another land – India series: tigers versus mosquitoes

Date: 28th May 2016 – 29th May 2016

One cute thing about my husband is his obsession with his childhood fantasies. Words like tigers, snakes, bears and wolves never failed to ignite his imagination and trigger a series of emotional response from him. A few days before we went to Similipal, our every evening was spent on watching some tiger documentaries, from the man eating tigers in Sundarbans (where we eventually went the following week) to the world’s largest tigers at Siberia. On the eve our trip, Toni told me that he had goose bumps and couldn’t fall into a sound sleep. On Saturday morning, he sprang up from bed on the first ring of the alarm at 4am and dragged my sleepy body to meet our guide and driver, who would bring us deep into the forest of the mysterious tiger reserve.

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Figure 1: drinking spiced milk tea at the road side

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Figure 3: our bolero

Even though Similipal was not far away from Jamshedpur, we contacted a travel agent because it seemed compulsory to enter the park with a four-wheeler and a guide. According to our guide, the state government had put up lots of restrictions on foreigners since an Italian was abducted by the local rebels in Odisha a few years back. After a four-hour drive, we arrived at the Jashipur gate where we paid for the entrance fees, submitted our passports for inspection and registered ourselves on the logbook. There were fewer than ten foreigners who entered Similipal from Jashipur before us this year, which said a lot about its obscurity.

While Toni stayed at the ranger office to ensure that all the documents were ready, I walked out and started reading from the quaint signboards at the entrance of the office. What sent a chill down my spine was not the story about a tigress named Khairi who once lived in the same compound that I was standing for a couple of years, but the reminder about taking preventive anti-malaria drugs before entry into the park. I remembered vaguely of reading about the prevalence of malaria in Similipal from wikipedia, but it never came across my mind that we should take anti-malaria drugs. Toni told me that it wouldn’t have worked for us anyway because we would have to take the drug a few weeks in advance for it to be effective, and there could be some side effects. Therefore, with a renewed sense of unpreparedness, I sprayed more mosquito repellent all over my body and braced myself against the exciting adventure.

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Figure 4: ranger office at Jashipur gate

After our documents were ready, we headed towards Similipal. However, before we were about the enter the park, our tire got punctured and we spent almost two hours getting our tire fixed at a small tire workshop…

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Figure 5: our tire was punctured before we entered the park!

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Figure 6: finally arriving at the forest check gate!

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Figure 8: map of Similipal

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The tribes at Odisha were surely a unique sight. Except for our noisy bolero and some simple solar panels on the roofs, there were hardly any traces of industrial invasion. It was like traveling back in time when humans still used their most basic physical skills to struggle for survival. The men carried wood logs from the forest to build and repair their homes, whereas the women picked up seeds from a special tree species to make detergent. When it became too hot to continue their work, they simply rested under the big trees and blended into part of the nature in a state that I was trying so hard to achieve in my yoga class. Every household had some goats and milk cows to supply to their daily protein needs, and a few water buffalo to plow through the fields. Brushing teeth seemed to be one of the their favourite activities, as we frequently saw the villagers chewing a kind of long wooden branch in their mouths, regardless of gender and age.

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Figure 10: traffic jam caused by the cows

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Figure 11: village girls

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Figure 12: a construction site

After a short drive, we arrived at our bamboo hut. It was newly renovated with ceramic tiles and glass windows. Unfortunately, due to our late booking, we couldn’t live in the original bamboo hut which looked slightly more appealing.

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Figure 13: our bamboo hut

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Figure 14: the original bamboo hut

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Figure 15: view from our hut

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Figure 16: some “wildlife” outside our hut

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Our first destination was Barehipani waterfall. It looked stunning from a distance but sadly there were no paths to go closer. We could only admire its grandness across the canyon.

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Figure 21: an old viewing platform

One thing we didn’t like so much about this trip was the constant driving on the road as hiking trails were not available. When we finally got down on our feet at the waterfall, we decided to follow a hidden trail which led us to a small spring buzzing with life.

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By this time, the morning breeze had completely vanished and the sun became scorching. It was a very short hike, but the heat and humidity drained our last energy. The fatigue from our restless night settled in and casted a sleeping spell on us. We only opened our eyes when the guide woke us up and announced that we had arrived at the core area, where no more human establishment was permitted and where most wildlife, including the tigers, thrived.

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Figure 27: we reached the core area!

