It’s been a week rains have subsided after water logging several parts of Mumbai. City is back to life and to escape the urban heat, I am bag packing myself for a day trek to Lohagad fort near Lonavala. Forts are fascinating structures representing the glory of its place and speaking out history of different periods and its rulers. But what fascinates me most is their elevation. I am not an ardent trekker but I simply like to walk in the natural environs – be it hiking in the hills, exploring a village or just being a vagrant in the valley.
I am accompanied by Munjal Thakkar with whom I have done several trips together often memorable ones. Hopping into a night train to Pune, we got down at Lonavala railway station where we slept peacefully for two hours amidst different kind of sounds of a railway platform. The starting point of our trek was Malavali for which we took the first local train. It had dawned but the sun still hid behind the clouds and it looked as if it would be a gloomy day.
Having walked for two kilometers we reached Bhaja village, home to the famous buddhist caves. If time permitted, we thought of visiting these ancient caves on our way back.
Light from the east shone on the cascading stream and the sun peeped through the hills spreading its golden blanket all over. Clouds kept rolling into the valleys. It looked as if any moment they would knock the doors of the houses below. Morning dew quietly settled on the flowers, leaves and grass. A distinct call of a peacock could be heard deep in the forest.
All of a sudden nature opened its window and displayed its panorama. Wild flowers, creepers, orchids, ferns and shrubs lined up the winding roads. Wild flowers like Common Balsam, Graham’s Groundsel, Blue Dawn Glory and Climbing Acacia found in abundance on this range are very alluring.
I have a special liking for the flowers growing in the wild. They attract my attention. They are the sign of life. Be it scorching heat or pouring rains or cold winter, they come from nowhere and spread everywhere.
Common Balsam dominated the roadsides and hill slopes and its purplish red color flowers attracted many butterflies. This is the mass flowering period for Graham’s Groundsel, locally known as ‘Sonki’ which lightens up the entire hill with its yellowish flame. To my surprise, I also saw patches of Karvi shrubs with their purplish blue flowers blossoming along hilly slopes. It flowers only once in every eight years. Last year, too, I was fortunate enough to witness the mass flowering of Karvi flowers (Carvia callosa) in the forest area of BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society).
After five hours of walk, photographing the journey, we reached the base village which was already crowded with tourists. Vehicles were parked all over. I was glad we opted to walk nine kilometers all the way. The walking experience was more rewarding.
Stairs lead to the top of the fort. A twenty minute serpentine climb and you are top on the plateau. The aerial view of the lower ramparts of the fort looks stunning. There are few attractions on the top like Darga, Shiva temple, Laxmi kothi (it is said this kothi was used to store treasure looted from Surat), Godyacha paga and the most interesting of all is the Vinchoo kada – a fortification which looks like a Scorpion’s tail.
But what thrilled me most is the mix of dazzling wild flowers especially Graham’s Groundsel (sonki) carpeting the entire plateau. Wind played with them gently and they swayed back and forth. With the advent of monsoons this place turns into a hill of flowers and you may only want to visit the fort again for these gentle beauties.
There are several large and small water ponds built to store rainwater during monsoons which adds charm to the loveliness of this place. The panoramic view of Pawna lake is simply fantastic. The Visapur fort is also clearly visible from here.
After exploring the fort, we decided to traverse through some forest trail that could possibly lead us to the Bhaja caves. An impulsive decision just to please our adventure bug. So having eaten food at Lohagadwadi (base village), we started the long walk back but this time the trail was unknown to us. We had to find it on our own. Could we do it?
It was still noon. The sun was burning hot. The silhouette of the flag flapping in the wind could be seen on Lohagad. Looking back to the place where we had been, a sense of attainment prevailed over me. It had been a wonderful day. Tiredness overcame me and I wanted to fall in a deep slumber in nature’s lap. But we had to find our way through the forest and reach the caves before dark.
Leaving the concrete road we entered a trail which was wide and covered with grass. Butterflies basked in the evening sun feeding on the nectar of lantana flowers. The trees echoed silently and the sound of gushing water could be heard trying to find its way through the rocks. In an hour we reached an open space from where the caves were visible across a distant hill.
Forest was dense. The sun was slowly setting down. We had two options- sit at this place, watch glorious sunset and take the road back to railway station or find our own way through this forest. I was content with the first option but somehow Munjal convinced me that we would do it. At first we started walking through a narrow trail on the edge of the hill. But the path was slippery and we had to quit. We started walking on our earlier widen path which with every passing minute became narrower. Grass beneath our feet gave way for small rocks and mud. And within no time we were walking between thorny bushes.
It was getting darker. No sight of valley. No sight of caves. Sheer silence. It was so striking that we had to talk in whispers as to not to disturb the stillness of the forest. We were lost in the forest. It was so dense it looked impossible to make way out. At one moment, desperate to get out, we chose the waterfall way. And started scrambling down the steep gradient with only thorny trees for our support. Twigs and branches entangled us at many places. We fell, we rose, and fell again but had no option but to get up and find our way before dark.
Continuing on the narrow path we saw the first sign of hope. Pugmarks, possibly of a cattle. Following it hoping it to lead us to some habitation, we kept walking but after a while pugmarks too disappeared. Sun had set. No sight of valley, no sight of caves. Silence grew deeper. Even whispers faded away.
Just when I was about to stop for a rest the narrow rocky path suddenly rose and widened and finally we found our rescue. A man sat with a young girl outside his small hut. Without a thought I paced towards him and asked for help. It was so unusual to find them in the middle of the forest with no other signs of settlement around their house. The little girl ran inside the hut and bought slippers for her father. They both came to show us the way. We walked in one line. The girl ahead us of all, followed by her father, Munjal and me. I was listening to their conversation, how Munjal was describing our predicament as to how we wanted to reach the caves. The man spoke about his living, his family and village. The girl whose name was Geeta studied in sixth grade at a school in Bhaja village. Her hair was tied in braids and she carried a smile on her face. And answered us slightly by nodding her head. Contentment and innocence radiated from their being.
After an hour, the man stopped and showed us the way that would lead us on the road through the steps of the caves. These were the steps we had seen in the morning while going towards Lohagad. We thanked him and Geeta and were very grateful for their generous and selfless help. Turning back we still found them standing and waving at us.
Few thoughts still lingered on my mind. How did Geeta and her father managed to live in such a secluded place? I wanted to go back and see their house. The fear that manifested in the forest was now flooding out in the form of thoughts. Just then a snake crossed the road in front of us startling me up.
It was a walk worth remembering. A walk with nature in the morning and a walk with humankind to end the day.
– Clement D’souza
Time of Travel – September 2017