Beware of the Quills!

One night and an experience of a lifetime - Memoirs from Haabalikhati

the mini-amazon of india

A HDR Panaroma view of the serene Gahirmatha beach

The 'wild' island of Habalikathi at Odisha, famous for the Gahirmatha beach, which is well known for one of the rare beaches that provide a safe haven and reproductive grounds for the Olive Ridley Turtles. But, unfortunately, it is often bombarded by the marauding waves of the Bay of Bengal ocean. The forest rest houses which are the only available residing place for the humans are constructed adjoining the beach, at a distance of 40 ft from the waves (fun fact: the former forest houses already got devoured by the ocean in 2018). And it is in 2 of these houses (there are a total of 3 houses with 3500 per night cost for 1 house that can accommodate 3 heads), I and my friends resided.

Where the Jungle meets the seas, bypassing the sandy beaches

 The boat ride from Bhitarkanika to Habalikhati is a treat for any nature enthusiast or a wildlife lover as their eyes can witness the cute wild boars grunting and roaming around for food; adult and juvenile Muggers cum Salt-Water Crocodiles basking in the sun with some of their mouths wide open, Monitor Lizards lying flat on the ground or sensing the ground in search of prey, 

a juvenile salt water crocodile
a Bengal Monitor lizard at leisure
a saltwater crocodile climbing up the river bank to a safe place for basking. Crocodiles bask themselves for regulating their body temperatures as they do not sweat
a huge mugger of around 17-18 feet crawling back into the water.

Spotted Deers grazing among the mangrove roots and the trees’ leaves, Fishing Cats waiting in search of fishes, and several species of Birds especially the Kingfishers, Egrets, plovers, sandpipers, and the Rose Ringed Parakeets which are found in plenty. 

Common Kingfisher which is soon becoming uncommon
Black-Capped Kingfisher
Collared Kingfisher
Green Bee-eater
Red Crabs

 It was a 5 hrs (approx.) journey from Bhitarkanika to Habalikhati. Once we reached there, a stretch of 2-2.5 km narrow path in the middle of the forest lay in front of us that had to be covered on foot, to reach the forest rest houses. The path is bordered by a small stream like at one side and thin outgrowth of trees while thick foliage of trees bordered the path on the other side. 

the narrow path to the Habalikhati forest rest house

This was one of the most exciting walks I had in my entire life to date. The jungle was quite silent and the only noise was of our footsteps. A forest ranger while overtaking us informed, that he saw a King Cobra a few meters back beside a stream(we crossed the stream over a thin bridge that could carry a motorbike load over it and was less than 1 meter in width). After 2.5 hrs of hunger in our eyes and heart, this was like the smell of strong tea after a tiring journey. We rushed with hurried footsteps to the spot, but unluckily it was long gone. Well catching a glimpse of Wildlife is all about luck! 

And Mother Nature gifted us with a Greater Flameback woodpecker pecking into the woods

 We now hurried as it was already 4:30 PM and by another 30 mins, it would be too late to remain in a jungle full of predators like Hyenas, Jackals, Foxes, King Cobras, Pythons apart from other creatures like the Indian Porcupine, Spotted Deer, Fishing cats, Jungle cats, etc. As said earlier thick bushes and trees formed the boundaries of the narrow path, it is here, Mother Nature was kind enough and she gifted us with a hyena pup, which was very hardly visible through the thick network of branches and leaves. Being amateur wildlife enthusiasts, our movements made the pup aware of our presence and it hurried off. It was only a few minutes when we saw a spotted deer mother and her fawn gulping on the delicious leaves from the trees. Deers have an excellent sense of smell and hearing. They were able to feel our presence at a fraction of second from meters away and were nowhere to be seen around the next instant. LOL 

Finally, we were at the rest houses. It was a 1-1.5 hrs walk and we were in dire need of a bath and some refreshing tea, that was provided by the kind forest officials. The forest rest house does not have any physical gate, only an open entrance is present. There are no boundaries as such. If you stand on the beach facing the houses, a 2-meter plastic fencing is present at the back which separates the houses from the forest. While another 3-meter fencing is present to the left and right of the premises. In the front a 1-meter fence with a 1-meter gap in between at a point which was actually torn. Also, there was another exit facing the sea, that was for the tourists to stroll into the beach. If one was to straightaway walk from the dock to the forest rest house, he would directly go into the sea, sounds funny, isn’t it. 

the former location of the forest rest houses before  (pre 2018) they were devoured by the marauding waves of the great ocean

 After freshening up, we had lunch and went for a stroll along the beach. After around 20 mins, at approx. 6:30 PM, the forest officials sent us a shout, we went running and saw in amazement an Indian crested porcupine in the forest rest house premises. The officials exclaimed that they daily come there to feed on the leftovers. We photographed them using our torches and mobile flashlights to our heart’s content. Such a cute, innocent, beautiful, and delicate creature. With all of us there, it was a lot of uncommon and unknown faces to take for that poor creature, so it panicked. I was just 1 meter away from it. Indian Porcupines when threatened first rattle their quills and then if still, the threat looms, they move backwards towards the predator/threat to sting with the quills. As it came closer to me suddenly, I moved from my location. 

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But as it was accustomed to the forest officials, and had a pretty good rapport with all of them, it calmed down in the next instant. It was then I started feeding some nuts to it, that I had brought with me. Finally, I got the privilege of feeling its quills on my palms. Phh! such a thrilling experience it was. This is something I can never forget. Feeling the quills of a wild Indian Porcupine.

