We were planning for a bike expedition for a long time but it wasn’t happening for some reason or the other. Out of the many lame excuses, one genuine excuse that stood out was that whichever place we decided to go had been already travelled by most of the members. No one wanted to visit the same place on the pretext of a bike expedition. Two other factors which had to be considered were: 1. the place shouldn’t be too far (say within 200/250 km); 2. It had to be a weekend expedition not extending beyond an overnight stay.
We were finally able to filter down to one place which met all conditions. It was Gangani. Gangani is a lesser known place in Garbeta, West Bengal which is famous for its picturesque landscapes. It is popularly known as the grand canyon of India for the canyon-like land formations which adorn the banks of river Shilabati. Gangani is around 170km from Kolkata. Practically speaking, it is more of a local picnic spot rather than a tourist destination therefore there isn’t any good quality hotels around. For us though, it perfectly fitted in the scheme of things.
We decided to set out on a bike ride to Gangani on 18th March, 2017 so the preparation started a couple of weeks earlier. The plan was to camp out on the banks of Shilabati river and return the next day. As a GroupOuting™ initiative, one of us created a public tour on the website and started sharing it on social media, hoping to get more people joining us. As expected slowly and gradually inquiries started pouring in. It was named “Gangani Canyon Bike Trip 18th March, 2017“. Although originally around 10 people agreed to group up for this outing, eventually by the middle of the ultimate week, it came down to 5 people. GroupOuting™ was organizing this expedition. By 17th, they were ready with camping equipment, permissions, food and cooking utensils etc. The team had a brief by the team lead on the 17th evening regarding expedition rules, the route to follow, do’s and don’ts etc.
Next day early morning we all assembled at a pre-decided place at Sakherbazar, Kolkata. The team helped each other in packing luggage and tying them to the motor bikes. Each of the bikes had a GroupOuting™ flag tied to the it. I opened Google Navigation on my phone and setting the destination to Gangani, we finally set out at 6:30AM. The best and the quickest route is through NH14 & NH16. You have to take the Kona Express Way and from the Kona Express Way crossing, take Bombay Road (Now Mumbai Kolkata Highway). Cross Domjur, Dhulagar, Bagnan, Paskura till you reach Mednipur. Follow Chandrakona road till you reach Garbeta.
End of March in West Bengal is usually very hot and sultry but the weather was pretty pleasant to our surprise. Early mornings are not that bad after all. After riding for about 60 odd km, we were all hungry so we stopped at a roadside dhaba. We had our breakfast packed with us. There were cakes, bread, boiled eggs etc. All of us had our breakfast. We had tea from the dhaba. We resumed our onward journey again. By around 10:30 am we reached “Chandrakona”. The original plan was to have our lunch at a restaurant here but since we had enough time in our hands, we decided to rather cook the lunch ourselves. Accordingly we picked up some fish & vegetables from the local market. All of us had “lassi” from a wayside stall and resumed our journey for the final destination. By 11:30 we reached Gangani. It was a mesmerizing view from the plateau. The river meandered through the valley. The canyons seem to fortify the southern bank of the river. We were standing on top of one such stretch of canyon on the southern bank of the river and could see the river flowing down the valley. The northern bank of the river looked like a low land.
Our plan was to camp somewhere near the river bank. Unfortunately there did not seem to be any way to ride our motorbikes down to the river bed. There is a staircase built for tourist along the walls of the canyon to walk down to the river bed but it wasn’t meant for riding a bike. We caught hold of a few locals to find out if there was any other way around this place to reach to the bottom of the canyons with our bikes. To our delight, there was one. The locals informed us about a dirt road on the outskirts of the village nearby which leads you to the river bank. We followed suit and soon enough we reached the river bank.
The river bank was relatively clean with no litter as such but we spotted some half-burnt wood lying sporadically at a distance from us. We did not pay much heed to that and soon got on with building a temporary shelter so that we can quickly start cooking our lunch. Somnath, a member of our team turned out to be an expert in cooking. In no time he was ready with the stove and his utensils. Rest of us chipped in building a temporary shamiana as it was getting hotter and hotter by the hour. Supam and Sayan helped to get the fish washed and cleaned and the vegetables grated. Somnath got busy cooking. In the hot afternoon the river looked cool and inviting and we could not resist the temptation to take a dip. So, the rest of us plunged into the river. It was indeed very refreshing and we didn’t want to get up. We spent an hour or so bathing in the river. Meanwhile Somnath was ready with the lunch so it was his turn now to take a dip. During this time of the year the water in the river dries up to a great extent and so the river wasn’t that deep. You can walk past from one bank to the other. In fact we crossed over to the opposite bank to collect some firewood and some bamboo sticks that we would need for barbeque we had planned for the night.
