22 September 2013

khandadhar falls

It was to be the penultimate day of our Orissa trip but was to be one of the most exotic and exciting. We left for Cuttack railway station early in the morning of 23rd October to take the train to Keonjhar – one of the largest districts of Orissa. Keonjhar is famous for being rich with minerals. The place is hilly and forested and a stronghold of Maoist overt activities – a headache for Orissa government and the administration. As the train chugged past Cuttack and once it crossed the Mahanadi at Janapur (Jajpur district) and as we entered the district the landscape changed abruptly. From vast stretches of fields and sundry towns to forested hills and eerie wilderness. The color of the soil had also changed remarkably. We were going to Keonjhar for the Khandadhar falls but as luck would have it, we would land at a different fall but with the same name. It was a passenger train full of people but not crowded to the point of discomfort. We reached Keonjhar at around 1 in the afternoon and straightway took an auto to scout for a hotel. I had little cash with me and I needed it urgently for the remainder of the day. There was hardly any ATM in the town and to the top it all the usual problem at such places – the long queues in front of them if you find one. We booked a hotel and a car for our trip and while my parents waited at the hotel I waited outside the ATM. The problem with the queues outside small towns is the average time people take here for completing their transactions. I was reminded of the long queues outside ATMs at Jorhat in Assam and Daltonganj in Jharkhand. People are pathetically slow and it was frustrating. Another problem is the limited cash these ATMs have and I needed cash urgently. Since it was already afternoon I didn't have much hours of sunshine left to complete the trip – which included three waterfalls and return to the hotel.

notice the location of khandadhar from konjhar
It took me almost an hour at the ATM and by the time I reached the hotel to pick my parents and pack some edibles for the trip it was already late in the afternoon (2.30 PM) and we had miles to go. We were primarily targeting three waterfalls – the Sanaghagra, the Badaghagra and the Khandadhar. The Sanaghagra and the Badaghagra were on the outskirts of the town with the former being a rather small fall ideal for picnics. Badaghagra was relatively taller and larger but located off the main road deep inside the jungles and the roads were bad. We decided to first go for Khandadhar and while returning go for the Badaghagra and the Sanaghagra. Now, the Khandadhar fall I was looking for is a 245 m tall cascade in the nearby Sundergarh district. It’s a vulnerable fall owing to dangers posed by rampant mining but a hit with picnickers who frequent from Rourkela. I had read on the internet that the waterfall is approachable from Keonjhar also and since we were coming from Cuttack we decided to get down at Keonjhar and go from there instead. With the benefit of hindsight I can tell you a fact which is rather unknown. There are two waterfalls in Orissa by the name of Khandadhar – one is in Sundergarh district and approachable from Rourkela and the second one in Keonjhar district approachable from Keonjhar but I didn't know that. So when I had read on the internet that Khandadhar can be reached from Keonjhar also it meant the second fall which though amazing is almost 90 m smaller in height. Both these eponymous waterfalls are located pretty much nearby but separated by hills which mark the boundary of the two districts – Sundergarh and Keonjhar.

the bridge over mahanadi at janapur, jajpur district
Now let me proceed and you will know why I did further research after reaching home. It should be known to my readers that the taller Khandadhar is a famous waterfall from Orissa and there are plenty of pictures available on internet and I knew exactly how the waterfall looked. I was excited for a couple of reasons primarily being we were running out of time and within 4 hours it would be dark and we had three waterfalls to see and miles to cover. Also, it would be the first time my youngest sister will see a waterfall and I wanted her experience to be trouble free. Keonjhar is beautiful for sure but an isolated place and I wouldn't say many people come here with their families. Our car crossed a hill and soon we were on the highway with sparse forests on both the sides. There was greenery everywhere and within half an hour we were out of the town and could see distant forested hills and small streams at regular intervals. The population is primarily tribal and poverty is widespread. Keonjhar doesn’t have a tiger reserve but it is rich with wildlife common in India’s plateau regions. Tigers have been occasionally seen in the fragmented forests and herds of elephants are rather common. The nearby district of Mayurbhanj along with the neighboring districts of Jharkhand form an important elephant habitat but over a period of time – owing to human greed, the forests have been heavily fragmented resulting in rather frequent human and animal conflicts. While our car zoomed past the woods there was eerie silence everywhere and we discussed sundry things – from unique vegetation to problems of Maoism.