 It was evening and a complete silence greeted us. We were playing some games and having quite a lot of fun in one of the houses. The rest houses are quite big to accommodate 7-8 people. 2 hrs passed by and we did not even notice. It was time for dinner. The food provided there was good enough, taking into consideration the isolation of the island from the nearest market by several kilometers. 

 Have you ever been caught off guard between a pair of Hyenas and a pack of jackals in the middle of the night on a lonely deserted island that might be engulfed by a large Tsunami any day

 Well it was a very hair-raising and adventurous moment, that we would cherish for the rest of our lives We barely sat down to dinner at around 9 PM approx. and all of a sudden our cute friend, the Indian crested Porcupine came over towards the forest official sitting right beside us. It was quite timid and seemed quite nervous, its quills all straightened out. We sensed something creepy about the atmosphere now. As if something is out there watching us. Within a fraction of second, our instincts were proven right, and realized it was someone rather than something. We were completely startled, as a clan of hyenas came out of the jungle alongside the beach and started laughing which was as aforementioned earlier, just a few feet away. We deduced it was at the most a pair of them, as there were only 2 different laughs of different frequencies. Within seconds of their bone-chilling laughter, a pack of jackals started howling at a distance of few meters. This horrendous music of the wild froze us to the core for a few minutes (disclaimer: it was our first wildlife trip). The Porcupine was quivering out of fright. The forest official, who was used to such situations was trying to soothe the creature (the porcupine had a special rapport with the forest officials staying there. It had become sort of a pet). he gave it some food to divert its attention.

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This gripping atmosphere prevailed for 15-20 minutes, after which the predators went their own ways leaving the porcupine to live for another day. As there were no continuous fencing or physical gates towards the beachside, wild animals can enter, but Hyenas or Jackals have never been seen attacking humans. They are mainly scavengers. Especially the Stripped Hyenas that are found here are quite used to humans as another species living with them. We have given them their space, so there has been no interference. Human Wild conflicts arise only when we enter into their territory and make it our own. What would we do if some other unknown human beings enter our house all of a sudden.

Footprint of a Fishing Cat

 While returning to the rest house we could see a snake’s crawl marks and I was so excited to see it, I can't explain the feeling, the adrenaline rush in words. Finally, we took to bed by 12. And after a sound sleep at night, I got up by 5 AM. It was quite cold in the dawn. After around 30 mins, another friend of mine woke up and we thought of taking a stroll on the beach. The air was refreshing, the sounds of the gushing waves unlike the previous night when the waves appeared to be smashing onto the beach, was so soothing. We were only a few meters away from the settlement, and we saw footmarks of a Fishing Cat and a dead Tortoise. I guess she was too old to go back to the sea in time and died of hunger and age ☹. 

A dead Olive Ridley turtle
Upside Down

 We were strolling and talking with each other, appreciating the beauty of the island and the incidents that happened the night before, when my friend exclaims, 2 golden jackals were coming towards us at a distance of 139ft or so. When they were around 80ft distant, we were caught by their eyes. Seeing my large telephoto zoom lens, and mistaking it fr a weapon they halted and fled at that instant into the adjoining jungle. We entered the jungle too at that instant, went for 100 meters, but saw nothing, absolutely nothing!

The jackal sprinting away
and into the jungle

  After that, we came back to the rest houses and had to be ready for the return journey waiting for us. Another friend of mine was busy photographing the beautiful butterflies. One could see a lot of birds and insects. Most of the birds are Asian open bill, egrets, black ibis, cormorants, lapwings, and darters. Mangrove species, casuarinas, and grasses like the indigo bush. We just about to end our photography session when a spotted owlet caught my attention. Although it was an adult, It was so cute and adorable.

Red Wattled Lapwing
Spotted Owlet
Large Egret

After freshening up, we packed our bags and had a sumptuous breakfast. We left the rest house by 9:30 AM. It was quite sunny today. We were walking at a slower pace. 2 of us went ahead and the rest were behind. However, after 30 mins of walking, all of a sudden 1of the friend who was walking ahead came running towards us and informed about the sighting of a king cobra. We hurried towards the spot but till the time I was able to click it, it went into its home. Our footsteps vibrations cause it to get afraid and move into a safe zone. Nature had sent us a parting gift 😊. 

It was another 40 mins and we reached the dockyard to board the boat. GoodBye Habalikhati. Meet you soon.

The Pristine Gahirmatha beach

 Habalikhati, a nature camp in Bitarkanika National Park is quite difficult to find on the map, as it is tagged in maps neither by the google server nor by the responsible authorities. It is close to the Abdul Kalam Island, that’s the only nearest landmark that can be given about this place (thanks to our boatman who gave us this information). We came here hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olive Ridley Turtles at Gahirmatha beach, but we were disappointed as there were none. Human interventions, climate change has forced them to shift their reproduction timeline and also to shift their actual place of laying eggs. Our entire three-night, the four-day trip was managed by Estuarine Village Resort, including one night in Habalikhati. Pick-up from Bhadrak station, drop, permission from Habalikhati from Forest Department, we didn't have to worry about anything. The management of the resort and the behavior of all the staff was very courteous. Every year, few inches of the island are engulfed by the waters, thanks to the rising level of the seas and oceans caused due to global warming.