Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bhandardara - Base for Kalsubai and the Ratangad Trek

The digression; innate in my personality, to Shivneri cost me less than 3 hours. I am quite happy that i took the off road to Shivneri. After this visit to the fort with more historical importance than natural aesthetic appeal i continued in the pursuit of the calling i got from Kalsubai.
I had referred Google maps before i left for the trip however because of the off road that i took i asked a few people about the route to Bhandardara. To my surprise few of them didn't even know about the place. Then i asked a lorry driver. Lorry drivers are almost always aware of all the roads around a place. However i later realized that they know more of the major routes that they normally take. So from Narayangao i ended up riding to 
Ale phata from there to Bota to Kotul to Rajur and finally to Bhandardara. Which meant i rode about 20 kms to ale phata another 35 odd kms to Bota another 50 odd kms to Kotul another 20 kms to Rajur and then about 20+ kms to Bhandardara. So i ended up riding close to about 150 Kms which should have been only about 50 odd kms. For the benefit of anyone planning to got bhandardara here is the shortest route
Narayangao = 15km => Otur = 16km => Bhramanwada = 16km => Kotul = 16 km => Rajur = 20 km => Bhandardara 
in all bhandardara ideally should be around 70 Kms from narayangao and the total distance from Pune to Bhandardara should be 170 Kms.

Anyways thanks to the whole fiasco i reached Bhandardara at about 5:30 - 6pm. The rains were so heavy and wind was in all its fury. There was a point after the deviation to Ratangad fort and Amriteshwar Temple and just before the Wilson dam where the wind was in its elements. I had to stop my bike and wait for the howling wind to slightly subside to cross this patch, but i was caught in the middle of this patch, for a moment i was scared that the wind would blow me off along with the bike down the cliff. In fact the wind got the bike lifted maybe a cm off the road and i clanged on to the bike, put it on side stand and sat on the petrol tank. For a moment the wind subsided and i got across this patch. 

Once i reached Bhandardara, i looked out for a place to stay. camping was out of the question. There were a few hotels and resorts which were quite over priced for me especially since i had no plans to stay in one. At last i found Hotel Amriteshwar which is just after the MTDC. I had my dinner there and sat around a fire that the people lit up because of the cold. I discussed my plans to climb Kalsubai which was stubbed vehemently by the old man sitting who was sitting with us quietly. At times you need to listen to the local knowledge after all they have lived in the place their lives and know better about how the place behaves than you. So hesitantly i shelved the plan to leave for Kalsubai. The next day morning i took the ride from Bhandardara to ratangadwadi. If the roads where better this ride would have been absolutely fantastic. 
The lake on the left and the high hills on the right. Waterfalls trickling across the road ever  so often and cowherds in their makeshift raincoats grazing their herd of cows. At one point i counted 22 waterfalls gushing down the facade of two hills. The terrain here has something different from what i have seen in other parts of the sahyadri. Its much taller than the other parts for starters and terrain also seemed very different.
There where various other seasonal waterfalls like Panjre falls Necklace falls spillway fall and the umbrella falls. After the ride returned to hotel Amriteshwar and thanked and bid adieu to the friendly host i had for a day and left Bhandardara with a quiet promise to Kalsubai of return very soon.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shivneri - The Birth of an Empire

