THE WILD SIDE OF AMBA GHAT
WILD WEEKENDS FROM MUMBAI/PUNE/GOA
Amba gets its name from the oldest Shiva Temple here called Ambeshwar Temple. Way past Satara, Karad, and Malkapur comes Amba after a gradual hillside drive of the Ameni Ghats. Amba is one of the magnificent lesser-known hill stations at 3000/- ft. above sea level in the Kolhapur District, it’s a part of the Western Ghats, which was recently accorded world heritage status. Located on NH204, almost exactly between Kolhapur and Ratnagiri Cities of Maharashtra.
Looking for newer pastures for trekking in the Sahyadris is not a difficult proposition, our passion for challenging treks in Maharashtra took us to the wild side. Four hours drive from Pune, seven from Mumbai, Ameni Ghats was full of macaques greeting us and we hoped that more wildlife will be visible and present in the open, our trek was primarily to witness wildlife in the jungles of Amba Ghat. This little Hamlet is just about waking up to be a major destination on the Tourist map of Maharashtra and indeed India. Access to Amba has remained difficult and remote, as a result it’s remained virginal and untouched by urban vagaries. There are some resorts, cropping up with good facilities like The Jungle Resort Amba, Pawankhind Resort, and Hornbill Resort etc.
Rajan Eklahare of Jungle Resort Amba where we checked in, cautioned us that heavy rains few days ago have created many watering holes for wildlife, and most of them will be scattered making our predictable jungle trek unpredictable to sight animals. One of the lesser-known secrets of Amba to our delight was a tea plantation belonging to an enterprising tea planter Tekawade, who took up the greatest obstacles of taming a hill without the step slopes, the first of its kind in Maharashtra! He simply let the tea plantation grow on slopes of 40 acres all along the hillside land. A great place for long walks and witness great sunsets. Our guide from Jungle Resort splayed open the stem of a Ramita shrub and explained how the locals dip this in lakes and ponds to catch fish as it gets mildly poisoned maybe blinded by the juices that oozes out. The hills of Amba abound in medicinal plants.
An Emu farm belonging to Rajan’s in laws was indeed fascinating, 40 Emus are housed here in an extremely scenic spot at the foothills of Amba. Emus emit the most incredible sound of low-pitched rhythmic drumbeat, and a group in unison sounds like music! Jayu Gandhi sells the precious Emu Eggs for medicinal purpose and breeds them easily. I spotted a huge oval, hard, green shelled egg, I grabbed it declared to all omelets for dinner enough to serve 6, nearly dropped it when I learnt each egg sells for anything between Rs 1500 to 2000!
The drive to Amba Ghat forest reserve is breathtaking every bit of the way had stopovers to admire and cherish. Jungle Resorts arranged a rooftop seating jeep, and on another occasion a similar van for tree top photos and great watching. Stunning views, rolling hills fully swathed in green grass of myriad shades, some hills had thick forest growth, water falls streamed through the valley, the sun played hide and seek with the clouds, some pockets had mist billowing from the crevice of twin peaks as if a volcano was erupting, mist travelled through the plains and fields. This indeed was a picture postcard view from Switzerland, replete with cows straying and foraging except these were not Holstein cows!
The jeep dropped us in a clearing of the jungle at a corner called Echo Point, many movies have captured this location showing the lead couple echoing, “I love you”, the trek from this point is superb and full of surprises. The bio diversity of the Sahyadris is mind-boggling, these preserved forests have been home to the Bison, Sāmbhar, Leopard, Wild Pig, the Civet Cat, Mouse Deer, and Pangolin an indigenous species of mongoose. The fact that The Malabar Pied Hornbill lives and nests here is indication of a very matured forest, this is the last pocket of authentic forest left in Maharashtra. As in the case of most forest hills the Tiger is extinct, though villagers mumbled that there are at least three prowling the forest of Amba. There is evidence of wild life poaching for the meat, the Wild Pig, Mouse Deer, even Flying Squirrel are main targets and not often sighted even in the deep jungles. Amba is also a reserved forest bordering Dajipur Bison Sanctuary, Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary and the newly commissioned Sahyadri Tiger Reserve.
At a higher altitude of Amba, the forest leads to a breathtaking view of the Konkan Darshan as it’s popularly referred to, my anxious moments of not spotting a fleeting Sambhar simply vanished as I meditated on the view ahead. Konkan vistas what unrolled before me were seven hills in a green blanket, far ahead lay the Vishalgadh Fort, and further ahead was Ratnagiri, several waterfalls in full force spraying on jutting rocks, one of the waterfalls close by drenched us as we stood there for long. Floating clouds immersed some of the hill tops, the largest of the waterfalls snaked in its river avatar through the entire range, down to the valleys and plains, the guide pointed out that it joins the Arabian Sea past Ratnagiri.
Konkan Darshan and the forest here have been extensively shot for a full-length Marathi film recently, aptly called, “ Welcome to the Jungle”. The lead pair is depicted saving the forest from evil forces that are out to destroy the revered forest and wildlife. From reel life to real life heroes is the need of the hour!
Pavankhind is a piece of Maratha history that unfurled in all its glory during the time of Shivaji. The Sahyadri hills were an advantage in all Shivaji’s wars especially with the Muslim invaders. Pavankhind on a higher peak leading to a waterfall in Amba, is the location of Bhaji Prabhu Deshpandey the trusted general and Lion hearted Warrior of Shivaji who lay down his life in this exact spot staving off the advancing forces of Adil Shah while Shivaji escaped across Vishalgadh and beyond. The revered spot has a memorial sword and shield placed in honor of the valiant general. There is a saying that “Only wind and Shivaji’s Mawla’s can navigate the mighty Sahyadri’s” looking at it now this almost feels so true, you can almost feel the historic presence. Jungle Resort Amba carries out daily safaris to this place.
On our return all along the forest shrubs, butterflies especially the blue bottled Mormon, the common Jezebel, and common Mormon flitted across in gay abandon, there were hoove prints of the bison on the soft forest floor, we were repeatedly told not to speak loudly, we didn’t sight them though. A lot of medicinal plants and trees were pointed out, a villager kindly gave me a lump of the incense glob from a tree and was handsomely rewarded.
Vishalgadh Fort houses the Samadhi of Ahilyabai Holkar, Bhaji Deshpandey and his brother, not too far from the Samadhis is a Dargah, it was time to leave, looking at another forest range far away from Amba, we decided that we will be back with more wildlife stories to recount. Hopefully of the three Tigers on the prowl, well…. May their tribe increase.
Some parts of Amba Ghats are located almost 2000 mts above sea level, making it an idyllic hill station. Amba also has the only Tea Gardens in Maharashtra, and a visit to the plantation is an experience to cherish. Large expanses of mountains after mountains of the Western Ghats, numerous waterfalls mild temperatures through out the year, salubrious weather even in the summers, comparatively less tourists to other hill stations in Maharashtra like Lonavala and Mahabaleshwar, makes this the most pleasant holiday destination anytime of the year. Winters is the most pleasant this side of the Tropic of Cancer.
This is an ideal destination, the memories of which linger on with us long after we have returned to our daily lives. After awhile we think of how much we have damaged our ecosystems and what could have been. An immediate sense of longing to visit Amba crops up again, just as the Omni present boss asks for useless prints, you feel like telling him how many trees are cut to make his papers. Realization dawns upon you that Amba Ghat, makes nature lovers out of us urban species!
Text- Jyoti Shetty and Nala Ponnappa
Photos- Nala Ponnappa