Solo-tripping across Sikkim!

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Earlier this year, I decided to embark upon a new adventure – a solo trip to Sikkim!
My 15 day journey involved hopping in and out of shared jeeps, switching multiple trains, living in home-stays and budget accommodations, experiencing nature in all its glory, meeting the most amazing people and gorging on the most delicious food! To call the experience exhilarating would be an understatement.

I would be lying if I said that I was not apprehensive about travelling alone. But having successfully managed to complete the trip all by myself, I am filled with a sense of liberty and independence! Travelling alone has filled me with a sense of empowerment and also helped me connect with myself in so many ways. I took so many decisions that I never thought I could take, and discovered the courage that I never thought I could possess. Most importantly, travelling alone helped me truly appreciate the significance and culture of the place.

Needless to say, I will be writing extensively about my experiences in Sikkim. However, to begin with, I would like to share with you a brief interview that Breakfree Journeys conducted with me to know more about my experience as a female solo-traveller. It gave me a great platform to share (a part of) my experience, apprehensions, preparation and thoughts at the time of travel; And I would love to share it with you!
So here’s the link:

http://breakfreejourneys.com/conversation-kalindi-manek-travelling-solo-sikkim/#

Will soon update this space with more stories from visit to Sikkim 🙂

 

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Satluj

Having just returned from a fulfilling trip across the eastern regions of Himachal Pradesh, I am filled with memories, awestruck by it’s beauty and gripped with nostalgia even as I write.
A detailed post outlining our adventures in the mighty Himalayas is very much in order. However, there is something that I would like to share with you before that. Something that was symbolic of the entire trip, to me.
Most of us have our best and worst moments after every journey. But there is more to that. We also have this one thing- an experience or an object or a person- that becomes symbolic of the trip for us.
For me, that was river Satluj (Sutlej) and her tributaries.
The river managed to capture my heart as flawlessly as she changed her form – first as the mighty Satluj, then in the form of the beautiful Baspa, then as the serene Spiti and ultimately in the form of Pin. The virtuous river had so many roles to play and yet, she played each of them with unrealistic ease!
For me, the Satluj was the epitome of determination. Delicate, yet strong. She had made a place for herself in the mighty Himalayas..or rather through the mighty Himalayas, hadn’t she?
So even as I flip through the pages of a magnificent Himalayan experience, I cannot help but pen down the awe I feel for Satluj.

 

 

She appeared, almost out of nowhere
Chaste and clear, Blue and bare
She saw, she observed
She looked like she had her doubts
But faith was all we had.

She swerved, and we followed
She curved, and we wallowed
She turned, and we blundered
She danced along, and we only wondered.

She changed her form with celerity
She tiptoed away, with grace unparalleled
She returned when she felt like, with a mystic air
She touched us, almost
and then she left again with a teasing stare.

She ran at first, but then slowed down
She was fierce at first, but then she wore a mellow brown
She wavered at first, but then she never left our side
She was aloof at first, but then she also kissed goodnight.

She called us, with one flirtatious stare
She made us follow her, with a promise unsaid
She advanced slowly at first, and then all at once
She had befriended the mountains and the clouds
and also the glistening rays of the sun.

She kept her word and our hand she held
She stayed with us, right until the end
At the end of our sojourn, she stopped in her track
And then she took the final turn and never looked back.

spiti river

The glorious river!

 

PS: Detailed post coming soon!

Trek to TakMakGad!

This gallery contains 11 photos.

Hello All! Here are a few photos from my recent trek to TakMakGad, in the Sahyadris. To call it beautiful would be an understatement. I started travelling with Breakfree Journeys a couple of years back, and my first trek was to TakMakGad. Having travelled to TakMakGad again (my tenth trek this time!), I must say […]

Gorakhgad – The road to defy gravity

This winter has indeed been a special one for Breakfree Journeys.  Starting with the trek to Kalavantin Durg, followed by rappelling at the Duke’s Nose (an exhilarating experience) the trekkers did have an activity-filled season!
On public demand, Rushikesh – the Man-in-charge aka MIC – organized a Republic day trek to Gorakhgad (for the first time Team Breakfree would celebrate Republic Day in the wild, instead of watching the parade on Doordarshan.)
Easily one of the fastest-filled treks (21 confirmations in two days!), Gorakhgad definitely played hard to get from the word go.
My conversation with Rushikesh on Sunday, Jan 20:

Rushikesh: There seems to be a problem. Having difficulty with finding a good 21-seater bus.
Me: Why? What about the one that we usually take?
Rushikesh: He’s already trekking to some other place and it’s a long weekend. So all these buses want to go for an overnight.
Me: Oh no! So what now?
Rushikesh: I’m trying my best to find a way out. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll have to change the location to some place closer home. Then we will have to use public transport. Let’s see.

My joy knew no bounds when I received an SMS from the MIC, which said that a 27-seater bus had finally been booked and Gorakhgad, it was!
The week was spent in mental preparation of the trek that awaited us. A lot of blogs had mentioned that it was a ‘Medium’ grade trek and there was some very tricky rock climbing, too. I was excited..in anticipation of the beautiful day to be spend in Mother Nature’s lap.
Monday…Tuesday…Wednesday…Thursday…Friday!!
Friday came and along with it came the ‘I-don’t-feel-like-working-so-Saturday-please-come-soon’ feeling. With office over and all the packing done at home, all that was left for me, was to set the alarm for 4.30am and a good night’s sleep (That is very important. Nobody wants to be all sleepy and droopy in the bus while everyone else enjoys playing antakshari!!)

The next morning, I woke up at 4.30am (sharp, for a change :P) Soon, I received a call from Rushikesh to confirm that the Breakfree Bus would be leaving on time from Borivli. Having dressed up as fast as I possibly could, I was eagerly awaiting The MIC’s call and was all geared up to leave. The MIC called me up at around 5.40am and said that the Breakfree Bus would be reaching Kalanagar in 15 minutes!

