The Other Side Of Goa

by Val Souza

Most people’s notion of Goa as a tourist destination is centred on waves, raves and five-star enclaves. I too was much like that all these years, until a visit to the other side of Goa in December 2010 opened my eyes to a breathtaking panorama of delight that incredibly eluded me all these years.

A few months ago I signed up with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), in the hope of reviving the forays into trekking that had been such an enjoyable part of my adventures in the past. Somehow – perhaps due to lack of company, lack of time, or maybe sheer lackadaisicalness – the trekking had tapered to a trickle and then dried up completely. With BNHS, I thought, at least the lack of company would get taken care of – they have something on almost every week in Bombay, and it’s not just about bird-watching. But I guess I underestimated my laziness, for rising early on Sunday morning never happened.

And then BNHS announced a camp titled “Explore the Western Ghats of Goa”. With the Wildernest nature resort as the base (in the Chorla ghats, 800 metres above sea level, up from the villages of Sanquelim/Querim-Satari somewhere between Bicholim and Valpoi, spread across the borders of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka) the group would do several treks over four days, venturing into the surrounding forests famed for “mega biodiversity” and packed with many endemic (found nowhere else) species of flora and fauna. The group would also explore three of the six wild life sanctuaries in Goa [Amazingly, out of a total of 3700 sq km area, Goa has something like 1450 sq km of forest cover out of which about 750 sq km is protected under sanctuary/reserve!]

An opportunity of a lifetime of course, and I was not going to miss it for the world! A trip like this assumed special significance for me, as my exposure to Goa had almost exclusively been as a deadbeat beachcomber, lazily lounging in beach shacks all day long. Somehow, I persuaded a friend to sign up for the camp too, and we were off.

Wildernest Paradise

Wildernest itself is pure, pristine paradise. High up in the Sahyadris, this fabulous resort is set amidst 450 acres of forested land, dotted with 18 cosy wooden cottages spread out in the jungle or overlooking the valley, with a separate central restaurant and bar area, ethnically yet practically designed to blend with the raw nature it shares space with. The “Infinity” swimming pool, so constructed as to give the illusion that the water continuously plunges waterfall-like off the cliff into the valley below, is a not-to-be-missed marvel, even if simply to sit by. Wildernest is owned and run by committed nature lovers, and it was great to have Nirmal Kulkarni (one of the directors and a well-known herpetologist and conservationist working hard to save the Western Ghats from exploitation and destruction) accompany us for a couple of treks.

Sunset at the plateau, Wildernest, Goa [Saligao Serenade] Pic by Val Souza

Sunset at the plateau, Wildernest, Goa

The days of the camp were packed with almost incessant activity, starting early in the morning with bird-watching along the trails adjacent to the restaurant area. The treks in the Wildernest property and surroundings – Chorla falls, nearby plateau, highest point and night trail – were not just about walking. With Nirmal and the other resort guides (as also the knowledgeable BNHS participants) we were treated to a wealth of information and anecdotes about the teeming wildlife all around us. Of course, wildlife is not just about lions and tigers and bears, as most of us generally tend to assume; there are birds, and butterflies and reptiles and insects and amphibians and fish and wildflowers and other assorted flora in plentiful abundance; and it’s fascinating to learn about the physical and behavioural characteristics and peculiarities of some of them. Mammalian wildlife in the region includes leopard, sloth bear, barking deer, gaur, langur, fox, slender loris, wild boar, giant squirrel, etc, but we unfortunately didn’t directly encounter any of them, except – quite dramatically – two battling alpha-male langurs late one evening, and several giant squirrels at Bondla.

Medicinal Plants

The Western Ghats are home to many valuable medicinal plants. A case in point is Amruta (Nothapodytes nimmoniana, also known as Narkya). This innocuous plant with small, greenish fruit is one of the richest sources of camptothecin (CPT) – analogues of this biomolecule are used in the treatment of colon-, ovarian- and lung cancers. Because of the high-value commanded by its bark and other parts for the CPT extract, Amruta has been indiscriminately harvested and is now endangered. Attempts are on to protect this species and devise means for mass cultivation, but this has proved to be notoriously difficult thus far.

