The River Sutra of Olaulim – Offbeat in Goa

When we reached the guidebook-extolled, purportedly the most scenic spot in Mobor beach in South Goa where the river Sal meets the sea, the sun was at its peak. Almost blinding were the rays as they fell on water, reflecting back making the water simmering in golden hues. Goa’s popular beaches are heaving under pressure with commercial establishments and tourists jostling for space and competing with each other – former for seasonal business from the latter and the latter, for the proverbial relaxing beach holiday despite the chaos. Thus India’s favorite beach destination is overrun with holiday makers the instant season commences but all is not lost if you look to travel off the beaten path.

The Olaulim creek
The Olaulim creek

The tiny river Sal flows into the Arabian Sea forming one of the tiniest estuaries where fishing boats are moored and fishermen go about their daily lives – some preparing their boats to set out for the day, some constructing the boats painting the strips of wood with black varnish and some taking a leisurely bath dowsing themselves in buckets of fresh water under the feisty green awning of the cashew trees. We draw curious looks and they suggest unfamiliarity of tourists wandering into their territory. We persist and find a very inviting spot surrounded by a canopy of trees – however, on the other side of the river bank.

It is a cove, a semi-beach, while the rocky surface renders it incapable for easy navigation and the river-meets-sea corner makes it perfect for saline water fishing. But the huge driftwoods that are washed ashore, the laterite-concrete parapet wall along the ridges of the shore and the amply shaded tiny patch of sand engender a feeling that it is a hideaway with a difficult access to get to. Turns out, there is no way to cross over to the other side and the fishing boats that are setting out into the sea are not conducive to get a lift. The only other access is to ride down for a few kilometers and get to Covalessim and take a ferry to cross over to Betul village.

The 10-second ferry ride at Covalessim brings us to the Betul village and we ride along the backwaters in the acrid smell of fish being left out in the sun to dry. Betul’s roads have no signboards and Google maps is the only trustworthy aid to reach any nook and cranny since everything is extensively covered. Betul wears the signature look of a Goan village – children play on the road, local bars announce fish curry meals, a front yard of the church is being cleared up by volunteers for an upcoming feast and just as you steer into a tertiary road, the crowded living quarters constrict your navigation.

At the bay, as the day progresses, the number of men who gather for fishing multiplies. They angle in bunches and as individuals and share their small catches with each other as bait for bigger ones. Many of them good heartedly holler at each other’s jokes in their alcohol-exalted congeniality. One tells us how today was not a great day and brags about his big catch just the previous day.  We take it all in and saunter cautiously to avoid slipping or worse, getting slashed by the sharp edges of the rocks that had dead shellfish stuck on their surface.

We spot a huge jellyfish in the waters, a recent phenomenon that is a cause of concern for the tourism industry in Goa. Though Jellyfish related incidents have not been reported in the country or in Goa, spotting of these fish has been reported in recent times. Bites can vary from toxic to non-toxic so we stay away. We sit around, while away time listening to the banter of men fishing and watching the constant stream of fishing boats heading into the sea.

If you care to make inroads into Goa’s somnolent villages, you will discover numerous water bodies in the form of ponds, backwaters and rivers. Many of these are rich, monsoon fed, self-sustaining ecosystems and host to numerous birds, plants and fish. We saw ponds thick with water lilies in white and pink holding their chin up amid mossy vegetation of aquatic flora. We also spotted the migratory purple heron, tufted duck, fulvous whistling duck and Indian pond heron in these water bodies. Ducks and water fowls putter about in the company of fields on both sides where men till the land in preparation of the winter crop.

Ferries cut across Mandovi, the omnipresent factor of Panjim city, carting hordes of people throughout the day.  We savor lunch at Terrys, overpriced albeit worth for the views of Mandovi and its goings-on, on the banks of Mandovi enroute the recently renovated Reis Magos fort.

To get to Olaulim and to Savio and Pirkko Fernandes’ homestay, it is crucial to first place the tiny village on the map. Because no amount of careful enunciation of the name will yield any result from the locals if you chose to seek and find Olaulim using traditional approach. They simply haven’t heard of it. Though it is in close proximity with Panjim and Mapusa, the village has a truly fallen-off-the-map feel to it. But we have the map and Olaulim is on it. Follow the river, Prikko had earlier told us while sending us directions to reach her. And so we did. We also passed the stately Salvador do Mundo church and other villages to reach the Fernandes’ eco-homestay. Located in a 3-acre property with a charming infinity pool built around a coconut tree and overlooking a creek, this is just where you will go if you want to get lost in your travels, as it were.

Bird calls persist throughout the day, river terns dive into the creek for fish, a lone kingfisher perched on a stump of a dry tree peers into the water for its prey.  The creek is perfectly safe for swimming, Pirkko tells us because the catchment area is controlled by sluice gates and the water level never goes up. But we are already hooked to the kayaks invitingly floating around their tiny jetty. We strap our cameras on, land precariously into the kayaks and row away into the sun.

This appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.

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