CST. 0445 hrs.

CST. 0445 hrs.

I dashed off the house in no time, and reached Kalanagar by 5.50am (Early mornings are beautiful! No traffic, only the pleasant chirping of numerous birds!)
Five other trekkers were waiting for the Breakfree Bus at Kalanagar junction (You see, Kalanagar is the place to be!) As soon as the Breakfree Bus arrived, we jumped in to get ourselves the best seats. What followed was a series of HIs, hellos, good mornings and other greetings! Even the chilly winter morning couldn’t do much to dampen our enthusiasm. Sion and Thane soon arrived and the bus was filled with enthusiastic trekkers by the Majiwada stop (21 in total.)
Soon, the food packets surfaced (we had four gujjus on board, what else can you expect?) and the chit-chat began in full swing. Jokes, leg-pulling, catching-up with old pals is all a part of the early-morning-travel ritual. The sun-rise was a beautiful vista and had all the trekkers endlessly gazing out of the bus windows. The sunlight sure seemed to have moved out all the morning shivers for the trees stood tall and shiny, the roads clear and bright and birds flew around, chirping happily. After

The first rays of light.

The first rays of light.

almost an hour and a half on the road, we started to approach Murbad village – our breakfast halt. Close to the ST bus stand, is Hotel Swami, where we paused to grab a quick bite (The same place where we halted at, on our trek to Naneghat last year). After a delicious breakfast (consisting of steaming hot missal pav, idlis, sheera and tea/coffee) and a quick break to freshen up (the restrooms at the bus stand are extremely clean and definitely a source of relief to many :P) we headed back to the Breakfree Bus. Quickly taking a head-count, we started off on the journey to Dehri (around 22 km from Murbad), the base village of Gorakhgad. The forty minute route was filled with trekker-jabbering and a game of antakshari that had to be stopped as we sighted the peak we were soon going to ascend. How magnificent it looked! The summit was vertical and sent shivers down our spine. We were going to be climbing that peak soon..and at Breakfree, we haven’t heard of failure!

The first glimpse.

The first glimpse.

Ascending quickly to the base, we formed the traditional circle of introduction (we really ought to trademark these terms now). Quick instructions from the MIC and a few moments of silence (again, traditional) later, the trek had finally begun at around 10am! Crossing the large temple at the base, we walked ahead through the muddy path. A trail was marked for the convenience of trekkers and we kept

Chale chalo.

Chale chalo.

following it. Arrows dotted the rocks, and they seemed to be recently painted. Soon, the trekkers disintegrated into various sub-groups and steadily walked up the muddy path. The path and vegetation were very dry, thanks to the blazing sun and water bottles were surfaced out at various intervals. The morning chill had long disappeared and it looked like the Gorakhgad heat was trying to play all sorts of mind games with us! (As Rushikesh later joked – “This is as good as a summer trek. The winter-trek feeling comes only till the pick-up points.” So true!)

A good 45 minutes of walking on the muddy terrain led us to a rocky clearing. The sight was beautiful! A marvelously gigantic mountain stood overlooking us, at the end of the cliff. Who knows how many enthusiastic trekkers the mountain might have seen in its lifetime? A good few pictures were clicked at this spot (The Breakfree photographers are always on the prowl for excellent shots like that).
At the end of the mud clearing were a couple of boards displaying the Gorakhgad trekking route. The boards marked the beginning of another chapter in the trek – the gravel route and rock climbing. Up till now, the path was easy, but long. It was more of a test of endurance, which was not tricky to climb.

The mountain with a face.

The mountain with a face.

The board displaying the route.

The board displaying the route.

As we climbed up the rocky way, our immediate goal was to reach the orange (shendoor) painted gate. One batch of trekkers had already climbed ahead of the others, and green-signaled the route. The route may have looked scary from where we were standing. But while climbing up, we realized that it wasn’t that difficult after all. The rocks had dents to provide a good grip and the rocks were evenly positioned, providing enough space to climb up.

Climbing to the cave.

Climbing to the cave.

Within no time, the remaining trekkers reached the first cave. Having reached the first milestone, we quickly walked ahead to catch up with the first batch of trekkers.
Our second stop was to be another set of caves – our not so final ‘resting place’. That was to be our ‘rest-place’.
On our way to the caves, plenty of photographs were clicked and jokes cracked! We reached a clearing before another rocky patch. We sat there for a while, sharing our experiences of the trek, randomly chit-chatting and trying to make fire by focusing the magnifying glass!

Playing with fire :P

Playing with fire 😛

After resting there for around 15-20 minutes, we decided to head to the caves. That is when we called Rushikesh to ask him about the further Plan of Action. When we called him up at around 11.30am, he mentioned that the first batch of trekkers had already reached the peak. Whoa! That was something! That’s when we decided to walk faster to reach the caves, so that we could reach the peak, too! Another 15 minutes of walking later, we reached the caves. The place was filled with monkeys and a few other trekkers who were planning to spend the night in the caves. The cameras were out in no time and the trekkers were certainly having a good time chilling by the cave and enjoying the glorious views!

Monkeys!

Monkeys!

We called the MIC again, to ask if we could continue walking to the peak. As climbing to the peak was left to the option of trekkers, we were told that one of the trekkers from the first batch that had already reached the peak would come to the caves to to lead us to the top. We indulged in some random small-talk until one of the trekkers came to show us the way to the peak.

The tricky part.

The tricky part.

As we headed to the peak, I realized that most of the blogs describing Gorakhgad had over-rated the final ascent on the rock cut steps. There was just one patch in the beginning of the last leg that was tricky. It was tricky, but not dangerous. With a little help from the fellow trekkers, one-by-one, we managed to climb the tricky part to reach the stone steps that led to the summit.

Climbing the stone steps.

Climbing the stone steps.

The beautiful temple.

