Sunderbans literally means beautiful forest and oh boy! what a beauty it was! Sunderbans is a declared UNESCO world heritage site, it being the largest coastal mangrove forest in the world, 40% of which falls in India and the rest in adjoining Bangladesh. The marshy delta is formed because the world’s largest rivers, Ganga & Brahmaputra along with Hooghly, Padma & Meghna rivers drain into the Bay of Bengal. The tidal saline ecosystem is home to hundreds of species of plants, birds & animals all of whom have adapted to the harsh natural conditions here. Mangrove plants grow aerial & support roots to enable them to breathe & grow in the daily tidal grind. The narrow water channels through the mangrove forests makes it a serene and picturesque natural beauty.
Home to more than 85 species animals and 270 species of birds, we were able to spot 35 birds and few animals on a recent trip to Sunderbans. For me, the discovery of the trip was that all animals, including tigers, monkeys, deers etc. know how to swim across water canals and channels as it is the only way they find food distributed across large swathes of the mangrove islands. The most common birds were the Drongos, Minivets and Kingfishers and we are able to spot 6 types of kingfishers – Collared, Common, Black Capped, Brown headed, Pied & White Throated. The area was also dotted with some majestic birds of Prey like Osprey, Crested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Shikra, Brahminy Kite and the rare Peregrine Falcons. There were many water birds like Egrets, Cormorant, Eurasian Curlew, Common Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Whimbrels, Black headed gulls, lesser Adjutant, Striated Heron, etc. that feed on the small crabs, insects and fishes by the banks. We were also able to see many spotted deers, River Otters etc. We saw many Estuarian crocodiles lazing on the banks and very shy of human presence for the moment we used to go anywhere near 30 ft of them, they would slink into the water! The sighting of the trip for me was the Red-tailed Bamboo Pit Viper; it looks quite small harmless, but is one of the most venomous snakes in India.
The tiger, sadly, remained elusive!
How to reach there: Nearest airport is in Kolkatta, 2.5 hrs drive to Gadkali which is the ferry point to Sunderbans
Where to stay: Many decent options to stay the night exists in Sunderbans Villages. Sunderbans residency is a good option
What to do : Boat safari with a good government guide.
Tiger spotting in Ranthambore National Park, India
Yes, I have very bad tiger karma. Had. Not anymore. With innumerable safaris (I stopped counting after 40) under the belt, beating heat waves and sunstrokes and surviving the disappointment safari after safari, I had the odd-ball luck called the bad tiger karma. No tiger had decided that it was worth its while to give me a fleeting chance to witness the royal highness. Of late, I had become the butt end of jokes of my hardcore tiger enthusiast friends. Then everyone around, tiger enthusiast or not, started digging on my bad tiger karma. To be fair, all that didn’t start with jokes. In the beginning, there was sympathy and encouragement. ‘Oh, it was the wrong season, I guess!’ or ‘I think the tigers are all poached, no wonder you didn’t see anything.’ or ‘ The forest is dense, it is hard to see a tiger. Better luck next time!‘ Then it moved to incredulous disappointment. ‘What? 5 Safaris and you still did not see a Tiger even in Tadoba? EVERYONE sees a tiger there, on EVERY safari!’ or ‘What? Not even in Ranthambore? My mother’s neighbour’s uncle saw a tiger last week in Corbett, IN CORBETT!’. Then it moved to the wretched jokes phase. ‘Oh, you are going to Bandipur! The tigers are going to hide. Poor others going on safari this weekend.’ Or sample this: ‘Are you releasing some special tiger pheromones that makes them run and hide?’ Then 40 safaris and more later (I mentioned I stopped counting) when the jokes had dried out and there was no more to be created, was the phase of social shunning, rather safari shunning. ‘We can’t go with you. We wan’t to see a tiger.’ Do you know of anyone who has been as unfortunate as me?
But haha! I think my wildcat jinx was broken with my sighting of the snow leopard last year! Yes, no tiger, but I saw a snow leopard on day 1 of our trek. Read more here: Sighting the Grey Ghost. Armed with confidence that my karma was undone by the generous snow leopard that had decided to grace me with his presence, I was steeled myself to chance it with another 4 safaris in the sweltering summer heat this year. I was a last minute pile-on to my friend’s plan for trip to Ranthambore (I had self invited myself; I also mentioned that my friends had stopped planning any wildlife trips with me). This friend had gifted me a tiger picture he had clicked and insisted that I hang it on my travel wall (adorned only with MY travel pictures) only to serve as a cruel reminder of my befallen fate. Aside his cruelty, he had an excellent track record of tiger sighting and had worked as a volunteer in the park. He knew the best areas, had the right connections etc. So my hopes were high with the promise of the forbidden sight. I had the nervous energy, perhaps bordering on negative outlook of the outcome to keep me from being disappointed yet again, but somewhere deep down I knew that this trip would be fruitful. It would be the end of the cruelty unleashed on me. This was going to be THE trip.
