25 September 2011

palamau tiger reserve


Continued from here..

the first red dot (top) is kechki
We had a comfortable sleep but had to wake up early in the morning to take a bus from Ratu Road to Daltonganj. We reached the bus station quite in time but the bus left an hour late at around 6 AM. The tickets were moderately priced at Rs 120 per person and the seats were almost comfortable. We were supposed to reach our destination within three and a half hours and from there what next would happen we were still undecided, rather clueless. I had done exhaustive research on the place but was a little naive regarding the accuracy of it all. Where exactly the tiger reserve would be? How far was Netarhat from Daltonganj? Where would Lodh falls be? This and a lot more questions were getting on my nerves and I made frantic calls to a friend who was from Ranchi but that was of little help. He had been to all these places but they had hired a car from Ranchi and didn’t have to worry about the route and the bus timings. I thought it would be best to leave the journey unfold itself and at its own pace. I spent some time reading a copy of Sanctuary Asia but mostly I looked out of the window admiring the natural beauty of Jharkhand and noting the nondescript, dusty towns that kept passing. We didn’t have a king’s sleep the last night but I wasn’t feeling sleepy and that was probably because of the glass shards that kept falling from the bus roof top. The nearer we reached Daltonganj the more curious I became of what next?

typical jharkhand countryside as seen from the bus
We kept discussing amongst ourselves regarding what the plan would be and people in the bus, by now, had come to know that we were tourists looking for jungles and waterfalls. We had thought we would get down at a place from where the main gate of Palamau Tiger Reserve wouldn’t be far away and since that would lie before Daltonganj we would save on time. A few local men intervened and told us that getting down at PTR would not be a good idea since the main gate was miles away from the main road and since it was not a popular reserve it was almost impossible to get a car anywhere around. Well, I knew of that but had no idea that the park gate would be miles away from the main road. They also told us that Lodh falls was at Mahuadanr but at that point of time I had no idea how I would cover PTR and Mahuadanr in a single day which was more than 150 km away from Daltonganj plus we had to go to Netarhat as well. All the various permutations and combinations were killing me. One of the men (Athar was the friendliest and most helpful of all) even gave me the number of a driver (Qutubdin) who takes tourists around the reserve but we thought we would go to the town and get a car from there instead.

the road for PTR as seen from the bus to daltonganj
We reached Daltonganj half an hour late at around 10 AM. It was the district headquarters of Palamu but much like every other town that had passed by, only a little larger. The men we had befriended in the bus had told that we would get a bevy of cars near the police station. Reaching the local thana after the bus dropped us at a busy market place we asked the few drivers there of how much they would charge for PTR, Netarhat and the few waterfalls (Lodh, Lower Ghaghri, Upper Ghaghri and Sadni) in the vicinity of the famed hill station. Most of the cars were booked since it was the time of lagan when Hindu marriages are solemnized in India. The few that cared to listen to our plan asked for exorbitant amounts on the basis that PTR was fine but Netarhat was very far away and it was impossible to return on the same day. No vehicles are allowed to ply on the road connecting PTR to Netarhat after dusk and it would be a risky affair going around the place. We couldn’t make up or mind and the irate drivers added to the mess. It was quite hot and we needed to freshen up so we decided we would fix our plan and the car a bit later.

rolling hills n sylvan plains
Sulabh Sauchalays are now common in small little towns of India and that is a respite of sorts for tourists like us who like going around looking for unheard and uncomfortable places. We hardly had any cash left with us but the town did have a cluster of ATMs though only one was working and had a long line of hapless people eager to get a whiff of cool air when drawing money. While Vikram and myself were in the line Amit and Prashant were busy planning the day and I could see the frustration they shared. Thankfully the ATM had enough cash to last till our turn came. Amit and Prashant sounded very pessimist when they told that it was impossible to go around PTR, Netarhat and the few falls and reach the Barwadih station the next day. Most of us accepted that we made an error of judgment. We must have gone to Netarhat (from Ranchi) and come here the next day for PTR but like I mentioned earlier, the whole route map was a mess and nobody knew where exactly PTR was located, what were the conveyance and accommodation facilities and as such glitches were sure to happen. We were disillusioned but decided to go and have a talk with the drivers again, hoping if things could work out now.

