The tour started on last Thursday as I left office in the early afternoon and hurried home to take my packed bag and then headed to the Howrah station. All the rest of our group of eight arrived at the station directly from their respective offices. The train, Yashwantpur Express, was at eight thirty five in the evening. I quickly had my dinner at the Comesum restaurant at the station complex while others got the chicken-rice(s) packed to be eaten on board. Watching my friends tearing open the food packets and eating their dinners was funny. The train tried its best to throw the food out of the plates with sudden jerks and jolts. My fiends brought out all their tricks to keep the plates steady!
Our group was scattered among three compartments. So was the fun of travelling together! Four of my friends huddled together to play the card game Twenty Nine. I was administered KT (Knowledge Transfer) on the rules of the game. But I doubt whether I learnt much! The game went on for some time before we climbed on our respective berths to sleep. As an occupant of the lower berth, I was to keep a watch on the bags and shoes tucked under the seats! We were to get down at four forty four next morning at Balugaon station in Orissa.
The train reached on time. We almost jumped out of the train (the train halts for less than couple of minutes!) to be welcomed by the brightly shining morning star (the planet Venus) on the eastern horizon. It was very cold out there. We came out of the station and hired two auto rickshaws. We were to go to the OTDC (Orissa Tourism Development Corporation) guesthouse (Panthanivas) at Barkul, seven kilometers from the station. After twenty-five minutes’ bumpy ride we reached there.
But what we saw at the guest house was not very pleasing. The person, who I guess was to give us the keys of the rooms, was apparently drunk and refused to get-up. The two attendants gave us confusing information. First they told us to wait for somebody to come. Then they said there was no available room. Only when the existing guests would vacate after eight (the check out time), they would be able to provide us the rooms. Disgusted, we demanded at least couple of rooms for then. It was cold and dark outside (they didn’t even switch-on the lights of the reception area where we were sitting!) After almost forty five minutes, they gave us two of the four rooms we booked. My friends dumped their bags and went to watch and capture the sunrise. I stayed back to catch up on some sleep. [Only later in the day we were provided with the four cottages we booked]
We had our breakfast with bread- omelets and puri-sabji around nine at the OTDC restaurant in the campus. Though we had a flabbergasting experience in the morning thanks to the cold welcome the OTDC personnel extended, rest of our stay was nice. The campus, which was just beside the Chilika, was very beautiful.
We hired a twenty-two seat boat (we could not get a smaller boat at the time we wanted), which would take us to two places on the Chilika – The Kali Jai temple and the Bird Sanctuary. We started off from the jetty expecting lot of fun on the way. As the boat sailed on (fuelled by LPG cylinders), we saw many smaller fishing boats, few sea gulls and small distant hills. Finally after one and half hours’ drive, we reached the much awaited bird sanctuary, which the forest department has fenced off with pillars. There came our biggest disappointment. Our boat just entered the forest department’s area and then the boatmen announced that we were not allowed to go any further. They showed us a piece of land with long half-submerged grasses more than a kilometer away. It was the bird sanctuary. We did not have binoculars. We could only see flock of unrecognizable birds flying around in and around that piece of land thanks to the cameras with 24X or so zoom. A big shock!
Our disappointment was lessened a bit as we spotted lot of dolphins around our boat a little ahead on our way. We stopped silent. Everyone was ready with the cameras to capture the marine mammals. But the dolphins were quick enough to dodge the shutters!
We moved on towards the Kali Jai temple. The temple was on an island. It was just like any other except the location of it. The surroundings were awfully dirty, though! A tablet attached to a pillar, narrates the history of the temple under the title ‘Flamingo Army’. The island where Kali Jai temple stands was owned by Raja of Parikud, a small estate. The Raja of Khurdha attacked Parikud once. Parikud’s army was small and its Raja did not know how to defend himself. In desperation, he prayed to goddess Kalijai. May be as a coincidence, a large number of migratory flamingo birds arrived in the lake soon. King of Khurdha, seeing white and pink plumage of birds thought them to be the army of Parikud in readiness. He got scared and returned back. Thereafter, Raja of Parikud built the Kali Jai temple on this island, which is also called Flamingo Island.
We left Kali Jai and reached the guesthouse after almost one hour. The total trip duration was about three and half hours. It was time for lunch. We gathered in the restaurant and waited for the delicious dishes ordered earlier to arrive. Apart from the common items like crab, prawn, paneer etc we ordered two special items unique to Orissa – Khainga fish and a type of sweet called Chhana pora. The food was decent and we more or less enjoyed it.
