WORDS: KRUTTIKA NADIG
PHOTOGRAPHS: HIMANSHU PANDYA
Picture yourself in Goa, wide awake at dawn – no hangover or beach in sight. Instead, you’ve been walking in the woods, listening to birdsong, watching flashes of colour play peekaboo among the leaves.
Backwoods Camp draws you into Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary’s earthy interior, where giant squirrels run amok in the trees and unusual feathered creatures are visible at close range. Peace cocoons you as you switch to the simple life: rising early, going for long walks in the sanctuary’s buffer zone and befriending other birding buffs at the rustic property.
Over 170 species of endemic and migratory birds can be found here in winter. The forest surprises you with nature’s unsung marvels at every turn. Huge wood-spiders hang over the gravelly paths while butterflies and damselflies flit about the thick shrubbery. With neither phone network nor any signs of urban life close by, every sighting becomes a conversation piece here.
An entire morning can be spent tracking rare species like the Malabar trogon or Indian pitta by their distinctive whistles. Resident guide Leio makes birding easy with his sharp ears and powerful binoculars that show crests, beaks and plumes in bright detail. He leads the way on walking trails that wind around the camp, behind which flows a secluded little stream. The colourful Oriental dwarf kingfisher likes to frequent such watery spots and you might see one flying by when you wade in for a dip.
The camp itself is far from luxurious, but it gives you the luxury of exclusivity. Few visitors come to this part of Goa, so every walk feels unspoilt. At Tambdi Surla, a few kilometres away, you can wander through tall grasses warmed by the winter sun, before seeing the ancient stone carvings of a 12th-century Mahadev temple. It’s the perfect place to just be in the moment – or to share with a friend. In this simplified milieu, small talk revolves around the habits of barbets, sunbirds and other pretty birds.
It can be tricky to identify them at first, but Leio’s light commentary on the birds makes you wiser. If this place were to have a winged mascot, it would have to be the weirdly adorable Ceylon frogmouth. Romantics at heart, frogmouths are commonly found here roosting with their mates after dusk within the camp itself. They’re superbly camouflaged even at head height, but, once you spot that grumpy, froggy face, you won’t forget it.
By night, things get more intriguing. There are no large predators in the sanctuary, but Leio and his helpers are happy to take you on night drives to help you look for owls, nightjars and encounter other wildlife – if you’re lucky. Packs of wild dogs, or dhole, can be found roaming the forest, and deer’s eyes often shine through the quiet darkness.
Though it’s cut off from civilisation, the camp makes a nice base for exploring other locations in Goa. The Dudhsagar Falls, tucked into a corner of the sanctuary, are worth visiting for the drama of driving through shallow streams, smelling the red earth of the forest and swimming under the large, frothy, three-tiered waterfall.
And, when you return, tea and pakoras await in the camp’s cosy dining room to be enjoyed to the soundtrack of birds chirping merrily in the birdbaths outside.