Happy new year, my dear followers and my fellow bloggers!
We writers are fierce, brave and bold. We believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. Nothing deters us from exercising our freedom of expression. With Bangladeshi bloggers being killed, the Charlie Hebdo incident and Indian writers returning their awards, 2015 has been a tough year for the writer community. Nevertheless, we shall continue doing what we do the best: Writing. Let us promise to inspire people through our painstakingly handwritten texts. Let us bring out the brighter side of humanity. Let us spread happiness and awareness.
I have been reading your blogs religiously and I must say that everyone of you had something good to offer to the big World Wide Web. Well, here’s my share: my second travel journal.
Animals have always been associated with religion. Nature has inspired different faiths. Hence, my parents believed that there couldn’t be a better time than Durga Puja to visit Odisha’s very own biodiversity hotspot: Bhitarkanika. (thanks to my class mass bunk actually :p)
Bhitarkanika is a national park located at Rajnagar in Kendrapada district. What makes it special from other parks are its mangrove forests, spread across the Brahmani-Baitarini estuarial region. It is the second largest mangrove forest of India, just after the Sundarbans. Housing the saltwater crocodile, water monitor lizard, deer, migratory birds, turtles, and dozens of aquatic species, amongst others, Bhitarkanika is a treat for all the wildlife lovers.
We started our journey at about 11.30 a.m. by road and reached at about 5.30 p.m. The long journey had tired us out. Sitting in the car the whole day with my cousin on my lap was fun, but exhausting as well. The countryside scenery was excellent. We crossed small ponds, gardens, paddy fields, rivers and saw the lovely sunset. After entering Rajkanika, we noticed fisheries on either side of the road, along with small huts surrounded by vegetation: the homes and the businesses of the local fishermen. We saw aerators in the pond to supply oxygen to the prawns.
Our resort had a striking resemblance to that of a village: each cottage had been made in such a way so as to blend with the forest. Our rooms had all the basic facilities, though. There was a small pond, paddy cultivation, a small orchard and a flower garden inside our resort. No T.V, no internet. Most of the networks wouldn’t receive any signal except BSNL, so be ready to spend a day without social networking sites.
The food tasted great, with sea food being obtained fresh. Most of the other food stuff, including packaged drinking water, is procured from outside, from a nearby village which is accessible only through boat. Every day, the staff resort toil hard and take dangers to ensure the perfect vacation for you. You can dine on big fish, crabs and prawns. Other veg and non veg delicacies are also available at special request.
The next day, we were up by 6 a.m. After taking bath and breakfast, we were ready to plunge into the wilderness. Our fellow tourists were mostly Bengalis, a few Odia people and two ladies from the Netherlands!
We hired a motor boat from Khola. The one room office was just next to the entry gate of Bhitarkanika, hence was being guarded. We had to give all our personal details which was necessary for the officials to initiate a search if we don’t come back (well that sounds terrifying :p)
We saw what we were craving for: the mangrove forests. During the morning time, the water from the Bay of Bengal had pushed itself into the rivers, hence resulting in a high tide. When we returned back, the excess of water had already resided back into the sea.
Our journey to see the crocodiles began. We had been warned not to dip our hands into the waters, as a hungry croc might be waiting inside to gobble you up. If your boat suddenly capsizes (not to worry as this usually never happens until and unless done on purpose), then you can see the heaven within minutes of touching the water surface. We had stretched our necks out in anticipation, to spot the oldest living reptiles on earth. I spotted a plastic water bottle as well. Trust the humans to dump plastic inside a national park!
And then, our motor boat suddenly stopped. As I was looking around in confusion, there it was! A saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus parosus) basking out! There was no turning back after that. We passed through various creeks and saw a lot of crocs: some big, some small. The scenery was pretty new, not of a regular kind. The mangrove forests are stretched across miles, with nothing but mud colored brackish water in between. The eerie silence of the vicinity can give you freaks, with occasional sounds of a bird or a croc diving underwater.
Our excitement reached at a whole new level when we spotted deer! There were lots of deer by the riverside. But they weren’t drinking water. Perhaps they knew about the presence and timing of the crocodiles hence were taking precaution and waiting for the right moment to quench their thirst. We also saw a water monitor lizard and a white crocodile.
The riverside was muddy. So we could see fresh foot and body prints of crocodiles and the monitors, sliding into the water, which indicated their recent presence.
We reached a stop called as the Heronry. Migratory birds from foreign countries come during winter to breed here. We took a short walk in the forest. We reached a high tower and climbed on it so see the unseen: thousands of herons perched atop the tree canopies. The canopies looked white, with the birds building their nests on them.
