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! 🙂  

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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.