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A recount of my thrilling trek to Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat, which is considered to be one of the most difficult treks in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats) of Maharashtra, India. This is a story about the most adrenaline-filled 48 hours of my life.

Harishchandragad via “nali-chi-vaat” was a trek that scared the living daylights out of me.  It was the first second time on a trek in the Sahyadri Mountains that I actually feared for my life. At the end of the trek, I made a promise to myself that I would never put myself in such a situation again.  No trek is worth the risks that we put ourselves in during this trek.  This memoir is a narration of that thrilling “do or die” two-day trek that I did back in November 2008. It was fun going over my notes while writing this article … it was as if I was transported back in time and re-living every single moment.  I briefly wrote about this trek in my Retrospection article.

Trekkers en route Harishchandragad
Trekkers en route Harishchandragad

“Nali-chi-vaat” is the vernacular term used by the locals, which loosely translates to “gorge route”.  In Marathi, “nali” means a “gorge” and “vaat” means “path” or “route”.  Mangal Ganga river originates from the top of Harishchandragad and flows threw this “nali” or gorge.  Indeed, this gives the impression that the path a river takes as it originates from a mountain top must be very steep.

Harishchandragad (~4,675 feet) is an ancient hill-fort in the state of Maharashtra in India at the boundaries of Thane, Pune and Ahmednagar districts.  It is a beautiful mountain with spectacular views and is known for its Konkan Kada (Konkan Cliff), which is a huge semi-circular cliff with an overhang.  The cliff looks like a hooded cobra.  From the top, the view of the Konkan region is breathtaking.  Maharashtra has several hundred hill-forts, which are a treasure trove of India’s cultural heritage.  Many of these were vandalized by the British (among other things) and now lie in a state of neglect.

Harishchandragad can be climbed via at least four different routes, with “nali-chi-vaat” being the steepest and least climbed route.  The mountain is part of the Sahyadri range, also known as the Western Ghats that run 2000 kilometers along the west coast of India.  Western Ghats are often dubbed the “Himalayas of South India” since they are the only major range south of the Himalayas.

Preface

It was October, and I was already a month and half into my four-month long trip to India.  I had come from Pune to Aurangabad for about a week to celebrate the Festival of Lights – Diwali – with my aatya (aunt) and her children’s families.  Luckily, I had packed all my clothes in an expedition size backpack, which I had also taken to Sikkim for the famous Goecha-la trek from where the view of Mt. Kanchendzonga, world’s third-highest peak, is to die for.

The SMS

While in Aurangabad, I received a surprise SMS from my trek buddy, Krish.  Krish, whose real name is Gajanan (that’s a story for another day), had messaged to ask if I was interested in joining them for Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat.  This challenging trek is on all avid trekker’s list and it had been on mine ever since I saw a few photographs of the trek on the erstwhile social networking site Orkut. The photos were breathtaking and made me yearn for adventure. With vigor, I immediately replied with my interest for the trek. Over the next few days, we went back and forth on the dates and it was decided that we would meet at Pune’s Shivajinagar Bus Depot on Halloween night (October 31st) and take the last bus departing to Ale Phata at midnight.

Pre-Trek Complication #1

While playing with my aatya’s grandchildren, one of the kids accidentally poked me in the eye, which caused a small cut on the sclera (white part of the eye).  The blood-red cut could clearly be seen and needless to say I was scared.

Fortunately, one of aatya’s sons (my cousin) is a doctor and I immediately consulted with him. He advised against washing my eye with water (to avoid getting an infection) until the wound healed. At that time, different scenarios were playing in my mind. I was recalling my uncle’s freak accident that caused him to lose one eye.

Throughout the trek, my eye was an additional thing that I had to worry about.  However, there were several moments when worrying about my eye was the least of my concerns.

Pre-Trek Complication #2

As a Diwali gift, my aatya’s eldest son, Girish, had pre-arranged a guided-tour for me to the World UNESCO Heritage site – Ajanta caves – on October 31st. That was the same day I was supposed to start the trek from Pune. His wife and the children were to accompany me to the caves, and the tour was already paid for so canceling it was not an option for me.

Aurangabad-Ajanta takes about 3 hours by bus, and Aurangabad-Pune takes a good 5-6 hours by bus. I figured I would have to take the 6pm bus from Aurangabad at the latest to reach Pune in time for the trek. This meant that I would have to pack my bag and take it with me to Ajanta, which I was prepared to do.

Ajanta Archaeological Site

Ajanta caves are a fantastic archaeological site. They are smaller than the Ellora caves but Ajanta is famous for its coloured caves. The colours have been preserved for thousands of years. It is only in the last few decades that the caves have sustained considerable damage (and vandalism), primarily due to government neglect and mismanagement (as usual). Sometimes I think modern India does not deserve its treasures (such as its biodiversity, cultural monuments, wildlife -tigers!). Anyway, this is a topic for another post.

Ajanta Caves near Aurangabad
Ajanta Caves near Aurangabad

I had fun at Ajanta. However, I found it annoying to have to remove my shoes before entering many of the caves (they are like temples). Since ours was a guided tour, we had a guide. However, it was impossible to hear him due to the skewed people-to-guide ratio (50:1).

In spite of signs indicating that flash photographs is prohibited, people were still doing it due of a lack of awareness on why it should not be done (damages the ancient colours). I wish the “No Flash” signs would add this bit of information on it to educate people.

These colours have been preserved for thousands of years. Picture was taken without using a flash.
These colours have been preserved for thousands of years. Picture was taken without using a flash.

Japan is funding the restoration of caves at Ajanta and Ellora. Work is progressing slowly. They have also donated eco-friendly buses, which ferry tourists to the caves from the parking lot.  The parking lot is a few kilometers away to prevent damage to the caves by vehicular pollution.

Since the tour was starting early in the morning and ending in the evening, I had just enough time to reach Pune before midnight if everything went as planned. We were planning on taking the last bus (at midnight) leaving from Pune to Ale Phata. I had packed everything in my backpack and it was quite heavy. Fortunately, after a nice chicken lunch we departed Ajanta and reached Aurangabad just before 6pm; I was able to catch the 6pm bus to Pune.

