I was intimidated by the forest. Being seasoned jungle farers, my spouse Rom and the Forest Ranger Amar Heblekar strode confidently ahead into Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary in 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 many others were adorned by knobs, thorns, and grooves. 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&rsquo 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&rsquot expect to find the snake &mdash 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&rsquot feature on my list of dreaded animals as I had spent the past months living at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Some of Rom&rsquos empathy for them had also rubbed off on me.
Snakes have the unnerving habit of coiling up 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 &ldquoSnake&rdquo The three of us made a loud racket as dry leaves crackled loudly underfoot. If snakes had ears, they&rsquod have heard us from miles away.
A greater racket-tailed drongo, perched on a bare branch, sang melodiously. The lack of an audience didn&rsquot 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, &ldquoMalabar tree nymph.&rdquo 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&rsquos 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. Whenever I paused to catch my breath, I became a standing invitation to legions of bloodsuckers. So I soldiered on, disregarding all protests from whining thigh muscles.
By the time we crested the summit, only the roar of the waterfall was audible above the sound of my heart&rsquos frantic beating. The white sheet of water crashed down on to rocks a hundred feet below. That&rsquos 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&rsquos example, I flicked off the offending engorged bluish-black leech and washed my feet in the cool stream. I tried futilely to mimic Rom&rsquos nonchalance to leech bites, but I couldn&rsquot 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 that the cow&rsquos 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 &mdash check access &mdash check diversity &mdash check scenic beauty &mdash check animal life &mdash check walkability &mdash 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, it soothed the itchy leech bites. Where else on mainland India would you find a sparsely used spectacular beach almost at 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.
The Cotigao sanctuary is 2km from Poinguinim, which is where you&rsquoll hop off if you&rsquore using public transport. Poinguinim is 10km from Chaudi, a large town in Canacona district of Goa, bang on NH17. Drive down NH17 from Chaudi or up from Karwar. At Poinguinim, follow the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary signboard.
Where to stay
The Forest Department has established a 40-hectare ecotourism area adjoining the sanctuary. Five cottages (Rs 750 per night) and a palatial air-conditioned bungalow (Rs 1,500 per night) can be booked either at the DCF office at Margao (0832-2735361), the Range Officer at Cotigao (0832-2965601), or at the site.
The tourism area has cycling trails through natural forest (geared and non-geared cycles are available for rent at Rs 60 per hour and Rs 40 per hour, respectively), an amphitheatre, a snake rescue centre, a nature gallery, a children&rsquos park, and a butterfly garden.
Palolem Beach is 12 km away, and many do visit the sanctuary for the day. Two waterfalls (both called Kuske) are open to the public one is 400m from the road and the other is a hike up a streambed. The latter offers easier access to the waterfall.
A Goan cuisine restaurant feeds visitors on order. Guests can also bring their own supplies for the cook to rustle up a meal. Entry tickets are sold at the interpretation centre Rs 20 per person, Rs 25 for camera, Rs 50 for motorbikes and Rs 100 for cars. Guests of the ecotourism cottages can accompany trackers into the forest. You can cycle through the forest as well.
Best season to visit is October to January. Best time for seeing leopards and wild dogs is February to April. Best season for birding is from January to March.