Bijaya Kumar Jena, the Manager at Satapada Yatri Nivas on the shore of Chilika, was busy collecting a group of guests to share the cost of hiring a motor launch, and we were fortunate to be able to join in. I had some qualms though, since both my son and I did not know how to swim. One time we had taken a joyride on a hovercraft on the Yamuna in Delhi where we’d been equipped with inflated life jackets. But nothing of the sort seemed to be visible over here.
“Madam, the lake is absolutely safe,” assured Debadutta Rath, the tourist officer assigned to us by the Orissa Tourist Development Corporation. “It is only eight feet deep in these areas. In any case, we have life jackets stored in the boxes below.”
So, a mixed group of a dozen of us left Satapada, a tiny hamlet, at noon.
Chilika, the largest brackish water “lake” (as it is erroneously called) in Asia, is an acknowledged wetland of international importance. Amongst the most productive ecosystems in the world, its shallow, 800-1100 sq. km of marshy waters provide livelihood to 100,000 fisherman and also support nearly 1,000 species of aquatic and non-aquatic plants, 225 species of fish and 150 species of birds. Almost a million birds from places as far away as Siberia, Kazhakhstan and the Urals find a home at Chilika during the winter months.
Chilika also happens to be the second largest lagoon in the world—after Songkhla in Thailand—where Irrawady dolphins are sighted. The greatest concentration of dolphins are found near the new mouth at Satapada. Presently, regular dredging on a large scale is being carried out here to clear up the mouth so as to maintain the ecological balance of Chilika.
As we passed the impressive dredging operations, suddenly the motor launch slowed down, took a full circle and spluttered to a stop. Had we run out of gas? I wondered with some trepidation. “Shhh … he has spotted a dolphin,” whispered a passenger. The boatman was holding his finger to his lips as his eyes scanned the water. Sure enough, we could see something gleaming popping above the water at some distance.
Unfortunately my camera got jammed right then and I was not able to get a close-up of the dolphin. Our launch remained silent for some time then continued. “We try not to disturb the dolphins,” explained the boatman. Besides being a major attraction for tourists, dolphins were also sacred to local fishermen. If a dolphin got entangled in their nets by mistake, they release it immediately. Saving a dolphin would ensure a good catch, they believed.
“We find the largest concentration of dolphins in this area near the mouth of the Chilika lagoon opening into the sea,” explained Rath. “There were 130 of them at the last count.”
As our launch cut through the gray-green waters at about 30 km/hr, Chilika looked more like the sea than the lagoon it actually is. The water was shimmering and shining and invitingly serene. Soon, we came across an astonishing sight. It looked like a man was walking up and down on the surface of the water! It had to be the water because an island was looming up behind on the horizon.
The vision became clearer as we drew near. The man was actually rowing a raft with a pole. As each stroke propelled the raft forward, he would walk back to repeat the process.
We passed a colorful ferry resounding with lively music while carrying bicycles and motorbikes across the lake. Very soon after that we had the pleasure of stepping on to an island for the very first time in our lives.
The narrow sandy shore was lined by a forest of Casuarina trees. Some crabs had burrowed into the soil enjoying their afternoon siesta, and ran helter-skelter as we stepped off the launch. Walking on a pathway amongst the tall trees, we got the feeling of being on a hill station right at sea level! The temperatures here ranged from 22 to 30 degrees, we learnt. Annual rainfall was about 1150 mm. There was not a single soul in sight … and then … a deserted British-type bungalow straight out of an Enid Blyton adventure book.
My son went up the stairs to the verandah to get a closer look. The shuttered windows left no scope for a peep inside. “There are three bedrooms there,” volunteered Rath. “The bungalow belongs to the forest department. You’ve got to get their permission to be able to stay here.”
We walked up further. A stone’s throw away we reached the most marvelous white verdant beach one could imagine. It stretched in an arc from one end of the horizon to the other … this was the mighty Bay of Bengal, known for its destructive whirlwinds and tornadoes. However, at this time, there was no sign of any storm. Only an endless expanse of bluish-gray waiting to be experienced, enjoyed, explored, and discovered.
The sun was pretty hot by now. We surmised that visitors to the bungalow probably brought along beach umbrellas while bathing here. There was some shrubbery nearby for shade, but we just could not resist rushing into the ocean.
It was bliss to be able to take off our shoes and to feel the cool waves swirling around our feet. “The sea is quite safe here,” commented our guide. The children were thrilled to search for seashells amongst the numerous weeds scattered here and there. They picked up globules of a crystal clear jellyfish without a single speck, not even a hint of a nucleus, inside. Some kids wanted to carry these back home in their pockets, until they realized that the poor creatures may die if taken away from the sea. Besides, they might even be harmful to the skin.
The children’s frolic gave us some time to sit back and ponder. Rajhans seemed to be the ideal get-away-from-it-all hideout. A 15-minute stroll had taken us from the protected waters of Chilika (where one could safely swim, sail, surf or pedal-boat), through a forested “hill station,” to the mighty ocean on the other side. What more could one ask?
On the way back we came across a few caretakers chatting over a game of cards. There was no electricity on Rajhans, we were told. Water was obtained through a diesel-operated tube well. There was one other nagging point that needed to be clarified: Where had all the bicycles and motorbikes disappeared? Was Rajhans that large an island?
“No, no, those were going to Behrampura, 10 minutes away by boat from Rajhans,” said a caretaker. “We get our provisions from there sometimes.”
“How often do you get guests here?”
“Oh, not very often. Only some people from the forest department once in a while.”
No wonder Rajhans did not feature on the official list of Chilika’s islands.