I was now in trek mode.  Where there is a will, there is a way.

Meeting at Pune’s Shivajinagar Bus Depot

Other than being annoyingly slow, my journey to Pune was uneventful. In the bus I got a chance to speak to my parents. My mom, who knew about the difficulty of this trek, was worried. Prior to boarding, I had asked the bus conductor how long it would take to reach Pune. He said 6 hours. Initially, the bus was going fast so I was hoping it would reach earlier, which would give me a chance to go home and empty my bag of all the things that I didn’t need for the trek (including a week’s worth of clothes, shaving kit, Diwali gifts). It would also give me a chance to pack things that I would need, such as, a sleeping mat, a light blanket, a plate, spoon and a cup.

In case I did not have the time to go home first after arriving in Pune, I had asked my friends to bring all the things that I would need for the trek. Still, I was hoping I would get a chance to go home. My backpack was weighing at least 12kg and it didn’t even have all the things which I needed for the trek.  I wasn’t looking forward to going on this trek carrying a heavy load of useless things. I figured 45 minutes would be enough for me to go home, unpack/pack, and get back to the bus depot. 45 minutes were all that I needed. As if to make good on his (conductor’s) estimate, the bus took its sweet time at a couple of stops, and the road closer to Pune was quite bad.

At around 11:45pm on Friday night, my bus pulled into Pune’s Shivajinagar Bus Depot. Krish, Sachin and Atul were already waiting for me. I was friends with Krish and Atul from earlier treks, but I hadn’t met Sachin before. Shailesh and Devarshee (another new member) were to join us from Mumbai and we were to meet them in Savarne village, the starting point of our trek. Our team looked quite prepared with all the climbing equipment. I had resigned to the fact that I would not be able to go home to empty out my bag.

I had already had 12 hours of bus travel that day and there was more to come.

State Transport Buses

State Transport or S.T. buses, affectionately called lal dabbas – “red boxes” – due to their red exterior colour, are a hallmark of rural transportation in Maharashtra.  They have an almost hollow interior and the windows often rattle on bumpy roads.  Mind you, these Indian-made Tata buses are very sturdy and don’t break down easily despite the poor roads they ply on. I don’t think any Western-made bus would last a month on some of the roads these buses ply on.

Even some of the remote-interior villages are connected by an S.T. bus. The buses are typically the most crowded on Sundays when villagers go out to the marketplace, or perhaps a fair, or to visit relatives in nearby towns or other villages, wearing their best clothes. On other days, one would typically see school children with monthly passes on the buses.

State Transport Bus of Maharashtra
State Transport Bus of Maharashtra

It is indeed sad that some bus conductors (ticket checkers) are arrogant and act rudely with their passengers who are mostly uneducated. It’s almost as if they have no respect for the villagers who are very simple people and are some of the poorest in India. I’ve seen some old ladies bargain with the conductor for a few rupees. Next to walking or riding a bicycle, S.T. buses are the cheapest mode of transportation.

There’s no doubt that traveling in a S.T. bus is an experience.  It gives me a chance to observe village people – my people – how they dress, how they talk.  In spite of the uncomfortable and back-breaking journey it usually is riding on one of these buses, I love it!

After Hours

At Shivajinagar, I went to the canteen and ordered a tea and vada pav (Indian vegetarian burger). The last S.T. bus to Ale Phata arrived around midnight and I quickly settled my bill and went outside to join the others. Being a Friday night, the bus was fairly crowded and we were fortunate enough to get seats, albeit uncomfortable.

It was an adventure in itself to reach the base village, Savarne, from where we were to start our trek. We reached Ale Phata in about 2 hours (around 02:30am). The last time I had been to Ale Phata it was during the day time and I remember it being very busy and crowded. At 2:30 in the morning it was deserted. Our plan was to hitchhike to Savarne village.

We were on the highway and we flagged a few trucks and buses but they didn’t stop for us. Finally, a luxury bus picked us up and we agreed to pay the driver Rs.50 each to drop us at Savarne village’s highway bus stop; truck and bus drivers often pickup hitchhikers to pocket some extra money.

Although we were in a luxury bus, there was no luxury for us. We were accommodated in the front of the bus (driver cabin). Several other hitchhikers had already been picked up so there wasn’t much room to sit. I was sitting on top of the engine and it was hot as hell (passengers in the back behind a partition wall were sleeping comfortably on their reclining chairs in the cool A/C air).

We reached our destination after about an hour (around 03:30am). It was dark and Savarne village was nowhere to be seen. There was a little dilapidated bus shelter on the side of the highway that looked like it would be occupied by snakes and other creepy crawlers at night. We figured that would be the highway bus top. We were wondering where we might find Shailesh and Devarashee (Deva for short) and lo and behold, we found them sleeping comfortably on their sleeping mats in the bus shelter.  We had a good laugh after seeing them there.

It was late, so we all decided to call it a night and sleep in the shelter until morning. It had been a long day (and night) of traveling for me.

To be continued… click for Part Two.

A recount of my thrilling trek to Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat, which is considered to be one of the most difficult treks in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats) of Maharashtra, India. This is a story about the most adrenaline-filled 48 hours of my life.

Click for: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Good Morning, Sahyadri!

Thanks to the extra sleeping mat, which Krish had brought for me, I had a relatively comfortable sleep. I had learned the importance of a sleeping mat the hard way when I went on my first “jumbo trek” to Alang-Madan-Kulang back in 2006.  A sleeping mat can make an otherwise hard, rough and uneven surface “sleep-able”.

Bottom line: it can make the difference between a restful sleep and a sleepless night.

Krish packing up at Savarne village's highway bus stand while Shailesh is still sleeping.
Krish packing up at Savarne village’s highway bus stand while Shailesh is still sleeping.

It was November 1st and the time was 06:30am and I had slept for only 3 hours. In spite of that, I was fresh when I woke up. I don’t know what it is about mountains, but I seem to have an infinite supply of energy whenever I’m on a trek.  This supposed “endless” supply of energy was tested shortly thereafter.

In the morning we learned that Shailesh and Deva had arrived via Kalyan a few hours before us. They had decided to wait for us at the bus shelter since they weren’t sure where we were at the time. Apparently they thought we had already reached the village (Savarne).

