Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Matheran — The Hilltop Rainforest
What do Mumbaikars do when they want to get away from the city's noise, crowds, and pollution for a day or two? They travel to Matheran — the hill station barely a 100 kms away. That is what four of us did last Sunday.
Matheran in Marathi literally means the forest (Ran) on the hilltop (Mathe) — the hilltop forest. So named because Matheran really is nothing more than a small settlement in a rainforest at the top of one of Sahayadri's hills. In keeping with its name, Matheran is largely and densely green, smells green, and at this time of the year, nearly as warm as Mumbai.
Matheran is ecologically a sensitive zone and thankfully, the powers that be realized this and have done their best to preserve the place and its forest. Matheran is Asia's only pedestrian town; no motor vehicles are allowed inside the hill station township's limits and visitors traverse and explore this 8 sq. km hill station on foot or horses, or if you are so inclined, a few hand-pulled rickshaws. As a result, the air here is incredibly fresh and smells of leaves, with a little hint of red mud in it. There is of course the occasional whiff of horse. But there are no petrol fumes.
We traveled to Matheran the old-fashioned way. We took Central Railway's local train to Neral, which is a station near Karjat on the way to Pune. At Neral, we boarded a toy train at 8:50 AM to take us up to Matheran 11 kms away. En route, the train stops at three stations - Jummapatti, Waterpipe, and Aman Lodge and takes a leisurely two hours to reach Matheran.
The impatient types (and the ones who couldn't get a reservation on the toy train), drive to Matheran. You can also hire cabs at Neral station which take you up to Dasturi Naka in 20 minutes. Cars and other motor vehicles are not allowed beyond Dasturi Naka that is just off Aman Lodge train station. From Dasturi Naka it is a 3 km uphill trek to Matheran. One of the disadvantages of driving is that you miss the scenic route the train takes. Another is missing the quaintly named "one-kiss tunnel" that the train passes through, presumably so called because the train is in and out of the tunnel in just enough time for lovers to steal a kiss in the sudden darkness.
Matheran, being an ecologically sensitive zone, has no paved roads. Packed dirt tracks take you from one viewing point to the other which means that by the end of the day your black (or any other colored) keds are a uniform reddish-brown thanks to the red laterite soil that makes up the Sahaydris. And it is not only the shoes that are covered by the red mist . . . so are your clothes and, so are you. By evening, at the end of a day's walking around, there is enough dust on you for seedlings to express active interest in putting down roots and getting on with life on some body part or the other of yours. This dust and dirt is useful in other ways too — when you board the local train at Neral on your way back, people give you a wide berth lest they brush some of it off you. Therefore, the train might be packed in a way that is only possible in Mumbai's local trains, but you travel in some comfort.
Matheran has numerous viewing points — the trails lead to the edge of a cliff from where you see more mountain ranges, cliffs, and rivers spread out in front of you. After you are done gazing at the hills and valleys from one point, you walk all the way back, then take another trail to another viewing point, and see some more mountains and valleys. I guess it is possible for anyone even today, when most of Matheran is marked and sign-posted, to discover a cliff where no one has been yet (or at least in the last couple of weeks). To confirm if your discovery is indeed a new viewing point, check around if there is a board or a sign that has assigned a name to it. Hopefully (the chances are 1 in a billion) you won't find one. Next, look around for a "tapri" selling water, tea, and other assorted beverages within 10 feet of the point. If you draw a blank on both the counts, quickly fashion a board and give the viewing point your name. Next, leave a few more signs from the main trails directing people to your discovery. And voila, yet another viewing point in Matheran to go to and gawp from. If I am right, Matheran has over 31 official "points."
The other procedure (and not the recommended method) to have a point named after you is to throw yourself down one of them and leave behind a sufficiently dramatic and tragic story. In following the second method, people are advised to pick an obscure point. The well-known ones — Panorama, One-Tree-Hill, Sunrise and Sunset (which hill station doesn't have one of these?) and a few others are too well-established with signposts all over Matheran marking out directions and distance to them that locals and Matheran's administration wouldn't think it worth the effort to effect a name change.
We reached Matheran around 11:00 AM and after a quick bite trudged off towards One-Tree-Hill (So called because of the single tree on the mountaintop. Now a limp red flag keeps the tree company.) about three kms away from Matheran's market place. Occasionally we would halt whenever a photo-op presented itself. And there are quite a few—Horses trot or gallop around (with guys on them trying hard to look macho and as if they are in some wild-west or historical movie. The girls [ok most of them, if not all] do their best to: a) stay on the horse, b) not scream, and c) pray — and they usually seem to manage all three very competently). Monkeys occasionally climb down from branches to the trails to get a good look at you. Birds twitter teasingly, and after you have spotted them in the dense foliage, lined up your camera, adjusted the lenses, angle, and made a hazaar other adjustments, they promptly fly off just before you can click the picture. And they do not tire of this game. Neither do you.
