Harishchandragad via “nali-chi-vaat” was a trek that scared the living daylights out of me. It was the first second time on a trek in the Sahyadri Mountains that I actually feared for my life. At the end of the trek, I made a promise to myself that I would never put myself in such a situation again. No trek is worth the risks that we put ourselves in during this trek. This memoir is a narration of that thrilling “do or die” two-day trek that I did back in November 2008. It was fun going over my notes while writing this article … it was as if I was transported back in time and re-living every single moment. I briefly wrote about this trek in my Retrospection article.
“Nali-chi-vaat” is the vernacular term used by the locals, which loosely translates to “gorge route”. In Marathi, “nali” means a “gorge” and “vaat” means “path” or “route”. Mangal Ganga river originates from the top of Harishchandragad and flows threw this “nali” or gorge. Indeed, this gives the impression that the path a river takes as it originates from a mountain top must be very steep.
Harishchandragad (~4,675 feet) is an ancient hill-fort in the state of Maharashtra in India at the boundaries of Thane, Pune and Ahmednagar districts. It is a beautiful mountain with spectacular views and is known for its Konkan Kada (Konkan Cliff), which is a huge semi-circular cliff with an overhang. The cliff looks like a hooded cobra. From the top, the view of the Konkan region is breathtaking. Maharashtra has several hundred hill-forts, which are a treasure trove of India’s cultural heritage. Many of these were vandalized by the British (among other things) and now lie in a state of neglect.
Harishchandragad can be climbed via at least four different routes, with “nali-chi-vaat” being the steepest and least climbed route. The mountain is part of the Sahyadri range, also known as the Western Ghats that run 2000 kilometers along the west coast of India. Western Ghats are often dubbed the “Himalayas of South India” since they are the only major range south of the Himalayas.
It was October, and I was already a month and half into my four-month long trip to India. I had come from Pune to Aurangabad for about a week to celebrate the Festival of Lights – Diwali – with my aatya (aunt) and her children’s families. Luckily, I had packed all my clothes in an expedition size backpack, which I had also taken to Sikkim for the famous Goecha-la trek from where the view of Mt. Kanchendzonga, world’s third-highest peak, is to die for.
While in Aurangabad, I received a surprise SMS from my trek buddy, Krish. Krish, whose real name is Gajanan (that’s a story for another day), had messaged to ask if I was interested in joining them for Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat. This challenging trek is on all avid trekker’s list and it had been on mine ever since I saw a few photographs of the trek on the erstwhile social networking site Orkut. The photos were breathtaking and made me yearn for adventure. With vigor, I immediately replied with my interest for the trek. Over the next few days, we went back and forth on the dates and it was decided that we would meet at Pune’s Shivajinagar Bus Depot on Halloween night (October 31st) and take the last bus departing to Ale Phata at midnight.
Pre-Trek Complication #1
While playing with my aatya’s grandchildren, one of the kids accidentally poked me in the eye, which caused a small cut on the sclera (white part of the eye). The blood-red cut could clearly be seen and needless to say I was scared.
Fortunately, one of aatya’s sons (my cousin) is a doctor and I immediately consulted with him. He advised against washing my eye with water (to avoid getting an infection) until the wound healed. At that time, different scenarios were playing in my mind. I was recalling my uncle’s freak accident that caused him to lose one eye.
Throughout the trek, my eye was an additional thing that I had to worry about. However, there were several moments when worrying about my eye was the least of my concerns.
Pre-Trek Complication #2
As a Diwali gift, my aatya’s eldest son, Girish, had pre-arranged a guided-tour for me to the World UNESCO Heritage site – Ajanta caves – on October 31st. That was the same day I was supposed to start the trek from Pune. His wife and the children were to accompany me to the caves, and the tour was already paid for so canceling it was not an option for me.
Aurangabad-Ajanta takes about 3 hours by bus, and Aurangabad-Pune takes a good 5-6 hours by bus. I figured I would have to take the 6pm bus from Aurangabad at the latest to reach Pune in time for the trek. This meant that I would have to pack my bag and take it with me to Ajanta, which I was prepared to do.
Ajanta Archaeological Site
Ajanta caves are a fantastic archaeological site. They are smaller than the Ellora caves but Ajanta is famous for its coloured caves. The colours have been preserved for thousands of years. It is only in the last few decades that the caves have sustained considerable damage (and vandalism), primarily due to government neglect and mismanagement (as usual). Sometimes I think modern India does not deserve its treasures (such as its biodiversity, cultural monuments, wildlife -tigers!). Anyway, this is a topic for another post.
I had fun at Ajanta. However, I found it annoying to have to remove my shoes before entering many of the caves (they are like temples). Since ours was a guided tour, we had a guide. However, it was impossible to hear him due to the skewed people-to-guide ratio (50:1).
In spite of signs indicating that flash photographs is prohibited, people were still doing it due of a lack of awareness on why it should not be done (damages the ancient colours). I wish the “No Flash” signs would add this bit of information on it to educate people.
Japan is funding the restoration of caves at Ajanta and Ellora. Work is progressing slowly. They have also donated eco-friendly buses, which ferry tourists to the caves from the parking lot. The parking lot is a few kilometers away to prevent damage to the caves by vehicular pollution.
