We looked in awe as the men deftly handled the large, muddy-coloured crabs, evading the fierce-looking claws as they transferred the crustaceans from one box to another. “We collect them from the mudflats there,” one of them pointed to the vast mangrove forest that stretched before us. We found fishermen’s boats sailing up the channel that cut through the mangrove forest with their early morning catch.
We had arrived early in the morning to Khadibil in Odisha from Digha, the famous seaside resort in neighbouring West Bengal. It was a comfortable drive as the road did not have much traffic.
The Subarnarekha River, which rises near Ranchi, flows through Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha to drain into the Bay of Bengal near the Bichitrapur mangrove forest. The regeneration, conservation and protection of mangrove forests along the vast mudflat near the river mouth – undertaken by the Odisha Forest Sector Development Programme – has turned the place into a sheltering ground for birds, olive ridley turtles and crabs. About a couple of years ago, Odisha government inaugurated an eco-tourism project at Khadibil, adjacent to the mangrove forest.
We reached the Ecotourism Centre set up by Odisha Forest Development Corporation in Khadibil to buy tickets for the boating trip to the river mouth. However, boating is dependent on the tide. We had arrived early and the high tide was yet to set in. Therefore, we got an opportunity to explore the surroundings. There was a rudimentary thatched shelter where the fish were being auctioned. By the time we finished our tea at one of the vendor stalls here, we were asked to queue up for the speed-boat ride. The jetty had to be reached by walking across a dyke.
As our boat sped along the river channel, on both sides extended the mangrove forest. More fishing boats were coming in from the sea. The sun was strong and we were glad that the boat had a sunshade. But we could not see any of the resident birds. According to our boatman, migratory birds arrive in winter (we were a little early for them), which is also the best season to visit the mangrove forest. The boat dropped us at the jetty on the edge of an island. Even though we knew we would have to walk through sticky grounds, we wore our shoes because the mudflat was full of breathing roots of the mangrove trees. A pair of collared kingfishers welcomed us to the island.
We walked down to the edge of island where the waves gently swept inland. Stumps of water-weathered trees were strewn across the marshy land. Bereft of tourists, it was tranquil and pleasant. Red Ghost crabs roamed the mudflats, scurrying into their holes at our approach. In a while, the waves turned boisterous as the full tide swept in. The boatman signalled it was time to return. When we returned to Khadibil, the queue for the boat ride had swelled up too.
We passed the cottages set up by Odisha Forest Development Corporation as we drove towards the Bhusandeswar Shiva Temple, about 10km away from Khadibil. Set in the middle of a casuarina grove, the cottages looked inviting for a relaxing holiday.
Located in Bhogarai village (Balasore district of Odisha) near the Subarnarekha River, Bhusandeswar Shiva Temple is known for its 12 feet long, 14 feet wide Shiva-lingam. Although the antiquity of the stone idol is yet to be established, it is associated with the tale of Ravana (of Ramayana fame) trying to carry Shiva to Lanka. A part of the black stone idol, which leans slightly, lies underground. The temple sees a steady stream of pilgrims all through the day. Most pilgrims bathe the Shiva-linga with coconut water before offering ‘puja’.
On our way back, we stopped at another Shiva temple at Chandaneswar town and a very colourful Krishna temple, both near the interstate border.
Digha, the popular sea resort in West Bengal, is the most convenient gateway for travelling to Khadibil, the gateway to Bichitrapur mangrove forest of Odisha. From Digha, Khadibil is about 15km. Odisha state capital Bhubaneswar is about 290km by road while district headquarters Balasore town is about 90km away. The best time to visit is between October and March. In winter, you are likely to find migratory birds in the area. Rooms in the community managed nature camp run by Odisha Forest Development Corporation can be booked online. However, it can be a little lonely at night unless you are in a large group.
Tickets for the boat ride is available from the kiosk at the Ecotourism Centre in Khadibil. Be prepared for long queues during peak tourist season when day-trippers from Digha pay a visit. Boating timing is between 8.30am and 5.30pm but regulated by the flow of tides. Boats can ply only during high tide. So plan accordingly. Usually visitors are allowed an hour for the trip (which includes journey to and fro and time spent at the mudflats). Remember to carry sun protection gear and drinking water.