Aman and Sahil are back on their adventure ride with a trip to Karnala Bird Sanctuary near Matheran. What started off as a leisurely morning trek turns out to be a very insightful trip about the different kinds of birds in the sanctuary. They befriend a forest officer who gives them a detailed account of the migratory birds which visit the sanctuary every year. But excitement and thrill never cease to follow Aman and Sahil wherever they go.
Read on to know more about their adventure as they trek to the Karnala fort along with their new friend.
With beautiful illustrations by little Varun!
It was a foggy morning. Nothing was visible to the eyes beyond a short distance. The wind was chill and moist. It was early hours of the morning, it was still dark and murky, the remnants of the rainy night still dawning heavily on the day. The horses were trotting slowly, their hoofs unsteady on the slippery patches of mud.
Aman would not have consented to this rocky ride so early in the morning if not for Sahil’s persistence. Sahil was adamant that they had to leave early and Aman had no choice but to relent to this unpleasant adventure.
“Who gets up early in the morning to ride on this muddy road?” he complained.
“We will miss the carnival if we go late bhai. You will see. Chala Baji Rao,” said Sahil patting the horse he was riding.
They reached Dasturi naaka and handed over the horses to one of the horsemen, whom Sahil knew. Then then took a taxi to Neral railway station, which was at the foothills of Matheran and waited for a day-train to take them to Panvel.
The destination was Karnala Bird Sanctuary which was in a very close proximity to Matheran. Sahil had suggested the trip to Aman when the latter had landed in the hill station the previous day. Matheran was always a favorite respite to Aman and now with Sahil around, it was merrier. Together, they had explored Kajrat, trekked few forts and caves. Sahil looked forward to these little tours with his “bhai,” the salutation he had fondly taken to call Aman of late.
They arrived at Panvel and then took an auto rikshaw to reach Karnala. They had a quick breakfast on a small street side inn and reached Karnala well before the opening time of the sanctuary.
Karnala Bird Sanctuary, as Aman had researched the night before, was a very small sanctuary with an area of around 12 square km and surrounded the historic Karnala fort. People who came there were mostly trekkers, who wanted to trek to the fort and enjoy the magnificent views which the pinnacle provided.
But the bird sanctuary itself was a home to around 200 species of birds. Birders flocked in plenty to catch a glimpse of these wonderful birds, which was a sheer matter of luck. Bird gazing is one of those skills which is built upon the pillars of patience and perseverance.
Sahil had visited this sanctuary a few years ago with his uncle, who lived in Pune. “It’s your type of place bhai. You will like it,” he had said to Aman.
The sanctuary opened at 7 AM sharp. They paid the entrance fees and security deposits for Camera and the water bottles. They were each carrying two huge water bottles, two liters each. The trek to the fort of Karnala was supposed to be moderately difficult and it was recommended that they carry ample water and enough refreshments.
They entered the sanctuary and followed the directions. There were four trails, other than the trekking trail to the fort itself, the Hariyal trial being the shortest of them all. Aman let the cool unpolluted air fill his lungs with joy. This is what he craved for, the wilderness, the untouched purity of mother nature, who had always opened her arms for him whenever he sought her. He loved the pristine air and the serene calmness, which descended only in places where man had not yet entirely taken over nature. In such places, man still submitted to the superior force, which hosted nature in her purer form.
Aman came out of his reverie. There were different types of trees, tall teak trees, mango, umber, kalam – all neatly aligned on either side of a paved concrete road which led them to the information center. On the left, they saw few birds in the cage.
“Caged in a sanctuary?” remarked Aman.
“Birds don’t grant audience to everyone. These are salvation to those who cannot spot anything,” commented Sahil.
“Yeah, the children would be pleased to look at few birds at least,” sighed Aman.
But the idea of having caged birds in a sanctuary did not appeal to him much. There were rabbits, a splendid pea-fowl which spread its feathers to almost every onlooker peering through the cage, pea-hens and few black kites restless in the netted cages. The colorful parakeets were busy munching their favorite food, the chilies.
They walked past the cages to the information center which had an exhaustive list of all the birds which could be spotted in the sanctuary. There were a couple of eateries near the information center on one side, the other side of the pavement adorned with flower pots. There was a small play area nearby for children to play.
Aman saw the signs for the four small trails in the sanctuary.
“We will check one of these trails out and later head towards the fort,” Aman said.
“First let’s have a cup of chai bhai,” pleaded Sahil.
