The monsoon rains had taken a break and the landscape was a visual treat after the traffic-riddled Midnapur town we had just left behind. White clouds floated across the blue sky. The countryside wore a bright green look. Village ponds were brimming with water to the delight of the ducks. A lonely woodpecker was calling from somewhere. The only thing that was missing was a road sign to our destination. So we had to stop a few times to ask for the way to Gopegarh Ecotourism Park.
We had started early in the day from Kolkata. An hour later, we were in Kolaghat on the Rupnarayan River. On the far side, we could see the thermal power station. On both sides of the highway were rows of eateries, frequented by people travelling to and from Digha (West Bengal) and Odisha. We too stopped at our favourite joint on this route and had a quick breakfast. It would take us around 1.5 hours to reach Midnapur town we learned.
Located on the bank of the Kangsabati River, Midnapur is an old town and had played a key role in India’s fight for Independence. Now it is the headquarters of the West Midnapur district of West Bengal. There are a few things to see in the town but we decided to skip them and head straight for the eco-park. About five km from the town was Gopegarh Eco Park, established in 2000, by the West Bengal Forest Department.
We took a dirt track off the metaled road as pointed out by a friendly villager and arrived at the gate of the eco-park. A nominal entry and car parking fee had to be paid at the gate. Just beyond the gate was car park for day visitors where some local people had set up tea stalls. But as we had bookings for the tourist cottages inside, we were allowed to drive on.
The drive took us past a dilapidated structure that was apparently the ruins of an ancient fort called Gopegarh which has also given the park its name. But it was difficult to sift fact from fiction. According to some, this was a cattle shed, a part of the household of King Birat of Mahabharata fame. While some claim, the structure is around 200 years old. However, very little remains of the original structure and the exposed brick pillars offered no clue. Within the walls of the structure and behind it, the forest ran wild and we dared not explore fearing the presence of snakes. According to historians, Abu Fazal mentions two forts of Midnapur in his book Ai-i-Akbari, one of them is Gope Griha. Many assume Gopegarh to be that fort but there are doubts.
But the remaining area was landscaped into smaller gardens and was a pleasant sight. There was a children’s park too. A motorable path curved its way past the historical building and entered the cottage complex. Tucked within a woodsy area, the cottages and the dormitory were fancy free but the basic amenities were clean. There was a watch tower from where we enjoyed a panoramic view of the forest. In the distance, we could see the Kangsabati River and a bridge over it. On clear days, one can see the lights of the town, the caretaker said. But we were not lucky as it rained through the evening.
At dawn, the watch tower was our favourite perch from where we did a little bit of birdwatching. Later in the day, we would explore the forest trails, walk through some dense patches of ‘sal’ trees, the rose and other flower gardens (but it was not the season for flowers), and an arboretum. There are plans to introduce an orchidarium and a butterfly garden, according to media reports. However, the evenings can be a tad boring unless you are a large group or you have an interest in stargazing.
In winter, this is a popular picnic zone and thankfully the forest department has created the picnic sheds away from the cottage complex. There were notices everywhere warning visitors not to smoke or drink inside the park, not to litter, not use plastic bags and thermocol (polystyrene) products, and stiff fines for those who broke the rules. There is a lake inside the park and boating usually happens in winter.
It was only while driving back that we realised where we had gone wrong on day one. The park has two entrances, and we had taken the second one, frequented by local people. The main entrance lies opposite Gope College (renamed as Raja Narendralal Khan Women’s College), on the outskirts of the town. From the general car park to the main gate, we drove through a lovely green avenue.
Getting there: Gopegarh Eco Park is nearly 135km from Kolkata. It is around 25km from the IIT town of Kharagpur. One may travel to Medinipur or Kharagpur station from Kolkata by train and then continue the road journey by local auto rickshaws. However, transportation is a problem. So it is best to have one’s own car on this trip. Sher e Punjab restaurant in Kolaghat is very popular but the Express Food Plaza next door is our favourite. There is also a KFC outlet tucked in between eateries opposite these two.
There is one ac and one non-ac room as well as a dormitory. Booking has to be made online. Canteen serves typical Bengali food. Although the park and cottage complex is well guarded, visit by solo women travellers not advised as it is a remote area. Carry mosquito/insect repellents, medicine, and wear sturdy shoes for forest trails. It is advisable to take a guide if you want to enter the deeper parts.
Entry and car parking fees applicable. For daily visitors, the park opens at 8 am daily. However, the closing time may vary with the season, so please inquire at the ticket counter.
Contact: West Bengal State Forest Development Agency (WBSFDA) – Ph: -33-64994999 (working days, 10am to 5pm)