I looked down at the ground with my son at the tracks pointed out by our guide. The tiger prints were clearly fresh – made this morning, so our guide thought – and were huge.
“Oh cool!” Said my boy, obviously impressed with the size of the paws, and scanned the horizon eagerly in case the beast which made them could still be seen. I too, scanned around, shading my eyes from the intense heat and looking into the dense forest that surrounded us. We had been walking for about twenty minutes and there was no way, had a tiger actually appeared, that we could have run back to the boat before it would have made sure we never ran anywhere ever again. Even if, by some miracle, we did make it to the ghat, the boat clearing, our motor boat had been taken back to the cruise boat where we were staying. We could not have swum, even though the bigger boat was in sight. Tigers are good swimmers…
There is an expression in Bangla: Jole kumir dangae bagh. It translates to Crocodile in the water, tiger on the bank and roughly means the same as our Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Staying at the Sundarbans, I can see why Bangladeshis have their own version. With crocs in the water and tigers clearly on the land, there would be no place to hide. I took some comfort from the fact that our walking party of about twenty-five was accompanied by two armed guards. But with the Royal Bengal Tiger being a protected species and only around 450 of them being left in the Sundarbans, which is their home, that comfort was not much. I wondered how long a tiger would have to maul me before they would fire a shot above its head. I’m not entirely convinced they would ever have got around to shooting the beast at all.
Thankfully, we didn’t see a tiger and so I never got to test the loyalty of the guards. Instead we carried on with our walk until we reached the wonderful coast on the Bay of Bengal and all of us took a long swim in sauna-like temperatures of the water.
It is no surprise that most of our group are Europeans with a fair number being English. The old song Mad Dogs and Englishmen is still just as true today as it was when Noel Coward made it popular decades ago. Who else would go out swimming on land clearly patrolled by one of the most fearsome man-eaters the modern world has ever known? On the landing ghat it said (ironically, in Bangla but with no need for translation) “Tourist Spot”. I joked that on the other side, in tiger language it said “Free Lunch”.
This was not the most dangerous thing we all did on our conference trip from LAMB. A smaller group took a boat trip out down one of the smaller rivers meandering throughout the Sundarbans and came across a king cobra. The boatman swiftly moved the rowing boat over to the other bank. The cruise boat had no anti-venom and the bite from one of these is so large you would die before ever making it to a hospital. Whilst it was prudent that the boat man moved to the other side, one doctor who was with us asked the question: what would have happened if there had been another king cobra on the other side?!
Well, the cobra was as dangerous an animal as we got to see as the crocs and the tigers are notoriously shy creatures. We saw plenty other wildlife including smaller snakes, otters, deer, wild boar and slimy mudmen.
Well ok, the slimy mudmen came from our own group when we were taken to a beach full of silty mud. Several swam to the shore from the cruise boat but the rest jumped from the smaller boat and swam through the mud, onto the mud or just plain dived into the mud! Very good for the skin I am told but I declined to go in. Way too much mess!
Sundarbans means, literally, beautiful forest though this may have come through reference to the Sundari tree found there. It is true to its name and is incredibly beautiful. Clearly looked after and preserved by all for centuries? Alas, that is not so true.
Just over 65 years ago my mother used to come from Calcutta, travel over the Ganges river and take a holiday in the Bengal jungle in a place she, as a child, called Ranchee. I can find no trace of that place but I’m fairly certain she misheard (as kids do) and it was actually Rajshahi, the very division I live in and only a couple of hours away from LAMB. That jungle no longer exists there and most of it has gone from the entire country with only little pockets of it in places like Sylhet in the northeast. Most of what is left of the famed Bengal jungle is now the Sundarbans. It is a third of the size it used to be. Here is a map showing you the land area.
Just try to picture how much of it has been lost. Though Indians and Bangladeshis share some of the blame for using and abusing this magnificent resource, I’m afraid the British were the worst culprits.
For this reason, the whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so. In a country heaving with 160 million people and no chance of any space to yourself, this area is a ‘sea of tranquility’ and we all benefitted from this over the four days we stayed on the cruise.
The cruise company, by the way, were excellent (their website is www.guidetours.com ). The food and service was wonderful, the boat was clean and seaworthy. We were picked up from Khulna train station and had our luggage carried to the boat that took us to the cruise boat. The same happened in reverse. It was actually easier to do than travelling to Dhaka! It is a journey I recommend anyone to go on if you get the chance and I highly recommend the company (not just because the young man who ran the boat looked like me in my youth!). No wonder the Sundarbans have been repeatedly called for to be considered as one of the modern-day seven wonders of the world. The area deserves it.
Just don’t play with the cats.