The Karnala Bird Sanctuary and fort is quite the perfect day trip from Mumbai. Not so near as to make you feel you haven’t left the city's madness, but still allowing you to be back home by evening, to warm your feet by the fire after a rainy day’s trek.
The Mumbai-Goa highway is a nice stretch of road, a treat for bikers who like nice tar. So I decide to do the trip on my Royal Enfield. In barely an hour and a half, I park my bike at the entrance (though you can ride in and park near the guesthouse) and start the trek up through the sanctuary and to the fort.
Karnala is a popular destination for birdwatchers and I see several groups already. I get chatting with one of them and learn that although this is a small sanctuary — just 4.27 sq km — it is home to 147 species of resident and 37 species of migratory birds that come during winter. Apparently, two rare birds, the ashy minivet and the Malabar trogon, have been spotted here. Good for them. I’m not much of a birdwatcher myself, I prefer trekking, and in 15 minutes I’m already at a height. I’ve passed the trails that branch off into various parts of the sanctuary, the abandoned guesthouses, strange bird pens with a smattering of very unhappy looking birds and a little canteen, which is closed.
The last time I was here was the beginning of summer and there were some magnificent cobwebs with lovely black and yellow spiders on them. Now the rains have transformed the landscape. Green dominates the brown and the smell is of moisture not dust. There are millions of different kinds of leaves in a million different hues and moss is growing everywhere.
I know the trek quite well and pace myself easily. The first section is a steep climb through a rocky path laid through the dense jungle. I don’t spot any birds but there is a brief encounter with a small troupe of black-faced langurs. I suspect they’re after the guava I’ve been eating. This section of the climb ends as I emerge onto a ridge. A stroll along the ridge takes me to the base of the fort. Now I can see the valley on both sides and get my first glimpse of the fort and its distinctive pillar. Scrambling over fallen tree trunks and climbing through rough track, soon I’m at the base of the fortress, to climb the last section leading up to the ramparts.
The fort’s construction is believed to date to the 12th century and, over centuries, it has been handed down from one ruler to another, won and lost in battles and sometimes given away as gift or compensation. The cast of characters in its history includes the Devagiri Yadavs, Tughlaq rulers, Gujarat sultans, Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar, Dom Francisco de Menezes (the commanding officer of the Portuguese at Bassein), Shivaji, Aurangzeb, the Peshwas and, finally, the British. In 1818, the fort was captured by one Colonel Prother who established the rule of the East India Company.
There are actually two forts, one at a higher level than the other. A long series of steps leads to the ornate doorway of the upper fort. More steps lead to the base of the pillar I saw from the distance. The 45m basalt pillar was once used as a watchtower. Now it serves as a challenge to intrepid rock climbers. Its base has large water cisterns and a series of caves from where the view is magnificent. I’m higher than some helicopters flying around in the area. The trek has taken me two hours, and I take a break in the caves — a packed lunch and a catnap.
The trek down takes me half the time it took to climb up and I’m soon on my bike winding my way home. All in a day’s work.