The wiper blades of the Swift were trying as hard as they could but slowly lost to the driving rains that hit us square off south-west. The sky rumbled away as the thunderous clouds showed the iridescent glow in streaks through the clouds which were deep and dark. The speedometer was quivering at fifty kilometres an hour as the Swift cleaved her way through the squall hugging the slight curves of the NH16, the fifteen hundred kilometres national highway that connected Kolkata to Chennai. We were moving away from the concrete jungle of the cities to taste the nature’s profound beauty and danger which proved to be inseparable.
We were on our way to a smaller version of Sunderbans in the Indian state of Orissa, called Bhitarkanika.
The drive was wet and we were unable to cover ground at speeds as at places, the concrete road was quite smooth with a layer of water, prone to a skid. Added to it, the ever unruly local traffic poured over the road from nowhere with no sense of safety. The route was almost straight till Bhadrak from Calcutta and then made a slight left curve where the Paradeep->Chandikhole road met NH 16.
The odometer showed we had covered two hundred and eighty kilometres.
The National Highway system in India is a well-built network and NH16 was no exception. No doubts the roads are comparable to anywhere in the world in terms of its road surface and text-based boards with markings. Only if a driver is in a terrible state of trance, the distances and directions will be missed.
From Chandikhole, our love for the road started to diminish and the road started to turn into a test track for the car. Gaping holes and craters were plenty and the speed dropped to about ten to fifteen kilometres an hour. The hatch not being an SUV, the ground clearance was limited and that was a major concern. Slush and medium-sized rainwater filled ponds and stones speckled the uneven track.
We drove steadily at a curtailed pace. The scenery that was around us was colourful and astonishing; grey clouds rolled on top, multiple shades of green enveloped the light pinkish unmetalled road with puddles of water adapting a brown colour of the bleak sky and the greenery around. However, the tar was present in few sections of the road and the car hugged them with love and we made progress.
The Brahmani river was quite wide and it has meandered several times on its way to the Bay of Bengal and we reached it at Raj Nagar. Crossed a bridge and entered the wildlife of Bhitarkanika. The air scented rancid and a touch of salt could be felt. Typically, the seasides or the banks of a river and their adjoining areas wear a smell of fish, fishing nets as there’s no dearth of breeze. We stopped briefly at a checkpoint with a smattering of forest officials who enquired about our intent. I smiled and quipped, “To know you and your water filled land”.
They smiled and released the crossbar which used an old technology of a stone acting as the balancing weight which when released by a rope lifted the boom upwards. Our car had entered the wildlife area.
The excitement was palpable beyond words. The river on our left was calm and flowed with stoic determination nourishing all it touched.
The place we had decided to stay for two nights came up to our right. The location was quite extraordinary. A metaled decorated wrought iron sat at the entrance, a narrow drive in went into the compound which had trees over it. A corrugated shaded reception area greeted us with a large opening for guests to have dinner. We would be staying at the Estuarine Village Resort.
The odometer had clocked four hundred and six kilometres from Kolkata.
Disembarking from the car, we saw the first touch of non-human living beings, numerous holes stood over the muddy ground with their soldiers around them, the tiny red crabs. A slight movement and they vanished through the holes.
The place was relatively big. Concrete pathways took us to our living quarters. We were looking forward to our home which keyed us up as they would be tents made of canvas, tarpaulin and tightly pegged to the ground to prevent us from getting surprised to see the star-studded sky in the middle of the night.
The tents only had a plinth about a foot thick from the ground, the structure was of a canvas. Two large camp cots well furnished placed with a fan at one corner. A partitioned section at the back made the washroom within the tent itself handy. We found the contraption not luxurious, nevertheless comfortable. A small table on the far end had mineral water ready for use, blissfully they were cold and without a second’s delay, we dived on the bed to stretch.
It was well past evening when we had reached.
Once the sun was down not much we could do with the darkness of the night. There were dim lights on the roads, powered by a solar battery and were hopelessly inadequate to dispel the darkness. The Brahmani river was not far away and its large inhabitants were known to be curious. We were told to head back to the tents and keep away from loitering outside once we had finished our dinner. We were the adventurous kind and were taught a lesson, an hour after we were informed.
The dinner was nothing that one can expect from a five-star hotel, in these areas; however, was basic and scrumptious with a lingering taste.
A travel seemed to be incomplete without the food getting described.
As we were all travel-fatigued, sleep was foremost on the menu but not without a spot of gut numbing experience which will stay in our memory for years. There were paddy fields encircling the resort complex and among many visitors, rats were rampant to forge on the produce. As we were making our way to our tent, out of instinct perhaps, we had our mobile phone up front with the torchlight on.
About a metre away, the rat was half consumed, a cobra or a rat snake, difficult to recognize, quite thick with the dark surface reflecting the torchlight was all bunched up with its belly creating an arc was slowly coiling. Other than the mild sound of a movement, nothing was discernible. We looked on frozen, tiptoed backwards slowly as the path ahead was unequivocally belonged to the serpent. The official who was behind us looked at it, turned away with no effect at all, it was perhaps a daily sight for him. He also did not have any torch as he hurried away.
Nature reminded us with a light nudge of our presence in a wild territory. Gulping a glass of water, we lifted ourselves on to the cot and drifted away in the deeper levels of the murky night.
The morning was overcast with a faint yellow sun peeping through the tree branches. The sun played hide and seek between the layered formation of cumulonimbus clouds. Spectacular scenery was a feast for the eyes.
The Brahmani river looked even wider as we walked up to it. Dark smudges of clay and mud smeared the river bank.
The official asked us to stay on the road and not to venture out near the river as inquisitive crocodiles have a habit of exploring the banks for a quick an easy meal. We would have been light starters for them.
It would be unfortunate to lose life well before the exploration had started.
We stayed in the car and savored the nature’s continuous painting. At one spot, we saw the roaming crocs, got out and with utmost care we scoured the river for any of these marauding sleek killers, we settled with the lens capturing these priceless moments.
The bank of the river was broken and was being continuously eaten away by the river. The carpeted grass and mud laced the edge and were quite difficult to walk as we slipped and our shoes glued too, making us dance with our arms lifted in space. We still ventured out for a closer look.
We knew that if any of these water dwellers showed the slightest bit of an interest in us, we would have no chances at all. Nature is mysterious, it brings the fear in you and at the same time, gives doles of desire to see the unknown.
We got back to the car after our initial first sighting of a crocodile. Our next stop was the checkpoint called “Khola” which we had crossed, late afternoon, the day before.
The resort had reserved for us a seven-hour boat ride which would be taking a small group comprising of ten to twelve people through the waterways of Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary. More people meant the boat should be big, sturdy and would withstand the lashes of a croc if they got interested. After all, everyone wants to know visitors closely, why would they be an exception.
We turned the car and headed for the boat excursion with a feeling of overflowing expectation.
Please stay tuned and join us as we navigated the creeks …
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