Saranda: A Forest Where Time Stood Still

27th Mar 2019
Photo of Saranda: A Forest Where Time Stood Still by Shreya Nandy
Photo of Saranda: A Forest Where Time Stood Still 1/1 by Shreya Nandy
Photo courtesy: Tandra Nandy
Day 1

Springtime and ancient Sals (Shorea robusta) are a treat to behold! Bold with their heads held high and branches wrapped up with white blossoms, jutting out in straight lines from the red soils of Northern Odisha. Somewhere they are arranged in a small clump, somewhere growing wild. Tucked in the trees are the pockets of mysteries forever beckoning you with a promise of some unspoken thrill. Broken jungle paths with treacherous overgrown roots request you to be alert with every step. Your breath appreciates the freshness of the forest but gets drunk with the heavy and lingering smell of the mohua blooms. You feel light headed and content, like that bear that will sneak in at to chow down some flowers and return to his lair intoxicated with nature’s bounty.

And there is red, red and some more red everywhere. Not the bright tone which jars the eyes. But soft and baked that creates calm visual, like a return gift of this iron-heavy soil that attracted the mining men who are slowly killing the environment as they make their way into the earth’s bosom. You can see the absence of animals and the thinning forest. Earth here is aging, and not gracefully. But before the guilt of being human drowns you, come with me on an alluring journey to this forest of greens and reds where time truly stands still!

Finding a perfect weekend destination is such a drag! So many factors weigh in to create the concoction of an ideal holiday.

1. Distance should not eat away holiday time.

2. There should be enough mettle in the destination to keep you engaged.

3. Shouldn't be overridden by tourists - what pests!

4. Stay should not be stressful – basic amenities preferred.

5. The journey should be easy so that you can truly relax and not spend time changing modes of transport.

6. Obviously food! It has to have good, GOOD food. Finger licking good - no compromise!

Guess what! Our latest trip to Saranda Forest was exactly that and much more.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Barbil, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

I don't know whether it would have been possible had it not for our trip arranger. So a big bow of gratitude belongs squarely to Saranda Valley and their open-hearted service.

Saranda is a stretch of the forest whose major chunk lies in Jharkhand. We chose to base ourselves in Barbil, Odisha and explore the southern side of the Saranda. Also, Barbil makes the approach to Meghahatuburu and Kiriburu much easier than Manoharpur, another alternate base we could've chosen.

My first impression upon stepping down from the wretched Jan Shatbdi (old compartment + poor maintenance + stinky loo ) on to Barbil station was this fluttering joy of familiarity which one feels when one slips into the small town life of her childhood. Brought up in the mining town of Dhanbad, the platform, roads, vehicles, houses, twists, and turns on the road, basic traffic jam reminded me of a time I have left long back. Barbil might be decades away from the sort of modernization my hometown is seeing recently (which I detest by the way), but I have much respect for this small town’s strong and unapologetic character that I adore so much! A station floor caked with red soil and flanked by a small clump of sal trees with vehicles of every nature honking and jostling to arrive or leave the station - nothing compared to big city mayhem but yeah cute and sweet for a city weary girl like me. With open arms, I welcomed it all - the scorching summer heat, red dust, diesel smells! Mmmmm... Can it get more rewarding?

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Barbil, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

Yayy our hosts were gracious enough to come to pick us up. We were introduced to the wizened Mr. Pradeep Da and our forever pink-shirt wearing driver, Kurud. A brief 20 mins drive from the station took us to their Saranda Valley Guest House - a mining bungalow converted to a beautiful homestay.

Coming from a coal-mining community, this stay was so nostalgic for us! A huge break from the cramped spaces of both Mumbai and Kolkata. The rooms were big and the bathrooms bigger. The property was well maintained, the only drawback being the shower head which was slow. . But Pradeep Da made up for it on our last day. Wondering how? You've to keep reading till the end !!!!!!!!!!!!!

After washing off our journey-grime, we were famished. We want food. We want food. And omg! What food we got. We felt like mini-monarchs ourselves. Our first meal consisted of a big spread of homemade Bengali food:

Rice, shukto, five kinds of vegetable fries, fish fry, daal, fish curry, chutney, and crisps!

It's like a wedding feast.

