A late afternoon sun plays hide and seek in the dark jungle. The thick canopy allows only narrow strips of the golden rays of the sun to fall to the ground. There is an eerie silence all around, broken only by the hum of our vehicle. We are only a few miles from the Pithabata Checkpost, a gateway to the reserve, but it feels like we are already quite far from people and places. It’s an uphill climb, and as our jeep negotiates curves, we’re treated to panoramic views of the plains and neighboring hills.
The greenery is overwhelming – tall majestic trees reach for the sky, their branches spreading with homosexual desolation. The thick trunks of some trees would put even the richly carved pillars of monuments to shame – decorated as they are with natural carvings (made by worms, we are told), while others have undergrowth entwined on them.
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A group of monkeys, a lone bird and a squirrel are the only animals we see before reaching the beats house at Bhajam Check Post. We decide to stretch our legs here. We look around the beats house – it’s a small tin-and-cement structure with a wraparound trench for protection from wild animals. There are many similar stock exchange houses in the woods, we find out later.
The midday sun is fading and our guide urges us to resume our journey. Our rest home is another hour away and we should be there before nightfall as driving is prohibited in the shrine at night. After driving for a while, our jeep slows down and the driver gestures us to look ahead. A herd of wild boars cross the path ahead, and the little ones run to catch up with their mother.
We encounter scattered tribal hamlets. The intoxicating smell of ripe paddy, the smoke from small kitchen fires and the sight of farmers returning from their fields with bundles of paddy transport us to another world. Our guide mentions that this part of the forest is elephant territory, as the jumbos will often feast on paddy. But the elephants avoid us and after driving uphill for a few minutes, we reach the Barehipani Rest House, where we will stop for the night.
It is completely dark and the roar of the waterfall is the first sound we hear when we get out. We talk to the old watchman who tells us with many tiger stories. Simlipal Tiger Reserve is famed for its tiger population (101 according to the latest census, although this figure is a matter of debate) and we wonder if we’ll catch a glimpse of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The guard replies emphatically in the negative. The tigers remain deep in the jungles, in the core area, and have not been sighted in these parts for a very long time. After a delicious dinner of hot rotis and curry we retire to our rooms and the roar of gushing water lulls us to sleep. The next morning we wake up early. In the dark hours of the morning, we peek through the windows to view Barehipani waterfall. The log cabin (appropriately named Fall View, said to be a modified version of a log cabin used by a local king during shikar) is strategically located to provide visitors with an excellent view of the waterfall and ridges.
Our first stop is in the Nawana Valley, which seems heavenly in the morning sun. We rest for a while on the delightful Jamboo Bridge and drive to Joranda Falls through a stretch of fields and small hamlets. On the journey back from Joranda, we see a small herd of deer cross our path, wait on the road for a while as if to pose for us, and then leap into the undergrowth.
Chahala is our next destination. Located in the core area, this is perhaps the place most frequented by tourists. Set in a large clearing, enclosed by a ditch on one side and a fence on the other, it is an ideal spot for wildlife watching. The salt licks nearby draft animals; you can also view them from a watchtower. Our vigil at the tower that evening is rewarded by the appearance of a large herd of bison. Two days in the lap of nature and we are reluctant to leave this beautiful area. However, it is time to turn back and we try to enjoy the last hour of riding in the woods. Before arriving at Tulasibani checkpoint, we stop at a stream and a meadow at a place called Jamuani. Paddy fields and golden fields of mustard spread around us. We say goodbye to Simlipal and I read the words on the gate: “Tiger Calling U, Visit my house again and see me if you can!” True to those words, we should definitely return to spot the big cat in its den.
Over Simlipal Tiger Reserve
Simlipal Tiger Reserve is a dense hilly stretch of forest covering an area of 2,750 km2. It is part of the Mahanadic Biogeographical Region and its forests fall within the biotic province of the Chhotanagpur Plateau. According to local legend, the forest probably got its name from the Simul trees, which are known for their attractive red flowers. There are several high peaks here such as Khairiburu (1,178m) and Meghasani (1,158m). As many as seven major rivers and their tributaries flow through these forests, and some of them have mugger crocodiles and mahseer. Statistics show that there are 1,076 species of plants, 231 species of birds, 42 species of mammals, 29 species of reptiles, and 12 species of amphibians. The forests contain flora and fauna, some of which fall into the endangered category in the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature and National Resources) Red Data Book.
Of Simlipal Tiger Reserve came under the Project Tiger conservation plan in 1973, and part of the core area was declared a sanctuary in 1979. The entire region, including the buffer zone and adjacent areas, is known as the Simlibal Biosphere Reserve. There are a number of tribal villages within Simlipal, most of them on the edge of the reserve. The presence of these villages is one reason why Simlipal has not yet been declared a national park. Cattle grazing is a problem, as are wildfires, usually caused by man’s insensitivity. Some members of the indigenous community (tribes found in the region include Khola, Santhal, and Mankadia) indulge in mass hunting as a ritual.
Location: In Mayurbhanj district in the northern part of the state, close to the Bengal-Bihar border, 22 km away from the nearest town Baripada Distances 270 km N of Bhubaneswar, 262 km SW of Kolkata
Route from Bhubaneswar NH5 to Baripada via Baleshwar; forest road to Pithabata Route from Kolkata NH6 to Jashipur via Panskura and Kharagpur; forest roads to Gudgudia / Chahala
When to go: The reserve is open roughly from November 1 to June 15. The ideal season to visit is between November and February. Nights can be cold so wear warm clothes and blankets Best animal sightings are in April-May; wildflowers and orchids also bloom at this time
Go there for elephants, leopards and tigers