21-Oct-2009 -- The previous day’s hard climb at Talari (20N 84E) had ebbed all our strength. We had gone straight from Talari to Bhawanipatna, the District headquarters of Kalahandi. Even though it was past midnight we got ourselves a couple of comfortable hotel rooms. Alarms were set for 5 A.M. the next morning and the plan was to cover 20N 83E by noon.
When you set your alarm for 5am on a Monday morning, you really have to ask yourself the question “why am I getting up this early to take photographs in the middle of nowhere”. I looked at the map again and realized that today’s destination was a great place to go bush walking to – Confluence or not. The five hours of sleep made the energy seep back into the group.
After a hurried breakfast, we left Bhawanipatna. The morning was clear and crisp; the early walkers were still on the streets. We left the town and took the road to Junagarh. Everything was fine: the road was fairly passable and matched my GPS receiver’s waypoint route which I had created from the satellite image. On the right side of the road the work on a new railway project was underway. This must have been fairly new because it was not shown on the satellite imagery which was just a few months old.
It looked like we were in for an easy one. A really easy one. Just a few kilometers from base, in the pleasant hills around Nandul and, according to the road map, right next to a good tarmac road. We were taken aback by all the greenery of the countryside, for this was Kalahandi, the most backward, drought and poverty ridden district of India.
Kalahandi repeatedly hits the headlines in Indian newspapers for the recurrent drought situation that has broken the economic backbone of the cultivators. It has a long history of drought covering more than a century. Drought had occurred in Kalahandi in 1868, 1884 and 1897. The famine of 1899 is otherwise known as “Chhapan Salar Durbhikshya”. This famine left a terrible socio-economic gloom in this area. In 1919-1920 another drought occurred followed by cholera, influenza and malnutrition due to lack of adequate nutrition. A series of drought in 1922, 1929, 1955-56, 1965, 1974-75 and 1985 occurred with impudent regularity.
Due to lack of rain, three-fourth of the crop production usually failed. The District Gazetteer, which is the chronicle for the District, mentioned thus: “the bulk of the population which constituted the landless agricultural laborers became unemployed due to suspension of all sorts of agricultural operations. The worst sufferers were the landed gentry, who, because of the drought, could not reap a harvest nor could they take to manual labor to which they were not accustomed. The pastures lost the greenery and the bovine population therefore was equally starved. Everywhere there was an acute shortage of water.”
The land alienation is due to the prevalence of land hoarding and the practice of mortgaging land for private loans at cut-throat interest rates. Money-lenders actually control many holdings of the poor. This is best exemplified by the local adage “Garibar kaje akal, mahajanar kaje sukal” (Drought is a problem for poor and fortune for the rich who get an opportunity for exploitation).
A stark example is Amlapali in Nuapada district. This village shot into infamy during the 1985 drought after Phanas Punji, a starving woman ‘sold’' her young sister-in-law Banita for Rs 40/-(about 80 cents). The story was given prominence by the national media and Rajiv Gandhi; the then prime minister had rushed there. He saw the condition first hand and the Prime Minister’s Office started monitoring drought relief to the district. Today, twenty five years later, Phanas and her neighbors still live in abject poverty.
Historians note that the local tribal people have been marginalized since the 19th century when the British controlled the forests and introduced the market economy. Strangely, however, the process of marginalization continues. Deforestation, the loss of traditional water storage measures and the whims of the monsoon have pushed this region over the edge. Drought relief measures never address the root causes.
Kalahandi also is an example of disparity /contrasts that exist in many part of the developing/underdeveloped world. On the one side, this district is famous for famine and starvation deaths: this is the same district that boasts of among the highest number of rice mills in Orissa. There are more then 200 rice mills in the district. The rice mill business is so lucrative that businessman from adjoining districts and states have invested directly or indirectly. Most of the rice mills purchase paddy from the government allotted villages through the panchayats and sell the rice to the Food Corporation of India. As many rice mills are competing for paddy, the price paid the farmers has increased in the recent past.
We took a right turn after about 20 Kms crossing the small villages that lay en-route. There was hardly any traffic, and we passed the village of Nandul at around 9 a.m. Somehow I had a premonition that things were going too smooth, everything was textbook simple, and my previous experiences had taught me that when things seem to go suspiciously smooth, something happens.