From One-Tree-Hill, we trekked back and took one of the side trails to go to Belvedere point. Then we walked back to the main trail and to Charlotte Lake about two kms away. Charlotte Lake supplies water to Matheran and is great place to rest your feet for a bit and have sugarcane juice, ice-golas, and roasted corn-on-the-cob. Naturally, quite a few monkeys are also around for the food. Pisarnath temple stands next to the lake.
After a round of sugarcane juices and ice-golas, we started walking again, stopping en route to photograph an anthill. By that time we were feeling a bit peckish and started to look around for a place to eat. A couple of hotels that we walked into had run out of food (this was around 3 PM). Quite a few hotels in Matheran serve excellent all-you-can-eat Gujarati thalis. What this means is that quite a number of Guju folk turn up in Matheran and polish off these thalis before you can say undhiyon or farsaan. We finally had something to eat in the main market place of Matheran and followed it by sampling Chikki (sweets made of jaggery and some nuts, etc. Whole groundnuts and jaggery is the most common, but you also get crushed groundnut, coconut, sesame, chocolate, cashew, and other assorted dry fruits — most shops stock at least 10 varieties of Chikki) in different shops. Most shops will allow you to taste free samples and this is an excellent way to have dessert. We did buy some. This was followed by some ice cream. By then it was nearly 4:15 PM and we had to hurry back to the railway station for the 4:25 PM toy train back to Neral. We eventually reached Neral at around 6:15 PM. Après some nice "special chai" at one of the hotels just outside the railway station, we boarded the 6:37 PM local train to bring us back to Mumbai.
At the risk of committing sacrilege (at least in Maharashtra), I would say that Matheran still hasn't worked its charms on me (this was my second visit), though this time around it did enough to suggest that some day I might come to like the place. The primary reason, I guess would have to do with the temperature — I expect and prefer my hill-stations to be cool (and if it is not asking too much, have a pleasant breeze blowing most of the time). Matheran is about a couple of degrees cooler to Mumbai undoubtedly, but a temperature of just below 30 degrees Celsius in a rain forest and when you are walking around 10-12 kms can be feel a bit warm — which is how I found it.
Hotels and much else in Matheran are on the expensive side. Since no mechanized transport is available, porters and horses transport goods and these are costly. Everything as a result is at a premium. Matheran can also get crowded in season (October-November, March-June) with its close proximity to Mumbai and Pune. Yesterday, it wasn't that crowded but whenever we came across a group determinedly trying to have "fun" by screaming at the top of their voices or singing tunelessly (and loudly) and generally making a lot of noise, I couldn't help fantasizing how wonderful it would be to throw all of them down one of Matheran's cliffs one by one and how sweet would be the sound they would make on their way down to meet their maker (Alas!).
Dust is ubiquitous in Matheran. But while it is not something I like, I realize that dirt trails are needed for the numerous horses that are used for transport in Matheran. Also, the mud trails make Matheran a walker's paradise. You could walk on and on and it is largely easy on your feet — and I love going on long walks. Ideally, you should go to this hill station for 2-3 days and walk around from morning to dusk.
I guess a part of my crib against Matheran is largely my fault. It was (as with most of the places in Maharashtra) just a wrong time to visit the place. By February and early March, you are looking at a dry, yellow, and brown landscape. There is much dust in the air. So you trek all the way to a point and there is just so much shimmering haze in the air that most of the view is blurred. Maharashtra is at its most beautiful and green in the rains and just after. Matheran, I could guess must be a paradise in the rains (if you can ignore a bit of slushy mud). I plan to make a visit this monsoon. From what I gathered by talking to the locals, there are hardly any tourists on weekdays during the monsoons (weekends are packed these days with the craze for monsoon picnics) and everything is fresh and green and smells heavenly. Then, in the rains, Matheran will be a lovelier place and it would be wonderful to walk from viewing point to another (or even aimlessly) soaking in the rainforest's greenness. And that is when I think I will fall in love with this hill station.
Matheran: Photoset /Slideshow
Other places worth visiting in Maharashtra:
Malshej Ghat / Ashtavinayak / Tuljapur-Kolhapur-Panhala / Mahabaleshwar-Pratapgad