Beyond Goa’s beach shacks is an untapped trail of mangroves that would thrill any adventure enthusiast seeking an adrenaline rush in the country. So this time, ditch the usual sun and sand, and head to the breathtaking wetlands with Wild Otters for a Goan experience you’ve never had before. By Nolan Lewis
It’s the middle of a balmy afternoon in Goa; I can feel a gentle breeze cooling off the trail of sweat trickling down my back. I’m working my way through the Chorão Island mangroves, following an ecologist named Katrina Fernandez in search of the elusive smooth-coated otter. I can hear bird songs from the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary nearby; a black-crowned heron scoops down mid-flight, and grabs a fish from the emerald waters of the River Mandovi. And, that is when I hear a ‘gunshot’!
Katrina doesn’t flinch at all. In fact, she says, “That’s a pistol shrimp. It makes that sound by clapping both its claws together.” Katrina, my guide on this Goan isle, is also the director of Wild Otters Research, an adventure camp where guests are welcome to stay with resident conservationists trying to rehabilitate the local otter population. “Otters are extremely shy and nocturnal, and spend a lot of time either underwater or in burrows. The island also has wild boars, mongooses, jackals, porcupines, and crocodiles,” she adds.
The subject of crocodiles crops up again the next day, as I return to Panaji, and join an eco-tour organised by a walking club called The Travelling Dome. As I jump off the back of Tallulah D’Silva’s jeep after a short drive from Goa’s capital city to the Patto Causeway, the curator of the walk, points towards a khazan. A khazan is a gated canal running parallel to the Goan coastline to prevent saline water from flooding arable land. Pre-dating the Portuguese and Islamic invasions of Goa, the irrigation system had wooden exits that were opened during high tides, allowing the Arabian Sea to let in the ocean’s bounty into the reservoir; also, fish that could be harvested through the season whilst salt mines were built alongside.
When the Portuguese colonisers ousted Sultan Adil Shah from his palace in Panaji, they realised there were crocodiles in the castle’s moat. “The crocodile was never endemic to Goa. The Portuguese netted the reptiles, and freed them in the khazans, which forced the freshwater lake species to evolve into a brackish mangroves type, slowly over the centuries,” Tallulah explains. They can often be spotted while kayaking through the khazans, but aren’t really a threat to humans. Once in a few years, local tabloids report errant crocodiles crawling through Goa’s tourist beaches, scaring sunbathers off.
The Mangrove Maze
Goa is glorified for its beaches, but its mangroves have their own subtle charm if you enjoy rustic travel and adventure sports. If you decide to venture into them on your own, do carry a picnic hamper since there aren’t any local vendors at hand, towels with a change of clothes, and a waterproof zip-lock pouch to shelter your camera and smartphone, when wet. The habitat is an incredible escape to get lost into; you can indulge in some birdwatching, kayaking, swimming or trekking. The urban mindset compartmentalises mangroves with sewage, but the water is clean, and you’ll see local fisher-folks even scrape barnacles off the khazan walls, and collect snails from the riverbeds to cook for supper. If you have ever experienced a Dead Sea soak, you may even consider a body wrap in mangrove’s silt. The therapeutic benefits are almost the same.
Swimming In Natural Springs
Just beside Panaji’s Maruti Temple is Tiguranchim Baim—a freshwater spring where every boy from this state capital, worth his salt, has learned swimming in over the long summer holidays. Swimming pools are still relatively a foreign concept to the average Goan crowd because everyone just takes a dip at the nearest beach or village pond. A community of dhobis has called the baim (the Konkani word for a watering hole) their home for centuries, with their old flogging stones nearby. The spring has been in the news lately because realty developers wanted to seal the spring, and construct high-rises over the land. Tiguranchim Baim connects to the St. Inez Creek, and if you follow its banks from the Old Goa Medical College, you’ll realise how proud Panjimites are of their city’s natural heritage. Like Mumbai’s Mahim Creek, St. Inez shared a similar fate, and was used as a dumpster until citizens cried foul, and forced the local municipal corporation to clean up its act. To treat the pollutants in the water, some citizens have built a floating garden at one end of the creek. The roots of these plants facilitate a process called bio remediation. The floating garden also attracts birds and butterflies, but it alarmed everyone when a young crocodile climbed on it to bask once.
The best way to end your wetland wandering is at the pond near the Caranzalem Junction. The dense, tall grass have a dirt trail that leads to an inconspicuous chapel, where a family of farmers use the wetland’s water to grow spinach, red amaranth, and other salad greens. For a fraction of the price you’ll shell out at the Panjim Market, they’ll gladly uproot generous heaps of the herbs in front of your eyes, if you fancy a farm-to-fork feast.
Goa is well connected by air from all major cities. Mumbai (600 km) is the closest metro. Chorão island can be reached on a ferry from Ribandar, a 40-minute drive from the Goa airport.
November to April