There is so much hiking to be done in the Western Ghats that Bikat Adventures just couldn’t stay away from the lure of the Sahyadris any longer. Once the decision to launch operations in Maharashtra was finalized, Rohit & I set out for Mumbai to do due reconnaissance. The plan was to hire a car from Mumbai and straight away head to the mountains. We picked 8 treks in the state (to start with!) and finalized on four treks near Igatpuri, one close to Panvel, one near Lonavala and 2 treks around Pune.
After picking up our camping gear from a fellow trek-leader based out of Mumbai, we left for the Kalsubai-Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary for our first four treks. After a short detour to Ganeshpuri, a quaint meditation hotspot that also happens to have hot water springs, we got back on track on the Mumbai-Nashik highway. A quick lunch break at Talegaon Dam near Igatpuri and soon we found ourselves taking a turn away from the highway, on a route that could barely be called a road! (Tip: To reach the sanctuary area, don’t follow Google maps after crossing Igatpuri, instead venture on to a much smoother alternative that can be pointed out to you by any bystander on the road)
It was past dinner time when we reached Bari (the starting point for Kalsubai Trek), and just like any other rural area, 9 pm felt like it was after midnight because of the deserted roads and quiet village courtyards. We had already arranged for a point of contact in the village who had been coordinating with us since the evening. On arriving, he welcomed us inside his house where hot food was waiting for us. We will forever be grateful for the hospitality bestowed on us by his family.
Even though I failed to recognize the vegetables that I was eating, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Unlike the rest of the trip, I took my nap time for granted and made the mistake of watching a movie on my phone before I was able to fall asleep.
After a 6-hour sleep, I woke up around 8 and started the day with some delectable homemade Poha (the following days would witness me having enough Poha for a lifetime!) After breakfast, we left for Kalsubai. It took us some time before we realized why our host’s son was following us - aunty had asked him to ensure that we were on the right trail!
Out of all the treks that we had on our itinerary, Kalsubai was the only one that I had already done before. So I kept comparing the scenery to my previous year’s visit. In juxtaposition, it was becoming evident how unbelievably beautiful the ghats become during and after monsoon!
After hiking under the shade of trees for a while, the trail opened up and soon we were at the foot of our first iron ladder. With the two of us discussing how these simple metallic structures might turn slightly challenging during heavy monsoon, we climbed one ladder after another. Despite the leisurely pace, we reached the Kalsubai peak in just a few hours.
On our way, we had gotten amazing views of the wide-open lush-green valley below. But by the time we reached the peak, the area was engulfed with clouds and we could only see mist all around. We mocked the ‘splendid’ views available and jokingly congratulated each other on "summiting" Maharashtra's highest peak!
There’s a small temple on the top which Rohit entered to pay his tributes. As soon as he came out, it started drizzling. We ran for cover and decided to wait under a small shelter before we realized that we were still getting wet. We paid a little more attention and found out that this shelter was actually a porous mesh cloth which was probably useful only against the sun.
Getting drenched seemed unavoidable either way, so we headed back. Luckily it stopped drizzling as soon as we started walking and we were back in Bari by evening. Since we were expected to be back earlier, they had prepared lunch that never got the chance to be served. Hence, lunch food became our dinner! With our appetites satiated, we left for our next destination - Ambevadi.
Waiting to happen next was a major miscommunication that led to a major screw-up. Although Ambevadi is the usual base village to start the Alang Madan Kulang trek, our guide, Lahu had apparently told Rohit to come to an alternative base village, Samrud, instead. Tired as we were, we drove on a painfully pathetic road oblivious to the knowledge that we are going in the wrong direction. It was only once we reached Ambevadi and called Lahu did we figure out the gap in communication. Now get this, we were supposed to go all the way back to Bari and then drive an equal amount of distance further to reach Samrud. We took a few moments to let the situation sink in before taking a u-turn and heading back. It was nearly 2 am by the time we reached Lahu’s.
