Avast expanse of muddy water, fringed by a green corridor of trees, is the first sight that greets me at Gupti when I begin my journey to discover the many mysteries of the Bhitarkanika National Park. Barely has the boat left the jetty when I hear a shout from the boatman. I turn around to see him gesturing towards the bank. A trifle unnerved, I look towards what appears to be a log of wood. A few seconds later, when the ‘log’ slithers into the water, I realise that it is actually a crocodile — perhaps this is his way of welcoming us to his abode!
With such a quick wildlife sighting, my excitement leaps four fold. “Keep your ears and eyes open,” the forest official had advised me before I boarded the boat, and I realise I had taken his words lightly. Now, not wanting to miss out anything, I leave the boat’s interiors and choose to sit in the open, near the hull. It’s quite breezy and despite the midday sun, it feels a bit chilly.
I take in the scenery around — the distant banks, a few thatched huts here and there, some cattle grazing nearby, people working in the fields, and the unending stretch of water before me. The low, wet mud banks are glistening and it is on these very banks that crocodiles bask. And giving them company are various kinds of wetland birds: storks, egrets and cormorants.
We are headed for Ekakula, close to the mouth of River Maipura where it meets the sea (Bay of Bengal). It is a 3-hr long journey by motorboat, best made during high tide, so that it is convenient to disembark at the makeshift jetty. The vegetation on the banks changes as one moves further away from the entry point at Gupti. Mangrove forests replace grassy banks, and one can easily spot the watermarks on their trunks and gauge the heights the water reaches during high tide. Scanning the forests with binoculars, I spot a bloated carcass of a cow and a few dead turtles, washed ashore. There are fewer birds in these parts, which are closer to the sea, and there seem to be fewer crocodiles as well.
The smell of fish fry lures me inside, and I find the boatman cooking on a kerosene stove. Soon, lunch is served — a very delicious meal of rice, dal and fish curry. And the taste is enhanced by the surroundings: a solitary motorboat, far away from civilisation, and only water all around. It’s late afternoon when we arrive at Ekakula. The lone watchman receives us and offers to carry our luggage as we walk precariously on the narrow, makeshift jetty.
Ekakula is a narrow strip of landmass with a river on one side and the sea on the other. We can hear the roar of the waves from the jetty, and wasting no time, we head for the beach. White, foamy waves, blue water and golden sand, all shimmering in the sun, meet the eye. There is not a soul on the beach; mangrove forests stretch along the beach while tall casuarinas stand as sentinels. Bare branches and driftwood indicate that many of them have suffered terribly during cyclonic storms. After watching a brilliant sunset and a long walk along the coastline, we return to the Forest Rest House.
By then, it’s already dark and the jungle sounds have become predominant. Over tea, our guide informs us that there are many wild animals such as boar, hyena, porcupine, spotted deer and jackal here, and they often roam around the beach. The star-lit sky, the crashing of waves and the sounds from the forests create a magical feeling and we soak in the tranquility. After an early dinner, we are off to bed. But sleep does not come easily in this unusual place. We can hear the couple of dogs, kept by the watchman, bark furiously intermittently throughout the night.
We leave Ekakula at dawn, because of the tide. It’s dark and cold outside, and our guide leads us to the jetty with a flashlight. We get into the boat and the drone of the engine interrupts the silence all around us. Soon, we are away from the shore and the gentle swaying of the boat makes me sleepy. But daybreak and sunrise on the river cruise is something I don’t want to miss out on. Some hot tea is welcome and our boatman is obliging.
Reaching Gupti three hours later, we have a quick wash, followed by breakfast. Again, we head for the boat to begin our exploration of another part of Bhitarkanika — the creeks and forests. Our route takes us through dense forest, and the greenery overwhelms us. Here, even the water has a green hue, and the reflection of the trees on the still water adds more depth to the river. We see more crocodiles, monitors, otters, a variety of birds, and several herds of deer.
The Bhitarkanika Forest Block, which has a 31/2-km long nature trail, takes a little more than an hour to cover. It’s a lovely walk among deep forests, meadows, lotus ponds, ruins of a king’s hunting tower and dilapidated temples. We spot monkeys, mongoose, deer, boar and some monitors. Our guide keeps us entertained with tales about the ancestors of the present royal family, who incidentally, took a keen interest in protecting these forests.
