Motorcycling and fishing have always been synonymous to me, one leads to the other, and the freedom they both provide will always remain unmatched. This travelogue is about riding down the beautiful Konkan coast of Maharashtra on a motorcycle, with a rod and reel tucked away in my saddles. Yes, tucked away in all readiness least I stumble upon a great fishing spot. The memories here have been painstakingly collected for over a decade and a half now. Those were the days, before the advent of GPS phones, when directions had to be read on an old map and eventually good-natured local folks had to point the right way through. While some of the places may have changed, I would like to believe that most of those places along this beautiful Konkan coast still remain the same. While I write, I relive those days in vivid detail, one moment at a time, when I would jump on my motorcycle and forget about the trials of a mundane life. Though these roads are long, every mile will clear your head. The one thing you can be sure of here, is all roads lead to the sea 🙂
From Mumbai to Bankot on the Maharashtra coast
Bankot is a small sleepy town which lies on the opposite side of Harihareshwar. This town is based at the foot of a hill. Above, on the high red hill covered with low bushes, stands the old, now much-ruined fort, small and square. There are two separate bastions connected with the fort. One of these called the Refuge, (locally called Panah) was built by the Habshi, to guard the creek from pirates. The other bastion, higher up the hill and approached from the water bastion by 300 steps was built by the famous Angres. You can see this fort only when out on a boat or on the opposite side. Ceded to the British by the Maratha in 1755, its name changed from Himmatgad to Fort Victoria. Many centuries ago, Bankot was a bustling trading port that eventually fell into decay. Its shallow sandbanks at the mouth of the river made it difficult for ships to pass and the country inland was extremely rugged. The chief buildings were the custom house, the traveller’s bungalow on the hill overlooking the harbour entrances and the residence of the Parkars, a distinguished Muhammedan family who enjoyed grants of land from Government as rewards for faithful services in collecting supplies for the fourth Mysore (1799) war.
To reach Bankot we took the turn off from the NH17 highway (now renamed to an unromantic 66, (which I will continue to call NH17, the Blue Highway) at Goregaon ahead of Mangaon. Country roads and Royal Enfield go well together. The road ran through some regular countryside and then climbed up some well-wooded inclines. We crossed the Savitri River at a place called Mhapral. This is the same river that meets the sea at Bankot.
A pit stop on every bridge for a “look-down” at the water is a must. A few snappers were sheltering in the green waters, near the pilings of the Mhapral bridge. Deeper down, I imagined a big old grouper fast asleep, dreaming of some rather fishy dream that only fish can dream. We saw the sand boats busy mining gravel all along the river, with their men and buckets going in and out of the water. In the meantime, a local lad got chatting with us and gave us some new directions – a shortcut to Bankot! The first rule is that shortcuts in the countryside are everything but short! We hit this so-called shortcut and discovered that road was in the process of being made and not laid. It was literally being cut through the mountainside by heavy machinery. Red mud and boulders were never a challenge for our Bullets (Royal Enfield) and we hit the dirt and the going got tough. To ride up that so-called road you needed a good sense of humour as our motorcycles bounced off the boulders at incredible angles. Slipping and sliding, we created nimbus clouds of red dirt. After an hour on this treacherous road, we reached the top of the hill and eventually found our way back to a tarred road. Spattered with red dust, we stopped for chai (Tea). The owner of the roadside tea stall was in an exceptionally jolly mood. After having a good laugh at our plight, he said that there was a shorter route up here. Alas! if and only if we had asked the right folks. With the tea tasting horrible and the scorching sun at its zenith, we wished that this tea would miraculously convert itself into beer.
