I am in Raipur. Work is finished. I wish, I should have a break. A forester friend advises a visit to Kanger Valley Nation Park. Sounds interest. Logistics turn out tough – it’s about 330 km drive to Jagdalpur, the district headquarter of Bastar. The Park is another 30 km. Stay has to be at Jagdalpur. Stay at the Park is not advisable.
Long way to go, I plan to start at 6.00 am in the morning. No way. Wait and wait – the taxi driver has his own schedule, arrives at 8.00! I use the time to finish up with a filling breakfast – long way to go. It’s comfortable SUV vehicle. I am the only passenger.
I am told the drive to the Jagdalpur is about 6 hours. I notice, the route is fine & roads are good & traffic is thin. Nevertheless, it ends up taking 9 hours to Jagdalpur. Have to take about two hours break. Around 1.15 pm I notice, the driver is about to doze off. I make him stop, wash face and take a cup of tea. I keep an eye him. He is clearly sleepy and not accepting it. I take a decision. He should rest for a while. Otherwise, he may put me to rest forever.
We are near Kondagaon. There is no hotel or rest house nearby. I remember from a previous visit, a complex of a NGO in nearby village, helping local artisans in creating pottery and metal artefacts and support with marketing the produce. The metal stuff is unique to the Bastar region. I have bought some handicrafts from here which were liked by, to whomsoever I gifted. I can buy some stuff and driver can rest.
We halt at first wayside Dhaba for quick grab of meal. My memory back up indicates we are near the site, but not sure. I do not remember the name of the village or the NGO. I discuss the place with the Dhaba owner, Yes, I am right. We are hardly a km away from the site.
It’s Kumhar Pada – Kumhar is potter and Pada is a village i.e. potters’ village. The NGO is Saathi Society – Saathi means associate / friend. It’s rustic, spacious, open complex – few spread out buildings. Lot of green area. There is a display hall. I do not feel, many people come here for retail purchase.
The driver parks the car under a tree and dozes off immediately. I make a round of display hall and do some shopping. I have been expecting, it may take some time but in 20 minutes it is all done. What should I do? I must let the driver rest for one-two hours, for him to get over his drowsiness.
I think I should find a quiet place to relax. I talk to a gentleman in the NGO office. He happens to be the manager of the place. What happens is unbelievable and this happens in India only, so to say. He shouts for a boy. A boy comes running. The man orders “get the key of the rest house. Get a bottle of water and come with me.” There is a set of rooms behind the office – again rustic simple setting, dormitory kind of place – wooden beds with cotton mattresses. Fresh bed sheet is spread on one. Fan is put on. I am shown the washroom, in case I need. The manager ensures that I am comfortable. And so I am. I never imagined this. They even do not know my name, what to say of identity! After a good rest, we are on the way.
I am lodged at Jagdalpur Forest Rest House (FRH) at Van Vidhyalaya (Forestry School). The school is meant to train field level foresters. I am told, old FRH has been taken over by some other government agency. Since land was available, a guest house has been developed here. This is six-month old building, already in bad shape. The architecture, layout and surroundings are disappointing beyond description. I wish they could have just copied from some old rest house. I remember visiting Adwar FRH in Kanha Tiger Reserve, where a British time FRH in bad shape has been restored, brick by brick. Effort has been made to have old style wash room fittings and furniture as well. No light, no fan, no AC is required. Nature is all around. Van Vidhayalaya FRH is an antithesis of what a FRH has to be. All this is not important, but does matters for a traveller.
In the morning, I am ready on dot. We leave around 8.00. A Deputy Forest Range Officer, in short a Deputy, accompanies me. In half an hour we are at the Park.
I have done some online exploration. Park is actually 200 sq km of forest – around Kanger river. The valley starts at Tirathgarh waterfall and merges with the Kolab river on Chhattisgarh-Odisha border. It’s around 33.5 km long valley and on an average around 6 km wide. Kanger river transverses through the heart of the Park. Besides the famous Tirathgarh waterfall, the other most notable feature of the Park is caves – several limestone caves. They feature stalactite and stalagmite formations. There are several of them and according to online literature one of them, subterranean, is more than a kilometre long!
I look forward to lot of action. We enter Kotumsar Barrier. It’s pleasant weather though will soon get hot. We drive through forest, not so thick.
The forest from Kotumsar Barrier to Kotumsar village is apparently dry mix deciduous – not thick, teak is present in good number. This gradually turns into moist mix deciduous forest and end up into a bamboo grove before we exit from the Park to a village to again enter into forest after a 5-6 km of village landscape.