a village in latehar district
We saw almost the same cluster of drivers who were more adamant on their price and often rude. They wouldn’t negotiate the price or agree to come back the same day. A particular gentleman agreed but the amount he quoted (Rs 2000 plus fuel) was too much to spend on a day. Another driver agreed but the owner asked for security. It enraged us. Why would anyone ask for security from tourists? We would be going in person and not hiring it for a third party so the very idea irked me and we moved on. We asked a few more but most either didn’t agree or quoted random price. To our surprise, the driver of the car whose owner was pressing for "security" came behind and told that we should go and talk to the proprietor once again. We had to be reasonable because we had not much to bargain so we agreed but were doubtful as to why would they agree this time sans security. I really had no idea what the owner meant by security after all. The driver said that he convinced his master for we looked good people and that he would take us at his own risk. Fair enough and good for us.

beautiful jharkhand
The owner took our phone numbers (later in the journey, the driver told us that there was an instance when a criminal had hired his car and had forced the driver to run across wild terrain of the fear of being hounded by police at Dehri) and told us to be careful throughout the journey. It was not a tourist friendly place. He asked for a relatively fair price (Rs 1000 plus fuel) and told his driver to show us the falls (primarily Lodh, Ghaghri and Sadni) and drop us at Netarhat by nightfall. A bus comes to Daltonganj from Netarhat early in the morning and we had thought we would take it while returning the next day. We paid the owner Rs 500 and moved on with a sense of relief. After much uncertainty, haggling and headache we were finally going to Netarhat. The driver went pass narrow lanes and halted at a home to pick a navigator (we were surprised but I guess in these parts of the world people don’t even trust tourists, who by the way, are few and far in between). We hit back on the road, got fuel for Rs 1000 and headed straight for Netarhat, taking the road which for most of its length would lie within the PTR. It was a hot day and the roads were almost vacant. While interacting with the driver on how he would return the same day bypassing the danger that would be he told he would somehow manage and that he had a navigator with him precisely for the same reason.

the deciduous woods of latehar
All this while, we had thought that he would charge for the fuel for only the onward journey (silly of us for sure) but while making an approximate calculation using the mileage of the car and the distance to be covered to arrive at the fuel cost we realized that the driver had doubled up the distance from Daltonganj to Netarhat. Wondering what was the need to stay at a now desolate place like Netarhat we decided we would be partners in the risk and return back the same day. The entire plan was now clear. We would go to Netarhat via Garu, Baresanr and Mahuadanr, see the falls therein (primarily Lodh whose exact location we still didn’t know) and return back by dusk. How we would manage the entire distance within a span of close to six or seven hours was still a mystery but we nonetheless moved on. We were excited for sure. Most of the drivers had cautioned us and told that there was nothing to “see” here and that we were wasting our money on such a place. But they had no idea that the excitement we have coming to such unknown places by far exceeds the thrill when we go for the usual. It’s always challenging to come to areas where the ordinary dread to arrive.

cattle class! :P
Prashant, Vikram and Amit were at the rear of the car while I was at the front sitting with the driver and the navigator. For quite a while we kept quiet and looked outside at the brown hills, the sun-baked plains and the surrounding forest. The road ahead looked beautiful melting with the horizon. It was such a pleasant sight and it was to stay the same for miles and miles to come. There was a sense of thrill within each one of us. What would come next? What would be the entire experience like? What if we were confronted by naxalites? What would happen at the police checks? The driver had told us not to reveal our actual identities to anyone (not even at the PTR check post) and instead tell that we were localites from Daltonganj going for a marriage to Gumla. I don’t know why they were so apprehensive of our true identities. We were not criminals carrying arms or smugglers with huge cash going for a deal. We nevertheless decided to oblige. We were strangers not well accustomed to the ways of this part of the world and tried not to outsmart others.

check-post before entering PTR
Crossing a narrow and creaky old bridge at Kechki with golden trees all around and over a dry river bed, we soon came across the PTR check post and my heart skipped a beat. It felt so surreal. We had planned to particularly see the park the next morning and for now we had to drive straight for Netarhat which was almost 120 km away. It’s always a pleasure to have a look at the multitude of hoardings in the vicinity of reserves and parks that brilliantly request people to be guardians of our forests and to be proud and protective of our wildlife. We didn’t have to do any talking at the check post. Our driver managed. He had to sign a logbook mentioning the car registration number and the time of getting inside the reserve area. It was such a respite. Moving in, I saw a board with the photograph of the Lodh falls (see the pic above) and that involuntarily brought a smile on my face. Further south, we halted at a place to get some eatables. The area didn’t have many shops and the few they had didn't have much to sell. We had a glass full of sattu and getting some biscuits decided to move on. We were sure that for the next many miles we would get absolutely nothing to eat.