Aman agreed and they had a steaming cup of tea in a nearby stall. They then entered the shortest of the trails, the Hariyal trail, which was 1 km long. The atmosphere inside was serene. They could hear the sounds of birds chirping all around them. They spotted different colored birds perched on the tree.
“Do you know what those birds are?” asked Aman.
“No idea. They look good though,” said Sahil. The trees had formed a dense canopy over their heads, covering the morning rays of sun from hitting the ground. The lush greenery around them added to the rustic charm. There were bird baths installed at multiple locations for the birds to drink water and quench their thirst.
Sahil spotted a lizard and tried shooing it away. “These show up everywhere,” he commented.
Aman smiled. They got out of the trail. There were guides standing near the information center, offering a guided tour for the longer trails.
Aman politely refused and they headed to the foot path which would lead them to the fort.
“Did you ever trek to the fort before?” Aman asked Sahil.
“No bhai, my uncle was too old to trek,” answered Aman.
“Heard it is a difficult one,” said Aman.
“For us? You think?” asked Sahil raising his eyebrows.
“We’ll see,” said Aman as he led the way.
The trail was very rocky and was quite steep.
They saw long tree roots entwined with one another like snakes. The roots provided a steady grip for the trekkers against the slippery gravel.
“It will be hard to spot a snake between the roots,” noted Sahil. There were cairns laid at regular intervals. They had to be watchful as It was difficult to determine if they were genuine or were piled up by hikers just for fun.
“There are lot of mosquitoes in here,” said Aman. He was getting bitten badly. He was wearing a half-sleeved blue shirt with black stripes and beige cargo pants. He looked at Sahil, who seemed aptly dressed for the trek with a full-sleeved round-necked T-shirt and khaki pants.
“You knew it, didn’t you! Why didn’t you tell me?” he rebuked Sahil.
“Skipped my mind,” said Sahil, smiling naughtily.
The trek started getting rockier.
At one point, there was a rough stretch full of sharp rocks and pebbles. The path bifurcated at the end. There was a small water fall on the left side of the path. The rocks near the waterfall were soft because of erosion, a sharp contrast to the rocks on the path which were hard and piercing.
Aman and Sahil went to the stream on the base of the waterfall. The gentle splash of the cool water rejuvenated them.
“Be careful, there could be snakes in the stream,” said a voice from behind.
A lanky man, with a hat and a grey beard appeared from nowhere. Sahil looked at him curiously.
He was lean and well built. He was wearing a half sleeved checkered shirt and cotton pants. He had a dusky complexion, rough features but a very friendly demeanor. “Must be nearly sixty years old,” pondered Aman.
“Heading to the fort?” asked the man.
“Yes, sir,” said Aman, “And you?”
“Not all the way to the fort, but I have some business along the way,” said the man.
“What business do you have on this deserted trail?” asked Sahil sharply.
“Let’s talk as we walk,” said the man, “I’d love some company.”
Aman nodded and all three took a right turn on the forked road to continue their trek towards the fort.
The gravel was slippery. They had to steady themselves at each step. The man ahead of them seemed to be quite at ease.
“You seem very comfortable. You must be used to this path,” said Aman.
“I work with the forest department,” clarified the man.” I am Sunil Chandekar,” he said, offering his hand to Aman.
“Pleasure sir, I am Aman from Pune and this is Sahil from Matheran,” Aman replied, shaking his hand.
Mr. Sunil looked at Sahil quizzically for a moment and nodded his head.
Sahil glared at him and turned his head. Sensing the discomfort between both the men, Aman intervened. “Tell us a little bit more about what you do sir?”
“I am responsible for taking care of birds in a specific region of the sanctuary. I patrol the area, spot any breeding and nesting activity of the birds and make sure the birds are not disturbed,” said Mr. Sunil.
“And currently you have spotted something on this trail?” asked Aman.
“Yes,” said Mr. Sunil. A bright green and blue colored bird swooped past them and perched on a tree. “Ah! Indian Pitta! Remarkable species!” Mr. Sunil commented,” Artists cannot get enough of its beauty.”
“Tell us more about the birds here sir,” said Aman, “We are complete novices,” said Aman.
“There are more than 200 species of birds here, 161 native species, rest of them are migratory- they come here during monsoon and winter. They breed and nest here for nearly four months and then fly away along with their offspring,” elaborated Mr. Sunil.
“That is quite a number,” whistled Sahil.
