Help others roam

The monsoon has arrived in Sahyadris. And people are rushing to Matheran – the most loved hill station to enjoy the misty weather. Due to its close proximity to Mumbai, it witnesses an influx of tourists on weekends. Neral railway station turns into a sea of young crowds rushing towards Matheran. The most common route and the quickest way preferred by many, is the roadway from Neral to Dasturi naka. It takes just 20 minutes to reach by road.

But we had some different plans to ditch the crowd and spend time with nature in solitude and peace. We took a route which no one thinks about. One can explore many trekking routes from Karjat and Panvel to reach Matheran. In the last 2 years, we have done 2 treks – one from Dudhani village near Panvel which took us to Sunset point (this was in monsoon) and the other from Ambewadi village near Karjat towards One Tree Hill point (in summer). There are many more routes yet to be explored by us.

The toy train running from Neral to Matheran is closed during the monsoon due to the danger of landslides. And so the idea which was in my mind for years turned into a reality last weekend. I called to inform Steffe that we would be hiking 21 km on the railway track route. She was super excited to hear this. We could visualize the scenery, the curvy tracks climbing the zigzag mountains, the clouds rolling by, waterfalls along the way, green valleys, bird songs. This would be all for us to see and hear far from the cacophony of tourists.

The route goes through a variety of habitats from forest patches to open rocky areas. Few thoughts concerned me like being alone on the isolated railway track, the risk of falling loose rocks, etc rushed through my mind like a gushing stream. But it had been quite a while I hadn’t spent time with nature. So the risk was worth taking because the reward was nature itself.

‘’Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference’’

Robert Frost

This quote really came true when we completed the trek. A sense of fulfillment prevailed over us. We learned the importance of being one with nature. No matter what we do in life to achieve our dreams, it is necessary to slow down and feel the breath we take to stay alive.

Dividing the article in 3 parts, we take you on a long walk on the railway track route from Neral to Matheran (which we have fondly called NM Rail Trek).

Start time from Neral (NM 1)08:30 am
End time at Aman Lodge (NM 180)04:30 pm
Total time (NM is the marker location on the railway tracks)8 ½ hours

1st PART – NERAL TO JUMMAPATTI

Refueling the body with breakfast at Neral station we left towards the tracks carrying sufficient water, a camera and a blue umbrella. That’s it. But why do I describe the color of my umbrella? Because whenever I saw it from a distance, the blue umbrella looked like a great blue flower that springs up on the hillside.

Just a few meters walk from Neral, the noise and the chaos at the station slowly faded into whispers and then into silence. The clouds became darker, ready to burst soon. The wind carried the wailing call of a peacock for a long distance until it reached us. It sang for quite a while until the rains prompted it to take shelter in the bushes.

After leaving Neral the rail track bisects the Karjat-Murbad road and travels in a straight line for a stretch of about 1.5 km. towards Karjat, after which the zig-zag route starts. The greenery is lavishly spread all around giving a magnificent view of the surroundings. Towards the east, the view of the Dhom lake looks beautiful. A trekking route from Diksal village in Bhivpuri crossing this lake goes to the Garbett Plateau in Matheran. As far as we could see it was all green everywhere. Clouds kept rolling over the Matheran ranges. Looking at the sharp bend and curves of the rail tracks cut through the hills, one can imagine the joy and thrill of taking a ride in the toy train.

A track man carrying heavy equipment walked miles to maintain the tracks. He had a shoulder bag in which he collected ‘Spiny Gourd’– a wild vegetable fruit, locally called ‘kartoli’. He would go among the thorny bush to pluck the wild fruit from the creepy climber plant. Once done he would continue with the inspection work of the tracks and stop again wherever the plant was found. He advised us that it will take a very long time walking through the tracks. We smiled and continued. Now it was no turning back.

On this route till Jummapatti station, there are two small waterfalls. Although the flow of water was less, it was good to freshen up. And when it rained, we never felt like leaving the place wherever we stopped for a while. I just stood on the track and felt the windy rain splashing on my face. The rain would not last long but the shorter spells like these would keep us going.

After traversing on the tracks for 8 km, we reached Jummapatti station where the rail and road meet. A halt here gives a good view of thin silvery streaks of water cascading down the tall Matheran ranges. People driving up to Matheran stop here for selfies or for a short break making it a picnic point. Locals from nearby Mangaon Wadi have put up stalls selling snacks.

We filled water and continued our NM rail trek. Bidding adieu to the road, the tracks separate again to continue its ascent on the mountain.