Since the tour was starting early in the morning and ending in the evening, I had just enough time to reach Pune before midnight if everything went as planned. We were planning on taking the last bus (at midnight) leaving from Pune to Ale Phata. I had packed everything in my backpack and it was quite heavy. Fortunately, after a nice chicken lunch we departed Ajanta and reached Aurangabad just before 6pm; I was able to catch the 6pm bus to Pune.
I was now in trek mode. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Meeting at Pune’s Shivajinagar Bus Depot
Other than being annoyingly slow, my journey to Pune was uneventful. In the bus I got a chance to speak to my parents. My mom, who knew about the difficulty of this trek, was worried. Prior to boarding, I had asked the bus conductor how long it would take to reach Pune. He said 6 hours. Initially, the bus was going fast so I was hoping it would reach earlier, which would give me a chance to go home and empty my bag of all the things that I didn’t need for the trek (including a week’s worth of clothes, shaving kit, Diwali gifts). It would also give me a chance to pack things that I would need, such as, a sleeping mat, a light blanket, a plate, spoon and a cup.
In case I did not have the time to go home first after arriving in Pune, I had asked my friends to bring all the things that I would need for the trek. Still, I was hoping I would get a chance to go home. My backpack was weighing at least 12kg and it didn’t even have all the things which I needed for the trek. I wasn’t looking forward to going on this trek carrying a heavy load of useless things. I figured 45 minutes would be enough for me to go home, unpack/pack, and get back to the bus depot. 45 minutes were all that I needed. As if to make good on his (conductor’s) estimate, the bus took its sweet time at a couple of stops, and the road closer to Pune was quite bad.
At around 11:45pm on Friday night, my bus pulled into Pune’s Shivajinagar Bus Depot. Krish, Sachin and Atul were already waiting for me. I was friends with Krish and Atul from earlier treks, but I hadn’t met Sachin before. Shailesh and Devarshee (another new member) were to join us from Mumbai and we were to meet them in Savarne village, the starting point of our trek. Our team looked quite prepared with all the climbing equipment. I had resigned to the fact that I would not be able to go home to empty out my bag.
I had already had 12 hours of bus travel that day and there was more to come.
State Transport Buses
State Transport or S.T. buses, affectionately called lal dabbas – “red boxes” – due to their red exterior colour, are a hallmark of rural transportation in Maharashtra. They have an almost hollow interior and the windows often rattle on bumpy roads. Mind you, these Indian-made Tata buses are very sturdy and don’t break down easily despite the poor roads they ply on. I don’t think any Western-made bus would last a month on some of the roads these buses ply on.
Even some of the remote-interior villages are connected by an S.T. bus. The buses are typically the most crowded on Sundays when villagers go out to the marketplace, or perhaps a fair, or to visit relatives in nearby towns or other villages, wearing their best clothes. On other days, one would typically see school children with monthly passes on the buses.
It is indeed sad that some bus conductors (ticket checkers) are arrogant and act rudely with their passengers who are mostly uneducated. It’s almost as if they have no respect for the villagers who are very simple people and are some of the poorest in India. I’ve seen some old ladies bargain with the conductor for a few rupees. Next to walking or riding a bicycle, S.T. buses are the cheapest mode of transportation.
There’s no doubt that traveling in a S.T. bus is an experience. It gives me a chance to observe village people – my people – how they dress, how they talk. In spite of the uncomfortable and back-breaking journey it usually is riding on one of these buses, I love it!
At Shivajinagar, I went to the canteen and ordered a tea and vada pav (Indian vegetarian burger). The last S.T. bus to Ale Phata arrived around midnight and I quickly settled my bill and went outside to join the others. Being a Friday night, the bus was fairly crowded and we were fortunate enough to get seats, albeit uncomfortable.
It was an adventure in itself to reach the base village, Savarne, from where we were to start our trek. We reached Ale Phata in about 2 hours (around 02:30am). The last time I had been to Ale Phata it was during the day time and I remember it being very busy and crowded. At 2:30 in the morning it was deserted. Our plan was to hitchhike to Savarne village.
We were on the highway and we flagged a few trucks and buses but they didn’t stop for us. Finally, a luxury bus picked us up and we agreed to pay the driver Rs.50 each to drop us at Savarne village’s highway bus stop; truck and bus drivers often pickup hitchhikers to pocket some extra money.
Although we were in a luxury bus, there was no luxury for us. We were accommodated in the front of the bus (driver cabin). Several other hitchhikers had already been picked up so there wasn’t much room to sit. I was sitting on top of the engine and it was hot as hell (passengers in the back behind a partition wall were sleeping comfortably on their reclining chairs in the cool A/C air).
We reached our destination after about an hour (around 03:30am). It was dark and Savarne village was nowhere to be seen. There was a little dilapidated bus shelter on the side of the highway that looked like it would be occupied by snakes and other creepy crawlers at night. We figured that would be the highway bus top. We were wondering where we might find Shailesh and Devarashee (Deva for short) and lo and behold, we found them sleeping comfortably on their sleeping mats in the bus shelter. We had a good laugh after seeing them there.
It was late, so we all decided to call it a night and sleep in the shelter until morning. It had been a long day (and night) of traveling for me.
To be continued… click for Part Two.