My Habalikhati Trip - a mishap at Bhitarkanika

by Payel Kundu on September 15, 2018

Not all plans are meant to work out. Not all trips turn out the way wished. Sometimes things work out for better and sometime it leads to some unknown disaster. But most of the time when your plans fail, you are left with disappointment, delight and confusion all at the same time. That is the summary of my seemingly well-planned Bhitarkanika trip. And here’s the full story…

Habalikhati Beach
Habalikhati Beach

 

Reaching Chandbali…

It was already evening when the train pulled into Bhadrak station. Sun had set and darkness was slowly gulping everything around. This was the part I was afraid of – finding a transport for next 50 km in the falling night. I got out of train and followed the other few passengers till outside. There was a small parking area with a few autos and cars parked. Cars were either empty or had their windows closed, meaning passengers were not welcome. So I went to the autos. After a bit of confusion about where to get Chandbali buses from, I decided to go with an auto driver till a bus stop 5 km away for 80 bucks.

Fifteen minutes later I was at the bus stop. There was a bus for Chandbali already waiting there, but the conductors were not allowing people to get in. I queued up outside with others and waited for my turn. I was allowed to go in after stating my destination. And even though the bus was already full by then, they made another passenger give up his seat for me. I found this very odd. Turns out it’s a common practice in that area to make passengers traveling shorter distance vacate seats for someone going longer. Quite unfair I must say. But worked out fine for me.

The bus started at 6:25 PM and moved ahead through the darkened streets. Most of the route went through narrow rough roads with darkness all around. Once in a while a market would come into view with their lights and then it would go back into the dark night again. The bus was constantly packed up even though people got in and out in almost every stop. And stops, there were many. After 2.5 hours of this ride (which makes average speed of 20 km per hour), bus dropped me at Chandbali. It was close to 9 and only a handful of shops were open. I checked for the hotel in map and walked ahead on the street towards this location. It was only 200 metres walk, but through a pitch dark street. I had to use my phone light to show me the way. I was only happy when I found the dim lights of OTDC Aranya Nivas shining through the darkness.

OTDC Chandbali
Dull corridors of OTDC

OTDC was quite as per expectation – clean but basic. The manager resembled a high school teacher who grumpily helped me with the check-in process. Room was clean and spacious, dinner was served to my room on request, and the hotel seem empty and quiet. So I had nothing to complain. After dinner I went to bed thinking to myself that the hardest part was over and all I needed to do was cross this river tomorrow to reach the island. I was so naïve.

 

Let’s go back a few months…

While planning for Bhitarkanika trip, I found very little information available on the internet. I wasn’t even sure where to stay, let alone reaching there. On usual hotel portals I found three hotels, two of which were out of my budget. I came to know from a friend that there were forest lodges available out there for use of tourists. This was a great news. I set about searching for same online and came across Odisha eco-tourism site (https://www.ecotourodisha.com/menubooking.php) for booking accommodation. It was an easy interface where you can select the national park from drop down and the location inside the park and it will show the list of rooms available. Under Bhitarkanika National Park three locations were listed – Dangamala, Gupti and Habalikhati. I searched on map for all three – I found Dangmala, I found Gupti and they seem reasonably close by. I couldn’t locate Habalikhati in map. But I found an article describing Habalikhati as the newest facility offered by eco-tourism. And I also noticed how it was a thousand bucks cheaper than the other two places. Fine, the later obviously contributed more towards my decision. I was sold. I thought to myself I could figure out how to reach there after reaching the island. And I made the booking, thus committing the biggest error of the trip.

Forest
Forest behind the OFDC lodge

 

That darn morning at Chandbali…

I decided to cut myself some slack and stay in bed a bit longer. All through my trip I had been getting up early and I was tired of that. And what did I have to wake up early for! It was just a ride down the river, couldn’t take too long.

When I finally woke, I went to order breakfast and casually enquired to the hotel staff about route to Bhitarkanika. He happily informed me that I could hire an OTDC boat for Rs. 4,600 for a day trip to Bhitarkanika. But I wasn’t planning a day trip and neither was I willing to hire a whole boat. After all my cheap public transports, that would be crazy! So I further enquired about the shared boat services that I have been so counting on. He looked at me with puzzled expression, and in next ten minutes of conversation the weight of my mistake finally settled in.