The power nap that ensued seemed like a really slow blink of an eye. Lahu woke us up at 5 and within 15 minutes we were boarding a vehicle that would drop us at a point 2kms away from the village. We were tagging along with a group of 9 trekkers that Lahu was guiding for the weekend. The trek began with a very slight ascent through the woods before we reached a plateau that appeared to be an open flat ground at the foot of AMK. Around 6:30 am the sun illuminated the rock face of Alang, a sight that turned out to be the most majestic view of the entire trek. With tall dry grass all around us, the sunrise made the place look like an African savannah (not that I’ve been to one, but it looked somewhat like the opening scene of Pride rock from the Lion King movie!).
As much as the daunting rock face of the mountain made me nervous, I was also highly curious as to where the path to get to the top could be. After navigating the plateau we again entered a rocky area with thick vegetation and a few small streams that ran down the slope. We stopped next to one of the streams and made breakfast - Poha! After that we started climbing near-vertical walls, big boulders & steep climbs, it was a continuous walk for almost 2 hours before we made it to the top. There was a cave where we left our bags and started ascending again to get to the true top of Alang. En route, we stopped at a water reservoir for a few photographs. There were ruined fort walls near the top where we rested for a bit before we came down and walked further towards Madan.
There’s a junction of sorts between Alang, Madan & Kulang that acts as a mid-point that leads to all three mountain tops. At this spot, we stopped for lunch. With our bellies filled, we moved to our destination for the night – Madan – which was also the most unnerving climb of them all! A little bit of traversing and we reached a point where the trail was almost non-existent, followed by a rock wall which had a bare minimum space as its base. The base was not just a safety concern because of the lack of stability while landing, but more so because there were too many people waiting at a place too narrow. You see, the same wall is used to climb up and rappel down. With 3 full teams wanting to come down and 2 teams ready to go up, we had to wait endlessly at such a treacherous spot. The food that we recently had combined with all the waiting made me drowsy but falling asleep was not really an option at a place like this. Couple of times I had to jolt myself to wake before my number to climb was finally called. As I roped up I realized that the wall had a lot of well-defined holds and cuts - easy peasy lemon squeezy!
On the top, I waited some more for the rest of the team to climb up before we moved ahead. Just when I thought that we’ve had enough adventure for one day, the most unnerving rock-cut stairway that I have ever been to came into view! Soon we learned that it really helps to concentrate more on the steps and less on the steep fall. Past that, we hiked up a slanting open ground which also doubled as a camping ground. The reason why Lahu was after our lives to move quickly was the fact that only the first 2-3 teams that reach Madan get the privilege of sleeping in the caves. Since we weren’t carrying any tents, it was imperative to reach before the others!
We claimed our space in the caves by planting our bags and walked on towards the top of Madan. An aesthetically appealing spot, the top treated it’s visitors to splendid panoramic views of Alang & Kulang. We utilized the next few hours discussing various permutations in which we could carry out the rest of the recce trip while the cook prepared our dinner. After gorging on the tasty food we called it a night.
In the morning, we went for a short photography tour before breakfast. Properly nourished, we left for Kulang. Facing a familiar obstacle, we concluded that the same stairway seemed a lot more terrifying on our way down than what we had felt before! Followed by that was our naive deduction that we wouldn’t have to wait at the rappelling section since it was so early in the morning. Fortunately, the wait was just a fraction of what we had endured a day before. Past this point, everything seemed like smooth sailing. The traverse to Kulang was not the simplest, but the harsh sun beating down on us was definitely the bigger issue. At the base of Kulang, our cook separated from the group and we continued climbing. This ascent, being the most straightforward climb amongst the three, still posed a steep set of well-defined stairs that led us all the way to the top. Kulang was a beautiful hilltop fort with rock-cut caves and water reservoirs, close to which, there was a small Shiva statue.
Sitting at this very spot, we realized that all this while we were carrying all the ingredients for a refreshing drink of lemonade! Afterwards we hiked to the top of the fort, clicked some great photos and started climbing down the stairs. When we reached the base, lunch was already prepared. We had a hearty meal and got on our way back to Samrud, a good 3-hour walk. The walk was much shorter for those going to Ambevadi instead. The way back to Samrud wasn’t uneventful like expected – it started with steep descents that barely resembled a trail and ended with a fork that divided the trail into multiple well-defined routes. With our guide trailing behind, chatting with some locals, part of our group ventured onto the wrong trail and the entire debacle caused a 30-minute delay. But the incorrect route gave us an encounter with a snake, so maybe it was worth it! After dinner at Lahu’s we retired for the night, hoping to rest our bodies before another trek that was due to start the next day.
