Published in Outlook Traveller Getway Guide - Pocket Book CHattisgarh in January 2008
What life teaches you in 25 years, Sitanadi condenses and crash teaches the same in eight hours. Gyan in the greens? Just one night at the Sitanadi forest guest house in Chattisgarh enlightens you on a zillion things.
That tandoori naans, when left to their own devices, undergo rigor mortis to become so stiff in six hours, they can be had only after you dunk it in water for two hours! That when you don’t have a good accompaniment for your rotis, you can split open the oily samosa – the breakfast leftover - junk the flour wrap and finish your meal with the filling alone! That the juice of Aloe Vera works as a natural mosquito repellant at those times when you brought a fancy electric repellant, and there is no power!! That the grim ant-hill next to the forest guest house has inspired scientists to build search algorithms in web search engines like Google.
Sitanadi, the wildlife sanctuary that encompasses Sitanadi, a river named after Sita in the thick of fascinating Chattisgarh, is like a tough teacher who gives the test first and teaches you the lesson later. Yet, you are more than willing to learn. Experience. Discover.
Sometimes recover. After over a dozen enquiries for a place to eat and drink in the last 100 km, the locals directed us to Hotel Bhatti. Ah, now that is reassuring. The name spooled off visions of a middle-aged Sardar with flowing white beard giving the Dal Fry his personal touch while we prod him for Punjab’s sinful sweet lassi. Hotel Bhatti - we asked the nurse at the Anganwadi, the cowherd at the junction, even the happy looking stray dog at the post office.
Before we could loosen our belts and mentally order the food, we saw the milestone that proclaimed: Kotal Batti. It’s a village? So where is Hotel Bhatti, the bearded sardar, the Dal Fry with fried onion juliennes on it?
Sitanadi never ceases to throw surprises. One moment it is gulping a mouthful of hot chai only to realize it is bitter lal chai, bina doodhvala! Another, it is knowing that after all, the deserted forest guesthouse – our lodge for that night – indeed had electricity! But then the solar power drains off by 7 pm.
After a series of revelations, some pleasant (yoohoo, no connectivity), some shocking (keep a window open to let the smoke out of the fireplace, never mind if the chill that seeps in), some plain frustrating (there are no blankets) and some supremely exhilarating (there is a LPG stove to heat up food), Sitanadi is a cocktail of experiences that will find mention in your journal and arms you with real life stories to regale your timid friends on nights with power cuts.
Frankly, surviving a night without power is not so tough as convincing the forest guest house guard about your whereabouts, antecedents and your alarming need to spend a night here braving the chill, the carnivorous beasts and the craving for a latte in this no-milk zone. The nearest milk point is 85 km from here!
Prem, the guard at the guesthouse, wants us to drive down 60 minutes to Sehawa, on that cold afternoon despite our collective lean, mean and hungry looks. At 4 pm, he is not even sure if saab will be at the office and if we can get the permission to stay there at all. Name dropping, contact flashing; ID swishing … nothing works with this gentleman. Paulo Coelho’s words that ‘When you want something badly, the whole universe conspires in helping you achieve it’ came true when Asst Forest Range officer BS Rajput himself came down driving in his noisy Maruti van. Ah there it worked out. The permission to stay that night and Rajput himself volunteering to show us around and introduce us to his feathered friends. “One shot. Two birds”, quipped Rajput, the bird lover, who spends his twilight hours of the day tracking down birds and reading their habits.
“That rascal is the racket tailed drongo. He imitates other birds and unless you spot him, you would think there is a myna or a parrot around. The drongo has over a 40 calls, whistles, screeches and gurgles in his repertoire,” Rajput informs.
Soon enough, we meet a languorous langur who refuses to smile or even bat an eyelid at a car, full of people waiting for him to respond. Sitanadi has a road that is pretty much a thoroughfare during the day and the langur witnesses not less than sixty trucks a day. Thank you for that deadpan langur! A few more Hanuman langurs, as they are known here, have all similar burnt black faces on hands. Legend goes that the langur is a descendent of Hanumanji, who burnt his face and palms while he set Lanka on fire. The langurs are like your regular simians, a bit more languid about life perhaps. Soon enough, we spot the chital or the spotted deer. The two species are friends. While the deers use their sense of smell and alert the langurs about the predators around, the langurs keep a watchful eye from the treetops. They snarl and screech when the predator is around. Natural synergy!
