Odisha Blog - Chilika Lake

26 February 2015

The lake trip was everything we expected and more.   Our aim was to find out more about Chilika and to understand how we could in future take small groups to experience the lake and its ecology without negative impact. 

Chilika Lake is Asia’s largest lagoon.  At around 1,100 square kilometers it’s generally not possible to see both shores at the wider points.  It’s a temporary home to many species of migratory birds including flamingoes, kites, pelicans and fish eagles.

We started at Mirzapur with a group of 20 from ISF and 360 including Sebastian the official ISF filmmaker.  We hired 2 fishing boats and pilots and set off to make our first camp on an Island on the Eastern (seaward) side of Chilika.

On the second day after a sunrise we taught SUP skills to a group of 6 young fishermen from Mirzapur SUP.  We had negotiated with their village to have use of 2 fishing boats as our support boats at a lower cost in return for some coaching.  The kids were great, attentive students and learned quickly.  In a few hours we had taught them all the basic SUP skills and shown them how to introduce the skills to others.

Fishing boats at Lake Chilika

This work was part of a project called “Cruisers of Chilika” led by Sanjay Samantaray which aims to provide knowledge to a local community about how SUP tourism can be developed on the lake to create jobs and financial benefits and reduce carbon footprint in this poor and ecologically fragile area.

The land we found to set up camp was deserted and almost cut off from the mainland.  A herd of goats roamed freely unconcerned by our presence and there was a well with good washing water.

We set off towards the south of the lake on the fishing boats spotting just one Irrawaddy dolphin on the way.  We met a group of local officials carrying out a dolphin Census from a boat soon after sunrise.  With clipboards and cameras they recorded dolphin sightings as part of their tracking of this endangered species.

Darkness closed in as we approached the last 30km of the lake so we set up camp on a deserted area on the Western shore beneath the Eastern Ghat mountains. This was deserted and with no water so we set off at dawn to Ghantasila our destination near the far southern end of the island. This is a headland with water on 3 sides and cut off from the local village by mountains.

As we approached Ghantasila we could see the stunning Beacon Island in the distance. This a small rocky outcrop on which Thomas Snodgrass – an Englishman working for the East India Company back in 1791-7 built a small room and a spire. Snodgrass was (tax) Collector of Ganjam District during this period and quickly worked out that he could make best use of his time there by enjoying a lavish lifestyle on the mainland shooting, trapping and entertaining visitors. He built a big lakeside mansion with space for his horses and elephants.

Beacon Island at Lake Chilika

He progressively spent more time reading and hanging out on Beacon Island (which became his office). Revenue from the district fell and rumours of his lifestyle reached the Company’s office in Madras.  Snodgrass ignored their letters, threatened to shoot a Mr Brown from the Company sent to relieve him of office. He played on the remoteness of his outpost which took months to reach by road and was cut off by sea during the Monsoon season. The Governor sent a small body of soldiers to bring him back so Snodgrass sent all tax records out into the middle of the lake and sank them (claiming it was an accident). Snodgrass was eventually removed from office and denied a company pension.  In London he fought back by becoming a street sweeper in front of East India House which enabled him to confront the pompous and wealthy directors every day. They gave in to escape the public ridicule he had brought upon them and Snodgrass got his pension.

We made our final camp on Ghantisila and the main group headed North up the lake after one night while 7 of us stayed for another 3 nights. We explored the area by SUP and bought tomatoes, onions and more from a small farm near the lakeside and prawns from the fishermen. Getting to the only village nearby meant a 12km round trip around the headland and back. The alternative was to cross the steep rocky hills by a high path used by farm workers to take produce to the village. This took a few hours via a steep track which made a nice alternative. The farm workers were mainly women and every day they walked the steep path in sandals with heavy sacks of vegetables  balanced in the traditional Indian style on their heads.

Farmers at Lake Chilika

This part of the lake is very beautiful and quite remote so the villagers and fisherman were pleased to see somebody from outside of their small community. They called in to try SUP and to sit and chat.  The two Surfing Yogis who stayed with us translated and we found one English speaker in the village (a young farmer who had worked in Singapore for 3 years and was fluent and keen to chat).

The Eastern Ghats provide an impressive backdrop and the lake was clear and ideal for swimming. The brackish water of Chilika has a relatively low salt content unlike the very salty Indian Ocean and if anything it’s slightly warmer – so you can swim for hours without feeling cold or getting your eyes irritated by salt.

The 6 days we spent there confirmed our thoughts from last year that Chilika is a really great place to explore by SUP. The lake is consistently calm from dawn to late morning.  Winds from the East (Indian Ocean) pick up from mid morning and make the lake choppy, sometimes with small waves - and ideal for long downwind paddles. With minimal effort you can cover many kilometers in a few hours. Paddling against the wind was tough and slow – but possible. Local fishermen are happy to pick you up at an agreed end point and carry a small group back to base for an a very reasonable price. Their boats are sleek and fast and most can easily carry 6 people with boards. They are in our experience very friendly and skillful boat handlers.

Villagers came to visit us every morning and were always friendly and keen to interact. They asked to try out SUP and we were happy to teach them. One of the teenagers used one of our boards to inspect prawn traps and collect prawns. It was easier and quicker to move around that the motorized or sail boats in use and also faster than the poled fishing boats. Poling a large, heavy wooden boat is a high energy activity requiring a high level of skill. A small fleet of SUPs would no doubt be very beneficial to the villages as it would enable them to work more efficiently at fishing as well as generating new income from teaching SUP and guiding.

Chilka’s shores seemed very safe. There are no dangerous animals around or in the lake. Bears live in the area but we heard no reports of them attacking people and there were no sightings. We could sleep out on the shore with or without tents. I preferred not to use a tent there as with no moonlight (our time there corresponded with a festival to celebrate the darkest night) lying back and watching stars was the perfect way to fall asleep. Also I could enjoy sunrise and the first hour or so of daylight either on the water or from my sleeping bag (a blanket would have also been fine).

Chilika is vast so I felt that 6 days just scratched the surface but it at least gave me some understanding of its potential.

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