We were bombed out in Bornbay. This was in the days when Mumbai was called by its anglicised, straight out of the mouth name. We were just about at the end of our tether battling stress, crowds, pollution and heat. Having moved here recently from Delhi, it sank in, as October rolled towards November, that "winters here are not the same as winters up north". But what were we to do! Our work seemed to stretch on, with no respite in sight. And, then, a long weekend loomed. We focused our energies on keeping it sacrosanct, a treat for ourselves. The catalyst arrived in the form of my friend’s (the other half of a ‘we’) cousin from Michigan, He, too, in an oblique way, was looking for an escape route, lighting his battles with overbearing relatives, the weather, the great Indian ‘babudom’, the flies and mosquitoes - a kindred spirit looking for safety in numbers. That did it. We asked -around within our inner circle Of friends, who were also our strongest local support system and trusted source of information. We were forthright.
We needed to get out of Mumbai; to a place easily accessible, not too far (so as not to waste time travelling and to be able to get back in time for work after the weekend); quiet, clean, fresh, unique and cool.
Our wish list seemed simple and easy. Lonavala and Khandala were not even considered viable options by common consensus (I thanked my tars that by now we all understood each other so well). And that’s how Matheran happened to us.
Matheran is only a surprising 110 odd km from Mumbai making it the closest real escape from the madding crowds. This sinks in as you approach the hill station, after Mumbai’s efficient but congested transport systems. If you are going by rail, you take the quaint toy train from Neral that chugs up 21 km to Matheran. The small blue and cream coaches offset the green cloaked hills. The track curves and loops, with people jumping on and off, including food and drink vendors -not to mention monkeys, enjoying the cool, fresh breeze.
There are three services from Neral to Matheran daily, increasing to four in high season and limited to one or none during the monsoon. From Mumbai you could also get off at Karjat and backtrack on a local to Neral to catch the toy train. One of the trains from Number that stops at Neral is the Sehyadri Express.
Another option is the road route. But, wait, this option comes with a rider (one that deserves a standing ovation, we felt). No motor vehicles are allowed in Matheran - without exception. This is the magic mantra that keeps Matheran so beautiful, serene and unique. This also allows for shady tracks and leisurely walks all over and around Matheran, not to mention environmental conservation and zero pollution.
All cars and buses stop at Dasturi nearly 2.5 km from town. Taxis ply regularly from Neral, and the drive is less than half an hour, the fare around Rs 250. There is also the option of a trek through thick shady forests 11 km of a tough hike. Some friends told us that this journey is most rewarding on a moonlit night. We decided to enjoy the toy train for our first trip, saving the steep trek for another day. So, the train it was, as we chugged up the hills at well under 20 km/h exulting in the leisurely pace of our holiday.
Matheran literally, means jungle topped hill, and was ‘discovered’ by the Englishman, Hugh Malet, in 1850. An altitude of 800 in, with
Going round the bend? Take the toy train for a weekend in Matheran.
No motor vehicles are allowed in Matheran without exception. This is the magic mantra that keeps Matheran so beautiful, serene and unique stunning steep drops to the plains below, creates a number of incredible viewpoints and vistas. Malet was the collector of Thane, and the colonial influence is apparent in many of the names of places as well as the cottages and buildings. A sizeable Parsi community also lives here, running guesthouses and hotels, one of which we stayed at - comfortable and very reasonably priced, but without extravagant frills.
Different sources describe the best time to visit as October to May, October to June or November to February and April to June. The holiday season is the most crowded. The temperature varies from 16¡ C in winter to 32¡ C in summer, and the annual rainfall is 524 cm.
You can move around in Matheran on pony, in the colourful bright red and yellow hand drawn rickshaws that add a splash of vibrant colour to the greens and browns of nature, or by foot on the red sandy roads, which turn into muddy, slushy quagmire during the monsoon.
