Ah yes, once that we’ve summited Matheran, a very different environment confronts you all at once. All along, the forest along the rocky crags was sparse, and a few hoary trees stood guard, bravely fighting off the wind, and nothing more than grass and shrubbery seemed to dominate the landscape. But Matheran? It’s quite a world apart from the world we’ve just come from!
But none of it matters or comes to be seen, except a small shack at a corner of the One Tree Hill point. It’s been raining hard, and it still is, the bones have gone numb with exposure and cold, and you can barely feel the rain hitting your skin
“Tea…” the call goes up almost like a whisper, spoken in hush hush tones or heard from a distance. Nothing’s confirmed until you come across a few other pilgrims of adventure as yourself enjoying the elixir in its most potent form, in a humble plastic cup or a steel glass. Now, the whisper becomes a fully drawn cry, and every throat around you, including you, and me both scream hoarse for a cuppa tea!
The beauty of life is in the simplest of things, and it’s these simple pleasures that make life worth living. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a cup of tea served in a China dish, served by a waiter, who’d pour the tea from a kettle and cup set complete with a tea cosy at a fancy restaurant, but this humble man’s tea served in the meanest of vessels tastes almost like nectar. Why so? I guess it’s the simple pleasures of life we take for granted, and once in a while when we put ourselves in a place far from what we’d call civilization, that’s where we realize the importance of these pleasures…
Enough of these tea table talk, already two cups have gone in. You don’t want to drink anymore lest you feel like contributing water to the environment around you (my bad, a poor joke indeed!) It’s time to buck up and start walking toward the heart of Matheran, for that’s where our exit path lies as well.
The market is 2.5 kilometers walking from the point where you are at the moment. Matheran as we know it was discovered by an English gentleman, Hugh Poyntz Malet somewhere in the early half of the 19th century. Soon enough it became the hill station of choice for most people who called Bombay home. Beginning from those days when lodging was hard to come by upto today where a rock thrown randomly might hit the shutters of a hotel, Matheran has seen much transition. Thankfully cars and plastic are banned in the hill station and thus the place is still able to maintain its charm and life.
Wildlife in the form of animals was never too prolific on the plateau, but I’ve come across a Barking Deer, the Malabar Giant Squirrel and the rare Tree Shrew. Of course, there are predators as well, but none other than panthers who prowl along the slopes of the plateau preying on livestock and dogs that inhabit the villages along the foothills or the slopes of the mountain.
As we trudge along, to your right side you see a signboard that reads “The Byke”. This gaudy looking hotel was once the first building to be built on the plateau, by none other than Malet himself. By God, he’d be whirling in his grave at the sight of his beloved villa being turned into a hotel!
The crowds are bustling in the market, and the place is abuzz with animals, yes we’ve got horses here, all for the riding pleasure of the rich or the weak who cannot walk. Of course, it all comes for a fee! There are more people here on a weekend, specially a monsoon weekend than any other time of the year. Earlier, Matheran was closed during the rains for repairs and maintenance of the hotels, but now, excellent marketing, adventure tourism and public opinion have made the ‘dry’ season yet another bounty season for the hotel lobby here.
Just round the corner, behind the Matheran toy-train railway station is a small shed unnoticed by most people. I come to Matheran very often, but never stay in a hotel. If it’s the question of a night’s stay, this place should do just about good enough. Shelter from the elements and a clean floor, and very little mosquitoes, this place is better than a hotel, and all this for nothing!
Matheran has nothing to offer for those without a sweet tooth! Crushed groundnuts and jaggery (unrefined sugar made from sugarcane juice) are boiled together to prepare a confectionary called “Chikki”. Along with this “Chikki” competing for fame is the “Chocolate Fudge” of Matheran. Otherwise the food’s just too city like to be called unique to Matheran. Well, we’ve got to trek on, lest the sun set on us.