About 8 Kms after Nandul the road gradually narrowed and became potholed. We were soon stopped by a group of about ten people who stood by the road holding marigold garlands. I asked Ananta to stop and got down to make inquiries. An old man came forward and nearly slipped a garland around my neck, I ducked just in time. Soon it was made clear that they had mistaken me for the local MLA, who was expected there for the stone laying ceremony of a proposed bridge over the river Tel. The Works Minister was supposed to fly down in a helicopter from Bhubaneswar, and the local politicians were all expected to be there to receive him. This was rather disturbing news, as the last thing that we wanted on a confluence hunt was a horde of politicians, policemen and big crowds. However we were told that the ceremony was scheduled for noon, we had enough time to visit the CP and make well our escape from the place.
We soon reached Makarsula village, where the road dead ended. The River Tel meandered its way around the outskirts of the village, and there was no way we could have forded the river in our SUV.
We parked our SUV under a lone acacia tree which had somehow survived the annual flooding. A flotilla of little dug out canoes loaded with bamboo were bobbing in the shallow water. A few others country boats were tied up on the bank, in anticipation of the big crowds that would have to be ferried across for the ceremony which was to be held on the other bank. We could see the preparations on the far side, there was a huge marquee with colorful banners.
The Garmin showed the CP to be a good 6 Kms away from the point. We could have easily crossed the fast flowing river by one of the boats, but the thought of trekking 6 Kms into uncertain territory was not very welcome.
One again, our prayers to the Confluence gods were answered in the form of Naku Patel and his sturdy Hero Honda. Naku was a prosperous vegetable farmer of the village, and his curiosity on seeing strangers making inquiries got him to be an integral part of the great Orissa confluence hunt. After some hesitation he agreed to go along with us, and very soon we had the Hero Honda motorcycle loaded on to one of the waiting boats. It was decided that this visit would be done only by Kasi and me, as the motorcycle could have taken only both of us on the pillion. Even though we coaxed the boatman to row us across, he refused to do so, insisting that he would only cast off when he had a full load. Very soon people with cycles, goats, sacks of vegetables etc. trickled down the river bank. About fifteen minutes, and after Kashi had slipped a twenty rupees note into the pocket of the boatman, we were adrift on the muddy water of the Tel.
The combined weight of the people, cargo and motorcycle forced the boat dangerously near the waterline. We were in the hands of a very familiar god, Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and the lord of protection, in the form of two little red plastic elephants, surrounded by a garland of fresh marigold guarding us on the prow. The boatman used a long bamboo pole for maneuvering the boat midstream and then let it float in the swift current. We reached the far bank and I was once again mistaken by the crowd to be their elected legislator. (This mystery was cleared when I met Pradip Nayak, the legislator a month later at Bhubaneswar. There was an uncanny resemblance amongst both of us).
Unloading the motorcycle was a bit tricky, as the ground was swampy. However we managed to drag it up the bank, and very soon we were on our way. There was a fairly decent stretch of road for the first few kilometers. There were many small rivers and streams that flowed from the adjacent hills into the Tel, and before long we came to the first river over which there was no bridge. Clearly, the rivers here are seasonal phenomena. During the monsoons, rainwater spills out of the hills and fills channels that sit dry during the hot seasons. The communities in this area, rather than build bridges, construct cement roadways over the riverbeds. So, a motorist will find himself cruising along and then come to a dip in the road. This dip changes from black asphalt to concrete. The first small tributary contained only a couple of inches of briskly moving water, however we had to disembark, with three of us on it, the motorcycle was rather unsteady.
The jungle paths took us round in circles; we were crazily following the Garmin Nav arrow all over the place. The nearest point that we reached was 2.4 Kms to the CP; however the path we were taking ended in a cul de sac. We guessed that the CP lay on the other side of the hill, and Naku Patel suggested that we go the nearest village of Kutia Chura from where he would enquire about possible route to take.
After about two hours of futile tooing and froing all over the jungle, we were at our wits ends. We had tried nearly six approachable and three unapproachable routes. But the closest we could get to the CP was 1.75 km. To add to the miseries, we could not communicate with the locals, as the dialect was so different then the Oriya that we were accustomed to. Naku Patel was not a good interpreter, and he had already formed an idea that we should return. The helicopter carrying the Minister from Bhubaneswar had flown overhead a little while ago, and Naku was dejected as he would not be able to attend the ceremonies of the bridge stone laying.