Amruta (Nothapodytes nimmoniana, also known as Narkya) [Saligao Serenade] Pic by Val Souza

Fruit of the Amruta plant

Another interesting plant is that which bears the “false guava”. The fruit of Catunaregam spinarum is inedible, but has an effective piscicidal action. In earlier times the local tribals would use these fruit to catch fish in small ponds or pools of water formed near streams and rivers. Introducing the fruit into the water would cause the fish to perish and rise up to the surface; the toxins in the false guava are specific to certain species of fish; all other organisms in the water would remain unaffected and the pond would return to normal in a day or so. Contrast this with the unscrupulous dynamiting techniques used today – which invariably finishes off all life in the pond – and one realises the immense value of traditional knowledge handed down over the centuries among those who lived exclusively off the land.

We were treated to many more captivating stories on the wonders of nature while we walked through the different types of forest – mixed moist deciduous, semi-evergreen, evergreen and secondary ridgeline. Did you know that if you’re lost in the evergreen forest with no visible source of water around, you can quench your parched throat with the water obtained by cutting into the widened trunk-base of the numerous buttressed trees all around (Lophopetalum wightianum and other species). And, to get your bearings right, look for the rose-petal-shaped nest of harvester ants – the nest’s highest tip always points north!

Trekking the Sahyadris

My high points of the trip definitely were the several treks we did. Climbing hills and walking on rocky, undulating terrain are things I’ve avoided in the last few years, and the fact that I was able to complete the 25 kilometres (or so, overall) with minimal fuss was heartening indeed. The big one for me was the climb to the highest point in the Wildernest property. Ever since a scary, slippery climb to the summit of Rajmachi near Lonavala over two decades ago, I had avoided ascending steep cliff-faces as far as possible. Although hesitant, I managed to overcome my apprehension and climbed this one (to a point about fifty metres short of the topmost sheer segment to the summit), soaked in the majestic views of the hills and valleys all around, and then descended safely – mentally and physically unscathed.

Tambdi Surla Falls, Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary, Goa [Saligao Serenade] Pic by Val Souza

Tambdi Surla Falls, Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary, Goa

The trek to the Tambdi Surla falls in Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary/Mollem National Park was particularly invigorating albeit moderately challenging. It was on this trail that we spotted the rare hump-nosed pit viper just inches away from the path, and where I got bitten by a leech (still itchy on and off, even a week later!). Our later halt for lunch at the nearby Nature’s Nest resort was rewarded with sightings of flying lizards on the coconut trees, a pack of grey hornbills, and other exotic birds I didn’t quite catch the names of.

Humped Nosed Pit Viper in Mollem: [Saligao Serenade] Pic by Val Souza

Hump-nosed Pit Viper in Mollem

Not exactly being a fan of snakes and creepy-crawlies, I was really reluctant to go on the night trail – more so because the stated objective was to seek out the venomous Malabar pit viper! In the end, I was happy I did; it was quite a thrill to see a juvenile pit viper curled around a plant, and gaze at the elegant and seemingly luminescent green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) less than an arm’s length away. The way in which the trained eyes of the guides spotted myriad life forms in the undergrowth and foliage off the trail was pretty amazing; stuff that was literally staring me in the face but I was oblivious to until someone pointed it out.

Green Vine Snake in Wildernest [Saligao Serenade] Pic by Val Souza

Can you spot the Green Vine Snake?

Bondla Sanctuary

Our visit to the Bondla wildlife sanctuary on the last day turned out to be a rather tame one, except for an interesting interaction with the dynamic and enthusiastic Range Forest Officer, Paresh Porob, whose talk was peppered with interesting nuggets. The Bondla sanctuary has a small zoo attached. The zoo has a pair of tigers, obtained in an exchange programme with the Vishakapatnam zoo a little over a year ago. Nice, except that the roaring of the tigers has resulted in the leopards from the forest keeping away (these two big-cat species usually operate in non-overlapping territories in the wild), resulting in an increase in the population of spotted deer, which in turn gobble up the small, shrubby vegetation on the forest floor, resulting in shortage of food for smaller species such as barking deer and mouse deer – which consequently have packed up shop and left! Paresh happily informed us that three wild dogs have recently moved in to his sanctuary, perhaps finding their way through the reserve forest area that connects the 240 sq km Bhagwan Mahavir sanctuary to the 8 sq km of Bondla; now that should take care of the spotted deer quite suitably indeed.

