28-Nov-2008 -- The seventh CP in our plan lay centered in the coalfields of the Mahanadi valley in Central Orissa. The CP which lay 6.6 kms north of Raijharan was on the way from Angul to Deogarh. Our initial planning had been done using the Survey of India 1:250000 map with a generous input from Google Earth’s imagery. We had formed an assumption that this CP would be a cakewalk compared to the previous ones, as the distance from the motorable road was only 750 metres. Little did we know that there were quite a few surprises in store for us?
We left for Angul early on the 28th November 2008, I, Kasinath and our driver Ananta in our reliable hatchback SUV. We started before dawn, intending to finish at least three CP’s during the weekend. We drove on for 140 kms and reached the town of Angul at 6 a.m. A hurried breakfast in one of the roadside shanties, and we made our way past the tall spewing chimneys of the massive thermal power station and the huge Aluminum complex of NALCO. The road narrowed down after Angul, and the drive was slow. We encountered an unending chain of coal carriers, men who were carrying at least two quintals of carefully balanced coal chunks on bicycles. It was a thriving trade and a lucrative part time activity which gave them at least a hundred rupees each day, enough for a family’s sustenance.
The coal carriers usually left for the coal fields before dawn, and made their pickings. The coal was cut out in huge blocks, at least 30 kilograms each and three or four of these slabs were put in the rear carrier of the bicycle, one on top of the other, and then secured with old cycle inner tubes. The elasticity of the tubes helped in keeping the load in place. To maintain a balance and keep the correct centre of gravity, coal chunks of smaller sizes were put into bags made out of old cement sacks and hung on to both sides of the handle bars. The sheer ingenuity of these hardy men, the difficult task that they engaged in each morning for a pittance, won our admiration. Each of them was shifting at least 150 kilograms of coal on their ramshackle cycles. Most of them were dragging their bikes, but we met a few who were riding them, pedaling away furiously. I stopped at a few places and tried my hand; just keeping the bike upright was a task beyond my mettle.
The earliest record of exploration in this areas dates back to 1837 when coal was first discovered at Gopalprasad. The Geological Survey of India took up surface mapping in 1855 and sank six shafts in 1875. The fields have been yielding coal since 1920, and this coal belt holds more then 35% of India’s coal reserves. In the Confluence area of Raijharan, power grade coal is available just five feet below the surface and this will soon become a major coal producing area of the state. The coal rich area called "Utkal block" has attracted both private and public sector companies to start open cast coalmines. The coal belt, which extends from the Brarajnagar till Talcher, is one of the world’s richest coal deposits. Nearly all the mining is done in open cast mines, as the coal seams are nearly bursting to the surfaces.
We reached the village of Nisha after which we took the detour road for Chenddipada. There is a very big open cast mine there, where more then two thousand trucks were loaded each day. We met many of these vehicles, dangerously overloaded with coal spilling from their sides as they moved on the dusty road.
Just two kilometers on the graveled road, from where the CP still lay a good 4.5 kms away, the road turned into an obstacle course. It seemed that it was an arterial road which had been planned for asphalt paving. However the work had been abandoned midway and huge piles of earth, boulders and stone chips lay scattered all around. We met a motorcyclist, who was deftly maneuvering his Hero Honda in low gear and raising a lot of dust. He advised us against going any further, as the four wheeler would not make it. The road was such that it would have been impossible for even a dune buggy to make any progress. We parked our vehicle in the shade of a tree and took stock of things. Once again I studied the Google earth imagery on my laptop for another approach, but in vain. We would have to take this approach; only, the short hike of 750 metres would now be a four kilometer walk through the scrub jungle.
The CP lay centered in the Barha Kathia Reserved Forest, a small protected area that still had the reserved status accorded to it by the Ministry of Forests, hence was out of bounds of the coal lobby. I was sure that it would not be long before the area would be de-reserved after a sham public hearing. The nearby villagers would all be promised good jobs, hospital and schools would be dangled as juicy carrots on short sticks, and consent for mining would be accorded.
We loaded up our equipment, keeping to the bare minimum. The Garmin, the two cameras, the compass and the maps were all taken along. We drove the vehicle further into the jungle and locked up the doors. I put a short note under the windshield wiper, writing both in English and Oriya that we would be back soon. These little things, at times, save you a lot of trouble, something that I had learned from past experience.
But, like it always happen, the easy becomes difficult. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
In our haste, Kashi forgot the water bottles, and I, my salbutamol inhaler. The coal dust that we had encountered from the laden trucks en route had triggered an asthmatic attack, and the puffs were vital to keep me going. We realized this after we had gone a good one kilometer, and I had wanted Ananta to go and fetch them from our van. However his sense of direction was very poor and as I was sure that he would lose his way either from or to our base, we decided to trudge on.
Soon the hard part began. The confluence point could only be reached by our bashing through the close-packed foliage of the jungle, which consisted of sharp thorns, man height bushy shrubs with taut branches that lashed our skin, prickly pears and seeds which clung to our clothes. There were absolutely no tracks, either man made or animal ones.
