BNHS Camps – Wild Goa!

“Now we’re going to show you a very rare bird. It’s roosting here but the sight of people staring at it for long durations could be disturbing. So we’ll go 2 at a time, stay quiet, take a picture or two and move ahead so others can see it too.”

I was a bit groggy after a long day’s exhausting walk and travel but the moment I saw the Ceylon Frogmouth, perfectly camouflaged on the tree, giving me the cutesily grumpy “yeah, whatever” look, I could have done somersaults. The Ceylon Frogmouth is a nocturnal bird and prefers to stay put during the day, the camouflage being an effective defence mechanism allowing it to catch up on sleep without worrying about being eaten by a predator.

Ceylon Frogmouth
Ceylon Frogmouth

The Wildernest property that the Frogmouth had chosen to roost in is spectacularly located within the Swapnagandha valley close to the tri-junction of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It’s surrounded by thick forests and gives away views of the waterfalls in one direction and the Anjunem lake ringed by forested hills on the other. It’s a wonder that the place even exists today because many of the hills around were marked for iron ore mining but a group of passionate nature lovers and conservationists came together and bought the massive chunk of land in an endeavour to keep at least a section of the forest alive and undisturbed. The rooms are immaculately well-designed. They’re comfortable and blend with the foliage around. None of the people who work here have hospitality experience and I wouldn’t have known this if Nirmal Kulkarni (a conservationist and one of the directors) hadn’t pointed it out in his talk. They’re all local men and women, trained in both grass-roots conservation and the nitty-gritties of running a resort. I never found anything lacking in my time here (except maybe a sighting of the Hornbill!) There’s an infinity pool for the more luxury-seeking kind that I tenaciously avoided after hearing a big, loud group splashing and hooting in it all day long.

Our room at Wildernest
Our room at Wildernest
The Anjunem lake
The Anjunem lake

It’s a wonder that I even made the trip as I had happily drunk a few beers while chatting with Roy at his beautiful heritage guest house, Hospedaria Abrigo De Botelho in Panjim the previous evening and eaten a rather bloated dinner of Pav Bhaji at Bhaiyya’s. My room at Roy’s place was so comfortable that despite my alarm going off at 7.30 in the morning, I woke up at 9 and walked lazily down to breakfast. There I got talking to an old American couple, also career vagabonders. They asked me what my plans were for the day which was the cue for me to scream, “Holy shit!” and rush upstairs to go pack my bags. My plan for the day was to join the BNHS group at Thivim Railway Station at 10.30, the very reason I had come to Goa in the first place. Well, it was 10.30 NOW and I made a frantic phone call to PG, who was the group leader, saying I would certainly be late. Fortunately for me, the Indian Railways happens to be just as sluggish as I am. The train was late by over an hour and I could comfortably switch buses quickly enough to meet them in time to leave for the wildernesses of Goa.

Although I’m a dyed-in-the-wool solo traveller, I chose to go with the BNHS for this trip because after my underwhelming tour of Mudumalai and Wayanad, I thought it would be a good thing to go with people who knew their plants and birds and animals. Both PG and PS knew about much of the flora and fauna we saw on the way and my eyes (and I’m sure many other eyes in the group) were being opened to a new world that was both fascinating and easy-to-miss.

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An unID’d moth
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Habenaria

Every now and then, one of the members would yell, “Leech! Leech! Leech!” and instead of helping her get rid of it, everyone else would frantically start looking at their feet to make sure they didn’t get one. Goa’s forests crawl with leeches and this being the monsoon, it was a veritable feast for the little blood suckers. I somehow escaped despite the malfunctioning “leech proof socks” and a couple of trips made with chappals. In the midst of all the leechy chaos, we saw Malabar Trogons, insectivorous plants, habenarias, bio-luminous fungii, countless sunbirds, the Malabar Giant Squirrel, Gaur, green vine snakes, dracos, slugs, blister beetles, the daath fada (teeth tearing) plant which is apparently used in dentistry to take your teeth off, an astounding view of the Anjunem lake ringed by forested mountains everywhere, the mist enveloping the entire Mhadei plateau, the Chorla Falls, pill millipedes, centipedes, bronze toads, picture-wings, green barbets, the Tambdi Surla Temple and, well, tigers at the Bondla Zoo. Okay, the last one I could have lived without. But the sheer amount of bio-diversity in the region boggled my mind.

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Before the mist
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After the mist

During the British days, this whole region used to be called the Goa Gap, which is to say that the hills here were never officially acknowledged to exist on paper. The region was under the Portuguese who never took cartography too seriously. As a result, much of the vegetation and bio-diversity here went unexplored until recently. Large-scale mining is possibly the most burning issue in Goa but what conservationists like Nirmal fear is that, in the rush to exploit resources, we’re probably condemning species that are both undiscovered and endemic to this region, to extinction.