A number of hotels, guest houses and restaurants offer good boarding and lodging facilities here to suit most budgets, and some even have chilled beer and full bars. The best way to enjoy Matheran is to take it at a leisurely pace, preferably on foot.
Suitably chilled out after a light lunch, and retuning our systems to the rhythm of Matheran, we set about exploring the unusually named points all over the place. We came across white washed cottages with sloping red roofs along the way, and, from some points, the hillside looked like a layered cake, cut and scooped, showing –green and brown striations all the way down in an even pattern. The shopping area and bazaar is a fun place to buy a hat, cane and leather articles, sandals and chikki - the famous sweet speciality made from jaggery and nuts. Paymaster’s Park has play areas and swings that keep children of all ages happy. A small lake, called Charlotte Lake, is a quiet spot with the tree line coming right down to the clear blue water. A small dam conserves the water, as this is an important source for the town.
Some places offer beautiful views of sunset, and are on every tourist’s itinerary. Sunset Point is popular, with a few sandwich and soft drink stalls providing refreshment for the body, as the mind takes in the view of hills
by rail: There are three direct train connections from Mumbai to Neral Junction: the Deccan Express, the Koyna Express and the night Pune Passenger. Alternatively, there are far more trains from Mumbai to Karjat and several local trains from there to Neral.
Frequency of the toy train from Neral to Matheran varies, depending on the season.
by road: Matheran is approximately 110 km from Mumbai. All motor journeys, however, must end at the Dasturi car park, 2.5 km from the rail station. Taxis ply between Neral and Matheran.
Matheran has long been a hill resort, and there is a wide variety of accommodation available. Book well in advance for peak season.
The best way to enjoy Matheran is to take it at a leisurely pace, preferably on foot the last morning left to us in Matheran, we set out on a walk in the morning’s fresh air. We had a friend with us, a young boy from the hotel. He took us to One Tree Hill and down a footpath southwards into a densely forested valley. This was the famed Ladder of Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior, which led down into the plains, facilitating a quick getaway. It was rediscovered by Malet but was known to the locals for centuries.
Sadly, though, we didn’t have time to go the full way, and turned back, promising ourselves and the young lad that we would be back for more, on an extended stay. For, by now, we had already decided for our next trip to trek up from Neral and unravel more of Shivaji’s legends. dropping away, a few lakes, and, then, farther on, more hills with rocky peaks that look like fortresses in the distance. At Echo Point, your voice bounces off the hills that surround you on three sides. The view from Louisa Point is awesome. The day we visited, it was somewhat misty and, as we stood there, looking out, we could see a hill shaped like a Gothic church, with a massive spire jutting out of it, an apparition from the colonial past. On a clear day, it is even possible to see Mumbai from Hart Point, and, on a clear night, the lights of the bustling city are visible, according to the local residents, an option we were more than happy to pass up. We wanted no memories of Mad Mumbai to impinge on our rendezvous with nature.
Another delightful spot is the aptly named One Tree Hill, where a solitary tree tops a rounded hill, quite like the choti (pigtail) of a Brahmin from Varanasi, sticking out of his rounded bald pate. And so we wandered, visiting different points with unusual names - Coronation Point, Little Chawk Point, Malet Point, Rambaug Point (home to Hindu and Parsi cemeteries) and Byron Garbut Point, a place for adventure trekkers.
If Matheran is thankfully devoid of motorcars, the nuisance value is made up for by monkeys: they are everywhere, outnumbering the human population. At quiet and isolated spots, which abound here, sometimes, the only intrusion is from these mischievous, and, often, vicious, simians, looking for a quick bite, either as a handout or part of a raid.
The weekend breezed by, and on Thanking our young guide - and Shivaji, we made our way back to the hotel and the railway station. Swaying to the train’s gentle rocking, I spied a large, wise monkey with a thoughtful expression on his face.
I looked him in the eye and said loudly and very seriously, "Hey! Don’t look so glum. We’ll be back," and closed my eyes as my companions whooped loudly, after a moment of complete silence.