Spotting wildlife was definitely not an easy affair. We met a group of guys who arrived at the core area quite early in the morning, but they had no luck as they only spotted a few deers, monkeys and squirrels. After leaving them, we climbed up the Brundaban watch tower, ready to strain our eyes and scan through every corner of the forest beneath. There was a salt lick not far away, but not even a bird could be seen. Toni attributed this stillness to the time of the day when most animals might be napping, and soon followed suit by falling into a deep slumber. I tried to close my eyes, but was always startled by the slightest noise in the forest. Sometimes it turned out to be a squirrel, sometimes a crow, sometimes a fly. In the end I gave up, and just stared into the emptiness with a blank mind.

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Figure 28: Brundaban watch tower

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Figure 29: the quiet forest

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Finally Toni woke up and asked me sheepishly if I saw anything. I shook my head and secretly found it unjustifiable that he didn’t miss out a single thing while sleeping. Just as he was about to close his eyes again, I sensed some disturbance in the forest. Then gradually, a deer appeared! It was so nervous that every step was taken with the utmost caution. Finally it reached the salt lick and started licking from the minerals, but kept lifting up its head every now and then to observe the surroundings. Its every muscle seemed to be tensed up and prepared for flight. Even though this dear was the only wildlife we spotted at Brundaban tower, the intensity of its fear revealed the lurking danger of Similipal just as much.

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Figure 32: spotted our first deer!

Since our waiting at Brundaban tower yieded no remarkable results, our guide took us to a bigger observation area at Chahala where two salt licks could be seen. This region was once exclusive to the royal family as a hunting ground, and all the trees had been removed to offer an unblocked view over the salt licks. We tagged along a group of journalists to take a closer view of the royal home and some abandoned auxiliary buildings, which were now fenced up to bar normal tourists from entry.

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Figure 33: Chahala salt lick

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Figure 34: the royal family’s vacation home for hunting

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Figure 36: wild orchid

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Figure 37: this house used to be a dormitory for foreigners

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Figure 38: house for the forest guards

After the short visit, our long waiting started again. We walked back and forth, looked up and down to search for any interesting sights. Toni found some spiders, grasshoppers and a special cockroach with a white stripe on its black back, though they were not particularly interesting. Our guide remained relaxed and chatted with some forest guards in the shade. On one occasion he came to us with two wild lychees. They were smaller than the the ones sold in the market, but once we bit into the flesh, the initial sourness was immediately overcome by an intense and fragrant sweetness, which made Toni and me gasp at the same time – it was the most delicious lychee we had ever tasted! I implored the guide to show us the magical lychee tree, but there were only a few ripe fruits hanging high which were beyond our reach. Sensing my disappointment, the guide picked up a heavy branch from the ground and started throwing it upwards in an attempt hit the fruits. After a few more tries, we got two more precious lychees!

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Figure 39: the most delicious lychee

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Figure 40: a huge flower

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Figure 41: the forest

The incessant waiting was wearing our patience thin. More and more groups of tourists came and agglomerated at the observation platform. Some of them brought along young children who made loud noises, which made our chance of spotting even slimmer. An orange-haired ranger we saw at the entry gate offered us some candies. They tasted like artificial syrup at first, but when the outer layer was cracked open, some salty and spicy liquid came out which left an unpleasant smell in our mouths. We had long forgotten about the tigers, and only lingered there because we didn’t want to get back into the car for a few more hours’ drive on the same route back.

As dusk approached, the mood of the forest underwent a subtle transformation. Our dimished vision converted the observation platform into an elevated stage, and instead of being the audience, all the humanly behavior displayed by us – talking, laughing, shouting, hugging, excitement, boredom, annoyance, impatience – were now exposed to the nocturnal hunters. The noise from the woods grew louder. Suddenly, an excited yell broke out from the crowd and we saw two deers walking into the salt lick. Then one by one, more and more deers came out with elegant trots. They seemed to forget about the danger temporarily and even became playful at times.

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Figure 42: the deers finally came out at dusk

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Figure 43: more and more deers

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Figure 44: deer fight

As if to heighten our suspension even more, a long and loud squeak piereced through the forest. It sounded so incongruent that we thought it must come from some large animals. “Elephants,” said our experienced guide. I jumped into the air and asked him eagerly if they would come out as well. “I really want to see elephants!” Toni added with an emphatic exclamation. The guide told us that they should be less than two hundred meters away from us, but he couldn’t guarantee if the salt lick would be on their course of direction for tonight. We waited and waited until all the other tourist groups were gone. At one time we heard another squeak which sounded even closer to us, but the elephants didn’t make their appearance. When everything in front of us had become shadows, we took a last glance into the darkness and left Chahala.