Purple rumped sunbird
Purple rumped sunbird
A blister beetle
A blister beetle

Many dedicated naturalists now love to hang out at Wildernest because there is such an abundance of life here that you never know what you’re going to find. My afternoons were spent talking to KS and LV, who love coming to the place. They spent much of their time around the dining area, always hunting for the tiniest of insects on the walls and grounds of the property and showed off their discoveries with glee. The tinier the insects, the more fearsome, strange and colourful their bodies were. KS had been an ornithologist and now worked with the extremely well-run Jungle Lodges properties in Karnataka and LV had been to “places on my bucket list that I’m sure I’ll never visit” (which is to say, places like Antarctica and Alaska) and was now doing a play with children in Bangalore. They made what would have been otherwise boring afternoons, very worthwhile.

IMG_1648In many ways, this trip was like a perfect storm that one would love to be caught up in. The 2 P’s from BNHS made the trip immensely enjoyable and so did the well-trained guides from the Wildernest who knew the forests and the plants and animals that live in it very intimately. It lasted just for 3 days but I felt strange returning back to Panjim. Spending time in the wild and with people who love the wilderness changes you, even if just temporarily. On the train back to Mumbai, as I was reading my copy of Nirmal Kulkarni’s lovingly compiled “Goan Jungle Book”, I swore that the next time I come to Goa, I would spend more time in its forests than its beaches. And, yes, I’ll do more BNHS camps!

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The cable car from Kibber to Chicham

Chicham is a village like any other in the Spiti Valley, quiet, pastoral, with a primary school, a friendly lama and spectacular views.  But the people in the village have one hell of a time getting out of it as the nearest settlement, Kibber, is one deep canyon away and the only way to get across is through a perilously perched pulley system joining two cliff-sides.

I trotted along with D purposefully towards the object of our adventure. And there they were, the village in the distance, the gorge separating us, the angry waters of a stream gurgling 500 feet below and a little basket and a rope provided to haul yourself across to the other side. D bailed out immediately and left the scene. I stupidly put my foot in the pulley only to realise that it had moved before I could get the other foot in. I got the other foot in and then realised that there was no one on the other side to pull me across. The basket had moved and there was now a 20 meter gap between me and the cliff separated by a yawning canyon. I tried pushing the pulley back to the cliff but it resisted the motion and pulled itself away towards the other side, which made me curse myself for not paying more attention during physics lectures in college.

After a while, no matter what I did, the basket wouldn’t move and this was bang in the middle of the canyon. My nerves were doing a dance of death and I sat there suspended for over an hour, 500 feet above raging waters wondering what after-life was going to be like. I had lost all hope of survival till I heard someone calling from the Chicham side of the gorge, giving me step by step instructions to get out of the jam. Basically, I had to loosen the ropes very slowly and pull myself with all my might to go over to the other side. I fought my vertigo and gingerly got up to loosen the ropes one by one, after which it moved a few feet. In 20 minutes, once I was close enough to the Chicham cliff, the man pulled me across.

He was a Czech musicology student who was doing some research for his thesis paper on ethnic music from the Himalayan hinterlands. He lived in Chicham, he said, and went across to Kibber every day for a snack and a few beers. He didn’t know how the pulley worked either and was primarily using trial and error to negotiate the challenge. Nevertheless, he had saved my life and we went on to have a few beers in Kibber to celebrate the fact. What are the odds.

The village
The village
The road
The road
The gorge
The gorge
The solution
The solution

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In Kutta

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The “tet” road. Road to the right goes to Wayanad Sanctuary. The one to left goes to Thirunelli.

After walking up and down the steep Nilgiris for a month and a half, my legs were ecstatic at finding themselves trotting on the flat roads of Mysore. My hub here has always been Hotel Dasaprakash, that sprawling old hotel, whose standards haven’t changed in the decades it has been in operation. It provides everything a budget traveller needs, a bed, a clean bathroom, a balcony and an excellent restaurant. It carries a whiff of the pre-1991 days, with a reception desk that looks more like a government office. It’s as old school as it gets and I was happy that I was meeting SS here as few people like “old school” more than SS.

There was more old schoolery in store for us as we chose to skip the 9 a.m. bus to Kutta and have the legendary saagu masala dosas at Vinayaka Mylari instead. After a sumptuous feast and gallons of coffee, we embarked on the journey to Kutta in Coorg. SS unwittingly entrusted me with the task of finding a bus that goes there but no one seemed to have heard of the place I was asking for until a bus conductor angrily (yet helpfully) pointed out that I was spelling it all wrong. We also learnt that, thanks to our laziness and gluttony, we had missed all the direct buses and now had to take the longer route via Gonikappal and switch there.

SS sat in the bus melancholically singing an old Hindi film song that only he, with his inexhaustible knowledge of Hindi cinema (up to the 90s as he corrected me later), would have known. I gave him a look that said “WTF” and asked him to pipe it down a bit. Maybe I shouldn’t have. SS was on one of his extremely rare holidays from a government job and should have been allowed to dance on the roof of the bus if he wished to. In fact, he should have been in the Himalayas, trekking up the Valley of Flowers with a group he had signed up with. But since that got cancelled and he had bought a fresh pair of trekking boots just for the trek, he felt a dire need to do something with them. I had just finished my Nilgiri sojourn and was headed to Coorg and he agreed to join me probably expecting adventurous walks in mountainous and jungly terrain.