“Yes, but over the past few years, the number of native birds has reduced phenomenally,” sighed Mr. Sunil.
“Why?” asked Sahil.
“Because of the predator birds. Black kites and Bald Eagles come to nest here, making it dangerous for the other birds to thrive. Noise pollution on the Mumbai-Goa expressway is another big factor,” said Mr. Sunil.
“That is very sad indeed,” said Aman.
“The migratory birds have a saga of their own. We have around five rare species of birds. Ashy Minivet, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher are few of them. Ever seen a Kingfisher?” Mr. Sunil asked casually.
“No sir,” admitted Aman.
“Beautiful birds, the kingfishers. The Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher is even prettier. They migrate during the monsoon from Sri Lanka,” Mr. Sunil was speaking, as if in a trance.
“They must be coming in hundreds,” said Aman in awe.
“No, hardly 4-5 pairs. We patrol the sanctuary to monitor where they build their nests and protect them,” said Mr. Sunil. “Highly sensitive creatures, the kingfishers. If they see their nests tampered, they leave their chicks and fly away.”
“How many eggs do they lay at a time?” asked a curious Sahil, getting more interested in the conversation.
Aman noticed that he was slowly warming up to the old man.
“Not more than five at a time. So, you see, they are very valuable. It is important we keep a close eye,” said Mr. Sunil.
“Must be a hard task monitoring the eggs. No cameras and no security anywhere,” observed Aman.
“And this trail is dangerous too. There are frequent robberies in this patch,” said Mr. Sunil.
“What?” screamed Sahil.
“Afraid?” asked Mr. Sunil, amused.
“No, not at all,” said Sahil bashfully.
“What will you do if a leopard comes on your way?” Mr. Sunil asked playfully.
“Why would a leopard come here?” asked Sahil, in a frightened tone.
Aman was amused to see Sahil getting teased playfully.
“Because leopard spotting is common in this patch, especially during the nights,” said Mr. Sunil, “Recently the number of occurrences has increased.”
“So, what do we do if a leopard comes our way?” scowled Sahil.
“Relax Sahil. It is early morning. Leopard must have gone to sleep after a whole night hunt,” joked Aman.
“How can you be sure?” glowered Sahil.
“I don’t think leopards come in the morning Sahil,” whispered Aman. “He is just playing with you.”
Sahil looked daggers at Mr. Sunil. He was struggling to trust the old man. “Something is wrong,” he thought to himself.
They crossed a small wooden bridge. There was a small stream of water underneath the bridge.
“There are lot of streams around,” noticed Aman.
“Yes, this place is beautiful during monsoon. You will find many small waterfalls, streams and other water bodies nearby.” said Mr. Sunil.
“But the path also gets more dangerous. The mud gets slippery and rocks keep falling off,” he added.
They kept treading the trail carefully, between the rocks. Every now and then, there was a steep climb. At few places, there were steps with proper railings but at most of the places, they had to climb a steep patch without any support.
“You both are managing it pretty well,” noted Mr. Sunil in an impressive tone, “I see most of the visitors panting by now. You must be experienced trekkers.”
“Yes sir,” said Aman looking at Sahil, who smiled back.
There was a bed of yellow flowers on the path, and from there they could get a view of the valley below. It was a lovely sight to behold.
“So, which bird are you after today?” asked Sahil.
“The Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher,” answered Mr. Sunil. “It has laid it’s nest near one of the streams adjoining the fort. I patrol twice a day to check if the nest is safe.”
“How many eggs?” queried Sahil.
“Five,” he answered.
They kept trekking up. The sky was cloudy and the path ahead was a little foggy. They hoped it will clear up by the time they reached the top.
“Not many trekkers to the fort,” noticed Aman, “We did not pass anyone so far.”
“They will as the day progresses. Those who have come in the morning must be on their way to the fort. Don’t be surprised if you see a crowd at the top,” said Mr. Sunil.
They passed a small temple on the left. The sign near the temple read “Devi Mandir.” It was a very small shrine, with a primitive statue of the goddess riding on a lion. There were not many offerings to the deity, but the floor was stained with oil and dirt.
They marched ahead. They found a running stream between the rocks by the side. There was a mud bank near the stream, which looked like an ant hill. They washed their faces in the fresh water.
“So, dear friends. I must part with you here,” said Mr. Sunil,” I have reached my destination.”
“Here, sir? But I do not see any nests,” said Aman looking up at the trees.
