hate tours. There is something so immensely artificial about
a large group of people paying good money to 'experience'
something and more often than not the experience is staged.
But sometimes a tour is the only way and it was with feelings
of profound apprehension that I awaited an overnight bus to
Khulna where I was to board a boat and head for the Sundabans
with Elizabeth and Rubaiyat Mansur from The Guide Tours.
Sundabans is the largest chunk of mangrove forest in the world
sprawling over 1 million hectares. In tropical parts of Latin
America, Africa and other parts of Asia, mangrove forests
are rife but their bounty is not considered a practical resource.
In Bangladesh, however, the wood from the trees is used for
timber, thatching, tool handles, fishing boats, carts, cart
wheels, electricity posts and probably even the paper you
are now holding in your hand.
aside, the Sundabans also act as a storm barrier, shore stabilizer
and water purifier. The forest sustains a varied and colourful
eco-system, for here the fresh water flows down from the northern
rivers to mix with the salty seawater and to date over a thousand
species of plant, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals have been
identified. In their own way each of these species contribute
to the array of Bangladesh's possible resources, but sadly
they are only missed when are no longer there, for the remote
and unique environment of the Sundabans is far from safe.
are Bangladesh's second largest export due to the quick maturation
period of fry, but as fishing is officially banned, the exports
supposedly come from hatcheries. Fry is caught using primitive
and uncontrolled means and, more often than not, makeshift
implements fashioned out of mosquito netting. In one fell
swoop they can collect over 1500 larvae from different species
but it is only the shrimp fry that matter and those morsels
unfortunate enough to be born non-shrimp, are cast aside.
course there are other creatures that suffer from poaching.
The green frog, the estuarine terrapin, the giant soft shell
turtle, the green pit viper, the rock python, the golden flying
snake and of course the crocodile and tiger to name but a
few. Each valued for their differing aphrodisiacal, nutritional
or economic values. Go to a market near one of the five star
hotels in Dhaka and if the right questions are asked, a tiger
skin will eventually be offered. Indeed some tanneries even
admit knowing how to cure tiger skin for they "do it
all the time".
Bay of Bengal has become synonymous with the tiger. Indeed
the first thing most people have asked me since my return
last week is, "See any tigers?" I did not go to
the forests to see tigers, in fact I had no expectations at
all, bar those of nervousness concerning the idea of a 'tour',
and Rubaiyat told me that until last month he had not seen
a tiger for nearly two years. Sightings are becoming less
and less frequent. However the wealth of wildlife actually
visible in the Sundabans quite overshadows the elusive tiger.
vessel was moored in such a way that we had access to two
sides of the forests, the idea being that we could explore
both during our stay. One morning we walked on the very, very
fringe of the forest proper. The ground was gooey with damp
mud and the mangrove roots protruding and tiny crabs scuttling
every which way (but mostly sideways), created a labyrinthine
pathway as we picked our way this way and that, at times stumbling.
There is a saying in the Sundabans that if you trip on a root
once, you will trip five times. It is not true, I counted
at least seven but it may well have been eight. Foot stubbing
aside, as we stood there in the dappled sunlight a heard of
deer lollopped across our path some 200 yards away. I say
lollop, because although they exude elegance, lolloping is
all you can do in the mud. Shortly after their exit into the
thickets, the stage was taken by boars which could be heard
grunting and although they were harder to discern, their shadows
rippled against the mangrove trunks. On cue a monkey dropped
from a tree nearby. I didn't actually see this, having just
stubbed my foot on a root for the umpteenth time and was busy
nursing it back to life, but by all accounts it was very amusing
the monkey I mean.
that day we went to explore the various paths carved into
the land by waterways in a smaller engine-less boat. The dark
depths of the jungle became instantly visible through noises
of frogs, birds, strange twitterings, twitches and splashes.
From the riverbank there was the odd splosh as creatures leapt
into the water, frightened by our presence. The light was
fading and the water had become styx-like. As our Chairon
pushed the boat under the arch of an overhanging branch, a
large lizard peered at us speculatively and despite the eerie
stillness I almost expected it to yawn and start reading.
In actual fact it fell from its perch into the water, much
to my childish amusement. But its beady little eyes had said
one thing, "Look but don't touch."
our way back to the larger boat we spotted the ominous shadow
of a large crocodile. It wasn't at all frightening, distance
being of a great advantage and its tree trunk resemblance
was soon forgotten. However, as we neared our destination
there was a huge splash in the water. It was unmistakably
a crocodile's back and tail disappearing beneath the water
just meters from us. Its girth was as thick as a mans' torso,
and tail at least a meter and a half long. Now, while this
may sound rather thrilling and exciting, I had been jumping
off the side of the larger boat earlier that day into the
water to cool off. We had been warned about crocodiles but
now the reality dawned and the lizards un-spoken warning of
the morning came back to me, "Look but don't touch."