DAY 1: A moving orange patch. Morning safari in Zone 3
My friends and I boarded the late night train to arrive in Sawai Madhopur in wee hours of the morning. After a quick snooze, we were off on the jeeps to Zone no.3 inhabited by a Tigress named Arrowhead. Just in 5 mins after entering the gate, I spotted a Tiger! There was a large lake next to the entrance and our guide was scanning the edges of the lake with a pair of binoculars. The tigress was soaking its body in the cool waters of the lake to beat the heat. Slowly it emerged and started walking along the edge. The tiger was almost 100 mrs away so I couldn’t see it clearly with naked eyes. But heck! My bad luck had just come to an end. I had seen a tiger, albeit at a distance! I hi-fived my friend, jumping in excitement of seeing what was a moving patch of orange. The tiger slowly started walking and the guide made a snap decision to abandon this post and drive back to the gate to catch the tiger possibly crossing the road. But that was it. The tiger never came out from the dense vegetation along the lake side. We spent next 3 hours going up and down 100 mtrs on the road. But no luck!
DAY 1: Hide and seek in a cove. Noon safari in Zone 6
The safari post lunch was an adventure in itself. We had an enthusiastic guide who strangely promised us to show tigers. As if the tigers were at his beck and call, his royal pets. But he did make good on his promise. After being convinced that there was a tiger hiding in a shallow ravine below the cliff we were on, we waited and waited for a clear view and finally managed to sight a little male tiger cub of Tigress Ladli which stepped out from the cove to drink some water.
DAY 2: Best sighting of my life. Morning safari in Zone 4
This was the best safari of two days! This sighting had made good for all the 40+ trips I had done in my life. We got an exclusive sighting of tigress Krishna and her 3 almost adult cubs for almost an hour. We had taken a blind left turn in dense part of the jungle and braked hard to come to a stop a few feet away from the tigress crossing the road. It was a beautiful sight, perfect morning soft light was hitting the tiger’s fur and made it glow. Further commotion ensued in the jeep and I turned left to look at what a fellow occupant of the jeep had spotted. There were 3 cubs strolling on the left and were coming to cross the road. They followed the mother across the road and all 4 of them sat on a patch for a few mins for us enjoy their company. One cub got up and started playing and cuddling with the mother. Awww! A few mins later, they got up and went deeper into the jungle. Our guide took the jeep all the way around the hill to catch the tiger family crossing the road to go down a small ravine next to a stream. All of them immersed themselves in the water for almost 30 mins by which time all the jeeps and canters in the zone had heard about the sighting and had made their way to the spot to create a ruckus. The tigers got up and went deeper into the ravine.
Day 2: A dash and a backside dazzle. Evening safari in Zone 3
The whole afternoon was dull and unremarkable but for a few birds. There were no signs, no sambar calls. Our guide decided to stakeout at a spot on the road where he thought the tiger would cross. There was just 30 mins left for the safari to end. So our hopes of making it a 100% success rate on this trip was getting crushed by the minute. Suddenly a jeep was zipping past us and the other driver hurriedly relayed to us that a tiger had been spotted by another jeep deep inside jungle. Then ensued a high speed dash to the spot, flying through the jungle. Following the pug marks, our guide took a few minutes to find the tigress Arrowhead walking inside the jungle. He took the jeep on the other side to catch the tigress walking on the road ahead of us. She wasn’t even bothered to turn around and look at us. We only saw the backside of the tigress and had to reluctantly give up the chase after a few mins as our time had run out and we had to report back to gate.
A fruitful trip and the irony of it all! We boarded the night train to get back to corporate stoogedom on Monday morning and I happily announced the end of my bad tiger karma to anyone who lent me an ear.
As I reflected back on our weekend adventure, an irony dawned upon me. I had seen tigress Arrowhead two times on this safari, once as a moving orange patch at a distance and its dirty backside on the second time. I had never seen its face! The irony is that the picture of tigress that my friend had given me to hang on my travel wall was that of Arrowhead! Life is indeed cruel.
How to get to Ranthambore national park:
Easiest option is to board an overnight train from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur.
Where to stay:
Anuraga palace was a decent and affordable option. Rooms were luxurious and the service was excellent.
When to go:
Hotter it is, better are the chance to see a tiger around the watering holes. Otherwise the park is open from Oct – Jun.
How to Book: We came across an excellent wildlife guide Nagendra Rajawat who also does wildlife trips and packages to Ranthambore. Connect with him on http://www.indiantourandtravel.net
Pangot is one of the best places to do birding and is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The place has almost 250 species of birds, both resident and the migratory birds that come here. The best season for bird watching is from Nov-Mar.
How to get there: Pangot is about 15-20kms from Nainital.