By 12.30pm, we had reached the peak. It was a mini-reunion with the others who were already there. After the initial chit-chatting, anecdote sharing and biscuit-eating (naturally, were hungry after the long climb!) the cameras were out and the photo-sessions had commenced! The peak was beautiful! Surrounding us were the beautiful Machindragad and Siddhagad peaks! On the peak was beautifully serene Shiva temple. We were told that hordes of villagers would climb all the way up to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva. The MIC was trailing with a bunch of six other trekkers. As he reached the peak, we got to know that four of the trekkers had decided to stay back at the caves as they weren’t sure about climbing to the peak. By 1pm, everybody had managed to reach the peak. More pictures followed along with admiring the panoramic views from the Gorakhgad peak and some random introspection (as usual) and philosophy sharing! Mountain peaks make one so philosophical! They’re almost therapeutically meditative!

Another half an hour passed in no time and by 1.30pm, we were urged by the MIC to start descending to area where the board displaying the trek-route stood. But before that, the young trekkers decided to sing the national anthem atop the hill. Pin drop silence. Even the locals who were visiting the temple joined us in singing the anthem. What a proud moment that was! We felt on top of the world..literally!

Carefully climbing down.

Carefully climbing down.

Once the national anthem was sung, we slowly started descending down the stone steps. Slowlly, but steadily and very cautiously, we climbed down. Again, it was only tricky to climb down the steps, but not dangerous. Soon, with some help from the fellow trekkers, we managed to climb down the summit. We were asked by the MIC to dispatch in groups, for lunch would be waiting for us at the clearing after the small cave. Descending, and crossing the panoramic views, we mentally bade adieu to the peak and headed to where our lunch was going to be served. By 2.15pm, around fifteen of us had managed to reach the clearing and were eagerly awaiting our meal! The lunch was organized and prepared by Amit Patil, a resident of the base village. He is known to arrange food for the numerous trekkers visiting Gorakhgad at reasonable rates. The hungry trekkers soon rushed to grab their Hungry!plates! It goes without saying that the local fare (consisting of rice rotis, sabzi, dal, rice and onions) was delicious and had the trekkers licking their fingers! It took the MIC a lot of effort to get everyone to start moving again!

The trek had been a long one..and tiring, because we were falling very short of water! We asked Amit ji if there was any dam or water body in the village..where we could go and take a dip and light a bonfire in the evening. To our surprise (and good fortune) there was a dam not too far away in the village! Amit ji confirmed that we could certainly go and take a dip in the cool river waters! Only the mention of ‘river’ was enough to refresh the tired trekkers and get them to speed to the base! The descent was pretty much uneventful, excepting a few thuds and falls (bad shoes, they complained!).
By 5 pm, all the trekkers had managed to reach the base. After a quick refreshment break, we hopped into the Breakfree to go to the next destination – the river!

The river.

The river.

We reached the river by around 5.15pm and quickly started collecting twigs and broken branches for the bonfire enroute the end of the river bank. On the way, a couple of us met up with a few villagers who were carrying firewood on their heads. For a small sum, they parted with a big bunch of twigs and we soon had enough for a decent sized bonfire! As soon as we reached the water’s edge, forgetting all inhibitions, the trekkers happily jumped into the cool, serene waters! What followed was an hour of swimming, chilling and splashing water on each other! The trekkers had conveniently transformed into water babies in no time! The sun had begun setting while we were still in the water and what a sight it was! To call

Sunset.

Sunset.

it beautiful would be an understatement! By around 6.15pm, the MIC was seen dragging us out of the water. We had a bonfire to light, didn’t we? The bonfire was lit and all the trekkers were out of the water (now shivering in the cold!).
We spent around 45minutes at the bonfire, sharing our best and worst experiences of the day, warming ourselves well and just enjoying the moment – Sunset and moonrise.
I cannot express through words how beautiful that moment was. Nobody can. It was a moment to experience.

Moonrise.

Moonrise.

By 7pm, the bonfire had reduced to glowing embers, and we were ready to walk back to the bus, with torches in our hands. But the moonlight was enough and we soon switched them off. As the waters of the dam glimmered under the full moon, a disparate group of individuals with varied backgrounds walked together, bound by a common love for nature and adventure. Once at the bus, we quickly changed and got the food boxes out in no time! Swimming does make one feel hungry, doesn’t it? What followed was plenty of fun and an endless game of antakshari.
We had finally set out on our journey to return to normalcy. To return to the city. To return to monotony.

Bonfire.

Bonfire.

“Haan yahi rasta hai tera..tune ab jaana hai. Haan yahi sapna hai tera..tune pehchaana hai.
Tujhe ab yeh dikhaana hai..
Roke tujhko aandhiyaan, ya zameen aur aasman..paayega jo lakshya hai tera…
Lakshya toh har haal mein paana hai..”

– Title track of the movie Lakshya, Shankar Mahadevan.

The victorious trekkers.

The victorious trekkers.

A big thank-you to Abhay, Athira, Nitin, Abhishek, Mahesh, Mihir, Siddhesh and Vinay for the beautiful pictures! We owe you one!

Thankyou, Breakfree Journeys and Rushikesh. We had a wonderful time..as always! 🙂

Walking in the clouds – at Visapur!

The clouds are heavy, the sky is set.
One day of adventure, we know we will get.
With nature some time we wish to spend.
We silently hope for the day to not come to an end.

Early Saturday morning, I was awoken by a noise. It wasn’t the alarm clock. I thought it was the sound of heavy rain hitting against my window. Wait. Rain? Rain! It was finally raining!
There was an instant surge of excitement in me! If it was raining here, then it must be raining in Lonavala for sure. So the IMD had made a precise forecast after all.

Dressing up as fast as I could, I was eagerly awaiting the Man in-charge (MIC) Rushikesh’s call. Had the Breakfree Bus left on time? How many people were finally joining us on the trek? What would the weather over there be like? So many questions were flooding my head. So much excitement was running through me. Boy! It was going to be a fantastic day. I just knew it.

