I’d never heard of the Sunderbans, Bengali for “beautiful jungle” and yet that’s exactly where I found myself in the exalted presence of two professors, a senior human geographer and a PhD student from Queens University Belfast (http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/gap/). That I got there at all is a small miracle as our driver was possessed by that unfortunate gene which made him a compulsive over taker on roads which mostly didn’t allow for this maneuver. Sitting on the centre rear seat gave me uninterrupted views of the oncoming traffic and I was certain in the knowledge that without seatbelt I would be propelled, like a torpedo, onto the lorry or bus which we were absolutely bound to hit head on. Fortunately the front brakes overheated and he had to slow down but regrettably he stopped the vehicle and poured a bottle of water over the white-hot pads and we took off again with renewed vigour. It took 5 hours from Kolkata to our port of departure and I lost 4 lives in that time leaving the remaining 4 for the return journey. I live now on borrowed time.
Little is known of the Sunderbans and it was my privilege to assist Professors Julian Orford and Keith Bennett, Dr Satish Kumar and Rory Flood of Queen’s University Belfast, GAP, in the use of sediment core samplers which Van Walt had supplied to extract sediment profiles from a selection of habited and uninhabited islands. Study of these cores to establish the history and reason behind the existence and development of these islands and mangrove delta falls to PhD student Rory Flood (http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/gap/) “Recent sedimentation processes, patterns and chronology of the west Bengal Sundarbans”.
The Sunderbans are beautiful and sometimes desolate: low lying and covered with Sundari trees from which the name of the region may have been derived. The habited islands have been somewhat protected by embankments made by the people whereas the uninhabited islands are open to the elements and populated by the famous man-eating Bengali tigers at least five of which are reported to be hunted and killed yearly and sold for medicinal purposes to misguided people. They are also infested with snakes but mercifully the nearest we got was to a Cobra skin but there is evidence of these creatures all around and it is prudent for the traveler to check carefully before sitting down or moving branches.
At night we anchored mid stream to be safe from the tigers and the heat and humidity led me to chose to sleep on deck under a mosquito net and this afforded me a wonderful night sky and amazing sunrises in the humid sultry air.
In the four days we sampled mainly with the Stitz corer and retrieved 18 samples; six each from an inhabited and two uninhabited islands in each case to approximately 6 metres depth. The samples were captured in a liner and are currently on their way back to Belfast for in depth research.
The contrast between the quietness and remoteness of the Sunderbans and the noise, smell and bustle of Kolkata was huge yet it was good to be able to luxuriate in the facilities of the Taj Bengal Hotel after the basic existence on the boats.
This was a unique, amazing and exciting experience and my thanks go foremost to Professor Julian Orford for having given me the opportunity of joining them on this venture. Also many thanks to Professor Keith Bennett, Dr Satish Kumar (for borrowing my camera and taking prize winning photographs), Rory Flood and of course to our host Somenath Bhattacharyya, Senior Scientist with the Institute of Environmental Studies and Wetland Management, Kolkata.
Yes, it was hard, challenging, hot, humid, mosquito infested work but I enjoyed every moment of it and can’t wait to go back.
Vincent van Walt
More photographs: http://rdubois.zenfolio.com/p1041019119