In the morning, I felt like I was rested enough to go out for the trek but not rejuvenated enough to be pumped early in the morning. We had a light breakfast and left for Sandhan Valley. Today’s activity was through a narrow gorge, navigating a small stream locked between two high walls. There were certain sections where the valley doesn’t get any sun at all, hence the name – valley of shadows! However, we were unaware of these details when we were at the entry point of the valley, a 10-minute walk from Lahu’s. All we were told was that we’ll be encountering water (Lahu had advised us to carry a small polythene bag to protect our phone or leave the device behind altogether) but it was still a pleasant surprise when we stopped skipping over big boulders and took our first dip in the cold water. At certain points, the water was so deep that we were submerged shoulder-deep. At other places, the water flow was so less that it was going under the gaps beneath big boulders, and it felt like a simple rock-climbing experience.
Half-way through the trail, the thrills got serious! A huge drop that had to be rappelled down made us halt and fix our ropes and wear our harnesses. Most of the year, the rappelling zone is dry and has a wide landing base. But this time around, the stream was gushing down right at this spot, becoming a fierce waterfall. On my way down, I figured that the cascade is not gonna sit back in the background - the rappelling zone and the waterfall intersected half-way down the rope and from that point onwards, we were descending with eyes half-shut as the water hit our faces. The experience wasn’t unpleasant, but these details are necessary to encapsulate the crazy adventure that is the Sandhan Valley Trek. Once I was done rappelling, I realized that the roundish boulder at the foot of the wall was quite wet and slippery, hence the total area that could qualify as ‘safe landing zone’ was quite small. Throughout the activity, the person coming down is secured with a belay rope so I knew that a perfect landing wasn’t an extreme necessity, but managing to keep an eye open and sticking the landing just happened to be a great feeling!
Eventually, we went through four such other sections, but the level of thrill wasn’t at par – the fall wasn’t deep enough, or the element of a waterfall disturbing us as we rappelled down wasn’t there or something else would be missing. But they were still quite enough to stoke your heartbeat! The degree of descent and the size of the boulders, both increased from that point as we went further down the valley. In the end, the floor basin leveled up and the stream lost its velocity. We chose a location nearby and started drying off clothes in the sun, sitting down half-naked to eat our packed lunch. Afterward, a 15-minute hike from there led us to a bushy spot in the middle of the woods where there was a small clearing enough for 10 odd people to camp. But we had no plans of camping overnight and had no camping gear on us either. Tired by the cumulative fatigue caused by excursions undertaken in the past 5 days, we were tempted to just take a left towards a village nearby that involved a 2-hour flat hike and a 6-hour cab ride back to Samrud. But we found in ourselves the strength to take the tougher route which was a very steep 4-hour climb that took us straight to Samrud. Even though Lahu insisted on us spending the night at his place in the village, we decided on not overstaying our welcome and moved on to Bhandardara to rest.
Despite being taken for granted, it’s always a pleasant surprise what a proper cot and a long uninterrupted night’s sleep can do for your tired body. Not only were our batteries fully recharged, today was also the easiest day with minimal hiking. After driving for about 4 hours, we reached Pachnai, a small remote village that serves as the base for one of the many routes that lead to Harishchandragad.
Although you can easily finish the trek within one day if you start in the morning, the fact that we were going to start our hike post-lunch made camping at Kokankada a rather sensible choice. Once we were all geared up, we started off on the trail and reached Harishchandragad temple after an easy 2-hour walk. Even though our visit was on a weekday, we were lucky enough to find temporary shacks on the top that gave us some refreshments and later, dinner. From the Pachnai approach, the trek should be viewed in the following order: Pachnai (Base village) – Harishchandragad (the famous temple and caves) – Kokankada (a fantastic campsite close to edge of the cliff - 30 minutes further from the temple) – Taramati Peak(a one hour hike to the top of the mountain which has panoramic views and deafening winds!)