exotic PTR
It would be inane to describe the beauty of the place over and over again. I thanked God for the journey so far and was quite positive of the miles ahead. The place was getting hotter but we still had no sign of cumbersomeness on us. We had been on the move right before day break. Wasn’t it amazing that only six hours back we were at Ranchi and now were heading towards Netarhat, a dream destination of sorts? While our car paced across the reserve surrounded by deciduous forests and dry streams we felt having come to a magical place. It looked so out of ordinary. The smell of the afternoon in the middle of a forest is heavenly no doubt. We were anticipating so much. Though there was hardly any tiger left in PTR (maybe half a dozen or even less) but the possibility of a tiger strolling by the road or scatting at the trees marking it's territory is always heartening to imagine and the thought does occur while driving across a tigerland. What if we come across a herd of wild elephants or a gaur or even a bunch of left-wing extremists? We just kept moving ahead. There was absolutely no one anywhere around. Every half an hour we would see a passing motorcycle or an auto rickshaw but nothing more. I just kept wondering how beautiful the forests would be as one goes inside from across the road. We were told to switch off our phones or to keep it in silent mode and not to play music. We in any case never do that in the middle of a forest but it felt nice to hear it from the driver. I don’t know if he said that out of concern for the forests our out of fear from the unknown.

distance board at PTR check-post
Manish, our driver, was a quiet man. He didn’t speak much and that was good for us. Tripurari, the navigator, quite contrary to our driver, was very quirky and spoke at regular intervals. He was a pudiya khor who kept on chewing pudiya one after another. It was annoying to have him with us but we were helpless. We hardly gave him any attention but he kept his motor mouth open most of the time. He kept praying to the lord above for the safety of the whole of us and told us innumerable stories of murder and loot, as if it would scare us. He didn’t let me admire the beauty of the place. I was not taking pictures while passing across the forest but he wouldn’t let his mouth rest and kept on issuing guidelines. I felt like punching him right on the face but controlled my emotions. I didn’t ask him questions but so much was forthcoming. That the trees were worth billions of dollars and despite the richness of the forest and with all the resources Jharkhand was still poor. That there was rampant smuggling and the streams dry up in summer. That the place was extremely unsafe for outsiders. That we must not have come out wearing bandana, tees, three quarter pants and sporting sunglasses. That’s the way smugglers and criminals dressed here. He did make sense but either we knew most of what he said or the smell of the pudiya was a put off and moreover, he was annoyingly loud and kept laughing at regular intervals.

outside the gate of BNP
Moving further south, the forest kept thinning out near the road and finally gave way to golden fields and distant hills. We soon came across the Garu check post. That was perhaps the most major checking post inside the reserve. The driver was asked for the necessary papers which he duly showed. He was nonetheless called out. A CRPF official came looking at the car. He asked if we had arms with us. I was shocked at the blunt question and politely refused having any. He didn’t care to check and confirm the same. The driver was perhaps haggling with the main officer therein bargaining down the bribe that was being asked to let us go ahead. We could see other officers taking possession of a goat from a group of people on bicycles. I was aghast at the level of corruption. Returning to the car, Manish told he had refused to bribe the officer saying he had no money and that he was poor. Amazingly the cops were generous and let him go. They didn’t intercept us or ask any questions. It was a weird experience and I couldn’t grasp what actually the purpose of the check post was?

are they expecting too much?
We moved on and crossing beautifully laid postcard perfect beauty reached Mahuadanr at around 3 PM. Netarhat wasn’t very far away from there, maybe another 50 km. It was the only place in India that provided sanctuary for the vulnerable Indian Wolf but that was apparently only on paper. Mahuadanr was the biggest town between Daltonganj and Netarhat and it was hard to find signs of wolf conservation except for a couple of boards that mentioned the unique fact. I moved around the place taking pictures but didn’t have the time to go further and enquire about the health of the sanctuary. I made up my mind to come again sometime later to investigate of the wolf density and other facts. We halted at a sweet shop for some refreshment. Over some tea and snacks that tasted bad we asked the shop owner if he had seen any wolf in his lifetime. He gave an affirmative reply but told that there was massive corruption in the area. Forest officers didn’t use the money reserved for the sanctuary for good and instead of using the goats they take from villagers as bait for wolves (Why ask from villagers?) they themselves feast on it. It was a horrifying and shocking tale of unprofessionalism and disrespect towards one’s duty. I could very well make out that there must be no accountability in the area to speak of. We played fool with the kids working in the shops (child labor is still a glaring reality in many parts of India) and asked the owner if he could give directions for the Lodh falls. He said it was 65 km from Mahuadanr but didn’t know exactly where. We moved on and believing that the driver knew about the location of the falls didn’t ask anyone else for directions.

