We have been following River Hooghly on land along with her twisting course on her way to her final fate, meeting the Bay of Bengal. She has splashed the banks of countless lands and washed the myriad souls of a civilization. She is a reservoir of life, replete with diverse culture, nourishing the living beings inexorably without any expectation. She has touched the historic Diamond Harbor, Haldia, and away she goes another 81 odd kilometres, skirts the Sagar Island on the right and blasts into the sea.
Having been to Diamond Harbor, an inner cry was resonating to see the beauty and nature’s ever-changing mood of painting colors whenever a river met a sea. We gear up again, and with a loving look towards our ever trusted travel companion, Swift, we start our seaward journey by land. Bakkhali is about 121 Kilometres away from where we stay and shares the same NH117 highway which we had taken to visit Diamond Harbor(DH). Most of it was known to us, the only difference is the extra 80 Kilometres, down south that connected (DH) with Bakkhali.
My interest lay in the last leg where I heard that motorists have to take the car across a small creek or a canal. Guess what… using a large mechanized boat. After a 3-hour drive through the greenery of 24 Parganas, we finally reached around noon, the Namkhana jetty where we queue up behind a series of cars to cross, the river Hatania-Doania.
Hatania-Doania is one of many rivers that connects the mainland with the sea. The river is extensively used by the fishing boats and as such, Namkhana, the town has become primarily a fishing harbor.
All we could see were tons of fishing boats, stacked up with big blue plastic tanks and fishing nets. A brisk movement prevailed as fishermen, tourists and officials all wanted to compete to reach Bakkhali. The air was redolent with fish smell.
The final moment came and I was so excited to drive our Swift on to the boat. I parked the car on the boat with bumper-to-bumper vehicles and we were extremely lucky to get a chance after a wait of only 10 mins. The motorist on my right glared at me with furrowed eyebrows as he had waited a full one and a half hours.
The barge only operates when there’s a load of fifteen to twenty cars along with small to medium-sized trucks to maximize its economic ride over the canal. We were the fifteenth car and helped the barge driver to finish his quota.
It was indeed a novel experience.
The boat will come back after an hour for the next load of vehicles, so we felt overtly joyous to have made it. Our hope of a good ride with the car came to an abrupt end as the passage through the river was very short-lived and barely after an eight minutes ride, the boat’s front end touched the other bank for the cars to drive away.
The beach town of Bakkhali has grown around big ponds and roads ran parallel to many small to medium reservoirs. Most of them were being used for fish culture and due to proximity to the sea, the humidity level was quite high and quite often we had to wipe our face to look sane.
The color green was the preferred choice of nature here as the cultivation of paddy could be seen everywhere. Various shades of green across a wide array of trees and plants were prevalent.
All our travel trips are always unplanned, so we picked up hotels or lodges on the go and so far have been lucky to get a room for the night or two. We dumped our luggage, caught some refreshments, and started our exploration of the place.
Not far away was the sprawling campus of the West Bengal government’s Bakkhali lodge. Well laid out cemented pathways with green-topped, off-white cottages lay for the tourists to select.
We moved on to the local market that bordered the beach resort. Encircling the lodge boundary, long stretches of bamboo roofed small shops had sprung selling shell products.
Conks, necklaces, human figures, earrings, all made of shells were on display. Bags adorned with small shells of the colorful pattern were on sale.
We asked the local people for directions for a place called, Henry’s Island. As the fable goes, a European surveyor visited this place years ago, and ever since then a major effort has been pumped towards the prolific growth of pisciculture or fish farming.
We climbed a watchtower, with the fellow visitors and had a commanding view of the entire area around. As far as our eyes could scan, small to big, man-made lakes were present and each being used for fish harvesting.
The officials have also created at places sitting areas with a cover for the tired tourists to rest and explore this unique place that was about less than a kilometre from the sea.
We were getting impatient. The air was laden with salt. The afternoon sun threw long shadows and that meant if we could overtake the sun reaching the west, a good view of the beach is in store.