Finally, at 5.30 am, I received an SMS from Rushikesh. The Breakfree Bus had left well on time. The next 15 minutes were spent in anticipation, randomly walking around the house, last minute checks, and glancing at the watch again and again.
I reached Kalanagar by 6 am, eagerly waiting for the bus to come.
Soon, I was joined by a couple of other trekkers. As we waited for the bus to come, we received a call from Rushikesh saying that there had been an unforeseen delay at Borivli as one of the trekkers had overslept (These late night matches, I tell you. As much as I love them, they’re an absolute no no before a trek!)

All good things come at a price, we’re always told.
Waiting for the bus, the raindrops left us cold.
Eagerly looking forward, we were, to the journey ahead.
The excitement on our faces any soul could have read.

By 6.20 am, the Breakfree Bus was there! This was not the bus we usually hired, but who cared! As long as it was there and as long as we were going to Lonavala, all was well.
As usual, we ran in to get ourselves the best seats. Some wanted the window seats while some (me, actually) rushed in to grab the last seat (they’re a comfort if you wish to sleep :-P)

The next stop was at Sion which was barely away. As usual, the Sion crowd was punctual and we heaved a sigh of relief as a couple of trekkers hopped in. There weren’t going to be any more delays, after all.
Well, we were proved wrong at Chembur. There was another 10 minute wait for another trekker who had overslept. (I could have cursed Euro 2012. No offence.)

Raining. On the express way.

As the last two trekkers arrived, the Breakfree Bus took off and we realised that our journey had finally begun.
The initial few minutes were spent in catching up with old pals, HIs and hellos and catching a good forty winks, too!
This new bus was sophisticated for it contained a big enough LCD screen and and a hi-fi music player, too. The journey ahead was filled with some nice music, humorous (and humour less) banter and some great conversations (The unprecedented delays had acted as a major ice breaker. Really.)

So with a few (short) stops at the petrol pump and the food court (the vada pavs were delicious!) we were getting closer and closer to our destination – Visapur.
This time, we had decided to not take the inner roads of Lonavala and went ahead from the Express way instead.
The weather was delightful and the showers only added to the pleasant atmosphere, the cool winds and our overly brimming excitement!
The monsoons had arrived, and how!
The roads were filled with Mumbai based cars. People were flocking to the hills to enjoy the rainy weekend. That caused a slightly delay due to heavy traffic, but that was OK. Everybody had a right to enjoy the beautiful weather, didn’t they?
En route Visapur, we were greeted by a panoramic view of the great mountains, green pastures, running rivers and newly formed waterfalls. There was silence in the bus as all the trekkers sat on their seats, looking outside the windows, observing the beauty of nature with awe. Somewhere in our minds, we were also wondering which of the great mountains we just saw, was the one we were going to climb.

Each of the mountains had a secret or a story to tell
Looking out of the window, only fresh air we could smell.
The beauty of nature was long in its prime
Who would have thought that one of these mountains, we were soon going to climb?

Having crossed the Malavli railway station, soon, by 9 am, we reached the base (this new driver drove the bus like a boss!!). The bus was filled with activity – trekkers grabbing their bags, some changing into their special Action trekking shoes, some picking up their windcheaters & cameras and some rushing outside to locate a washroom!

At the breakfast table!

Once everyone was out, we moved into Jay Malhar, a local eatery, for breakfast. Breakfast was a lavish affair with unlimited kanda poha (why! We need to fill our tummies before we start on our long trek) and chai (a beautiful weather like that would have been incomplete without the chai!). Post breakfast, we found a local guide named Sudhir who would guide us to the peak. Following the traditional Circle of Introduction, we started with the journey that was sure to remain etched in our minds forever.

At 9.45 am we started the trek. Sudhir led the 12 enthusiastic trekkers through the path. We had to climb a series of stone steps. Although we made faces initially for having to go on apparently easy to climb steps, we soon realised that steps, were in fact, extremely difficult to climb. (Ouch, the knees!) After having climbed some 75 steps, Sudhir led to an opening – into the mountain. Ah! Mountain! It immediately gave us a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of familiarity. Hadn’t we climbed so many mountains before?
The air was cool, the atmosphere calm. It felt like it was going to rain, and we collectively hoped that it would. One of the trekkers has enthusiastically brought mangoes for all of us (we believe in sharing and caring, don’t we?) and as we stood there, distributing the mangoes, three goats appeared from nowhere (and we thought it was only dogs who followed us!) and refused to leave us alone! They followed us even as we continued climbing uphill (sigh.)

Those pesky goats! 😛

Divided into groups, we continued our climb upwards. What we saw was exceptional beauty! Small villages, the express way, the railway track, the green pastures – all of it looked miniature and divine! Added to it were Sudhir’s anecdotes about the village, the mountains, the animals and birds.
As we ascended up, we realised that the place could have been a haven for bird watchers! (Oriental Magpie Robin, Indian Robin, Green bee eater, Black Drongos were some of the birds that we happened to spot!)

It had started pouring now. Light showers, not much. Most of the windcheaters were out already! By 11.30 am, we reached a clearing where we saw the remains of a house and a shed. That is when not-so-funny stories about haunted housed, bhooth bungalows and ghosts began to surface. However, we were shocked out of our wits when Sudhir told us that there were a couple of locals who had committed suicide from that very mountain!! Wide eyed, we started walking ahead – reluctantly, but quickly. Sudhir was playing the role of a guide to the tee. Sharing stories and experiences of his life in the village, he was leading us to the top. Just a short way into the mountain, he suddenly turned behind and softly asked to observe a deer which was barely 100 metres away from where we stood! However, in all our excitement at having spotted such a beautiful creature, we were too loud and the deer ran away and vanished somewhere behind the hills. It was then that Sudhir told us, that the forests on the mountain had been cleared very recently. This caused quite a lot of animals to come out in the open to hunt.

The enthusiasm comes to us when nature calls
It is, but impossible, to avoid the beautiful falls.
We walk ahead, awaiting the best
As we move, all apprehensions, we put to rest.

