A journey to Sreemangal is incomplete without a visit to Baikka Beel, one of the largest wetlands in the country. Although late March is not a propitious time for discovering the wonders of the swamp that has been declared a sanctuary for birds and fish, we decided to glean whatever little surprises are left to enjoy of the pristine natural water body. Who knew the itinerary could be so breathtakingly exciting and thrilling! Fortunately, the weather in the morning was pleasant on account of the overhanging clouds. Overnight there was no rain but the gloomy sky was threatening enough.
The seven --actually eight -- of us started on board a hired old model Mitsibishi jeep, the sides of which have iron bar netting allowing nearly full glimpses of the sights around. From Sreemangal town the jeep takes carpeted roads for about half an hour, then the muddy road begins northward. A journey on this road for about another half an hour took us to the Baikka beel proper. On the side of the approaching road about two kilometres away, we saw a large flock of white heron looking for fish in a shallow pool. An attempt to take a snap of such a large body of snowy avian creatures prompted them to take on flight. Pressing the camera shutter several times to catch all whiteness on flight was not particularly fruitful.
After this encounter, there was reason to be optimistic of more rewarding views in the vast expanses of the swamp. One plus point was that there were no other tourists as long as we spent our time there. On entering the swamp area we had to take an undefined walkway leading to the two watch towers. Nowhere have I seen woods like this full of hijal and koroch -both indigenous trees -lining the edge of the swamp. The trees have made a natural canopy overhead and underneath leaves have gathered in huge quantity to make a thick carpet.
Our plan was to go to the distant watch tower first but now the clouds looked ominously threatening. Even a few drops came swirling in the air. So we thought of taking shelter in the nearby watch tower that is only a few hundred metres away. But to our surprise, the clouds sailed away. Since coming to Sreemangal, we have experienced similar pranks played by the weather. It looks rain is imminent but a few drops later there is no trace of it.
We had to move fast to the watch tower because except the seven-member team, there was a special visitor with us. A seven-month old baby girl who remained so calm and composed right through the entire journey took the not so smooth ride to Baikka Beel and other spots in strides. We had no time to breakfast because we started early in the morning. But we carried with us our breakfast and now decided to have a memorable one right in the watch tower.
It indeed was so because, as far as your eyes go, you see water full of lotus and lily leaves with the former predominating. There were buds of lotus but not one in full bloom. Amid the bushes the birds could not be seen with naked eyes but the binocular the office there provides for easy viewing can catch the sights of birds floating there. When those flocks are on their wings, even naked eyes can see them. These are mostly lesser whistling ducks. Through the lenses of the binocular though, a couple of kalims were sighted at some distance.
This admittedly is not the time for bird sighting. Migratory birds have taken leave of the country and the swamp long before. Those few still remaining there have virtually become residents of the wetland. With the sun rising up in the sky, the birds start looking for rest. Their activity reduces to the minimum. Still it would leave us distraught if we had not visited the farthest corner where the second watch tower was located. So we started for it.
This time, though, we encountered all along the leafy path patches of dung and excreta of other animals. So we had to be cautious not to step over those and soil our shoes. Finally we made it to the last tower but it was in a shabby condition giving the impression that no man visited the place for months. Even the small culvert near the tower was blocked by fences, probably to restrain cattle going over it. Here we could not spot any migratory bird but some egrets and cormorants were either busy catching fish or were on their flight.
It was time to return and on my way back through the woods, one thought haunted me. Why was it Baikka Beel. Does it have a historical connotation? If not, why is it not called Padma (lotus) Beel (wetland)?
Postscript: The return journey was really treacherous. The weather that had played hide and seek with us, finally caught us unaware. Well, black clouds were swirling but someone among us concluded that it would not rain like before. But she could not be more wrong. Not only rain but storm at so mighty a speed blew furiously when our jeep was on the muddy road and in the open. The driver, although experienced enough, feared its wheels would slip. At a point we escaped such a dangerous prospect by a hair split. We all got drenched by the driving rain and were shivering. Fortunately for the little member of the team, she was in the loving care of her grandma sitting on the seat beside the driver. Thank Heaven, we made it safely to Sreemangal.