So we did it, we actually bloody did it! What an unbelievable trip, its rather hard to put it all in perspective, but of all the smiles, all the waves, all the looks of jaw-dropping amazement about why on earth 20 of us would put ourselves through this, one image of Bangladesh rises above the rest.
After 10 gut-busting, quad-smashing, pot-hole-chasing days of pulling and pushing a rickety rickshaw across Bangladesh we were invited to tour Sunderbans, the mangrove rainforest covering south Bangladesh and home to the Royal Bengal tiger. As a zoologist and lover of all things ‘nature’, I was buzzing with excitement about the smorgasbord of wildlife on offer, and of course the possibility of spotting the elusive cat we put ourselves through this torment for. Realistically, I knew our chances were low but glimmer of hope remained.
We exited the boat and quickly entered a weird world where the thick mud floor is covered with short, stoat upward pointed roots of the Mangrove tree (the mud is so think the roots must protrude out of the ground in order to gain enough oxygen to survive) creating a toe-stubbing mine-field below us. Fortunately, there was a small boardwalk a foot above the forest floor, to ease the load. I decided to hang back a bit from the group, hoping to spot some of the wildlife scared off by the peloton ahead. But, it seemed that most of the birds had decided to be hear but not seen and only the crabs and the ants on the sticky floor were unstirred by our presence.
The group ahead of me had stopped. The sound of closing shutters was deafening. I raced to catch up determined not miss it, but their cameras were pointing down. Down to the floor below. As I scrambled to peer over the edge I saw the mars-like floor below apparently empty of anything to warrant such interest.
And then I saw it. The perfectly formed four-toed print of the royal bengal tiger, branded in the mud by the midday sun, and not just one, but four or five in a row, definitive proof that this animal remains in the wild.
I have rarely been hit with a feeling of such awe and delight, it really moved me. I was staring at the exact spot where one of the rarest, most elusive and feared creature on the planet had stood, not 6 hours before. Suddenly, all those miles, all that pushing, all the sweat and blood (and maybe some tears), seemed worthwhile. Right there, below me was what all the people that made this possible worked so hard for. It made me very proud the be a part of this epic journey.
Realistically, this is probably the closest I will ever get to seeing a tiger in the wild but it was enough for me to be a fitting end to one of the craziest, hardest, and most awesome adventures I have ever had. I will cherish the memory of those five lonely blotches on ground for the rest of my life, even if it was just a few paw prints in the dirt.