Friday, July 5, 2013

The Ride, The Hill and The Panic

Bike trips have certain romanticism around them; a certain amount of aura that could possibly never be garnered around a road trip in a car or a cruise trip around an island or otherwise. I like to believe that the single largest reason for this would be that most bikers (males and females alike) feel a level of association with their bikes which is strong, almost love-like, and the elements of the motorcycle ends up being an integral part of the biker’s ego. I might be wrong, of course, but this is what I like to believe.

It might not be difficult to guess, hence, that I own a bike. I would, however, not call myself a hardcore biker. That genus of people is a much higher, much holier race. I haven’t (and possibly would never) done cross countries on my motorbike. I have never even owned a dirt-bike or an off-roader (ah, what would I not give to have one which I could actually use). Having said that, I have been riding for close to 10 years on different motorbikes, mostly for transit reasons, and I have enjoyed every single moment of it. 

I have, hence, on several occasions, planned small and long excursions on bikes but have never quite got around writing about it. This would be a first. As described in one of my previous blogs, I have a good mini-cruiser at my disposal which is capable pretty much everything I’d need to do in a city right from handling those treacherous potholes, caressing the super-curves the roads can throw at you and those occasional ego-bursts of drag races. I have always believed it is capable of handling inclines as comfortably as it handles highways. I decided to put this belief to test.

Matheran is a small (Tiniest in the world according to the state travel website) hill station near Mumbai (Close to 80 kilometers/50 miles from where I stay). It is not at a great altitude (~800m) but it is in proximity, has a clean image owing to ban on vehicles of any sort and strict anti-littering laws. The tiny landscape provides a brilliant option of hiking across the hill/forest terrain.

The Beginning: As with any short distance trip, this one was on the planning chart for way too long. After a long, long wait, the plunge was taken and on a perfect Saturday morning from Mulund. We took the much damaged Shil-Phata, Ambernath, Badlapur, Neral route. The ride mostly was pleasant with the excesses of rain as was the case with the week before. Once one reaches Neral, there is a hilly road which can be pretty steep and the ideal gear of riding moves from 4th-5th to 1st-2nd. This is a tricky deal, considering the mountain road is not long, but still happens to be really steep at some places.

The Hike: Once the hill road is over, one needs to park the bike at a privately managed parking lot at the beginning point of the hill town. The ever-paranoid me was concerned with the safety of my beloved bike in such a place; the fears were unfounded as it turns out.
Onwards, one can choose to take a horse, hike or the tiny toy train to reach Matheran station. As much as my childhood memories wanted me to take the train (which is really tiny, believe me, one of the last narrow gauge tracks in India), we adopted the more practical and fun way of hiking up. This is the point where I make reference to my Woodland shoes which never, ever fail me, and are the best companions for a bike ride, a hike, or a walk on the beach. This trek uphill is lovely, with some breathtaking valley views, some monkeys trying to snatch whatever looks remotely like food, the train puffing its way on the tiny track, and over excited teenagers screaming to make it look like they are having the most fun. Ok, I could live without the last part. 

There are some small vendors serving hikers with choicest idli-chutney and wada paos. In the event you haven’t had breakfast for beating early traffic in Mumbai, this can be your reprieve. The trek is not long, and I strongly recommend it going uphill.  

The Hill and The Point: Beautiful and quaint. This sums up everything about this place. The place has mainly volcanic red laterite based non-metalled roads. These make for good trek as long as you’re not worried about bringing home a lot of red-soil with your shoes. Being a hill, there are obviously several points from where one can have wonderful view of the valley. Most of the popular points such as Lake Charlotte, Lord’s point and One Tree Hill point are frequented by tourists. Lake Charlotte opens into a small gorge that flows into a 100 meter tall waterfall. The view and the mist are soothing.

The walk from Lake Charlotte to One Tree Hill was one of the most soothing and satisfying things I have done in recent times. There is no sound of vehicles, no hustle, no hurry, you can hear hill birds singing back to you if you whistle. If you stay on the main outside track, there is a good chance you can finish the trek in less than 2 hours. One Tree Hill point, as the name suggests, overlooks a small hill which has a solitary tree on top of it. The landscape here is such that clouds come very close to you and the wind is exceptionally fast. This was hands down the high point of the trip.

After One Tree Hill, there is a junction point where you can either take the tourist road to reach back the market area of the city, or take a longer, untouched jungle road. Being the adventurers that we are, we took the jungle road, and believe me when I say this, this road is long, and with falling darkness, it can even seem unending. I panicked at some point when I couldn’t see a human face for close to 2 hours of brisk walking. This road, however is sheer beauty. The jungles and the birds make a great company and bring you as close to nature as one can without the risk of being lost or having a guide. The trek culminates near Matheran Police station.

The People: One thing I have noticed about hill stations is that most people you will find here are very friendly. Right from the hotel staff till the kid who sold us tea and boiled corn, humility is the way of life in Matheran. In a Utopian world, I would like to see the whole world having this kind of humility and happiness; but that’s for another post.

The Return: After a long, tiring day, sleep comes easy. Next morning, after a colossal breakfast, we started our downward trek. Trains were not functioning (sigh) because of the rains and hence we trekked downhill again. This trek was as eventful as the previous one as a few daredevil monkeys took a go at my helmet assuming it to be food. They failed in their endeavors, fortunately. I found my bike safely resting in the parking lot, and I thanked my stars for the same. 

I have always known that going downhill on a bike is always much more challenging than going uphill. It is a bigger test of skill and patience than the former. The downward journey was slow and nice and thankfully it wasn’t raining. We took a break at this small shack serving tea near a gorge. The sun was smiling down and the world was good. This was the moment when I realized that I was less than 24 hours away from being in the hustle of the city life. Life has its tricky ways, doesn’t it?
Once the mountain road was over, the remaining 70 kilometers were relatively simpler, barring the occasional breaks to give my back and lower body a reprieve from the incessant riding. Just like in a work out, the pain from riding a bike is a good feeling, especially after a wonderful weekend in the hills. 

Mumbai Again: The re-entry into atmosphere was quite a ride with roads dried up and empty. The 70-odd kilometer ride with extremely bad roads for close to 20 of them was covered in little under 2 hours (which is remarkable, considering the kind of roads/traffic).
This trip shall be remembered; for the romanticism of the bike ride, the sublimity of One Tree Hill, the sheer truthfulness of my panic mode in the jungle terrain, the serenity of Lake Charlotte, the love of having deserving company, and for all the red soil I brought home.
As they rightly say, dirtier your shoes, better the journey was!