Our Swift had taken as far as she could and after parking her, we set a foot trail.
The road took us through a dense growth of mangrove and other countless variety, not known to me. They engulfed the entire pathway. It made an interesting view of dried as well as the wet clayey muddy surface. We found poodles of water where mud-skippers and small red crabs where jumping around.
Through the flowing branches, we walked on until we were presented with an opening and we saw the sea.
Perhaps the umpteenth number of times I have seen the sea; however every time I have seen one after a while, sheer excitement filled me and it happened again.
The Henry Island beach looked hard and flat. A car or a motorcycle can be driven over it. Unlike the yellowish color, we had seen in Puri, Odissa, or blackish gray in Digha, West Bengal, where the sand was white. Traces of brown and yellow sands could be seen in patches. These patches were hiding the dry sandy mounds of tiny holes. These holes are the refuge of small red crabs; they can be seen in millions across the beach.
A long line of mangrove forests went all the way to the horizon on our left. In a few places, the casuarina trees were also present.
We sat on the sandy beach, at first listening to the gentle sea waves. The cold water of the sea lost speed as it ran on the sand and touched our outstretched feet. The cold water was so soothing and we just could not resist the temptation to hit the water and got fully wet after a while. I kept thinking about the sea water that was touching me. These waters may have been waded through by lethal sea creatures, like sharks, whales; the waters may have bumped against countless ocean liners that may have passed through them from far away countries. The water had multiple sources, formed from the rivers and creeks across the country, got naturally treated by sand and creatures. Same water was on me and I was submerged till my waist. I felt like I have seen the entire world. Had on me the watery touch of everything on the planet. We felt like staying there for hours on end.
The sun was in the western sky by now and had dipped. The sea started to look menacing, with the bluish water turning deep gray with the fading light; however, the sand under the setting light of the sun was exquisite.
The night was approaching and we were tired too. We had one more day at Bakkhali. Having soaked the splendor of the area, we wanted to have a head start, very early, the next day; so drove back to the hotel. On our way back, I wanted to drive over the sandy beach but hesitated as the front wheels spun in two places and the sand layers were quite thick. I did not really want to get stranded with the car on a beach at night which was fast losing visitors.
We parked on the road edge and went for a round of hot tea. The tea tasted very different; perhaps a few drops of seawater had flown in making the tea, both saline and sweet.
While traveling, we keep the dinner light and as we were visiting the sea, sea fish was the preferred choice and the dinner comprised of white rice, prawns, a couple of fried pomfrets, cooked under low heat, with a smattering of finely chopped onions, ginger, and chilies. I added a dollop of tomato sauce. It was very tasty.
With one swig of the remaining orange juice, we retired for the night.
The next day, we set off early and made our way to the beach to check how the rising sun painter had thrown its brush strokes around the sea. We drove to the beach from one end to the other to catch all the glimpses of the beach and what we were presented by nature was a marvelous collection of light and shade.
As we were turning back after a healthy seawater wash, a unique machine caught our attention. We saw a Hovercraft of the Indian Coast Guard. The machine was parked on the edge of the beach, ready to start its patrol. It can travel at the same speed, both over land and water using an air cushion column created by its giant fans that lift the machine over the surface.
We spent about an hour ambling across until the machine started and disappeared over the waves in a burst of spray and mist.
We started to the nearest town called Frasergunj. Our main objective was to chance upon a boat ride from the fishing harbor, if possible to visit a place called Jambu Dwip, “Dwip” meaning an island in the Bengali language, my honey-sweet mother tongue. The local roads around the town were very well maintained, and our Swift made no qualms on a few stretches of unevenness. The place looked quite technologically advanced too as huge windmills could be seen at intervals; created to harness the constant sea breeze to generate electricity.
The road winded its way around the water bodies that were huge in number and after covering 5 kilometres, we reached the Fishing harbor at Bakkhali. The mixed smell of fresh and rotten fish had smothered our olfactory system.
