Sunday, December 2, 2012

1 Tree Hill With 1 Best Friend


MATHERAN via One Tree Hill


It was beautiful to witness the silhouette of Irshalgad and Matheran against the night sky, with the entire area drenched in the soothing light of the moon. The roads had good tree cover on either side and later bordered the huge dam of Morbe. We passed by several hamlets, with a few villas nestled cozily in the area, on our way to Borgaon. The bumpy ride from Karjat took us approx. 30 minutes in his tum-tum.


It was quarter to 6 in the morning when Maheshbhai dropped us near a bridge, a little farther than Borgaon.
On confirming about the route ahead with a local woman (She was on her way to Matheran by some other route, via Burujwadi / Daandwadi), we proceeded by foot towards Ambewadi on the tar road. It was still dark and cold but our fast paced walk kept us warm. It felt so good to converse with a best friend after so long. In the busy city life we hardly get such enjoyable moments, more so after having passed out from college!

I had contacted Maheshbhai beforehand and informed him that we would need his services to ply the five of us from Karjat to Borgaon before dawn on Sunday. He agreed. Finally, however, when I boarded the Karjat slow train at 00:05hrs, there was only one who gave me company, my best friend Vineet Kamat. We literally owned the whole compartment after we crossed Badlapur. It is delightful to experience how an ordinary railway coach turns more powerful than an AC coach when the train zooms through the countryside on a cold winter night.

We reached Karjat just past 02:00hrs and found a few empty ‘waiting’ chairs on the platform, where we tried to get some sleep. It was going to be a short stay since I had planned to start travel at 05:00hrs. Nonetheless, the frequent blaring announcements coupled with thirsty mosquitoes and the rising cold ensured I didn’t get enough sleep. Perhaps the afternoon nap I’d taken the previous day came to the rescue! With working Saturdays on, Vineet was tired and thankfully got some needed sleep.

At 04:45hrs, I called up Mr. Mahesh Thakkar. He lives nearby the railway station and operates a tum-tum (a 10 seater 3-wheeler). He first took us to his house where we had some hot tea. His auto was parked on the lane outside. It was humble to notice him worshipping the auto before starting the business for day. We left Karjat at 05:15hrs.

While we were walking on our way to Ambewadi, the love graffiti on the road surface made us laugh. Vineet was quick to notice the increased brightness of the eastern sky. There was no sign of the sun, but the horizon turned brighter due to the sun’s rays. From black and white, the Sahyadri slowly unleashed their beautiful colours. But the morning fog made the colours appear faded. The hill of Matheran as well as Irshalgad both looked like the alphabet ‘M’ (While the former was a horizontally stretched ‘M’ the latter appeared vertically stretched). It was 6:30am.


In my hope to capture the sunrise we missed a mini truck going towards Ambewadi. (Sun bun kuch naa dikha peechey pad gaye kuttey). A small dog was already following us, when we were joined by 2 more that looked fierce and rowdy. At first they scared me, but I got used to their presence by the time we reached Ambewadi (thanks to Vineet).

We were still on the tar road when a typical village scene greeted us – similar looking houses of brown colour built closely with narrow muddy paths running between them. We saw a couple of guys pulling out water from a well by the roadside. They were washing their pick-up van. Some women were shepherding the cattle and some fetched drinking water from another well, while a few others prepared to leave for their farms. There was a group of small kids chit-chatting outside their homes. What a location, one would think, a group of houses surrounded by farms, trees, lakes and mountains!

I was looking for somebody whom I could talk to. We were about to enter the village. Just then I saw a village man who seemed to notice us and I waved to him. He acknowledged and approached us. I too ventured in his direction (with the three dogs in hot pursuit).

On coming closer, I noticed he was a village youth, but definitely older than us. He had an athletic build. I told him we wanted to trek up to Matheran via The One tree hill. (Suddenly the dogs broke out into a fight and that saw the defeat of the small dog. They had to be separated by the villager.) He said, yes it can be done and asked if we needed a guide (‘Maanoos’). I said yes, sure. He said it would cost us around 300 bucks. I said okay. He looked around for someone whom he could send with us. But he found nobody and promptly decided to come along with us.

It was approximately 06:45hrs. We waited at the village school until he returned. Apparently he lived just next to the school. Now there was only 1 dog that desperately followed us. It turned out to be a female dog that we later named Brownie (because it was brown in colour and had only half a tail).

While I was happy that my overnight plan was working well and that we would be having an early start as intended, what relieved me greatly was that we got a guide quickly. The success of the trekking plan depended on finding the right routes. In spite of having basic information about the route, I thought it was prudent to hire the services of a local person, since the area was new to me and the difficulty level was unknown. I also had one of my best buddies coming with me for a trek after a long long time. And I didn’t want to disappoint him by ruining his Sunday. I still remember how I fumbled last year while attempting to climb Naneghat for the first time with my friends. We ended up nowhere! Our guide returned in just a few moments. I negotiated for 100 bucks per head and he readily agreed. He started walking. We followed him. In spite of him having the Sunday off, Ram bhau decided to venture out with the two of us.

