It's scenery that is matched only by the Sunderbans, bright sunshine, crystal clear water and the strange silver black mangroves all around. Within 15 minutes you can be guaranteed to spot a crocodile half hidden in the long grasses at the edge of the bank, that does a casual flip and slides into the water as the boat goes past. It seems to ignore the boat but you have this gut feel that it has counted all the heads on board and weighed the dinner possibilities.
But obviously, despite the jaws all around, the best way to get to Bhitarkanika Sanctuary is through Gupti by boat. While you're trying to figure out where to stay, there's a very interesting sounding log cabin at Habalikathi, but that lies off the beaten track charted by the only Bhubaneswar travel agent who does the Bhitarkanika bookings, so what you may have to settle for is a cottage at Dangamal through the Sanctuary authorities.
At Khola you collect the entry pass and arrange with the Forest Officials for a boat which costs round Rs. 4,500--the OTDC boats are the best because they come equipped with lifejackets and almost silent motors.
The journey to Dangamal and the Bhitarkanika heartland takes around one and a half hours and you can rely on the boatmen to entertain or terrify you with their crocodile stories. According to them, gigantic crocodiles, 'ravana kumbhira', at least 16 ft long can be seen everywhere. Interestingly, the boatmen nowadays are interviewed by the Forest Department before being hired, so you can be certain that they know how to handle tourists and have the history and geography of the region at their fingertips.
Despite the crocodiles, the river banks are alive with people, children on their way back from school, chattering and waving at the tourists, boats laden with bales of something, ready for the markets of Kendrapara and Rajnagar, or a priest carrying flowers as he emerges from the sanctum sanctorum.
Dangmal is a typical forest bungalow with high ceilings and old teak beds veiled in white mosquito netting. The restaurant, as expected from a place so close to the river, serves up a wonderful prawn curry and rice.
You have to be careful about time at Bhitarkanika--visitors have to be out of the forest area by five in the afternoon, or risk being fined. This can prove difficult since the best time to hope to spy animals is round four when the shadows are creeping up round the base of the Raja of Kanika's hunting tower. Then, if your luck is in, you could spot a chital or a monitor lizard. And there's an ancient Shiva temple to explore.
At sunset you can sit by the jetty and listen to more crocodile stories if you feel inclined, though if you sit still for too long, you may come within range of a submerged crocodile, so when darkness falls, it's best to be sensible and head home. There is a Saltwater Crocodile Breeding Centre at Dangmal where eggs are brought during breeding season and hatched under controlled circumstances. Dangmal in fact is attempting to encourage greater eco consciousness through solar powered accommodations rather than electricity.
Not that darkness at Dangmal means an end to wild animal encounters--the open grassland near the cottages attracts grazing deer. The restaurant people usually know when sightings are possible and they advise people to delay dinner by an hour because that is the best time to see wild boar and chital, from as close as 10 metres away while the fireflies spark all around in the darkness.
Bhitarkanika has rich ecology blessed with sea, sands and greenery. In winter the river and trees are filled with as many as 5,000 migratory birds sweeping down from cold Himalayan regions. November is also when the endangered Olive Ridley turtles begin their mass nesting on Gahirmatha Beach. If you're a serious nature enthusiast--and the people who visit Bhitarkanika in winter are usually serious nature enthusiasts or researchers--you can skip the high ceilinged cottage environment and opt for tented accommodation under the stars on the beach. Tents on the beach are only possible in winter, wind speeds are too high during the rest of the year.
If you're not distracted by the crocodiles, you can catch sight of at least five of the eight species of kingfishers that nest there. Boats comb the waters for at least seven or eight hours allowing sightseers the best possible opportunities for bird and animal watching. You may even spot a rare brown winged kingfisher on a branch hanging out over the water, catching the sunlight in its bright pink bill and feet. There are also pods of Irrawaddy dolphins that pop up quite close to the boat and of course there are monkeys and water snakes.
Bhitarkanika's not the kind of place you can rush through--it requires time and patience because of the restricted visiting hours. Most people say that you should spend at least two or three days. Everything moves with the swell of the tides, the movement of the soil particles from the confluence of the river to the shore and the music of the birds.
Fact file Bhitarkanika can be approached by road from Rajnagar via Khola Check gate. It is about 30 km from Rajnagar by road. Dangmal can also be approached from Gupti by boat through Patsala river and then Bhitarkanika nala in that order. Gupti is about 25 km from Rajnagar and Dangmal is 1.15 hours by boat from Gupti. Travelling by boat helps you get more out of the experience. Stay Bhitarkanika has lovely cabins and cottages amongst the greenery. Or you can opt for solar-powered accommodations in Dangmal (for 34 persons), Gupti (six persons) and tented accommodation for eight on Ekakulanasi beach (only between November and February). Accommodations are available at Dangmal, Gupti, Ekakula, Habalikhati through the Wildlife Warden at Rajnagar; tel: (06729) 272 460; 094370 37370 Eat Special food requirements have to be conveyed in advance to the restaurant at Dangmal, Otherwise cooking is not allowed within Bhitarkanika's confines. However, Dangmal will give you an enjoyable taste of Orissa's famous seafood and subtly spiced dishes. Shop Orissa has a wealth of handlooms and is specially noted for its ikat and appliqu? work. You'll also find paintings on palm leaf scrolls called Patachitras and tribal silver jewellery. See Bhitarkanika Forest Block: Following the nature trail over a stretch of 4 km is a thrilling experience. Mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles between November and April on the Gahirmatha beach, in the area between the mouth of the Dhamara and Barunei confluence, is a must-see.
Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2011. LMIL. All rights reserved.
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