I must have been frog in my previous birth, the monsoons have a strange effect on me, I just cant stay put in the cozy comforts of my home once it starts raining. Not sure what comes upon me and this time it was Kalsubai calling. Kalsubai by the way is apparently the highest point in Maharashtra as proclaimed by some. However i have also seen something similar written in Wilson point in Mahabaleshwar also proclaiming that its the highest point in western india. Anyways i dont want to get into the details of it.
I planned to reach Bhandardara in the afternoon spend the evening there and camp in Bhandardara in the wilderness some where or get to Bari village - the base village of kalsubai and camp there for the night. Then in the morning climb up Kalsubai and return. So for this trip I had a plan, not that i have stuck to my plans historically anyways atleast this time i had a plan! I left Pune early in the morning adorning two raincoats and a bag with my tent stuffed in. As expected it was raining and in fact all through the trip it was raining or raining heavily.
I took the Nasik highway from Pune. The traffic in Nasik highway for that matter any highway out of Pune apart from the Pune Bangalore Highway is erratic. Road sense amongst the public is appaling and the quality of roads leaves a lot to be desired. Anyways one good thing on this highway is the Ambika hotel rather a small dhaba run by a woman at about 50Km out of Pune after Rajgurunagar. She gives amazing chai and nice vada paavs! To continue with the trip I reached Narayangao in about 2.5-3 hrs. Narayangao is about 90 Km out of Pune. The rain was now very heavy and pouring would be a better word to descride it than raining. I stopped again for another round of chai. While sitting in the dhaba i saw a signboard announcing that Shivneri fort was just 18 Kms. I tried to ignore it as Shivneri was not something that i had planned for. After chai i continued my trip, again the signboard came up with Junnar and Shivneri Fort. This time i took the turn! Everything's meant to be broken anyway mine was just a plan!!
The road to Shivneri was in good condition and i reached the fort in half an hour. Safety was not a mojor concern for Shahaji Bhonsle Shivaji's father, i think, as this fort wasnt very high or difficult to reach. At the gate of the fort there was only one tea stall unlike our Sinhagad in Pune where there is a profusion of teastalls. I gave my bag to the chaiwallah for safe keeping as it was quite heavy. There was an old man sitting there under the tree near the stall. He must have been over 80, maybe even ninety years old. He enquired who i was to the chaiwallah and where i was from. While he was leaving he came upto me, shook my hand and patted my shoulder said something in marathi and slowly walked off. Now it was my turn to be curious. I learnt later that he was a freedom fighter, now runs a few schools and colleges and was cabinet minister for couple of terms!
Shivneri Fort was in quite good condition, Archaeological dept has a major hand in keeping it that way i soppose. There were seven massive gates leading to the fort and a couple of manicured gardens. Considering the number of people frequenting this fort the place was remarkably clean. I dont remember seeing anything littered anywhere. The Shivai temple is on the way to the right. Shivai is the goddess of fort Shivneri - the Godesss after whom Jijabai named her son Shivaji. The temple is really worth looking with excellent carving on its door.The Amberkhana comes next. The arcaeological dept has put up signboards on almost all the major structures. The way ahead leads to the badami talao and Shivkunj with the statue of young Shivaji and Jijabai. Shiv-janmasthan or Birthplace of Shivaji Maharaj - The Wada or small palace where Shivaji was born is still in place. This is a two story structure at the ground floor of which, this great king was born. The remnants around the building are now being rebuilt.

 Kadelot is the steep edge of Shivneri from where criminals were thrown down as punishments. View of Junnar city and Lenyadri hill is amazing from here.

Shivneri is much more than a picnic spot near Pune. Its more of a pilgrimage for most of the ardent Marathas. If you visit Shivneri try to be respectful to the place and the tradition that it upholds. For the records Shivneri Fort is about 110 Km from Pune on the Pune Nashik Highway and from Narayangao its about 18 Kms.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Morachi Chincholi - A Short Monsoon Ride to the Peacock Country

This monsoons we have been riding from one place to another like there is no tomorrow. From hill station to forts and hill stations again. So this weekend we thought of changing the pattern and we visited Morachi Chincholi. The land of peacocks and tamarind! 
Havent heard much about Morachi Chincholi? neither had we until recently. Morachi Chincholi is small village about 50 Km from pune towards Ahmadnagar. According to the villagers, a pair of peafowl had arrived in this village many years back. The villagers rather than shooing it away welcomed them and shared their land as well as grains with them. Over the years they made the place their name and even gave the place a name on the tourism map of Maharashtra.We left Pune on sunday afternoon after lunch. From the information that we had gathered the birds camouflaged themselves in the woods during the day and do not come out in the open. Only in the early morning or evening after 4:30 do they come out for the "show". The ride on Ahmadnagar highway is one thing that i do not like, dirty roads and cluttered traffic characterizes the ride. Once we reached Shikrapur we took the off road to Morachi Chincholi. Its about 18 Kms from Shikrapur. Once we took the off road the ride was much better with open fields on either sides dotted with trees on the sides of the road. The roads weren't of the best possible condition and the last 8 Kms had no tarmac.  Once we started to see the tamarind trees around we knew we were in Morachi Chincholi. As we entered the village there was a temple on the left. Morachi chincholi has been developed as a agritourism destination. Agritourism or Agricultural Tourism is the concept of Visiting a working farm or any agricultural, horticultural, or agribusiness operations for a holiday. In Morachi Chincholi there is the added attraction of the celebrated national bird. There are couple of organized farms who have taken agritourism very seriously. Mayur baug and Mauli Krishi Paryatan Kendra. Mayur baug is a complete farm with horses and camels and swans. These agritourism centers feed the peacocks every day and they are conditioned to visit these farms every day for food. In turn the visitors get to see a close up show of the birds. A perfect symbiotic relationship. We roamed around the village a little more. Though there was nothing spectacular about the landscape of Morachi Chincholi we soaked in the rustic charm of the village of end less farms with farmers working in their land and the rural fresh air and by twilight we headed back to Pune after our tryst with our National bird!!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Matheran - Woods on a hill

