(Disclaimer to my companions - Take a Chill Pill)
Some travel plans are born out of utter boredom and this was one such trip when I pestered and convinced two friends to leave the Maximum city (with me of course) for two days and travel to one of the favorite weekend destinations of Mumbaikars. So here we were - 3 girls - ready for an absolutely unplanned trip to the presumably haunted hill station - Matheran.
Day 1, April 5th, 2012, Thursday: Consecutive holidays are always appreciated by office goers and this day was Mahavir Jayanti, followed by a very Good Friday. This was the first time I was travelling beyond Thane. We boarded a morning Karjat local and got down at Neral station. The look of the toy train brought a big smile to our faces, so we immediately reserved three seats on that. The heritage locomotive looked just like a toy (of course!!) and jerked every time someone boarded it. Our train was scheduled to depart at 10:30 a.m, however when there was no sign of it to start, we struck up a Plan B - To trek up till Matheran following the train track. The distance from Neral to Matheran by train is 21 km and that meant we had to prepare ourselves for an elevated half marathon on a scorching April day. Thanks to our stars, the train jerked into motion close to 12:00 p.m. right when we were about to deboard it. We soon realized we could have walked faster than the train, as it chugged slowly, dragging itself on the slopes. At one point we got down from the moving train to click pictures of the valley and then boarded it again while it was in motion.
It completed the supposed one hour journey in 2.5 hours and dropped us at the Matheran bazaar (Advice No. 1 - Travel by this toy train only if you have the patience to sit through the painfully slow journey. Rather you can take a share cab till Dasturi point and hike from there. Or you may just implement our Plan B). We paid the Rs. 40 entry fee at the station exit and entered the hill town. The moment we stepped out of the station, we were surrounded by hotel brokers. We, however, decided to explore ourselves and started walking towards the town.
Shikha ('The Lovelorn') had just got into a new relationship and Mr. Boyfriend was returning to Mumbai on the same day, after a week long leave. The pleas of Shikha started soon after - to change the overnight plan into a day trip. But considering the fact that we reached Matheran past midday, the idea was rejected as soon as it was voiced out. Before she came up with further devastating ideas, we checked into a decent looking hotel at the other end of the bazaar, very close to Khandala point. To add to Shikha's boyfriend-plight, she had forgotten to carry her mobile charger. Now how was she going to communicate with Mr. Boyfriend? So while we indulged in a power nap after some room-service-lunch, Shikha went charger hunting and managed to buy a multi mobile charger from a local shop.
By 4:30 p.m. we were all set to explore Matheran (Finally!!!). For those who don't know - vehicles are banned inside Matheran; so you either walk or ride a horse or a hand pulled rickshaw. We went for option 2 and hired three horses - along came Sameer, the 'ghora-walla' (Advice No. 2 - Bargain as much as you can with the horse owners). Shikha mounted the mahogony colored Mahaan from a mounting rock since he was the highest. Ria, our third musketeer, chose Zorro - the most calm one, since she was scared of falling off the horse. And I rode the most trained horse among the trio - Raj. Naam to suna hoga???
Sameer walked beside the horses holding the reins, while he took us to various points - Khandala point, Echo point, Lord's point, Honeymoon point - to name a few. We had to walk through forested trails to reach most of the points and all of them provided exceptional views of the surrounding hills and valleys.
|View from a certain point|
Raj, being a trained horse and his owner realizing that I have some basic equestrian skills, handed the rein to me for controlling the horse. I was comfortable with Raj maintaining his working trot in that uneven terrain and he responded to direct reining, i.e he turned left when I pulled the left rein and nudged him behind the girth with my right leg and vice versa. Mahan turned out to be a stud who strayed off (with Shikha on his back) every time he saw a mare, and Zorro got pretty annoyed by Ria's occasional screams and the parody she composed while riding him-
"Short ride jayenge, Slow speed jayenge, Ruk-ruk ke jayenge hum...Chikhna chillana, Darna rona - Ghode pe karenge sanam (Pom pom)"
At Honeymoon point, we encountered a Valley Crossing setup where you can cross a 1200 feet deep valley - just hanging on a rope, and land up at Louisa point on the other side. We waited for our turn as another group was preparing to cross. Seeing each guy of that group zooming across the 900 ft. long valley set the adrenaline pumping. When finally our turn came, Ria backed out. All our attempts of pep talk was wasted since we could not convince her to do it. So it was decided that she will wait with the three horses at Louisa point since the crossing was one-way. First Shikha went and then suddenly it was me standing on the edge, getting strapped into the harness and safety belts. My heart raced faster than it used to race during those MBA campus interviews. As the safety belt was strapped to the rope, I was asked to let go off the belt and let my hands fall loose beside me (I was unconsciously holding onto it as if it was my lifeline). As I let go off the belt I slid ahead - so much ahead that my feet left the edge and the nearest ground was 1200 ft below. After that it was like flying and I screamed my heart out, not out of fear but ecstatically.
|Yeah that's me!!!|
'Darr ke aage Jeet hai...'. The words echoed in my year as I zoomed across the U shaped valley. Before I was satiated, I landed at Louisa point. We had paid Rs. 400 each to risk our lives and it was every bit worth it. It is an once in a lifetime experience and you should never miss it if you are at Matheran.