The way to Savarne Village
The way to Savarne Village

We packed up and started walking towards Savarne in search of water (for brushing and to freshen up). On the way we came across several women who were skillfully balancing three pots full of water on their heads. There were other women who were heading to get water and we followed them to the nearby water source. The source turned out to be several small trickles of water, which I’m sure would dry up by the end of December, which would only increase their daily walk to get drinking water.

Beautiful Savarne village
Beautiful Savarne village

Goshta Choti Dongraevadhi (Small Story … Like a Mountain)

After so many years of trekking, it is my elementary observation that people who live in villages at the base of a mountain are extremely vulnerable to the seasons. In the rainy season there is flooding and in the dry season there is not a drop of water.  The mountains are lush green in the monsoons with huge waterfalls and plenty of streams, which inevitably become a source of drinking water for nearby villages. However, in the Sahyadri Mountains, these are seldom perennial. The dry season sees most of the waterfalls and streams getting dried up.

Women returning to Savarne village after fetching water from a nearby stream.
Women returning to Savarne village after fetching water from a nearby stream.

What the villagers need to do is come together and construct ‘check dams’. According to Dr. Vikas Amte, constructing these dams requires neither any high-tech equipment nor any specialized labour.  Anybody can build these dams. The dams are sturdy, last a long time and the required raw materials are things such as discarded tires and plastic waste, which are easily available and help to reduce construction costs. History has shown that government-built dams simply don’t last very long. I suppose there is a lack of awareness and knowledge on this option. Dr. Vikas Amte has built several check-dams as proof-of-concept in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra where he lives.

A low-cost yet durable check-dam at Somnath (a Maharogi Sewa Samiti project) built by leprosy-affected people.
A low-cost yet durable check-dam at Somnath (a Maharogi Sewa Samiti project) built by leprosy-affected people.

It is interesting to note that most of the forts, which Shivaji Maharaj built hundreds of years ago, have rock-cut water cisterns (tanks) that have fresh drinking water year round. The cisterns are built such that they get replenished by natural underground springs. The cisterns show remarkable engineering and planning skills by the people of olden times (not all were built by Shivaji; some existed from ancient times). The forts, which served as bases for Shivaji and his troops, would have never gained importance without the availability of drinking water. Many villages now source their drinking water from these very tanks by the way of pipes.  In the rainy season many of these villages are inundated with water; however, there is drought in the dry season. It seems modern India has lost the concept of water conservation.

An excellent example of water cisterns on Mt. Alang. There are 3 levels of cisterns. Overflowing water from the cisterns in the top level (see above) fill those cisterns in the middle level and overflowing water from those fills the bottom level.
An excellent example of water cisterns on Mt. Alang. There are 3 levels of cisterns. Overflowing water from the cisterns in the top level (see above) fill those cisterns in the middle level and overflowing water from those fills the bottom level.

We took our turns filling water in our bottles and freshening up. Then we walked over to Savarne village which was nearby. The simple little village overlooks the mountains and is close to the highway, but not right next to it. Many children were playing under a huge tree and they all watched us with curious eyes as we walked through their village.

Children of Savarne village
Children of Savarne village

We were debating whether to have tea at the village, or to make our own. In the end, we decided to make our own since we had everything, including a portable stove, to make our own tea. We also carried light snacks, rice, potatoes, onions, and ready-to-eat packaged food with us. We were also carrying packed lunches for the afternoon.

We walked out of the village and towards an old and seemingly unused bridge. I was surprised by how long and wide the bridge was. In the villages, I’m used to seeing small bridges. There was a fairly large stream flowing under the bridge. I suppose the women will have to come here for water when the trickles dry up, or perhaps the water here was not potable. We stopped here for breakfast and tea.

Bridge near Savarne village where we had breakfast and tea
Bridge near Savarne village where we had breakfast and tea

Krish was carrying the heavy portable stove and made excellent tea for all of us. We had an interesting discussion on Raj Thackeray and his MNS political party.

We were sitting close to the river/stream and the exposed river bed clearly indicated that it was drying up. I could imagine there being plenty of water in the rainy season.

At several places in the stream, we noticed the water being “channeled” into something. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be an ingenious fish trap. The water was channeled through a small wooden “canal” that dropped into a wooden bucket from which water could escape but not the fish.

Ingenious trap for catching fish
Ingenious trap for catching fish

It was around 10:00am before we moved from the bridge. In hindsight, we had wasted way too much time here. We should have had tea and breakfast at the village itself to save time.

So far, it had been a beautiful morning.

Mountain or Mole-hill?

The route up Harishchandragad started from the under the Konkan Kada. This route is known as nali-chi-vaat. Our actual climb would start from the base of Konkan Kada, which we could not see due to a small hill that was directly in front of us.

As we started from the bridge, we came across a villager and asked him for directions. He advised us to cross the hill. It was past 10:00am and it was already quite hot and humid. The long breakfast break made it even more difficult to start. My heavy backpack wasn’t helping either.

We had to cross this small "hill" in front of us. Due to our low energy levels, it felt more like climbing Everest!
We had to cross this small “hill” in front of us. Due to our low energy levels, it felt more like climbing Everest!

We had to cross the hill to get to another village, Belpada, and a trail from there would take us to Konkan Kada. I had a very difficult time climbing the hill, which normally wouldn’t take more than 15-20 minutes. I found the heat and humidity combined with my heavy backpack to be almost unbearable. I worried about how I would manage climbing Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat, which was steeper and difficult. I thought about hiring a porter. I was having a lot of “I wish…” thoughts. My energy level had hit rock bottom.

We were all in pretty bad shape when we reached the top of the hill, which took twice as long as it should have. We had to take a break. Krish poured Electrol powder into a water bottle, which we all took turns drinking. We even ate the powder for more energy.

Down but not yet out!  Eating Electrol power for energy.
Down but not yet out!  Eating Electrol power for energy.

From where we were sitting, we had a great view of the imposing massif of Mt. Napta.  All around us the mountains were rocky with little vegetation and I think that contributed to the heat. It felt as if heat was radiating from the rocks.

