I switch off my headlamp and look back. All I can see is darkness. But I have been to the same place during the day. I know that I am surrounded by verdant evergreen forest on one side, and a laterite plateau bedecked with wet moss on the other. I switch on my headlamp again and we trudge on. It is silent but for the strangely calming, constant pitter-pattern of rain. Luckily, the large poncho and gumboots keep me dry as we hunt for forest treasures, armed with our torches and cameras. As we walk on, suddenly, the beam of a small flashlight hits something shiny. There it is, by the side of the road. I let the camera out of its snug rain cover while one of my friends keeps the umbrella open for me overhead. I bend down and photograph a brilliant jewel of an animal, one which is found nowhere else in the world but here, the Amboli tiger toad — a critically endangered amphibian.
The popular hill station of Amboli is located in Sindhudurg district, on Maharashtra’s southern boundary, perched at an altitude of 690 m above sea level in the Sahyadri Hills. It is sometimes called ‘Cherrapunji of Maharashtra’ (The hill station records over 7,400 mm of rain annually, making it among the wettest places in India). Its emerald green forests, gushing waterfalls, rocky moss-covered plateaus interspersed with dry grasses that turn green in the monsoon make it a popular destination for travellers. It has in the past few years gained fame for another reason. More than a decade ago, a few devoted nature lovers started visiting the wilderness areas of this relatively unexplored Eden. Their steady efforts over the years revealed something amazing. In spite of not being notified as a protected area, Amboli’s biodiversity was staggering. It has over 35 species of mammals, a growing list of over 200 species of birds, approximately 150 species of butterflies, and over 45 species of reptiles and amphibians (the list constantly updated), some endemic to Amboli and others to the larger Western Ghats. Building on the work of the previous generation, young, energetic locals started taking an interest in showing visitors these unique treasures. Pretty soon, Amboli was on the wildlife travel map and now is a sought-after destination for both wildlife enthusiasts and adventurers.
Since it is not a formal protected area, the tourism infrastructure here is community-driven. It is advisable to explore the biodiversity only with trained guides or naturalists. It’s advisable to get a guide, especially as some of the species here are venomous and must be approached with caution. When booking accommodation ask for a local guide trained to conduct trails for ‘herping’ or ‘birdwatching’. Local guides can be booked through your accommodation or the Malabar Nature Conservation Club (+91 7588447161, +91 9422343161). Alternatively, you can join a group tour with a dedicated naturalist (conducted by Nidus (varadgiri.net/), Amazing Amboli (www.facebook.com/amazingamboli/), Toehold (www.toehold.in/)
Amboli Forest Park is the most easily navigated here. The entrance resembles entering a garden, but the flora is not manicured, and is in its natural wild state. A trained guide will look through the leaf litter, tree hollows, and shallow ponds to unearth secretive insects, reptiles, amphibians, and even crustaceans such as the endemic purple crab. Once you cross the second gate, the trail leads to Parikshit Point, where the trail becomes denser and wilder. At the point, you may encounter rare flora such as Ceropegia fantastica (a curious plant that relies on trapping an insect for pollination).
The laterite plateaus encountered on Chaukul Road, as well as near the Hiranyakeshi temple, are excellent to view a variety of amphibians including the endangered Amboli toad, which can often be seen in huge mating congregations during the early rains. They curl up in mating balls as multiple males try to clamber onto females, hoping to sire the next generation.
Mahadevgad fort though in ruins, is a haven for a variety of smaller life forms, and is a great place to see the diversity of lizards including shy day geckos (Cnemaspis sps.) and the beautiful Boulenger’s gecko.
Even the main road crossing the iconic waterfalls of Amboli harbour a diversity of wildlife. Visit these on weekdays and early in the mornings before the crowds arrive.
Amboli is a haven of biodiversity and an incredible place to appreciate smaller creatures. Larger wildlife is present but is difficult to spot. If lucky, you may see sambar deer, Indian gaur, and the nocturnal mouse deer (Indian chevrotain) and small Indian civet. Leopards and sloth bears have also been spotted by local residents. The area is a possible corridor of movement for tigers as well.
