Photo credit: Paresh C. Porob
I was intimidated by the forest. Being seasoned jungle farers, my spouse Rom and Amar Heblekar, the Forest Ranger, strode confidently ahead into Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa. I hurried after them, using them as a shield against whatever terrible creatures might jump out from the vast wildness.
The trees towered as tall as seven-storey buildings with thick python-like lianas strung haphazardly between them. Many were smooth-barked, while knobs, thorns, and grooves adorned others. Sunlight streamed between gaps in the canopy in thin beams, highlighting leaves of green, yellow, and brown. The vivid orange, red, and pink blooms of ixora closely resembled the cultivated ones in my parents’ home, and the familiarity offered some comfort in this strange landscape. I had never been in a forest before.
Someone had reported seeing a king cobra in Cotigao and Rom wanted to see the spot. He didn’t expect to find the snake although that would have made his day. Since Amar knew the area, he led the way.
Following the men, I scanned the sides of the path and looked intently at plants for snakes. Reptiles didn’t feature in my list of dreaded animals as I had spent the past months living at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Some of Rom’s empathy for them had also rubbed off on me.
Snakes have the unnerving habit of coiling in plain sight and yet remaining completely invisible. Dappled light played on the gnarled surface roots of trees, creepers, and dry twigs, and I almost called out “Snake!” The three of us made a loud racket as dry leaves crackled loudly underfoot. If snakes had ears, they’d have heard us from miles away.
A greater racket-tailed drongo perched on a bare branch sang melodiously. The lack of an audience didn’t seem to affect its virtuoso performance. From the treetops, a giant squirrel loudly scolded us.
The morning wore on and as it grew hotter, cicadas set up a ceaseless, deafening buzz. With imaginary dangerous beasts remaining safely out of sight, I took my time to take in my surroundings. When the men stopped, I caught up with them just in time to see Amar pointing to a sturdy liana and saying the big king cobra had been resting there. That was our first inkling that adult king cobras were tree-dwellers. I wondered how many king cobras had been coiled up on trees that morning, observing us looking for them on the ground.
The liana was slung like a hammock between trees. Not only would a lounging king cobra have a soft breeze cooling its belly, it would also have a vantage point to gaze on the picturesque glade below. I stood gazing at the scene slack-jawed when a gorgeous white butterfly with black veins dreamily floated past. Its wings were so extravagantly enormous that the insect seemed to have difficulty remaining air-borne. Rom murmured, “Malabar tree nymph.” The old Greek name for king cobra is Hamadryad, wood nymph. Since then, the two nymphs of the forest, the butterfly and the snake, have remained intertwined in my memory.
At Amar’s suggestion, we climbed up a hill slope to see a waterfall. The higher we hiked, the denser and wetter the forest grew. I had only heard of leeches before, but now I saw them feverishly wave their fiendish heads. As the person leading the walk, Amar woke them up from deep slumber, Rom whetted their appetite, and at the rear, I became the sacrificial victim. Pausing to catch my breath was a standing invitation to legions of bloodsuckers. So I soldiered on, disregarding all protests from whining thigh muscles.
Photo credit: Paresh C. Porob
By the time we crested the summit, only the roar of the waterfall was audible above the sound of my heart’s frantic beating. The white sheet of water crashed down on to rocks a hundred feet below. That’s when I noticed the trickle of blood seeping between my toes. I tore open the Velcro straps of my walking shoes, and discovered a bloody mess. Following Rom’s example, I flicked off the offending engorged bluish-black leech and washed my feet in the cool stream. I tried futilely to mimic Rom’s nonchalance to leech bites, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the fresh trickle of blood.
From the top of the waterfall, we gazed at the thick evergreen forests below us, when a pair of pied hornbills flew across. Their huge wings and enormous casques made them look like escapees from a prehistoric age. Eventually I forgot to be traumatized by the forced donation of a few drops of blood. Leeches could have put me off from venturing into rainforests again, but I refused to be a wimp.
Late morning on our way back, we caught the stench of a rotting carcass. Following our noses and the distinct buzzing of blow flies, we found the bloated cow. Blood oozing from puncture wounds in its throat had dried. Only when I stepped around it to take a photograph did I notice the soft underside had been eaten. I overheard the men say it was a leopard kill.
Continuing on our way, I was alert to every movement and sound, glancing behind me for stalking leopards, above me for spying king cobras, and below me for bloodthirsty leeches. My eyes opened wider, my ears almost swivelled straining to pick up every quiet sound, while my nose tried to distinguish between the many earthy hints.
The creatures of Cotigao are also found along the rest of the Western Ghats. Walking through squelchy and slippery rainforests can be uncomfortable and messy. So what makes this forest special? The deciduous forests of Cotigao are drier and much more open, and hiking is a pleasurable experience, like walking through an ancient living cathedral.
Here is how Cotigao ranks: Comfort – check, access – check, diversity – check, scenic beauty – check, animal life – check, walkability – check. Many other deciduous forests along the Ghats share the same attributes. But this off-the-beaten-track Goan forest has one ace up its sleeve that makes it a hands-down favourite.
Rom and I drove half an hour from the forest rest house to Polem Beach. We swam and floated in the blue-green shallow waters until we were several shades darker. Not only did cool sea water rejuvenate us, but it soothed itchy leech bites. Where else on mainland India would you find a sparsely used spectacular beach almost on the doorstep of a forest that boasted a picturesque waterfall?
More than an expectation of wildlife entertainment, Cotigao made me face irrational fears and taught me to eagerly anticipate the unexpected. It was a rite of passage; I walked in as a gauche, immature fusspot and emerged a jungle-alert woman.