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Monday, Sep 16, 2002

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It's tranquil at Chilika

Kumud Mohan

Kumud Mohan, on a trip to Rajhans Island on the Chilika Lake, enjoys a medley of a boat-ride, dolphin sightings and the beauty of the Bay of Bengal.

Suddenly, the motor launch slowed down, took a full circle and spluttered to a stop. Has the petrol finished, we wondered with some trepidation. "Shhh... he has spotted a dolphin," whispered someone. The boatman was holding his finger to his lips as his eyes scanned the water. Sure enough, we could spot something gleaming popping above the water at some distance.

Our launch remained silent for some time, then continued. "We try not to disturb the dolphins," explained the boatman. Besides being a major attraction to tourists, dolphins were also sacred to local fishermen. If a dophin got entangled into their nets by mistake, they'd release it immediately. Saving a dolphin would ensure a good catch, they believe.

We were amongst a dozen tourists on way to Rajhans Island on Chilika, the second largest lagoon in the world. The greatest concentration of dolphins — about a hundred at the last count — are found near the new mouth at Satapada. Regular dredging operations on a large scale are being carried out here to clear up the mouth so as to maintain the ecological balance of Chilika.

Chilika, incidentally, is a wetland of acknowledged international importance. Amongst the most productive of ecosystems, its shallow, 800-1,100 sq km of marshy waters provide livelihood to a lakh fisherman and also support nearly 1,000 species of aquatic and non-aquatic plants, 225 species of fish and 150 species of birds. Almost a million birds from places as far away as Siberia, Kazhkhstan and the Urals find a home at Chilika during the winter months.

Our launch sliced through the shimmering and shining and invitingly serene grey-green waters of Chilika at about 30 km-an-hour. The narrow sandy shore of the island was lined by casuarina trees. Some crabs that had burrowed into the soil and were enjoying their afternoon siesta, ran helter-skelter as we stepped off the launch. Walking on a pathway amongst the tall trees, we got the feeling of being on a hill station right at sea level! The temperatures here ranged from 22 to 30 degrees, we learnt. Annual rainfall was about 1,150 mm. There was not a single soul in sight. And then, guess what we saw — a deserted British-type bungalow straight out of an Enid Blyton adventure book.

My son went up the stairs to the verandah to get a closer look, but, of course, the shuttered windows left no scope for a peep inside. "There are three bedrooms there," volunteered our guide. "The bungalow belongs to the forest department. You've got to get their permission to be able to stay here."

We walked up further to reach the most marvellous white verdant beach one could imagine. It stretched in an arc from one end of the horizon to the other. This was the mighty Bay of Bengal, known for its destructive whirlwinds and tornadoes. But presently there was no sign of any storm or fury, only an endless expanse of bluish-grey waiting to be experienced, enjoyed, explored and discovered.

The sun was pretty sharp by now. We surmised that visitors to the bungalow probably brought along beach umbrellas while bathing here. No doubt there was some shrubbery nearby for shade, but we just could not resist rushing into the sea.

It was bliss to be able to take off one's shoes and to feel the cool, cool waves swirling around one's feet. "The sea is quite safe here," commented our guide. The children were thrilled to search for sea-shells amongst the numerous weeds scattered here and there. They picked up globules of a crystal clear jelly fish with not a single speck — not even a hint of a nucleus — inside. Some kids wanted to carry these back home in their pockets, until they realised that the poor creatures may die if taken away from the sea.

Rajhans seemed to be the ideal get-away-from-it-all hideout. A 15 minutes' stroll had taken us from the protected waters of Chilika (where one could safely swim, sail, surf or pedal-boat), through a forested `hill station', to the mighty ocean on the other side. What more could one ask for?

Fact file

How to get there: Rajhans island is 18 km away from Satapada, which is surrounded on three sides by the Chilika lagoon. Satapada is 50 km by road from Puri which is a railhead.

Where to stay: Non-AC double rooms at Satapada Yatri Niwas (a lovely complex with terraced gardens and courtyards) are available at Rs 150 a day.

What to eat: The cuisine is excellent, with delicacies such as prawns and lobsters.

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