Living in Panjim (Panaji), a mid-week school holiday was the perfect time for our family of three to pack our bags and head to the Western Ghats to spend time at an eco-resort called Nature’s Nest in Surla. Run by birder and wildlife photographer, Pankaj Lad, and his friends, Nature’s Nest might not promise luxury but it has birdsong and forests, and cottages surrounded by trees. After the heat and noise of the city, this was a prospect too enticing to resist.
At Nature’s Nest, we are shown to a cottage called ‘Karmal,’ with a little front porch lined with a cow dung floor, which has cracked in the heat. The 10 rustic cottages are built with traditional Goan materials—laterite stone walls and wood beam rafters holding red Mangalore tiles. They are hidden between powderpuff trees with spiky pink-and-white blossoms. The rustle of leaves outside echoes the tree design on the bathroom floor.
Meals at Nature’s Nest are hearty, made by locals who are employed as staff at the resort and served at the al fresco restaurant in the middle of the property. Lunch was a filling meal of rice, black-eyed peas in a coconut gravy, prawn curry, chicken curry and mackerel fried with such care that it melted in the mouth.
Nature’s Nest offers a gamut of activities for their guests from zip lining and rock climbing to boat safaris in the Zuari river and early morning birding tours in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary bordering the property. As dusk approached, we chose a three-hour jeep safari in the sanctuary. Though our guide, Ramesh, did not promise us a wildlife sighting, we were happy just to be out there under the trees—spotting any animals would be a bonus.
I was struck by how respectful Ramesh was towards his surroundings. He drove slowly and spoke in a low voice, careful not to startle any wildlife or birds. Ramesh is a student of environmentalist and conservationist Rajendra Kerkar and has a keen eye for spotting birds. He helped us see several beautiful birds hidden in plain sight: the Asian fairy bluebird with its incredible blue-black plumage, the Malabar parakeet, the Malabar grey hornbill, and the flame-throated bulbul which is the state bird of Goa. The safari also involved a short hike into the forest, where we spotted the Malabar tree nymph, a large butterfly that is endemic to the Western Ghats.
On the way back, night fell rapidly. At one point, Ramesh slowed down, thinking he had spotted a herd of Indian bison, or gaur, in the shadows. We peered out trying to locate the herd and spot the silhouette of the animals when from the front seat came the whispered words that made our trip truly memorable: “There’s a leopard in front of the jeep.”
The gaur forgotten, all heads swivelled forward where barely five feet away, a juvenile leopard stood in the side of the path, its head turned towards us. It was one of the most remarkable moments of my life, to have been in such close proximity to creature as magnificent as this. We almost forgot to breathe in those few seconds of silence while we admired the animal and hopelessly tried to capture an image on camera. The leopard then crossed the path and turned once to look at us before vanishing into the thicket.
We were still on a high from that sighting when Gajanand, another member of staff at Nature’s Nest, spot-ted an adult leopard hidden amongst the trees. The cat’s eyes were clearly visible in Ramesh’s torch light but the rest of it was not and after taking a pause to admire the animal, we moved on.
Sitting in our cane chairs on the porch the next morning, I was still thinking of those goosebump inducing moments of our encounter with the leopards. Shivering in the unexpectedly cool morning (temperatures dropped below 20 °C at night here) I wished I had some semblance of artistic skill so that I could capture the look of that leopard or the dip of the branches that swayed in the morning breeze—the brown and green punctuated by the pink of the powder-puffs. The resident birds had been chirping since 4 a.m. (I checked) and in the morning I spotted bulbuls and sunbirds darting about in the cool morning light along with many colourful butterflies.
The rest of the day was spent allowing tiny fish to nibble on my toes in the resort’s natural bubble spring pool, and swimming in a pool of fresh water—an activity my husband and son enjoyed thoroughly. After our two-day stay we left rather reluctantly, all the while thinking about our encounters in the forest and wishing that more of our days were spent under a canopy of trees and in the company of magnificent creatures.
Nature’s Nest is in Surla, a 1.5-hr drive away from Panjim, past the towns of Ponda and Farmagudi. The last town enroute is Sacorda before the highway turns towards the forested regions of the Western Ghats (www.naturesnestgoa.com; doubles from Rs2,000 per person; activities Rs200 per person; jeep safari Rs3,500 per jeep for a maximum of 6 people).
Chryselle D'Silva Dias is a freelance writer based in Goa who loves discovering everyday things in new places. She loves cities but also longs for green open spaces. Her favorite travel spots have good vegetarian food, decent public transport and excellent bookshops.