The fish curry was awesome! Everyone thanked and praised Somnath. We had a sumptuous lunch of rice and fish curry. It was 4 o’ clock and we had to gather some firewood for the night before it got dark. All of us got going at different directions to gather firewood. During this time when we actually explored the place around we realized that not too far away from where we camped, it was actually a makeshift Hindu cremation ground. Those half-burnt logs we saw before were actually the funeral pyre. We had an uneasy and eerie feeling about using those logs as our firewood for the night but we neither had time to get firewood from the jungle nor did we have the stamina or energy to scout around when a lot of dry wood was so easily available nearby. As an afterthought we realize now that it wasn’t a good thing we did. Anyway, we gathered enough firewood for the night. It was time now to setup our tent. We had brought an automatic tent so setting that up was quick and easy. Dusk was soon approaching so we gathered our stuff near the tent and got ready for the dark night ahead by keeping the essentials like torches, matchboxes, LED lights handy.
The sun had set a while back and it wasn’t fully dark yet. We could see a frail looking middle aged villager approaching us from a distance. We thought he was just curious to see foreigners here and was may be coming to find out what we were doing. He greeted us in a rustic tone and we returned the compliment. Soon the dialogue shifted towards “Why we chose this very place to camp”. We had no strong reason as such and explained to him that we found this place relatively easy to ride our bikes to so we didn’t bother to explore other options. The villager looked a bit upset and tensed. On pestering him a bit, he finally revealed the reason for his angst. Firstly, we had camped very near their religious cremation ground. Secondly, the exact place where we had erected our tent was actually an elephant corridor. That was indeed a new revelation! This elephant corridor was a trail which wild elephants followed to cross the river from one bank to the other. We happened to have camped right in the middle of it. It was extremely dangerous! Unfortunately it was already pretty dark and we had no option to shift base. We felt helpless and vulnerable. The villager advised us to have a camp fire burning and also a light switched on throughout the night. We agreed. The villager left.
We started the campfire. Meanwhile Somnath started getting ready to prepare dinner. For dinner we had planned to only have chicken barbecue. Somnath had marinated the chicken pieces with curd, ginger-garlic paste and spices. We got along preparing the barbecue. It was around 9:30pm or 10pm. The barbecue was ready and it smelled great. We devoured the chicken heartily. It tasted awesome! Somnath and Supam looked a bit uneasy after the dinner. They were a bit tensed after what they heard from the villager. I assured them that if we had a fire burning and a light on for the whole night, nothing would happen. Unfortunately my assurance were in vain and could do nothing to enliven their spirits. We spent some time singing and dancing around the bonfire. At around 11:30, Sayan, Godaida and I went inside the tent to get some sleep. Supam and Somnath preferred to stay awake for a while and stayed outside. They were obviously disturbed about the threat and danger we all were in from the wild elephants. For some reason, I was not that worried.
I had a good sleep. It was early dawn and i heard some people talking beside our tent. I peeped out and saw Somnath and Supam talking to a few local villagers. They were around 10 of them. The gist that i could extract from their conversation was that it was very dangerous and irresponsible on our part to camp at this place; that wild elephants cross this corridor quite often; that we were lucky that we were alive. I smiled realizing that i was still alive and so were the rest of us. Somnath and Supam had spent the whole night awake. Since it was early morning and the threat of elephant attack had mitigated, Somnath and Supam felt a bit more comfortable. We had a long journey back home ahead of us so they needed some rest. I assured them that there was absolutely no more risk and convinced them to get some sleep before the long ride back home. They slept for a few hours. By 9AM we packed our bags and before leaving the place, decided to explore the canyons one more time. We walked down the river bank to reach the canyons. The formations looked awesome in the morning light. Each formation was different in terms of color, texture and shape. We walked through the narrow creeks and caverns and took a lot of pictures of the canyons. We were very happy and satisfied. The bike trip was worth it.
By 10:30 AM, we started ride back home. With a few stops on the way, we finally reached home by around 3 o’ clock.