The climb starts immediately from the village indicating that Ambewadi is situated at the very foot of the ridge/spur that connects it to Matheran. (So no walking through flat plains or farms). Being a daily visitor to Matheran, he was agile and quick. It was obviously not possible for us to match his speed. There was no point in hurrying and I announced we’d be climbing at a relaxed pace, enjoying the beauty of the natural surroundings. I also told Vineet to adopt a pace comfortable to him. On the way, Ram bhau, offered us “walking sticks”. I said why not? I’d be glad to have them. He picked out two sturdy wooden sticks from a bundle, which lay alongside a stack of hay. The villagers still follow the traditional method of gathering timber from the nearby forests to use it as a fuel as they cannot afford cooking gas.

Apart from the basic occupation of cultivating “bhaat” and “Naachni”, Ram bhau, like many others from the village, is employed at Matheran. Some run tea stalls atop, others work as labourers, said he. It is a worthwhile experience to know about the way of life of the Sahyadri villagers. They are generous people and kind enough to help out. We must respect them and their culture. Just the previous weekend, I’d returned from a gruelling trek to Karkai Dongar that involved a very long traverse. It was only due to the hospitable and helpful nature of the villagers that we’d been able to accomplish the tough trek.

Ram bhau told us the route is more enjoyable in the monsoon. He was right since the spur is a barren hill with a “gently steep slope”. But then we had the luxury of an early start. Moreover, the views were also astounding. The vast Morbe dam engulfed us from roughly three sides. The world seemed to end at the southern edge of the Morbe backwaters, just where the huge dam is built. Irshalgad and Prabalgad lay to the west. It was wonderful to spot the trekking route that connects Chowk to Varosewadi. It is one of the best monsoon walks passing through jungle and sandwiched between the mountains and the western border of Morbe. And finally we were rewarded by the amazing view of the sunrise! The views were at their panoramic best as we gained more altitude. A faint view of Manikgad was visible in the southwest direction, just beyond Irshalgad. So far we were lucky to not have bore the sun’s brunt. In fact it was a very positive feeling to be kissed by the golden rays of the sun!

For the villagers, it takes about an hour to go from bottom to top. Several women who’d started climbing after us were now far ahead. Experience says that whenever a local person states that so and so place is ‘x’ minutes away, don’t forget to convert it into your own timing, which possibly will be ‘2x’ or ‘3x’.

Legend has it that Shivaji Maharaj first climbed up Matheran on his horse by this route. And hence the route is also called “Shivaji Steps”. Then there are others who believe that Shivaji climbed Matheran from Varosewadi and call it the “Shivaji Ladder”. In my effort to clear the confusion between Shivaji Ladder & Shivaji steps, I asked Ram bhau about it, but he had no clue whatsoever.

The astonishing part of this route is that though The One Tree Hill can be viewed from the base village you won’t get to see it while climbing unless you reach the plateau located midway. A hamlet named “Nigadichi Patti” lies on this upper plateau. At 08:00hrs we made it to the plateau. We didn’t happen to cross the hamlet, since our path lay through the forest ahead. One of the main benefits of this route to a newcomer is that there are no left or right turns. It’s a straight-line walk from bottom to top. The funny thing is that in spite of this route being famous with trekkers, one may find it difficult to gather enough information from the Internet (which is a blessing in disguise actually).

Before entering the forest, we passed by a well where a herd of buffaloes were being bathed. The flat walk through the forest was calm and cool, with tall trees and dense vegetation. It’s a beaten path, wide enough in breadth and runs parallel to the wall of Matheran. It takes approximately 30 minutes to cover this patch at steady pace. There may be a possibility of finding monkeys here, but we didn’t come across any. Towards the last part of this way, a small open temple of Lord Ganesha marks the start of a climb through normal rocky steps, which will bring you out from the forest cover. The One Tree Hill is right up in front of you, to the left. To the right, stands the huge wall of Matheran. The route further, climbs up through the V in between these two. A rope connects both these points. Some adventure guys conduct valley crossing here.


And now, we came to the final patch consisting of boulders/rocks that zigzags up through a “naala”  (waterfall/gully).  The waterfall is but obviously dry in this season. We took numerous halts here. The view of the entire route was fantastic from here. By 09:10hrs, we were almost at the top when we took up a small detour that branched leftwards to take us closer to the One Tree Hill. We did not climb the One Tree Hill, but we spent our time in taking photographs of the lovely valleys standing at the edge of the mountain! We returned back to our original route and a few steps later we made it to Matheran proper. Yippee!




