Last Sunday morning, I woke up early. Really early. I was up and about even before the sun had peeped out. This sacrifice of sleep on a Sunday was to assist a friend in carrying out a test. One of my school friends has acquired a scooty — a Honda Aviator. While we have made some short trips on it, my friend wanted to put the scooty through its paces and see if it could be used safely over longish distances. And my friend wanted to see if the scooty could do some decent distances at decent speeds whilst hauling my considerable bulk and me. I, ever the person who would do anything (ok, almost anything) for his friends, agreed to put my life and limb at risk (and sacrifice my sleep) and so the scooty was put to the test.
Karnala, which is about a 55 Km one-way ride from our homes, we felt would be an ideal destination for this test ride. Karnala is an easily accessible bird sanctuary along the Mumbai-Goa highway — it is about 10 Kms from Panvel. The sanctuary is also home to a ruined fort atop a mountain within the sanctuary. My friend didn't want to indulge in any seriously strenuous activity and, even as we were planning this "test," vetoed the idea of trekking to the fort on reaching the sanctuary. "Riding with you pillion will be strenuous enough," is what he remarked, if I remember rightly. I agreed there was (much) substance in his excuse and we decided to skip the trek to the fort.
We started at about 6.00 AM from our homes. We planned to reach Karnala around sunrise, the best time to see any birds. The morning trip was largely in gloom and while the Aviator did have headlamps, they were feeble against the darkness. Maybe that explains why neither of us saw the speed breaker (one of those monstrous ones that sprout up unexpectedly just after turns on Indian roads). For about a few milliseconds we (the scooty, my friend, my cell phone, and me) experienced what it feels to fly like a bird. Thanks to our cool heads and my friend's skill with the scooty, and my substantial experience as a pillion rider, the scooty landed safely back on the road upright on its two wheels with us back in our seats. My cell phone which had jumped out of my pocket came down following a flight path that landed it between my friend and me. From there it was quickly and dexterously snagged before it continued taxing downwards to the road and returned to my pocket. Even as we sped away further, we ran through a mental checklist to ensure that all our limbs and body parts and the scooty's parts were attached and in working order. My friend grumbled and worried the effect of my substantial weight smacking down on his scooty's suspension. I pointed out that my weight was what probably ensured that our trajectory through the air on hitting the speed breaker was within the earth's atmosphere and we didn't end up in earth orbit.
We reached Karnala without further excitement and after forking out the Rs. 20 per head entrance charge we walked into the Sanctuary. The Forest guard who was selling the tickets informed us that only two more people had entered the sanctuary before us and that the crowds would not be turning up at least for another couple of hours. A few meters from the entrance, a small map displayed the various trails in the sanctuary and the way to the fort. After studying the map for a few moments, we decided to first take the 1 Km Hariyali trail and then take the 6 Km Mor Taka trail which branched out from it. The map showed the Mor Taka taking a circuitous detour through the forest. It then turned back eventually and brought trekkers to the main road of Karnala next to a spot marked on the map as "Bird Cages." It all looked simple and easy enough — we just had to keep following the trail and we would be alright. Stopping occasionally to look for birds and clicking photographs, we estimated that we would be near the bird cages in a couple of hours. So we started.
And it quickly dawned on me that Karnala is unlike any other sanctuaries I have been to earlier. Firstly, you do hear a few birds and if you are really patient you eventually rewarded with the glimpse of a wing flapping in the distance. But forget about clicking any decent pictures if you are not carrying one of those high-end cameras with bazooka lenses. And even then, I suspect, you would get about one decent shot in a few dozen. We did glimpse a lot of barbets, wood pigeons, some sunbirds, magpies, Alexandrine parakeets, and even racket-tailed drongos. But none of them offered any opportunity to click any pictures.
Secondly, the trails are not clearly marked at all. I counted only 2 markers in about 3 hours of trekking and maybe half a dozen stones daubed sloppily with some whitewash. Largely, that we were on a trail, was indicated by the occasional presence of discarded plastic bottles or gutka wrappers left along the trail by some idiots who must have walked the trail ages ago. For most of the way the Mor Taka trail is only a narrow path that seems to have been marked by some grazing animals using it over and over again. Often the trail ended smack into a growth of cacti or was overgrown with creepers and other growth.
