After enjoying a simple but scrumptious home-cooked meal I find myself standing in front of a rickety wooden motorboat, the kind you see in ‘80s Bollywood movies smuggling gold biscuits. It’s parked on the banks of a wide creek, in Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park, and is enveloped by a thicket of lush green mangroves. It’s 3 pm and everything around me is resplendent — the sky is bright, the winter sun glowing, the muddy water sparkling because of the strong rays.
To get here, we cross the Dangmal gate of this little-explored park in Odisha, and one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in the country after the Sundarbans. Accompanying me is my portly and ever-smiling guide Bijaya Kumar Das, the go-to person for wildlife enthusiasts and birders in Bhitarkanika. I bombard him with questions on the flora and fauna, the weather and the history of the forest, on tourism, climate change, and whatnot; he obliges, answering politely and to the point. It’s eerily quiet here, unlike the gates of other wildlife reserves which are buzzing with activity. There’s no chatter of tourists and naturalists, no rush for permits, no whirring of jeeps.
Our conversation is interrupted by the droning of the motorboat; one of the stocky motormen indicating to us that it was time to set off. As we leave the banks behind and head deeper into the creek, the chirping of the birds begins. I can recognise the common kingfisher from its distinct bird song, but my eyes are in search of Bhitarkanika’s other famous multi-coloured residents and its saltwater crocodiles. As we wind down the waterbody, it opens into the mighty Brahmani River. I’m mesmerised by the sheer magnificence of the mangroves that surround me and feel dwarfed by the world that thrives within these largely untouched forests.
Located in Odisha’s Kendrapara district, the 145-sq-km Bhitarkanika National Park is the core area of the larger Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, which is spread across 672 square kilometres. Bhitarkanika has a lot to offer and though there are a few walking trails, the best way to explore the mangroves is through boat safaris. There are two entry points, the Dangmal gate and the Khola Gate, and for those, like me, who like their solitude, there is no mad rush of tourists.
Close by is Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, which has the largest mass nesting site in the world for olive Ridley turtles.
The vast creeks and mudflats make Bhitarkanika a haven for birds and reptiles. Even before I found myself amid the mangroves, I had a wish-list of everything I wanted to see. The saltwater crocodiles topped my list and luckily there is no dearth of them. According to a January 2020 census, there are 1,757 crocodiles in the area, making it the largest crocodile sanctuary in the country. You can see the rugged reptiles lounging in the sun on the muddy banks, undeterred by the presence of any boat or its inhabitants. The average size of an adult saltie, as they are colloquially called, is eight feet, but more than a decade ago, the Guinness Book of World Records recorded a 23-foot-long saltwater crocodile in Bhitarkanika as the largest crocodile in the world.
The park is home to eight different species of kingfisher of which the brown-winged (mostly found in eastern India and southwestern Bangladesh), the black-capped and the collared (found along coastal areas) are the most sought after for birders. As we meandered through the creeks, I’d spot a brown-winged kingfisher here and a black-capped one there, perched on a low-hanging branch. It’s hard to miss the mango-yellow coat of the brown-winged kingfisher; and the green mangroves make a perfect backdrop for the royal blue feathers and red beak of the black-capped bird. The collared kingfisher in all its turquoise glory is not as easy to spot.
Wildlife enthusiasts also throng Bhitarkanika in search of the elusive leopard cat and the rare fishing cat. I was lucky to get a fleeting glimpse of the fishing cat, stealthily trying to catch a fish along with her kitten at 2 am after patiently waiting on the boat for five hours. Her grey-green eyes sparkled in the pitch dark thicket.
For the adventurous, there are a few walking trails along which you may have a close encounter with spotted deer and sambar chewing on grass, wild boar stomping around, monitor lizards, and a host of colourful birds adorning branches.
Summer: Early March is the best time to visit Bhitarkanika National Park as it is breeding season and birds are easier to spot. It gets moderately hot with temperatures hovering around 23 degree Celsius.
Winter: The winter months (October to February) are also a good option. Winters are never too severe with the minimum temperatures touching a low of 16 degree Celsius.
Monsoon: Avoid the monsoons (May to September). Though every national park springs to life with the advent of the rains, Bhitarkanika and the surrounding areas receive heavy downpours and are prone to cyclones. The mangroves in Odisha limit the impact of storms and cyclones and are essential to the ecosystem.
The park remains closed from mid-May to the end-July.
Safari costs and timings
Boat safari: The only way to explore Bhitarkanika is by boat safari (2.5-3 hours; costs Rs 3,000 for the entire boat which can accommodate up to 10; guide charges vary from Rs 1,500-2,000.
Hours: The park is open from 7 am to 5 pm.
Night safari: If you want to opt for a night safari, you need to hire a government boat and ask your guide to get the required permissions (Rs 6,000 for boat; Rs 2,000 for guide). The night safari is recommended for spotting the fishing cat and for stargazers.
Air: Bhubaneswar is the closest airport, which is 170/4 hr km from Bhitarkanika. From the airport, you can hire a private vehicle (approx. Rs 7,500-10,000). The road passes through small towns and quaint villages that offer a sneak peek into life in rural Odisha.
Train: The nearest train station is Bhadrak 103 km/2.5 hr from the park.
Mangrove Pitta: It is a simple homestay run by Bijaya Kumar Das, a naturalist and guide. It has three rooms with attached bathrooms (Rs 2000 per night per person including three meals; contact Das at +91 9556405159 or +91 8917217826). Stay here for the warmth and authentic Odia meals prepared by Kumar’s wife.
Bhitarkanika Forest Guest House: Run by the Odisha Forest Department Cooperation, the guest house is comfortable and clean. It has cottages for two, or bigger rooms that can accommodate up to five people (Rs 3,000-4,000 per night per room).
Sand Pebbles: At this jungle resort, you can stay in cosy tents overlooking a pond. It’s inside the forest area, perfect for those who want to be cut off from the hustle and bustle of the city. Some tents accommodate two, more spacious ones fit for a family of four or five (doubles from Rs 5,000).
• Carry personal ID, as it’s required for booking safaris and accommodation.
• Don’t forget to carry mosquito repellent, toiletries and any medicines or essentials you may need as the small village store only keeps basics.
• Night safaris are for patient souls as they require you to stay quiet on a boat for long hours waiting for some action in the forest.