CONNECTING THE ‘GHATS’
……. Road trip across Western & Eastern Ghats
“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”
... continued from Episode 1..
After 4 months at Sharadindu, towards the end of Jan 2021, we decided to get back to Kolkata. Having experienced the diversity and treasures of the Western Ghats, I realized that our knowledge of the Eastern Ghats was practically negligible. No wonder the Eastern Ghats is one of the least explored natural landscapes of India. Based on my desk research, realised that the Eastern Ghat mountains are older than the Western Ghats and are the surviving relics of ancient mountain-chains elevated together with the Aravalli Mountain. And unlike the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats are a broken and discontinuous line of mountains along the eastern coast. Sadly though, it is acknowledged that the Eastern Ghats have a very fragile ecosystem, which is being further degraded by illegal logging and exploitation of forest wealth. Also, it has had a good population of primitive tribes, living in these hills for ages, who have been exploited by wealthy, politically strong mafia. A consequence of which is the Naxal uprising.
|Dawn on NH75 - the start of the journey from Pandavapura to Hyderabad|
Realising this was the best opportunity, to take the road less traveled i.e. drive through the Eastern Ghats we decided to focus on the stretch of Eastern Ghats through Odisha in this attempt. Our return route therefore was unaltered till Hyderabad. In the next leg of our journey over 12 days, we witnessed an amazingly beautiful country. The region being home to a rich diversity of flora & fauna, in addition to a few dwindling primitive tribes who still have held on to their customs, lifestyles and traditions, and are desperately trying to save the treasures.
Here is the itinerary that we followed as we drove from Pandavpura to Kolkata:
Return Day 1 - 29 Jan 2021
Dep: Pandavapura (Sharadindu) - 0615 hrs; Arr: Hyderabad (Novotel Airport) –
Duration – 9 hrs 25 mins; Distance - 702 Kms.
Return Day 2 – 30 Jan 2021
Dep: Hyderabad (Novotel Airport) –
0550 hrs; Arr: Malkangiri (Satiguda Nature Camp) – 1615 hrs;
Duration – 10hrs 26mins; Distance – 537 Kms.
Eastern Ghats Halt-1 (Return Day 3) – 31 Jan 2021
Dep: Satiguda –
0900 hrs; Arr: Lamtaput, Koraput (Desia Eco Tourism Camp) – 1220 hrs;
Duration – 3hrs 20 mins; Distance – 137 Kms.
Eastern Ghats Halt – 2 (Return Day 6) – 03 Feb 2021
Dep: Lamtaput (Desia Eco Tourism Camp)
- 0800 hrs; Arr: Mandasaru, Kandhamal – 1615 hrs;
Duration – 8hrs 15mins; Distance – 380 Kms.
Eastern Ghats Halt – 3 (Return Day 9) – 06 Feb 2021
Dep: Mandasaru – 0700 hrs; Arr: Dhenkanal (Gajalxmi Palace) – 1210 hrs
Duration – 5hrs 10mins; Distance – 250 Kms.
Eastern Ghats Halt 4 (Return Day 12) – 09 Feb 2021
Dep: Dhenkanal (Gajalxmi Palace)- 0730 hrs; Arr: Kolkata (Krishna Vihar - Home)
– 1600 hrs;
Duration – 8hrs 30mins; Distance – 440 Kms.
|The area we explored on Eastern Ghat |
Drive - Bhadrachalam
(Telangana) to Malkangiri (Odisha) via Sileru (AP) – 30Jan2021
The drive from Hyderabad via Khammam to Bhadrachalam is decent. Most of the route is a single carriage highway. The landscape begins to change as we approach the quad-state-junction ... (Telangana, AP, Odisha & Chattisgarh), which also marked our entry into the Eastern Ghat region.
From Bhadrachalam along NH30, one is supposed to turn North on NH
326 at Chinturu (East Godavari District) towards Malkangiri. That would have been
the simpler and shorter route. We instead continued on the Bhadrachalam – Rajamundhry
Highway passed Chinturu, continued further
along the Mothugudem – Donkarayi Road, skirting the Papikonda National Park onward to Mothugudem (SH10).
It was near Chinturu that we lost GPS connectivity and mobile coverage, we continued based on instinct. Upon reaching Mothugudem (30 Kms from Chinturu), we luckily came across someone who could speak fluent Hindi and admiringly new the roads of the region well. Thanks to this gentleman he explained that the best way to reach Malkangiri would be to continue along SH10 up to Upper Sileru (50 Kms from Mothugudem), and thereafter we ought to ensure to cross over the dam on to the other side into Odisha, eventually to Malkangiri. Understood and accepted, that navigation henceforth would have to rely on traditional means and common sense (ask & verify cycles). Public signboards being in local language, wherever present, is the other challenge we have faced in Andhra Pradesh and in Karnataka too. Only on National Highways would you find signboards in English.
|State Highway from Chinturu to Sileru|
Due to its topography and remoteness, local guidance, is often tricky as most tribal do not converse in languages other than their local dialect. Moreover having got used to being guided by Map Apps, devoid of it, you suddenly feel lost. Although few years ago, we managed perfectly well without such apps. These gadgets can be so addictive!