approaching netarhat
It was again a drive across beautiful landscape and the hills were a lot bigger here. The place has been forever etched in my mind and no word would do justice to define the unparalleled beauty. The place gradually became higher and the drive uphill. For a while Manish thought he had lost track of the road to Netarhat and to add to our worry there was absolutely no one in the vicinity to ask for directions. We moved on and sanity soon dawned and the driver knew he was driving on the right path. The uphill drive was fantastic but we had been to even steeper and more forested roads. It was getting darker because of the shady trees and the climate a little pleasant. Finally, we reached Netarhat and that was such a respite. It was an achievement of sorts. We were finally at the Queen of Chota Nagpur and it was a reality. It had lost all its earlier glory. At a time it was one of the most popular hill stations of East India but post the naxal insurgency from the late 1960s tourists decided to give the area a miss and Netarhat’s glory faded and finally came to a sudden death. The place is famous for its glorious sunsets and sunrises but we didn’t have time for that. Lodh fall was far more important for us. We decided to go for at least the Ghaghri falls. We asked a pan wallah for directions who meticulously laid down the route but it was very confusing. Manish had been to the place earlier but we were the first to have come looking for falls and not the sunrise or sunset points.

netarhat, queen of chota nagpur plateau
Cruising around the labyrinth of roads and having asked many a people including a bunch of police trainees heavily drunk on mahua we came across a trail that would take us to Upper Ghaghri falls. We were disappointed when we finally reached there. It would be small we knew but it would be dirty and resemble a drain we had no idea. The bigger ones like Lower Ghaghri and Sadni were far away and no one precisely knew where exactly. Asking for further directions and trekking along on foot would be both risky and time consuming. We didn’t have the luxury of time. Risk was not the factor. It never is with us. There was nothing much to do around in Netarhat and after having spent some forty minutes at the place we moved on for Lodh. It was already around 4 in the afternoon and the sun was threatening to go down the hills. Moving down the hill, I asked several times if Manish knew where Lodh was and that was when we realized we had made a blunder. Manish and his motor mouth navigator had no idea about any fall whatsoever. We had got enough hints all this while but somehow thought he would be of some help but they were far more clueless than even us. They hadn’t even heard the names of any of the falls we mentioned or their approximate location. Sensing our anger and the fact that we had come primarily for the fall Manish decided that no matter what he would show us Lodh at least. There was still some time for the sun to set. A board at Netarhat mentioned that Lodh was 65 km from there and remembering what the sweet-shop owner at Mahuadanr had told we decided to go looking for the fall after reaching Mahuadanr. It was a pleasant drive down the hill and bidding a farewell to Netarhat, the beautiful hill station, now desolate and bereft of tourists, we drove towards Mahuadanr fighting with the sun going down very minute. Our heart kept throbbing and with every passing minute we kept losing hope of seeing the fall.

upper ghaghri falls
We soon came to a screeching halt at Mahuadanr. We had some water and decided to move forth looking for the fall. Amazingly Tripurari, the maddening navigator, knew that there was a fall driving straight and not taking the right detour for Daltonganj. From there started a journey of a lifetime, an exciting battle with time and direction. We were absolutely clueless throughout. Driving through zigzag roads and small tribal hamlets with people drunk heavily on mahua we kept on asking for Lodh. The navigator told me not to speak in English. That irritated me. Why would I? But he meant the word fall. Nobody would understand it. People understood the word ghagh or jharna (though jal prapat is the correct Hindi for a waterfall). I understood what he meant and simply asked if they knew of a jharna anywhere around. There must be only one nearby. I would further explain with hand movements gesturing falling water. It was both fun and exasperating. We came to know that people knew it by the name Budha ghagh but I kept confusing the name with the fall on Budha Balanga at STR. What an unholy mess. But explaining a fall is not rocket science and after having covered much distance and slowly losing all hope of ever coming to the fall we finally came across an open space from where we could see a distant hill.

view of various forts at palamu
We asked some tribal women returning home and carrying firewood on their head. They pointed towards the hill but were surprised we were here at this time. She asked us if we were sure to go there. It was about to be sunset and even localites didn’t roam around much then. We knew we were close and didn’t want to go back without a glimpse. It would be disheartening and deeply demotivating for tourists like us. We knew the fall couldn’t be beyond the hills. It would fall from a hill after all. We decided to cover the last stretch and that looked the wildest of them all. The navigator started his various conspiracy theories yet again. He was plain frightened having come here. He told us not to take risk coming to such wild places and also reprimanded our driver for having agreed to come here. He told that if anyone was to kill us people would not know of our bodies for months to come. It was a terribly wild area for sure but we moved on but didn’t see or hear any sign of a waterfall. It was slowly becoming a case of so near, yet to so far. Returning back without seeing the fall despite having come so near was our worst fear and nothing else. We soon came across a rocky stream and that was when a glimmer of hope and smile returned back on our faces. We knew the fall would be nearby. Moving further we got to hear the faint sound of gurgling water. It was an amazing feeling and we knew the fall was within reach.