As we enter the village, I see a baby girl at a hut door. The overall frame is interesting, but as soon as I get down, the girl disappears, like a bird from a branch. An old man comes out on seeing us. He brings the girl out. I do take two-three photos for the sake of it but it is not the same frame. I see a woman coming down the road in tribal attire. Oh, she is photogenic but she shies away from being photographed.
The best part is whether inside the forest or outside, the life is at ease. There is no traffic or crowd. The time seems to have slowed down.
Soon we re-enter the Park at Netanar Barrier. The plan has been to take a round trip of the Kotumsar Forest Range.
From the Barrier, we go to Kailash Cave. Kailash is another name of the Shiva, the Hindu God, whose symbolic presence, a Linga, is represented in temples. In this cave, the Shiva Linga has formed naturally with lime stone. The cave is up the hill – it is uphill task for me with Osteoarthritis. My knee will not allow. I just hang around to have a feel of the place around. A flex sheet poster is fixed here, highlighting highlights of the Park but most out of place stuff, to say the least- gaudy. As it is, it will not last even one season! There are no tourists. Two workers are busy cleaning up the place. The Deputy engages in conversation with the workers, who are local tribals. Soon there is commotion. A monkey has picked up one work’s bag containing miscellaneous stuff, including food and a bottle. The monkey is trying to pull the bottle out. Bottle is special attraction as this contains local homemade brew – Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) booze! Lot of shouting saves the stuff. It saves the day for all – the tribal without it would go mad and the monkey with it would go mad.
As the luck will have it, the narrow kuchha road is blocked – under repair and it’s not possible to go forward. We go back all over – a detour of about 20 km! No worry, it happens in forest.
In the afternoon, I spent time at Tirathgarh Waterfall – must see for anybody who visits Bastar. It’s mesmerising site. I have already written about it in my blog previously. Here, the Deputy Ranger has arranged lunch. Lovely. I take the liberty to rest for half an hour after lunch.
We are on the road again – travel in the forest touching the Kanger now and again – musical flow, small twists and turns, rocky terrain at some places, and quite pools at other places.
There are few land marks, as we go. One is Kanger Dhara. Here the site is scenic – the river is passing through rocky terrain with small falls here and there and thick forest up, above the rocky walls of the gorge – steel grey rocks, green forest and white water! I spent some time – just relaxing on a rock and listen to the Kangeri music, watching the river flow by.
At this point of time – last week of March month – the Kanger Dhara is a different site for a different reason. The flat and clean surface of rock selves provide perfect site for drying flowers of Mahua tree, so laboriously collected and which is life line of the local tribe. All visible flat rocks on both sides of the river are covered with drying Mahua flowers. These will be later fermented and brewed into local liquor.
Well, this is indicator of human influence in the Kanger. Though there is only one village Kotumsar inside the Forest Range, but there are score of villages on the boarder of the Park. The tribal people’s lives are woven around forest – fuel wood, minor forest produce, medicinal plants, food, meat… In my entire trip, I do not see even one wild animal! Obviously it’s poaching. I am disappointed. The literature lists even the presence of tiger, which I do not expect here, but at least some deer, but no.
I am told that these days, because of local political movement, nobody dares to question any local person for any activity in the forests in Bastar. It’s a free run of the forests. In fact, the other Forest Range of the Park, Kelong, is not accessible, as movement people do not appreciate outsiders.
We zigzag along the narrow kuchha road in the hilly terrain. The forest is lush green, even in summer. An endangered bird species, Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa) is found here. The guard with us keeps track of about 3-4 groups, comprising of about100 odd birds – an expert in locating the species. He notices few birds near Dandak Cave, but before I can set the binocular, they fly away! Hill Myna happens to be the State Bird of Chhattisgarh.
Dandak Cave is again similar to Kailash Cave – limestone cave up the hill. I, of course, do not venture to go up. But what is interesting is that the massive rocks forming the hill side along the road from where the way to the cave leads up, too are admirable – they are all different shape and look like sculptured.
Down below on the other side of the road, flows the life line of the forest, the Kanger – bluish green, deep, quiet pools. The whole panorama is picture perfect.
The sun is going down. It is cooler. I get out of the vehicle and quietly walk for 15 minutes, in the solitude, and drink in the spirit of nature. The Kanger now flows in my heart.