So that’s it then. There’s Goa beyond the beaches, and a lot of it too. I am completely smitten and now have many more reasons to return. Wildernest is certainly one of them. It could be yours too. Provided of course, you’re willing to forego, at least for a while, rowdy boozing sessions, loud music, satellite television and sanitized, air-conditioned living conditions. The remark by the guide as we were handed over the keys to our forest cottages at Wildernest aptly said it all: “Please don’t complain if you happen to see lizards and insects inside your rooms; just consider them a complimentary part of the package. Remember, this is the jungle!”

The BNHS Group: Goa Bio Diversity Camp [Saligao Serenade]

The BNHS Group for the Goa Bio-Diversity Camp

19 comments on The Other Side Of Goa

  • Anagha Agharkar

    Hi, Read your article. excellent write up… took me down the memory of the time spent at Wildernest…

  • vandana Karande

    Hello Val,,

    article is too good ! ! !…..superb….

  • fr.nascimento mascarenhas

    Dear Val,
    What a fascinating tour you had in exploring the Western Ghats of Goa The discription of the forest and its rich diversity made even better reading with the display of various breathtaking photos. I hope many youngsters explore the Western Ghats region which we had learnt about superficially as students in class Now my heart is too weak to go on such treks. You have brought the Western Ghats region closer to my mind and sight. Thank so you much. fr. nascimento mascarenhas

  • Lovely piece, and thanks very much for sharing it!

  • Manpreeth Singh Nishter

    Wow! You wrote very well, got all memories back :)

  • Kavita Khemka

    Val, you got your priorities all right! We all should take a lesson or two from you. Great reading about the unexplored aspects of Goa. :)

  • Arjun Trivedi

    Hi Val. Really enjoyed reading your article and it brought back some nice memories of days hiking in the Aravali mountains in Mount Abu and the amazing wildlife that existed in that area then. Back then in the 60′s and 70′s we learned about nature through exploring what it had to offer. In my view creating awareness about our nature is the first step in sensitizing people about conservation and “going green”. Three cheers for sharing your journey and the efforts of the BNHS. Regards Arjun

  • Ajay Mohan Goel

    Wow! Great insights Val.

  • Kieran Gonsalves

    Hi Val,
    Delightful reading. You’re a gifted writer and one can almost hear the sounds of the forest reading your article. Gives me something to look forward to on my next visit home. I might need a tour guide so expect a call (LOL). I recall our trek to Rajmachi Fort 2 decades ago, at the height of the monsoon. Made for spectacular waterfalls not unlike Tambdi Surla Falls.

  • mama (suman sasmal)

    Val, i remember the small trek we did to dalma Hills. Ants, Ganesh, Venki were also there. the night we spent on the verandah of the PWD Rest house was scary as the elephants had visited the village :-) in the night !

  • Pankaj Shah

    Great article Val, i am sure the trek would have been wondefull too..
    For your next outing pls visit Lansdowne and the surrounding areas.You are surely going to luv it

  • sandra simon

    Hi Val
    thanks for the delightlful read and food for thought.I suggest you publish this in some canadian papers/ magazines that are big on outdoors.

    Sandra(Kieran’s sister)

  • Jalwa Sudum

    Amazing article. Vintage Val. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dear Val,

    Enjoyed reading the piece!

    Thanks for sharing.


  • Patrick

    Great read, Val. We need to plan a trek now :-)

  • Val Souza

    Thank you everyone, for all the nice comments. If you haven’t done so already, do hope that you too will have an opportunity to experience the other side of Goa soon! – Val

  • Joseph P

    I enjoyed every bit of your article and pictures. Yes, the bio-diversity of the Western ghats is simply amazing and must be preserved. The bottom line is one must go out there to truly appreciate the beauty and be awakened. Hopefully, you will continue to explore these areas from the north in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. Please do send us updates. I guess one day you will visit the area around the Tillari river watershed that straddles Maharashtra (Sindhudurg), Goa and Karnataka and have a write up on that.

  • Sanjay

    Real neat read Val… having been to Wildernest I can quite connect with what you have so eloquently penned… and totally agree that such ‘hidden treasures’ of Goa (and other places) must be explored more on future visits…

  • Shan

    Val this is an excellent article! Now I must go for this trek! I hope you write more articles on nature and conservation.

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