Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Rajmachi - An unforgettable Trek

This is the story of one of the most exciting days of my life.

I love the outdoors. Trekking, camping, hiking, rappelling, rafting - these are some of the things that get my adrenaline pumping. Last Saturday, was probably one of my most exciting days in the wild. 

We were a group of 9, setting out to conquer the fort on top of Rajmachi village (near Karjat).
We left Andheri at 6.20 AM, twenty minutes behind schedule. We met A and C at the station and caught the train to Dadar where P joined in. She barely made it to the train in time (7:07 local to Karjat), but she made it all the same. Little did we know that this would be the trend for the rest of the day and what a day it would turn out to be.

We reached Karjat at around 9:00 AM. There was not a single cloud in the sky. I had checked the weather forecast the previous day and the Met had predicted sunny weather in the morning with thundershowers in the afternoon with 1-3mm of rain. At least for now, the forecast was bang on. Looking at the clear skies, it was difficult to even fathom that it might rain later in the day. We had a quick breakfast and took an auto to Kondavane village. The trek began from here.

We reached Kondavane by 10:00 AM. It was hot and humid. I had a sheet of paper with brief instructions and directions. This was a mountain where even the professional trekkers get lost. I didn’t want to take a chance. However, I also knew that all it took was one wrong turn for us to lose the way. R hated the fact that I had scribbled down a few instructions. He had a meticulate plan to get lost:)

The paper didn’t come to any use anyway. We didn’t want to hire a guide and decided to do it on our own. We set out walking along the mud trail to Rajmachi. We reached a house where the trail seemed to end. We then asked the local there for directions and he then pointed in the general direction of the village. All we could see was a dense forest with no trails. We then found a narrow trail and decided to take the plunge. There was no indication of the hill, the village, or the fort anywhere. It was just a dense forest, where we cudnt even see the sky. The climb was getting steeper and the air was getting hotter. A started feeling the heat and had to take frequent breaks. Water was soon becoming a scarcity. One by one we started running out of water bottles. 

After a painstaking hour of climbing, we were in the middle of nowhere. D took the responsibility of leading the way. Her tireless enthusiasm ensured that the spirits were high. Breaks became more and more frequent. We had some bananas and guavas and then continued climbing. The afternoon sun was roasting us alive. We met a couple of villagers on the way. We didn’t speak their language and neither did they speak ours. We just got to know the general direction in which to go. All of a sudden we started to see arrow marks on the rocks. I had read online that these arrow marks were meant for those going downwards. So we had to go in the opposite direction. Then the directions started to alternate. Some pointed upwards and some downwards. Now I realised why so many people got lost on this mountain. We blindly followed the trail.

All the while I kept thinking at the back of my mind if I had done the right thing by choosing Rajmachi as a trekking destination, in this weather. I knew a lot of people would’ve rather spent a lazy morning in bed than get roasted in this heat. But nevertheless I knew things would get better as the day progressed. I was silently praying for rain.

As we trudged along we found a meadow which in turn led to Rajmachi village. We reached the village at around 1.30 PM. We met a family from New Zealand who were also trying to scale the fort. We replenished our water stock, and relaxed for a few minutes. We then had a glass of buttermilk to cool us down. Rejuvenated we set out to reach the top of the fort. We saw some citadels and a cave on the way. The cave had a fresh water source with crystal clear water. It took us another 40 minutes of climbing to reach the top. The weather had cooled down quite a bit. The sky was getting cloudy and I could sense them darkening slightly. I knew rain was on the way.

As we climbed up, the view was breathtaking, the breeze majestic. Our voices echoed off the hills. It was funny to see that only male voices echoed :)

Within 40 minutes we were at the top of the fort. The greenery, the breeze, the mist, the views, it all made the climb worth it. We then descended and went back to the village by 3:00PM. After having a quick lunch in the village and replenishing our water stock, we set out on our way back. R wanted to take the route to Lonavala. This was an 18 km hike along a path cutting through the hills and forests. 4 others wanted to go via the steep route via Karjat. We tossed a coin. The decision was to take the Karjat route. R wasn’t convinced. There was 10 min of indecision. We then started to hear thunder in the distance. The light was dimming. The weather system sure was ominous. I realised that taking the Karjat route in the rain would be treacherous not just because it would be slippery, but also because we wouldn’t have spotted the trails with water flowing down everywhere. 

Off we went on the route to Lonavala. Barely had we walked for 5 min, when the sky erupted into waves of thunder and lightning. It was so loud that P was spooked out of her skin and yelled in surprise. It soon started pouring and we loved it! We trudged along the path in the heavy rain. There was water everywhere. It almost looked like we were walking in the path of a waterfall. Soon we were finding it tough to find our footing as the flowing water meant that we didn’t know where the ground was level.

It was getting darker. The rain was getting heavier. We had to cover 18 km in the 2 hours before sunset. It was a battle not just against the weather, but also against the clock. We didn’t have torches or matchsticks. So spending the night in the jungle wasn’t too wise an idea. We then met a bunch of trekkers who were climbing up from Lonavala. They told us they had been walking for 4 hours. This started playing tricks in our mind. Everyone was depending on my information that it was just 18km of a mild descent which would take around 2 to 2.5 hours or so. We increased the pace. We then met another group of trekkers. They warned us of a stream that had bloated and was overflowing because of a flash flood. The water was above hip level they said. They asked to go back and spend the night in the village. We decided to move on and see for ourselves. What we saw there was a sight we will never forget. The stream was quite big! And it was flowing with a roar. We saw a bunch of people cross it hand in hand and it was quite dangerous.

(This video is from another location. But it was very similar to what we experienced)

The other trekkers told us that it would be smooth sailing once we crossed this stretch. We could see the path on the other side of the stream. We decided to cross the stream on foot. We held each other's hands and formed a single file. We were being guided by the other trekkers on the shore. I could fear in the eyes of P and D. A being the tallest in the group, took the lead. We found the current manageable. It was only that the bottom was slippery and we didn’t know where to put our foot because of the rocks. We somehow managed to cross the raging stream and let out a collective scream in the end. There was euphoria, excitement and the adrenaline was pumping everywhere. We were pushing ourselves to the edge here for sure.

Once we crossed the stream, we started walking at a brisk pace. We made sure that C set the pace for the rest of the team. I asked C to walk as fast as he could. Everyone else would follow him in a single file within 10 ft of each other. We walked at a brisk pace for 2 hours. Dusk was setting in.

We saw a beautiful sunset, the evening colours, the freshness, the greenery, the massive rock faces, the lightning....it was magical. The rain had stopped by then. All of a sudden we saw the Duke's noise. We now knew we were within 10 km of Lonavala. We pressed ahead. By the time we reached Lonavala, it was dark.

We were walking in darkness along the trail. Every 10 seconds the entire valley was being lit up by sheet lightning. This helped us find our way.It was almost like the heavens were showing us the way. We then spotted the Mumbai Pune expressway and made our way to the Lonavala station at 7:15 PM. 

We were just in time to catch the train to Dadar at 7:35 PM. The train stopped at Khandala. The train was jam packed and we were drenched. A bolt of lightning had struck an electric pole on the track and the lines were jammed. We got off the train and got into a taxi and reached Mumbai by 10.45 pm.

As I moved up the elevator to my 7th floor room, the sight of the evening sky, with the riot of flaming colours, the breeze running through my hair, the river crossing, the hot morning, the climb to the top of the fort, all these images flashed in my mind....it surely was the best trek of my life!