As we walked ahead, uphill, we were surrounded by ‘karavanda’ bushes (and innumerable crabs, too!). Walking ahead, we managed to pluck a few of the berries and boy, how sweet they were! There were plenty of Jamun trees, too! Didn’t we feast on fruits and berries? – First the mangoes, then the karavandas and now, jamuns! Just a little distance from the jamun trees was another clearing on the mountain. It was from here that we could see Visapur’s twin fort – Lohagad. Visapur fort is built on the same plateau as Lohagad, but as it is on a higher elevation than its twin fort, we got a beautiful view of Lohagad en route Visapur. We spent quite some time here, with all the cameras and binoculars out.
The weather was so beautiful and refreshing that it was quite a task for the MIC to get everyone moving again!

Lohagad in the background!

A little saddened at having to vacate the beautiful sight, but enthusiastic about reaching Visapur all the same, we followed Sudhir with discipline. That was when Sudhir mentioned about two routes to the fort – one easy, but long and another short, but difficult all the same. But because it had rained and the path was slippery, it was decided that we would take the easier route up. A little while into our walk ahead, we came to the caves where we took a short break – just to sit, relax and of course, click pictures!

Columbus 2.0 , eh? 😉

After the short pause, we started following Sudhir up again. We had reached high up to be able to see the Visapur fort now! What a sight it was! With renewed vigour, the trekkers starting climbing the rocks again, only to reach the peak and enjoy the fort! By 12.15 pm, we finally reached the top.
It was only when all of us reached atop that we realised, that the rain gods indeed were pleased with our efforts, for it started raining again! It started with a slight drizzle, but we could see a gigantic cloud approaching us! The view was panoramic. It was picture perfect. The fort walls were huge and the fort, enormous in size. It took us a good twenty minutes only to reach the other end of the fort! By now, the cloud was upon us and we were expecting the rains to hit us any moment! The trekkers were seen running around the peak like excited little children and yes, the cameras were out again!

What followed was a series of photo sessions, excited sigh seeing, and playful banter.

The winds brushing across our face, we could feel.
At nature’s feet forever we could kneel.
How could we explain the inexplicable high?
How would we explain why we were feeling so spry?

The massive cloud, ready to hit on us 😉

As we enjoyed our time at the peak, the cloud came over us and finally burst!! It started raining heavily and the delighted trekkers jumped with joy! We forgot how hungry we were supposed to be and were lost in enjoying the rain! After having spent a good 45 minutes on the peak, the MIC, Rushikesh, was concerned. We had to have our lunch – the misal pav that we had packed from the base. But that wouldn’t be possible in that kind of heavy rain. So we decided to move down to the caves and relish the local fare (with a heavy heart). Descending, we decided to stop at what we called a temporary refuge – a cave like structure that we thought would provide us some shelter from the rain. This was when the theplas, cakes, chocolates and mangoes were out again! We relished the semi-lunch and headed for the caves again. Drenched, we finally reached the caves which had a gigantic Hanuman (Maruti) carving welcoming us at the entrance.
In no time, we divided ourselves into groups of 4 and settled to have our lunch – delicious, spicy missal pav! The spicy food got us to forget the chill that we felt at having been drenched!

Lunch time!

Rejuvenated, the 12 trekkers started the descent after the hearty meal and a nice break.
The descent was uneventful, save the random discussions on various issues, random bird sightings and some leg pulling. That was when Sudhir mentioned that on a normal rainy day, the fort would have been filled with tourists and other enthusiastic trekkers. It was then that we thanked god for the exceptional luck on having the fort to ourselves for the second time in a row (Vitangad, remember??)
In no time, we reached the stone stairs again, albeit in groups. We waited for the others to return as we sat there, feeling the soothing sunlight! (Yes, the clouds had disappeared and there was sunshine again!)

Once the others returned, we sat at the steps – relaxing and already reminiscing the wonderful trek that we had just completed. After a little snack consisting of kurmuras, we headed back to the bus – dry by now – to go and change. But as luck would have it, it started pouring again and we were drenched, once again!!
After a quick change, we picked up a parcel of steaming hot vada pavs for the victorious, hungry trekkers. By 4.30 pm, we had hopped into the bus and were ready to take off for Mumbai again.
Like I have mentioned every time, return journeys are always a happy-sad affair for me. They make me cherish the wonderful trekking experience, but also rue the end of the amazing experience.
The return journey was filled with conversations and random songs, not to mention, a good nap for quite a few.
Soon, we reached Mumbai and thereby came the end of another beautiful day with nature.

A day with nature is a day well spent
Not one moment of the wonderful time, would we ever repent.
As we return, to where we say we reside
We have not just a feeling of exhilaration, but also pride.

The twelve lucky ones 😉

A big thank you to Ameya, Rahul, Farica and Aishwarya for the beautiful photos!

Than you, Rushikesh and Breakfree Journeys! This was one of the best treks ever! 🙂  

Finding freedom at Vitangad!

I wander away looking at the silent sky

I wander away to have the monotony die

I wander away to put an end to all the strife

I wander away to have a life, away from life.

Sometimes, all we need is a nice break. A break from the stressful busy schedules and our monotonous city life. After having missed one such opportunity last week (the visit to Palghar), the trek to Vitangad fort on June 2 was something I was looking forward to and had me in absolutely high spirits!

Having slept quite early on Friday night, it didn’t come to me as a surprise when I lay awake in bed at 4 am – a good one hour before my alarm was actually supposed to wake me up (or was it plain excitement, I wonder!). Quickly dressing, I ran through the list of things that I was supposed to carry for the trek and meticulously checked if I had each and every thing in place (Can’t really afford to spoil the first trek of the season, right?). Water bottles – check. Cap and sunglasses – check. Extra pair of change – check. Chips and chocolates – check. Wallet – check.

