When I discovered I was coming to Bangladesh, in terms of the environment my first mental images were ‘floods’, ‘rice’ and ‘tigers’. To turn those visions in to reality – the first two are easy, they come to you. But you’ve got to go on a quest to find a Royal Bengal Tiger.
If you want to see them in their natural habitat, then you need to go to the Sundarbans – a littoral mangrove forest that covers around 3600 sq km of Bangladesh, right along the South West coast of the country, and then another 2500 sq km of India. About a third of the Sundarbans is covered by water; it’s essentially a giant flood plain that serves as crucial protection for Bangladesh against tidal surges, typhoons and other surges of natural energy. The Himalayas finally drain off through the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers of India here in to the Bay of Bengal, and the mixture of mountain silt and tidal sea-water has created fluctuating levels of salinity which in turn has resulted in a unique ecological balance.
Therefore you can enter an environment like no other on the earth. A wildlife sanctuary since 1966, and a World Heritage site since 1997, the Sundarbans is a haven for the natural world in Bangladesh; almost the only part of this densely populated country where you can be surrounded by life and none of it human.
It’s a maze of rivers, channels and tiny tributaries though, and not the kind of place one can explore armed with a good picnic and a pedalo. Luckily for me, one of VSO’s partner NGOs operates an ‘eco-tour’ of the Sundarbans, so nine of us set off on December 29th for five days of cruising through the deltas. We boarded our little boat in the early evening at Khulna, the nearest big city to the Sundarbans. It was small but snug, and we were soon eating the first of many huge meals out on deck and chugging along the river in to the night.
We stopped a few hours after to be treated to a ‘cultural programme’ in a small town along the way. Sometimes I feel that ‘tortured with’ would be a more accurate description of the cultural programmes we encounter (although we English inflict Morris dancers on unsuspecting foreigners in the summer, and open-air brawling on Friday evenings whatever the weather ). This was actually very good though – dancers with beautiful costumes and graceful movements, a band playing folk songs with a mesmerising beat, and a ‘phot’ song was performed. This is where a band and singers tell a story, with images being shown behind from a long hand-painted scroll. The gist of it was to do with logging and evil foreigners, but I liked the music and it certainly was a great way to put us in the mood for the adventures ahead.
There are only about 350 tigers left in the Sundarbans, which works out at about one every 15 sq km. Given that they are cats, if they were anything like mine at home we would have to get up at dawn to see one before they settled down for the morning, getting some practice snoozing in and conserving energy for their main afternoon sleep. So at 6am we emerged bleary eyed from our cabins and squeezed on to a much smaller craft, and set off paddling gently through the mist deep in to the forest.
Our boat was only just above the waterline, taking seven of us early risers plus the boatman, our guide, and a guard in case of tiger attack. The Sundarbans are full of myths of man-eating tigers, and although almost no humans live there, rumours persist that around five – ten maualis (honey collectors) are carried off every year. Unfortunately, the more realistic threat to us came from bandits who have been known to sail around the area and hold-up unsuspecting tourists.
Despite there being ten of us, we glided along for an hour in silence, mesmerised by the tranquillity. It was as if we had been transported to another world, a million miles from the urban stench of Dhaka, to air thick with oxygen and the scents of the river, the mud, the flowers, the sounds of birds waking up, animals occasionally disturbing the biomass, and the metronomic splash every twenty seconds or so of an oar slowly pushing us through the water.
When we’d set off, the mist was still resting on the water, and our vision was restricted to matted greys, browns, and dark greens. But as the sun began to beam through and lift the jungle awake, we could attempt to peer in through the wall of mangrove trees that protected the forest inside, and simultaneously teased one in to imagining what wealth of life must reside there. Occasionally we would see otters coming down for a drink, and the amateur ornithologists on the trip were treated to a constant theatre of birds flying over head, resting on branches, calling their mates, and always looking spectacular.
According to the Lonely Planet, over 270 different bird species have been recorded in the Sundarbans, including 35 species of birds of prey. We saw kingfishers, egrets, woodpeckers, eagles and many more. The Sundarbans also hosts deer, wild boar, monkeys, about 50 species of reptiles, dolphins in the deeper rivers, and crocodiles. We saw a particular big and nasty looking croc on the first day, and this simultaneously discouraged me from taking a dip and put me morally in favour of handbags.
When we weren’t on the little boat travelling through the jungle’s capillaries, we cruised along the main rivers towards the Bay of Bengal. This provided a good opportunity for us to chat, read, play scrabble and monopoly and eat the constant supply of snacks, soups, and huge full meals that the cook onboard somehow managed to prepare out of a tiny galley, almost every three hours. The weather wasn’t the warmest, especially when the breeze got up, but the river bank provided constant distraction, as you never knew what you might see next. Deer were plentiful, there was the occasional dolphin in the water, and we even spotted a large group of water buffalo. Occasionally we would pass what can only be described as ‘boat trains‘, where several boats would ride together, and wave to us or even offer us supplies. Almost no-one lives year-round in the Sundarbans though, apart from a few small government camps and seasonal fishing villages, so it really did feel as if we were on the frontier of man and nature.