The ride back was a thrill. The road was unpaved, narrow and unilluminated, and we almost crashed into a wild pig. In the middle of our journey, lightening bolts flashed across the sky and it started pouring heavily. Toni explained to me how the metal casing of our bolero could act like a conductor and I thought he looked more adorable when he was sleeping. By the time we arrived at our base camp, the rain had stopped and fresh breeze greeted us when we got off the car. After some snacks and tea, we had our sumptuous dinner served under the original bamboo hut. Then we walked back to our own bamboo hut with a solar-powered lamp.

Despite the protection from the mosquito net, I could hear swarms of hungry mosquitoes during the night. They sounded so furious that I imagined how their bodies crashed against the nylon mesh like rockets and pushed the net closer and closer to our exposed limbs. What we didn’t know was that some of them were already hunting inside the net. Soon, the unbearable ichiness over multiple parts of my body jostled me from my dream, and I woke Toni up with a trembling voice. Toni sat up and slowly told me that he also got a few bites, which seldom happened because of his thick and dense body hair. We quickly covered our bodies with our clothes, sprayed more mosquito repellent (which had limited effectiveness) and put up our own mosquito net, a Christmas gift from Toni. His practicality over romance had once again saved our lives (some other examples included water proof bags and mosquito head covers).

Not taking enough precaution against mosquito bites could easily have been one of the gravest mistake we had ever made, because when we met the guide the next morning, he told us that malaria was rampant in Similipal, and he personally suffered from it a few times. He asked us not to worry and seek medical attention immediately if we had headache or fever. Despite his reassurance, we did more research once we got back to Jamshedpur and discovered that the type of malaria found in Similipal – cerebral malaria, was much more malicious than the normal malaria and was one of the biggest killers in the local tribes. Specifically, the parasite would attack the brain cells, causing permanent cerebral damage and inducing coma. One of my colleagues later told me that her uncle contracted cerebral malaria in Similipal and died only after a few days! This episode would remain in our memories for a long time because we were so close to being one of the victims; in fact I only felt completely relieved recently because the incubation time could be as long as one month…

Our pity of not seeing elephants on the previous day was partially alleviated when our guide brought us to the elephant park where a few domesticated elephants resided. Even though they didn’t walk out from the wild, we still couldn’t contain our excitement to be so close to such gigantic animals. We learnt that they belonged to one family, and primarily served to chase away the wild elephants and protect the villages. At other times they were chained up at the elephant park to provide rides for tourists. Both Toni and I already had some experiences with elephant rides in Thailand, so we only went close to them and touched their tough skin.

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Figure 47: touching the long trunk

We also went to the orchid garden, but it was locked up and no orchid was blooming. Our guide pointed to a withering flower and we could only patronize him by nodding our heads.

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Figure 48: the locked up orchid garden

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Figure 50: wise words 🙂

Another magnificent waterfall at Similipal is Joranda waterfall. It reminded us of Yosemite, but again we could only view it from a considerable distance.

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Figure 52: the mountain range

For some unknown reasons, we found the resort at Joranda waterfall in an abandoned state. The relatively new but demolished huts seemed to bespoke a glorious but short past. We wondered silently what could have happened to this ill-fated national park, which once fascinated royal families, colonial governers and adventure seekers alike.

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Figure 53: the abandoned resort

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Figure 54: one of our greatest discoveries 🙂

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Figure 57: the monkeys scattered away because our driver didn’t stop the car 😦

Once we were out of the core area, we passed by villages after villages again. By midday, we had reached the other end of Similipal at Baripada. Toni recorded our entire traveling route in his GPS and updated it at OpenStreetMap | Changeset: 40434352.

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Figure 61: the other end of Similipal

To satiate our desire to hike, our guide brought us to a small waterfall just outside the Baripada gate. It took us less than 10 minutes to reach the waterfall and there was hardly any water due to the dry season, but we saw some beautifully painted rocks – exemplifications of the religious devoutness of Hindus.

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Our Similipal trip officially ended after our driver brought us back to Jamshedpur in the late afternoon. Once we entered the bustling and smoky city with cars horning each other and dust flying in the air, we realised how much we missed the peaceful villages and green forests of Odisha. Even though we didn’t see any tigers, the trip itself was an adventure not only because of the isolation from modern civilization, but also because we were biten by one of the most dangerous mosquitoes in the world.

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