2nd PART – JUMMAPATTI TO WATER PIPE

The walk on this stretch is a very interesting one. Till Jummapatti, it was all open views of the landscape. But the track here goes through the forest with dense trees on both sides. It also runs through Dhangarwadi – a tribal village. There is a huge waterfall named after the village. Standing beneath, we could see the rail tracks running above us on the bridge.

The real ascent begins from here. On one side there are huge and tall rocks, while on the other side there are deep ravines. Walking on the rail tracks, we never felt that we were climbing a mountain. The ascent rose gradually with every curve. There are a total 221 curves carved on the rail route.

Although the walk was not exhausting, we went at a very slow pace. It was not easy to maintain a steady pace walking on the 2 ft narrow-gauge track laid with stones. But we were enjoying every bit of it. Walking with the wildflowers growing on the hills, observing the nature around us, time moved ahead. A Malabar Whistling Thrush made its presence felt with its melodious singing. Seeing us coming, the bluish bird perched on the track flew away in the ravine.

The rail track intersected with the road at many places. Before crossing, we paused for a few minutes to give our feet some rest. We walked for 4 ½ hours and covered 10 kms. Although perspiring, the excitement was there.

This portion of the walk from Dhangarwadi to Water Pipe is my favorite. The view of the valley was always in sight. The beauty of nature was simply admirable. A hidden waterfall with a gushing stream ran downhill to merge with the Payarmal river. We were so happy. It felt as if we had discovered the waterfall. And why not, we were the only souls on this isolated route and for that very moment the waterfall belonged to us. Just as we were soaking in the views, it rained. And it rained very heavily for a few minutes. We couldn’t ask for more. It was a wonderful feeling to be here. No humans. Only nature and us. Complete silence. The only sound was of the flowing water and the raindrops falling on my blue umbrella. The view from this spot is amazing as well as mesmerizing.

The track ahead took a sharp bend. After the bend, there is a small tunnel (at NM 107) carved out of the mountain. This is known as ‘One Kiss Tunnel’. A name approved by Central Railway itself. The tunnel is short enough so that one can take advantage of the darkness to take one kiss of your loved one in the train.

The track goes straight for a mile and then takes a turn to reach Water Pipe station. From here, one can see the Ulhas river flowing and a good view of Neral.

3rd PART – WATER PIPE TO AMAN LODGE

The last 5 kms of our walk. The track further climbs to higher altitudes. It was time to feed ourselves. I was so hungry I could eat an elephant. At the entrance of track route NM 134, locals sell fire roasted corn and pakoras. If there’s anything that truly defines the essence of Indian monsoon, it is a bhutta (corn).

NM 134 is the entrance point for the trek to Peb Fort. The other attraction on this route is the majestic rock-cut Ganesh idol standing on the edge of a hill, known as ‘Kadyavarcha Ganpati’. One can also see the Panorama point of Matheran just above the viewpoint of the idol. While doing the NM rail trek, you can visit the Ganesha idol. For the trek to Peb Fort, come some other day.

This route is commonly used by trekkers and tourists visiting the two attractions. It is not isolated but nevertheless the views are amazing. With a huge cliff on one side and deep valley on another, you feel like taking a halt everytime. The view of Gadeshwar lake and Dudhani village in Panvel is clearly visible.

The green pastures on both sides of the rail track is an indication that you’re just a few NM away from reaching the virgin hill-station of Matheran. You would experience a change in climate as it gets more pleasant as you reach the top. The air was crisp and cool. A thick mist of fog had enveloped the sparkling green forest. The rustle of cool breeze revived us and a buzz of unseen life played their orchestra all along our path.

We were happy we did this. The long hike was full of fun and replenishing. It did something for our soul. We felt invigorated, inspired and accomplished.

RETURN JOURNEY THOUGHTS

For the return journey, we took a shared cab to Neral. As the vehicle began descending the ghat criss-crossing the railway track, my mind drifted back to the trail nestled in the lap of mountains where trees try to reach the sky. The call of the peacock and singing of the whistling thrush still echoed in my ears, each with a distinct message. I could hear the branches of the trees as they swayed in the subtle breeze. I saw my footsteps on the rail track which took me to a waterfall. The flowing water tried to calm the endless thoughts that rumbled through my mind. Suddenly, a quiet voice within me stopped these thoughts and awakened me to the present. A moment which we should all strive to live in.

WORD OF ADVICE

  • Avoid going during heavy downpours. There are chances of landslides.
  • Although an easy trek, go in small groups. Experienced and solitude lovers can go solo. It is completely safe provided we do not take unnecessary risks.
  • Good pair of shoes is a must. Carry some food and enough water.
  • Respect nature. Do not litter. Maintain silence and enjoy the walk.
  • Do not attempt the trek post monsoon when the toy train is functional.

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