Lastly, if you book early enough, you could be lucky to book on one of the luxury AC boats. The safari is probably no fun in a closed AC boat, but staying overnight could be an experience. There are just 1-2 of these boats, hence very difficult to book them

Details for India Beacons

Contact No. - +91 9903295920 (Mr. Sandeep Chaurasia)

Click here to access their Tripadvisor page.


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