A Sojourn into the Canyonland
Our Mahindra Commander was kicking up dust like a horse in frenzy as we left the metalled road and entered the fair-weather one, a little ahead of Koksara. As we traveled through tidy villages, children came running out of their homes and stood in files beside the road, hands folded in Namaskar. Little did they know where we came from and where we were headed? The horizon in front seemed an insurmountable barrier of hills standing lock-shouldered. Up, high above I spotted a tiny red scratch on the hills. Yes, that was the road ahead – the road that would lead us to Dokrichanchara. As we clambered our way up, at every ascent I looked back to see where we came from. The plains below sprawled like a giant chessboard of light and shade. Black lines indicated metalled roads and shimmering silvery ribbons were rivers and canals.
Crossing the great wall of hills we entered a high altitude plain. It was like an amphitheatre surrounded by 360° of hills. Our escort, Mr. Pradhani, the literacy coordinator of Koksara block, instructed a halt at a village called Khaligarh. Our little army marched behind Pradhani, flushing chickens and scaring mongrels off the village alleys. A few minutes later we proudly returned to our vehicle with the booty: a bunch of utensils and two men – Duryodhan and Bhakta, our cook and trail guide respectively. Now the vehicle was packed with fourteen people and their rations, pushing me on to the stepny (the spare wheel attached to the back of a jeep).
Leaving the amphitheatre we entered a steep road. Trees and climbers hooded a scary canopy above us. Some of the drooping branches lashed me on my face. At places the road seemed to be lost in a sea of boulders and the vehicle tossed and roared violently. Often we had to get down giving it a shove of encouragement. Bhakta kept on assuring, “Just a little ahead and we’ll get better road” and each time he told this the road turned worse. Now, ahead of us stretched a pair of parallel gullies, created by hauling logs with cattle. Sometimes, our vehicle ran on its right wheels only with the left ones frantically slicing the air. Thoroughly disgusted with Bhakta and his assurances we decided to park our vehicle in a little clearing beside a forest path and got down to walk with all our belongings.
The sun was already down when we completed our hike of three kilometers. In the half darkness of the sieved moonlight we found ourselves on a small outcrop at the foot of a hill. A flight of twenty or so wide steps led to another outcrop above where stood a little one-roomed house – the inspection bungalow (IB) and a queer little temple with an oil lamp at its gate. To our immediate left lay a densely wooded slope of a hill. To our right, a little distance away stood a great, bare wall of textured rocks crowned by a tree-line. Between these two lay a vacant space, cloaked by the shadow of the rocky wall. It seemed to be a plane with a brook rushing through it, as we gathered from the sweet sound of gurgling water. Off and on a strong gorge wind howled as it tried to shake us off our feet.
Unloading ourselves as fast as we could, we rushed through the thickets to have a closer look at the empty space. There in the faint moonlight and mist stretched a bare, rocky bed, polished and textured by a monsoon river. Dozens of little streams of various widths and depths crisscrossed this bed. The moon peered through the mist over this ultra-wide dreamscape: molten silver, flowing through silver nuggets across a bed of solid silver. We stood there shivering in the hard blowing gorge wind and listened to the sounds of distant waterfalls that rumbled over the gurgling sound of the streams. We came to our senses when we heard Duryodhan calling us for tea. The potion was drunk with heavy doses of exclamation and we seemed to thank everyone – human and divine for bringing us to this place.
Cigarettes were lit and again we went to the bed of rocks. A group of ethnic Kutia Kond people huddled around a bonfire, trying to keep themselves warm against the fierce gorge wind. I interacted with them in toddlers’ Oriya and found them to be gatherers. They were on their weeklong foray of collecting wild tapioca and yam, which they’d take back, dry, grind into flour and sell. These people tried to tell me their tales about wolves, bears, snakes as large as anything that could devour adult humans, and about spirits which dwelt in the forest and showed strange lights to mislead people. Because of the language barrier, I half understood what they said, but pretended that I understood and believed all.
Duryodhan rang his vocal dinner bell. We ate silently, seated in a circle around the open hearth and listened to the chorus of cicadas. The moon lurked behind the rock walls and the land looked eerie in half darkness. Illusions of creatures, crawling on the bare rocks, tingled our spines. The streams gurgled. The waterfalls rumbled. The gorge wind blew harder. In distant woods a barking deer called its mate. A brain fever bird occasionally uttered its melancholy cry that triggered up a craving for something not acquired, a longing for something lost. We slept to the lullaby in the starlight. The magic of Dokrichanchara imbibed by our senses infused us with a peaceful slumber.