We were initially thrilled with this. A bit of scouting around usually showed us how to skirt these obstacles and get back on the trail again further ahead. After all, we reasoned, what's the point of walking a forest trail if it is going to be paved or tarred? So we gamely walked the trial, finding our way around clumps of cacti or brambles, often jumping over now dry streambeds or ditches. We always found what approximated for the Mor Taka trail sooner or later. And while we kept a look out for birds, we realized that with the kind of camera we had with us we wouldn't be getting any pictures. Not that it disappointed us. There were a lot of interesting things to look at and click pictures of at the ground level: butterflies, spiders, interesting spider webs, mushrooms, cacti blooms, other wildflowers and blooms and even the occasional langoors. We made good progress for about a couple of hours before the trail gave way to thick grass and brambles. Walking through them for a bit brought us above a small "ravine" and while we looked around for some time we could find no further path or any signs of the trail. We decided to retrace our steps back.
After sometime we eventually hit the main road inside Karnala once again. By this time it was packed with kids and groups and families determinedly making a lot of ruckus to ensure they had a good time. My friend felt we should at least visit the "Bird Cages" marked on the map and so we walked up the road. The "Bird Cages" turned out to be a couple of sheds that housed a few sorry birds and animals. One cage had a duck. Another housed a few rabbits. One had a few Alexandrine and Rose-ringed Parakeets, another had a peahen. The last cage had a peacock as its inmate. And this is where most of the crowds were, busy clicking pictures of the sorry lodgers of the cages and making further noise. Meanwhile the peacock decided it was time to unfurl its plumage for the public and we were rewarded with the sight of a bloke who went all ecstatic at the sight. He glued himself right to the cage and whipped out his cell phone to click a picture. And then he started entreating the peacock, "Come on Sweetie, come on baby. Come closer to me. My sweetie, come closer to me. I am waiting here to take your picture, my baby. Come to me, my sweet." And more on those lines. I rolled my eyes at my friend and suggested that we get out of the place. My friend, who happened to be standing behind this gent while he was entreating his "sweetie,” gasted his flabber completely. After watching and hearing the guy for a couple of minutes, he turned to me and wondered, "Does he know the peacock is a male bird?" I replied, "I am not sure he realizes it is a bird." By this time, the peacock probably had enough of the bloke's sweet entreaties and turned its back on him.
We set out soon after. In a few minutes we were out of the Sanctuary and on the scooty on our way back. We stopped at "Shanbhar Vishranti" for a breakfast. Shanbhar Vishranti is quite famous for its food and I have heard about it often earlier but never had the opportunity to sample its fare. Based on the missal pav, thalipeeth, and kanda bhaji I can vouch that its reputation is well deserved. Shanbhar Vishranti also has a small shop which sells local food products. I picked up some Kokum burfi and Aamla burfi - both of which turned out to be excellent. Shanbhar Vishranti is about a couple of kilometers from Karnala.
After a hugely satisfying breakfast we started back once again. This time we decided to take an alternative longer route back. So instead of going via Panvel and Taloja (our route in the morning), we took the old Mumbai-Pune Highway up to Karjat and then took the road that branches towards Karjat and on to Neral and further. The road is very scenic and has little traffic till you reach Badlapur. It does have a few rough stretches but is largely in a good condition. We made good speed and were back in Ambernath by 12:15 PM.
Karnala is good outing, if you don't go without too many expectations of seeing a variety of birds. If you are so inclined you can always trek up to the fort. I am told the views from atop the fort are excellent. Our primary aim of the trip was to test the Aviator. Well, we made the trip to Karnala and back and it was largely smooth but for when the roads turned patchy. And the scooty, after carrying my weight (and of my friend) for about 120 Kms, is still in good condition. I am now trying to convince my friend to extend the distance for the next trip and try for Revdanda and its fort next. One day, we might make that trip.