Sailing in The Mystic Waters of Mahanadi

Whether they be spectacular adventures- tiger and croc sightings- or quieter pleasures, going with the flow in the Satkosia Tiger Reserve always pays off. | Photographs by Vikas Baijal

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The best rides at Satkosia are not in motorised, tech-laden vessels but in small dinghies rowed by locals. Photo by: Vikas Baijal.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Satkosia? That’s a three-hour-long drive from here,” the hotel concierge alerts me. Just back from a full day at the Sun Temple at Konark, we’re hunched over his desk, chalking out Day 2 of an ambitious Bhubaneswar bucket list. I assure him that we can start right after breakfast. And so, precisely at 8.30 a.m. the next day, our chauffeured vehicle flags off for a pleasant drive away from the busy roads of Odisha’s capital into the outskirts. We pass sleepy villages with thatched huts, paddy fields hemmed by palm groves and herds of meek cows claiming the first right of way.

It is noon when we approach a forested path leading to the Tikarpada check post of the Satkosia Tiger Reserve, sprawled across1,000 kilometres of Odisha’s Angul district. The area is home to tiger, leopard, giant squirrel, sambar, wild boar, gaur, chausingha(four-horned antelope), spotted deer and many endemic avian species. We launch safari-style into the thick of the mixed deciduous forests, eyes peeled for signs of wildlife, but the ride is uneventful. Shortly after, we arrive at our destination and disembark to find a secluded riverfront clearing.

Sailing In The Mystic Waters Of Mahanadi

It is not uncommon to stumble upon sightings of the grey comorant. Photo By: Vikas Baijal

 

“Satkosia,” I mouth silently, as I take in the spectacular panorama that the mighty Mahanadi creates, snaking from its source in Chhattisgarh into Odisha, piercing the Eastern Ghats to create the 22-km (Sat Kosh) long Satkosia Gorge. This is one of the deepest points of the mystic river, where it is hemmed in by green jungles and looming mountains. In the distance, a vast sandbar evokes the illusion of an island. Some wooden rowboats and a couple of rusty catamarans stand docked at the grass-patched shore. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around.

A couple of locals approach us with keen interest. “You want a boat ride? Come with me. I have a boat,” the younger one gestures towards the waters. Noticing that we are looking at each other apprehensively, he bumps up the hard sell. “The ride is beautiful. I will give you a good price.”

Sailing In The Mystic Waters Of Mahanadi

While steering the waters, expect to be frequented by feathered fauna such as egrets. Photos by: Vikas Baijal.

The boat ride is on our agenda anyway, so we promise to return after lunch. We’re wondering how we’re going to accomplish this in the middle of abject wilderness, until we spot the tents of the Tikarpada Nature Camp. Spoiler alert, the meals are available only to residents. We decide to give it a shot anyway and encounter success. Our lunch-crashing escapade secures us a cheap, delicious, freshly cooked, full Odiya spread—fish curry and dessert included. It’s a good day for taking chances.

The young boatman scampers up as we exit the camp, eager to close the deal. He guides us to the river, stops by a wooden rowboat and urges us to board.It is long, narrow and as low as a canoe. “That’s the boat? Aren’t there any other options?” I stop short in my tracks and shake my head vehemently. “The river is supposed to have crocs, right?”

In 1975, after establishing the Gharial Research and Conservation Unit in Tikarpada, Odisha became the only state in the country with all three species of the reptile: muggers, saltwater crocodiles and the critically endangered freshwater gharials. The latter, named after a bulbous growth called ‘ghara’(translated to pot) on the tip of a male’s snout, is the most aquatic of the three and never moves far from the water. Females lay eggs on sandy banks of rivers such as the Satkosia. The idea of being at close quarters with a giant lizard that has thick, scaly skin and long, thin jaws has stirred up mild panic.

However, being adventurous has been paying off all day. So, I take a deep breath, throw caution to the winds and step gingerly into the boat. We aregoing for a ride in a crocodile-infested river. In a canoe!

The two boatmen, Tapan and Bijoy, take their spots on opposite ends and help us squat in the middle of the boat.

 

Sailing In The Mystic Waters Of Mahanadi

While crocodiles are not the easiest to spot, what you will see in plenty are various species of birds such as the buff river lapwing. Photo by: Vikas Baijal.

 

I can focus on nothing but suspicious ripples and floating objects for the first few minutes. The younger boatman, Tapan, makes a habit of spotting something interesting, dangling a bait, yanking it with glee and dumping it back into the water because it does not qualify as an ingredient for a meal. Each time he does that, we sway a little, and I post telepathic pleas in his direction. He always misses the frequency.