Convinced, that I was prepared to take off for the long day that lay ahead, I called the Man In Charge – Rushikesh – at 5.30 am to check if the bus had left from Borivli on time. It had, and I was to reach Kalanagar at 6 am, sharp! I reached Kalanagar by 5.50 am only to realize that I was not the only one waiting for The Breakfree Bus. There were a couple of other trekkers, too! (See? You will find us everywhere)

On the express way.

The bus reached Kalanagar at 6 am sharp and we jumped in to save ourselves the best seats. We reached Sion in no time but the otherwise always punctual Sion-crowd was running late today!! We had to wait for another 5 minutes before the group started hopping into the bus! What followed was a series of “HIs”, “Whatsups” and the usual fights for the window seat. Another 5 minutes later, on arrival of the last entrant, the bus took off for the final destination – Tikona!

The Tikona-Peth village that houses the Tikona a.k.a Vitangad fort is at a distance of 17km from Lonavala and 15km from Kamshet. The village can be reached through either of the routes, but we decided to go via Lonavala. En route Lonavala, we had the last trekker join in at Vashi. Excitement was in the air! Groups were formed and biscuit packets were out! Why? We had loads of catching up to do, didn’t we? That early-morning-sleepy feeling was finally vanishing and the chit chatting was beginning to gain command over the drowsy feeling! The plan was to reach Lonavala by 8.30 am, have breakfast, collect the lunch packets and leave for Vitangad by 9 am.

In spite of the slight delay at Sion, we reached Lonavala well before time – at around 8.15 am – and headed to Purohit’s Holiday Resort for breakfast. Having been greeted by a lovely, pleasant weather, all of us were hungry enough to gobble down the delicious idli-vadas in no time! Of course, after such a long drive, an unlimited breakfast was always welcome! Breakfast was done by 8.50 am (that includes having tea and coffee – the masala chai was so amazing that many of us found it difficult to resist a second cup). After the delicious breakfast, having picked up our food packets and all the freshening up, the enthusiastic trekkers got back to the bus, ready to head to the place that mattered most – Tikona.

The filling meal we had just eaten sure seemed to have its own side effects and the trekkers were yawning and dozing away, again. However, everyone was awoken – on Rushikesh’s call – as the beautiful Pawna lake came in sight! There was chattering all over again, plans of having a picnic lunch by the lake surfaced and the picturesque Pawna lake had managed to leave all the 18 trekkers enchanted for long enough! We reached Tikona-Peth in no time and excitedly hopped out of the bus immediately as it halted. The customary Circle of Introduction was formed and the group of trekkers was officially introduced to each other. This was a major ice breaker as many of the trekkers were travelling with Breakfree Journeys for the first time.

Walking to the base.

Soon, by 10.50 am, we started walking towards the base. From all that we had read about Tikona fort, we knew there were two routes to reach the fort – one was shorter but tougher while the second route was longer but comparatively easy. Because we were trekking with nearly eight first timers on board, we decided to take the easier route.The route to the base was through a dusty road, from the village clearing. The trekkers were high on energy and enthusiastically marched towards the base. We reached the base in no time, and were welcomed by an ‘All the best’ sign on a giant rock. A well marked trail lay in front of us.

The ripe figs!

On our way up the mountain, we crossed numerous mango and fig laden trees. Picking up a few raw mangoes and figs, we continued on our journey to the top. Soon, the water bottles and gatorade started surfacing from the bags. The climb was not difficult, but the heat managed to make us break quite a sweat. Diligently climbing the slope, the trekkers were busy chit chatting and clicking pictures (and posing for them, too!) Soon enough, we reached the ‘darwaaza’ – a cave-like door to the fort, which was a major relief from the heat. After a quick water break, some chit chatting and a few pictures, we continued climbing uphill, waiting to reach the top.

Following the trail, we continued walking up to the fort (yeah, someone also commented that Shivaji shouldn’t have built the fort after all because nobody was crazy enough to come so far and climb that high hill just to get to the fort – we’re used to such comments already) We crossed by a Hanuman statue followed by a water tank that contained massive catfish. We also came across a gigantic lime grinder! The cameras were handy, and the trekkers were happily posing for pictures throughout the climb! After crossing the water tank, we came to the Shivaji Trail. We had to climb giant steps to get atop the mountain! The steps had wires attached on one side to help trekkers climb up easily. Climbing higher up (yes, there were more such steps) we discovered a cistern adjacent to a cave. We quickly removed our empty bottles to refill them with the cool water from the cistern. The place was so cool and soothing, that it was immediately decided that we’d have our lunch there.

Catfish!

Finally, by around 12.20pm, we reached atop the fort! The trekkers went berserk clicking pictures, gasping at the view from the fort and exploring the hill top. It was here that we came across the caretaker of the fort. Named Sujit, he mentioned that his forefathers were Mavalas(soldiers) of Shivaji. After whom, this taluka is named – Maval. On prodding further, we got to know that he also served ‘Pitla-bhakhar’ – local staple food – back down at his house in the village. The trekkers were all set and extremely enthusiastic about tasting the local delicacy! Sujit also mentioned that during the rains, the fort is visted by 400 people at a time! That’s when we realised how lucky we were to have the fort all to ourselves! After spending some more time on the top, clicking the Breakfree group picture and visiting the “Trimbakeshwar Mahadev” temple that was located right atop the fort, we climbed down to the cave and cistern to have our biryani meal. Chocolates and masala chaas were also out in no time! So much incentive for climbing right to the top!

Post lunch, at 1.50 pm, the trekkers lazily but steadily began climbing down. It is always difficult to trek after eating a hearty meal, but lunch being another ice breaker the trekkers were in a joyful mood happily talking and cracking jokes. The descent was much quicker than the climb (maybe it was the delicious pitla-bhakhar that tempted the trekkers to rush down!) and we were already at the base by 2.30 pm!! We sat at the base in the shade of trees to relax after the long climb down. After some much required relaxation, we walked on the dusty road again to get back to the village.