Matheran probably is one of the most under rated hillstations near Pune and one of the most negatively publicized holiday destination near Pune in recent times. Onaiza also had visited the place earlier and described it as a hot and humid place. I decided to see Matheran for myself and boy am i glad i did so!

I left for Matheran on a weekday and planned to return on the same day. So at about 8:30 in the morning I left Pune with with two rain coats stuffed in my knapsack. The rains can be an absolute joy to watch while sitting in the comforts of a  dry warm place but at the same time has the potential to be the joy killer while riding. There was intermittent drizzle on the way and i cocooned inside the two raincoats that i was carrying. It was difficult to leave Lonavla without stopping but i had to, however I couldn't stop myself from stopping myself at Khandala Ghat. I like the view from the Khandala ghat with the green hill sides and white foggy clouds floating towards the hills.

At times while we are travelling to a particular destination the places on the way, which in itself could be a destination on another day doesnt bring as much elation in you as it would if it was The destination. There is a joy in reaching the destination too. Maybe it is because of the limited time that we give ourselves that reaching the destination becomes so important to us. To really enjoy travelling i guess we have to cut out the time factor from our minds. Probably thats why they say that the best companion to travel with is the one with a sense of time that is vaguer than yours!!

I was on my way to Matheran again with in half an hour. After Khandala the old mumbai-pune highway joins the express way for a few hundred yards. I was careful not to miss the exit to Khopoli as once i had and had  ended up paying a hefty fine at the next toll check post. Once I reached khopoli i asked a few people for directions and continued straight on the way towards mumbai on the old highway and from Chowk took a right towards Matheran. Matheran is about 29 Km from this junction. However later i discovered that at exactly 5 Kms from Khopoli there is a right turn that you can take which would get you close to Karjat in about 10 Kms. This route reduces the distance to Matheran by about 30 Kms. I have to add here that the roads are not in the best condition here but definitely  is ridable! 

At about 11:30 i reached Dasturi Naka after negotiating some twisty-turny ghat roads. The view on the way was very pretty with a few waterfalls on the way. It was lush green all around with different shades of green like most of the places around pune during monsoons but the difference was the narrow gauge railway tracks criss crossing the way at regular intervals. I parked my bike in the parking area in Dasturi and started my trek up. At 12 in the afternoon the visibility was low on account of a thick fog cover floating across. After passing the horse parking area where i had to deal with a few touts who were trying to sell me a ride up to bazaar which i refused i continued on my trek. The horse guys where quoting prices ranging from 300-500, later after speaking to a few locals at hotels i discovered that the lowest that they charge for a trip upto bazaar from dasturi is 100 normal rates being 120-150.

Matheran is the only hill station in Asia where vehicles apart from Ambulance is banned. You either need to do it all on foot or you may hire a horse or a hand pulled rikshaw. Probably that in itself struck a chord with me, after all it was a unique experience to visit a hillstation where you don't get to hear the sounds of motor! After walking up about 3Km i reached the bazaar peth. It gave the impression of an erstwhile bustling town. Probably this is how towns of yester years would have looked like. With paved walkways and shops and all the activity. Most of the resorts and hotels in Matheran are in the bazaar peth area. The Matheran railway station is also in the bazaar. Even in the mid day sun the place was misty and pleasant. A little ahead was the park - a little garden where there where holidaying families. I continued on my walk towards the woods. Matheran, literally the woods on top of a fill is rightly named so. There are about a dozen points scattered at  a distance of 1-2 Kms from each other. I rued the fact that i hadn't given myself more time for the trip. Anyways its not always necessary to see all the "points" in a place; according to me it only serves the purpose of boasting to people that none of the points were missed.