We followed the beaten trail and made our way through the forest towards the road. And did I mention that the forests of Matheran look haunted. Well it does. At one point, we thought we were on the wrong track, but soon enough we heard voices and saw the road at an elevation. And lo! there was Ria, just as she had promised. We trotted back to King George point, basking in the glory of our achieved feat and telling Ria what she had missed. We stayed at this point for sometime to watch the sunset.
|Karlo Suraj Mutthi Mein!!|
While going back to our starting point, I tried riding Raj at a cantering pace. Cantering is a gait slower than a gallop, but faster than a trot (Please DO NOT try this at Matheran if you are new to horse riding). Considering the uneven terrains of Matheran, we soon transitioned back to our earlier pace. When we finally reached the main market, I attracted a lot of stares from passersby since reins are seldom controlled by anyone except the horse owners, and to add to that I was a woman. The market was a busy area full of tourists, horses with their owners and those single-seater hand pulled rickshaws. It was getting tough to ride through the crowd so we decided to say farewell to our horses. I had come to know from Sameer that Raj loves chocolate so I fed him an entire bar of Diary Milk before saying goodbye. We paid up the owner and started exploring the bazaar on foot.
There were shops selling kolhapuri chappals, chikki, home made fudges, handicrafts and what not. There were restaurants serving various cuisines - from dosa to Gujarati thalis. We bought chikkis and fudges to our heart's content, checked out various trinkets that were on sale, had dinner at a Gujarati bhojanalaya and then finally started walking back to our hotel. The moment we left the market area, everything was quite and dark again.
When I clicked the above picture, I almost expected to spot a third face in it. The place might not be haunted, but it does have a look and feel that adds to the effect. Every silhouette looked spooky. A cricket was chirping somewhere close by and the sole sound of it in the dark caused goosebumps. We passed a few quaint British style bungalows on our way, most of which seemed to be deserted and ghostly. But we did manage to reach our hotel without any supernatural being springing at us from behind the tress (pun obviously intended).
|A ghostly Bangla|
Day 2, April 6th, 2012, Friday: The morning started with another set of wails from Ria. Apparently her Nokia had stopped working after getting charged through the multi charger and she wanted to "immediately" return to Mumbai to repair the phone. Meet the Nomophobic (Nomophobia is an abbreviation for No Mobile Phone Phobia).
After a lot of persuasion, it was decided we would leave Matheran not before midday. And we had time till then to explore more on foot. The first thing we did after checking out from the hotel was to hunt for the one and only ATM of this town to withdraw some money (Advice No. 3 - Don't rely on this ATM since sometimes it fails to dispense the much needed cash). Post that we had breakfast at an Udupi restaurant and then hiked towards the Charlotte lake. Even in daylight, the jungle looked spooky and we kept getting the feeling that someone is constantly watching us.
We were particularly keen on finding the 'The Verandah in the Forest' - a heritage bungalow, that has been turned into a hotel by the Neemrana Group. We soon left the horse trodden path and entered a walking trail that descended in the direction of the lake. We passed many colonial bungalows or rather their relics. We never reached the lake though, but we did find the much famed Verandah.
The entrance to the bungalow has an old (read intimidating) gate covered with moss and it was just enough for the sake of a boundary. Barr House, as it was previously called, was named after one certain Captain Barr who had built the bungalow in that bygone era. The walk back from there turned further eerie since we took many wrong turns and almost considered ourselves lost inside the forest.
We found many dilapidated bungalows on that route, each inviting us for some exploration (and trespassing as well). When we were finally back on the horse trail (much to the delight of both my companions), we had had enough of walking and decided to hire horses till Dasturi point. It was almost as hot as Mumbai (Advice No. 4 - Try avoiding Matheran anytime during the summers). And this time the 11 km ride on horseback till Dasturi Naka wasn't really comfortable. I realized a rider really needs to connect with the horse for a successful ride. We took a share cab from Dasturi pt. till Neral and from there it was 'Mumbai local zindabad'. The sight of our shoes, after we were back at Mumbai, left us gaping. They had turned rusty red in color, all thanks to the laterite soil of Matheran. (Advice No. 5 - do carry a pair of good walking shoes which are preferably not white in color)
Last, but not the least - Don't let one relationship consume other parts of your life. And more than that, don't let an electronic device or the virtual space consume every part of your life. When you are at one such amazing place, take a break, live in the moment and fill your lungs with as much good oxygen as you can, for it is hard to get in our cities. And stop typing that status message!, for an ephemeral breathtaking moment might just slip under your nose - unnoticed.
P.S. - As for Ms. Nomophobic, she owns an iPhone 5 now.
And Mrs. Lovelorn is happy with her boyfriend-turned-Mr. Husband!
, by Sanghita Nandi