Discover Goa's backwaters

Discover Goa's backwaters
Photo Credit: Adam Regan
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Pay a visit to Goa's bountiful backwaters and stay at Olaulim Backyards

Our Team
August 14 , 2014
09 Min Read

On 20 June, the Goa Herald had this headline: ‘Tourism masterplan lays emphasis on improv­ing quality of tourists.’ Hmm. Most people would agree that if there was such a thing as a plan, it should start with improving the quality of the Goan government’s tourism authori­ties. So far, they have brought in casinos; replaced most English and German tourists with Russians — about whom I will not generalise—and, doubtless after numerous trips to Singapore of all places, decided that what Goa really needs is a revolving restaurant. Not to mention, as news reports do, gone about creating tourism hubs, including, ‘oceanariums, theme parks, shopping malls, entertain­ment and handicraft centres.’ The mind doesn’t just boggle; it feels like crying in despair. Especially when they go on to discuss ‘hinterland river cruise tourism’.

Now for the good news, and it is news for all but a handful of the 31 lakh domestic and international tourists who came to Goa last year. Goa’s back­waters and hinterland are stunning, historical, authentic and still completely unchanged (where they haven’t been desecrated by mining). Like much of Goa, they are at their most breathtaking during the monsoon. You (and perhaps the tourism officials — if they can tear themselves away from another fact-finding mission to Singapore) can have no better immersion in the sensory overload of Goa’s bountiful backwaters than a visit to Olaulim Backyards.

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Olaulim Backyards is really Savio and Pirkko’s backyard. As well as being the playground for Manuel, Shameena, Mantra, Shibu, Laku, Lily, Billy, Snuffles and Richard Parker. In other words: their son, daughter, donkey, Great Dane, Goan mongrel, Mr. and Mrs. Goat, Albino rabbit and cat. Their pony died of old age recently, leaving the donkey, Mantra, quite distraught. Since when Mantra has taken a rather gay shine to Shibu, the Great Dane, who will have none of it. So there you have it, a genuine homestay where you are a real guest of the family and other animals.

Savio Fernandes, whose ancestral home now houses Fabindia in Mapusa, met his Finnish wife Pirkko twenty-odd years ago in Goa, when he was in the travel trade and she was a tour guide. They know more about tourism in Goa and the backwaters in particular than any panel of expensive consultants. Their knowledge, experience, good taste and love of Goa shows in what they have created. They have created as little as possible. That is their genius.

They bought the four-acre plot in 2000, with their house tucked away in one corner. The land is magnificent, on the side of a rocky hill, leading down to the Olaulim backwaters. They tidied it up and then, four years ago, built just three large and comfortable rooms for guests. Two of the rooms are built into the side of the hill and one, Sunbird, is mere metres from the water.  They designed the rooms themselves, complete with old family furniture. So no celebrity architect. No concrete. No glass. No air-conditioning. No TVs. No room service. You don’t even want music most of the time because Mother Nature’s music is what’s most mesmerising.

Where I live, in the relatively unspoilt coastal belt of Salcette in south Goa, no one has a four-acre plot. But if they did, they would ‘develop’ it into three hundred ghastly Spanish-style villa-ettes. In com­plete contrast, the beauty of Olaulim Back­yards is that it disappears instantly into the landscape around it. In most of rural Goa, this should be the rule, not the exception.

One part of Goan culture that I took to very quickly when I first arrived (and now consider myself an expert at) is the siesta. So I was a little nonplussed, after a late lunch, when Savio suggested a walkaround the village instead.

It was the best snooze I ever missed and now, looking back on it after just a few days, it feels more like a dream. In fact, it was an education. We started by walking up to a high point, where Savio showed us how their backwaters joined up in thefar distance with the Mandovi river. Then we walked down to the raison d’etre of this little bit of paradise: the manos.

