Last month, on the long Holi weekend, we decided to make a few changes to our lifestyle. We traded in the blinding lights of this metropolis for a moonlit farm full of fireflies. We ditched those spotless plates and fancy cutlery for lovely green banana leaves. We bid farewell to Mumbai’s smoggy mornings to embrace breezy evenings and enchanting sunsets. And we skipped the rat race, to watch baby Olive Ridley turtles make a dash for the sea, as part of the Velas Turtle Festival 2016.
Velas is a small village in the Ratnagiri district that’s located roughly 220km from Mumbai. Its biggest claim to fame is its turtle-watching event, for which hundreds of people flock here every year. For those few months, from February to April, the village turns into a tourist hotspot that is buzzing with hipsters, city slickers, and children, all enjoying the ‘traditional village experience’.
This is also because there are no hotels here; at least not in the immediate vicinity. So, you can choose one homestay or another. The amenities, of course, remain limited. After all, this is the real deal, with the cows, mosquitoes, not-so-spotless bathrooms, and the smell of fresh cow dung in the morning. Needless to say, we enjoyed every bit of our two-day-long stay.
Safety in numbers
The route around the Kalbhairav Temple. (Serena Menon)
Various travel communities organise weekend trips to Velas for a set cost that usually includes meals, accommodation and travel arrangements. This is also the recommended mode of travelling here. We visited with a group of 20 people, and it cost us Rs 3,650 per person for three days. Apart from the above-mentioned requirements, our itinerary also included a fair bit of sightseeing, since the turtle-watching phenomenon is limited to twice a day — at 7am and 6pm. This event is organised by members of the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, which also has the support of the state’s forest department. If you’re travelling to Velas on your own, make sure you book a homestay for yourself, as on weekends, they tend to get booked out. Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra’s website has a lot of related information.
Slow and steady
Inside the Velas village. (Serena Menon)
At a five-minute walk from our homestay was a small road that went off towards the beach, which was another five minutes away. On the beach is an enclosure to protect the precious turtle eggs. Different nests, with the eggs, are buried deep in the sand. High above the nests, on the surface, stand sticks depicting the location of each. The sand around these sticks, and in the enclosure, is evened out daily, so if there is any movement below, a depression is formed on the sand, which lets the conservationists know when they can expect baby turtles.
“The turtle must not be disturbed or distracted when it moves towards the sea. It has a natural, in-built geotagging mechanism that will ensure, if it is a female, that it returns to this same beach 20 years later, or even later, to lay eggs,” Mohan Upadhyay of the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, told the 100-odd people standing around the enclosure.
Unfortunately, like is the case with all wildlife sightings, there is absolutely no guarantee that you will see even one. During our four trips to the beach, we saw a total of four turtles. Although sea turtles are the cutest, the experience can be slightly underwhelming if you’re expecting the beach to be swarming with tiny fins. In fact, the first time, we saw only one turtle being released into the sea. The moment was almost comical. We all stood huddled around it, with our eyes affixed, as cameras clicked away like Shah Rukh Khan had suddenly appeared. Some people even cheered and clapped when it reached the sea. In the name of nature, we, too, joined.
Everything there is to see around Velas is located approximately two hours away because of the winding roads. During our visit, we went to the Bankot Fort, the Harihareshwar beach and Kalbhairav Temple, and the Kadyavarach Ganapati temple. Despite the soaring temperatures, we were able to appreciate most of these attractions thanks to our air-conditioned mini bus. We suggest you insist on that too. But what we enjoyed the most on this trip was the fantastic Maharashtrian food at our homestay. These home-cooked meals would be such a hit in Mumbai, but then again, we can’t imagine how hard it will be to say goodbye to those fireflies, those sunsets, that fresh air, and the banana leaves.
Bankot Fort : Tourists who know nothing about this fort will return with absolutely no new information, because there is no board or any signage around it. Several online sources claim that this fort has been around since the 15th century. Like is the case with many such unkempt forts, there are several stories surrounding this one too. Apparently, it gets its name from the fact that it was Shivaji’s 52nd fort.
Harihareshwar: According to the Maharashtra tourism website, Harihareshwar is also called the ‘Kashi of the South’ due to the presence of an ancient Shiva Temple called the Kalbhairav Temple. A parikrama of the temple is considered a sacred activity. There is also the Kadyavarach Ganapati temple located nearby for devotees of the elephant God.
Take a trip to Velas with a travel community
Yatrisahyadri: Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Mumbai Travellers: Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
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