Dotted with hills, rivers, thick forest, a tribal population with recent history of Naxal insurgency and a largely deserted route ... this drive was yet another adventurous episode. As a matter of fact, I was quite excited to take this route and experience first-hand the ground reality, while on the other hand there was this concern in the back of my mind considering it was just the two of us on a totally unfamiliar terrain possibly stretching our streak of adventure to its extreme.
|Scenic State Highway to Sileru|
Most of the time you are listening to the ‘hiss and crackle’ of the rubber on road and its
reverberation through the dense forest, wondering all the while if the last
fellow gave you the right advice. We came across CRPF (para-military) patrol combing
for land-mines and establishing there area dominance. While their presence on stretches was reassuring, the land-mine detector they carried was intimidating. That apart we went past a telugu film shoot that was happening on the banks of a river, where the number of security folks outnumbered the technicians & artists put together. Very few vehicles crossed us in the opposite direction. Its quite an eerie feeling!
The road was smooth, barring locally created speed breakers. One had to be extra vigilant for the sneaky craters, that sprang up all of a sudden. We did hit the ceiling couple of times luckily no damage!
|Ongoing movie shoot in the midst of the forest on the state highway to Sileru |
As you progress from Lower Sileru towards Upper Sileru the road condition deteriorates. At Upper Sileru, we took the Chitrakonda road and crossed the earth filled Upper Sileru dam on Sileru river to get into Odisha.
Talking about the Sileru, its a river with immense value and heavily leveraged by the quad-junction states. The Sileru is known as the Machkund River in Odisha. It is renamed as the Sileru and flows through southwestern Odisha before forming the border first between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh and then between Odisha and far eastern Telangana state. The Sileru empties into the Sabari River, in Chhattisgarh state, just a short distance down Sabari’s merges with the Godavari River. In its small run around the Balimela Reservoir (south Odisha & Andhra border), the two states - Odisha & Andhra Pradesh harness about 1400 MW of hydel electricity. In addition the waters of Sileru is used for irrigating significant areas in the three states and provides drinking water to Vishakapatnam during the lean season. Such is the significance of the Sileru!
Coming back to our drive, after crossing Upper Sileru dam, we navigated the narrow pot-holed road past Chitrakonda dam, and hit SH47 in Odisha. Thereafter the road condition is simply superb! Just as the road condition changed, so did the network coverage! Mobile signals sprung back to life, and all of a sudden Google with its animated voice told us it would take approximately an hour to reach the days destination.
|Upper Sileru dam on Sileru River that connects Andhra & Odisha|
|Sileru River flowing towards Andhra, as seen from Chitrakonda Dam|
Along the route nowhere did we witness a trace of Naxal activism nor did we hear of any such tales from the locals, perhaps historical stigma has a lingering shadow.
Satiguda Nature Camp (Malkangiri)
We finally arrived into Malkangiri, after a 10 hr drive (from Hyderabad), through forests, hills and agrarian settlements, peppered with some tense moments. A bit tired! Our pit-stop for the night was at Satiguda Nature Camp, an Eco-tourism camp with overnight facilities. Eco-tourism Camps are a commendable initiative of the Forest and Environment Department of Odisha government. Engaging local youth in running the facilities setup by the government, thereby generating employment and livelihood for the community. The Nature Camp is situated on the banks of Satiguda (MKG) Dam & Reservoir, 8 km away from Malkangiri town. The dam is constructed across Satiguda Nallah and intercepts a catchment area of 130square-km. The Satiguda Nalla is formed out of the tail-race discharge from Upper Kolab Hydel Project. The water body and the surrounding green cover makes it an excellent place for winter migratory birds our prime attraction in the choice of the place.
|Panoramic view of Satiguda Reservoir|
Malkangiri was earlier the part of the Kingdom of Jeypore, in 1992 it was declared a separate district. Like the Western ghats, this region is no less beautiful, not only does it boast of pristine nature, mountains, rivulets, forests etc but also has a rich tapestry of historical backdrop and cultural diversity. The erstwhile Jeypore Kingdom’s contribution to the cultural heritage of Odisha is remarkable. It is a splendid blend of tribal, Brahmanical, Jain and Buddhist ideas. Because of its remote location, the area remained relatively autonomous, shaping and sizing its own culture. The population of this jungle Kingdom contained a high proportion of tribal groups who had their own religious and social outlooks.
|Satiguda Nature Camp - cottage|
Since very little information is available in public domain, about these places, thus before embarking, I had requested a very dear friend and guru Sri Suresh Mishra (IFS - retd) for guidance. Upon arrival we found the local forest department officials to be quite helpful. Sri Santosh Kumar (Forest Guard & Local Site administrator) was excited to know about our keen interest in wildlife and therefore made it a point to introduce us to the DFO - Sri Pradeep Devidas (IFS), who happened to be visiting the site that evening. Satiguda Nature Camp, was few months old when COVID struck, thus the facility though commissioned, the accompanying services are gradually being put in place. Sri Devidas was equally happy that we had chosen Malkangiri for a visit. He rightaway invited us to check out the migratory birds at the reservoir. More importantly the forest officials showed great keenness to spread the word across to other wildlife and nature lovers to come witness the pristine beauty of Malkangiri. It is without doubt a good beginning and the genuine efforts should pay dividends in the long run. Though a lot needs to be followed through.
|Fishermen on Satiguda Reservoir before break of daylight |
|Fishermen on Satiguda Reservoir|
Early next morning, the forest boat sprinted across the reservoir with the two of us. We encountered a flock of around 800 – 1000 water birds (may be more) consisting of some common and some not so common birds such as Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Grey Heron, Cormorants, Great Egret, etc. Really grateful to Sri Suresh Mishra for the introduction and Sri Pradeep Devidas for the favor. We did not get a chance to personally thank them.
|Crested Pochard taking off|
|Pochards in flight|
..... continued Episode 3