“Oooo krikey… have a look at that! That's not something you see every day, now, do you.. She's absolutely beautiful and look at that skin… it's the thing keeping her warm… soaking in the sun to keep this cold-blooded animal's heart going”. I can still rattle these monologues, once spoken by, call him what you may, environmentalist, ecologist or just Tarzan from down under. Speak that entire sentence with an Australian accent and you'll quickly understand that it's Steve Irwin I am talking about. I mention him because my love for reptiles and reptilian behaviour stems from his show – The Crocodile Hunter.
Hitting the highway with the all-wheel drive Tiguan All Space
I grew up catching these tiny geckos, lizards, handling iguanas and much else (much to my mother's grievance); just to understand their behaviour, because their genes are the same. I still remember the first time I heard about the ‘shy reptile', whom I mention in the headline – the monitor lizard aka ‘ghorpad'. It was in the battle of Sinhagad and Tanaji Malusare climbed a steep slope, using this very animal. Of course, they were tamed to pull the ropes up the cliff and wind it around the fort's bastions; so that the armies could climb up. Now, training a monitor lizard was crucial and how this was achieved will remain a mystery; as there are quite a few stories out there, saying different things.
But what I have failed to find a connection for is why we've gone from taming a creature to poaching it. The numbers have dwindled over the years; and drastically at that. Monitor Lizards are an endangered species today and are listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Act, which is the same category as tigers. The danger of them being wiped out completely, as a species, is huge; because of loss of habitat and poaching. I have heard stories, in my family, where the monitor lizard was killed for meat for the family and the skin sold for good money too; so clearly, even the smallest of lizards became a target. No wonder, the once thriving species is just vanishing off the map and the ‘shy reptile' is now nowhere to be seen.
So, when a friend of mine sent me a picture of a dead monitor lizard, a few months ago, I couldn't help but ask him, where it was from. The answer was Guhagar, a place which has now become a tourist attraction, thanks to its virgin beaches, coconut trees, betel nut trees and the absolute magnificent green cover; an ideal climate to move to, in search of a lizard.
So, it was time to head there and find out, if these monitor lizards are thriving in this climate and getting bigger! Taking time off from work, I headed to Guhagar, armed with nothing but a camera and of course an assistant, to help me get there – the VW Tiguan AllSpace!
Guhagar is about 300 kms. from Mumbai. By road it will take you about 7.5 to 8 hours to reach there and that's because of the state of the national highway. The nearest town and railway station is Chiplun, which is about 45 kilometres away. The AllSpace then would be the ideal companion for this journey because it was a mile muncher, ideally suited to handle bad roads and of course a car that feels at home near a beach!
The road is a straight one Mumbai-Panvel-Mangaon-Chiplun-Guhagar; but with all the roadworks and the holiday rush, traffic was a nightmare. Mangaon itself was a mess, given that it has a junction that heads to other beaches like Harihareshwar, Shrivardhan and Diveagar. Given that the main Mumbai-Goa highway is undergoing a drastic transformation, I decided to take a different route and, with the Tiguan AllSpace, well, it was a breeze. I took the road from Mangaon to Mandangad and from there to Dapoli and then to the Dabhol jetty. This route is a bit longer, kilometre wise; but, given the on-going roadworks, it proved to be the ideal route – scenic and with very less traffic. The twists and turns were the best place to put the cars paddle shifters to use and it didn't disappoint. In entering a corner and downshifting, it was as quick as you'd expect a DSG to be. And then, back on the throttle, the upshifts were smoother. It was more like driving a sedan than an SUV and it dawned on me that there were two more rows of people, whom I had completely forgotten about. Oops!
The road towards Guharghar is still under construction so the Tiguan AllSpace hopped over all that was thrown at it
There are places where you have to take care, when you drive; as the roads are still to be paved. But the Tiguan AllSpace tackled that rough road with ease too. Even the deepest of the potholes and the cracked surface did not disturb the peace and quiet on the inside and this with a car full of people.
Having reached the Dabhol jetty, I took the ferry to Dhopave and post that Guhagar is just 17 km. It was time to rest, though the Tiguan AllSpace was all raring to go. Now, Guhagar has quite a few homestays; so, for those on a budget of ₹ 1000-2000 a night, there are some good places to go; but, if you want to splurge a bit then there's an ideal place, which offers comfort and an amazing view – Mango Village. As the sun set, I tucked the big SUV into the garage and it was time to get some food in me. Now, given that it's a town, with a beach, the obvious protein to fill your tummy with is fish!
