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The mountains make you fall. Fall in trek-love. Once smitten, you can never get enough of the outdoors. I was itching to head out again, but a weekend was the most I could steal from my work and life. So when an overnight trek to Harishchandragad came my way, I signed up.
Being the only trekker from Mumbai, I was to join the rest of my iXplorei group, an experiential learning and outdoor activities based outfit from Pune, meeting them 150 kms away from the city at a place called Otur. It is easy to get there I was told by a veteran trekker, “Leave home by 4.30 am , take a train to Kalyan station, get on a ST bus and get off at Alephata after 2.5 hours”. Sorry what! From the top- where is Kalyan station… and did you say 4.30 am… and what was that about a State Transport bus? You mean the one marked with flying-tobacco-spit that I have thanked my luck to only see from a distance? No thank you. Putting my toughness certificate aside, I called my driver for a drop off.
The Drive – Lost and Found
With Google maps as my guide, I was confident to play navigator. But I wasn’t going to be denied an adventure just because I had excused myself from one. It took us by the “shortest” route possible. Which meant we got on one highway and then to catch the other highway deviated into a 60km stretch of narrow, rocky, foresty, ‘if-you-have-a-puncture-here-you-are-screwed’ scary road. The driver clutching for comfort (pun intended) kept turning to me for direction. Feeling lost yet looking totally calm, I kept pointing to the most implausible route ahead. After what seemed like an endless expedition, we caught sight of the highway. Honking trucks never sounded sweeter and speeding traffic never felt safer. After 4.5 hours on the “short” route I finally met my group and said goodbye to the driver. He for one was happy to head back to a peaceful weekend with the family and get rid of the crazy madam.
The motion sickness (which I had refused to acknowledge earlier) came back in full force. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, I repeated for 3.5 more hours till we reached base camp at Paachnai Village. A 5 am start and a 1pm finish – an eight-hour journey for a 3-hour trek. Exhausted, even before I had begun, I started the climb up.
“Its December, pleasant winters, looks like a mild sun; 3 hours, should be an easy trek”, I say to myself as we started walking. An hour later, soaked in sauna-style-sweat from the merciless sun, I crawled to a make-shift lemonade stall under the shade of an overhanging in the mountain range. Sipping on the tasty lifesaver, I stood taking in the view of the route ahead.
With rocky, steep inclines merging into shadowy, flat patches; dry, brown grasslands bordering thick, green forests, the landscape was as whimsical as the journey to get there had been thus far.
Camp Site-Did I say peaceful outdoors?
The camp site greeted us with a view of tents, thatched hut food stalls and knick- knack shops. Where we were hoping would be a peaceful deserted ground, we saw a busy campsite, ready for the tourists trooping in till late into the night. We parked our backpacks and rested, taking it all in. Harishchandreshwar temple is the focal point of the fort site, and for good reason. It is a religious-rest-recuperation stop all in one. Inside I saw people praying, sleeping, dressing up; most heading for the holy dip in the waters of the Kedareshwar cave next door, one of the many caves en route. The promise of nirvana with a soak in its chilly waters was drawing them all- man, woman, child and dog.
I heard about some of the caves being used as natural dorm rooms but didn’t believe it till I saw one with backpacks neatly lined, mats on the floor and clothes hung to dry. Before you ask, “Did you stay there?” let me warn you about the‘rats at night’ tales I half-heard as I was running out.
Konkan Kada – Get Hooked
There is no railing to hold on to for a view of this you-will-get-vertigo-that’s-how-deep-I-am valley. It’s you and the emptiness below with just a step separating the two. The valley demands a closer look but with my legs chickening out, I lay down near the edge for a better perspective.
Fearful yet fascinated I was looking for the spirit of one Mr. Barve. after having been told his story. So smitten was he with Konkan Kada that for years he came here to loose himself in it’s peace and beauty. Finally after a lifetime of this love ritual when he couldn’t bear the separation anymore, he stepped off the edge to become one with it forever. It is not just fantastical fiction that haunts the valley; there are stories of scientific significance too.
It is said that the wind moving against the concave rocks creates a repelling force. People test this by throwing in paper plates, caps or leaves into the valley which are thrown right back.
Science or strange spirits at work; this gorge knows how to clean up its act.
This Was a Night Out Alright
In the spirit of adventure, we decided to have a cook-out night on this trek. Cooking in the open, for all its fun, is a true exercise in patience. So I told my grumbling stomach it might be a while. With equal amounts of fuel, firewood and trek leaders Nilesh and Archana’s experience in doing this, we got the fire going. They got the pot brewing while we warmed our hands close to the bubbling rice. After a delicious dinner, we were ready for the night, or so we thought.
We were camped in the middle of the site for safety but it turned out to be insanity. Through the night, hormone charged college kids with their loud partying kept us forcibly entertained. My enthusiasm to see Indian youth getting outdoorsy was let down by their complete lack of outdoor etiquette. Well, peace may have been denied but the co-trekkers ensured we left totally updated with the latest Bollywood dance mixes!
Morning Calls of the Wild
The morning came with yet another challenge that was a first for me- finding a place for morning rituals in the open. Even in the faraway Himalayas, we had access to loos; dark ones but at least ones with four walls and a door. But bushes were the only walls here and a trek buddy standing guard, the only door. Despite my hesitation, I cast the awkwardness aside and found myself a spot. This test I am glad to have passed for it wasn’t as undoable as I imagined. With one inhibition in life less to worry about, I started the morning trek.
Yelling tourists testing their echoes aside, the climb to Taramati Peak was Harishchandragadh’s way to make up for all the challenges it had thrown my way. As I stood atop the peak, swept by soul cleansing gusts of wind, I couldn’t help but feel more refreshed for the journey back home. At the base, without the luxury of a driver and car, I found myself staring at the same ST bus I had waved bye to a day earlier. I was ready to step in when my trekking buddies, God bless them, decided to make a 14 km detour to help me catch a private bus. We hailed one down the highway and I hopped on. Uncomfortable at first, I soon eased in on the scenic drive. In the end, I managed to locate the Kalyan train station, travel on the local train, find a rickshaw and get home. 24 hours of being in the outdoors had got me so tripped that as I unstrapped my backpack, I found myself clutching it, reluctant to let go.
ALL IN THE MIND
The trek challenged my solo woman travel fear to navigate new routes; my mattress-spoilt self to sleep in a tent and my bathroom-dependent body to squat in the open. Like many city-bred outdoor enthusiasts, I have wondered if my passion will perish when things get rough. This trek made it clear that the wilderness is not only for the tough and tested; it is for anyone willing to embrace it with an open mind.
Photos are courtesy: Jayashree Thakur
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