There were a few government buildings, a hospital  and an old church ahead of the bazaar. I could picture the old Britishers before independence walking to the church in their hats and dresses. It was fun imagining how it would have been like. It might not have been much different from now minus the hotels and the shops. There were sign boards announcing distance and direction to the "points". I saw on a board Charlotte lake and was reminded of a friend who read the name as "char lotey" once, smiling at the thought i took the turn towards the lake. Charlotte lake was a miserable sight. Muddy brown water with plastic bottles on the bank. from here i walked towards the echo point. The walk trough the woods was very refreshing. I could see why Matheran is famed or the other way around as a haunted place. Walking alone with no one in sight and the only sounds breaking the silence being the flowing water somewhere downstream, chirruping of birds and crickets i found the place peaceful however it would be easy to be feel creepy in this setting. From echo point while walking back i saw it written on a rock which read as - If you haven't seen Lord's point you haven't seen Matheran! Sometimes these punchlines can be very effective in inducing a decision. So i walked towards Lords point, which in fact was a place with quite a nice view. Near the lords point was the temple of the pisaran devata, the gram devata. Now it was getting late as i wanted to get down the ghats before dark. I walked back towards the bazaar but lost my way and ended up at the Belvedere point. It actually lives up to its name and is really a beautiful point.

There were a few more spots that i could have gone to like the one tree hill, Rambaug point, Sunset point monkey point etc but i kept these points for my later visits as Matheran has definitely got into my list of places were one could return again and again. Probably it was the time of my visit that made all the difference. A month into the monsoons but not a very rainy day. It was misty and pleasant all through the day and at the view points it was quite clear with the fog not obstructing the view. I walked down to the bazar and back to Dasturi on the narrow railway tracks with a promise in my heart to return to Matheran.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pratapgad - Fort near Mahabaleshwar

Pratapgad - A Fort near Mahabaleshwar

The monsoons has started but not yet reached its ferocious best. What i like about Pune during monsoons is the way it changes the color of the landscape of the place to a glistening green. This weekend i decided to travel solo to one of the strongholds of the Shivaji empire, Pratapgad - a beautiful fort up a hill near Mahabaleshwar.

Mahabaleshwar is a hillstation near Pune which doesn't need any introduction. A beautiful hillstation, favorite destination of many a puneite at a distance of about 120 Km from Pune, Mahabaleshwar has many sub destinations like gems on a crown scattered around it. Pratapgad fort is one such gem at about 25 Km from Mahabaleshwar. To reach Pratapgad fort from Mahabaleshwar one has to drive towards Poladpur and this fort lies ahead of the Ambenali ghats. Ambenali ghats is about 10 Kms long and shows one few of the most beautiful views around Mahabaleshwar. 
Most of the distance is covered in a thick canopy of trees and riding through the woods is in itself a special experience with the fog and the clouds partially blinding you. During monsoons one would find numerous seasonal waterfalls along the way. I wonder at times why the monsoons are considered to be off seasons in Mahabaleshwar apart from the fact that one might miss out on the strawberries, but there is lot more to Mahabaleshwar than the strawberries! anyways the good part about off seasons is that room tariffs go down to almost one third of what it would be during high seasons and one gets to see the place in the greenest possible way. I can keep wondering why monsoons are off season but there are no reasons to complain!!
Once you descend the Ambenali ghats you reach the Ambenali village from where you need to take a left to the Pratapgad fort which is about five Km from the deviation. Its a steep ascend to reach the fort. The altitude lost in the Ambenali ghat in about 10 Kms, the steep climb gains almost the same altitude in about 5Kms. The point being be ready for a treacherously steep climb!! On the way up there is a handicraft centre where different aretefacts can be found. An exhibition of art and pictures carved in metal is a stop that you should take. I visited the exhibition which is grand.
One can ride right up to the base of the fort where the stairway up starts. I reached the fort early in the morning and it was a misty walk up the fort.There is a cannon placed right at the gateway; on passing the gateway, Abdulla's tower lies to the right while the path to the left leads to the upperfort. The temple of Bhavani is on the eastern side of the lower fort. This temple apparently was built in 1661 by Shivaji as he was unable to visit his favorite diety, Bhavani at Tuljapur due continous heavy rains. The stairway continues upto the top of the fort where a statue of Shivaji is erected on a pedestal sorrounded by probably a erstwhile manicured garden. 