In the next two hours, a whispering ‘look there’ from him and a finger pointing towards a distant branch meant we had a bird in the bush. We were to turn off the car engine, shut our mouths and watch it intently. Then he would brief us about the bird we just spotted.
Without a care in the world was a solitary barking deer feeding on a green patch. These deers are usually like bachelors who want to do their own thing. They don’t move in groups like the spotted deer. These deers can let out a sharp bray which sounds like a bark. Deer, by the way, comes from the German word Tier, which simply means animal. How creative!
Sitanadi’s pride is the colourful plant with red, yellow and white flowers. But for every flourishing plant, there is a heap of the dried plant thrown upside down, as though somebody took it upon themselves to uproot it. Rajput says the forest administration indeed has taken it upon itself to kill Lantana, a toxic weed, its enemy number one. Lantana grows like nobody’s business in forests, eating up greedily into the tree space. It starts small by entwining itself lovingly to a tree and before you know, like the Arab and the camel story, knocks out the very tree that has supported it. Lantana is so notorious that it can start its growth all over again if left uprooted. So the only way to check its growth is to throw it upside down.
However, Lantana is the collective favourite of the birds. The birds relish the fruits of Lantana and actually are the accomplices in spreading the weed. The birds feast on the fruit and merrily spread across the pollen and seeds far and wide.
The Lantanas looked plaintive under the dwindling sun. But the sorry picture was soon replaced by the glimmering twilight of a young sunset.
The sunset was most certainly the ideal time in a forest. The animals and birds are active and just about retiring home with the catch of the day. At the forest guest house sitting on the concrete built around the tree, watching the hand pump go up and down as Janki the pet peacock would go guturrrrr, lush greenery around and the zero pollution. The setting was just perfect.
Sitanadi is a sprawling sanctuary spreading across 556 sq km and even one tour across is adequate to spot the animals. Sitanadi most definitely has the wild animals that you expect in a sanctuary - Tigers, Jackals, antelopes, wild boar and snakes like Cobra and python. The sanctuary is known to have the best collection of various deer breeds such as chinkara, Black buck, Nilgai, Sambar etc.
Deer have always been a favourite with Goddess Sita. From taming them as her playmates as a child to staking her life for a golden one, Sita has a mysterious connection with the deers. Sitanadi, according to the locals, was the place Goddess Sita chose to spend her days when she was heavy with her twins Luv and Kush. She wanted to get over the separation pangs with her husband spent time in the company of her favorite animal. The river that flows along is Sita-nadi and the sanctuary derives its name from here.
Several rivers, mountains and plains of Sitanadi conspire to provide possible proof to corroborate its claim. The Balki river that flows perpendicular to Sitanadi, and almost half its size and flow, is apparently named after Luv and Kush, the balaks of the ashram where Rishi Valmiki left. Again, the little mount near the watch tower is called Valmiki Ashram.
At 635 metres above the sea level, the watch tower is truly Sitanadi’s high point. You get a vihang drushyam or the bird’s eye view of the sanctuary. Phew! It is also the only place in the entire sanctuary where you get mobile connectivity. The quick double beep in your mobile says ‘Airtel Orissa Welcomes You. Your current balance is …” Without having made a single call in the last 24 hours, to lose talk time simply for ascending the watch tower was truly Sitanadi’s low point!
The watchtower is surrounded by seven stark mountains, each one named after the Saptarishis – Angira, Bhrigu, Vasishta, Bharadwaja etc. According to Hindu legends, it was the saptarishis who helped Valmiki gain enlightenment and transform into a radiant sage from a rascal thief. It is at these respective mountains that Valmiki personally took care of each of the rishis.
As the sun sets over the mountains, Sitanadi looks surreal in the glow of the full moon. Like a picture perfect painting, the faint rays of the moon make the old colonial forest guesthouse glimmer in the white light. The trees around stand majestically. Barring the occasional bark of Janki, the pet peacock, there was not a sound around. Incidentally, peacocks are the only other animals, besides dogs, that bark at strangers and alert its master. Janki was definitely not pleased to have a group of city revelers around the bonfire and causing it some unrest. So he would keep making his presence felt every now and then.
It was 7 pm and the solar lights gave away. The bonfire worked in tandem with the moonlight to create natural illumination. As the stars twinkled in the moonlight, the only other noise was the rumbling of the stomach. With no food in sight, the leftover paratas from dinner at Gyani Dhaba last night at Kanker came in handy. So did the half consumed bottle of Frooty, the unopened pack of Good Day biscuits, some chewing gum and the supari that Driver Swamy was so addicted to. Sometimes, the ambience makes all the difference and perhaps that’s why the dinner at Sitanadi is still one we would all remember for years to come.