Moving on from the refreshments we had close to the temple, we marched ahead to reach our camping place for the night. It was nearly dark when we reached Kokankada and started pitching our tent. With our bellies full and our arrangements for the nights already taken care of, we started off on our next quest – building a bonfire. Fortunately, gathering wood and starting a small fire took very little time and effort, providing us ample time to settle comfortably under the stars (and next to the fire!) for hours before we went inside our tents and dozed off.
Once the sun was up, we packed up and left for the temple. Having made friendly relations with the local who had made us dinner last night, we left our luggage at his shack and left for the top.
In contrast to the wide-open trail that we had faced so far, our hike up the mountain was through a narrow winding trail with thick vegetation and shoulder-high shrubs. A short while later we stood atop the Taramati peak, with green plains on all sides stretching as far as the eye could see. But that was the thing, our eyes couldn’t see much, not clearly at least. There were low clouds and misty conditions which hampered the panoramic views this vantage point had to offer. The minor setback didn’t matter much to us though, as we sat at that spot for a while and enjoyed the strong yet soft wind on our faces.
Back to the temple, we paid tribute to the legend of Harishchandragad and learned how a sage had come to this place to meditate centuries ago. What made the temple-complex so fascinating was the basement. We couldn’t access the basement (you can do it in summers) because reaching the basement was only possible if you swam down the stairs! There were 4-5 staircases leading down but they were all full of water with small fishes visible from the outside. Next place on the agenda was Kedareshwar cave, a rock-cut cave filled with knee-deep water and a huge Shivling in the middle. A short prayer later we were on our way back to Pachnai, wasting no time to start our drive back to Mumbai.
Remember that ‘fellow-trek-leader-based-out-of-Mumbai’ we met on the first day? Well, it was his wedding this day!
Not sure if it was fluke or foresight, but we were both glad to have had packed a pair of jeans and a shirt with the bulk of our trekking gear! After the wedding, we left for Pune and reached just when dusk was falling. A couple of hours later, we were at Gunjawane, a small village in the Pune district that is famous as the base point for Rajgad Fort. Although Rajgad Fort & Torna Fort are popular tourist attractions for Punekars, people miss out on the spectacular crossover ridge running between the two hill-tops. Our plan was to start hiking around midnight, reach Rajgad in a few hours and take a power nap. The next day was supposed to be utilised in sightseeing Rajgad, trekking over to Torna, exploring a bit and heading back to Pune. Although we inadvertently deviated from our plan, the end result was not all that different. After a heavy dinner at Gunjawane, we parked our car at the starting point of the trek and decided to rest for a short while. Your consciousness may elect to ignore how tired you are, but your body won’t make the same mistake. The two of us fell asleep on our seats and woke up at 5 am to realize what had just happened!
We hurriedly changed into our hiking gear and got on the way, better late than never I guess. The unintentional sleep we got didn’t change much, as the rest of the day was just a few hours behind schedule. By 8 am we were at the top of Rajgad where we spent the next 2 hours exploring the fort along with a temple dedicated to Padmavati Devi. Rajgad is a huge fort that was built on Murumbadevi Dongar (locally referred to as the Mountain of Goddess Murumba) that served as the capital of the Maratha Empire for almost 26 years before it was shifted to Raigad fort.
From their respective parking lots, reaching Rajgadh & Torna individually would amount to two short 2-hour hikes but the real hiking begins when you eliminate the car ride in between and instead do a 4-hour cross-over to Torna by navigating through a mountain ridge that connects the two forts. The trail, which is almost flat with very gradual ascends, has either narrow sections passing through thick bushes or wide sections when you are walking on an open grassland on top of a mountain. Two things that I learned on this trail (i) if you have a decent camera, the best vantage points to capture the forts are situated here (ii) those who love trail-running or want a perfect trial run to kick-start this adventurous sport should definitely hit this route!
