Monday, June 25, 2007

Matheran and the sound of the wind

Travel for a large proportion of us refers to a luxurious hotel, room service, dinner in formals in the classy restaurant downstairs and a short walk around the resort thrown in. I must confess I am a sucker for luxury too. When I went camping to Mashobra near Simla for the first time, I thought there would be beds and ACs in the tents…regardless to say, I was a tad bit surprised to find stark bare tents in the middle of a forest with sleeping bags as beds and a fire for protection against wild-life. But then that’s another travelogue.

So as one can imagine, I was quite wary when I heard that Matheran, a tiny hillstation in Maharashtra was known for scenic beauty and wilderness alone. Yet, this time I was pleasantly surprised.

In my opinion, Matheran is a popular hill station largely for 2 reasons : its proximity to Mumbai and the popular toy train that leads you to the town. Though the train was out of service, the rash taxi driver on unbelievably steep roads was a distant second in terms of a comfortable ride. Yet, we made it in one piece to Matheran. The Taxi dropped us at Dasturi (the place till where vehicles are allowed). Somehow we managed to find our way through the mob of touts selling hotels, horse rides and just about anything and found our way to the ticket counter. One needs to purchase a pass to enter Matheran. This is valid throughout your visit.

A few facts that no travelogue is complete without:
It is the smallest hill station in the world
It is also the cleanest hill station
No vehicles are allowed inside the town. None whatsoever

Wildlife includes monkeys(lots of them) and horses trotting along the path as the local means of transport. Jokes apart, Matheran is known as being an abode for various exotic birds. I would probably attribute that to the pollution free air and lack of vehicle sound.

I call these facts because the first three are displayed on posters at the entrance to the MTDC resort by the government of Maharashtra. The MTDC resort was another good find. The deluxe cottages at a double accommodation rate of Rs1,100 were quite reasonable. The resort itself is built on a large expanse of land surrounded by forests. One does not even mind the 2 hour powercut everyday as it gives you the opportunity to sit on the swing in the veranda and just absorb the entire experience. It is also the most convenient resort as it is located at Dasturi, right next to where the taxi drops you. one can make bookings locally in Mumbai at their office in Nariman Point (# 022-22026713)

Leaving my dainty image behind in Mumbai, I did what one should do in a hill station – trek. Take any path and start walking along it, here is where the beauty of Matheran lies. The quiet paths with tall trees on both sides – invariably leading to some “point” or another are a wonder in themselves. Right after breakfast, we set off trekking towards Sunset point. Being 1o’clock in the afternoon, we were obviously ill timed for the beauty of this point but it did offer us a spectacular view of the valley. Monkey point on our way back was –as can be guessed- full of monkeys and little else. For lunch, there was a tiny eatery behind the mosque in the main bazaar that seemed to be well known for its non-veg dishes but we opted for Diwakar – a garden restaurant that the locals recommended. I’ve often found that one should ask locals about the best places to eat in a new town; they are the best judge and a reasonable sample of people you ask takes away the element of promotion or bias. Diwakar has surprisingly great food and also offered chilled beer. The Chicken Biryani and the chicken lollypops left us licking our fingers.
The experience of trekking in Matheran is not like the usual treks in hill stations in Himachal and others. For one, the town is not too high above sea level. And more importantly, the fun of trekking here is not climbing difficult rock trails but in walking along narrow paths with a green canopy above you. Another interesting opportunity is walking on the unused track of the toy train. It’s a beautiful walk from Dasturi to Matheran market (around 2.5 kms). Locals have also realized this and at regular intervals you will find them selling refreshing lime water or cucumber to munch.

Some travel related info:

How to get there: Take the local train from Dadar to Neral and take a taxi from Neral station to Dasturi (The entrance to Matheran)
Money involved: Not more than 1,000 per person per day on a twin sharing basis
What to buy: Fudge and Chikki (Try the chocolate walnut fudge)
So whenever the travel bug bites next, and you are ready to leave the city behind just for a while, here is where you should head. Don’t take my word for it – go try it out for yourself.

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