The delicious local fare – Pitla Bhakhar 🙂

On reaching the village the trekkers went hunting for a cold drink shop! There was havoc as soon we reached the shop for nothing looked more tempting to the thirsty trekkers after such a long walk down! After soothing ourselves with cold drinks, we reached for Sujit’s house – which was barely a few minutes away. The ladies of the house served us with freshly made pitla-bhakhar and techa, a mixture of freshly ground onions and chillies! and the tempted look on ever trekker’s face was hard to miss! The trekkers were seen feasting on the delicious food and talking nineteen to the dozen! After having the mouth-watering fare, we headed to the bus. The journey for home had begun but before we hit the NH4, there was a stop to be made – the river stream!

The water babies 🙂

On our way back, we kept looking for a suitable spot to take a dip in, into the river stream! Soon enough we spotted a nice place and immediately jumped off the bus with the Man In Charge to quickly examine the waters. On obtaining his approval, we jumped into the cool waters! Soon, others followed, too (at around 4.50 pm). What ensued was a fun filled time – swimming, trying to swim, splashing water, hand-standing and major bonding. We got out of the water only 5.30pm (the winds made us freeze!) and after a quick change, we left for Mumbai! En route Mumbai, we stopped at Lonavala for some chikki (One cannot possibly exit Lonavala without buying chikki, can one?) following which another halt at Datt vada pav was taken.

The return journeys always make me feel happy-sad. Happy, for having had a wonderful day and sad because it marks the end of a wonderful day. We usually sing songs during return journeys. But this time, no songs were sung. We were instead having animated conversations on various topics – academics, society, news, travel and a lot of other things!We spoke about things that mattered as well those that didn’t really matter very much. We had fun even as we spoke. Soon, we reached Mumbai, and thereby ended another beautiful day with Mother Nature.

SPLASH!!

In conclusion, I would like to quote a famous man even though it doesn’t directly really relate to this piece .

“ Not just the Spanish Main, love. The entire ocean. The entire wo’ld. Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs but what a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is…is freedom.” — Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean –The curse of the Black Pearl.

Every time I think of Breakfree Journeys, the treks and the travel, I think of freedom. With every visit to a new place, I feel free. With every mountain that we climb, comes a sense of achievement. With every fort we visit and every river we take a dip in, comes an inexplicable high.

Even at Tikona fort, we did taste freedom. We did smell enjoyment. We did break free!

The breakfree group picture.

PS : If you plan to visit Vitangad and need a guide, you can contact Sujit – 9545863824. He can arrange for some mouth watering local food, too!

PPS : A big thank you to Breakfree Journeys and Rushikesh Kulkarni for the wonderful trek! Thank you Kavya, Karan, Vipul, Krish, Aditya, Sreejith, Abhijeet for the beautiful pictures.

Lost and found – in The Duke’s Nose.

Me : Rushi, my parents are a tad reluctant to send me for the trek.

Rushikesh : Kyun? Kya hua?

Me : They’re worried coz it’s raining so heavily. Someone told them that it’s raining too heavily out there. Can you please find out?

Rushikesh : Yes, I will. But I don’t think we’ll have any problem trekking.

Yes. That is how it started off for me – more like a contingency. The torrential rains sure seemed to dampen my trekking spirits, what with parents being overly concerned about my safety et all. It took me all my PR skills to convince them, and get them to believe that I would indeed return home in one piece.

So, by 1 am on Friday night(umm..Saturday morning!), I was finally done with all my packing and preparation (yes, that includes arranging for a Proxy for the all important Saturday lectures that I was used to missing, by now). I was nervous as it was pretty late, and The Breakfree Bus  was expected to reach Bandra at 6.05 am “sharp”. However, morning arrived soon, and so did Rushikesh’s message of there being a half an hour delay.(That meant half an hour of extra sleep, but it also meant half an hour more before we finally boarded The Breakfree Bus!)

I reached Kalanagar in no time, only to realize that there were a couple of others who were waiting for the Breakfree Bus, too!(yes, you will find us everywhere!). It was another 10 minutes before the bus arrived, and as soon as it did, we hopped right in to get ourselves the best seats! The next stop, Sion, was just a few minutes away and that’s where most of the crowd joined us at. What followed was an exchange of greetings, high-fives, what’s-upps, not to mention the random “I want the window seat” calls! The bus was buzzing with energy (what with the exuberant trekkers!) and after a few last minute back outs & surprise join ins (:D) we finally took off for our destination – Khandala.

The cameras were out, and chip packets surfaced. The next 40 minutes seemed to pass in no time, as we were at our first halt already – Kamat’s at Vashi – to pick our lunch up. Maybe the restaurant guys had had a late night, too, for it was a good 20-25 minutes before they finally handed over the freshly made biryani packets to us!
Back into the bus, chip packets were passed around (again), jokes were cracked, and the chatter restarted. We soon reached our next halt – in 45 minutes, to be precise – The Food Court, on the Expressway! We jumped out of the bus (intently discussing which chikki to buy) and soon dispersed in various directions. The weather was pleasant, so we waited outside for 10 more minutes before hopping into the bus again. It was already 9.15 am, and we were hungry enough to munch away all the remaining chips!

Soon enough (at 9.45 am), we reached our final halt (phew!) – Kamat (again), but this time at Khandala!
 The air was fresh, the weather was pleasant and the view, panoramic. Our breakfast comprised of hot idli-sambhar, and we were so hungry that we finished it up in a mere 10 minutes. Post-breakfast, we quickly boarded the bus and started off for Khandala station which was pretty close by. Come Khandala station, and we were off the bus in no time, already forming the traditional ‘circle of introduction’ and eagerly awaiting the trek to begin!

It was exactly at 10.30 that we started our much awaited trek. Yes, the trek started right at Khandala station!! (Reminder: Khandala is a ‘hill’ station). The enthusiastic trekkers were soon trotting on the railway tracks to get to the other side of the Platform. (Mind you, this was in Khandala. NOT Mumbai!). The place was, of course, breathtakingly beautiful. We crossed tastefully done up bungalows, small streams, waterfalls, exotic birds & fog covered  mountains en route our 30 minute walk to the ‘base’ of the Duke’s Nose.