Post lunch, some of my friends decided to take quick naps while three of us went to visit the nearby Barkul village. As it was the paddy harvesting season, we saw the farmer families thrashing the crops to separate the grains from the straw. We spotted a temple and a primary school in the village. The houses were colorful and decorated with ‘alpona’. But the people mostly were poor and lacked proper sanitation.
Adjoining the village was a marsh land. There we spotted plenty of birds, one of them a migratory one. On the way back to our guest house, we saw a brilliant sunset behind the hills! We spent the evening a bit lazily – wandering on the jetty under the growing moon, planning for the next day and of course eating and drinking while playing twenty-nine.
We left the guest house next morning and headed for Gopalpur on a hired Mahindra Bolero. On the way we visited two temples – Narayani and Nirjhara. Narayani temple is on a small hill. The temple itself is not that beautiful but the approach road and the jungle-like surroundings were very charming. Here we spotted a giant sunlit spider net with the arthropod at the center – a common but good subject for photographers.
We drove on the NH5 and took the exit to Nirjhara. This temple was built in the 1600s. It rises in steps. Each level has small temples dedicated to different gods and goddesses including Lord Vishnu and his dashavtars (ten incarnations). We spent quite some time here taking lot of photos from different angles!
We reached Gopalpur-on-sea at around twelve thirty. On the way, the driver showed us the Gopalpur port and the Rare Earth center. We had two hotels booked at Gopalpur – Hotel Pearl and Hotel Holiday Home. Hotel Pearl, which protruded into the beach, was decent. But the other one was a nightmare - dark and dirty rooms and linens, unprofessional staff to name a few (low room rates probably justify these!). Anyway, we didn’t have other options. We had to have our inelaborate lunch there as well (we didn’t get many dishes; neither did we get a good restaurant).
Post lunch, my friends jumped into the sea. But I was not in the mood to wet myself at that time. I put off my sea-bath ritual for the next morning. I hired a chair and seated myself on the beach watching them play with the waves.
We walked along the beach towards the fishermen’s colony and witnessed few of the fishermen venturing into the sea on their fishing boats. Our next destination was the Gopalpur light house, which remains open for the visitors between three thirty and five thirty in the afternoon. We bought the tickets and climbed up around one fifty stairs to reach the viewing balcony. The view from there was breathtaking. We saw the magnificent sunset. But I think the safety arrangement up there was far from enough. The balcony was over crowded and a slight loss of balance would have resulted in a fatal fall. Two of my acrophobic friends had a hard time too.
We sat on the seaside steps in the evening and chatted for long time over chips and soft drinks. Next we took a walk towards the center of the city and found a shop selling seashell artifacts. The shopkeeper was funny and gave hundred years’ warranty on each of his products! We ended-up buying some beautiful dolls, peacocks, goddesses and key chains hoping that they would reach home intact.
Next day, we had our return tickets from Balugaon, two of them still waitlisted. Hence, we decided to go back to Balugaon though Behrampur station was nearer to Gopalpur. But to make the most of our return journey, we planned to visit the Tara Tarini temple and Rambha.
In the morning, we witnessed the stunning view of the sun rising from the sea (well, almost). Around ten thirty we left the hotels and set out for Tara Tarini on a Tata Magic (that’s what we managed to get). Tara Tarini is on a hilltop. There were both rope ways and road ways to reach the temple from the base of the hill. One can also take the thousand steps to reach it. As the ropeway was not working we took the road. The Tata Magic almost refused to go up on some of the steep curves. The temple is very serene, so is the view from there. The snake like Rushikulya River and the small villages along the bank was a wonderful sight. Some of us decided to walk down the stairs, while rest of us took the Magic down. We bought some sweets (Gaja) and headed for Rambha.
The driver took us through narrow village roads laid with paddy straws. The farmers lay the straws on the road to separate the remnant grains (which could not be separated by thrashing). This happens when the wheels crush the straws. But it causes dismay to the driver (and the passengers) as the straws slow down the vehicle and the car has to be driven at a lower gear. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful view of the Orissa countryside.
We took the national highway from Huma and soon reached Rambha. We went to the OTDC Panthanivas there and ordered our lunch. The Chilika was just outside the boundary of the guesthouse. We walked to the jetty and spent some time there. This place is very quiet and peaceful unlike OTDC at Barkul. We could see the Breakfast Island and Cave Island from the jetty. Some birds were also visible. A board from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) mentioned that more than 200 species of birds inhabit the Chilika lagoon. The count for other animal species like reptile and mammals is also impressive.
Post lunch, we headed for Balugaon station. The train (Chennai – Howrah mail) was at six fifty in the evening. We reached an hour in advance. The train arrived on time. We bid good bye to Chilika as the train chugged on.