The bright early summer sun lingered a while longer before putting on its ink-blue shades, headlights came on and the long road from Raipur to Chitrakote seemed to be coming to an end. Our car glided effortlessly on the smooth tarmac of National Highway 43 with hardly any traffic. Some of us tried a few minutes of shut-eye on a highway, which was mercifully quiet.
The car veered sharply to the left and came to a halt. "We are there. The Chitrakote Falls," the guide informed us matter of factly. "Its India's Nigara. It is the broadest waterfall in the country and during the monsoon, the water flow reaches a staggering volume of over 1845 cu m per second. It's an awesome sight, you have to see it to believe it."
We peered around. There was a building in front of us and flat rocks on our right. "There," he said pointing across the rocks. We saw nothing, and, then a second later, we heard the soothing roar. Indravati was growling at the sudden drop of 96 feet after an uneventful placid run in the hinterland. The sound seemed both a protest and a cry of thrill, deep throated as Indravati went over the hill and shrill as it hit the base of the rock overhang. The Chitrakote fall, it seemed, certainly added spice and excitement to Indravati's otherwise routine passage through the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh state.
The State Tourism property near the Falls is interestingly conceived and built. Two rooms comprise one set which is raised on pillars. Each room has a view of the falls. Room 1 is set closest to the Falls and the large bay window allows guests to savour the view from the comfort of the bed. Late night or daytime, it's a mesmerising view --- floodlit after dark and adorned with a sunrise at the break of dawn.
Chitrakote Falls lie about 38 km from Jagdalpur, which was the capital of the erstwhile state of Bastar. The drive from Raipur to Chitrakote takes the good part of the day and is dotted with some must-view places, including the Ganger Dam. The name Chitrakote is derived from chital (spotted deer) and kot (mountain). It is said that large herds of deer used to congregate at this site because of its hospitable terrain and vegetation and the falls' description served as the reference point for site for the locals.
We were up at dawn to take in the view. The light orange of the early morning sun mingled with the cascade to create rainbows across the horse-shoe shaped rock amphitheatre. A steep climb down the rough staircase and we land up at the base of the Falls. Fishermen were already rowing out to harvest Indravati's bounty, the fish yielded by the river has a sweet balanced flavor, delectable to the bone as we discovered over dinner that night.
However, the most memorable part of Chitrakote is the boat ride to the bottom of the mighty cascade. The off-season torrent from above is almost benign, perfect setting for feeling the spray on your cheek, a quick swim in the clear pool or a boat-ride full of romance. Chitrakote indeed is ideal for a dawn-to-dusk picnic with a loved one or day out with family for a splash and a short trek in the jungle across the river. A longer sojourn in the quiet of Chitrakote with its plush accommodation is what the doctor ordered for the harried urban homo sapiens.
But despite the need to tarry and may be stay put forever, we had to move on. A couple of hours later, we were at Kutumsar caves, 38 km from Jagdalpur, located in the Kanger Valley National Park. The Valley attained the status of a national park in 1982. The Park is home to a variety of flora and fauna and fascinating sites - three fascinating caves, Kutumsar, Kailash and Dandak, as well as the waterfalls -- Tirathgarh, Kanger Dhara and Bhaimsa Dhara.
Interestingly, the Kanger Valley is the only region in peninsular India with untouched pockets of virgin forests. The park is also situated in the transition zone where the southern limit of sal forests and the northern limit of teak forests overlap. It's a unique combo, populated with tigers and leopards, mouse deers, wild cats , wolf, boars, crocodiles and caracals, to name just a few.
The endearing jungles, however, cannot prepare one for the Kutumsar cave experience. Diving down into the cold, forbidding crevice of a rock with a passage which is barely enough to crawl through can be a daunting experience even for the adventurous. The narrow path down the rough stairs is dark, lighted inadequately by the solar lamp of the guide, and, for some, claustrophobic. A couple of my fellow travellers couldn't even make it to the first landing and turned back complaining of breathlessness. But once you have navigated the first 72 feet, the steep stairwell pans out to a levelled area, that is stony but navigable with a torch light.
For the less nervous, Kutumsar is an experience of a lifetime. The narrow, slippery daunting passage suddenly opens up into a large cave dotted with exquisite stalactite and stalagmite formations. The mineral rich rocks of the area have over time added bands of brilliant colour to these rock formations. It's an awesome sight. The locals climb down often to offer prayers at a naturally formed shiv-ling.
From the dark, narrow confines of the cave, the half-hour drive to Tirathgarh Falls in the Park is liberating. The woods are lovely, bright and deep, the sal elders rising majestically to touch the blues of the sky. The copious canopy overhead filters the harsh mid-day sun to a balmy light. The intoxication of a forest-fed breeze is broken by another spell-binder --- the Tirathgarh Falls.
The Mungabahar Nala takes a 100 -feet free flow from its otherwise flat course, skipping from a height in measured steps along a rocky face. Unlike Chitrakote, where Indravati leaps over the horse-shoe shaped rock theatre, Tirathgarh Falls over-the-edge drop clings to the black rocks along the way. It's gentler and less intimidating than Chitrakote but as attractive and unique.
The pool at the end of the fall flows into several other drops and makes for trips of discovery after discovery. One can climb down via some steep steps from the top of the Falls to the very bottom and enjoy either dipping one's toes in the cool waters or a full-body splash. It's picturesque. It's fun. It' s almost picture-perfect in its setting. A hidden treasure trove in unspoiled Chhattisgarh.
Ashwini is a Lucknow-based media professional who culls out travel experiences while on mundane assignments