Herpetofauna: The star attractions of these evergreen forests are the diverse ‘herps’, the reptiles and amphibians. Three key species are the Malabar gliding frog, the Malabar pit viper, and the ubiquitous green vine snake.
Other endemic species include the Amboli tiger toad, Amboli bush frog, and the brilliant pied-bellied shieldtail snake. Legless amphibians known as caecilians may also be spotted emerging from their subterranean homes (Amboli and Bombay caecilians are the ones recorded here so far). More widely distributed species such as the spectacled cobra, Indian krait, checkered keelback, Indian ratsnake, fungoid frog, and Bombay bush frog are also encountered. Spotting rare species like the ornate flying snake and olive forest snake require a fair degree of luck. In August, you may also be witness to the amazing foot-flagging behavior of the northern dancing frog.
Flora: This is a great place to document rare species of flora including a number of ground orchids, and the unusual Ceropegia fantastica. At some spots, you may come across bio-luminiscent fungii, giving off an eerie glow in the dark.
Birds: Over 200 species of birds have been recorded including the spectacular oriental dwarf kingfisher, Indian paradise flycatcher, and the Malabar whistling thrush. Amboli supports several endemic avian species of the Western Ghats: the grey-fronted green pigeon, Malabar grey hornbill, Nilgiri wood-pigeon, and Sri Lankan frogmouth.
By Road: Mumbai is a 492 km/9 hr drive away via Pune. Kolhapur is 120 km away, however, the road is narrow and winding as you head closer to the ghats of Amboli, so drive carefully during the monsoon.
By Train: Amboli is most conveniently visited by train, the nearest station is Sawantwadi Road (about 40 km/1 hr away).
By Air: The closest airport is in Belgaum (approx. 85 km/ 2 hr away. Another convenient option is Dabolim Airport, Goa (105 km/2.5-3 hours away).
Amboli is a popular hill station for local travellers, with numerous budget stay options: Shiv Malhar, Silver Springs, Atharv Resort, Bison Resort (Rs 500-1,500 per room per night doubles).
MTDC’s Green Valley Resort is one of the larger properties here, offering clean, standard rooms. It has a popular eatery. (Doubles from Rs 1,500-4,000 per room per night in different categories).
The preferred option for most nature lovers and photographers is Ogale’s Whistling Woods, because of the location in a quiet lane off Amboli town. The lodge and surrounds are home to many of the sought-after species for visitors. The owner Hemant Ogale is an avid naturalist, favouring the documentation and photography of butterflies and can suggest local guides who they work with. (Doubles cost Rs 3,000-3,500)
Amboli is great year-round, but most popular in the monsoon. Avoid weekends and holiday/festival times as it gets fairly crowded.
June to early September: torrential rain, misty, temperatures between 21-25 degrees Celsius. Best time to encounter the diversity of reptiles, amphibians, and monsoon flora and fauna.
November to early March: best time to visit without rain, day temperatures 21-25 degrees Celsius, nights are colder. Great season for birdwatching, long walks, and spotting resident and migrant avian species. Early mornings with the sun just out is perfect to observe butterflies.
April to May: Due to its elevation and forested hills Amboli remains popular hill station to kick back and relax in the summer. Best time to sight larger mammals, otherwise rarely seen. To spot gaur, sambar deer, stay near waterbodies and see Indian giant squirrel in the canopy.
Tips for visitors:
1. Carry a quality raincoat/poncho and sturdy umbrella during the monsoon. Carry protection for photographic and electronic equipment
2. Avoid exploring the forested areas alone. Keep to forest department rules and timings (9 pm is the deadline). It gets pitch dark usually after 6.30-7 pm. For your safety do not visit unauthorised areas.
3. Wear leech socks and gumboots during the monsoon. Carry salt to get rid of leeches.
4. Carry a first-aid kit, flashlight/headlamp, spare batteries, and zip lock bags to keep items dry.
5. Avoid driving at night. Roads can be slippery and smaller life forms crossing roads can get killed by speeding vehicles.