At last, after crossing the embankment of a fair sized dam, we saw an asphalt road. Very soon we were passing thru Gunduri village and the Garmin was now indicating the CP to be midway on the ascent of a small hill. The confluence point was on rather steep hill on the eastern flank.
We turned right after about 2 kms from the village, and made our way across the newly plowed fields. We parked the motorcycle under a big mango tree, and gathered our gear and trudged forth in to the small forest that lay at the base of the hill. The sun was quite high and it was nearly noon, the humidity weighed like lead on our shoulders. We followed a cattle path which very soon dipped into a small stream and broke from solid clay to ankle deep black ooze. We crossed the stream which had knee high water. There were leeches in the mud and the grass at the water’s edge cut into our flesh like razorblades.
The dense foliage was like a solid wall that I doubt could be penetrated without a machete, which we did not have. I could also see that the plants were undercut by many small hidden streams that could further slow down progress. The vegetation was awkward, however oblivious to all consequences we blundered into the riparian forest. The three of us were marching like ants through six foot high elephant grass. Suddenly we all felt collectively alone. Naku made the first move of turning back. However mine and Kasi’s souls were ablaze. We pleaded him that another hundred metres was all that we had to go. The shielding effect of the trees caused the GPS unit to `freeze’ because it could not receive enough satellite signals, making heading in the right direction even more difficult. Within 200 metres of the point, the (now un-frozen) GPS direction indicators became less reliable, as, just with all units, they need a period of smooth travel in one direction, in order to give a bearing. This was impossible in this terrain. I alternatively changed the display of the Garmin to show actual latitude & longitude figures. Navigating by this mode required mental calculations as to what direction should be taken, the scope of error being quite high.
We were startled by the sudden appearance of two villagers who silently emerged from the woods. There were out hunting and were just as surprised. Naku Patel explained our predicament to them, with me and Kasi interjecting. However they could not comprehend why we wanted to climb the hill at midday and dissuaded us from going any further. When asked to accompany us they were agreeable only if we went sideways, not up the hill. Very soon we understood from Naku that the two were warning us of pythons and other snakes. Besides a leopard had been seen in the vicinity of the hill last week, and venturing unarmed was not a safe proposition. I could detect the genuine concern in the faces of the two, and should have recognized the mortal danger in which we were placing ourselves, but the mission blinded us to reality. We were target focused - a mistake that could have cost us dearly. We wanted to locate the CP as soon as possible and then leave as quickly as we could. We were now aware that the local herpetofauna was as threatening as the flora that we had encountered till now.
At 140 metres from the point, Naku once asked us to stop, but we carried on, bleeding from the scratched in every limb and not knowing whether we could really force our way through the thick plants. It was now a solid wall of forest growth, and we could not get the readings from the GPS as there were hardly any clear patches where the satellite signals could reach us. I paid homage to all of the gods, hoping the one I’d offended would lift the curse. We were dead tired and every step forward was a great effort. There was no place where we could have even sat down. I had started getting cramps in my legs and stopped and hung on to a low branch. The ground was hard beneath our feet and the primary difficulty we encountered was climbing the 60 degree incline at 45 degree Celsius.
The very thought of turning back was unacceptable. We had faced similar situations both at Maligan, Talari and Kotasamalai but our sheer determination and resilience had made us go forth and conquer. So near yet so far. At last the quid came calling for the qou and we decided to give up. There was no way we could have gone any further. We came, we tried and we failed.
It was a big disappointment in turning back, the distance to our base was hardly 600 metres but it seemed like ages before we reached. We were dejected and crestfallen, and in our despair did not even click photographs of the nearest point. We took photographs of the area and the Garmin reading at base. The two villagers we had met in the jungle were waiting for us and suggested that we come back after two months, as the streams and the vegetation would all wither and dry up. They told us that most of the small trees get burnt by the forest fires that rage on for weeks. The dry leaves and undergrowth burns for days and usually clears up the ground. I visualized the barren forest and us tramping over the burnt undergrowth and making a straight line approach to reach the CP easily.
After a half hour’s uncomfortable ride, we reached the banks of the Tel once again. The crowds had all vanished, as the helicopter had taken off a good one hour ago. There was no boat around, not even on the other end. Kashi climbed a small dune and found the boat tied up a good five hundred metres downstream. We yodeled to the boatman, who took his own sweet time to row upstream.
This was the first failed attempt and both of us were crestfallen. Kasi suggested that we return to Bhawanipatna and made a second attempt the next day. However better sense prevailed and we returned to Bhubaneswar immediately.
