Despite being one of the few major national parks in the world located within a city, Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park remains something of a mystery to vast swathes of the city’s population. But the 103 sq. km park, among those with the highest density of leopards in the country, is a constant source of delight for nature lovers.

Take, for example, the restricted zone known as Shilonda Trail. Best explored with the help of a naturalist, this 4km trail opens only twice a year—in January and during the monsoon (June-September).

It begins with a sparse bit of scrubland, lush right now. This season is, in fact, the best time to visit Shilonda. Each week brings with it plants, flowers, birds, animals and insects that are rarely sighted for the rest of the year. If you’re accompanied by a guide, you can even expect to spot the occasional leopard pug mark.

“One often hears calls from bolting chitals (deer) and birds, signalling the presence of a big cat in the radius. I can guarantee the leopards must have seen us way more times than we have seen them," says naturalist Nikit Surve, who conducts a guided exploration of the trail for city-based cycling and adventure company Mumbai Riders. Surve also conducted the first scientific census of leopards in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in 2015-16. According to it, there are 40 leopards, or one for every 2.6 sq. km, in the park.

Rishi Shah, the co-founder of Mumbai Riders, says: “When I realized what Shilonda offers, we immediately collaborated with Nikit for it. Up to 80% of our participants haven’t stepped into the national park before, let alone a restricted trail. It’s overwhelming to see their happy faces. The kids are the most curious lot of all, even during a downpour."

Some of the rare flora includes cup and saucer plants, lilies, and haldu trees. These attract a variety of birds, from the more commonly seen flowerpeckers to the comparatively exotic racket-tailed drongos, as well as bhardwajs and bulbuls. Some trails throw up captivating sights, like a caterpillar spinning itself a cocoon, or a mongoose scampering near a stream that often swells up during the monsoon.

“After years of research, the forest never fails to amaze me with the constant change over the monsoon months. Each time I’m here, it has something new to offer, quite distinct from the non-monsoon months," says Surve.

Trail tips

Wear clothes in quick-dry fabric if you want to take a quick dip in the stream or avoid walking in the rain drenched.

Carry water (plastic bottles aren’t allowed), some light snacks and mosquito repellent.

Nikit Surve will be conducting the Shilonda Trail for Mumbai Riders on 22 and 29 July and 12 August. For bookings, call the park office at 022-28868686 between 7.30am-5.30pm. For more details, visit Facebook.com/mumbairiders.mr.

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