A few villagers passed us as we sat there recovering in the shade. They were on their way to another village. Many villagers prefer walking from one village to another (using mountain passes) over taking a bus as it takes longer to reach their destination via winding mountain roads. Infrequent bus timings and ill-maintained roads don’t help either.

A villager passing by in the foreground and the imposing Mt. Napta in the background
A villager passing by in the foreground and the imposing Mt. Napta in the background

Feeling re-energized and with fresh zeal, we started our descent. It was past 11:00am.

The Right Decision

It didn’t take us very long to descend to the other side. It was still hot but we were feeling better. My heavy backpack was continually weighing on my mind and was a severe drain on my energy. We were now walking in the grassy plains and rice fields. We weren’t sure where the other village (Belpada also known as Thitbi) was. We wandered a bit and took another break near a small stream where I told everyone about my New York City trip; they all had a good laugh.

Walking through rice fields (en route Belpada)
Walking through rice fields (en route Belpada)

After some asking around, we were soon on a tar road and on our way to Belpada (Thitbi) village. On the way, we could see a large channel that had some water flowing through it. I figured this channel was nali-chi-vaat. I could also see the Konkan Kada in the background. I remembered seeing some pictures of this place, which were taken in the rainy season – it was foggy and the volume of water flowing through the channel was huge – it was so beautiful. Ever since then I had wanted to do this trek.

Village children playing under the watching eye of the Konkan Kada (Konkan Cliff)
Village children playing under the watching eye of the Konkan Kada (Konkan Cliff)

There was a small bridge over the channel. From the bridge, I could see some kids bathing in the water under the watchful eyes of the Konkan Kada. I was thinking how lucky the kids were to be playing so carefree in the lap of nature. They waved to us and came over to see us. For many people in remote villages, city people are like foreigners. There is a lot of curiosity.

Village children posing for a picture
Village children posing for a picture
All smiles after I showed them their digital picture!
All smiles after I showed them their digital picture!

On our way to the village, some people had asked us if we wanted a guide and we didn’t want one (although, in hind sight, we definitely needed one). Krish had already done this trek last year and was confident that he knew the route. What we didn’t know at the time was that the route changes every year due to rock-slides  which happen after the monsoon season. There had been a rainy season already since Krish’s last visit.

As we passed through the village there was conflicting information on the route ahead; some people advised us that the trail is blocked due to a rock-slide (darad kosalli ahet), and others said the trail is still open. We didn’t know whom to trust, so we kept moving forward.

Belpada village
Belpada village

Meanwhile, I was contemplating whether to ask someone in the village for a porter. Just then, as if reading my mind (or seeing the look on my face), some guy asked me if I wanted him to carry my bag. My eyes immediately lit up. I asked how much he would take and he said Rs.100 up to the start of the ghali (gully), which according to him was just 1.5-2 hours of walking. He said he would not accompany us all the way to the top because he had work to do. My friends started to negotiate the price down to Rs.80. He was adamant at Rs.100. It was around noon, the sun was blazing hot and I knew I needed a porter. As the negotiations were about to breakdown, I agreed to give him Rs.100.  I think sometimes we end up bargaining too much for little things – no one bargains in a mall where prices for goods and services are ridiculous.

The next thing I know I gave him my backpack and was a very happy lad. I felt like that was the best decision of my life.

My porter leading the way to nali-chi-vaat
My porter leading the way to nali-chi-vaat

The Grand Lunch

My porter was leading the way and quite naturally he became our (invaluable) guide. Looking back, it would have been very time consuming for us to find the right way. Being at least 12 kilos (~30 lbs) lighter, I was now enjoying the trek. Others teased me for hiring a porter, but I had to do what was best for me. I conserved a lot of energy by hiring a porter, and, more importantly, I was enjoying the trek.

All eyes on the Konkan Kada
All eyes on the Konkan Kada

Our guide was carrying a dao (large knife) with him to slash grass and cut over-grown shrubs along the route. It seemed as if no one had come here in a long time, or at least since the rains had ceased. The guide indicated that we were the first ones to come here this year.  It’s hard to imagine anyone coming here in the hot summers, and in the rainy season the climb is too risky.  However, it is possible that some groups had come here in January or early February before the weather became too hot.

It was amusing to see our guide with an expedition style haversack on his back. To be honest, I thought he was a drunkard, but I was wrong. He was quite nice. Most villagers are simple and honest people.  These very qualities often make them vulnerable to exploitation.

My porter (our guide) with his dao
My porter (our guide) with his dao

When asked how long it would take to reach the start of the ghali, he said it should take no more than 1.5 hours, and from there it was a mere 1.5 to 2 hours to the top. I was hoping we wouldn’t reach the ghali until after the peak sunny hours.

After roughly an hour of walking from the village (including a break), we reached the mostly dry rock-strewn river bed. We started walking up stream jumping from one big rock to the next.

We came across a couple of young girls and some kids who were carrying some firewood on their heads. Presumably they were heading to Belpada. Our guide said that his village uses forest resources in a sustainable way – that way the forest gets a chance to regenerate itself and there is something left for the next generation. However, with the way trees are being chopped by greedy developers in the name of “development” (or destruction?), I wonder if anything will be left for the future generations.  We say villages are under-developed and backward.  However, can we really call a village, which supports a self-sustaining society, “under-developed” and “backward”?

Village children carrying fire wood
Village children carrying fire wood

It wasn’t long before we left the channel and entered a heavily wooded area. This is where the guide proved to be the most valuable. If it wasn’t for him, we would’ve had a hard time finding our way through the woods. We might have had to take the long way by simply going up the channel.

Tricky way through a heavily wooded area
Tricky way through a heavily wooded area

In a short time, we were back in the channel. There was a stream flowing through the channel and we drank water from it to our heart’s content. Since I wasn’t carrying my backpack I wasn’t as tired as the other guys.

Seen here resting is Shailesh
Seen here resting is Shailesh

We could now clearly see Konkan Kada, which was in front of us, although still quite a distance away. After a quick photo session, we decided to stop here for lunch. I didn’t have any food on me, but those who had generously shared with everyone (including with our guide). That’s one of the important things I’ve learned since I started trekking – sharing. Sachin had brought from home chapatis and delicious bhendi sabzi for all of us.  We devoured it with a touch of chutney. It was finger-licking good!