lodh falls aka budha ghagh, first glimpse
Minutes later we came across a huge cliff beyond which was the sky and nothing else that we could see. It was one of the most isolated places we had ever come to but that was precisely the special thing about the whole trip. The entire area was heavily forested and almost dark. We could just see a few thousand rays of the sun hitting the forest floor. We knew it would be totally dark within half an hour. It was around 5.30 in the evening. It was precisely then when we came across a concrete rest room of sorts which marked towards the Budha ghagh. Reaching there we forgot all about the alleged dangers of the place. Everyone was excited. We were after all, after much going around, at the highest waterfall of Jharkhand. Our excitement knew no bounds. Parking our car at the base we rushed towards the fall. Hopping across a few stairs we could see a portion of the fall and since we had to hurry back to Daltonganj we thought we would return after taking a few pictures. We never knew what would be like going near the fall. Prashant had already paced across many steps and reprimanded us for being lazy and calculative after having reached the destination. We shrugged off whatever inhibitions we had and rushed up. Many a steps later we were up front at the beautiful fall, no less than a discovery. It was huge and there was enough water to excite our souls. It was truly a wild one. It was stunningly amazing and beautiful. It was like a dream come true. It was unbelievable.

lodh falls, up n front
Water gushed down snaking across a cliff from an enormous height of greater than 140 m and made a huge pool at the base which was terribly rocky. The rocks were algae brown in color and with the faint sun rays falling glimmered like precious stones. The water looked like strand of pearls. It was my own version of a silver cascade. We jumped and frolicked and played in the pool (not in the middle of it though but very near the rocks). We took many a photographs and heaved a sense of victory. It indeed was. The driver and the navigator were excited beyond bounds. They thanked us for having brought them instead to such an amazing place which they themselves never knew of (despite belonging to the place). Not their fault. Who cares about waterfalls in India and this was pretty inaccessible and unknown at that. We gulped down mouthfuls of water from the pool and after having admired the beauty of the fall for quite long we decided to hit back on the road. We had achieved our goal and didn’t care what would happen next. All this while, the navigator had kept making fun for being waterfall crazy, mostly after having seen the Upper Ghaghri. He was absolutely quiet now. It was almost dark at the moment and the driver decided to take a short cut to reach the main road. But alas! A few minutes later we realized we were lost. There was absolutely no way we could find our way to the main road and we had to reach Garu before it was pitch dark and that looked very unlikely now. We snaked our way across muddy trails and across vast undulating fields. We could see the multicolored hues of the sky at the horizon where the sun had just set. It was a surreal feeling but we had to find a way out.

beneath the fall
We kept circling around and couldn’t see any hamlet nearby. We moved around looking for a hint of life but were alert. What if we bumped across naxalites? That would be bad. We had to get across inundated fields where stray dorks gave us wild stares. We had to push the car up a high trail and after much moving around saw a couple of tribal girls who directed us towards a tribal hamlet. We got some life. The village was having a marriage and people were making merry and were drunk on mahua. We asked for routes and they happily obliged. It was the first time I was seeing tribals celebrating their way of life. It was dark so I couldn’t take pictures and was in fact wary if I should even take out my camera. Moving towards the direction they had pointed we soon came on the main road and by that time it was already around 7 and pitch-black and Garu was still many miles away.

prashant, amit, myself, vikram, tripurari (L to R)
The problem didn’t end there. We had to get across a couple of check posts including at Baresanr, Garu and at Betla. We couldn’t drive at break neck speed since we were going through a tiger reserve. We were warier of wild animals than naxalites now. What if we come across a herd of elephants crossing the road? What if they charge at us? There were leopards and sloth bears too but being in a car that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Manish was quite nervous and apparently so. After all, nobody drives through the reserve at such odd hours. The unknown is far more dangerous than the known and we had no alternative than to drive across. We had now been told to tell the officers at the check post (if at all they asked) that we were from Gumla and were going to attend a marriage at Daltonganj and that we had a flat tire and got stranded in the middle of the road for quite a while. Good for us! Suddenly an owl came and hit the windshield of the car. Manish panicked but didn’t lose control of the car. The navigator told him to calm down and drive carefully. We had to switch on the tape to divert the driver’s attention from all the possible dangers he could imagine while driving. We all kept talking and discussing wildlife lest he fall asleep. He must have been really tired and moreover we hadn’t eaten a morsel for quite a while now.

