For most of us living in city of Mumbai, first thing that strikes our mind when we hear word “Borivali” is Fast local. To some it refers to place of doing tiger and lion safari with kids on weekends and to some adventurous souls it refers to trekking to Kanehri hills. But for me it’s land that shelters ghost of dark called Leopard or “Bibtyaa” in Marathi. 41 of them in such a small area. There is reason why I decided to write about my experience today. No other day could have done justice writing the blog about this place other than today. Why? Because my last two nights of year 2017 were spent in forest guest house inside this park, park of ghosts.

To give you an idea, Borivali National Park (BNP) is surrounded by city of Mumbai and Thane. It houses two perennial rain fed lakes Tulsi and Vihar. These are the lake which supply water to entire city of Mumbai. On the Southern edge of the park is Powai lake. All these lakes and forested area around it are known for leopards and crocodiles. A few decades ago you could occasionally sight leopard around present day SEEPZ area of Andheri East and you can still see crocs in the lakes here. This park is also adjoined by Arey milk colony, film city and is popularly known as oxygen cylinder of Mumbai.

Interesting trivia, the borders junction across state of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya pradesh once were home to all big cats of India. Tigers, Lions, Leopards, Cheetah and also other smaller cats. This area was vast and started from current day river Vasai to Surat in Gujrat in north and upto edge of Nasik along Satpura range in east. Thanks to British Raj and imperialist rulers before them, none of these cats is seen in these areas other than leopards. BNP now has around 41 leopard.

On 30th Dec 2017, I reached BNP national park around 4 pm. I distinctly remember it was Saturday and there was maddening crowd inside the park in visitor area. I was wondering all the time if this was really national park or some zoo. As a visitor to the park you have lot of things to do. See spotted dears moving around freely, feed them. Do boating. You can rent a bicycle, ride whole day. You can jog, it’s green heaven in middle of city. You can get kids along and enjoy the rides or do the lion-tiger safari. Also option of driving down to historic caves of Kanheri is worth experiencing during monsoons. This place is most famous for two things 1. Trekking in monsoon 2. Leopards. Leopards is what interests me. I have never seen leopard in wild. However I have my own experiences of leopard and that’s why I call them ghosts.

Going back to those two memorable days, I was joined by lovely couple Mr. X and Ms Y for stay. My better half was to join us on 31st morning as she had late working Saturday. We three (myself, X & Y) checked in at forest guest house inside the park. We were allotted two rooms across VIP guest house. These rooms had a private parking, nullah (rivulet) running right behind and across nullah at lower elevation was forest department tents which has arrangement for tourists to stay with canteen facility run by locals. Each room allocated to us was very spacious and laid out 1 BHK fashion with high ceilings. Our rooms and tents below were fenced by steel mesh running upto 12 feet high.

We were hungry and needed to decide next day plan. So three of us walked down to local canteen. We grabbed some wada-pav from canteen across nullah and sipped some hot tea and discussed our plans for 31st. The sun was going below horizon thus allowing some evening winter chill to set in. We could feel chill in air, so we decided to head back to VIP guest house for early dinner. I had not expected the spine chilling experience I was going to have both nights. This wasn’t winter chill but ghost chill.

So as night evolved we chit chatted in veranda of VIP guest house. These VIP rooms are bigger and more luxurious than rooms we were allocated. It is worth mentioning that it is completely exposed to national park with no fencing and small water pond (man made) just few metres in front of it. The khansama (cook) told us that a leopard regularly visits the spot to drink water in summers and they also had seen leopard hunting deer and monkeys right across at dawn and dusk of summers. The couple with me went frantic when they heard this from Khansama and I had goose bumps. I was super excited to see if my luck favours me. I was planning to sit overnight. How crazy I was. What was i thinking… ? The leopards of my city were watching me.

Water lily in pond across VIP room

I expressed my plan to couple but in vain as they would not join my craziness plus it was very cold so I had to drop the plan. We had early dinner followed by story telling session of jungles, some more chit chat before we headed to our rooms for early sleep. The plan for next day was early morning cycling and exploration of jungle on foot and bicycle. It was worth as photographer.

I am not used to early bed times. It was around 10pm. So I engrossed myself in the setting up my camera for next day. By time I hit the bed it was midnight. The windows of the bedroom opened on the nullah side. The nullah had some water running. It was cold so i decided to close windows. The window had small cracks and crevices from where cool breeze was coming in and converting my room to deep freeze zone. I was helpless. Somehow I managed to sleep only to wake up an hour later by deer calls right behind my room across the Nullah… I knew the ghost was around!