A large pied wagtail in the "Spice Garden"
A large pied wagtail in the “Spice Garden”

The Spice Gardens Homestay is nested deep within hundreds of acres of coffee plantations in the Nellore Estate in Kutta. After the long journey that caused considerable butt-hurt, it felt great to get a warm welcome from NC and RC, who owned the place. If we were happy with our small, clean and cozy room on the first day, we became ecstatic when we saw the room NC offered us on the second day. It was massive with multiple rooms, a porch, a dining area and a verandah on the back-side. NC used to come for a chat every morning and evening and entertain us passionately with his bottomless reservoir of Coorgi stories, adventures and happenings. So we came to learn of the time he had to rescue a man accused of mowing down a chital with his car while it was being hunted by a leopard, of the wild boars that create havoc in his plantations justifying the ownership of guns, of his participation in the tiger and elephant censuses with the Forest Department in the Nagarhole National Park (he’s seen more than 70 tiger up till now), of the people who come to his place and spend days sitting on the tree-top machan and bird-watching, of how he hated the fact that there were so many “unregistered” homestays in the region while people like him had to run from pillar to post to get themselves registered, of how this was absolutely the wrong time to travel to Coorg, of the prevalence of heart disease among Coorgis thanks to eating all the cholesterol heavy pork etc. etc. Thankfully, the prevalence of heart disease didn’t affect our breakfasts and dinners as they were sumptuous feasts with all manner of Coorgi delicacies like pandhi curries, Coorgi egg curries, akki rotis and Coorg scotch on offer.

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A sculpture on the doorsteps of Thirunelli

Because NC had to run the house, send their boy to school and take care of many acres of plantations, they didn’t serve lunch. So, all our trips were made on the pretext of going somewhere to eat. We chose to head to Wayanad first. Nestled deep within the Brahmagiri hills (and history and mythology), the Thirunelli temple in Wayanad, known for its great antiquity and isolation, should have been awesome. But we had no way of knowing because it was raining so heavily that all we could see were clumps of dark clouds blocking the views of the surrounding hills and some vague bits of rock resembling ancient sculptures being splashed with big drops of water from the sky. After a quick round of the temple and some grumblings and mumblings from SS about the pathetic state of archaeological conservation in this country, we scurried back to the restaurant nearby to have lunch.

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Wayanad WLS

Disappointed by the temple experience yet undeterred, we decided to head to the Wayanad Sanctuary next. At the Tholpetty gate, we quickly and painlessly managed to get a jeep into the forest. The ranger who accompanied us was very enthusiastic initially, showing us some chital here, some gaur there, a tusker lurking behind the bushes but lost interest quickly and began gossiping with the driver in Malayalam. Every once in a while, one of us would see a bird flying or an interesting looking tree but our pleas to stop fell on deaf ears. The driver too, who went slowly at the beginning, was now in a hurry to finish the ride. In the end, it was a cheap joy-ride (torture-ride if you don’t like bumpy roads) into the jungle more than an actual “safari” and the few animals and birds we did see were a bonus and worth the money we paid for it.

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A tusker behind the bushes
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A fawn giving funny looks

I chose not to do “anything” the next day and just relax and enjoy the green surrounds of the estate. SS woke up at his usual unearthly hour of 7 a.m. and went for a walk. He had already finished drinking a cauldron of coffee by the time I woke up. After another spectacularly filling breakfast, we made the usual noises about not needing any food for the rest of the day. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Come 2 p.m. and hunger struck and we called NC and the whole town’s favourite rickshaw guy, J, for a round to the market, so we could grab something to eat. He dropped us near some dingy local restaurants that SS didn’t approve of. He said, with a beaming smile, “Why don’t we walk to Café Robusta?”

We’d been hearing a lot about Café Robusta since the time we got here. NC wouldn’t stop raving about the place and to him, a trip to Kutta was incomplete without a gastronomic tour of Café Robusta. It probably had something to do with the fact that he doesn’t serve lunch and that was the only place in and around the town that served edible food come lunch hour. So off we walked. And walked. It started raining and the road was never-ending. There were no helpful signboards to be found and we increasingly started suspecting that we were on the wrong road but since it was the only “road”, that probably wasn’t true. Calling J wasn’t an option because neither of us had signal on our phones. Turning back wasn’t an option because we had already walked too far. Being two guys with their heads up in the clouds most of the time, we gave each other angry glances and kept walking, with the rain coming down on our umbrellas. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw a hundred signboards directing us to “CAFÉ ROBUSTA”, a mere 10 meters away. Basically, all the signboards the café had invested in and there were many, were clustered together like a little road-side museum of signboards right next to the destination they were pointing to.

We were the only people there but if the owner is to be believed, it’s jam-packed during weekends and in the high-season, there’s a long queue to get in. SS had some more coffee, I had some dal and chapatti. We called J using the owner’s phone, bought some cheapo rain-gear at the market and went back to our room. We couldn’t take a tour of NC’s sprawling estate because of the incessant rains but regardless, a fun yet peaceful time was had. SS couldn’t use his boots to do any of the things he had envisioned for it, but that’s life. He most certainly won’t be using them in Kabini, where we were headed next.

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