The inscriptionread that statue was unveiled by Pt Jawaharlal Nehru in the year 1957. There is also a rest house built by the PWD for which booking can be done from Satara or even at the rest house real time subject to availability. Its very basic accomodation with no frills attached. The ramparts of this huge fort extends further however the whole place is covered by trees and bushes. There is a water tank up ahead and also you can see the Mumbai-Goa highway. The fort has gigantic cliffs on The western and northern sides with a drop of a few hundred feets.

Pratapgad fort built by Moro Trimbak Pingle at the command of Shivaji to secure access to his possessions on the banks of Nira and Koyna river near the source of the River Krshna, and to strengthen the defences of the Par Pass is today a beautiful destination near pune for a weekend geta away.

For booking at the rest house on top you may contact Laxman the caretaker of the for and it would cost approx 400-500 a day to stay here.

Tapola - Mini Kashmir near Mahabaleshwar

An elusive trip to Tapola - Mini Kashmir near Mahabaleshwar

Long time back when i was still new to Pune i had asked a friend about places near Pune one could visit. He mentioned Tapola and called it the mini kashmir. I wondered why! I decided to go there to see for myself but for one reason or the other the place kept eluding me. Made me wonder whether the place is something like the Vaishno mata where in you could visit only if you have the "mata ka bulawa"!!

Either it was raining mad or i was running short of time or it was thanks to google maps. The google map story actually is interesting. According to google maps Tapola is ahead of Pratapgad fort on the way to Poladpur. I had taken that route to go to Tapola where in a reached a reservoir - Shivsgar dam with some options for water sports only to realize that it was not actually Tapola and to reach Tapola one had to travel about 25Km from Mahabaleshwar in the other direction towards babbington point and ahead, On that occassion i had returned to Mahabaleshwar and made the trip back to pune cursing the monopoly and inefficiency of google the giant corporate misleader!! on after thoughts however google maps is not that bad, the only thing that i dont trust about google maps is the distance quoted and approximate projection of time required. They just calulate the time with anassumption of 60 Km/hr without considering the road condition or terrain. So i have learnt to live with it and use it only for general research or lets say for starters i have google maps and for main course i go some where else !!

So this monsoons i decided to bell the cat anywhich way. I left for Tapola from Pune at 6:30 am to reach Panchgani at about 8-8:30. I had planned to have my breakfast at mapro garden. Normally they are open by the time i reach but this time i found them closed. Was the Tapola jinx still working; for those who dont know i have a superstitiously skeptic tinge to my personality. Once i settled for a less than special breakfast elsewhere i carried on to Tapola. From Mahabaleshwar the roads are quite confusing and i ended up at some view point. Apparently i had taken a right instead of a left and had deviated from the main road. How am i to blame when both the roads where of the same width and equally muddy because of the continual drizzle, more over the visibility was on the lower side on account of the fog. However i was quick to recover and resumed my trip to Tapola. The roads like the tail of a snake was taking me deeper and deeper into the land of nowhere.

10 Kms from the busy tourist hotspot of mahabaleshwar i felt as i had travelled in time back by some 30-35 years. There were old uninhabited houses once in a while, shops those where closed. Either the place wakes up very late or the shops dont open at all here! On the entire stretch to Tapola from Mahabaleshwar i wasnt able to spot a single open shop. All I was able to see was this beautiful hinterland all green,like minicured lawns,with a few trees and valleys and a lake in the distance. A word of caution - if you are riding to Tapola during monsoons the roads can be very slippery. One good thing about the route was the signboards for the phenomenal resorts which were there right uptill Tapola. Follow the signboards and you shouldnt have any difficulty finding Tapola.

The road to Tapola from Mahabaleshwar ends in a dead end which is the Shiv sagar boat club. Boating is organized in the reservoir and there are various packages that are available which would take one to different points. River camps are there on two locations with accomodation that is arranged in tents and different adventure activities are organized. Contact for booking in river camps and also for accomodation in Tapola. There are 2-3 lodges and a couple of bed and breakfast places here that offer accomodation. Commercialization of the place is just catching up so if you want to see the place in its pristine best i would suggest not to procastrinate your trip to Tapola like i did lest it might just be too late.