Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bastar and Dantewada

On July 14, 2007, four of us (Roopesh Kohad, Pareekshit and Praveen) took a car right through the Maoist stronghold of Bastar. Our destination was the Chitrakote Falls in Chattisgarh. Here is a report on the trip:

We started off on July 13, 2007 from Hyderabad in a Tata Indigo (diesel car) at 1530 hrs. We wanted to drive through the forests of Bastar to Jagdalpur and from there to Chitrakote. Our immediate destination was Bhadrachalam on the banks of river Godavari from where the highway to Jagdalpur started.

Listen to Bhakta Ramadas song on Bhadrachalam
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Day 1

The monsoon had started to recede, though there was a considerable amount of rainfall. The route is like this:Bhadrachalam - Chintur (diversion)- Konta (diversion)- Penta- Mothugudem -Sukma- Kukanar-Darba-Tirathgarh-Sosanpal-Jagdalpur-Chitrakote. The road was a National Highway (No 202) and unlike other highways, was a narrow road in a real bad shape. At places, the macadam surface is missing completely and the rains had rendered the road muddy and slushy. However, post Konta at the AP-Chattisgarh border, the scenery began to change rapidly into a thick and lush jungle to make up for the bad road.

There were numerous streams and rivers in spate with muddy water. Principal among them was the river Sabari which ran along the road to join the Godavari at Chintur. We were driving upstream for many miles.The route was patronized well despite the bad state of the road. We had a steady company of loaded trucks, buses, jeeps, off-roaders, auto rickshaws and tractors. One common thing throughout the trip were cows and goats. Somehow, we saw more cows, goats, dogs and chicken than human beings.

Barring the animals, the next most common sight were police! Chattisgarh has recruited an entire army of para-military forces to check the Maoist (Naxalite) menace. Special Group and CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) cops manned the checkposts in every village. There were fortified barracks next to the checkposts at every village.

Thanks to the monsoon, the land was swathed in different hues of green. The forests typically consisted of teak, sal (Shorea robusta) and mango trees. The fields were planted with rice all over. Offthe fields, grass grew lush and green, evidently fed with monsoon water. Numerous streams overflowed with muddy water, forcing us to stop and savour the scene.

Post Kukanar, the road seemed to improve. We took in the ghats of Darba to the first destination of our trip - Tirathgarh Falls, nestled deep in the mountains.The approach to Tirathgarh consisted of a narrow but well built road. Thanks to the monsoon, there was enough water to retain its magic. The water was a river that originated from a lake further up stream. Water tumbled down from a height of 100 feet over a wide column of rock on to a flat piece of land before slipping down further along the slopes of the mountain into the forest. There were a couple of small shrines beside the stream. A series of steps led us down to the foot of the falls. The water was shallow enough to wade through and reach an appropriate spot to sit and watch the water cascade down. The falling water gave rise to a spray of droplets that kept clouding my camera lens. We spent quite sometime at the falls. There were not many people around. It was not a season of tourists. The entire region is still waiting to be discovered.

We resumed our journey to Jagdalpur and reached Sosanpal where we took the road from Gidam to Jagdalpur (NH 16). At Jagdalpur, we did not find it difficult to find the way to Chitrakote. This road was amazingly broad and well built. We hit a good speed on the road and reached Chitrakote (39 km away) in 20 minutes. The falls were right beside the road but we could not make much out of it in the fading light.At the end of the road and overlooking the falls was the Public Works department's guest house. It was now was undergoing major renovation, probably being converted into a tourist guest house.Adjoining the building was a dirt track that led to the facility built by the Chattisgarh Tourism for tourists. This is a resort that is still being constructed. The department had erected 5 log huts as a temporary measure to attract tourists. A good part of the landscaping was completed. The resort was built at a higher ground than the river. There were a series of concrete cottages being built the edge of the plateau, that offered an uninterrupted grand stand view of the falls from their balconies.The huts were at a disadvantage thanks to these new facilities which blocked the view of the falls. In any case the huts are a temporary solution.

We made a quick detour of the falls at 10 PM. The caretaker of the resort had someone switch on a few floodlights to enable a good view. We were standing at quite close to the drop. The sheer force was evident from the thick mist that rose from the base and filled the air. The roar of the falls in the darkness rendered it eerie and frightening.