We soon realized that we were in elephant territory, as big piles of dung lay scattered all around. There were absolutely no signs of human activity. Elephants are a species which many other organisms depend on. One particular example of that are termite’s mounds: termites eat elephant dung and often begin building their mounds under piles of elephant feces.
Elephants' foraging activities can sometimes greatly affect the areas in which they live, and this was much evident during the trek to the CP. Elephants pull down trees to eat leaves, breaking branches, and pulling out roots they create clearings in which new young trees and other vegetation can establish itself. During the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig into dry river beds to reach underground sources of water. These newly dug water holes may then become the only source of water in the area. Elephants make pathways through their environment which are also used by other animals to access areas normally out of reach. These pathways have sometimes been used by several generations of elephants and were later converted by humans to paved roads.
These migratory paths are imprinted into their genes, and generations of these elephants have used it over the years. The elephants respond to these inherent instincts and make their way on their ancient routes, destroying all that comes in their way. Human encroachments on these corridors lead to man animal conflicts, and the loser is usually the elephant. (Just a week after our visit to this CP, two villagers of Raijharan were trampled to death by a rogue elephant).
During our confluence trips in Orissa, we had come across many highway signs denoting that the area was an Elephant Corridor, and drivers were warned to watch out for the pachyderms when they made their seasonal crossings.
We saw the skeleton of a deer, the small antlers still attached to the skull. My sixth sense told me that we were being watched, most certainly by an elephant. The distance to the CP on the Garmin 72 was still a distant 2.2 kms.
Walking through this terrain was strenuous and our sense of direction was soon lost. The forest was fairly dense with undergrowth and we soon realized that we would get into serious trouble in these woods without using the compass or GPS on our way back. I patted my pocket to reassure myself of the spare batteries for the GPS that I always carried. Even with the GPS, we relied on the compass repeatedly simply because you cannot walk fast enough or straight enough through this forest to easily get a reliable direction reading from the GPS. The hike to the confluence point was 3.5 km (as the crow flies) through the bush from the road. We averaged approximately 1.5 kilometer per hour when walking through the bush. Distance cannot always be measured in straight lines. Convenience of travel and where-you-were-going-anyway are much more important.
At 900 metres from the point, we rested for fifteen minutes. Our throats were parched, and Ananta had to face the brunt of my ire. Besides, we were tired and did not know whether we could really force our way through the thick plants. The dense foliage was like a solid wall that I doubt could be penetrated without a machete, which we did not have. We went into thick, dense, twisted, overgrown brush. We were not about to stop now, so I broke of a thick branch from a dried fallen down tree and used it as a sort of machete, pushing my arms through tangled bushes and high stepping into vegetation, we pushed on toward the confluence point.
About 600 metres from the CP we reached a dry bed of the Marana Jor river, the sands of which had prominent elephant footprints. It was one of the tributaries of the Brahamani River. Many of these small rivulets originate from the Sarisua hills and flow through Kuskila, Barapada and Kosala villages of Chhhendipada Administrative Block and meet the Brahmani river near Balangi village of Kaniha Block.
Kasinath also discovered an interesting set of marks which he deduced to be the markings left by a snake which must have been at least two metres long. There were a series of crescent shaped half moon patterns, each more then two feet in length. The patterns were from one bank to the other. We dug a small hole in the sand, and eight inches down we struck water. Kasi used his handkerchief as a filter and we slaked our thirst.
We resumed our walk which was becoming harder because of the extreme bush bashing that was required. The whole place was inundated with a very prickly weeds and thistles which cut our legs to pieces - even through my jeans. We were nearing the CP, and I remembered that the satellite imagery had shown a small ascent just before the spot where the integer degrees crossed. It was slow going, but the excitement of getting there and how well it was coming together was overpowering. I soon charged up the small mound, the GPS extended in my right hand, pulling me along like some powerful magnet. The tree canopy made it a bit difficult to get a good reading but very soon the nav arrow swings indicated that I had passed the point. I went back a hundred feet and started once again and managed to zero out the coordinates, and have an EPE of just 8.5meters. In spite of the thick overhead canopy, we maneuvered the GPS into a small clearing which gave us intermittent reception from seven satellites.
The confluence point lies inside a thick clearing, and an unforgiving heap of thorny branches. There was dense forest/jungle in all the four directions. The area immediately by the point was typical of the route we had taken i.e. tree cover and thorny foliage.
I took the mandatory photographs of the four cardinal points, them being not very meaningful - they might have been taken in any scrubby area. But for the matter the photos taken in four directions from the North Pole too will be equally meaningless. However I shall still give the mandatory description for academic purposes.
East of the CP was the mixed sal forest. A small clearing, most probably having been created by foraging elephants was fringed by thick growth of trees all around.
West of the CP, the vegetation was a but sparse, and the horizon could be seen through the gaps of the trees.
North too was dense foliage with a plethora of creepers and vines which entangled themselves in the trees. There was a clear path going into the forest, an elephant sized path.
South of the CP, there were many stumps of trees that had been uprooted, certainly by elephants. There were some places where the young saplings had been nibbled at near the roots, and this was the handiwork of the wild boars and pigs that were in abundance. The confluence was surrounded by native vegetation and numerous large anthills.
