A drive along the Marine Drive from Puri to Konark is always a visual treat. The 30 km long road is flanked on the one side by a thick forest –of casuarinas, cashew trees and other fauna– and on the other by the Balukhand wildlife sanctuary, which almost nestles on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.
The occasional tide serenading the shore provides the final piece. In the middle of the stretch flows a river geometrically dissecting the Marine Drive road at a right angle.
After an hour of early dawn shower we left Puri for Konrak on the Marine Drive. The sun, like a crescent ball on the horizon, was winking through the gaps of the retreating clouds. The sky had started sparkling like a comet and the splendour of the dawn was beginning to illuminate the vast landscapes flanking the road. Post rain, silvery sunlight was slowly spreading on the road.
We stopped for a break at a roadside tea stall. The soothing smell of the vapour from the earth after the rains triggered nostalgia memories, like the smoulder beneath the ashes, of my childhood days in the village, Sukinda, now a lost paradise.
We took a diversion after half an hour drive to see the Balukhand Wildlife Sanctuary. The motorable track among the thick casuarina forestry led us towards the core area, where you can feel the nature from so close, touch the leaves, smell the grass and inhale the elixir of morning cool breeze.
Before we could alight from the vehicle we witnessed a wild black buck jumping the track in one flight. It was an antelope, majestic and awesome.
As we trudged ahead deeper into the forest there was a sudden blank patch wearing a green carpet of soft grass expanse and some blades still holding the rain drops like the teardrop crystals. To the far end of the pasture on our right we noticed a small herd of sand deer, small and beautiful, feasting on the foliage unperturbed. It was a
rare sight to behold and as we tried to inch bit closer to take some snaps of those wonderful friends, they put up their heads and disappeared into the forest. We felt bad and guilty that our cordial teasing spoiled their morning.
“Do they fall targets to local poachers sometimes ?” I asked the forest official accompanying us. “Yes, sometimes” he said with disarming sincerity. Besides the black bucks, sand deer and ‘cheetal’, there are rabbits, hyenas and some jackals in this small sanctuary which was declared as a Reserve Forest way back in 1936 by the then Collector
We were amazed to see the existence of an almost a century old rest house in the middle. It architecture was typically British; shadowy rooms, lunar arches, floor to ceiling windows and a monastic patio. It was, in fact, a cozy bunglow of sorts which was perhaps serving as a retreat for the British authorities in those days. The sanctuary limit ultimately merges with the shores of the Bay of Bengal where the sound of the tides serenade to this breathtaking nature.
<b>Tryst with the Rangers</b>
It was hard to believe that we were barely 10 kms from the Puri city. Having been conquered by the magic of the sanctuary, I realized the essence of the lightness far from the oppressive heaviness of the capital city Bhubaneswar.
Then we were back on the Marine Drive. It was around noon and we were hungry. We drove ahead with small pauses here and there. In many places houses have replaced the thick casuarina cover and in many areas, on both left and right side, there were mere stumps of the chopped trees like the dying embers of a hapless glory.
On the right side we noticed a signboard of something. It was written Rangers. First we thought it could be a forest department office but, we, to our sudden delight, discovered that, it was a joint for rest and food for the tourists. We needed both. Unlike in many other food joints, here we were greeted by the young owner of the Rangers. Sanjay. A frail looking man with a handsome face which, perhaps, had lost its radiance due to some
reason. Later I found that he was worried about the sweeping change that the area was going to witness after the setting up of an over-ambitious educational project along Marine Drive that might destroy the eco diversity of the whole area.
Rangers is an ideal trove for one who wants to spend a while to rest and relish homely food. Spread over an area of little less than two acres, Rangers resembles less the monotony of a roadside motel than a monastery. In the middle of it is a thatched cubicle serving as the main dining space and one its left is the real breathing venue
where majority prefer to take food amidst the ambience of nature. There is a structure facing the cubicle made of concrete with two rooms with facility for rest and refreshments and on top of it there is a kind of patio overlooking the whole expanse of the Rangers.
For travellers fond of homely food the Rangers is an ideal destination. Here there is no fixed menu but they prepare the dishes keeping in mind the choice of the guests, which takes little time. Sanjay has in his possession a All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) that is an added attraction for tourists who would go for adventure along the coast. It’s a 17 HP four wheeler bike that can negotiate the coastal terrains and can also be used as a transport on the shores.
<b>The flip side of the story</b>
After a sumptuous lunch at the Rangers we headed for Konark. On the way we came across a group of people holding a discussion on a proposed world class university over an area of about 8,000 acres.
There were talks of displacement, development, politics and proliferation of urbanisation after the university comes. We even heard arguments ranging from environmental depletion to natural cataclysm, primary education to world class dreams and poverty and unemployment. There were, in fact, talks of both hope and despair.
Which reminded me the defeatist impulses I had noticed on the face of Sanjay at the Rangers. Eight thousand acres for a University! This sounded somewhat like an exaggerated proposition that could impair a wholesome treasure forever. The government has reportedly given the final nod for the proposed university and there is little hope for either the innocent wildlife animals of Balukhand sanctuary, for the mute nature or for the ones who inhabit the area.