Day 2
Chitrakote falls hits you in the face with its granduer. Though not in the league of some of the major falls of the world, the falls on the river Indravathi is nevertheless breathtaking to look at especially in monsoon. The resemblance to Niagara falls is uncanny even though the Canadian-American falls is much bigger. The mouth of the falls is a concave curve. The monsoon rains had caused a lot of water to flow from the catchment areas of the river valley flow into the river with silt and sand causing the Indravathi to swell and inundate the banks.

The caretaker invited us to his favourite haunt. A remote river beach about 2 km downstream from the falls. We had to descend a rough and rock-hewn slope down to the spot. The climb down was trecherous thanks to the slippery smooth stones. But we were rewarded with an absolutely untouched and unspoilt little beach by the cascading muddy waters of the river. The caretaker, Mr. Tiwari rarely brings anyone here and we were the chosen ones of the day thanks to our enthusiasm. The beach kept us in a rapture for quite sometime before we ascended the slope that drained us of all energy.

Later we descended another slope down to the falls. The river had swollen enough to encroach upon dry land with its muddy waters. There were trees right in the middle of the river with the falls in the background. We walked close to the falls and observed it in complete awe standing on the rocks jutting out. Despite all the mud and silt, the falls still generated a great cloud of mist. The force of the water over the years had cut through the rock at the top forming a sieve. It was difficult to get a snap thanks to the continuous spray of water droplets that filled the air.

A cursory detour to the edge of the falls at the same point where we first viewed the falls at night completed out tour. We stood there watching the volume of water cascading down in sheer amazement. It took us the good part of the day to savour the falls as we returned to Jagdalpur, stopping en route to check out the Shitaldhara falls which left us cold and unmoved after the spectacle of Chitrakote. We spent the night at Jagdalpur.

Day 3

We started early. Our plan was to take the National Highway 16 to Hyderabad. Our road atlas showed the highway going all the way to Bhoopalpatnam on the border of Chatthisgarh and AP and further to Mancherial. We were to take a diversion at Bhoopalpatnam to Venkatapuram and cross the Godavari to join the National Highway 202 to Hyderabad enroute Eturunagaram and Warangal. The ride out of Jagdalpur was exciting as the well built, wide road allowed us to cruise at a good speed without a single pothole or speed breaker. We crossed Sosanpal and came close to the Kothavalasa- Kirandul railway line. We were confident of touching Gidam, about 45km away in the next half hour. It took us 3 hours. About 20 km after Sosanpal, the smooth road turned into a minefield of mud and slush. A temporary aberration was what we thought as we spied a board stating that the highway was under construction by the Border Roads Organization.

The aberration lasted all the way till Gidam that tested the mettle of our car. Post Gidam, the road switched between bad to terrible as we tried our best restrain our frustration and the traction of our car. The presence of gun-toting para-military men on patrol (looking for Maoists) and the increasing forestry did not help us with our confidence either. A consolation was the virgin landscape draped in hues of green.

10 Km from Bhoopalpatnam, a group of travellers on a Scorpio coming down the road finally made us wiser. They told us that NH16 does not exist yet! It has been under construction for more than 10 years and almost abandoned. The milestones indicating the distance to Nizamabad were all wrong. There was no bridge across the Indravati to help us cross into AP. Worse, the detour we were supposed to take at Bhoopalpatnam did not exist either thanks to the lack of a bridge across a couple of rivulets that were in spate thanks to monsoon. Had it been summer, we could have waded through the shallow waters. They advised us to turn back immediately and head back to Gidam and from there to Dantewara. It was not safe in tyhese parts as the day wore off. We cursed our luck, the government of Chattishgarh, the Eicher Road Atlas, the Maoists and for a good measure, the town of Jagdalpur where none warned us about this. We had just travelled 200 Km on a road that does not exist! We turned back and headed for Gidam, braving the rain and the slush, rescuing the car a couple of times from the mud using physical force. We hit gidam just before nightfall and reached Danewada where we spent the night.

Day 4
The next day, we took the road to Bailadilla which was in great shape and diverted to the road to Sukma to meet the same highway we had entered Chattishgarh on. By 2 PM we were at Bhadrachalam, in one piece. Thus ended our tour of Bastar. Next time, we shall make discreet enquiries about the road conditions before we rely on road atlases!