Slowly, I feel myself loosening up. We glide unhurriedly over the expanse of shimmering water, where millions of shining diamonds seem to be afloat. Ahead of us, layers of mountains dip and rise with curves as gentle as the changing seasons. The silence is broken by the sound of oars lapping with a calming rhythm. A buff river lapwing raises its black crest in alarm, a grey cormorant stretches its neck from a rocky perch, and a white egret skims over the glassy surface.

 

Sailing In The Mystic Waters Of Mahanadi

The boatman will usually point out the interesting inhabitants of the river system amidst fascinating conversations. Photo by: Vikas Baijal.

My thoughts drift to the crocodile conservation programme started by the State Forest Department in 1975 with three rearing centres: muggers in Ramatirtha (Mayurbhanj), saltwater crocodiles in Bhitarkanika (Kendrapara) and gharials in Tikarpada (Angul). Despite regularly releasing crocodiles into the natural waters of Satkosia Gorge, the population of gharials had not risen significantly in 15 years. Finally, last year, hatchlings were sighted in the natural habitat after gharials mated in the Satkosia Gorge. Odisha’s Forest Department officials are hopeful of a much-awaited upswing in the area’s gharial population.

Fishing urges subsided, Tapan transfers his attention to us and kicks off a conversation by asking where we have come from. The mention of Delhi sparks off a succession of innocent but intelligent questions. “How big is Delhi? Is it very crowded? How many people live there? Don’t you lose your way when you move around?” We answer each of his questions indulgently, observing his expressions that range from indifference to surprise to fascination. Finally, his curiosity appears to be sated with a stock of newly acquired knowledge about the strange land full of people, where men and women both drive cars.

“Would you like to visit Delhi?” I ask.

“Maybe someday,” he considers the possibility briefly.

“What about Bhubaneshwar?” I throw a more convenient alternative at him.

“I’ve been there once, but I like it better here,” he admits shyly, then starts humming a tune. He’s gazing over the river with an easy familiarity. I can see that he belongs to the river, and the river belongs to him.

“Are you liking the ride? The river is beautiful, isn’t it?” his tone is tinged with pride.

I nod with admiration, and ask him how many boat rides he manages in a day.

“Sometimes, a few, sometimes none, it varies.”

 

We near a sandbank, and Tapan informs us about the prospect of spotting muggers sunning themselves on the sands. “We will stop the boat here so that you can walk around,” he announces like it’s a stroll in a rabbit park. Warily, I pan my surroundings and jump out to follow my husband and shutterbug, Vikas, seeing no languorous amphibians. We leave twin trails on the tawny, grainy sands following the map-like edges against the glassy waters. The river is turning bluer under the cerulean sky, and the mountains are darkening green with the now-mellowing sun.

 

Sailing In The Mystic Waters Of Mahanadi

Parking at the sandbanks features muggers sunning themselves. Photo by: Vikas Baijal.

On the way back in the boat, we resume the tête-à-tête. “What is it like to be living here, with a view of all this?” I quiz him. “It’s nice. My hut is close by. In the monsoons, our houses get ruined, then we build new ones,” he shares. The skies blush as the sun dips lower behind the mountains. Lengthening shadows transform the river into liquid gold. Thanks to the subliminal play of light, even the rusty catamaran has acquired a Shikara-like avatar. Four of us drift along in companionable silence. Clocking the end of two hours of sailing on the Mahanadi, we come ashore.

Friendly goodbyes over, the boatmen busy themselves wrapping up a regular day’s work. We linger on the banks for poetic glimpses of curling tendrils, leafy branches and silhouetted boats until the constraints of time shove us reluctantly towards our waiting car.

The car zips back through the forest, windows rolled down, our faces tingling with the cool evening breeze. The forest-y smell is addictive. Too bad it can’t be stored in a box, so I just close my eyes and keep inhaling it with passion, etching it into my olfactory cortex for later retrieval. Even bereft of drama, crocodiles, and spectacles, it has been a perfect day.

Somewhere back there, Tapan will probably hunch up over a flaming cook pot, wolf down a well-earned meal under the starlit sky in the silent forest andslip into a restful slumber.

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April, 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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  • Punita Malhotra is a self-professed dreamer and incorrigible idealist, who shifted gears from entrepreneurship and publishing to pursue her twin passions of travel and writing. Her quest for history, heritage, food and fairytales takes her to faraway lands.

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