Travel: In the lap of nature

(From Deccan Herald)

Matheran is the only hill station in India where automobiles are not allowed. Perched above the Sahyadri Hills in the Western Ghats at 2,636 feet above sea level, the small town with some colonial heritage structures is endowed with thick green foliage.

Marching across the green land which is Matheran

Marching across the green Matheran

This is one place where you are indeed in the lap of nature. The silence in the woods was overpowering. Strolling down the clay-laden path meandering through the dense evergreen forest in Matheran, we simply felt renewed and refreshed. The twittering of the birds completed the idyll.

A weekend getaway

It was the lure of the tranquil environs that prompted us to pack our bags and make a three-hour drive from Mumbai to Matheran. From Neral we veered towards the hill road and there’s one way to go — up, up and up. In no time we were navigating sharp hairpin bends on our ascent. As soon as we left our car at Dasturi Naka, the designated site for all motor vehicles parking, we were in walkers’ paradise. The whole town lay before us like a nature trail. Keeping us company were the intrepid monkeys and the galloping horses.

We walked past a number of hand-pulled rickshaws and ponies for those who cannot rely on their foot to walk 3 km into the heart of town. We wanted to have a feel of a vintage ride, so opted to ride aboard the old steam locomotive named Phulrani. Our joyride on a stretch of 2.83 km was full of excitement with pedestrians walking along the narrow-gauge railway track waving at us and the monkeys staring from tree branches. Those who wish to cover the entire journey on the toy train could board at Neral station at the base of hill. The antique train takes three hours uphill and one-and-a-half hours downhill to cover a stretch of about 20 km.

Unlike the more famous mountain railways of Darjeeling, Kalka-Shimla and Nilgiris, Matheran’s railway has missed its chance to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it has its own charm. It was in 1907 that a Parsi gentleman, Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, constructed the railway here. The toy train could attain the maximum speed of only 20 km/hour and passes along 221 curves and one short tunnel cheekily named “one-kiss tunnel”. It is a thrilling ride through lush greenery as the train chugs along climbing steadily. However, as rains lash the Western Ghats in monsoon, the train ride is suspended and that’s when the trekking groups are in full action.

During monsoon, the hill station is at its enchanting best with wildflowers blooming, rain-drenched foliage sparkling with freshness and milky waterfalls cascading at short intervals. Some really exquisite birds and butterflies can be sighted along the forested trails.

If monsoon is the season when Matheran unveils its beauty to the travellers, winter is a month to enjoy foggy mornings and cold nights, while in summer Mumbaikars throng the place in hordes. No wonder Matheran was a much-sought-after getaway for British and Parsi families in colonial times.

As we walked from the station towards our hotel, the marketplace was abuzz with activities. The horses rode on the dusty path while we walked on the footpath on either sides. Small shops selling chikkis and knick-knacks, and eateries abound this place. An old archway led to the town’s main Kapadia market. After gorging on some delicious Gujarati vegetarian lunch, a little rest, and we were off to exploring the forested town of Matheran.

Colonial past

It was a delight to walk on red laterite earth pathways, walking past large Parsi bungalows and British homes. There are several viewpoints in the town that provide a panoramic view of the valleys below. The point is you can take a leisurely stroll anywhere you want with absolutely no honking or revving of an engine to be heard, the unhurried and naturally unspoilt region will fascinate you no end.

There are several vantage points to catch the scenic beauty of the mountains and valleys. At Panorama Point, the sight of toy train chugging along the narrow mountain track, view of Neral town on a clear day and the sunrise or sunset is a big draw for tourists. From Louisa Point, one can see the ruins of the Prabal Fort of the Marathas. Rambagh Point, Shivaji Ladder, One-Tree Hill Point, Porcupine Point and the rest keep the walkers occupied.

Credit goes to the British Collector of Thane district, Hugh Poyntz Malet, who discovered this place in 1850. The town pays him a tribute by naming a spring after him, Malet Spring, the spot where he had stopped to have water while riding up the hill. Later Lord Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay, played a key role in developing the road and rail network in Matheran.

As we sat in silence admiring the beauty of the Charlotte Lake fringed with dense forest, the child in us prompted us to throw pebbles in the lake. As the evening advanced and the slanting rays of sun cast a shimmering effect on water, the quietude of the place overwhelmed me.

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