And thanks to a very nice hotel called Annapurna, you get the freshest of catch and at an extremely reasonable cost! So, a Pomfret rice plate will cost you anything between ₹ 300 to 500 depending on the size of the fish, which is very reasonable. And, a dinner for 2 will cost you between ₹ 700-1000 and that's just amazing. To end the meal, there's nothing better than ‘sol kadhi'; to help with the digestion. As I walked up, to pay the bill, I couldn't help but ask the cashier a question about whether there had been any sightings of a big monitor lizard.
But my luck seemed to have run out. He told me that the locals complained about a leopard lurking in the backyard and eating their chickens and sometimes even dogs. The other big menace, faced by the locals were langurs, who picked on their food and made a mess, in their homes. Snakes too were part of many conversations, but the lack of information about monitor lizards was heart breaking. Had I made a mistake by coming here?
The next morning, I headed on a trail, to find some evidence of this reptile! It's difficult to spot these predators at night; and easier in the morning, as they're usually soaking in the sun; just like any other reptile. With nothing in sight and Day 2 in Guhagar coming to an end, I had lost hope of seeing even a juvenile now. But I was pleasantly surprised at how the Tiguan AllSpace was snaking through the narrow roads, with the most colourful houses, you'll ever see.
As I sat down, to reconcile to another day of disappointment, I heard a rustle, and then I saw something move. It wasn't big; but it wasn't tiny for sure. Camera in hand, I saw it move through the bush and finally, I saw it scamper through some leaves and stop. With the sun setting, in the backdrop, I could see the juvenile monitor lizard, as clear as daylight. The energy I felt could not be compared to anything else. My finger on the camera went nuts and just a couple of seconds later, it was gone, as if it was never there. What an experience it was!
That night, I didn't sleep. I had spotted an elusive and endangered species and it had a lot of growing to do. The thought that there was a bigger version alive and thriving somewhere, in Guhagar, was gnawing at me. The sighting of a young one was great, but do these monitor lizards get a chance to grow bigger and are there any big ones around? The question filled my mind, but the locals had not seen one and I was not happy at this one sighting.
It was time to take the Tiguan AllSpace out on another trail, one which was into dense forest and with a lot of tree cover and don't forget that there has to be a water source, if there is to be a lizard! Having asked around, there was such a place, in fact, there were several lakes around, but the apex predator there was the fresh water crocodile, and the monitor lizard, would never survive there. Having eliminated them, on that ‘hunch', I started my journey to a remote village nearby about 20 kilometres away from Guhagar. As the Tiguan AllSpace treaded lightly on the trail, the key here was to be silent and that 2-litre turbo petrol is surprisingly quiet! It's amazing how the all-wheel drive system (4Motion as VW calls it) takes on every big rock or slippery road in its stride. You don't have to think what to do; it does that for you and that was the need of the hour; because I needed to concentrate and look for any movement outside.
The trail ended after a few kilometres and I had to turn back, having spotted nothing! Again, I was stunned at how agile the AllSpace is, especially with the turning radius being a short one, for a big car, like this one. Remember, it seats 7! I turned and stopped, knowing well, I didn't have another day or hour to spend, looking for this ‘shy reptile'. This was it, the end of the search. I had found evidence, that these lizards are very much a part of the ecosystem; but there was no proof of them making it to adulthood. I put the gear in drive, pumped the gas and, as the wheels of the AllSpace turned in the forward direction, I heard some branches move. From the corner of my eye, I could see something moving under the bush. I switched off the ignition, put down my window, and was hoping to see something with spots on it (I had heard about leopards, hadn't I) but this wasn't as tall as a leopard. Sure, it was big, because it caused enough disturbance to grab the attention of the langurs. And then, it climbed on the side of the mountain. Big, black, muscular and from what I could tell, measuring about six feet from head to the whip like end of the tail – the elusive monitor lizard! It waited there as I took what some might call the ‘money shot' and it stayed there for good 2 minutes, which were enough for me to soak in that sense of achievement. There was a hiss – maybe – ‘Ja Simran, Jee Le apni zindagi' in lizard tongue – and then it disappeared into the darkness.
With my feet still trembling from this experience, I had to get out of that place. So, I got into the AllSpace and headed straight back home. I couldn't believe it! Seeing a big, healthy monitor lizard in flesh and blood was an experience that will be etched forever in my memory. Getting there would have been a tedious task, had it not been for a car, like the Tiguan AllSpace. It's happy on the highways, in traffic and even on such outings. It really is the car that fits into each and every experience. With a smile on my face and my chest now wider with pride, I headed home, wondering when I would get to head out on the next adventure!