After the scrumptious meal, this Bong babe wanted to sleep off all this yumminess, so I chased this with a brief shut-eye of 15 mins.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Barbil, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

After my powernap, I was ready to take on the world. Our first evening consisted of a brief introduction to Saranda Forest in the form of a temple visit and a short hike to a nearby lake. Both were christened the same: Joteshwar as in Joteshwar Temple and Joteshwar Lake.

Joteshwar temple is essentially a Shiva temple where the temple top feels like a dreadlock. ‘Jota’ is the Bengali word for dreadlocks. Imagine the naga baba hairdo. Similarly, here the exposed roots of ancient trees tangle together and come down on the temple top. They wrap themselves around the conical head of the temple. Also, there is a little stream of water which keeps them company. I would have to admit that the temple had a very atmospheric feel to it whether or not you're religious or spiritual. You've to do a bit of off-roading in your car and cross a couple of dodgy streams to drive down here. That adds to the excitement.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Barbil, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

After paying our salutations to the revered God of destruction, we set out on the lake trail. We'd to cross a few slim streams on foot which was fun for me but perilous for people who lose footing owing to whatever reasons. I say ditch the hopping stones and just walk on the shallow beds by dunking your feet in the water. Just mind your steps and don't slip! Or slip and fall. That doesn't put you down, just gives you so much more fun. Who wants to always walk carefully! Let the world smirk. .

This sunset hike was great to spot a lot of flora - sal for sure, ghetu flowers, mahua and kusum trees. The trail finished at a lake which gave us a picturesque silky sunset. The return was equally exciting because then you've to tread carefully for all the same reasons as before and plus, less light!

After this evening full of light exertion, we all freshened up to light up our night with a good Adda session. We all unanimously agreed that this was the best beginning of a trip we'd had with nothing to complain except the stupid train quality but then we're bongs and we expect nothing less wherever we've made our investment in!

Day One experience was rounded off with a chicken-roti dinner with delish dishes of veggies and a green salad. I already started to feel so healthy!

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Barbil, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

We retired soon to sleep off our early morning train journey tiredness and anticipating the next day's early start as well!

Day 2

Day Two was a complete outdoor experience as we had to drive down to Meghahatuburu and Kiriburu which are 70 km one way from our Barbil base. We packed our tummies with Paratha-sabzi and Odisha's famous sweet, 'chhanapora'! Our cook-cum-driver packed our car with lunch - fried rice and chili chicken. We're supposed to have a picnic lunch. Wow! More hits of nostalgia.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Meghahatuburu, Jharkhand, India by Shreya Nandy

Meghahatuburu and Kiriburu are situated at an elevation of 550 mt where the SAIL mines are located. We're headed there to visit the scenic village of Thalkobad. Keep some extra time on hand this day because of endless photocopies you've to supply to the Kiriburu Forest Dept and CRPF gate to secure an entry to the forest. The road will take you through Bolani, the mining township at the base of the hill. The road is maintained well and you'll enjoy that there are no traffic lights or speed bumps are also limited. The drive was great especially after entering the forest and negotiating the bendy roads.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Meghahatuburu, Jharkhand, India by Shreya Nandy

Our driver had a company of two local youths who kindly showed us the more adventurous way of proceeding inside the thick 'sal-bon' which goes by the side of the SAIL siding and amidst many open-air iron ore mines. It's guaranteed that the ride on the broken jungle path will excite you and you'll rare to photograph the bleak topography of the mines. But better not because photographing mines are not allowed. Even a few years back this area was riddled with the naxals. It's only now that there's no immediate threat to the tourists and all these areas can be visited without worries.

After entering the thick forests of Thalkobad, we stopped at an old and dilapidated British era watchtower. Yayyy! This was our spot for picnic lunch. Surrounded by towering trees and hiding animals, we had our food. We made sure that we carry all our garbage back with us and not litter the forest floor. Post lunch, we'd to do a little exercise to shake off our lethargy.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Kiriburu, India by Shreya Nandy

We started for the Bear Camp. Just a 500 meter walk from our food-spot! It is a natural cave where bears come to chill. If we compare it to human habitat, the design would be that of a duplex but with a far superior scenic setting. After checking out the cave all of us were jealous of the bear. We saw some of its claw marks which were proof enough that this space is actively visited by the beast. Thankfully we didn't court any contact of the aforesaid cutie-pie

Mom was itching to go to the next location, which was the 'Sunset Point', situated close to the SAIL guesthouse of Meghalaya in Meghahatuburu. On a clear day, you can see countless rolling hills (peeps say 700 – but that’s for those who can count, I can’t) covered in a bed of green. With the orange aura of the setting sun, gradually the hills were popping out of their misty stupor. It was really a sight to behold - with or without sunset!