The evenings out on deck were cold, and would have been colder had it not been for an illicit supply of wine and vodka that we had smuggled with us. We might not have been in international waters, but you can’t have New Year’s Eve without cheap merlot out of a box. A Scottish volunteer, Yvonne, had brought along a bag-pipes cd so we saw in 2007 under the stars, 10w speakers cranked to 11 and the sounds of Auld Lang Syne and Scotland the Brave blaring out across Bengal. I smoked one of my precious Cuban cigars and thought about how lucky I was to not be in London at that point, stuck somewhere on a bus.
The first light of 2007 was greeted through another small boat trip, where we saw our first tiger print, fresh in the mud by the water’s edge. Everyone sprang alert; including the guard, but that was it. Just enough to know that they were there, possibly watching us, and just enough to keep the legend alive. We floated onwards, got back to the main boat and then after breakfast we moored and went on to dry land. Here, the resembled African savannah, flat, dry plains dotted with exotic shrubs and trees. We kept a sharp lookout for tigers, but saw nothing, although there were plenty of wild-boar running around.
When we reached the Bay of Bengal itself, the sun was bright and burned at our eyes across the vast expanse of white sand. We might as well have been on the moon, as sound vanished in to the expansive bay, and we all stood under a huge sky looking out towards the ocean. In that direction there is no more land until the South Pole, and where we stood was desolate and barren, with very little vegetation, no real waves, and certainly no ice-cream van. The beach was so flat we waded in for at least a hundred metres without the water reaching my waist, so Tom and I decided to be mature and just push Georgia in. She loved it. An hour and a temporarily ruined friendship later, we went back on to boat, and this began our slow cruise back up to Khulna.
We stopped again for another walk through the forest, this time seeing some little monkeys, more deer and boar, but still no tiger. This was a very different type of habitat, so dry we walked through tall trees along a river bed, and you could see how the wind had whipped across the landscape and carved shapes in to the forest. We made it back on to the boat in time to enjoy the most brilliant sunset. This really was Bangladesh at its best.
We said goodbye to our guard and our boat, but this didn’t mean the end of our trip. We’d taken a forty-minute flight down to nearby Jessore from Dhaka, but to get back, we were going on a thirty-hour boat ride, aboard the Rocket. The name isn’t ironic, because the Rocket is in fact one of last surviving relics of Bangladesh‘s colonial legacy. A paddleboat, built in 1929 and thankfully refurbished in 1992, a trip on the Rocket is one of the must-dos for any traveller in Bangladesh, and we were incredibly lucky to get first-class tickets.
The Rocket didn’t depart until 2am though, so the NGO that had organised our trip walked us through the Khulna docks around midnight. This itself was an extraordinary experience, going through candlelit labyrinth that must be a hive of trading and activity by day, but came across as a Dickensian world of shacks and shadows, murky corners and small doorways, behind which you could almost smell an incredible life and story.
We got to the boat and sauntered up to the little first class deck, a small area full of deeply varnished woods and carpet, and then watched for an hour or so as people poured on board, before the huge diesel engines roared to life, the paddles began spinning and we set off in to the night.
The next day gave us an opportunity to explore the ship. We had a nice cup of tea on our little deck in the sunshine first of all, and were able to hook up my speakers to listen to jazz and pretend that we really were back fifty years. The fittings on the ship added to the atmosphere, a sign informed us of the history of the boat, and an enormous fog-light hung to remind us that it really had been built in 1929.
Over the course of the day, the Rocket made numerous stops and on piled more people. We went downstairs, and just as the first class section was in a 1930s style, so was the steerage. The Rocket itself isn’t actually very big, not much more than 60yards long and 15 yards wide, over three decks. The lower deck housed two huge diesel engines, serviced by an oily mechanic each, and you could reach over and touch the pistons pumping away if you cared to lose a hand. The noise of the sheer power generated was tremendous, but the small boy in me found it quite exciting to be there, and stare at the giant paddles driving us along, and other small boys sat there with the same idea.
On that level with the engines were about 200 people sitting around next to huge bundles and pots of interesting-smelling food, waiting patiently for us to get to Dhaka amidst the noise and filth. The weather was fine, but if the water had been rough I certainly wouldn’t have liked to be down there. The next deck wasn’t much better, although there was some wooden seating. If you went above the little first-class annex you could reach the bridge and walk out over the roof of the boat. This let you have one of those ‘Titanic moments’, stretching out over the bow. I haven’t seen the film, but I know how it ends, so didn’t bother in case I jinxed us. Anything’s possible in Bangladesh.
Night set in, and the first-class atmosphere was by this point slightly sullied by the addition of about thirty more passengers, and the worst dinner I’ve had, anywhere, in years. As if to confirm my Titanic fear, fog crept over the river and we shuddered to a halt in the darkness; the 1929 fog-light not being strong enough to avert risking a 21st century disaster. At one point it sounded as if the engines wouldn’t start, but they burped in to life eventually and we crawled through the cold mist in towards Dhaka.
After five days of peace it was a bit of a shock to come in to Sadarghat boat terminal, which is Dhaka‘s equivalent to London‘s Kings Cross or New York‘s Grand Central Station. We were there at 7am but the water was already a heaving mass of boats, mud, people and cargo. We stepped out of the Rocket and I immediately felt land-sick as my balance failed to adjust to terra firma, then we bundled our way in to taxis after agreeing an extortionate price, and headed out in to the traffic. The urban jungle of Dhaka swallowed us up again, and the real jungle of Bangladesh suddenly became just a precious memory. And the Royal Bengal Tigers eluded us all the way along. Just as well I’ve got a tiger, of sorts, back in London.