another excursion to dry land we walked through a meadow,
of which there are about 3 in the Sundabans and I was surprised
to find that this one had a marked resemblance to the English
pastures of Constable or Gainsborough. It was a beautiful
morning, the sun had been up for a few hours and the shadows
were such that you might be forgiven for thinking that it
was early evening. The butterflies were out in force. If cities
lack one thing, it is butterflies. Like candle flames they
hypnotise but, fickle in their flight path they flutter-by
from one exquisite flower to another.
short, there was more wildlife than you can shake a mangrove
stick at in just a few days and this was infinitely more exciting
than seeing a tiger. We also swam in the sea. I have always
liked the sea. There is something rather humbling about the
sheer mass of water and, in this instance, the thought that
if we were do head due south from Kotka beach there would
be no other land mass until the South Pole. The two could
not be more different and yet here they were, connected by
water. I waded as far as I dared away from the shore and even
after two kilometers or so, the water remained waist high
but the pull of the current was strong and I was reminded
once again of the omnipotence of the world around us. Back
on the sand, this world was microscoped as the receding water
had left patterns of hills, valleys, dunes, deserts and mountains
beneath which all manner of creatures resided.
is something very satisfyingly rebellious about wallowing
in mud, it goes against all natural instincts of cleanliness.
But the next morning, six weeks of Dhaka grime and filth was
washed away as we bathed on one of the shores and emerged
from the ground covered in mud, statues of our former selves.
It raises a smile to think that in London, at least, an extortionate
amount of money would have to change hands for the privilege
of a mud wrap, but from the squeaky clean way I felt afterwards
I can understand why.
the early evening I sat on the roof of the boat watching the
sun dip lower and lower into the forest and waiting for the
peppering of stars to develop. What made the Sundabans so
special, to me at least, was the sheer absence of other people.
Apart from the odd fishing boat and forest ranger, and of
course my co-passengers, there was no one in sight. No rickshaw
bells, no CNG horns, no merciless black taxis, no abject poverty
and no material wealth. Just pure, unadulterated nature in
perfection and something I certainly didn't expect from Bangladesh.
Sundabans, of course, extend westward into India but while
India has more of a tourist infrastructure than Bangladesh,
the tour companies there set an example to be avoided. They
operate their trips based in the stigma and neurotic fear
of tigers. The district is divided into an area for the tourists
and an area strictly reserved for wildlife. The former area
is, therefore, about as un-wildlife-y as you can get, being
inundated with tiger tourists and the like. The wildlife area
is off limits to everyone bar the authorities and due to the
relative absence of a controlled monitoring of these wild
areas there is a danger that they have been raped and pillaged
for all their worth. Indeed some say that they have been.
The fear is that the Bangladeshi tourist authorities will
take a leaf out of India's book and similarly divide the Sundabans.
serenity of the Sundabans is under threat. Its very remoteness
and beauty is of course attractive for tourists both national
and international. But tourism in its infancy is a dangerous
thing. Take the coral haven of St Martins Island as a case
in point. In the last couple of years fifteen or so hotels
have sprung up. But with no environmental assessment the islands'
own Eco-system is beginning to suffer. With the rise in pollution
and general traffic, human or vehicular, the coral is becoming
irreparably damaged and the turtle population is rapidly declining.
If unchecked, this could happen in the Sundabans.
get me wrong, I am all in favour of tourism if it is economically
beneficial, but while something today may seem lucrative,
if not established properly, it will become unsustainable
and the long term problems will far out weigh the short term
Sundabans are so far removed from civilisation and there in
lies their attraction. The problem is that there are far too
many boats available for hire from one of the major ports.
Passengers and ship crew alike, more often than not, have
little or no knowledge of or respect for the area. In the
run up to the new year there can be as many as ten boats moored
near Kotka, all blazing lights, blaring music, and creating
general unrest in the forest and water. There is no control
over who can and can't moor and as Rubaiyat said, "it's
a little hopeless."
Guide Tours operate a highly conservationist business. Electricity
generators are on for just 2 hours in the evening to avoid
disturbing the tranquility of the forests besides which, you
cant beat candle light for atmosphere. All rubbish is kept
on board save organic waste, they bring all the food from
Khulna or Mongla and very delicious it is too. They also have
their own projects in and around the Sundabans and are currently
monitoring dolphin activity. But then The Guide Tours know
what they are doing and above all they really care.
the boat's journey to the Bay I fancied that we were going
further and further into Bangladesh's own Heart of Darkness.
I could not have been more wrong. Conrad calls London, "a
sepulchre of gloom," and, "a monstrous city".
I remember thinking something similar about Dhaka when I first
arrived and assumed that Dhaka would be representative of
the whole country. But the Sundarbans couldn't further from
a sepulchre of gloom if they tried. They positively glow with
fresh light and life but if things continue they way they
are, their story can only end in one way, "The horror,
The Guide Tours
(R) thedailystar.net 2004