The Mahanadi River expands just before Cuttack city after hitting the coastal plains. It breaks off into the Kathajodi and Birupa River. However the main river continues its downward journey to Paradip on the edge of Cuttack city. A few miles downstream of the 1,000 year old ancient city, lie extensive islands of sparse forests of thorns and scrubs locally known as ‘pathas’. They have fertile soil made of silt deposits that were washed down by the river during monsoon floods over centuries. Being isolated, they rarely face human intrusion and hence wildlife abounds here. There is a wild profusion of berries of all varieties and many locals also go there for collecting them.
These river pathas support a unique ecology as many species of reptiles and birds flourish here. Uncommon reptiles like pythons, land turtles, king cobras are also seen here as they get washed down by floods and survive by climbing up these small dry patches in the middle of the river. Local fauna like mongoose, porcupine, jungle cat, civet cats, hare are also seen here. The thick knee or stone curlew a ground dwelling bird with prominent circular eyes is seen in large numbers in these open scrub land.
As adventurous schoolboys we used to go on visits to these pathas which were so close to the town. After days of planning and secretive discussions lest our parents know we used to sneak off on these intrepid expeditionary tours. Fancying ourselves to be modern ‘Livingstone’ we used to look upon these little patches of bush and thorn scrub jungles as primeval unexplored areas waiting for their secrets to be discovered! Africa was right here!
A band of us cycled down to the river bank at Bidhyadharpur to meet our friend who stayed at the CRRI colony. Leaving our bicycles there we trekked to the pathas. I carry fond memories of many sunny idyllic winter afternoons spent in walking these uninhabited islands and bathing in the clean waters of the mighty river.
One incident firmly etched in my mind was the encounter with a wolf whom we had once surprised at her den. We had plodded through soft river sand to reach the patha scrub forest. The view was spectacular; the raised silt island being surrounded by a narrow stream of water. The clear blue waters of the Mahanadi glistened in the sun bordered by clean white sand.
The sun was already up since long as it was mid morning. However, it was pleasant as it was winter and the day temperatures were not high. We waded through this water scattering numerous fish away. The translucent shallow water revealed the river bed which had soft silt and some water plants amongst which the silvery small fish were flitting around.
It was the migratory water fowl season and like every year they had arrived in our wetlands. To our right a gaggle of pintails basked on the shore a few stragglers still feeding in the water. Their distinctive pin like tail jutted out above the water making the easy to identify. A little ahead a flock of lesser sand plovers were busy picking up insects from the moist mud flats. The stillness was suddenly broken by the honking of a Brahminy duck pair which splashed down on the water. Their distinctive call is easily recognizable since it is like the creaking of a bullock cart wheel.
The island’s mud bank loomed ahead of us topped by thorny bushes and small trees. Agog with excitement, we ascended the steep bank. Who knows what creatures we shall find?
Going up we were greeted by miles and miles of rolling bushes and thorns interspersed with banyan trees and stands of tall river grass waving in the light breeze. It was a vast area and for us something of immense interest.
While we were making our way through the path, we surprised a flock of quail which flew up all of a sudden with alarm calls. They are experts in camouflage. Their earth brown feather speckled with gray streaks totally merges with the ground. One cannot detect them even if they are right in front of you so easily they blend with the surrounding vegetation.
We found a pile of bones bleached white by the sun lying near a thorn bush. We had never seen such large bones earlier. A cowherd who was our local guide immediately concluded they were cattle bones and must have been eaten clean by a jackal. The island did not have any stray dogs since it was uninhabited and they would have starved.
Our curiosity was piqued. Gingerly we stepped forward in measured breath to investigate. Suddenly there was a growl and a huge grayish furry dog like creature with a busy tail, resembling a thin and sleek Alsatian dog rushed out with bared fangs. I was shocked since it was a total surprise!
All of us screamed with terror and jumped back several steps. There was only one stick with us which I instinctively held out in front. My hands were trembling with fear and my legs felt like lead. My mates had scattered like chaff blown away by the afternoon breeze! But the animal did not carry on the charge. It turned and disappeared inside the dense bushes of thorn. It was a wolf which had leapt out of the den.
Dropping grand visions of our Livingstone plans we scampered back as fast as we could! There was no way we could carry on the journey! All of us in walked together in a tight bunch thoroughly terrified by the unexpected encounter.
A fisherman whom we met on the path, nodding his head wisely mentioned: “I think she was with babies otherwise, these wolves run away when they see human beings.” That night I could not sleep. I could not forget the long jaw and the large fangs of the mother wolf. I had nightmares of being chased and attacked by huge evil wolves for several nights that week!
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