lost in a wonderland
Suddenly we saw a bevy of animals jump on the road and cross it to go the other side. It was a fantastic sight. We could see the animals clearly from the shine of the headlights. It was a group of leopards. There were three in total and moderately sized. I knew leopards were nocturnal but solitary animals and sighting three together was certainly unusual. Moreover, they are far more elusive than the far more popular tiger and we had seen three together but we obviously would not have photographic evidence. All this happened so quickly and photographing the same wasn’t just possible but we all had seen the trio and it was unbelievable. It made me happy. We kept driving and within hours sped across Garu where there was no one guarding the open check post. That was such a respite. We halted at a small shop to have some jalebi, samosa and a glassful of mahua. The driver needed it and we had to taste it too. It tasted bad but was very intoxicating and I felt good. The closer we came towards Betla, the happier we became. Slowly we started thinking of what all had happened during the day and it felt great. Tripurari, who was silent for all this while suddenly became a lion. He started boasting that we need not fear now since we were in his territory (as if we were afraid any before and HIS territory!) but we let him speak. We cared a shit now. We soon came at the Betla check post. Someone flashed a huge light at our car and told us to stop. Manish, didn’t pay much heed and moved a little more.

we were not alone at the falls
Angry shouts came from a nearby building and Manish had to oblige. Tripurari, the lion became a meek cat yet again. Manish got out of the car, went to the officers and came back a little while later and moved ahead. We asked him if he had to bribe anyone or got scolding. He confidently denied and said that the officers plainly asked if he had entered the car details while going inside the reserve early in the afternoon. That he had done. It was good to hear. We were still confused where to stay for the night. It was already around 9 and we were hungry and quite tired by now. Though it looked an unwise decision and unsafe we thought we would ask the few lodges outside the Betla main gate if they could accommodate us for the night. There was no electricity in the area and under the dark sky with stars shining high we halted at a lodge and got towards the reception to enquire about the cost and the facilities. The owner had no idea when electricity would come, food would be late and water was scant and to top it all they quoted almost double the amount that I had assumed. We decided to move on and stay at Daltonganj instead.

bridge on north koel at kechki
We had already told Manish that he would have to take us around to Betla National Park, Kechki and the Palamau forts the next day and leave us at the Barwadih station. It was around 10 by the time we reached Daltonganj and chances of getting a lodge looked bleak. Manish had assured that if we get nothing we could spend the night at his home. He took us to a hotel but we were not comfortable with the price they quoted so we decided to spend the night at a dharamshala. Manish knew of one. It would be the first time we would spend the night at a dharamshala and was anxious of the experience. It was pretty cheap and after booking a couple of rooms left for a restaurant to have dinner. Thankfully, a few were still open. The food was moderately priced and tasted good. We had our fill and after telling Manish to be at the dharamshala by 7 in the morning we left for our rooms. It was a dingy little place which is mostly booked for Hindu marriages and the stray adventure crazy tourists who come there besides people coming to the place for medication or otherwise and couldn’t afford a better place to lodge. It was an uncomfortable night. The weather was hot and humid. The fan was almost dead and the bed creaky. I couldn’t sleep almost the entire night while Prashant was enjoying a good sleep. I just prayed for day to break. It was a mosquito infested place, obviously so. Somehow I passed the night and thanked the almighty when it was finally the next and the last day of our wild extravaganza. We were ready much before time and decided to wait outside the dharamshala for Manish but he just wouldn’t come or even pick up the phone. We thought we would fix another car and remembered the number of Qutubdin which Athar (the helpful guy we had met in the bus from Ranchi to Daltonganj) had given. I called him and fixed the car for Rs 1200 which would include a detour of the park, the river confluence at Kechki and the Palamu forts. But that was not to happen. Manish soon came to the dharamshala and apologized for being late. He had to wash his car in the morning and that took time. It was fine but I felt bad that I would have to cancel the trip with Qutubdin.

admiring the beauty of kechki
Tripurari joined minutes later and after showing around the town we sat for tea after which we headed for the park. It was the same feeling all over again of seeing wilderness from so close but it was different from what all I had experienced before. Crossing a rusty bridge and coming across a lonely station manned by a lonely guard we first got down at Kechki and I felt I had come back in time by almost a couple of decades. It was a confluence of two rivers, Auranga and North Koel. Auranga didn’t have much water and there was a bridge over North Koel and some temples on the other bank. The hills on the other side looked amazing. It was a picturesque place where film units come often for shooting. We next moved towards the park. Finally, arriving at the gate, it was like another dream come true. I remembered the day I had posted a photograph of BNP’s main gate on Facebook and ever since had thought when I would make it for real and the time was now. I was at Betla National Park and it was an amazing feeling, a triumphant feeling. It wasn’t expensive to get in. For less than Rs 450 we had tickets for the whole of us including the car charge and everything. Tripurari had a talk with some officer and we didn’t have to pay the camera fee. That was perhaps the only good thing he had done in the entire trip spanning two days.