“Not too fast, Gentleman,” Mr. Sunil said, “Oriental Dwarf kingfisher builds it’s nest on the muddy banks of the stream, it’s nest is a small tunnel on the bank.”
They stepped into the stream and went to the other side, where there was a big mound of mud, like an anthill. Inside the mound, was a small hole.
“Wow, well camouflaged,” said Aman.
“Yes, but there are predator birds who keep lurking around,” said Mr. Sunil, “And the enthusiastic birders, who try to take the pictures up close and chase the birds away.”
“How come the birds are not bothered about your visit?” asked Sahil.
“I come at times when the birds go on their hunt. We watch their schedule for few days before we go near their nests,” answered Mr. Sunil.
“The mother bird will not be back for a while. Want to take a glimpse?” offered Mr. Sunil.
Aman looked around. There were a few trekkers walking along the path. They waved at him and he waved back.
He bent down and peeped inside the hole. It was a deep tunnel, neatly toiled and towards the end, there was a small wedge. Inside the wedge were five eggs, neatly arranged one next to the other.
Aman gave way to Sahil, who was thrilled. “Wish I could catch a glimpse of the bird,” he said dreamily.
“You got to wait for that my lad. You will see it in few hours perhaps, if you are lucky,” said Mr. Sunil.
“Alright then, you both carry on before it gets bright up there. The view on the top with the early rays of sun is beautiful,” he added.
Aman shook hands with Mr. Sunil. Sahil hesitated for a second, and then went ahead and shook hands. Mr. Sunil patted his back. “I have never been to Matheran,” he said softly.
“You should come visit once. It’s a beautiful place,” Sahil said.
“Too late now, lad, this is my home,” he replied in a dreamy tone.
“It’s not so far,” countered Sahil.
Mr. Sunil laughed aloud. “Alright, giddy up now,” he said. “But watch out at the entrance. Do not go near the edge of the cliff. The railing is broken and they have tied nylon ropes around the edge. If you fall, no one can save you. And don’t cook any food there. The bees will not like it,” he added cryptically.
Aman and Sahil looked at each other. They then bade their goodbyes and started their trek to the fort. After a short distance, they found steps with railing on both sides. The steps opened up to the magnificent view of the entrance of the Karnala Fort. The landscape at the entrance was mesmerizing. They were just a few meters away from the pinnacle, but the place offered breath taking panoramic views of the valleys around the fort.
Aman was almost at the edge of the cliff when Sahil warned him about the nylon ropes. “Strange,” wondered Aman, “Why is there no iron railing here? It could be quite dangerous.”
He walked back and was heading to the entrance when Sahil tugged his hand, “look bhai, bee hives.”
There were beehives all along the wall of the entrance.
“That’s what he meant when he said not to cook food here. The bees will get irritated because of the smoke,” said Aman thinking aloud.
They headed towards the ancient door, which had sharp nails engraved on it. They climbed up the steps and entered the fort.
The fort itself had two levels, the lower and the higher. In the center of the higher level is a huge basalt pillar, more than 100 ft long. “This must have been used as a watch tower back then when the fort was occupied,” said Aman.
The pinnacle offered the entire view of the Raigad district around it. On the horizon, they could see the coast of the Arabian sea.
“If you climb up that tower, it would give a good view of the sea. They could spot the ships from here,” Aman said.
Around the bottom of the pillar were man-made water cisterns filled with fresh rain water. The sides of the pillar were very steep, all the rain water would flow through the sides and fall in the cisterns.
Aman went around the pillar. Some of the cisterns had some paper wrappings and plastic bottles thrown into them. “People stop at nothing,” he cursed under his breath.
Sahil bent over one of the unpolluted cisterns and filled his empty bottle with water. “Want to drink?” he asked Aman. “No, you carry on,” Aman signaled.
Sahil drank the water and quenched his thirst.
They settled on one end of the tower to absorb the panoramic view around them.
They saw the trekkers who had waved to them near the stream. They had also settled down in one of the corners and were playing some games. After a while, one of the trekkers came up to greet them.
“Worth the trek, eh?” he said.
“Yes indeed,” Aman answered.
“By the way, what were you doing near the stream? I thought you were freshening up. You were more interested in the mud. Are you both birders or what?” he inquired.
“No, the gentleman who was with us was showing a nest of a rare bird,” Sahil answered.
“Who?” asked the trekker.
“The man with us. He was showing us the eggs,” clarified Sahil.
“There was no one with you,” said the trekker quizzically.
