April 2015. A hot and dry summer torments the sub-continent. Dehydration and heat strokes batter the citizens. Monsoons are just around the corner and left us all longing for its early arrival. The Southwest monsoons in India usually gets in on time give or take a few days on either side and this year seems to be no exception either. The Met department predicted a scheduled onset of monsoons with normal rainfall. Now that a delayed monsoon and less than normal rainfall is a given, my monsoon rail trip planning needs to start taking shape. A normal SW monsoon leaves the landscapes and the water bodies in its best avatar around the second week of June and now that we have clear picture of the monsoons, it was decided to push it back by a couple of weeks. Every year I end up planning on a perfect rail trip in peak monsoons to freshen me up for the rest of the year and just like the Met department, I have a perfect hit rate of going wrong. I was determined to make my planning count this time. Considering my fellow travelers and my work commitments we decided just to take a couple of days off and planned to start our monsoon rail trip with an air travel.
01 August 2015 :
A week long discussion and we zeroed in on the beautiful Bhore ghats between Khandala to Karjat on the Pune – Mumbai section. This is a section which we had enjoyed so far only from the comforts of a train and we had no idea of the terrain and its dangers from a hiking perspective. With expert guidance from seasoned veterans who know this route inside out, we decided to embark on our adventure. Our Bangalore – Pune flight 6E 408 scheduled for 5:30 in the morning, however considering that we need to visit the next town near Bangalore to board, a 2:30 am departure from my residence seemed imminent
I was supposed to be picked up around 3 in the morning, but due to last minute exigencies, it turned out that I had to book the cab and pick up my companion en route. I book the cab around 2:30 and call up to confirm my hiking partner that I should be picking him up in about 20 minutes. The events that followed should have given me an idea of what is in store. After about 20 missed calls, whatsapp messages, SMSes and trying everything except a pigeon note, I decided not to waste time and assumed he must be asleep at home after finishing his night shift and was zipping towards his residence. Rang the doorbell and stood face to face with his father in law both equally amused and him probably more considering who is this weirdo calling out around 3 in the morning. Before I could explain myself a sharp vibration and a shrill high pitched whine broke the silence and I was relieved to get a call at last from my travel partner. Apparently he had just left office and would be joining me soon. Wee hour traffic of Bangalore and a previous night web check in seemed to be the only saving grace. The pothole ridden roads of Bangalore also ensured that he could take the aerial route at times. After a nerve wrecking ride, he managed to reach home and we departed around 3:45 towards the airport. The adrenaline kept him awake, but I was sure the body would let itself know in due course. Before we knew what happened, we were running towards the boarding gate and incidentally the final two to board the aircraft.
A tour operator was taking a large group of pilgrims to Shirdi and had almost,lets say chartered the flight except for a few folks scattered around here and there. The aircraft smelt of fresh curry leaves and the overhead baggage compartment had a small cart load of them. Going green maybe. Nevertheless, we were getting pushed back and waiting for the ATC confirmation to taxi. A group of restless folks suddenly started pestering the stewardesses to open the doors and take the flight back as a few from the group are en route to the aircraft in the airport bus. Needless to say, they were informed that alternate arrangements would be made and when we landed at Pune, we came to know that they were on board another aircraft to Mumbai. There was something very striking here and made me realize life is far more simple than we think it is. A few well dressed tie & suit laden, serious, no nonsense, busy & professional looking started rolling their eyes and came up with all sort of body language reactions indicating their superiority over normal mortals like us and how this bunch of pilgrims needs are so much inferior to them. I have to admit I have been in one of those situations as well and my reactions were very similar as well, but as a normal traveler with no business needs associated with this flight, I was actually enjoying it and made me realize that there is a first time for everyone. It made me realize once again that what we are and what we project ourselves to be are way too different. Life is far more enjoyable and non complicated once these two different avatars of you converge as much as possible into one single entity. I made a mental note and decided to make a sincere and conscious effort NOT to look down upon anyone. Not that I do, but whatever little I do should be avoided as well. A human being is a human being and that’s about it.
Well philosophy apart, we landed at Pune on dot. Landing at Pune brought me back old film memories. I have always been fascinated by visuals of passengers de-boarding the flight, walk along the tarmac casually and enter the terminal building. As we were just about to land, the head steward made an announcement that since Pune is a defense airport, no photography is allowed once we land and until we are out of the terminal and the events post landing made me wonder on the seriousness of the announcement. We walked down the mobile stairs and walked close to a couple of hundred meters into the terminal building area marked “arrivals”. Needless to say there were a decent number of passengers who were casually walking towards their aircraft to board. I am sure someone was watching all these movements carefully, but the freedom albeit monitored was delightful. Without wasting any of our time, we gathered our baggage and quickly moved out and Ubered our way to a nondescript hotel close to Pune Railway Station.
En route our airport to hotel drive, I called up the King of Shindawane & Bhore Ghats with whom I had multiple discussions prior to leaving for Pune in understanding the dangers and precautions to take before embarking on our adventure. He graciously put us in touch with another IRFCAn who will be banking the ghat section that day to assist, help and guide us. As the day progresses, we will realize the game of hide and seek we would play and when you prepare for the worst, something better than the best would happen. Since our IRFCAn was on duty that morning we had no time to rest and left immediately after freshening up to take the UP 17032 Hyderabad – Mumbai CST express. We got a couple of umbrellas on the way and got 2 general class tickets to Kalyan. 17032 was on time and after a quick chat with the TTE boarded a 3A coach for a short power nap for the day. When we settled with the TTE, we realized that the lady clerk at the counter fooled us with her charming looks and had issued us only one ticket instead of 2, however given our appearance and impeccable dress sense and the fact the honesty and integrity oozed out of our personalities, the TTE decided to give it a pass and wished us good luck when we shared our day’s plans with him. Unfortunately for us, we were unable to meet our lovely guide at Lonavla as he had to take his bankers down for another uphill journey. However he wished us good luck and informed us that we would be put on the Nagnath line (The leftmost of the 3 lines at Khandala towards Karjat).
As we departed Khandala, we packed our light bags and took to the doors on either side. We wanted to evaluate the clearance available in the tunnels and how safe it would be for us if we encounter any train while we were inside the tunnel. The dark tunnels and limited visibility did not give us any encouragement, but only increased our heart rate and uncertainty. We went past the Viaduct 6 situated between two long tunnels on the Nagnath line. We reached our first brake testing stop downhill and we got down purely driven by heart and bid our brains goodbye. As the train started moving after the mandatory brake test, I started questioning my brain. Did we do the sensible thing ? Is our heart overruling the brain ? Is this a safe thing to do ? are we risking it ? are we over confident ? have we underestimated this terrain ? Before we could find any answers, the LV board and the big X with blinking tail lights vanished into the mist and light rain. So here we are waiting to explore the beauty of this place. With lots of unanswered questions and half a mind to take the next train to Karjat and not sure of what to explain if we end up questioned by rail authorities, we took an uncertain walk along the tracks towards a small landing for a 2 minute mental break.