After satiating our heart with a million pictures, we drove back to Barbil.

Our dinner consisted of roti and egg curry because we didn't want to load up after traveling so much. Nice to keep tummy light for a night of deep undisturbed sleep!

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Meghahatuburu, Jharkhand, India by Shreya Nandy
Day 3

Day Three opened up late as we lounged a little after breakfast and started for our day's trip at 11 am. Today we were supposed to check out our residential river Karo from two different points. First, we went to Pondul. Here we learned the mysterious art of balancing our feet on a precarious narrow ledge of rocks as we slipped on the dry leaves and hurtled to the river bank below. Thereafter, we got on to the boulders. I started looking for a perfect spot to dip my feet in the river without being washed down by the fast current. There was a sudden fall nearby and the river merrily jumped over the edges creating a beautiful waterfall. This is quite a rocky landscape so you will get to see frequent waterfalls of every height, volume, and density!

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Bolani Town, Limitur, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

After Pondul, we off-roaded to another area to see a five-stepped water cascade called Pachhri. Nothing can beat the tranquillity of a waterfall embedded deep into the greens of a forest. Thankfully we went there at the season end, otherwise, I cannot imagine the chaos and crowd that this little place might face!

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Bolani Town, Limitur, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

Today, we took the midday meal break at our homestay. We'd this absolute smashing mutton curry and steaming white rice. Just imagine the walking exercise, bathing, eating and then snoozing. What can be a better gift to your own self?

For sunset, we ventured with our car to a nearby location where we could do some adventure. We drove across the Karo riverbed in our car. All those TV ads of all-terrain vehicles with twisting and turning tires writhing off slippery surface came true in front of our very eyes. Our driver balanced the car skilfully and added the much-needed kick to the drive.

We witnessed a spectacularly peaceful sunset standing in the middle of the shallow river bed. The pebbles are sharp so it's suggested that you venture in with waterproof footwear with good grip soles. Wear shorts ideally. Otherwise soon you'll be like down hugging the riverbed and moving around in wet bottomed trousers.

Photo Courtesy: Tandra Nandy

Photo of Bolani Town, Limitur, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

This being our last full day at Saranda Forest gave me a bittersweet feel. Small towns are pretty to live in for a short time, though I've spent 18 years in one. And then ran away to the glitz and glam of the bay on the other coast. Was it worth it? Amidst all these roiling coils of confusion, I made my way to the car and then we're back to our homestay.

Remember I told before Pradeep Da atoned for the slow shower scenes. On our last day, he took us in the morning to the famous Jhikra Falls. The hike up to the waterfalls itself was great, a narrow path, following a stream, stone-hopping, frequent stream crossing, saving yourself from slipping by gripping the vegetation along the way - very adventurous in a small unthreatening dose.

Day 4
Photo of Bolani Town, Limitur, Odisha, India by Shreya Nandy

The falls itself is a sparse spray of the Karo River drenching the rock face of a hill. The water coming down was so slow it was almost like a light caress on your hands and head. It was a relief to bathe here. Best natural shower ever! You can choose your location to get drench - stand directly under the water or sit on a rock and spot a rainbow by tilting your head and adjusting the angle and light! Day Four was a hit right from the beginning.

After a much sorted natural shower, we were ready to head back to our mundane city life with doses of fun memories to cherish so that we can last till our next trip!

Bidding adieu to the Barbil station we took the same Jan Shatabdi to get back to the city.

Our expenses:

1. Jan Shatabdi - to & fro - INR 1200 approx

2. Home to station cab - to & fro - INR 700 approx

3. Miscellaneous - INR 1000

4. Per head trip incl of food, car (incl of station pick up and drop) and stay in a group of 5 - INR 6000

*The meal here includes - Breakfast, lunch, evening snacks (chicken fry, French fry, fish fry, pakodas - anything you demand) & dinner

I will totally support this local business of Saranda Valley. None of the members here are from a full-time tourism background but you'll not even get an inkling of the same. They're thorough and professional! Of course, they're not fault-free. But they give so much that unless you're nitpicking you'll be cool with what you get. As was I!

Love you guys, so much to learn from you all.

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