Yours truly posing with Konkan Kada
Yours truly posing with Konkan Kada

Everyone was tired and we took our time to eat. By the time we were done, it was already 2:00pm and we hadn’t even made it to the start of the ghali yet. We filled our bottles with water and got ready to go. We must have spent 1.5-2 hours for lunch. Our guide had been very patient with us. He still had to get back to his village.

Relaxing on our lunch break
Relaxing on our lunch break

We paid for this time wastage later – with interest!

To be continued… Click for Part Three.

A recount of my thrilling trek to Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat, which is considered to be one of the most difficult treks in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats) of Maharashtra, India. This is a story about the most adrenaline-filled 48 hours of my life.

Click for: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Ghali (Gully)

The climb after lunch was intense and difficult. The channel had a number of large boulders, which we had to climb. The long lunch break made it especially difficult to get back into climbing again. Once again, I was happy being able to climb without luggage. Others were saying that we should take turns to climb without luggage. I took that as a joke!  Given my heavy bag, I wanted to conserve my energy for later.

Cliffs on the right side of Konkan Kada
Cliffs on the right side of Konkan Kada

We were getting closer to the Konkan Kada, but none of us really stopped to take pictures like we did before. It was getting late and we were climbing fast to make up for lost time. We also agreed to limit our rest breaks to a maximum of 5 minutes. The channel curved to the left as we got closer to the Konkan Kada. After a while, Konkan Kada was no longer directly in front of us, but on our right side.

Our guide leading us to the start of the gully
Our guide leading us to the start of the gully

It was almost 4’o clock when our guide finally pointed the start of the ghali to us. We could see the narrow ghali with massive rock walls on both sides. It looked like a giant slide, except it was the way water flowed down the mountain in the rainy season. After climbing a bit more, but before reaching the starting point of ghali, I asked my porter to head back as it was getting late for him. I don’t think he had a flash light on him. I didn’t have one either. I gave him a good tip and took my backpack back.  I had conserved energy for this and was now mentally prepared to carry the load. I think trekking is mostly mental. Most people will be surprised by how much they can walk, climb and carry – if only they have the will power to do so.

Before leaving, our guide warned us that we should hurry up and try to get to the top before nightfall. According to him, it was “only” a 1.5 to 2 hours of climb to the top. But he had said the same about reaching the ghali from the village, and that had taken us almost 4 hours. The climb so far had been gentle, but going forward it was going to be very steep including several patches where we would have to do some rock climbing.

Krish was now leading. Looking straight up, it looked as if the real adventure was just about to begin.

This was the starting point of the 'ghali' (gully) - Photo Credit: Deva
This was the starting point of the ‘ghali’ (gully) – Photo Credit: Deva

Dead End in the Dead of Night

The sun was racing towards the horizon and we were rushing to climb all the rock patches before night-time. There was a lot of scree, which made the climb dangerous and risky. I had never walked on so much scree before, which was a mix of sand and loose stones. It was a struggle just to stand straight without slipping. Certain patches were risky and everyone was taking their own route, which they felt was the “best”. Sometimes, a route that is easy in the beginning becomes very difficult later, and vice-versa. It’s always a challenge to select the best and safest route, and that usually comes with experience.

Slippery climb through the gully that was full of loose scree
Slippery climb through the gully that was full of loose scree

We were quickly gaining altitude and by 4:30pm we had reached the first rock patch that would require the use of safety ropes. It took us a long time to haul our luggage up and then climb using the safety equipment. Rock patches are always thrilling and nerve wrecking at the same time. Immediately after the first rock patch, came another one – a bigger one. This time, to save time, we skimped a bit on safety and just had the rope hanging down while we free climbed. The idea was if we needed the rope, then it was there. All we had to do was grab it. By the time we all climbed the second patch, it was dark already.

One of the relatively easy rock patches that we climbed before it got completely dark
One of the relatively easy rock patches that we climbed before it got completely dark
View from the gully as the sun was setting on us. As beautiful as mountains are, they can be just as dangerous.
View from the gully as the sun was setting on us. As beautiful as mountains are, they can be just as dangerous.

We must have asked Krish a dozen times how many more rock patches were still remaining. He wasn’t sure whether it was one or two. Bottom line was we would have to do it in the dark, which was not ideal.

My buddies, Atul and Shailesh
My buddies, Atul and Shailesh

Because of the huge mountain walls that were on either side of us, it felt darker than it really was. To make matters worse, the rocks which had been heated by the sun during the day time were becoming loose and falling too close to us for our comfort. One unlucky direct hit on the head would have spelled the end for any one of us.

We mainly used the rope to haul our luggage up and for support as we climbed
We mainly used the rope to haul our luggage up and for support as we climbed
Due to time constraints, we climbed without safety gear
Due to time constraints, we climbed without safety gear

We finally reached the end of the ghali and there was nowhere to go! It looked like what the villagers had said in the afternoon was right – the way up was blocked by rock slides. We were facing huge rock walls – a Dead End!

Cliff Hanger

bharari_harishchandragad_nali-chi-vaat_arrowThe entire route is marked with painted arrows, which indicate the way up. Those who had a flash light were looking for the small arrow. I didn’t have a flashlight. Krish figured that the route must be on our right (if we stand facing the ghali) above the wall… if only we could see the arrow above, but the wall too high for us to see anything from where we were at.

Krish attempted to climb the vertical wall. He made it half way up before getting stuck. There weren’t too many holds on the wall.

Meanwhile, we could still hear the occasional rock falling. It was steep where I was standing and I was having difficulty maintaining my balance and the scree made that task even more difficult. I managed to sit awkwardly on a rock.

After a second failed attempt, Shailesh decided to give it a try. What followed were some very tense cliff hanger moments. Under normal circumstances, we would be taking plenty of pictures of friends who are rock climbing. However, given that Shailesh was free climbing a very difficult and risky rock patch in the dark without any safety equipment, we did not want to distract him with a flash. It was too dark to take photos without using a flash.

