There is always a sense of intrigue when you begin a journey in the dark. There is a certain rawness, a dense silence that you can feel in the wild. The bushes crowd around you; it is cold and dark . I shiver a bit, reaching out to a cup of chai to keep me warm and reassured. For a moment, my senses are lulled by the chill morning breeze. I look around and see the shadowy outlines of the coconut trees standing tall, lit by the moonlight.
It takes a moment to sink in. I am in the jungles of South Goa, waiting for the drama to enfold as another day dawns in the wild. It is the wee hours of the morning and I have an early morning date with the birds, not in the forests, but in a river. I am not a morning person, but the lure of catching a day-break on the river bed was motivation enough to drag me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.
We begin our journey, as the moon steps out of her closet and shows us the way. It is still dark as we cross many a forest, fields, villages and backwaters, even as Goa lies cradled in the arms of sleep. There are neither beaches here nor shacks. There are no trucks on the highway, not even a lone chai shop to stop by. The fog however is a constant companion as I see glimpses of Goa that no guide books talk about. The dense forests around the obscure village of Tambdi Surla are all wrapped in a thin veil of white as we slowly see silhouettes of the trees emerging from the dark. The light green of the fields come into view. Gentle streams flow into canals and backwaters.
Sleep still hangs over my eyelids as we enter the village of Cortalim a couple of hours later and drive towards the backwaters of the Zuari . Dawn gently nudges the river , lighting it up in brilliant hues as the sleepy boats bob on the waters . I look down from the bridge and see the river stir , forming ripples. A sheath of gold glitters on the waters merging with the dull white . A few waders are on the shore, while a brahminy kite is looking for its breakfast. It is the moment that I am waiting for.
As the sun gently caresses the waters, we start our journey down the river, awakening the flying fish who jump into our boats. We are a motley bunch of tourists who have travelled from various corners of Goa just to feel the river in our bones. The boatman feels privileged to be seated next to the foreign tourists who have brought in high end cameras to photograph birds. Some of us are here however just to enjoy the cruise.
The river meanders her way through the villages where we see life enfolding at dawn. There is a gentle bonhomie as villagers greet each other, children wave at us and fishermen are getting ready with their nets. The river curves and takes us down to Cumbharjua canal where I am told the Mandovi and Zuari rivers eventually meet . The narrow canals lined with mangrove forests on either sides are our destinations today and we look for the birds. “If you are lucky you can see five varieties of kingfisher,” says the boatman who is also our birding guide. There is no one in the waters but us. No local ferries , no fishermen and no other tourist boats.
The boatman deftly veers the boat further away from the vast expanse of waters into narrow canals , reflecting the mangroves in the morning sun. We lose sight of civilization and are now cradled by nature. The cormorants and the egrets are everywhere, guarding the fishing nets . We see brahminy kites scooping down . The sun filters through the fog as we see an osprey in the silhouette. We spot dusky crag martins flying near the bridge, where a peregrine falcon is perched . The breeze comes calling. At every turn of a bridge, there is a new bird perched. I am just an amateur birder, but am excited by their colours and calls.
We sail into narrow and narrower canals and are now joined by the fishermen. The boatman looks for marsh crocodiles and tells us that they are worshipped here by some of the locals who believe they will not be bitten by the animals. The sun climbs sharply reminding us that we still need to look for the kingfishers. And then they appear, one after the other.
The stork billed kingfisher poses briefly for us, only to be replaced by the black capped kingfisher. It is a riot of colours with its black cap ,red bill and purple body standing out in the canopy of blue green waters . Suddenly the river is all alive. There are birds flying around us, calls echo in the waters and dashes of colour are everywhere. A white collared kingfisher gives us a quick glimpse, followed by the common and white breasted kingfishers. A slaty breasted rail makes a quick appearance as we see a couple of juvenile night herons in the undergrowth.
A loud call and we are taken in by the flock of flying foxes in a tree. The fruit bats hang in the trees , their brown fur shining in the sunlight.
The grey and purple herons pose for a pretty picture as we spend a few moments watching the woolly necked storks in a bare branch.
High up in the trees are three orange breasted green pigeons, birds I am sighting for the first time .
We sigh, just looking at the avian bird life here, lost to man. I look down at the waters flowing away from me and feel that the river is smiling to herself, probably murmuring that she has more secrets tucked away in her course .