It was just 8.30 and goodnight time at the forest guesthouse. The guest house itself is a sprawling bungalow with big beds and a bathroom as big as a 1BHK in Mumbai suburbia. Sagar later told us that there is no running water. Only, he did not reveal that the stored water in the bathroom was freezing. That put an end to all thoughts of the goodnight brushing and the toilet ideas.
For nocturnal beings like us, it was tough to lie still and lie that we actually slept. The sleeplessness was heightened by the utter silence around. The nearest help, should there be an emergency, is at Sehawa, 15 km away. In Sitanadi, that would take 20 minutes more than an hour! It was not really an auspicious time to have dreams of a tiger prowling there. When the alarm finally rang, it was still pitch dark. Not even a glimmer of hope that morning would be a few hours away. And we were right. Back home, the alarm is the one that goes off every night at the stroke of 12, to remind us night birds that it was time to sleep. That means we had five and half hours more to see daylight.
But when the glorious morning did happen, it happened like the way an elegant bud flowers. Slowly, gradually, showing each of its colours in detail. First it was tender pink, pretty pink a few minutes ago. Then crimson and before you go flash, flash, flash, the big, bad orange ball had taken shape looking like a tangy candy in the sky. Is it the trees, the mountains or just the lack of human populace that makes the sunrise in a forest so beautiful?
The need of the hour was latte again, that refreshing cup of coffee. With business getting done at the early hour, it was time to bid goodbye to good experiences at Sitanadi.
The way back into our next destination Udanti was equally fascinating. We traveled for another 120 km before we smelt coffee! Driver Swamy has been starving for his cuppa. At this point, there was only one thing that came between his cup and the lip. The stream again, with rocks, pebbles and water flowing across in great speeds.
Swamy was all charged up and decided he would not let the cup slip from his lip and made a huge giant leap with his revved up car. Like a daredevil stunt master in a Tata Safari ad, he vroomed across the stream, splattering water all over arrogantly. We clapped with joy as he zoomed off triumphantly.
“I’ve never done this before in my 21 years as a driver,” he said wiping his face with a towel and sipping his coffee. We told you! Sitanadi teaches you in two hours what life can’t tutor you in 21 years!
About the park:Sitanadi Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Dhamtari district of Chattisgarh, at a distance of 173 km from Raipur. It covers 556 sq km of highly undulating and hilly terrain. The sanctuary owes its name to the river Sitanadi which originates in the middle of the sanctuary and joins river Mahanadi near Deokhut. The flora here is composed of moist peninsular Sal, Teak and Bamboo forests and also Semal, Mahua, Ber and Tendu. The fauna comprises Tigers, Flying squirrels, Jackals, Four-horned antelopes, Chinkara, Black buck, Monkey, Porcupine, Wild Boar, Gaur, Nilgai, Sambar, Cobra and Python. The bird population includes Parrots, Bulbul, Peafowl, Crimson Breasted Barbet, Teetar, Tree Pie, Racket Tailed Drongos, Egrets, Herons etc.Established in 1974, Sitanadi Wildlife sanctuary is rich in hard wood that is ideal for making furniture. To check poaching and deforestation, the sanctuary has been taken under the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. It is therefore classified as a bio-geographical province.
REACHING THERE: The sanctuary is at a distance of about 173 km from state capital Raipur which is also the nearest airport. Dhamtari Railway Station (95km) is the nearest railhead from Sitanadi Sanctuary. The place is easily approachable through the Raipur-Deobhog State Highway.
Best time to visit: November – June. The sanctuary is closed for public between July 1 to October 31. November is when the winter sets in India and when birds do their annual darshan. So any sanctuary with birds will be at its best starting November. The flowers and plants also welcome the birds with their best blooms. To be able to enjoy the sanctuary without the crowds, avoid the last fortnight of December.
How to reach: If you are doing the wildlife bit, then it is best to cover Kangerghati National park and Sitanadi in one stretch. The two parks are about 300 km away and it takes a good part of the day to reach Sitanadi from Jagdalpur.
