“Sir! Wake up, Sir! We are here!”
Jaffer, was frantically tapping on my knee, from the driver’s seat.
“Sir, we are in Neral!”
“Neral aa gaya sahab. Jana nahin kya?”
I slowly got up from the backseat, unplugged my iPod, wiped away drool off the seat, and slowly stumbled out of the car. Even though, I was still half asleep, I could see that Jaffer was smiling.
We had started from Mumbai at around 6 am and it was almost 7.45 am now. Jaffer had brought us here in record time. I hated him for that.
“The train has been cancelled, you have to take one of the local taxis to Matheran.”
“How do you know?” I asked, as I splashed some water on my face, trying desperately to be awake. Getting up at 5.30 am was way too early for me.
“I asked the people outside the station. They said morning trains have been cancelled.”
“When did you go to the station?”
“Aap so rahe the sahab.” He said, smiling.
There were five or six Maruti Omnis parked at the taxi stand. Even though, motor vehicles are not allowed inside Matheran, these taxis took visitors till the entry gates. From there, visitors had to purchase tickets, and hike all the way up to Matheran. The hike can take about thirty minutes to an hour, depending upon your fitness level. Horse rides are also available.
“Do you want me to come with you, sir?”
“Okay. Call me when you come back to Neral. I’ll park somewhere near the station.”
I have known Jaffer for about 10 days now, and even though he is a nice guy, and a really good driver, he had an annoying squeaky voice, which doesn’t really cheer up a sleep deprived guy.
It took about 20 minutes and 70 bucks to get to the entry gates. The breathtaking scenery did what the mineral water couldn’t. I was wide awake by the time I reached the entry gates.
My boots turned crimson, thanks to the red soil, as me and other visitors who opted to hike, followed the rail tracks and after about half an hour, we reached Matheran.
Matheran is a nice weekend gateway from the craziness of Mumbai. There are shops, resorts, cottages, and restaurants in the market area near the railway station. The main reason for its popularity though is the forest. It is dotted with points offering beautiful views of the neighbouring mountains and the city below. Monsoon is the best time to come here, when there are butterflies, and greenery around.
Even though, I was visiting in the off season, the main market was buzzing with people. This buzz was only going to get louder as the day progressed.
Since, it was early in the day and the weather was still quite pleasant, I decided to enter the forest. I had seen pictures of the Louisa Point and wanted to go there before the others did.
Now when I say forest, I don’t actually mean it in the traditional sense of the term because there are so many hotels, villas and houses in it. There are marked trails and frequently you see other visitors, or villagers roaming around. So, it is not exactly wilderness.
But for a geographically challenged guy from Delhi, it is a big deal, especially, when he is exploring it alone. I walked along the trail; the red Matheran soil all over my boot, looking out for mean looking rocks.
I remembered this article that I read before coming here which warned the visitors of wild dogs, monkeys and snakes. I had asked a couple of taxi drivers near the gates, and they said there were no wild dogs.
“They may bark at you. Maybe even bite you if you make them angry. But they are not wild.” One of the taxi drivers said sincerely while sipping his small glass of cutting chai.
Good to know.
At first, the trails seemed properly marked as I walked towards the Louisa Point. But soon I started finding myself standing with two paths in front of me, going in different directions, wondering which one to follow.
There was no one else in sight, which was kind of nice. The tree leaves had dried up and the trails were covered with them. They made this crunchy sound when I stepped on them, like someone was opening a bag of potato chips.
It was getting hotter but I didn’t mind because the trees were protecting me from the sunlight. I came across a few small households, which had a few chickens running around in its porch. The villagers seemed quite friendly as they smiled and the kids waved as I walked past their house.
After about half an hour of walking, I found this small clearing with a wonderful view. I think they call it the “Coronation Point”, but since I was so hopelessly lost, I can’t be sure. I decided to sit there for a while, listen to music, take a few pictures and drink some lukewarm water. It seemed that I had the forest all to myself. The rustle of the fallen leaves, and bird calls were the only sounds that seemed to be out there.
After about half an hour, I decided to start walking again. I wanted to reach Louisa Point but I didn’t know the way. I was getting hungry too. Had this sudden craving for potato chips.
Stupid dry leaves!
It seemed that I was in the quieter part of the forest as there were far less old villas and hotels around. I had this stupid feeling that I was being followed by a wolf that was just waiting for the opportune moment to pounce on me.
I would look back every now and then, and see nothing. But every time I took a step, I would hear another sound. All of a sudden, the protective shade of the trees seemed to have vanished as I started sweating.
(I would realise later that the sound was coming from the half empty bottle of water in my backpack. “Ofcourse… Why would a wolf follow me? Was it waiting for me to drop dead on my own?” )
Anyway in this state of irrational nervousness, I saw a long white tail dangling from a tree. It was a langur. And a big one. It was busy eating leaves or whatever it is monkeys do. There were no other detours or side paths, so I knew I had to go past him.
There was no one else around, so I thought my presence may surprise him. Also, Langurs can jump well, so I knew I had to be quick or he might jump on my head and beat me up.
Yes, I was afraid I’ll be beaten up by that langur. I imagined myself lying flat on the dry leaves, with the langur on top of me, slapping me, scratching me.
But, I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to visit Louisa Point which I truly believed was on the other side of the tree that the Langur was sitting on.
So, I took a deep breath, counted three and ran…
I ran till I was well outside his “jump radius”, as I called it. I looked back once I was at a safe distance. He was staring straight at me, but not in a scary way. He seemed so innocent, almost like he was asking me:
“Why are you running?”
And then I realised all this was stupid.
“Jump Radius”… Seriously!
Anyway, the forest Gods seemed happy with me because the Louisa Point was at the end of the path.
It was beautiful. Vast nothingness all around. Nothing apart from mountains, of different shapes and sizes.
I sat there for about an hour, under a tree. It is unbelievable that a place like this existed so close to a city like Mumbai.
For that hour, I had this place all to myself. The big mountains, the trees, the bright blue sky and the birds. It seemed like one of those places that we see in mythological movies, or state tourism videos. You know those videos that automatically make you shout “Camera Trick!” and throw popcorn at the screen.
Well, this was no trick. It was pretty darn beautiful.
Back at the market, while having mediocre chicken biryani at Khan’s that afternoon, after having three glasses of lemon sodas and a big bag of potato chips, I saw hordes of tourists coming in with big suitcases. They were having cotton candies, shopping for shoes and handicrafts, and taking pictures. I saw people riding horses and those inhumane hand pulled carts.
Matheran looked like a fun place.
I took the afternoon toy train back to Neral. It took about two hours, and offered some really good views. I would have written a bit more about the train ride, but I slept through most of it.
Back at Neral, after grabbing a cold one in one of the local bars, I called Jaffer.
“Kaisa laga Sir?” He asked, smiling.
“It was great. But you have to bring me back here during the monsoons.”
He nodded his head, and replied like a true Mumbaikar.