So here’s the thing I had learned from all my travel experiences. You always find transport to reach a place. It could be uncomfortable, it could be not so frequent, but you definitely find something. Now, Bhitarkanika made me unlearn it all. It seems there are places, even tourist places, where you couldn’t reach by public transport, no matter how long you wait. There were no such shared boat services and even if there was, no one was going to take me till Habalikhati. Turned out, Habalikhati was really really far. It was sitting on the other side of the island facing the sea. It took 7 hours in boat to reach the place from Chandbali and even then you don’t reach quite fully. You still need to walk another 2.5 km through forest. So I pat myself on back and congratulated on an excellent planning before starting to think on my next steps.

 

So what did I do…

Here’s what happened during the following one hour. I called the hotel at Habalikhati and re-confirmed my newly acquired information. I enquired for boat for two nights and got a shocking tariff of twelve thousand rupees. I considered leaving this mess behind and going off to Bhubaneshwar and chill. And finally I settled on screwing Habalikhati and staying back at OTDC itself. Maybe I would take the day trip after all.

Island
Island roads passing through empty lands

I went to the manager to check availability for next two days. Rooms were available, which meant to me the only money I truly wasted would be the two night’s charge for the forest lodge. This worked for me. But apparently not for the manager at OTDC. He looked truly disappointed. And after a bit of hesitation, he awkwardly suggested that there could be another route to reach Habalikhati. The way he said it felt like he was trying to sell drugs in a back alley and he wasn’t sure if I was a cop. So naturally I had questions.

So this is the way he suggested I could go. I should take an auto till a bus stop somewhere, from there take a bus till Pattamundai, then another bus to Raj Nagar, then a auto from Raj Nagar to Gupti where I can find another forest lodge who might be able to help me reach Habalikhati on a bike. Simple, right? All in all it would be around 70 km till Gupti and if I happen to get a ride from there then another 15 km on bike. This was as good a plan as I could manage at that time. And I thought, worse case I could stay at the Gupti forest lodge. Maybe they would make some adjustment based on my Habalikhati booking. So I quickly packed up my bag, checked out and started to venture into this journey. The manager and the hotel staff were outside, still looking awkward and hesitant. I looked at them with a “what now?” kind of expression. It seemed the hotel staff was willing to drop me in his bike till Gupti for a fare of 1,000 bucks. Despite the money I thought it was still a very kind offer. And it would save me a hell lot of time since the bike route was a shortcut till Gupti covering less than 30 km. So I agreed for it and waited for him to bring out his bike and start off this interesting day.

 

Riding down on the old moped…

The bike wasn’t quite a bike. It was more of a scooter or a moped. Probably it was a moped. And it was old, very very old. It was a miracle that it could still run. I fit my rucksack on the space between driver’s seat and the handle and settled down on the back. And the ride began. It was 10:30 am by then. We went through the town for a while and then through empty fields, and then we finally reached some kind of a highway. Road was better from there, but he told that it wasn’t very safe. I thought it looked safe enough. After some more time (one hour since we started) we reached a jetty on Brahmani River. It was called Jayanagar Jetty and people and bikes had queued up to board the next boat from there. We joined the queue and waited for the boat to arrive from other side.  

Jayanagar Jetty
Waiting to cross river at Jayanagar Jetty

Once the boat came, people started boarding in an orderly manner. It wasn’t very big in size. But they fit quite a lot of bikes on it along with 30-40 people. They charged 5 bucks per person and 20 bucks for bike to cross. It took about 15 minutes to cross the river and we were already on the island. We went on with our ride again, passed by some villages and more empty fields. He showed me a temple which looked like a smaller version of the famous Puri temple. He told about the people he knew in those villages and how it is safer to know people around while going to the island. He talked about his life and told me how he ended up working for OTDC. I was surprized to find how much of India he has travelled in his younger days. He had been to the far west, down south and so many places in north east. He talked about his marriage and his wife. And through all these topics we were getting closer to the destination.

 

At Gupti…

At 12:30 pm we reached another river, this was a narrower one. My guide showed me the boat which would take me to the other side, bid goodbye and started off for his return journey. It was a small boat with flat edge. I sat down somewhere in the middle and rode to the other side along with three other people. It took less than 5 minutes to cross and cost 3 bucks. Instructed by other passengers I went ahead on the road and took a right to reach the forest lodge at Gupti.