The afternoon found us crossing the hill into Bankot, the view of the estuary from the top was breathtaking. We could see the river hurrying out to meet the sea, while its banks were fringed with mangroves. Further west was the white sandy beach and on the other side, up north, was the rocky headlands of Harihareshwar, another good spot for some fishing. It was a blazing hot afternoon and the fresh sea breeze did us good by reviving our tired and sweaty spirits. I heard John, one of the co-riders, shout out with glee “Let’s get our swimming trunks out and hit the water”. That really revved us up, we raced downhill hell for leather and into the sleepy village, rattling up the neighbourhood. Some lazy mongrels showed their immediate offence by barking. Further down the road, we stopped by a whitewashed Mosque and asked for directions. Here, I noticed that the local population looked pretty well dressed, most of them wore fancy branded sports shoes as they walked out after finishing their afternoon prayer sessions. Riding forward, this road wandered through the villages and descended downwards to the sea. At this point, the road buffered by casuarina trees runs almost parallel to the river, which makes this place a beautiful pit-stop and worth a few casts. We rode on until we reached the beach, then jumped off our motorcycles and ran to the mesmerising white sandy shores to soak in the view. The wind was up, creating quick, foamy waves on the sea that looked like a trail of white horses running across the bay. To the north, was the mouth of the river and to the south, further down the beach, was a cliff. This cliff has it’s rocky headland reaching right into the sea, making it a good fishing spot. While the casuarina trees that skirted the beach made an ideal camping ground.
So we decided to the head off south, towards the cliff stopping for lunch at a small hotel in the village of Velas. This is the original village on the coast, two miles south of the fort, and is inhabited chiefly by Hindus, whereas Bankot is by Muslims. The hotel owner was helpful sort of chappie, however, was clueless about fishing. He gave us some helpful directions to the rocky cliff and then served us some piping hot chicken curry with steamed rice and an onion salad with green chillies. We washed the lunch down with some cooling Kokum juice.
Our hunger sated, we rode out of the village and came across a small bridge. Beneath this bridge, the dry bed made a capital parking spot. Here our Bullets would remain safe and sheltered. We then lugged our saddlebags and gear towards the Casuarina grove that lined the beach. This was a tedious task under a sweltering sun. Once under the cool shade of the trees, we lumped everything down and threw ourselves on the soft sand. Having lit a few cigarettes we watched the smoke curled its way up mingling with the dabbled sunlight that filtered through the trees. After the long ride under the heat, this lay-down under the silence of Casuarinas felt extremely fulfilling. Everything seemed quiet and asleep except for the faint metallic and rhythmic chirp of a crimson breasted barbet (Kop, kop, kop). The sea breeze continued its steady blow drifting us off into slumber land.
None of us wore a watch so telling the exact time became impossible, which in a way, was a boon. We woke up to an early evening, a perfect time for some fishing. While the rest of the gang cleared the campsite and set up the tents, I readied the fishing rods. A handy fireplace was propped into shape with a couple of stones. With a kettle of tea brewing, it was unanimously declared – we now had the most desirable camping site on this entire west coast.
After a refreshing cup of tea, we picked up our rods and dashed to the beach. The sand was soft but still hot from the afternoon sun, and we could feel the heat through the thin soles of our slippers. On the beach, we found a small fenced patched, which had a board saying ‘Turtle nesting site’(which I will elaborate on later).
We walked across to the base of the cliff and worked our way to the very end. Here, the tongue of rocks reached out into the sea and the waters were a beautiful dark blue-green.The upcoming tide made it a perfect setting for a fishy evening. I remember Siegfred was only guy armed with a digital camera and was ecstatically clicking away at everything from rocks to snails. We started by casting out a few heavy lures and I also had a rod out with bait. An hour later we had no fish between us but a lot of photographs, which Siegfred had been shooting insatiably. With a bright flash going off every now and then, his photography stint was turning out to be an irritant. I noticed a lot of crabs and barnacles on the rocks, tell-tale signs of a healthy ecosystem. This reminded me of an article I read, which complained about the effluents from chemical factories that were polluting the waters further up the river. A sad thought crossed my mind of how this healthy ecosystem may not last forever and will soon disappear within a blink of an eye. And with the blink of that thought, the sun slipped below the horizon in an explosion of crimson purple and John hooked into a fish. We all rush over to watch him fight his fish. In spite of the rough upcoming tide, he skilfully played his 4 pound Red Snapper into the opening of a small pool and landed it. In the excitement for a great shot, Siegfred nearly dropped the camera and himself into the brink. He eventually did not get the picture, he said, “It was too bloody dark!”
