Why this state treasure cannot be neglected
UNESCO's World Heritage Site status notwithstanding, the Western Ghats in Maharashtra are in dire need to be preserved from all quarters. C Gangadharan Menon travelled to the Koyna Sanctuary in the heart of this region for a closer look at the rich flora and fauna that thrive here
Let’s start this travelogue with a short episode from Maharashtra’s history. There is a fort called Vasota that nestles in the green mountains deep inside the Koyna Sanctuary in the southern part of the state. Protected by deep gorges all around and guarded by ferocious tigers that roamed the valley, it was almost inaccessible. Though Raja Bhoj built this structure, the Marathas conquered it later.
At the peak of Maratha power, a few Englishmen were kept prisoners here. Subsequently, the Marathas lost the Anglo-Maratha War of 1818. But the news of defeat took two years to travel to this fort. The poor Englishmen had to continue their life as prisoners for two long years despite winning the war!
Once a dam was built at the confluence of the Koyna, Solshi and Kandati rivers, the floodgates to the inaccessible forest were open because the backwaters of the dam, stretched for 65 kilometres, encircled the mountains like water snakes. Circa 21st century. These days, it’s possible to enter this sanctuary by boat from Shivsagar Lake. We set off from our base in Tapola, and took the necessary permission from the Range Officer in Bamnoli. Forest Guard Gore accompanied us on our 45-minute boat journey to reach this historic, verdant sanctuary.
Koyna by summer and winter are two different landscapes. Post monsoon, the deep gorges get filled with rainwater and the water level rises over 600 feet, and the boat can be anchored at the forest gate. Since we made our trip in summer, and the water level was just about a 100 feet, the boat had to be moored far away, and we had to make an arduous journey of about two kilometres over loose boulders strewn all along the path.
As we approached the forest gate, we saw a herd of animals, which we mistook for the aggressive bison. But at second glance, we noticed that the distinctive white socks were missing. We realised that they were just ‘feral’ buffaloes: a special species of domesticated buffaloes who stray into a forest, and decide to make it their adopted home.
We took the path to Vasota fort and soon chanced upon the pugmarks of the elusive Pangolin or anteater. Gore explained a unique characteristic of this strange-looking animal that has hard scales on its body. When threatened, it has the habit of rolling into a rock-like ball, thus making it impregnable to man or beast!
Next, we walked under dense overhanging boughs through a tunnel of blue butterflies; this added an ethereal touch to our trail. Around this time, Gore demonstrated the art of walking on dried leaves without making a sound. The trick, he told us in a whisper, is to land the heel first and then the rest of the foot. In no time, we could have been watching snatches of ourselves being part of a silent movie. When we settled down near a Ganesh temple in the middle of nowhere, a barking deer darted across, with its distinctive dog-like bark.
It was lunchtime, and our packed spartan meal of chapati with Egg Bhurji was washed down with water from the cool mountain stream. It was time to head back. By then, we had realised that we had stopped once too often to stare at the wondrous woods, and couldn’t possibly reach Vasota, and return
Sitting in the boat that was chugging back to the madding crowd in Tapola, one wondered whether the recent crown of a World Heritage Site bestowed upon the Western Ghats by UNESCO would make any difference to the fragile fate of Koyna. There are allegations of forestland having been sold to resort owners, and windmills having been set up in the corridors of animal migration; and the matter is subjudice. Add to this, the promotion of Tapola as the ‘New Mahabaleshwar’, to decongest the well-known hill-station, which is just 25 kilometres away doesn’t help matters. Will the decongestion of Mahabaleshwar result in the congestion and eventual destruction of the natural treasures of Koyna? Only time will tell.
How to get there
By Road Koyna can be accessed from Tapola, which is just 25 kms from Mahabaleshwar. The drive from Mumbai would take a little more than 6 hours.
By Rail Kolhapur is the nearest railhead to reach the sanctuary. Several trains from Mumbai pass Kolhapur; check the official website of Indian Railways, for updated list
Where to stay
There is no accommodation at Koyna, so make Tapola your base CALL Vitthal Dhanawade 09423264308 / 02168 247218 for stay at Nisarga River Camp.
Log on to www.nisargaagro.com.
Weather wise, now is a good time to explore the region.