Shailesh reached the same point where Krish had gotten stuck. We tried to help him as much as possible by pointing our flash lights in his direction. I tried to do the same with my borrowed flashlight, but it was no use since it was barely giving any light.  Shailesh was now standing with his full weight on a small rock that was jutting out of the wall. He stood on it for a few minutes looking for a hold that he could use to pull himself up and on the top. Being taller and leaner, he felt a hold, which he could not see that was high above his head. Using that hold, he somehow managed to pull himself up and on the top.

We were very happy when he had safely made it to the top. It was an incredibly risky patch particularly because of the darkness and lack of safety equipment.

Krish started climbing once Shailesh was on top. He was climbing with the rope. The jutting rock which Shailesh had stood on just minutes earlier was within his reach.  He was contemplating how to get on top of it. Meanwhile, Shailesh was trying to help Krish with the holds. Then, when he held the rock to pull himself up on it, it easily came out of its place and into his hand. That’s when we realized what a close call it had been for Shailesh. Had the rock come off when he was standing on it – it would have been a terrible disaster.

Death Around the Corner

Meanwhile, Shailesh had been looking for the elusive “arrow-mark” to give us a clue for the way up. Fortunately, he found it.

With some difficulty, we managed to throw the rope to Shailesh. He secured one end of the rope to a shrub that seemed to have sprouted amidst rocks. The shrub was quite small but it was the only thing around that we felt was strong enough to hold our weight.  It showed the amazing resilience of nature because it seemed to be growing in a place with all odds stacked against its very existence (lack of soil, water and sunlight etc).  I needed some of that – resilience.

batman and robin climbingWhat we did next was akin to a military exercise. We were to climb “batman style” using only the rope that was dangling from the shrub. Krish said to be careful about the cracks in the rock wall as poisonous snakes may be lurking in them.  We hauled up our backpacks first and then ourselves – one-by-one.  I had seen people do it in the movies and the old Batman series had made it look very easy. In reality, it was much harder than Batman and Robin had made it look.  Pulling your own weight is not as easy as it looks.  To make matters worse, rocks were falling while we were climbing.

Sleeping on the Edge

After everyone had climbed, we had to negotiate a narrow, semi-circular and highly exposed trail.  I didn’t have my own flashlight, so I was negotiating the trail using light from the person in front of me.  So that made negotiating the trail even more difficult and dangerous.

The trail led to yet another patch where we had to do some rock climbing.  The novelty and excitement of rock climbing had worn off by that time.  Shailesh climbed before me and showed me the holds with his flashlight as I negotiated the rock patch.

There was a lot of loose scree after the rock patch.  Our trail branched into two with a new trail forking to the left through a thick growth of Karvi (strobilanthes callosus) shrubs and the other one continuing forward.  We checked the trail going straight first and it was full of scree and was becoming too steep to climb.  We decided against exploring this path further.  The trail through the bushes seemed like the correct route although it was by no means easy.  There was plenty of loose scree here too and I was on all fours most of the time trying to keep my balance and avoid the low-hanging branches from getting into my eyes.  I was suddenly aware of my eye injury.

We could not find the trail after we came out of the Karvi shrubs.  There was a steep rocky terrain to our left and a dark valley on the right.  The time was around 9:00PM.

Krish and Shailesh searched for the trail for nearly an hour before giving up.  Krish had been getting dizzy, probably due to dehydration and fatigue.  We decided to stop climbing and look for a place to sleep.  Everyone was exhausted and somewhat dehydrated.  Having exhausted our water supplies a long time back, we were not in a position to cook food either.  Not that we had the energy to do so anyway.

There was no flat surface to sleep on.  We chose a dry rock surface that was at an incline of nearly 30 degrees; everywhere else it was steeper.  We thought about tying our rope across where we were going to sleep, like a low-hanging clothes line, and put our arms over the rope for safety, so we don’t fall off.  However, we had to drop that idea as there was nothing to tie our rope to!  Even if there was something to tie our ropes to, I’m not sure if that idea would have prevented us from rolling over in case we had shifted in our sleep.  Probably not.

We noticed that the rocks just above where we were going to sleep were wet.  A little bit of water was seeping over the surface.  However, there wasn’t enough flow for us to drink.  Shailesh then came up with a simple yet ingenious way to collect water.  With the help of some plastic waste that we were carrying, he setup a couple of bottles that would collect water overnight.  It would take at least a few hours for a meaningful amount of water to accumulate.

At 10:30PM, after devouring a few biscuits and some left over apple juice, we went to sleep.  I was so tired that I was even able to put aside my paranoia about scorpions.  Previously on a trek, I had seen a deadly scorpion right where we were going to sleep and I was not able to sleep peacefully the whole night.  Ever since then, I had become paranoid before sleeping on treks.

As I was falling asleep I could hear Sachin and Shailesh talking.  At night, there were some strange sounds; those were probably monkeys howling.  Shailesh was lying next to me, and being a good friend that he is, he kept an eye on me the whole night as he was afraid I would roll in my sleep and fall over the edge.

In the dark, we had no idea how deep the valley was.

Sleeping on the edge!  Photo Credit: Deva
Sleeping on the edge!  Photo Credit: Deva

To be continued… Click for Part Four.

A recount of my thrilling trek to Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat, which is considered to be one of the most difficult treks in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats) of Maharashtra, India. This is a story about the most adrenaline-filled 48 hours of my life.

Click for: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Morning Adventures

We woke up at sunrise.  I had a good night’s sleep and felt fresh, unlike everyone else.  Normally, early winter nights in the Sahyadris are fairly cold; however, this time, the night had been quite pleasant and comfortable.  I think it was because the rocks that absorb heat during the day time radiate heat at night, and we had slept on those very rocks and were surrounded by them.

This is where we had slept the night before
This is where we had slept the night before
I'm standing exactly where I had slept the night before
I’m standing exactly where I had slept the night before

One of the bottles that Shailesh had left to be filled overnight was full!  We all had a sip of the mineral water.  It was excellent.

Sachin and Atul were looking around for the trail but had no success.  We had lost the trail and back tracking was not an option.  So we decided to climb straight up.  The rocky terrain was steep and exposed.