outside the main entrance of BNP
We went around the place taking photographs of everything possible. Our excitement was visible. We entered the park and moments later saw a herd of chital pacing and playing around. Moving ahead we could see langurs and macaques all around by hundreds and more. It was a beautiful forest but we could only cover the tourist zone, a few miles of trail from where one could see only stumps of smuggled trees. We could see a group of tribal girls ferrying firewood on their heads and who rushed away seeing us. That was not allowed but the dictum of naxalites runs in the place and there was not much forest officers could do. Palamu was one of the finest reserves in the country at the time of independence and was famous for being the first place where a tiger census was held (at Maromar, Sahdhup and Baresanr). It was also one of the first tiger reserves in India but that was in the past. PTR had crumbled over the years and sunk into oblivion post the naxal insurgency. Forest guards left and nobody wanted to come here for fear of life. The tribals had a free run inside the forest and the animals soon disappeared.

langurs by plenty inside PTR
It was a sorry state of affairs and Indians by and large didn’t know anything of the problems plaguing the reserve. The government was helpless much like the centre which has been battling the insurgents for quite a while now and without much improvement on the ground. We stayed inside the park for almost an hour and there was nothing much to see. The forest was no doubt very beautiful and this was only the tourist zone we are talking about. Palamu is a huge forest spreading across thousands of kilometer square but it was impossible to go into the interiors. The forest houses had been destroyed by naxals and the infrastructure had crumbled but I could see signs of revival but had no idea who was doing it. Moving out we visited the two safari elephants which we missed by almost an hour since we came a bit late. The condition of the pachyderms was deplorable. There wasn’t enough food or water for them and the caretaker was even weaker. I wondered what all was happening with the funds allocated for the tiger reserve, the only in Jharkhand. Were they rotting in the banks or was there some bureaucratic hold-up? Many a questions crossed my mind but I was clueless. I thought of talking to some major officer but time I didn’t have. We had to see the Palamu forts which were located a few miles taking left from the main road a few meters beyond the Betla check post.

juhi n anarkali, the pachyderms serving BNP
It was another risky place. It was built by the kings of Chero dynasty during the 17th century and was a thriving example of how a Hindu dynasty made forts rich with Islamic architecture. It was a hot day and we had to climb a hillock to reach the top of the fort which we nevertheless did. It was the third time I had come to a place with forts and palaces lying in ruins. The ones in Gaur and Sivasagar were maintained by ASI but this was left to rot under the harsh weather and the toll it had taken was visible. It was crumbling and was mostly used by naxals as shelter despite being somewhat close to a national park. It was nonetheless very beautiful and was amazing to have come here. The architecture was marvelous and we couldn’t but wonder at the enormity of the task. It was cool inside the fort and the view of the surrounding forests, hills and the snaking river Auranga was majestic.

palamu fort
Prashant was wild on his climbing spree and in the process disturbed a colony of bees and was stung on the brow and Vikram on the hands. We had to literally run down the hills with the bees following the whole of us. It was fun seeing Prashant fighting the bees. We got inside our cars and left for the other ruins still wondering with amazement that we had been attacked by a swarm of bees. It was getting hotter and assuming all the similar-looking forts would take much time we decided we would return back after seeing one more plus we were very skeptical going around such a desolate place miles away from any form of habitation. We saw a couple of people at the second fort seeing whom Tripurari again became a meek cat. He suspected them to be naxals and while we went inside and enjoyed the beauty of the fort he tried engaging them saying we were all from Daltonganj.

going back with a promise to visit again
We decided to see no more and headed towards the main road and got down at an upcoming museum near the park. Work was still unfinished. It was good and full of information of the rich heritage of the park, its flora and fauna, its people and the history. It was a good thing for tourists who do little research before coming to any place, particularly forests. We got some brochures for future reference and moved for the Barwadih station. We paid Manish the fare (close to Rs 1200) and before heading for a place where we could have our lunch we thanked him for all the trouble and risk he took to show us the place and promised that whenever we would come next (and that would surely be) we would contact him. We were glad that our journey came to such a satisfying end and that we had to go around with such a wonderful driver. We had our lunch and had to walk under the hot sun for quite a while to reach the station. It was still time for the train to come. It was a quaint little station with nothing much around. A huge hill with a temple somewhere in the midway looked inviting but we had no energy and we thought we would rest to spend time and indulge in adda. After a while when we had enough of talk we went inside the station and rested under the shade of a tree and when the train finally came a couple of hours late we got inside and bid the exotic place farewell with a promise to come again. It was such a learning experience! Whosoever reads the page, please, do visit PTR once. You will love it.