Unaccustomed to failure, the experience burned in our collective souls. Reaching this Confluence was no longer an option, it had become an obsession. We studied the detailed topo sheets and the Google Earth imagery for other approaches but concluded that we had taken the best possible route. We went forth and knocked off two more CP’s of our Orissa Project successfully, but the bitter taste of the failed attempt lingered. For several months, we watched the icon of Confluence 20° North 83° East marked in red (still a virgin GPS reading).
Kashi had mentioned many a time that this one was just not possible. Traveling all over Orissa, we had at times wondered what would have happened if one of the points would have been in the core areas of a reserved forest. We had seen the tall impenetrable hills during our Gumma hunt, one steep hillock at Tikarapara had a practically 80 degree ascent, and the peak had never been scaled. A sizeable area on the coast was our of bound as it was a missile testing range, and the defence personnel would have never let us near. However our homework on the Orissa confluences had convinced that each and could be conquered, albeit with some levels of risk and difficulty.
We finally conquered Confluence 20N 83E on Wednesday, 21st October, 2009 at 12:15 hrs. The trip was rather uneventful, we had taken the train to Balangir and then travelled by bus to Bhawanipatna. Early morning the next day we had left for the point on a borrowed motorcycle. This time we had taken a shorter route, traveling to Gunduri village thru a dirt road that wound its way thru the small villages. We reached Kamathana, where we rested awhile, and reached Gunduri by 10 A.M. We drove along the road until the arrow on the GPS became perpendicular to the road.
We had originally planned this second attempt in the summer, as the forest cover would have been absent. However it was now October and the last clouds of the monsoons had just spent themselves a week earlier. The hill was lush with greenery; even the fields that we had earlier taken were thick with groundnut cultivation. There were makeshift scarecrows, attired in ragged white shirts which fluttered in the light breeze. These were put up not for the birds, but for the short sighted wild boars that frequented the forests in the vicinity. The fields were often raided by them; they snuffed out the groundnut plants with their snouts and damaged most of the crops. We had to leave the motorcycle on the road, and walked on the boundaries of the patches. In one of the fields we found a farmer couple, who were collecting the groundnuts that were laid out to dry in the sun.
Surprisingly, Madshusudan Bhoi was well versant with our coastal Oriya, and we gave him the spiel about the Cellular phone tower sites that we were prospecting for. He readily agreed to accompany us, and we were soon on our way. Half an hour’s walk bought us to the base of the hill. This time we took a roundabout approach to the CP, climbing slowly and steadily, and getting closer and closer in gentle degrees.
The weather was comfortable, but we soon encountered the steep terrain. The loose rocks on the dry earth made footholds impossible. Besides the thick canopy of the broad leaves made the Garmin reading difficult. At some points we were getting reception from only a couple of satellites. It was frustrating as we got closer and closer to the CP. Very soon the readings became erratic, and we lost track of our bearings and realized that we were getting further away from the CP. Kasi spotted a small clearing, and with the help of the stout stick that Madshusudan was carrying, we thrashed a opening in the canopy. We got the nearest reading to the CP, but as there was hardly any standing space, we once again lost the co-ordinates.
The readings of the GPS were very unstable. It took almost half an hour until tired and sweaty, we finally settled for a point amidst clumps of tightly growing bamboo trees. We had a tough time getting the zeroes in place as the canopy was quite thick. In spite of getting reception from only three out of the twelve satellites, we managed to get an accurate reading. There was no place to rest, the ground was a steep 70 degrees at the exact point. The sun streamed through the overhanging trees and cast patches on the forest floor. We took the mandatory photos, it was green and green in all the four directions.
The CP lay in a small clearing surrounded by clumps of Bamboo.
East of the CP, the forest floor was full of teak and sal saplings that had taken root this season.
West of the CP was rocky ground, with a few middle growth trees.
North was a small clearing formed due to the sheer drop of height. There were broad leaved vines and a few bamboo trees which could not survive in the incline and hence lay horizontal.
South too were bamboo clumps.
The CP was rather non-descript, except for the fact that it was thick with vegetation.
The sheer ecstasy of having conquered this Point was one of the high moments of all the hunts we had done till date. Nothing mattered, not even the leech that Kashi discovered clinging to his ankle. We had just one more point, and we would have done all the land based CP’s of Orissa. We returned to Bhawanipatna by a shorter route that took us thru the village of Badali.