Last Saturday, along with a couple of friends, I visited what probably is Mumbai's favorite hill-station: Matheran. All of us have been jaded (and generally tired) for some time now. We had been discussing for a couple of weeks, about visiting Matheran for a day trip. The plan actually was finalized on Friday. Saturday morning I boarded a train from Ambernath (where I stay) to Neral (which is the staging town for Matheran) at 8.00. My friends, for once had a sampling of my daily commute. They had boarded the train earlier. By 8:45 we were in Neral and after a wonderful breakfast of Vada-Pav chased down with tea, we took a cab to Dasturi Naka - about 9 km away.
Matheran is a pedestrian-only hill-station covered in a thick rain forest (mathe – head, ran – forest, so Matheran, in Marathi, is literally the hill top forest) on one of the mountains that constitute the Sahaydri range. One has to walk everywhere within Matheran and most of these walks, naturally are either uphill or downhill. Horses are available for the lazy who prefer to be ferried everywhere on somebody else's horsepower, but the three of us preferred walking. We walked about 15 km that Saturday, through thick rain forest and heavy mists.
Matheran is usually crowded and noisy given its proximity to Mumbai. But we were lucky — we went a weekend after the 15th August Independence Day weekend and a day before the Ganapati festival commenced. Along with the swine flu scare, this timing ensured that the hill-station had virtually no crowds. We could walk peacefully; take our time to admire the forest and the dense grass and other vegetation that had sprung up in the rains. We could take it easy at Matheran's various (viewing) points and take pictures without being jostled or without having any unnecessary primates entering the frame.
We visited three points. The first on our itinerary was Panorama point which is about a 6 km trek to and from Dasturi Naka. This took most of our early morning. The pathway to Panorama is bordered by cliffs on one side which in this season are covered with thick vegetation. The other side belongs to the deep forest. From the valley side, at this time of the year, mists keep rolling in and visibility is often poor. It is eerie and thrilling — all you see is a bit of the pathway and the dripping trees. Your feet naturally never stray from the middle of the path when the mist rolls in. At the end of the trek you reach a point with valleys on all three sides of you and lovely views. In front of you, are a couple of peaks one of which has an old dilapidated fort. On one side, you can make out a huge lake and a few streams in the valley along with scattered villages. The other side provides a further glimpse of another of the Sahaydri valleys and a small portion of Neral. Panorama is incidentally at one end of Matheran and so hardly gets any crowds.
After returning to Dasturi, we trekked to Matheran proper. That is a 3 km walk that takes you past Aman Lodge - one of the stations along the Matheran toy train railway — and eventually deposits you at Bazarpeth. This is Central Matheran and has its market. The Bazarpeth, incidentally, has Matheran's has only stretch of cobbled road (this is a recent development) otherwise all the roads in Matheran are of packed earth.
On our way to Matheran's Bazarpeth we spotted a snake — a du-tondi — (du - prefix for two, tondi - face) 2-faced one. This snake's tail also looks likes its head and hence the belief that it has two heads. After the little fellow posed for a few pictures, we continued on our way. Around 12:15 PM we found ourselves on Matheran's main street and extremely hungry. A small "tapri" offered to cook lunch for us provided we were willing to wait for 20 minutes. We were. As we waited, thick mists suddenly rolled in from the valley. Actually I don't know if we can call it a mist. Think of it more as a huge bunch of clouds that funneled themselves up through the valley using the wind and then blew into Matheran. Visibility was suddenly reduced to a few feet. As the mist/cloud rolled in and piled thicker and thicker it suddenly started to pour. Heavily. We had our lunch watching the rain cascade down. By the time we finished our lunch, the rain had reduced to a drizzle and we set forth in the rain.
The drizzle soon stopped however and the jungle started steaming. In midst of this we were squelching our way to One-Tree Hill which is about a 2.5 km trek from Matheran's Bazarpeth. Matheran was established by the British and has numerous bungalows which are reminiscent of the Raj. Many of these border the pathway to One-Tree Hill. Most of these are now abandoned and dilapidated and look like something out of a horror movie. The forest has claimed most of the estates. Thick trees now grow all over their gardens. The bungalows themselves are totally covered with moss and some have bits that have caved in. Often all that is left of an estate is the entrance, and a nameplate carved in stone. As we walked towards One-Tree Hill we suddenly came across an entrance which proclaimed that the bungalow was "The Homestead" and that it was the estate of Sir Ratan Tata. Being employees of the Tata group we were naturally curious and intrigued to see the illustrious name in Matheran. A board above the entrance proclaimed that it was a convalescent home. We entered the estate to find a sprawling ruin, boarded up, partly caved in and now overgrown with trees and moss and creepers. We found a small outhouse which had a caretaker and his family and struck a conversation with him. We introduced ourselves as Tata employees. He confirmed that the estate belonged to the Tata group. It was formerly used as a convalescent home for Tata trustees and employees. But the estate was closed 15 years ago. Now sometimes somebody from the Tata Trust visits about once a year, walks around, asks the caretaker if he needs anything in particular and then returns. The caretaker said that there was some rumor and discussion about the Tatas converting it to a hotel/resort (it really is a huge estate) but nothing materialized of it. It was sad to see the estate reducing itself to a ruin. We came out of the estate and continued our journey to One-Tree Hill.