an approximate map of PTR
My friend Raza Kazmi, a storehouse of immense knowledge on the jungles of central India (and elsewhere of course) has to say this about the first tiger census held within the confines of PTR and about the place in general. Many thanks to him for sharing many invaluable information (many of which helped me understand PTR and its problems better) and some old photographs from his excellent library:
The first ever Tiger Census in India by pugmark method was done in April 1932 by the then DFO Mr. J.W. Nicholson, and his Range Officer Maulvi Muhammad Shareef Khan in the forests of Maromar, Sahdhup and Baresanr, covering a total area of 298 sq km (i.e. just one-sixth of the total reserve area), employing, if I remember correctly, about 80 trackers in the exercise. The figure obtained was around 55-60 tigers in the area of 298 sq. kms and Mr. Nicholson noted that 2-3 of the largest males of the area with whom he and the local staff were pretty familiar weren't recorded during the census (they had moved into the adjoining forests). And hence the actual figure could have been a bit higher.
Very beautifully written, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Just a couple of things, please never again take a plunge in unknown waterfalls, the few of us who know about Lodh also know of the hidden dangers of the fall; the pools actually have hidden sinkholes, i.e. small rocky tunnels that can suck a man in, especially when the water-flow is substantial. There was this unfortunate incident in the mid 90s of a young engineer (or a lawyer I don't exactly remember), a pretty good swimmer, who went in to have a bath in one of these pools, was sucked into one of the hidden sinkholes and died. His body could never be recovered in spite of intensive searches down stream for weeks. The second correction would be that the first Tiger census was done in the forests of Maromar (and not Barwadih), a few kilometers ahead of Garu.
slender-billed vultures in aplenty at PTR possibly during the 1970s
© Forest Department, Palamu Tiger Reserve
And yes, the next time you go to Palamu or other such nondescript forest areas, it would be advisable to contact the Forest Department establishment at the Protected Area's headquarters (Project Tiger Office in Daltonganj in this case). That would make life much more easier, especially with respect to reaching places in the park area, the directions and the distances. Palamu is a great place, and this is a splendid write-up. And yes, I salute your enthusiasm and the adventurer in you. I can guarantee that there are very very few people who could have done what all you did. But ~36 hours is too short a visit to discover Palamu, make sure you plan a longer stay the next time you come over.
And since you are such a waterfall-enthusiast I'll let you in on a secret that very few people in the whole of Palamu and Latehar district know about, and maybe a handful of outsiders would ever know. There is another great waterfall hidden deep in the heart of Palamu TR's forests, which is known by the local name of Sugga Bandh. No map will ever depict it, no travel guide will talk about it, for there are very few souls who know of it. Though not as grand as the Lodh falls, its one of the most spectacular falls in Jharkhand. Formed a few metres ahead of the confluence of two forest rivers, its a sight to behold.
a massive tusker from the PTR
© Forest Department, Palamu Tiger Reserve
However, one cannot see the fall itself in monsoon because the flood-waters inundate the passage to fall and its only during the winters or spring that the fall is accessible. The fall dries up to a trickle in summers though. I visited the falls about a year back and unfortunately it was during the monsoon and hence I couldn't see the fall itself (though the loud roaring sound was enough to let us know of its ferocity at that time). The place is one of Palamu's best kept secrets. In the good old days of the mid 90's, when the Governor of erstwhile Bihar once visited Palamu, he was taken to this secluded falls by the then DFO for a morning brunch. The Governor was so awestruck by the sight (and at the same time so surprised by the fact that apart from the Forest Department personnel and a few locals, nobody knew about this place) that he ordered that a road be constructed leading up to the falls. Alas, even though the road was constructed a few years later, the extremist situation in Palamu meant that the PTR retained one of its best kept secrets! Hopefully, with a forest staff to guide you, you can visit the place next time around.

2 comments:

  1. It is great reading your experience. Palamau is a lovely place but you must have your own car or visit with someone who knows the place because people here are unaware of the beauty of this place and will say that there is nothing here to see. please contact the forest office in Daltonganj for directions. winter is the best time to visit this place and summer season is very hot here and electricity is not reliable. Today is a sad day for PTR as the beloved female elephant Anarkali passed away last night. She was suffering from kidney problem.

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  2. Very interesting blog. A lot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that attract others, but I'm most definitely interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.

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