Orientation of the park: Park entry fee: NonePark timings: 8 am to 6 pmParking fee: Guide fee per day: Rs 250 for three hours. You are also expected to tip him with another 50 or Rs 100 if he has taken the extra effort. Cameras Still: NoneVideo: NoneVehicle hire charges: Rs 1,200 for half day The safari are accompanied by a guide and last for 4-5 hours in the morning and 3-4 hours in the evening. The barrier is the best point to do your enquiries and also hire the guide. Tell them your needs (from Press, or photographer, bird watcher etc) and they help you out with the right guide. Most of them speak Hindi, but they can also communicate in basic English.
• Where to stay: Booking the forest accommodation is the best way to introduce your child to the true charms of a forest. However, do ensure you carry all valid documents to prove your accommodation booking. There is no communication network to reach back to the booking office. Only papers talk for you. The only other accommodation is back in Kanker or Dhamtari. Ph: 0772 238371. Rs 300 per day, double room.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO:BALKI RIVER: A gentle river flowing perpendicular to Sitanadi, this one has been named after the twin of Luv and Kush. True to its name, this one can be easily waded through. Take your kids along for some real water sports!This is accessible by foot from the forest guest house.
BIRDWATCHING: Be an early riser and you will find it rewarding. Barbetts, drongos, magpie robins, bulbuls will greet you a very good morning if you can co-ordinate your morning walk along with the sunrise. Interestingly, the flying squirrels, which are primarily nocturnal animals, are returning to their habitat a few minutes after the light hits them. The forest guest house has tall Sal trees which houses a flying squirrel. On any good day, you can spot them while having your coffee.
LANGUR FEEDING: Harmless fun that both you and the langurs will enjoy. You can give them some harmless biscuits, popcorn, fruits etc. Go in groups rather than as solo. These langurs are especially friendly and naïve, not at all like those scheming monkeys you find in the city temples.
SWIMMING: Swimming is fun in Sitanadi but the ideal time is mid afternoon when the sun is shining bright. The water is cool, but certainly refreshing for an afternoon shower. There are some good spots adjacent the make-shift bridge near the road.
DOUBLE BONANZA: Sitanadi and Udanti are two sanctuaries, not too far away from each other. It takes you about five hours from Sitanadi to reach Udanti, which another rich sanctuary with lovely falls, gentle streams and all your favourite animals. However, the road is pretty bad and it would be wise to set aside six to eight hours only for travel.
Miscellaneous Tips: • There are absolutely no joints that serve you food 100 km before Sitanadi (from Kanker) or after the sanctuary (towards Udanti). You will not even find good stores that sell quality biscuits and beverages. Do carry enough processed food to last for two days if you are doing Sitanadi and Udanti.• At Kanker, just before you turn towards Kotal Bhatti for Sitanadi, Gyani Dhaba serves excellent food. However, avoid the rotis and go in for paratas which stay longer. Tell Gyaniji you need them to remain intact for 24 hours and he will knead it super soft himself. Gyaniji’s Dal Fry and Palak Paneer are too good. However, avoid carrying non-vegetarian food as the forest air makes it go rancid within a few hours.• Inside the sanctuary, the caretakers can rustle up some basic stuff like omelet etc but nothing beyond that. The LPG stove also is used sparingly so even if you volunteer to cook, you may not get a chance to. • Carry soup powder and a packet of instant noodles as a last resort. It certainly won’t go wrong. Sturdy fruits and loads of biscuits will also come in handy. If you are leaving the sanctuary, do give away food to the langurs. They show their gratitude in their eyes. Touching moments!• Do carry your own set of blankets. While some forest guesthouses do provide you with a mattress and a blanket, most of them are unwashed and dusty. Those with sensitive noses could end up with a bad sinus. You can always cover their bedspread with yours and remain safe.• Carry manual mosquito repellants such as Tortoise or Mortein. Don’t rely on the electric ones because either there is no power or the plug point won’t work.• Do carry both sunscreen and moisturizer. While the afternoons are sunny, the evenings get cold and moist.• Carry sweaters, woolens and windcheaters with you if you are going between November to February. • Don’t play the audio in your car in these parts as it is a silent zone. Honk only if necessary. • Unless it is biodegradable, don’t throw plastic or cans around. We personally witnessed how a langur’s foot got stuck in a pepsi can and it took her an hour to extricate herself. Be responsible.• Tip the caretakers generally because they really take the trouble to make it a nice trip for you. The tacit Sagar went cycling for 12 km to fetch some eggs and onions!• Don’t expect milk in these parts. Bring in your milk powders if you are traveling with toddlers. • If you are a keen birdwatcher, get in touch with Mr BS Rajput, Assistant Forest Range Officer, Sehawa on 094242 10923