The rustling of the dead leaves falling on the trail
The chirping of the birds
Rare sightings of the leopard
Even rarer sightings of the wolf
Where a wagtail will lead you throughout
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Forests can literally talk in Chhattisgarh. This is not an exaggeration. The state has recently been touted as the "best emerging domestic tourism destination" by Lonely Planet India, but you have to visit to feel the state's enigmatic and as yet untouched wilderness. Try giving the usual and crowded forest circuits of India a miss and visit the offbeat, quiet and rivetingly charming Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary.
Barnawapara lies about 120km from Raipur (the capital city of Chhattisgarh in central India) and just 40km from the historic town of Sirpur. A drive of about two-and-a half hours from Raipur brings you comfortably to this sanctuary, making Barnawapara a perfect weekend getaway from the state capital. There aren't many private staying options here, an indication that this wildlife haven is not yet on the radar of tourists.
However, you can have a comfortable stay at the Hareli Eco-Resort at Barnawapara once you book through the website of the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board. Located right in the middle of the forest, the resort boasts 12 spacious cottages (Rs 2500 per day, double sharing) with a separate restaurant and basic amenities.
Wake up at dawn to venture into the unknown and catch rare sightings of the wolf or the Indian bison and the leopard. Quite hesitantly, we got off our bed at 5 in the morning, had a cup of tea and got on to the safari jeep provided by the resort. One jeep can accommodate six persons and costs approximately Rs 1800-2000 per jeep. You can choose to pick up a jeep at the resort or travel in your car till the entrance gate and grab a jeep there. The difference isn't much, so we thought it better to take a jeep from the resort.
"A drive of about two-and-a half hours from Raipur brings you comfortably to this sanctuary, making Barnawapara a perfect weekend getaway from the state capital."
After a drive amidst the verdant teak and sal trees, we reached the entry checkpoint of the sanctuary, got our papers checked and drove in. Meanwhile, our forest guide, a local named Himendra hopped onto the jeep. I was also fortunate to have on this safari Heerak Nandy, a travel journalist and wildlife enthusiast from Kolkata. He was a veritable treasure house of knowledge about a variety of birds and animals. With a keen sense of observation, he, together with the forest guide, could locate a rare wagtail or a giant squirrel hanging from the branches of the trees and gently urge: "Stop! Stop! There's the bird!" Both of us then would quickly manage to photograph the wildlife species.
At Barnawapara, I had my first wolf sighting. It emerged from the tall grass and shrubs and halted in the middle of the road, paused, gave us a stern look, turned back and walked away. Within just a matter of seconds and quick reflex, I managed to capture a few good shots of the wolf.
Not content with this, we slowly proceeded inside the forest, expecting something bigger and better to unfold in front of our eyes. A peacock beside a water body, basking under the glinting rays of the sun. A herd of spotted deer, a couple of langurs jumping from one branch to the other and a huge group of bison, which seemed to be waiting for us. They were in a group of 10 to 12 and occupied the road, slowly munching up grass on their way. We stopped our jeep and watched them until they cleared our path.
Barnawapara hosts around 150 different species of birds and we were eager to see a good sampling. Patiently, we moved ahead and veered towards the Pakshi Vihar (Birds' Park), a massive shallow marshland with dried trees and a heaven for a bird lover. We parked our jeep and slowly walked towards the water body to catch a glimpse and photograph the birds. Black ibis, greater racket tailed drongo, green bee-eater, egret, eagle, parrot, swallows - all were here. The natural sounds of a thousand birds chirping and playing on the water is mesmerising. We could hear the loud chirping of a peacock as well.
We could have dawdled for much longer but we were almost three hours into the safari and our guide reminded us that we needed to turn back as visitors cannot spend more than three hours at a stretch in the forest.
We headed back to the resort, ordered a fresh breakfast consisting of piping hot stuffed paranthas with mixed pickles and curd, poha and tea. You can eat at the restaurant or move to your cottage and perch yourself on one of the comfortable chairs and gaze for hours onto the forest. We got lucky and spotted a couple of deer who were enjoying their morning drink at the water body.
You can spend the rest of the day by driving down to Sirpur town and soaking in the historical charms of a bygone era. Sirpur is home to some of the country's most fascinating and historical archaeological ruins, some dating back 2500 years. You'll find everything from ancient temples to Buddhist monasteries to fragments of an old marketplace.
Sirpur is being developed as a leading Buddhist circuit in the country and the efforts put in by the Government of Chhattisgarh and its Tourism Board in particular are amply visible. The annual Sirpur Fest in the month of January is an international crowd puller and is slowly getting popular amongst tourists who are looking for an offbeat Buddhist destination. Visit the Laxman Temple, Buddha Vihar, Ancient Marketplace, Surang Tila, Baleshwar Mahadev Temple and the Museum at your own pace during the rest of the day.