Gupti
Moving towards Gupti in a boat

It didn’t feel like forest at all in there. It was in the middle of houses and shops, just 5 minutes from the jetty. I went inside, found a souvenir shop and decided to talk to the guy at the shop about the next piece of journey. Apparently there were no connections between two jungle lodges and he couldn’t help me with any information. I called the Habalikhati manager again and he was kind enough to send a ride for me. So I waited.

 

My next ride and my wonderful guide…

I didn’t know much about the road ahead. But everything I had heard had only created confusion. It would seem there was no road at all. So how were we reaching there, I didn’t know. Someone told me it would be a ride on the beach. That sounded pretty crazy. But one thing was for sure this was not going to be a route frequented by many and we would probably drive through some lonely forest lands. So I needed a reliable rider – someone responsible and trustworthy. Good thing someone from forest department was coming to receive me.

As I was sitting and waiting at Gupti forest lodge, a small crowd formed just inside the boundary and it seemed their topic of discussion was me. They were talking in Odiya, so I wasn’t sure about this. In a bit a man approached me with a phone and handed it to me and I found the Habalikhati hotel manager (also a forest officer) on the other end. He asked me to come with someone called Lipu, who will help me reach the hotel - that didn’t sound very reassuring. After ending the call I looked around for this person and a boy approached. He was in his late teen or early twenties, looking the way every teenagers do. This didn’t fit my idea of responsible and trustworthy. But what else was I to do! So I went with him and we settled on the bike with my bag still on my back.

River Crossing
Tiny river on our bike route

The ride started out pretty normal. Riding on the uneven roads, passing by houses and shops. We stopped at a checkpoint, where two forest officers cautioned the boy on driving safely. They seem to know him well and I could even sense a hint of affection in their voice. I was starting to relax already. After ten minutes we reached a narrow river. A boat was standing at the bank which possibly was used too frequently at this part. We boarded along with other people and reached the other side. The road was narrow here, only two or three bikes could pass side by side. As we moved ahead it got narrower. There were no houses anymore. On both side of road the land sloped down and in the sides below there were tall plants (or short trees) and bushes blocking our view of beyond. At some places it was damp too possibly from a small stream of the river. There were birds sitting on the branches and leaves, most common was kingfisher.

During the journey I started talking to the boy, asking basic questions about the place and himself. He was excited to tell me about the place and slowly started telling about himself as well. He sounded so innocent that I thought he could be younger than he actually looked. He told me his father worked for the forest department and they lived in a village somewhere midway. He had worked in Kerala for a few years and then returned back home. It seemed a lot of people from the villages went to Kerala for work. He told me about the Abdul Kalam Island nearby where missiles are tested and unauthorized persons were not allowed.

Habalikhati
Shallow water, empty fields and a hint of sea beyond the horizon

Slowly the trees on the side of road cleared and it went through barren fields instead. The ground was still lower than the road and here and there shallow ponds were formed by the sides of road, possibly with rain water. And these ponds were full of birds, too many birds of too many types. There were cranes, herons, cormorants, darters and even storks. And probably a lot more that I couldn’t identify. Apart from these the lands stretched on both sides with no hint of life (except for grass). He told me there were villages in this area before, but after last cyclone they had to move away. At a distance on my right side I could see sands, either scattered on the ground or piled as a mound at places. He confirmed that the sea was just beyond it. So we were riding parallel to the beach, on a dirt road just wide enough for one bike, with winds blowing on my face, sun warming my head and thousands of birds flying about. At that moment I felt high on life.

 

Riding on beach is not that crazy…

At around 1:40 pm (35 minutes since we started) we entered a village. It was small village with probably 20-30 households. The huts lining the sides of road were mostly made of clay and bamboo. There were more trees here making the place relatively pleasant. We stopped in front of a house and two or three people came out to receive us. I was surprized by this gesture. I soon figured that It was the boy’s house and the people that came out included his parents and the forest officer himself (or the hotel manager). They asked me to come in, placed a chair for me to seat and gave me a drink made of honey which tasted pretty well. I was embarrassed by the hospitality that I felt I didn’t deserve. I was basically just barging in to their house due to my poor planning. But they didn’t see it that way. And I am grateful for it.