Post lunch, we take a cruise on the creeks and also visit the heronry at Bagagahan. This patch of forest is the habitat of both resident and migratory birds. A small trail leads to a watchtower that provides a fantastic view of the forests, and from there, the trees seem to be literally covered with birds. While moving along the creeks, we spot several kinds of kingfishers with truly amazing colours. Also noticeable are the wild fruits, especially the one called water mangoes, which seem to be a favourite with monkeys. Our river cruise ends with the sunset and we drop anchor at Dangmal for the night.
Dangmal is quite vibrant with life. Tourists, Forest Department staff and construction workers at the jetty make the place seem rather crowded. However, being located within the forest, it still feels like being in the wild. The sight of herds of spotted deer grazing around fearlessly is quite fascinating.
We spend the next morning exploring Dangmal, the interpretation centre and the estuarine crocodile-rearing centre. After an early lunch, we take to the boat and begin our journey back home. The memories of this experience, the days spent among scenic creeks, pretty birds and menacing crocodiles, are sure to remain with me for long.
About Bhitarkanika National Park
Located on the east coast of Orissa in Kendrapara District, the 672 sq km area (declared as a National Park in 1975) is in the deltas of Brahmani and Baitarani rivers. While the core area of 145 sq km was declared as the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary in 1998, the coastal part was designated as the Gahirmatha Marine (Wildlife) Sanctuary in 1997. Bhitarkanika was also declared as a Ramsar site (as a wetland of international importance) in 2002. Besides, there is a proposal to designate the entire National Park area as a biosphere reserve.
The river systems of the sanctuary are the habitats of saltwater crocodiles, the largest among all species of living crocodiles. In fact, it was to protect this species, and the mangrove forests, that the sanctuary was formed. As many as 63 species of mangroves are found here, and it was their presence that spared villages in and around Bhitarkanika the fury of many of Orissa’s dreaded cyclones. Many rare and medicinal plants have also been identified here. The mangrove wetlands are home to as many as 190 species of birds, and the heronry here is said to be one of the largest in the country. Two species of dolphins, Irrawaddy and bottlenose dolphins, are seen here. The Gahirmatha Coast in the same district has the distinction of being one of the world’s largest rookeries for the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles.
A noteworthy contribution of the erstwhile royal family of Kanika was the protection of mangrove forests here, and the ruins in the Bhitarkanika Forest Block indicate that it was a recreational spot for them. The name Bhitarkanika itself means the interiors of the Kanika Raj (bhitar is translated as ‘inside’). As the Kanika Kingdom was located close to the Dhamara Port of yore, it was an important trade route.
The planned biosphere reserve is today battling pressures of human population — about nine lakh people live in the 900 villages and hamlets around the reserve (about 400 of these villages are in the sanctuary area itself). Besides, prawn farms around the creeks release effluents into the river systems, thereby adversely affecting the growth of mangroves and aquatic animals. The huge number of livestock is also putting pressure on the mangroves. Today, attempts are being made to create awareness among the people about the problems and to provide them with alternative livelihood options such as eco-tourism.
Location: On the east coast of Orissa, in Kendrapara District, in the estuary of Brahmani, Baitarani, Dhamara and Mahanadi river systems
Distances: Rajnagar is 130 km NE of Bhubaneswar, 100 km NE of Cuttack Route from Bhubaneswar to Chandbali NH5 to Bhadrak via Cuttack, Jagatpur and Chandikhol; state highway to Chandbali via Khakihat
Route from Bhubaneswar to Rajnagar NH5 to Chandikhol via Cuttack and Jagatpur; NH5A to Kendrapara; district road to Rajnagar via Pattamundai Route from Kolkata to Chandbali NH6 to Kharagpur via Panskura, NH60 to Baleshwar via Jaleshwar; NH5 to Bhadrak; state highway to Chandbali via Khakihat
When to go: Summers are hot and sultry and monsoons slushy. The period between Nov and Feb is best for visits. One can also travel during Oct, unless there is bad weather due to depression induced rains or cyclones
Go there for; Crocodiles, sea turtles, mangrove forests
About the Author
Sarojini Nayak is an independent journalist, writer, columnist based in Bhubaneswar. Her interests span a wide range of areas, including art, culture, environment, development and women.