One-Tree Hill is again at one end of a cliff. You descend from the pathway and then make your way further down along the edge of a very slippery cliff. I slipped once but unfortunately didn't go all the way down. After you negotiate this path, and shoo away the monkeys chittering at you further along the pathway, you climb up a wee bit to reach a small hilltop. You are now face to face with a huge stone cliff on the top of which used to stand a solitary tree. Hence the name of the hill. Now the original tree is gone and a new one is growing in its place but it will be sometime before the present One- (work in progress) Tree Hill does justice to its name again. There is a small pathway that goes up that cliff. But everything was so covered with moss that after some debate we decided to abort any plans of actually getting on to One-Tree Hill. So there we were — Standing on one hill top and gazing at another in front of us. Behind us was the slippery climb up back to the pathway. On either side of us were deep valleys. We did the prudent thing — walk around the edges of the cliff that we were standing on and admire the view. The view looks down on the catchment area of a dam (probably Malavali dam) on one side. So you see this huge lake spread out for you. On the other side you see a deep valley and far away down some fields and a few houses. There is a lone rock which sort of hangs in the air from the cliff and over the valley. A slippery trail goes to it, the kind of trail where if you don't stop yourself in time you would take the quick way down to the base of the hills that have Matheran as their crowning glory. So we sat there for some time, took a few pictures and then decided to get back to the pathway. After a few minutes of careful and strenuous climbing and a few incidents of losing our footing, we were back on the pathway.
By this time it was nearly 4.00 PM. We were thirsty but found that we had exhausted all our water. So we decided to make a beeline to Charlotte Lake. This supplies water to Matheran and has a small temple at one end along with a couple of small stalls selling tea, corn on the cob, etc. The way to it Charlotte Lake from One-Tree Hill is lovely. The pathway is covered in thick dark forest. The little light that filters in through the leaves makes everything look green. In the monsoon, with water droplets glistening on the leaves everything looks a sort of liquid green.
We eventually reached Charlotte Lake and stopped at a stall for tea and water. The stall has been adopted by a couple of stray dogs one of who took a liking to me. For the 20 minutes or so that we were there, this dog would insist that I scratch its head, ears, and throat. If I stopped it would lick my hand and then nudge it with its nose. The dog would keep this up till I gave in and started again. When we finally decided to make a move, it gave me a mournful look which sort of conveyed what it thought of me - What an idiot you are! Walking through km of rain forest when you could sit here and scratch my head! - It then gave my hand a farewell lick and very philosophically sat down and curled itself back to sleep.
We then started trekking back. By this time it was around 5.00 PM and the light was getting murkier. We had to get back to Dasturi to head back home. This meant first walking back to Matheran's Bazarpeth - about 2 km away. From Bazarpeth it is another 3–4 km to Dasturi. We decided this time to walk along the toy train railway tracks (the train doesn't run in the rains due to landslides etc). A part of the railway tracks has a valley on one side and it is a nice walk downhill along the cliff edge. At some spots, where there is a bit of extra space alongside the tracks, the locals have set up small stalls. We stopped at one such "tapri" for another round of tea. Eventually we reached Aman Lodge — the station closest to Dasturi. From there we moved off the tracks and walked to Dasturi Naka. From Dasturi we again took a cab and were in Neral around 6:30 PM. Soon enough (after a quick snack) we boarded our train and I reached home around 7:45 PM.
I have been to Matheran twice before and each time I have found that I hated the crowds and the dust. I have never really liked Matheran earlier. On my last visit, last year I did feel that a monsoon visit might change my mind about this place. Matheran in the monsoon was a nice experience. I think it helped that we were there on a day when there was absolutely no crowd. It is in this that I realized how nice this place can be especially at this time of the year. It offers a lot of solitude. The air is nice and fresh; the forests are green and lovely (even the trees are covered with green moss) and apart from your conversation or the occasional whinny of a horse or the gust of wind in the treetops there are no noise. Maybe that is what it takes to like this place. On our way back we contemplated if we should bunk office on a couple of weekdays and stay in Matheran and explore some of it by night. And the rest of it, which we haven't visited yet, by day. I guess that will have to wait till the next monsoon.
Earlier post on Matheran: Matheran: The Hilltop Rainforest