What I understood from their conversation was that the boy didn’t want to go the rest of the distance and wanted his father to take over. But the adults didn’t pay any heed to his wish and the poor thing had to take me till the end. After 5-10 minutes we started off again. But I had to walk up to the beach first. His sister showed me the way till the beach which went through pine trees and soft sands. He brought the bike through a different route and met me on the beach, just beside the sea where the sand was hard. And so we started to ride on the beach. It was totally crazy. At my left side the sands stretched for a bit ending at a thin pine forest, on my right the waves came crashing on the shore and retreating. At parts of the beach, roots of pine trees were sticking out which could have died and rotten some time ago or cut by people. He rode his bike through these places in a zigzag manner to avoid the roots. One time a group of crabs came out of the sea and started running towards the other end of beach in front of us. I hadn’t reached my destination yet and I was already having the best trip of my life.

Beach Drive
Sitting at the back of a bike and moving through the beach

After 15-20 minutes of this ride on beach I spotted a house in middle of the pine trees. It seemed to be absolutely middle of nowhere, with pine forest on both sides, sea on the front and God knows what laid behind. But this was my destination. The bike turned to go inside and I was at Habalikhati, sooner than I had expected.

 

Sometime the journey is better than the destination…

One major thing I look at while planning a trip is that the place shouldn’t be very crowded. So I go for less popular destinations where not many tourists come, maybe a little secluded from the cities and towns. Well, Habalikhati was definitely not popular and the least crowded place I have ever been to, on a trip or otherwise. The resort (if you can call it so) was surrounded by forest on three sides and the beach laid on the front. If you walk on the beach on either side you don’t see a village for miles and don’t even meet another person for that matter. There was road from the backside which led till the river jetty. The jetty was about 2.5 km away and while I didn’t make the whole journey I tried walking in that direction for a bit and all I found was forest and grasslands. Probably the nearest village would at least 5 km away in either side.

Beach
The secluded beach of Habalikhati

Let’s come to the rooms. The rooms or cottages were placed around the resort ground. They all look very old and worn out. There were two rooms with double bed and 3 or 4 rooms with four beds. Two bedded rooms were close to the kitchen area and did not have attached bathroom. The common bathrooms were at the other end of the premise. Inside the room there were two single beds placed with mattress, bedsheet, pillow and mosquito net. No blankets were given. At one end of the ground a few tents were placed, they looked dirty and not used for ages. I was told the workers building the new set of rooms occupy the same and hence are not being rented to tourists as of now. There were two people taking care of the place. They did everything starting from checking in, cooking, cleaning etc. The hotel manager or the forest officer came and went. He probably had other forest related responsibilities as well. Apart from these three people, only other soul visible in the vicinity were the workers. There were two or three of them working at that time. While the place was shabby, the people were wonderful. And soon I realized, the way they helped me reach the place, they don’t do that for anyone. It was a first time for them and probably last. I felt grateful and elated at the same time.

OFDC
Forest Lodge viewed from beach

I spent the next two days in there, roaming around the ground, sitting and listening to waves, exploring the forest behind, watching birds or butterflies (and occasionally passing dolphins) and eating tasty food. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was relaxing. And it was still adventurous. Even the knowledge of how secluded the place was made me thrilled. Nights were extra special. After 10 everyone would retire to bed and the silence would spread which was interrupted only by the rhythmic sound of waves and distant dogs barking. Once I tried to venture out at middle of night, but was soon discouraged by the dogs fighting in front of my room in the pitch-black night.

Sitting by the sea
My lonely hours by the beach

On Saturday night (second night) a few tourists showed up. I didn’t mind after two days of silence. On Sunday morning I found the number had increased and there were 10-15 of them in 3-4 groups. I observed them enjoying the beach that was just mine till the night before and pondered on how lonely so many places must be during weekdays. That was the last day for me and I was leaving as soon as I could. By then I felt comfortable with everyone there (all three of them I mean). The forest officer teased me about being stuck there because there were no bikes available. That worried me only for a few seconds. At around 9 o’clock in morning, I started my journey back – this time the forest officer himself drove me. I was going the same way I had come till Gupti and from there to Bhubaneswar via auto and bus. As we drove off on the beach I saw the last bit the house disappear behind the pine trees and I felt this place will remain as a special memory in my heart.

Boats
Boats basking in morning sun

If you wish to find more information on Bhitarkanika, check out my other blog Bhitarkanika Travel Guide .

 

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