The starlight faded as it dawned in the valley. Varieties of birds ringed their chirps and whistles. The mellifluous trill of a shama was heard now and then.
About an hour after sunrise, the fireball peeped over the shoulder of the hills and the rock wall on the opposite side seemed dazzling with hues of orange. The bare, gnarled rocks – weather beaten and moss eaten, presented bold outlines of light and shadow. The tree line above looked marvelous with their white trunks and yellowing leaves. The rocky riverbed was awake. Our visions stretched without fatigue as we sat laid-back, relishing the little slice of Grand Canyon dipped in the brew of Scottish highlands. From the top of the great wall small figures moved down in ant like files. Closer inspection revealed them to be a troop of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). They came down cautiously and perched on tree-tops, swinging and swaying as they foraged. Some of them even came down to the far end of the stream and gulped the cold water, keeping watchful eyes on us. After a lot of mutual watching, both parties of primates lost interest in each other and parted. While they went back into the rocks and trees, we ventured downstream. We walked a few hundred meters till the road ended in a precipice, and all the streams merged to form a twin waterfall as it plunged down some 60 feet below. We couldn’t go down the sheer rock face and contended ourselves with the view of the surge from above.
We left the twin waterfall and walked back towards the IB. Hurriedly swallowing our breakfast of wet flat-rice with gur (brown country sugar) and bananas, we prepared for the day’s trek through the canyon. Our destination was the Bhairavdhara waterfall. We started upstream through the left bank of the river. The forest grew denser at each step. The road was but a mere trail of gatherers. Majestic butterflies swam around and alighted on the wildflowers. Climbers and undergrowths tried to check our entry. Clusters of red berries hung from unknown lianas. Birds like bulbul and shama flitted around. Bhakta made generous use of his tangi (battle-axe) to create path for us. We forded the stream now and again, crossing over to the more favorable bank. At places we were forced to advance through the stream bed – hop, skip and jump from one boulder to the other. Lichens aand fungi of varied shapes and colors grew on the rocks and fallen branches. At one place blue flowers of Ruellia tuberosa (wayside tuberose) formed an alluring garden, covering beneath them a treacherous terrain of loose rocks.
Leaving the fast-running stream below us we clambered up the grass covered slopes. Thorny bushes pricked us and twigs lashed our faces. There were wild flowers everywhere. On our way we came across some very steep descents and equally steep ascents.
Tiny jumping spiders of dazzling colors jumped on us. Praying mantises waited in ambush for unwary insects. Diving beetles frolicked in the stagnant pools locked between boulders in the stream bed and agile water skaters skimmed the rapids. Above us the canopy parted a little to allow a few shafts of sunbeam reach the stream. On our way we came across a waterfall called Dokridhara. It looked like a waterslide with that perfect slope.
As we moved on, the terrain became tougher, the insects more myriad and the undergrowths denser. Obviously, this part of the trail was less frequented by the gatherers. We balanced ourselves on one unstable boulder before jumping on to the other. A tumble here could be dangerous. We followed the stream, turning with it at the bends.
Then, suddenly I heard the sound of ‘Distant Drums’. The rumble grew louder at each turn. We moved quietly behind Bhakta. After the final turn the anticipated view opened up before us. We gasped in awe. Before us rose a rock wall – 90 degree vertical. From the edge of this sheer rock a mighty waterfall crashed below. We tilted our heads up to see the upper reach. It was lofty! The height seemed to be over 80 feet and the width no less than the length of a tennis court. The crystal waters roared down and created a mist which shivered and drifted slowly across the stream bed, creating quivering rainbows.
Some of us danced in glee while others stood transfixed. Bhairavdhara seemed to re-enact the drama, albeit on a much smaller scale, which met David Livingstone’s eyes when the African natives had taken him to see the waterfall which later came to be known as Victoria Falls. Bhakta stood casual and cool enough to fill his smoking pipe with homegrown ganja (marijuana). We, the city-bred lot, wondered – was it our Karma that led us here?
Information: The valley of Dokrichanchara lies in the western part of Kalahandi district of Orissa. Other than dozens of canyons and waterfalls, Dokrichanchara offers beautiful forest cover, myriad rock forms and prehistoric cave sites with Neolithic paintings. One can hike to the nearby Haldigundi valley famous for its yellow rock walls, which turn bright gold at sunrise and sunset. Another hike leads to Gudhandi caves, another site famous for its Neolithic paintings. Other interesting places in Kalahandi district are archaeological sites at Belkhandi, Asurgarh, and Junagarh and forests at Karlapat, Jakkam, and Thuamulrampur. The district headquarters are at Bhawanipatna from where the nearest railhead Kesinga is just 35 kilometers away.