With a fish for the pot, we headed back to camp. It was dark while we walk along the beach, debating whether a night or an early morning fishing session would be more productive. The upcoming morning tide seemed to be a better bet. Time and tides are the most decisive elements of successful fishing. I personally prefer to fish an upcoming tide, starting from the turn – low to high. This provides a wider spectrum for hooking into a variety of fish. Remember that different fish feed at different times, most of them using the upcoming tide to access their favourite foraging spots. I have also noticed that the actual feeding frenzy lasts for a very short time. You just get a 15- 20-minute window and then the fish move on. The outgoing tides have their own merits, especially an hour after the turn of a full tide.
As we got closer to camp we spotted a figure shuffling about our tents and we immediately made a dash for the camp. The figure just stood there and watch us race in. On getting closer, we were greeted by a smiling man of average height and seemed to be local. He quickly explained that the restaurant owner had told him about our fishing expedition and he being a fisherman decided to come across and offer some valuable advice. We got chatting at once, he started with tales of big groupers in the 40-pound range that broke his line and some even bigger that straightened out his hooks. He proclaimed that there are very big Barramundi during the months of December and Harihareshwar on the other side is a better place to fish for them. He got quite excited seeing the little 4-pound snapper that we had caught. I thought that to be strange, especially for a man who is used to tackling only 40-pound fish. I humbly requested that his highness should spend the next morning helping us catch those big groupers. To which, he gave me a rather evasive reply and pushed off.
The next thing on the menu was dinner. Before which, a couple of rounds of whiskey was dished out to the crew and this put us in better spirits. While cooking a camping dinner innovation is a must, then even the humblest of food take on an exquisite taste. When out camping we always carry a few pots and pans, along with some salt and spices. The snapper was first clean and gutted, then marinated with salt, fresh green chillies and a spice mix that I had pinched from my kitchen back at home. Lastly, a liberal dash of sour lime was sprinkled all over and fish was left to rest. Next, we cooked some Maggie noodles and punched it up with the spice mix and finely chopped green chillies. The pan fried snapper was delicious, its flesh was so delicate that it almost melted in your mouth. The taste of freshly caught fish has an exotic taste as compared to the regular fare we get in the cities. The noodles were spicy, and we all had a couple of extra helpings until the pot was scrapped so profoundly that it needed no washing.
After dinner, we lit up a small bonfire with the dry wood that Siegfred found in the nearby riverbed. We laid down on our mats enjoying the silence and there were many subtle sounds that came through. The creaking of casuarina trees as they swayed in the wind, an eerie owls hoot from the forest beyond the river, and the constant rhythm of the surf hitting the beach. The sound of the waves has a unique tone as it hits the beach. It starts down the beach with an initial thud and then quickly rises to a swishing crescendo as it crashes near you. I could see the stars through the trees, and this fuelled an intense conversation to galaxies, the milky way, and aliens. Summarising how insignificant our selfish wants seemed as compared to this beautiful and infinite phenomenon – called our universe. We chatted about a great many things until the sleepy yawns overtook us. This reminds us of a beautiful quote from Jerome K Jerome,“Till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out – till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak.”
We woke up to the noise of someone yelling, the commotion seemed to come from the beach. So rushing out of our tents, we found a man waving his hands and shouting in a desperate attempt to frighten off a horse that was in full gallop. It took a few moments to digest this untoward but rather comically scene. In the meanwhile, the horse raced passed us and took off down the beach. On questioning the man we found, he was the attendant who took care of the turtle nesting site and today is when the eggs hatched! As for the horse, the story goes that poor steed had passed his prime and his callous owner had conveniently left him on this isolated beach to fend for himself. Of course, over time he had become the locals adopted favourite. Today the little turtles were taking their first steps towards the ocean and the willy horse is best kept at bay. Unconditionally we volunteered our service, joining the legions of turtle attendants. The little green fellows were just about making their way up through the sands and with a little help we guided them out to the edge of the water. There was one particular turtle who seem to be a land lubber and insisted on heading up to our tents. It took quite a bit of coaxing to change his mind.
We spent that entire morning husbanding our precious clutch of turtles against the vicious crows and Bahramni kites. So engrossed were we in our task, that we forgot all about the fishing, and Siegfred about his camera. Alas, it was time for a wrap. While we packed up the camp I thought of that big 40 kilo grouper smiling away in the surf, waiting for his breakfast of turtle pie. The fishing will have to wait until our next stop.
To be continued… Part2 – From Bankot to the Lighthouse of Anjanwale