A manos is an automatic sluice gate made by man and run by nature. It con­sists of a series of thick wooden planks on a pivot. When the tide of brackish water comes in, the gates swing open automati­cally to allow fish and prawns to come in and spawn. Inland, in the khazan, a pit or ‘poiem’ has been dug to allow the young fish to mature. Then, when the tidal waters retreat, the sluice gates open and the adult fish, prawns and crab are almost sucked out into the river where they are caught by a net.

Every year, the rights to each manos is sold to the highest bidder. The money (in this case Rs 1.4 lakh annually) goes back to the community to protect and maintain the whole khazan. So part of the khazan is essentially a natural fish farm, surrounded by paddy fields of rice that have evolved to grow in slightly saline conditions.

In colonial times, this system of vil­lage-owned and managed land and water was known as communidade land, but it goes back well before the Portuguese ar­rived (around 1510), when it was known as ‘gaunkari’. On paper this is beginning to sound a tad dry. In practice, with Savio as your guide, it is anything but.

That evening, at the delicious Goan dinner cooked by a neigh­bouring housewife, everything we ate was essentially grown within 750 yards of the dining room table, and we had met some of the producers that after­noon on our walk. The red rice (semi-polished Khosri) and white prawns were particularly delicious — the latter look like normal prawns when cooked but do not have the usual thick vein on their backs. Over the dinner with the other guests and some local friends, we all agreed that Honeybee brandy is the perfect monsoon tipple. Enough said, but a splendid time was had by all.After breakfast the next morning (fruit, masala omelets, good coffee and pao with Pirkko-made mango marmalade), we went canoeing on the river. We spotted a family of otters and more birds than I could shake a camera at, but the biggest pleasure was the greenery. There were places where you could sit and stare at the scenery without a single sign of hu­man habitation other than young paddy.

Most communidade land in Goa is at best under-utilised (Goans can’t be bothered to work in the fields themselves and ‘outsiders’ are getting too expensive to make agriculture pay), and at worst being gradually encroached upon.

I will always be grateful to Pirkko and Savio for showing me that rumours of Goa’s death by development are still very much exaggerated. Goa has around 100 kilometres of coastline, but over 270 kilometres of navigable waterways. If we do things right, we can easily beat Kerala at their own game.

It remains a big ‘IF’.

The information

Getting there
There are plenty of flights to Goa from all over India every day. An economy class round trip ticket from Delhi costs approximately Rs 9,000 but prices can vary enormously, depending on seasonal demand.
Although Olaulim Backyards feels lost in time and space, it’s actually only 8km from Mapusa, 11km from Panjim, and around 15km from Goa’s northern beaches. It is near Pomburpa and they have a very good map on their website.
The closest well-connected railway junction is Margao (40km, 1hr), and the airport is about the same distance (42km). Olaulim ar­ranges transfers from both (Rs 200), and also cars and two-wheelers for self-drive.

Where to stay
Olaulim Backyards(doubles for Rs 4,000 per night in the monsoon, Rs 4,500 from October to May, Rs 7,000 over Christmas and New Year, including taxes and breakfast; +91-9326017731, +91-9823390233, olaulimgoa.com) is a stunning four-acre property with just three very private en suite rooms. Golden Oriel is the honeymoon suite, up a steep path built into the rock of the hill. Hornbill is a large en suite double room off the path to Golden Oriel. Sunbird is on the flat coconut-treed land right beside the water. The rooms are furnished with several old family heir­looms. Guests often eat with Pirkko and Savio at the Down Kitchen; there is also a charming Honesty Bar beside the freeform infinity pool. There’s plenty of room for extra beds (Rs 700 for children aged 4 to 12 years, Rs 1,400 for adults). Meals cost Rs 500 per person.

What to see & do
On the property itself, there’s a canoe, a row­ing boat and local fishing gear, and there are several kayaks and bicycles. A masseuse from the local village can be reserved for massages, manicures and pedicures. Savio is a very knowledgeable guide for a variety of different walks around the village. They also grow their own organic fruit, vegetables and spices. If you can tear yourself away from Olaulim Back­yards, there are all of Goa’s more usual and touristy attractions (markets, beaches, bars and restaurants) within 10–20km.


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