It had taken us nearly three hours to reach our target, so we had a good rest at the confluence before we made our return trip. We were extremely exhausted and Kasi had a brainwave of taking a different route back. He assured me that he had been taking his bearings on our walk to the CP, and had made note of a few landmarks. His idea was that we should not go by route that we had come, but follow the river bed and reach the bridge which was a hundred metres from the place where we had parked our vehicle. We all agreed to it, as it would have meant waking on the dry soft sand instead of the thick brambles and bushes. I made a feeble suggestion that we take a straight line approach back, following the GPS nav arrow in it opposite pointer. We both agreed that we were hopelessly lost, and that our trip back would be only possible by either the GPS or following the river bed.
My suggestion was scuttled by majority, and we took to the river bed. We trudged ahead, heads down, following the meandering sands as the river bed grew broader and broader. We were walking upstream, and this could be determined by the ripple patterns which the flowing river had formed, and which had now dried and formed interesting patterns on the sand. We did not encounter a single human footprint, though animal hoof marks were plenty. Besides elephant’s footmarks, we saw the prints of wild boar too. The river must have dried off nearly a month ago, and this showed how desolate the place was. Just when we were emerging from a bend in the river, we saw a wild sow with nearly a dozen piglets trailing behind her, making futile attempts to suckle while on the move. Kasi was confident that we would reach the road soon, and kept on urging us forward. It was not easy walking on the dry river bed, and our feet sank a good three inches in places. We soon realized that the river was taking its own merry path, as most of these small rivers do. There were numerous u-turns, zigzags and we saw nearly half a dozen dried up ox-bow lakes. There were small dried streams which met the river nearly every hundred metres. We kept walking for more then an hour and stopped when the GPS indicated that we were a good four kms away from the CP. The compass bearings were soon forgotten and the map too was not of very much help.
We stopped under the shade of a mango tree and contemplated on the action to be taken. I suggested the straight line approach, walking opposite the direction of the CP, and was sure that this dead reckoning would get us to the road. Kasi wanted to give the river route another try, but he too had apprehensive doubts creeping in his mind. We climbed up from the river bed, and tried taking the most possible straight line approach that was possible.
We were startled to see a 1.5 metres Cobra slithering across our path, just metres away from us. It stopped and raised its hood, and by the time we could unpack our cameras, it had vanished into the undergrowth.
The Cobra is a very aggressive snake and its venom is neurotoxic and pro coagulant, which means a snakebite victim, suffers from progressive paralysis and blood that won’t coagulate. There are many fatalities from Cobra bites but very effective anti-venom has been developed to counteract the affects. Every year, nearly 30,000 persons die of snake bites in India, in spite of ASV (Anti Snake Venom) being stocked in all the government hospitals.
When biting its prey, the Cobra’s venom is forced through the snake's half-inch (8-10 mm) fangs and into the wound. Although its venom is not the most toxic of venoms, a King Cobra's size enables it to inject larger quantities of venom than most other serpents. The large amount of venom in a single bite allows the King Cobra to kill faster, and to kill larger animals than other serpents, it just takes a few minutes to kill a human, and can even kill an elephant within three hours if the bite is in a vulnerable area such as the trunk.
We kept walking for another hour, and met the road three kilometers up from the place where we had parked our vehicle. The walk on the road was fairly easy, and we reached our base late in the afternoon. We had planned to finish this CP within an hour; instead it had taken us a good seven hours. Ananta was too tired to drive, and just flopped over on the rear seat. Tired, thirsty, hungry, injured, footsore, scratched and scraped etc. was our state. I took over the wheel and drove into the now setting sun. Our plans for three confluences in the weekend were all given up, and all we yearned was to get home to some well needed rest.
CP visit details:
- Distance to a road: 3.50 km
- Distance to a track: 3.50 km
- Distance to houses: 8.00 km
- Duration : Seven hours from start until we were back to base.
- Time (distance) for the hike from Base: 2.50 hours
- Time at the CP: 9.45 a.m. on 28th November 2008
- Measured height: 145 m
- Position accuracy at the CP: 8 m
- Topography: the general area is flat, but there are many small springs which flow into the river in the jungle. No paths to follow. The area will be impossible to traverse during the monsoons.
- Vegetation: Scrub jungle, with elephant grass, trees and abundant man height vegetation.
- Weather: sunny, 24° C (felt temperature)
vDescription of the CP: Located in a small clearing amid thick forest growths.
- Given Name: The Coalfields Confluence
Rating of this hunt :
- Degree of Challenge:
4 – A exhausting hike in the woods with a lot of bush bashing. Lucky
we did not encounter any elephants. Fraught with danger.
(1 : very easy drive to the point; to 5: a death march - glad it is over)
2 – Pleasant scrub jungle with monotonous views of short trees and
bushes. (Scale: 1= not interesting at all; 5= take your breath away)
- Culture-social factors:
1– No people encountered , no human habitation or activity in the vicinity of the CP (Scale: 1=dull; 5= most stimulating.)