landscape of keonjhar district
We reached the base of the waterfall at around 4 PM and the first sight was amazing. A stream of silver falling from a great height was clearly visible against the backdrop of a clear sky. Wherever I could look it was green and hilly. A small locked rest house had Khandadhar written on the walls and gave directions towards the waterfall. We got down from the car and while our driver waited we started the uphill trek which would take us to the fall. It was not an easy trek and in 10 minutes with intermittent bouts of rest we reached the waterfall. I and my sister were the first to reach the falls and I was in for a shock when I had the first glimpse of the waterfall. It didn't look 244 m tall and did not match with the photographs of the Khandadhar I had come looking for. I tried to convince myself that it was the same waterfall but even if I ignored the height I couldn’t agree to the shape. The Khandadhar I knew spread out on huge rocks as it ended its vertical drop but this one was a plunge one. I said to myself that maybe there was “another layer” on the other side of the hill and the road that came from Rourkela led to that view. It would be sunset in almost an hour or two and we didn't have the time or the information to look for that “another layer”. My parents had trekked up to the waterfall by the time I had finished video-recording it. I would not say I was disappointed because this was beautiful and tall no less and I moreover I had something to research on after reaching home.

khandadhar falls, keonjhar district - 152 m
We spent quite some time at the waterfall and my youngest sister was quite pleased having come there and having seen the first waterfall of her life. I could gather that the best she liked was the spray of water formed of the waterfall when ending in the pool underneath – not everyone is fascinated with heights you see. The downhill trek was rather easy and by the time we got inside our car (4.40 PM) to leave for the other two falls nearer to Keonjhar the sun was threatening to set. We decided to skip the smaller Sanaghagra and at least have a dekho of Badaghagra but then who could beat fate and the setting sun. Crossing through the same sylvan woods and the distant hills it was quite dark by the time (6 PM) we took a right turn on the highway for the Badaghagra. Cutting through a patch of forest in absolute darkness – and the driver kept telling that herds of elephant came at the waterfall for the water, we reached Badaghagra. It was impossible to see through the darkness and unfortunately we were not wild cats. We decided to leave for Keonjhar and soon reached our hotel. I would say it was a nice journey. I had got looking for one waterfall and came back having looked at totally another and about which I didn't know earlier. This was the 3rd major waterfall I had seen in Orissa after Barehipani and Joranda – both inside Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj district. The other Khandadhar of Sundergarh district and Duduma of Koraput district are the other major waterfalls of Orissa.

exotic keonjhar - the day is about to end
It was Durga puja and there was a pandal just outside our hotel. We decided to go around the town a little, have our dinner and inquire about the first bus to Balasore next morning. We had our night train to Howrah from Balasore since there were no trains to Howrah from Keonjhar. It was festival time and there was quite a rush in the town. We asked for directions for the bus stop and it was pretty nearby. People over there told us that the first bus for Balasore would leave at around 6 in the morning and would take around 4-5 hours. We entered a bakery-cum-restaurant and I was surprised to look at the menu. The restaurant was air-conditioned and the food was so inexpensive. I and my sister order a plate of chowmein each while my parents ordered some naan and a couple of vegetable items with a glass of fresh-lime soda for each one of us. I must tell you, the food was very tasty and the bill was less than Rs 200 and they didn't charge service tax either or even VAT. I mean had we eaten the same quantity of food in an average air-conditioned restaurant in Kolkata or even the suburbs, the bill would have been anywhere between Rs 800 to Rs 1000. Maybe just for this restaurant, the good service, the good food and the ambience of the town I will visit again – for sure. By the time we left the restaurant and settled in our rooms it was already around 10 PM. We saw a wildlife documentary on wildlife of Africa on Discover (or was it Nat Geo?) before sleeping.

sylvan countryside - mayurbhanj
The next day we woke up early and took the first bus to Balasore. The bus skirted across the western fringes of Simlipal Tiger Reserve and it even halted at Jashipur which serves as the entrance for one of the biggest patches of protected forest in India spreading over 2000 sq km. I told my parents that sometime soon I will bring them here on a trip and after having some tea and snacks we again resumed for our destination. We reached Balasore quite on time (12.30 PM) and since we had the entire day left in front of us we decided to take an auto and go to Chandipur which was a few miles from there. My dad wasn't quite interested and since the driver quoted an exorbitant amount we decided to skip that and after having lunch at a horrible restaurant decided to wait at the railway station. I had a couple of news magazines but still the wait was pathetic. After spending almost 7-8 hours at the station our train arrived and by the time it was midnight we reached Howrah station and before it was 25th October we reached our home bringing our fabulous journey to an end.

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