by Neelu Agarwal
It isn’t very simple for most Indian girls. It isn’t like we pack our bags and head to where our heart says to go. Between notifying some and seeking permission from others, my trip got finalised. Most of the arrangements were being made by someone else to whom I had given full reign to decide, because as far as I was concerned I was simply happy to be going. But little did I know at that time that it would be a revelation of sorts and a sheer joy to visit what I understood to be Bhitarkanika, the land of crocodiles.
Our little trip was comprised of more than one destination. It took some time to wind things down in Puri, the beach-temple destination in Orissa, but by the evening we were on our way to Bhitarkanika. Our commute took about four hours of moving cautiously through the difficult terrain during the last leg of the journey. We reached Chandabali from where it was going to be a boat ride into the Sanctuary Park. It had been nothing to write home about all this while, but what lay ahead of me jolted me completely.
The darkness of the night and the troublesome roads were worrisome, and at first it was a relief to get out of the car, but then the destination itself proved to be a scary proposition. Our ferry in the moonless night looked sinister. And when we thought about the fact that we had entered the terrain of ferocious crocodiles, the scene in front of me seemed straight out of the famous Anaconda movies. The lone lantern lighting the boat and the stillness of the water around us felt menacing. At first, most of us laughed to ward off our fear.
And then none of us spoke. Did we fear waking the reptiles? I do not quite know for I had become too numb to think coherently. Do not mistake me; I am not one of those who succumbs to fear very easily. But when it came to the prospect of being eaten by crocodiles, my mind became my own worst enemy. I kept repeating to myself that the creek was full of salt water crocodiles and I kept replaying the visuals of the Anaconda movie. In retrospect, and with objectivity, I can say that the boat ride was actually peaceful and serene.
Finally, we arrived on land, where another jeep waited for us to take us to our accommodation-- Swiss tents. Excitement coursed through me, for we were indeed inside a forest! I couldn't wait for morning when we would be able to explore more of it. My tent was much better than I expected. Equipped with all the modern amenities, it felt like a five star accommodation. And the extra layers of mosquito netting, kept us from thinking about the unknown varieties of hungry insects in the wild.
It was a bright, misty morning. A strange noise arose from inside our tent compound. For a moment I could not make sense of it, but when I, with the other guests, walked towards it, we were delighted to see a flight of ducks being herded from one tent to the other by our hosts, and the loud quacking cacophony served as an alarm sound for tourists to wake up. What a delightful idea! All of us gathered to take a good look at our surroundings. It was nature at its very best, lush green vegetation, clean effervescent air, the slight chill in the air and the promise of wild life which we were yet to experience.
It was again by boat that we reached the salt water crocodile project at Dangmal. We were told that Bhitarkanika is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The success of the first phase of the project was evident; over 1500 crocodiles had been reared and left in the wild. The endemic mangrove forests that enveloped the region helped to sustain the endangered crocs and other wild life like water monitor lizards and Olive Ridley sea turtles that migrate to Gahirmatha, another adjacent marine wild life sanctuary.
And then we embarked on a croc-spotting adventure. The guide took us to all the probable spots where we could spot them basking in the sun. They posed there, listlessly and lifelessly, but, perhaps not surprisingly, any slight stir or movement on their part was enough for us to sit up and say our prayers. It was safe, of course, to view them from a distance, but there was always a "but” lingering in the air. Meanwhile, the guide prompted us to take our binoculars out for we would soon be in an area where some very elusive birds could be seen.
Birding involved watching out for eight different varieties of kingfishers that could be found in the area. And while the guide kept pointing out where they were-- sometimes exasperated that we weren’t quick enough– I nodded mutely and joined the game, although at first I really wasn't interested. It was only the crocs that intrigued and terrified me. Time passed and the horizon was painted with reds and oranges and every fathomable shade in between. The atmosphere made me thoughtful and I began to realize how much more there was to the world than the little window I usually view it from.
We returned to our fashionable tents where a bonfire awaited us during dinner. And as we ate some of the limited cuisine options, my mind kept drifting back to my urban habitat, where none of the pristine beauty of the wild touches me. I was grateful to experience this unique ecosystem, where the crocs rule. Their mute but towering presence clearly indicates that Bhitarkanika belongs to them. We rode back towards home in silence and in awe, having experienced the magnificent creatures whose presence asserts their power, and we were grateful for their magnanimity in allowing us to experience their land.