Countless steps and even a higher number of photographs later, we finally reached Torna - the first fort that was captured by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (at the age of 16!) in his conquest to expand his kingdom. In contrast to Rajgad fort, which was nearly in a ruined state, Torna fort was well-preserved with the majority of sites still intact. The highest spot on this mountain also happens to be the highest point in the Pune district, so obviously we had to climb it!
The descent to Velhe village was a steep yet easy walk that ended with the daylight. An experience that had eluded us throughout the trip, we got our first taste of haggling with cab drivers before we could leave for Gunjawane where our car was parked.
After a good night’s sleep in Pune, we again set out for Mumbai to tick-off the last trek on our list, Kalavantin Durg, before we flew back home. On our way, we stopped for an early lunch at Lonavala but were again hungry by the time we reached Panvel. Or maybe we were tricked by our appetites (just a few hours earlier, someone had given us the location of a small vada pao joint in Panvel, claiming that it had the best vada pao in the whole wide world!) Inspite of the fact that we didn’t need to enter Panvel to reach Thakurwadi village (starting point of the trek), our hunger drove us to drive into town and put his claim to test. I think every Mumbaiker must have their own ‘best vada pao in the world’ place that they love to refer to but I’m sure that this place would give every other eatery a run for their money!
We left for Thakurwadi after a heavy dinner and reached the village late in the evening. The car’s headlamps pierced through absolute darkness, still, there was not a single living soul visible. No one to guide us and tell us that the location set by Google Maps wasn’t accurate making wastage of time inevitable. Eventually, we retraced our way back to a place on the road where we last encountered a human being. Their directions led us to the right place.
Tonight’s aim was to reach Kalavantin Base that would require hiking for 2 hours from Thakurwadi. We geared up quickly, put on our head torches and marched on. Apart from not being able to see any mountain scenery, night trekking is usually not much different if you have a good head torch. However, this time things were a bit unusual.
Not sure of the cause - maybe it was the darkness of the night or maybe it was just low interference owing to decreased human activity, but the number of insects that we faced on the hike was just on another level. The two of us have had plenty of experiences wading through jungles late at night, but we both agreed that this seemed unprecedented! Throughout the trail, there were fresh spider webs that were running diagonally from a branch on one side of the trail to a plant on the other side of the trail. It’s not easy describing just how many times we walked through these webs on a 2-hour walk. These fine threads couldn’t be seen and avoided but could only be felt when you walked through them! After accidentally tasting a few spiderwebs, we decided its best not to chit-chat the rest of the way.
Apart from this unique setback, there weren’t any obstacles on the way. Shortly we were at the base where we found a rather large shelter, made just for tourists (the guy who ran the place told us that there were about 600 trekkers the weekend prior to our visit!) He gave us a few options before he prepared a delicious meal for the two of us. He also showed us his backyard which doubled as a dedicated camping ground.
We woke up to our last day of the trip in high spirits. The energetic vibes were caused by our caution - the goal was to climb Kalavantin Durg, return to the car and reach Mumbai airport before our 5 pm flight. Maybe that’s why we were on the top of the Kalavantin Durg in under an hour!
From the base, we hiked for about 5 minutes and crossed a small village. Past that, it was a semi-steep slope that required about 30 minutes to get to the foot of the pinnacle. The trail changes into a stairway with huge rock-cut steps that do not cede till the very top. (Well, not entirely all the way). After climbing the stairway for 10 minutes, we reached a small flat ground that had another conical pinnacle jutting out in the middle. To navigate this section, we had to use a rope that had already been anchored on the top. There were many natural cuts and holds on the rock-wall that made this last stretch an easy 5-minute job.
Once on the top, we caught our breath, soaked in the warm sunshine and enjoyed the 360-degree views. A few moments later, we agreed to disagree with the people who told us that the vertigo felt on Kalavantin Durg is similar to Alang Madan Kulang. No way, sir!
The climb down and our return to Mumbai was uneventful and happened according to plan. We spent the flight back to Delhi discussing tiny details that we had gathered in the last 2 weeks and planning how we would like to operate these thrilling new treks for our participants. We ended the trip with a feeling of gratitude for the Maharashtrian warmth - both, literally and figuratively!