Aman and Sahil looked at him dubiously. “He was standing next to us, a tall man,” explained Sahil.
“I did not see anybody. There were just two of you there,” said the confused trekker.
It was Aman and Sahil’s turn to be befuddled. They looked at the trekker who stared back straight at them.
“You must have missed him,” said Aman.
The trekker called out to one of his friends. “Did you see anyone else with these two near the stream,” he asked.
“No, they were just the two of them,” said his friend.
Sahil got irritated. “What sort of teasing is this?” he shouted.
Aman asked him to calm down. “Boss, we don’t mean you any harm, but we are not to be played. Carry on with your own business,” he asserted.
“Hey man, you are getting us wrong. We swear we are not teasing you. We really did not see anyone other than you,” said the trekker. He stood up, and walked away with his friend, looking back at them furtively a couple of times.
Aman and Sahil stared at each other, visibly unsettled.
“Bhai, let’s leave,” Sahil said.
“Yes,” agreed Aman standing up.
They hurried towards the steps and started their descent.
They saw the stream where they parted with Mr. Sunil. Both of them went to the bank and looked around. There was no sign of Mr. Sunil.
Aman peeped into the nest; the five eggs were still intact.
“He must have gone down. We will meet him at the entrance of the sanctuary,” said Aman.
Sahil nodded. They trekked down.
They passed the Devi Mandir on their right. They bowed to the Goddess to seek her blessings. The conversation with the trekker had disconcerted them. The slippery rocks and the twisted roots of the trees did not pose a challenge anymore. They jumped past the impediments with ease. They neither heard the bees buzz nor see the butterflies which were resting on the rocks. They did not see a spider which was dangled in a web or pay attention to the black snakes swimming in the fresh water streams.
The ripples of the water failed to enchant them; the fragrance of the flowers failed to bewitch them.
They rushed past the waterfall and the bird baths, and swiftly reached the information center.
They reached the ticketing counter and asked for Mr. Sunil Chandekar from forest department. The ticketing guy replied in negative. They asked the guard in charge of the security.
He also pleaded ignorance. Aman looked around and saw an old janitor sweeping the entrance. He rushed towards the janitor, “Baba, how long have you been working here? “
The janitor slowly lifted his head. He was very senile. Gently replied, “About 10 years.”
“Have you ever heard of Sunil Chandekar?” Sahil asked in an urgent tone.
“Sunil Chandekar. Yes, of course. Who doesn’t know about him? A very good forest officer.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died three years ago. “
Aman and Sahil froze and stared at him without blinking their eyes.
“He loved the birds. He was their guardian angel. He wouldn’t let anyone go near their nests. Above all, he loved the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. The sanctuary was his home. Even off-duty, his heart would always be with the birds,” the janitor recounted, completely oblivious to the effect he was having on his audience, who were gaping open-mouth to his anecdotes.
“Hhhow?” Aman was suffocating. Words failed to come out of his mouth, “ddddid he die?”
“He met with an accident when he was returning to his home after work. I vividly remember what he had said when he walked out of this gate that fateful evening. Baba, the bird has laid a nest near the dam. From tomorrow I will make sure no one disturbs the nest. Alas, he never came back the next day. He was very kind to all of us who worked in the sanctuary. A fine gentleman. It is hard to see such good people around these days.”
Sahil started shivering. Aman started taking deep breaths to calm himself. A wave of panic swept over them. The janitor finally stopped. “Is something wrong?” he asked innocently.
“Arrrre yyyyyyyou ssssuuure?” Sahil stuttered.
“His body was recovered,” the janitor said gloomily.” But why are you both asking about him?” he added.
“Nothing, nothing. We were just curious, that’s all ” mumbled Aman looking everywhere other than the janitor’s face.
“Are you both okay? You look as if you have seen a ghost,” asked the janitor.
“Yes,” Aman said, flustered,” I mean no. We heard about him from someone and thought of inquiring about him.” Sahil nodded his head fervently in assent.
They turned around and took flight.
They did not stop till they were a kilometre away from the sanctuary. They halted, panting for breath.
There spotted a bench nearby, under a canopy. They collapsed on it to recover. They saw a small stream behind the trees. A bright small colorful bird sat perched on a tree.
“A beautiful bird,” words came out of Sahil’s mouth, without any thought.
“It’s the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher,” said Aman, showing a picture from his mobile. I looked it up, when we were checking out it’s eggs with our companion!
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