Dry nullah (rivulets) are leopard highways!

I quickly got up from my bed. Without putting on the lights of the room, I opened the window. If I had turned on the lights, ghost might have disappeared as they are very elusive and shy. I quickly set my camera to take picture at night, and kept hand held torch in other hand. The idea was to use handheld LED torch once I see the leopard and take pic on camera from window. I completely opened the window. I could hear leaves crumpling, heard rhytming heavy breathing across nullah and deer calling frantically. I knew the ghost was walking along the nullah behind the room. The calls moved further up and based on calls I realised it had crossed my room and was heading up towards pond in front of VIP room. I headed to drawing room and opened window which had diagonal view of pond. The deer calls were on. I waited for sometime but then my patience gave way. I threw light on the pond and pugdundee connecting the nullah. The Ghost had disappeared in darkness. No further calls that night. I finally fell asleep in hope of seeing leopard on 31st Night!

Day 2, we got up early. I told couple about what happened last night. They were naive about it, they didn’t know what they heard and what it meant, so they had slept well. I had restless sleep. Looking at them I felt sometimes ignorance is also bliss. I decided to tell them about sounds of nature during day time and made them hear some audios. It was time for exploration of park on foot & cycle. We cycled for almost 3 to 4 hours inside park. By this time my better half had joined us and we continued cycling, chit chating whole day across pond, exploring filming & photographing the wilds. We also wanted to access leopard rescue centre, but been Sunday we were not permitted.The most interesting thing that happened in day time was the visit to taxidermy centre.

For photgrapher BNP is paradise!

Taxidermy was once very popular art in India and now it is alive only in BNP. Taxidermy is art of preserving dead wild animals by deep freezing them, treating them externally and internally with chemicals, filling them with different substances so that they look alive and real. The skin, eyes, teeth, bones, intestines everything is real. This art went into oblivion after trophy hunting was banned in India. Now it is done only for conservation purposes. Only handful of people in India specialise in this art and unfortunately are very poorly paid. For me these guys they are real treasure keepers of India. It was in this visit I got to see some extinct/rare species from India. I realised value of protecting our natural heritage.

Edited for effects: Palm tree across setting sun of 31st December 2017

As evening set in, we returned the cycles and sitting in veranda of VIP guest house sipping our cup of coffee. We asked khansama to prepare our dinner, it was 8pm and Mr. X decided to visit his room for some work. Our rooms was around 100m away from VIP guest house. He went to room and I continued our discussion with two ladies. Suddenly….moments later the jungle became alive, deers in front of us had tails raised, one of deer facing the nullah had one front legs raised, neck raised high trying to peep ahead.. It was posture of alertness and readiness to run. Next calls were from monkeys on trees above nullah and our room. They were jumping right and deer’s ran off. I knew the ghost was in Nullah again and might come to the pond of VIP guest house. I had disturbed him last night as well. My brain ran very quick. I had gush of adrenaline. I wondered if he was in tree’s above our rooms entire night and day watching us coming in and going out. I had goose bumps again. I knew this was my chance to see the ghost. The ghost had been watching up. But frankly speaking I was scared and excited. Calls were continuous. At this very moment we saw my friend Mr. X out of room and monkeys went into frenzy again. We were shouting, tried calling on his mobile him but we couldn’t get through. He moved towards us, crossed protective fence and he had no idea about what was happening. So we three of started walking towards him cautiously just in case Ghost charges from behind. Fortunately all went well. Jungle became quiet after sometime. We had peaceful dinner and slept at midnight after wishing each other good wishes for 2018.

And an hour later, I was again awake. Deer calls from nullah. I accepted the fact that this place is infested with leopards, who are like ghosts not to be seen. I gave up on my adventure of seeing the ghost, I knew I will not be able to see him. I got up multiple times that night thanks to monkeys and deer’s. I looked at my wife and she was fast asleep. Maybe deep inside I was wishing to see ghost so I was getting up every time I heard a alarm calls.

I realised the tribal’s living inside jungle, the khansama, the taxidermy guy they all live along peacefully with this ghost. So I concluded that this wild spirit of my city is shy & harmless, unless we disturbed and destroy their habitat. This wild spirit called – Leopard or ghost is true survivor. I still dream of seeing it in wild…living wild & free!

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