While getting down from our boat, we noticed some small strange looking fishes on land. They were feeding outside water! Later I came to know that they are called mudskippers a kind of amphibious fish which can live both on land as well as water. Some have been reported to climb onto the mangrove trees as well!
There was a board warning us to walk on the concrete path only, and not on bare land, as crocs might have sneaked into the small clearings present throughout the forest. Our walk was exhilarating, mostly mine as I spotted pneumatophores in large numbers, about which I had studied in Biology. They are also called as breathing roots and go deep into the soil before coming out of them and standing erect. Mangrove forests are present in brackish areas, which always have a lack of oxygen. Hence, to fulfil this need, the plants have devised this method of respiration. We also spotted tiny red crabs and eccentric looking insects on the mud.
Our next stop was at Dangamal. Here too, we had to take a walk in the forest. We saw large tracts of ponds filled with algal bloom, with cacti along the concrete paths. We spotted two more towers, which were in use by the King of Kanika, during the Zamindari period, for hunting purposes. After independence, the Zamindari system was abolished and the responsibility of the sanctuary fell on the shoulders of the Odisha Govt. The towers have been repaired for the benefit of the tourists. There are two small temples, dating back to the time during the reign of kingdoms, where the deities are still being worshipped by the villagers. Walking on the plain grass spread out on the clearings, just below the blue sky made our trip all more enchanting.
Our last stop was at the museum. Here, we saw fruit orchards and medicinal gardens being maintained by the forest officials. The collection of eggs, skin, embryos and skeletons of crocodiles, wild boar, deer, snake, turtles and other lizard species housed at the museum is fascinating. We saw the skeletons of 18-19 feet long crocodiles! Contrary to what I had seen in the zoo, I had thought that the length of the crocs must be about 10-12 feet at max, but this was shocking! Bhitarakanika has entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest crocodile spotted of length 23 feet! That’s scary. It gets more scary: according to the 2015 census, Bhitarkanika has 1665 crocodiles teeming underwater. Hence, it comes as no surprise that during rainy seasons these crocs often wander into paddy fields and drag unsuspecting farmers to death. Some temporarily reside in the village ponds, killing cattle and sometimes humans.
The singular attraction of this stop was:
The mangrove forest cover has increased, so has the number of crocodiles due to adequate protection towards the species, thanks to the tireless efforts of the State govt. towards the conservation of wildlife. The population estimation of the crocs takes place every January. The work being done towards the preservation of the biodiversity is remarkable, but the plight of the nearby villagers during rainy season is depressing as well. We educated people always preach to save wildlife but end up in killing the most indirectly. But the villagers are the true heroes who share their lives with these frightening creatures, without complain. They are dependent on fishing, agriculture and tourism to eke out a living. For this reason, the govt. needs to enhance their security so that it is possible to live harmoniously with nature.
Where: Rajnagar, Kendrapada, Odisha
How: By road: Route: Bhubaneswar-Cuttack-Nischintkoili-Kendrapada-Salepur-a lot of the countryside-Kendrapada town area-Rajnagar. Can travel by bus/take help of Odisha Tourism
When: Can go starting from the month of Oct, but preferably during Dec-Feb to see the highest number of crocodiles and birds
What not to pack: Any kind of plastic/polythene which needs to be disposed off. There is no proper waste disposal unit out there, and the rules are even stricter as it is a national park. Therefore the waste is either dumped into the ground/burnt. So try to avoid polythene.
Travelling time: About five and a half hours by road, have lots of petrol saved up
Road condition: Fairly stable, some countryside roads need urgent government attention
Food: Local dhabas spread erratically across the region during travelling and resort buffets during the stay.
P.S. Kendrapada is famous for its sweets and if you are visiting during DP, do make a point to enjoy the Gajalakshmi Puja 🙂
People: Since you are a visitor and you are travelling by car(which is a luxury for most of the Indian people), some villagers might stop your vehicle from time to time, asking money on the occasion of the puja. Otherwise, the forest guards, the guides, the boat drivers and the staff at your resort are great folks, who shall make you feel at home with their warm hospitality.
Accommodation: Panthanivas, owned by the Odisha Govt. or private organizations offering cottages and food at expensive (read reasonable) prices, owing to the location of the park. Booking should be done in advance before 3-6 months, due to high demand of wildlife tourism.
Total cost of the trip (including stay, food, car travel and boat ride for 6 people for 24 hours): Nearly Rs 15000/-
During the trip: Do’s and don’ts
• Keep sufficient amount of drinking water
• The water might call you out to take a little feel of it, but you dare not to
• Stay close to people, specially your boatman and your guide
• Do not litter the forest
• Do not walk on bare mud
• Do not touch the trees as snakes and insects are abundant in that region
So this winter, come home to wilderness. Come home to nature!
P.S. For best results, do watch the Australian movie Black water :p