We parked near one of the colorful trucks that waited for its fish load. Good roads were replaced by muddy and jagged ones, broken off by the heavy pounding of the truck tires.
We make our way to the cemented jetty where fishing boats were being offloaded of its midday catch. Hard-faced, dark-skinned labor force with varied loads of ice boxes, baskets full of fresh fish was scurrying across the quay. It was a different world for a resident of a modern-day city. We were panting with the little effort we did of climbing, walking under the sun. These men day in and out carried loads under the relentless sun with ease.
We were walking on the dockside, when one of the fishing boats was dumping, a pile of fish, several of them were still jumping around. I had never seen such a big cache of fish, right out of a boat.
I looked on transfixed.
Baskets, hard plastic crates of wide-ranging dimensions were everywhere and all contained pounds and pounds of fresh fish.
Interestingly, the smell was nonexistent may be because of being fresh.
We were glued to the fish world and looked on, and only when a long “toot” broke our stupor, we realized that a big steamer had berthed. yes, the one we were waiting for to visit the far away “Jambudwip”. The boat which we were looking at and was supposed to take us looked right out of a history book. probably, forty years old, with hardly any maintenance. The boat was already listed on its port side by 10 degrees. It came back from one trip and about a hundred or more passengers were disembarking.
We waited for our turn. I was skeptical of the seaworthiness of the vessel we saw.
With a prayer to the all mighty, we boarded the rickety floating mechanical device that looked like a steamer. She turned on her port side, a full 180 degrees, and headed out to the sea. I scanned the boat for some life-saving devices and found a torn tire, probably ten or more years old, so securely tied to the boat that if this goes down, the tire will go down too.
About 30 mins on, the boat had reached the “mohona” or the point where the creek met the sea, mouth of a river. Both, the sea and the river looked placid and only one movement of the boat surging through the water could be felt.
Seagulls in large numbers were flying around us. Few of them were diving around the wake of the boat if they could pick some jumping fish.
The Bay of Bengal looked extremely calm and we overtook a lone fishing boat which eventually caught up with us at the Jumbudwip where we circled twice.
We had kept our eyes peeled for any sea creatures that may suddenly leap out of the sea. The boat’s front end slashed through the calm waters and soon enough, the Jambudwip loomed in the distance. When you are at sea, and all you hear the slap of seawater on the boat hull, and a constant hiss of the salt-laden wind that hits square off the face, the beating sun, the nature for a moment feels harsh, it also puts you in a meditative state. You seem to be completely alienated from the present world where you belong. I felt exactly the same and trust me, it was like meeting the creator.
The rhythmic beat of the engine, at the rear, was only one human connection that kept me awake as I looked on at the straight line all around us.
Nothing exceptional happened..we visited an island, crafted by nature and we turned back. Even then, the delight inside was palpable..everyone was happy. The pure bliss of nature. We, humans, take so much pain to come near to nature; but by Joves, this pain is far relishing than the nagging one we feel, when walking into a meeting room in a corporate plush surrounding and talking the same management claptrap which slowly saps us within.
With full confidence, the age-old boat reached us back to the fishing harbor from where we had started. It was almost after 1 pm in the afternoon and we saw a few fishing boats neatly parked, and all the morning activities had subsided.
The daily business deal had finished, the fishes were on their last leg, on their way to the cities and towns.
A memorable sea tour for us. We saw firsthand the fishing community and their daily toil for which we can eat daily, the deliciously cooked, and neatly served lip-smacking fish cuisines.
We drove through the sedate countryside and reached Hatania-Doania ferry covering the 23 Kilometres of excellent road, climbed the barge and touched the mainland that took us back to Kolkata.
After crossing, we waited till the last of the fading rays of the setting sun could be seen reflecting off the creek water.
Filled with real “fishy” memories, we settled fast, secured the seat belt and hit the NH117 Northbound highway.
Namkhana faded away into a dot as I looked at the rear-view mirror.