Ah! The soft red soil and the cool shade of the trees were so relaxing. We sat at a tea stall. There were a few visitors here, some riding on horses. All through the morning, Brownie had been following us, but we didn’t have anything to offer her. So, now it was time to feed her some biscuits, which she consumed happily. We too had some tea. We settled the guide’s dues. At about 10am, we bid a final goodbye to Ram bhau after taking a memorable photograph. Ram bhau descended via the same route. We decided to reach Bazar Peth (main market of Matheran) via the eastern edge, as I hadn’t ventured this side and was keen to explore the same. Surprisingly, Brownie decided to continue following us.

We first set out towards Chowk point, located on the southern edge of Matheran. The railing at Chowk Pt actually was visible even from Nigadichi Patti. At Chowk Pt, there was nothing new as far as the views were concerned, except that the region was glowing in a shade of white due to the sun’s heat.

As always, I have experienced the peaceful feeling of walking the tranquil paths of Matheran. To add to this, I had the company of “My Best Friend”, “Man’s Best Friend” and a walking stick. This walk was the core moment of the trek. Up till now, there was hardly any public on this route (except a few monkeys, which were shooed away by Brownie). It was most enjoyable until we happened to meet the crowds at the more renowned points. At 11:00hrs, Rambaug Pt was ‘crowded’ with families and couples. We relished eating juicy oranges I’d carried along. Within half an hour or so, we reached Alexander Pt.

From Chowk Pt to Little Chowk Pt to Rambaug Pt and further to Alexander Pt, Brownie followed us faithfully. There was a grand valley crossing (or whatever it is called technically) between Alexander Pt and Rambaug Pt – One of the longest in Matheran, the banner boasted. Here there was a big crowd, so we kind of managed to escape the alert eyes of Brownie. (Or so I liked to believe.) I feel she noticed us leaving her because on every previous occasion when I tried to sneak away from her, she’d smartly find and follow us. Perhaps she knew what she wanted or where she wished to go. Maybe she was destined to give us company only till there! I’d just seen Life Of Pi the previous day. What happened today was exactly the opposite. In the movie, the tiger never looks back after leaving Pi behind, but unlike Richard Parker, after walking a few steps ahead, I turned around and looked back, expecting Brownie to be there, but she wasn’t. I consoled myself thinking Life’s all about moving on! What this teaches us is that whether it’s an animal or human being, you must not expect anybody’s company forever. After all you have come here alone and must leave alone too. People come and go; only memories remain forever!

It was about noon. We were feeling hungry. We headed straight for Bazar Peth. We had to negotiate the horses, crowd and monkeys on the way. I had to be careful enough with my walking stick (which I was now carrying on my shoulders parallel to the ground) so that I didn’t end up hitting someone. The icing on the cake for me was that the Jain Derasar was still open. It is a blessing for a trekker to find God on his journey.  It was heavenly and cool inside the temple. I was lucky to receive God’s love. Nothing else can fill the heart of a tired trekker with more joy and happiness!

We later happened to meet Vineet’s friend from his MBA College. They were here for the weekend to celebrate a birthday. Usually, I visit hotel Radhakrishna for lunch whenever I’m in Matheran. But it had not yet opened for lunchtime. So this time we visited Ketkar’s where I chose to have Uthappas, while Vineet enjoyed Misal Pav which is a favourite dish among the Maharashtrians, esp. trekkers.

Since we had enough time, I checked whether it’d be possible for us to get a ticket in the famous mini-train. But I learnt people have to stand for hours in the queue just to book a ticket. I gave up the idea. Outside the railway station, you’ll find vendors selling corn etc. As a ritual, I had hot-buttered-sweet-corn. Additionally, this time around, I also got myself a KalaKhatta-Kairi gola. I was having one after a really long time. The hike was turning out to be real fun!

Luckily, the beautiful mini-train was stationed at the rail stop. I enjoyed capturing the colourful train in my camera. Now it was past 1pm and we had nothing more to do. We wanted to get enough relaxation before resuming office on Monday. So it was wise to return home.

We waited for Vineet’s friends and we together walked till Dasturi naka  (main entrance to Matheran beyond which vehicles are not permitted), from where we took a cab as usual to Neral Railway Station. The taxi fare has recently been raised to 70 per head from the 60 rupees earlier. Like every other time, we first reached Karjat and then caught a train back home. I reached home as early as 5pm, which is otherwise so rare, but very much possible for a place as nearer home as Matheran, especially if one plans it out well and follows the schedule punctually.

I was very happy to add one more trekking route to my experience. For me, the trekking calendar 2012 belonged to Matheran. With this latest trek, I accomplished the “feat” of having climbed Matheran from four different directions (though on three occasions I descended by taxi).