The bottom-up view of the steep rocky slope that we had to climb.  Sachin can be seen on the top.
The bottom-up view of the steep rocky slope that we had to climb.  Sachin can be seen on the top.
Top-down view of our climb
Top-down view of our climb

After a few minutes, we reached a patch of dense Karvi shrubs and we proceeded to make a way through it; Shailesh led the way.  It was a struggle to make way through the shrubs, but still it was better than what we went through the previous night.

We finally came across an eight to ten feet vertical wall but the problem was how do we get on top?  We found a tree whose branches were extending all the way to the top.  We took turns climbing the tree and it was certainly not easy with our backpacks, but somehow we all managed to get on top.

Once we were on top, we felt like we were on top the world!  Why?  Because we were on flat ground.  We figured the most difficult parts of the climb were behind us and what remained now was just a straightforward walk to the famous Shiva temple on Harishchandragad.  We thought we were through with rock climbing and tree climbing!  We immediately put our backpacks down and had some guava juice while we rested.

Happy to be on flat ground where we can sit/stand/walk without worrying about losing our balance
Happy to be on flat ground where we can sit/stand/walk without worrying about losing our balance
Beautiful morning view
Beautiful morning view
Enjoying the scenery and the morning sun
Enjoying the scenery and the morning sun

After taking some photographs of the beautiful rugged scenery around us, we set off once again for what we thought would be the “easy leg” of the journey.  There still was no visible trail, but there was only one way to go.  We came across a wooded area and made our way through it.  After the woods, we were on a narrow grassy area that ended in a steep rock wall, which seemed like a dead-end. The imposing Konkan Kada was on the right side, still above us.  It seemed we had celebrated a bit too early.

We had crossed the point-of-no-return a long time back, and therefore turning back was definitely not an option.

The dead end - we had to find a way to get on top
The dead end – we had to find a way to get on top
Can you see the tiny village of Belpada (Thitbi) from where I had hired my porter?
Can you see the tiny village of Belpada (Thitbi) from where I had hired my porter?

The rock wall directly in front of us did not have good holds so we thought it would be safer to make a traverse from the left and then attempt to climb the rock patch.  This was easier said than done because the traverse was very narrow (no more than one foot wide) and highly exposed.  To make matters worse, the rock wall that was to our right on the traverse was not exactly vertical, but convex (i.e. bulging out) and was netted with creeper plants.  We joked that if someone fell in the valley while traversing it would take us an entire day to retrieve the “body”.

A short climb from the dead end led to the area where we had to do the traverse, after which we had another rock climbing patch
A short climb from the dead end led to the area where we had to do the traverse, after which we had another rock climbing patch

Krish, Shailesh and Atul went first and made it to the other side.  Within a short time they confirmed that it was the correct route.  Sachin somehow managed to climb the rock wall that was in front of us and avoided doing the traverse.  I tried to see if I could climb the rock wall like Sachin did, but there really were no holds that I could use to climb up.  Besides, with my backpack, I really didn’t want to risk it.  So I resigned to do the traverse.

Only Deva and I were left.  Deva went first and I was only a few steps behind him.  Usually on any trek, I hate to be the last one.  It does not give me a good feeling and it’s purely a psychological thing.

In the middle of the traverse, the rock wall that is to our right bulges out a little bit; this makes negotiating the traverse even more dangerous.  Deva stopped in the middle of the traverse and Shailesh was helping/instructing him from the other side.  In trekking I’ve learned that the trick to negotiating a difficult patch is to keep moving slowly and not lose momentum.  Fear builds up the moment you stop moving.

I had no choice but to wait for Deva to start moving again.  I was standing with my right hand on the creeper plants that were everywhere.  Obviously they did not offer any protection in case if I lost my balance.  I was beginning to get foreboding thoughts.  I was thinking about my family; I wanted to see them again.  I managed to snap out of it and forced myself to remain composed.

Slowly, with words of encouragement from Shailesh, Deva started moving forward.  Before the traverse ends, there is a three feet gap that one has to jump over.  Deva stopped again in front of the gap, took off his backpack, gave it to Shailesh, and then jumped over to the other side.  I was watching that and it was quite scary.  Now only I was left.

I had some trouble overcoming the three foot gap.  My backpack was also too big to remove.  So I had no option but to cross the gap with it.  With Shailesh’s help, I made it to the other side.  I’m not sure what I would have done if he wasn’t there.  Sometimes all you need are a few words of encouragement or a helping hand.  All I can say is that Shailesh is a great team player and a very dependable friend.

Our adventure was not yet over.  After the traverse, we had to rock climb a highly exposed twenty foot or so patch.  Although it was exposed, it was not very difficult compared to the previous parts and combined with the fact that I was still high on adrenalin, it felt like a piece of cake!

We had finally, after over 24 hours, made it on top of Konkan Kada via nali-chi-vaat!

The expressions on Shailesh's face after overcoming the very last rock climbing patch are worth a thousand words!
The expressions on Shailesh’s face after overcoming the very last rock climbing patch are worth a thousand words!
Finally, we were on top of the Konkan Kada.  We simply dumped our bags and sat there taking in the beautiful view.
Finally, we were on top of the Konkan Kada.  We simply dumped our bags and sat there taking in the beautiful view.
Yours truly on top of the world!
Yours truly on top of the world!
This is called Peace of Mind!
This is called Peace of Mind!

Harishchandragad

Konkan Kada of Harishchandragad is a huge semi-circular cliff and is well-known in the local trekking community.  The view of the Konkan region from the top of Konkan Kada will take your breath away.  In the monsoon season, the wind currents blow up from under the cliff and if you throw flowers down, the wind blows them back up.  It’s a fascinating experience, which I had experienced when I had climbed Harishchandragad (from Khireshwar via Tolar Khind) for the first time in July 2006.

The huge semi-circular Konkan Kada (Konkan Cliff)
The huge semi-circular Konkan Kada (Konkan Cliff)
Side view of the Konkan Kada
Side view of the Konkan Kada

Having taken pictures of the Konkan Kada to our heart’s content, we started walking towards the plateau on which are the Harishchandreshwar temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and many caves.  The temple is believed to have been built by the Pandavas while they were in exile, and is over a thousand years old.