Three kilometers straight marching from the Matheran market leads to the car park where the limits of the hill station end. Just before this endpoint, a small yet conspicuous trail can be observed on the right hand side of the road. The road itself is made of nothing more than a few paving blocks covered in the red Matheran soil, the trail offers the comfort of walking on leaf litter and zero paving blocks. As we proceed a few meters off the beaten path along the trail, the forest becomes quieter and quieter until the only vocal being in the vicinity other than us is a lone eagle soaring high in the sky, screaming as it circles the mountain from high up above. This trail is no secret getaway! Indeed, the locals climb up to Matheran via this trail among many others to reach Matheran with basic commodities like fruits, milk, vegetables and other common wares. Many of Matheran’s traders are commuters who climb up the mountain only during the weekends and the tourist season. Otherwise, they’re farmers working either on their own land or cultivating crops on someone else’s as a seasonal labourer. Don’t be surprised if you see young children climbing up difficult passages on the steep mountain slope carrying small pots of buttermilk and/or milk for the comfort and pleasure of us city slickers who’re ready to pay a small sum for this “luxury”. Ah, life’s a bitch, but hey, that’s another story!
30 minutes of straight walking and the forest suddenly opens up at a rocky ledge. Far below visible only as small specks are villages, and the descent seems daunting. To add to the spice, there’s a strong wind blowing threatening to send hurtling to the bottom anyone who’s careless with how they stand. Welcome to Garbut Point. Scenic locations in Matheran are labeled as points, and this is one of them. For the average tourist, enjoying the view from the point is fun. Braving the elements to descend down to the village and finally exit from there, that’s our idea of fun!
The rocks are smooth and polished due to moss and lichens growing on them, and coupled with water these can become deadly for any trekker who dares tread on them. That’s because very few shoes ever grip on rocks polished with moss like this, but a quick eye and a firm footing means we’d be doing just fine. The initial descent is via a sharp ledge running along the rock face, and balancing precariously, we manage to make our way down until we reach a plateau. The mountains in the Sahyadri range are terraced in this fashion. The Sahyadri are a subset of the mighty Western Ghats which snake down along the western coast of India, beginning from the Dangs district of Gujarat and ending at Anaimudi at the confluence of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Indeed there’s no sport to parallel trekking, rock climbing and mountaineering in terms of sheer adventure and the risks involved. The terraced plateaus are open and exposed to the wind and the rain. The rain begins pouring down in sheets, and fueled by the wind, comes down like sharp pellets, coming in waves. It’s literally impossible to open your eyes and see because the rain drops hurt, and the eyes are aflame because of the impact of the water droplets. The rain batters down hard and visibility is at zero. Yet we have to move on and descend down the tricky patches of rock before it gets dark. After a while, God knows how long, the rains stop and for a moment, there’s just a cool breeze drying your soaked clothes. Wow, it sure does feel like heaven! And there you have the final rock patch to negotiate before a steep but straight slope downhill.
Imagine climbing down a forty storey building via the fire escape, when the ladder’s broken, and a howling wind’s threatening to send you off the bottom, and you’ll have some idea of how it feels to climb down the rocky patch down from Garbut Point.
Mossy rock, unsteady feet because you’re looking out for footholds and try to balance by hugging the rocks or finding a handhold. A handhold or foothold in the rocks for the uninitiated is a crack or a fissure in the rock which allows sufficient area to balance your body as you climb up or descend from mountain. The holds are absolutely vital in places where the ground’s not level, and your life and limb depend on how good or bad is the hold. On remote forts, you may run into some unpleasant surprises in the holds. Small reptiles and animals often make home in the rocks and the cracks and fissures provide ample area for them to live. I was once bitten by a small land crab that had taken up residence in a hand hold!
The best way to negotiate the descent is move quickly, hang on tight, identify another foothold and handhold, and move on. At this critical juncture, the wind begins to blow hard, and we’re running the risk of losing balance, because only one hand and one foot are lodged and the rest of the body is free in the air! Wow, that’s quite something, isn’t it? People often talk about death and dying, are the ones who hang on tightly, and scream in terror when they face the prospect of falling. Yes, trekking can be an enlightening experience indeed!
Twenty minutes of stiff climbing and we’re over with the adventurous part of the trek! Now what? Just a long march upto the railway station past the village and head back to Mumbai, 90 kilometers from here.