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Sunday, November 17, 2002
Travel

Bowled over by beautiful beaches at Bhitarkanika
Richa Bansal

This group of islands in coastal Orissa has not been invaded by tourists as yet.
This group of islands in coastal Orissa has not been invaded by tourists as yet.

PRISTINE isolated beaches. Exotic birds. Tens of thousands of giant turtles. Fearsome crocodiles. Narrow creeks that meander past deltaic islands. Wildlife. And not a soul around. You guessed it! This canít be Goa or Kerala. We are talking of a group of islands in unfrequented coastal Orissa with some of the most fabulous beaches in the country. And they still havenít been invaded by tourists!

If you are looking for a place off the beaten track for your next holiday, Bhitarkanika could well be your destination. For sea, sand and adventure. Yes, adventure. Because the Bhitarkanika group of islands in northeastern Orissa offers not just great beaches but exciting trekking trails through forests teeming with wildlife and some thrilling boat rides.

And the islands being in Orissa, you could package your holiday with visits to the stateís famous ancient temples at the great heritage centres of Puri, Bhubaneswar and Konarak. (They are always worth a second visit if you have done them before.)

The Bhitarkanika islands can be reached from Bhadrak on the Calcutta-Madras railway line that also passes through Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. A night train from Calcuttaís Howrah station will reach Bhadrak (297 km) at dawn. (Alternatively, you could take a train in the opposite direction from Bhubaneswar).

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Basic travel information

Getting there: By train from Howrah (Calcutta) to Bhadrak (297 km), from Bhubaneswar to Bhadrak (154 km) are from Bhadrak take a jeep for Chandbali (42 km) Closest airport: Bhubaneswar

Best season: October-March

Tour operator: Silent Valley (Wilderness) Camp, 14/1 Karaya Rd., Calcutta 700017; Tel: 2802893; Fax: 2801620 E-mail: silent@vsnl.net

Accommodation: Inexpensive forest rest houses at Dangamal, Ekkakula, and Hawalighati.

Food: Carry your own provisions from Chandbali. Cooks are available at forest rest houses.

From Bhadrak head for Chandbali (42 km) by jeep. It is at Chandbali that the adventure really begins; itís where you get your first feel of water. Amotorboat will take you from Chandbali to the island of Dangamal which has a Forest Rest House with basic amenities. You need to book your rooms here beforehand and while it is possible to do the entire trip on your own, booking rooms and railway tickets well in advance, it is perhaps advisable, if you want to have a trouble-free holiday, to leave it all to the Calcutta-based travel agency Silent Valley (Wilderness) Camp. The agency specialises in exotic travel destinations, takes out group tours to Bhitarkanika at frequent intervals from Calcutta and takes care of transportation, lodging and food besides sightseeing and guides.

The boat ride to the Forest House at Dangamal is enchanting in itself. The motorboat chugs down the Baitarini river towards its confluence with the Brahmini river, then swings into a creek where the waters are calm but full of crocodiles, some 20 ft in length. They lie motionless on the banks, basking in the sun. The creek is flanked by an unbroken line of islands on both sides, their trees teeming with a wide variety of birds.

The birds which come in all colours and sizes keep flying across the creek; one great sighting is the black-capped kingfisher perched up on a lone tree, its vibrant colours are highlighted by the overcast sky. Various other varieties of kingfishers, cattle egrets, herons, sandpipers, plovers, white ibis, fork-tailed drongos, river swallows and black robins, to name but a few, are some of the other birds found here.

The Forest Rest House at Dangamal island, where you can put up for the night, has tall coconut trees around it and is close to a large marsh at the edge of the jungle. There is no electricity; solar panels provide uncertain power in the evenings. There is no telephone, either, with Forest Department wireless being the only source of emergency contact with the outside world. But then, this is what you had come here for: to experience true wilderness, away from the cares of civilisation.

After lunch at the Rest House, visitors can explore the nearby forest and spot wild boars, hyenas, water monitors and deer. Sorry, there are probably no tigers here. But the sheer variety of birds, from rose-ringed parakeets to hoopoe and white-bellied sea eagles, makes up for it. Close by is a crocodile sanctuary. At night, experienced guides can take you out on an exciting safari in the forest. You may opt to cruise down the river in a quiet boat on a moonlit night, listening to the eerie nocturnal sounds of the forest. It is sheer bliss!

A 45-minute boat-ride from Dangamal brings you to Bird Island, a trip you can make on your second day. There is some adventure in store for you at the island for you will have to cross a narrow swaying bamboo bridge to get to a watch tower. Once on the tower, though, the view is magnificent with thousands of migratory birds ó open-billed storks, pelicans, cormorants, snake birds ó perched on treetops. Bird Island is perhaps the most picturesque of the four islands in the Bhitarkanika group.

Bhitarkanika island itself lies across the river, opposite Dangamal, and it is where you can spend your second morning (leaving Bird Island for the afternoon). Treks through the forest here are usually rewarded by wildlife spotting. Colourful butterflies flutter about, small pools emerge out of the wilderness, and at the end of the trail is a ruined temple.

On day three you should head for Ekkakula. Four hours away from Dangamal by motorboat, it is a delightful place. This island is away from the estuary, and on the Bay of Bengal. The brilliant blue sea and the quiet beach gives one the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. This is unspoilt natural beauty. A sense of isolation and complete peace are the two dominating feelings here.

The beach at Ekkakula is lone and level, stretching far into the horizon. You can just loose yourself here. But be a little watchful, for there are some wild animals around. You will spot pugmarks of wild boars and hyenas on the sand. It is easy to make out the marks because the sand is barely trampled upon. Jackals and crabs are also common here. Early in the mornings or around five in the evenings, dolphins can be spotted in the sea.

In the evening, walk down the beach towards the estuary where the sunset is breathtaking. Silent Valley (Wilderness) Camp usually arranges a bonfire after dark. Accommodation at Ekkakula is as basic as at Dangamal. Next morning, take an hourís walk along the beach (or alternatively, ride the motorboat) to reach Habalighati. Thereís a forest rest house here too, and a beach as wonderful as Ekkakula.

The beach, also known as Garhimata, is famous as the nesting ground of Olive Ridley turtles. They are an endangered species, and wildlife conservationists have of late mounted special efforts to save from poachers the hundreds of thousands of turtles that land here every winter to lay eggs. The turtles, ancient creatures of the deep seas, have been homing in on remote Garhimata every nesting season (January-March) for perhaps thousands of years; it was only a few decades ago that the nesting ground was discovered by conservationists.

It is an awesome spectacle: the hundreds of thousands of turtles huddled on the beach, burrowing in the sand to lay eggs. If you can make it to Garhimata then, you will experience, as one tourist put it, "one of natureís great miracles."

And even if you canít, a holiday at the Bhitarkanika islands will always be remembered as a minor miracle of sorts given what they have on offer: vast isolated beaches, forests, wildlife, virtually uninhabited islands. Itís a combination hard to match.

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