Plateau on which are several caves and the centuries-old Harishchandreshwar Temple
Plateau on which are several caves and the centuries-old Harishchandreshwar Temple
Main entrance to Harishchandreshwar Temple
Main entrance to Harishchandreshwar Temple
Shailesh praying to Lord Shiva
Shailesh praying to Lord Shiva
bharari_harishchandragad_nali-chi-vaat_recovered-idols
bharari_harishchandragad_nali-chi-vaat_temple-bells

Within the temple complex is an underground chamber, where Sant Changdev had meditated.  To preserve it, local villagers have covered the entrance to the chamber.  The temple also has a gupt (hidden) Linga somewhere near the temple ‘kalas’ (apex).  There is a room in the temple complex that houses several dozen stone idols; these were recovered by the villagers after some miscreants tried to steal them.

Upon reaching the temple, we put our bags down and drank lots of water.  The temple has a perennial water source.  Almost all hill-forts in Maharashtra have at least one water tank that has drinking water year-round.  Unlike today’s modern urban planners in India (which is an oxymoron), the planners in ancient India were intelligent and foresighted.

Next, we walked to the nearby Kedareshwar cave, which has a huge five-foot Shiv Linga that is surrounded by water year-round.  It is believed that the four pillars supporting the Shiv Linga indicate the four Yugas. We are currently in the fourth and final Yuga (i.e. Kali Yug) and that is indicated by the only pillar that is left standing today.  After Kali Yug, the world will end…

Kedareshwar Cave
Kedareshwar Cave
The huge Shiva Linga in Kedareshwar Cave is surrounded by water year-round
The huge Shiva Linga in Kedareshwar Cave is surrounded by water year-round

In Hindu religion, Yuga is a measurement of time.  There are four Yugas: Sat Yug, Tretaa Yug, Dwaapar Yug and Kali Yug. All have different number of years.  Kali Yug is the shortest one.  Dwaapar Yug has two times the number of years in Kali Yug.  Tretaa Yug has two times the number of years in Dwaapar Yug.  And finally, Sat Yug has two times the number of years in Tretaa Yug.

I didn’t go in the water as it was ice cold but some chose to bathe in it.  After freshening up, Shailesh, Atul and I went to explore the fort, while Krish, our “bhaat man” (rice man) prepared vegetable biryani and noodles for us.

Krish, our 'rice man', preparing his famous biryani for us with Deva helping him
Krish, our ‘rice man’, preparing his famous biryani for us with Deva helping him

We walked to the famous Ganesh cave that has a huge stone statue of the elephant-God, Ganesh, who is the Lord of Wisdom.  Interestingly, Ganesh is shown to be naked.  Apparently, people who practice black magic pray to the nude form of Lord Ganesh.

Lord Ganesh
Lord Ganesh

We were hoping to climb Taramati peak, which is the highest point of Harishchandragad.  But sadly, due to time constraints, we had to drop that idea.  Even on my previous visit in 2006, I was not able to go to Taramati.  Apparently, it’s quite an adventure to go there.  Perhaps next time!

Group photo before starting our descent to Khireshwar village (Taramati peak can be seen in the background)
Group photo before starting our descent to Khireshwar village (Taramati peak can be seen in the background)

We walked back to the temple and had a very delicious lunch prepared by Krish.  It was our first meal in twenty four hours.  After lunch, we packed up and planned to descend to Khireshwar village, via Tolar Khind.  This route is the most popular way to climb Harishchandragad and takes 3-4 hours.  Nali-chi-vaat is often used by local villagers who live under the shadow of the Konkan Kada.  They use this route to visit Harishchandreshwar temple during important festivals.

End of an Adventure

The descent was fairly uneventful save for Atul and Krish’s sprained ankles.  It’s interesting how this happened when we least expected it.  En route, Shailesh entertained us with his funny and interesting stories.  It was 5pm by the time we reached Khireshwar village.  Although everyone was eager to go home, I insisted on having tea at a local hotel.  The tea was excellent – after all, it’s the small things such as having “cutting chai” that make a trip memorable.

Shailesh and Atul en route to Khireshwar village via Tolar Khind.  In the background is the reservoir of Pimpalwadi dam.
Shailesh and Atul en route to Khireshwar village via Tolar Khind.  In the background is the reservoir of Pimpalwadi dam.
Although this route is the most popular route for climbing Harishchandragad, it is by no means easy.
Although this route is the most popular route for climbing Harishchandragad, it is by no means easy.
Beautiful evening view from Khireshwar village
Beautiful evening view from Khireshwar village
We had excellent tea (chai) in Khireshwar before making our way home! Photo Credit: Deva
We had excellent tea (chai) in Khireshwar before making our way home! Photo Credit: Deva

There was a jeep outside the hotel.  We asked the guy to drop us to Khubi Phata, which he agreed to do for 10-rupees per person.  From Khireshwar, Khubi Phata is 5-kilometers on a dirt road that runs along the reservoir of Pimpalwadi dam.  We were glad to not have to walk this part.  Our next task was to look for transport to take us to Khubi Phata from where we could get public transport back to Pune or Mumbai.

This tempo truck gave us a ride from Khubi Phata to Ale Phata
This tempo truck gave us a ride from Khubi Phata to Ale Phata

bharari_harishchandragad_tempo3While we waited for some transport to pick us up, I called my mom and told her that everything is okay; she knew how dangerous this trek was.  Meanwhile, Shailesh and Deva flagged a lorry going the Kalyan way, while Krish, Sachin and Atul flagged a tempo going to Ale Phata.  Sitting in the tempo, we discussed the latest controversies surrounding Shivaji’s life (such as, his date of birth).  We reached Ale Phata in an hour and fifteen minutes, and boarded a Pune-bound S.T. bus.  Unfortunately, the bus was packed and we had to stand.  It was 11:30pm by the time I reached home.  I showered and slept thinking about the adventures I had in the last 48 hours…

Retrospection

We could have made the trek much safer by better time management and hiring a local guide until we reached the top.

Fortunately, we all lived … perhaps to die another day!

The End.

Group photo with Konkan Kada (Photo Credit: Deva)
Group photo with Konkan Kada (Photo Credit: Deva)

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