 Since it was a track that none of us knew of, and with no arrows or pointers to guide us around, we were left on our own – heavily depending on local help to confirm if we were, indeed on the right track! We continued climbing up the hill, and reached the gigantic TATA hydroelectric power plant. After a quick dekko of the plant, we followed the man in-charge, Rushikesh, in quiet discipline. Another 15 minutes later, we reached a beautiful spot on the mountain that broke into 3 different routes. We realized that we didn’t know which way to take! That’s when Rushikesh and 3 other fellow trekkers volunteered to check which of the 3 routes was correct. (Okay, just FYI – the Internet said that there were numerous ways to reach the Duke’s Nose. One of them, apparently, was very easy but the remaining routes required extreme expertise. We, at Breakfree, prefer not taking the easy routes, ever. Period. :P). However, the rest of us were more than willing to laze around and click pictures at this picnic spot-like place. (It was yet to strike us that we were LOST). So, the cameras were out again and the trekkers were more happily posing on the scenic hill top!

Soon enough, we figured which way to go to, but unlike most of the other treks, we were walking right through the wilderness – crossing streams, thorny bushes and very thick vegetation – and to add to it, it poured. And heavily, at that! The rocks were slippery, and the mud, loose. It was now, that the Non-Action-shoe-trekkers realized their folly, as there was a series of thuds & falls. (No, this ain’t no endorsement. But DO wear Action trekking shoes the next time you decide to go trekking. It’ll save you a fall or two).
 Not even 10 minutes into our adventure, we figured that our newly taken path broke into another 3 routes, again! (Spoilt for choice, weren’t we? :P). But this time, it was a tough decision to take, for the path ahead was dangerous, it was raining, and we could have lost our way in the deep jungle! As the wait grew longer, we heaved a sigh of relief to know that we weren’t the only lost souls on the mountain. There was a bunch of five trekkers who had lost their way, too! (One of them resembled a cowboy in more ways than one – cowboy hat, boots and a rope hanging around his neck). With our newly made companions, we somehow managed to find a way out. But as luck would have it, we trekked right into another problem area, and were lost again! That’s when all the smart phones were out, and Google Maps was being browsed like never before! It did give us some very useful leads (thank God for technology, I say!). We walked into the forest again, saving ourselves from the thorny bushes, wild trees, hungry mosquitoes, and a horde of other insects that we didn’t even know of. There were quite a few falls here, as the mud was slippery and it had begun to rain again. However, what was most disheartening was the fact that in spite of having walked through the dense forest, in spite of having endured the rough path and in spite of having saved ourselves from the dangers of the wilderness, we ended up coming back to the same place we had been at, barely an hour back! That is when doubts started creeping into our heads..doubts about whether we were on the right mountain, after all! Doubts about The Duke’s Nose, for it was nowhere to be seen. However, thanks to Rushikesh and his encouraging ways, we continued walking, nevertheless. Soon, we came back to the stream we had been at, just a couple of hours ago. But now, thanks to the rain, it was gushing with a force like never before! We looked lustfully at the cold water of the stream and immediately jumped into it – some were busy getting their pics clicked, some were happily washing the dirt off their clothes (Remember how so many of us fell?), some were enjoying the feel of the cold water and some were happily washing their fatigue off!
Soon, we bid adieu to the rejuvenating stream and started off in pursuance of our quest for The Duke’s Nose!! (Multiple events happened at this time – a new packet of banana chips was opened, biscuits were passed among the tired trekkers, and not to mention – Gnanesh’s famous theplas were eaten in not more than 20 seconds!).

So yes, we went ahead, half debating on whether or not we should continue trekking. That’s when Rushikesh decided to give it one last shot. If it didn’t work out, the waterfall was always there, he said. We tried taking a new route (actually, it wasn’t a route. It was only a forest, where we made our own way), but it turned out to be quite a dangerous one, so we headed back to the base. But this time we weren’t sad. We had a more lucrative deal to grab – THE WATERFALL!!
How we jumped into that magnificent water body can get me to write a book altogether! But, a jolly and fun-filled time we had, with everyone jumping in and getting drenched from head to toe! Innumerable group pictures were clicked in the water, and all of us took turns at jumping right under the waterfall!! 😀
 We spent a good hour and a half lazing around in the water, posing for all sorts of photographs, splashing water at one another, losing balance and falling in the fall, and just childishly enjoying the cool water! It was only once we were out that we realized how cold it was (shiver)! The rains came again, and so did lunch time! The biryani packets were soon empty and the dripping wet trekkers started their journey back to Khandala station. Jokes were cracked in abundance on our way back, and we finally did figure the actual way to the Duke’s Nose! (A tad late, I know!). We reached the Bus at around 4.30 pm, and all we had on our mind was to change into a dry set of clothes!! It was only at 5 pm that we boarded and started on our journey back home!
A halt at Kamat, garam chai and new chip packets followed. The journey back was spent singing songs, old and new alike (Trademark Breakfree ishtyle) and looking outside the window at the beauty of nature!

Soon, Mumbai came, and also came the end of a very beautiful day!

PS: Thank-you, Winnie for encouraging me to write this piece. This write-up happened because of you.
 Thank-you Nikhil, Kavya, Nily, Hemang sir, Nilesh, Rahul & Gnanesh for capturing those awesome moments. It is these memories that will stay with us forever!
Rishi, I tried my best to match up to your level. Hopefully, people will enjoy reading this as much as they enjoyed reading your write ups!
Rushikesh, thank-you for this opportunity and the wonderful trek!

PPS: We may not have reached the peak this time. We may not have conquered it. We may not have gone the conventional way.
But the beauty of nature, enjoy we did! And hell yes, we did Break free!!! 😀