It was finally 11 pm on Friday night (14th March); time to set off on our journey to Velas in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, to see baby Olive Ridley turtles. Our bus stops at Bandra, Sion, Chembur and Vashi to pick up the others, once for a break and then it's straight on to Velas till we reach at 7 30 am. We head to the beach even before breakfast, hoping to watch the baby turtles make their way to the water, but no such luck.
As we walked to our homestay, we see kids running around the quaint little brick homes and fellow city slickers enjoy breakfast in the verandahs of their homestays. After breakfast, we make our way by bus to the drop-off point for Bankot Fort, situated at the mouth of the Savitri river. From there it's a 30 minute walk up to the fort (a smaller bus could make its way right to the top). While a concrete road leads up to the fort, our sense of adventure takes over and we try what we hope are 'short cuts' instead of following the winding road to the top. Our detour gives us an unadulterated view of simple village life–school girls leave their paathshalas and cows rest in the shade as villagers go about their daily chores.
Bankot Fort. Image by Sean Fernandes
We reach the top and are blown away... not by the wind, but by the breathtaking view–the hills scattered with shades of green provide graphic relief, between the azure skies and the waters of the Savitri; Bankot fort looms behind us. We walk the path around the fort and climb its ramparts, finding many opportunities to stop and pose for the camera. With ample time on our hands (our organisers Travel Master GoGo don't believe in rushing), we set off to explore the fort. Little nooks and crannies, vestibules for the gate-keepers, a well, the 'cool hole', 'secret' exits satisfy our curiosity for at least an hour. Then we make our way down to the bus, stopping to admire the kairis (raw mango) suspended just beyond our reach, willing them to to fall into our open palms if we stared hard enough.
Back at the homestay, we devour a delicious home-cooked meal of rice, roti, chicken curry and fried bangda (mackerel). Our tummies filled to bursting point, we sprawl on the floor inside or outside the house and wake up only at 5 pm when Raksha (one of the organisers), hollers at us, "Bertu, Craig, Yogesh, Avril, get up NOW. Everyone is waiting for you guys (we believe she said this to everyone she woke up). We have to go see the turtles." After a quick cup of steaming chai, we walk through the village to the beach. Gathered around the enclosure set up by the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitre NGO, which works to protect the turtles, are what seem like at least a hundred people. Mohan Upadhye, a member of the NGO, walks into the enclosure and lifts up the basket covering the small area where the turtles are supposed to hatch. No turtles. "Maybe tomorrow morning. Be here before 7," he tells us as we turn to the beach, disappointed. But the golden rays of the setting sun on the elevated black sand bars and the glittering water distracts us. A few from our group start a game of ultimate frisbee, others stand in ankle-deep water admiring the sunset, kids scamper around trying to catch crabs and I get lost in a world of my own with my camera. As it gets dark, we return to the homestay. Post our typical Konkan dinner of bhakri, rice, chicken curry, chicken sukkha and salad, we play a few games and chat a bit before hitting the sack.
The paparazzi take their positions. Image by Sean Fernandes
Our wake up call is 5.30 am. We have to be ready and at the beach A.S.A.P. 'Get a good spot', 'last day, will we see some turtles?' 'will I get some good clicks?' new thoughts spring up before I can finish thinking through the previous one. We wait eagerly for Mohan. "If there are turtles, we will put up a barricade surrounding the area where the turtles will be released. No one will cross the barrier. And no flash. The turtles follow the sunlight and the flash will disorient them," he instructs. There's pin-drop silence as Mohan moves to the basket covering the hatchery. All eyes are on him and the down-turned basket. There are shouts of hope, crossed fingers and cameras poised to click as he lifts the basket. There, scurrying around are four baby turtles. Suddenly there's a scramble for the shoreline. I make it to the front row; a while later the little beauties are carried to water edge by their entourage. The paparazzi are ready. Click click click click, shove, click click, "excuse me, you're in my way" click click click–the madness continues as the celebrities make their way to the water, stumbling over each other and guided in the right direction by the NGO volunteers. "The females will come back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. So it is important that they walk at least a small distance to the water. This exercise helps them remember the beach," Mohan informs us. The babies reach the water and the crowd bids them a final silent farewell.
Almost home. Image by Avril-Ann Braganza
We head to Mohan's house for an audio-visual presentation and more information on the turtles. "Once the mother lays the eggs, we transfer them to a safer place, where an enclosure surrounds the place to prevent dogs and hyenas from getting to the eggs. We cover the spot with a basket and a jute sack so that birds cannot reach the eggs," Mohan enlightens us. "If the mother feels a beach is not safe or feels there are too many humans around (they can sense vibrations), she will go to the next nearest beach. But it is very important for her to lay the eggs immediately or else she will die. Out of 100-120 eggs she lays, only one or two of them will make it to adulthood. Apart from predators on land, many get eaten by larger fish in the sea; some end up eating plastic, while others get trapped in fishing nets." I silently vow to try harder to conserve the environment, as we leave Mohan's home.
All aboard, bus included. Image by Sean Fernandes
After breakfast (dosa and chutney), we drive down to Vesvi. Here, we cross the Savitri river by ferry (bus et al) to Bagmandla, and drive on to Harihareshwar. Raksha knows a spot where we can get a beautiful panorama of the beach. We follow her after lunch, past the steps leading down to the beach and beyond the barricade. We start an upward climb again. The view from the top has us transfixed— tiny people try water sports in the vast ocean while even tinier kids play on the sandy stretch... We are glued to the spot, only moving around to pose for pictures. We finally make our way back down and 45 minutes later, we're all in the bus zooming back to Mumbai.
Harihareshwar; the view from the top. Image by Sean Fernandes
The beautiful weekend has come to an end, but it has been etched in my memory forever.