A trek of a lifetime to spot the Snow Leopard in Rumbak valley, Ladakh
It is the most elusive cat to spot, the snow leopard or the grey ghost or the ghost of the mountains or as the locals call it, the Shan. This very elusivity drew us to undertake an adventure of a lifetime, braving harsh terrains and sub-zero temperatures, to trek all the way upto the Rumbak valley in Hemis National Park in Ladakh in search of the snow leopard. With 30 tiger safaris under my belt without having spotted a single tiger till date, the trek was an attempt to spot the rarest of the wild cats and break my wildcat jinx. And boy! Did my jinx break and how!
There is a reason the snow leopards are called the grey ghosts. Snow leopards live in an extremely difficult terrain, walking along cliffs and slopes and living in sub-zero temperatures in high altitudes upto 6000m. They usually feed on blue sheep for Bharals and in those high altitudes, they need to be agile and have impeccable camouflage and that makes it really hard to spot these cats.
Without any serious trekking experience under any of our belts, my group of friends and I set out to do undertake this moderate to hard 10 day trek in the bone-chilling cold winters of Ladakh. The Rumbak Valley is the mecca for snow leopard spotting. Every winter, the severe cold drives the Blue Sheep, the staple diet of the snow leopards, to lower altitudes in search of vegetation to feed on. This in turn draws the Snow Leopards down the high mountains, enabling the visitors to spot these elusive creatures at lower altitudes. Between Jan to March, scores of nature lovers descend upon Rumbak Valley to get a chance to spot these elusive creatures. We also arrived in Leh this March in search of this Grey Ghost.
After a 2 day acclimatisation at Leh, we drove to Zinchen, the last point of the motorable road to Rumbak. After that is a 5-6 hour hike to Rumbak Valley passing by the Husing campsite. The hike passes by frozen streams and picturesque mountains and loads of Blue sheep could be spotted on the way.
Upon arrival at the valley, we had a packed lunch and we were welcomed with spotting on a scope set up to track the Lynx. The Lynx is even more rare creature to spot than the snow Leopard in these parts of the world. I was hopeful that with this spotting, my wildcat jinx was broken and was eager to spot the snow leopard.
We progressed to our homestay in Rumbak Village. As the night approached, the temperatures dropped to -15 to -20C. Our only saviour was the Bukhari or the Ladakhi room heaters which burn wood to keep the room warm. After a difficult first few hours contemplating if I had mountain sickness with the body ache and headache, I passed out into a restful sleep.
The bright next day brought hope and we made our way slowly to the spotting point after an hour’s trek. The whole morning passed uneventfully with the no signs of any movement of the wildcats except the spotting of the blue sheep by the dozens! We struggled to keep our hands and toes warm in the severe cold. We were about to give up but with setting sun, we were rewarded with the spotting of out lifetime! A male snow leopard walked on the ridge of a mountain a km away for almost 30 mins! It was a young male and it’s mating call reverberated through the mountains! It was an experience covering sight, sound and motion!
Now that we had seen what we had come looking for, the next 4 days were spent trekking to different directions from the village in the hope of spotting more wild animals. Though we didn’t see any more snow leopards, we saw much more fauna of Ladakh. On one day, we trekked west from the village and saw a Red Fox at quite a distance, basking itself in the sun. On the way back, we saw a dead red fox, which was being fed by the Black-billed Magpies. The remains of this red fox were the object of the fight between a Lammergeier and the Magpies which kept us enthralled all afternoon. One another day we trekked up to Yurutse Village, a one household village on the Markha Valley trek route, for an up-close encounter with the Lynx. We ended up sighting many other animals like a Yak,Wooly hare etc and some of us had some fun skidding down the frozen river on their bums. We also spent time birding and capturing many birds of prey like the Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier etc. After 5 days at Rumbak, we trekked back to Zinchen and drove to Ulley where we were rewarded with spotting of Himalayan Wolf & the Ibex. With so much that we saw, I couldn’t have asked for more, especially since my wildcat jinx was now finally broken!
How to get there & where to stay:
Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zinchen from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village. Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or in one of the many government regulated homestays in the Rumbak village.
The Rumbak Valley in the Hemis National Park in Ladakh is known for the elusive Snow Leopard spotting. Besides the snow leopard, which of course we were fortunate enough to spot, the area is dotted with many other animal species. Even more elusive to spot is the Lynx, which we could sight only through a scope as the distances were large and our 600mm as rendered completely useless! Even the Red Fox and the Himalayan Wolf could be seen through a scope. Most common amongst the animals is the Blue Sheep or Bharal which is the snow leopard’s staple diet. From the same family, one can also spot the Ibex,Argali and the Urial. Smaller animals like the Wooly Hare and the Pika can also be spotted aplenty.
It is a matter of great chance, persistence, fortitude and patience that goes into spotting an elusive tiger. Numbered around 3000 in India, each tiger occupies an area it calls home, often spanning more than 40 sq kms. No wonder, the rarity & the dispersion across a wide area, makes a tiger sighting extremely difficult. Of course, the sheer power & the majestic yet ferocious presence that the tiger exudes coupled with the fear it inspires, makes it an exciting thrill to pursue while inducing a greed to increase the chance encounters.