I have to admit that we were not very comfortable in walking back towards Monkey Hill. Remote location with no local guide or support, slippery tracks, spurts or heavy rainfall, dark long tunnels and trains rushing towards you at 50kmph downhill were still haunting us. We decided to have a talk with the gang men who were working over there to get a perspective of what is in store for us. I do not think it was a common everyday sight for them to see folks alighting at brake testing points and their bewilderment gave way to curiosity as we approached them. The bright orange shirts made a start contrast with the then bright blue sky and fresh green surroundings. Without second thoughts we inquired with them and questioned them on the safety of walking towards Monkey Hill across the tunnels and the viaducts. I don’t know if it was my Hindi or my appearance, I think they figured that we were lost and came up with a couple of options.
The first one, continue onto the path towards Karjat and ascend the catch siding. Towards the end of the siding, there is a tunnel which would take us towards Thakurwadi where the traffic would be better and we can take an UP (Downhill) train towards Karjat. An alternate approach would be wait there until we get a banker or a passenger train towards Karjat. Bankers normally transport these ghat section workers between different points and apparently if we could request the LP’s politely and nicely they may help us up to Karjat. While these options seemed to be the easy way out, we ended up explaining them the purpose of our visit and wanted to evaluate the risks before entering the tunnels and viaducts. Now that we had made our intentions clear, the gang men ended up being our savior. They spent about five minutes explaining the nuances and signs to watch out for in while in the tunnels.
The Gang men Advice :
1.Do not enter the tunnels if you do not have a fully charged flashlight which would last the distance.
2.Walk along the outer edge of the curve if there is any.
3.Do not talk or chit chat. Focus on your path and keep your ears open for any sounds. The sound of a train approaching cannot be mistaken, but you need to keep your mind free from distractions.
4.Stay away from the tracks if there is fog or mist.
5.An approaching train usually displaces a lot of air when it enters any tunnel and the gush of wind is an unmistakable sign of an approaching train. Get into a relief point nearby if you could spot the train and assess the distance. If not, just get down the ballast, lay down your backpack and lay low until the train passes. A wet and soiled jeans is a much better alternative than having a face to face encounter with the trains. They also assured us that there is enough space between the tracks and the tunnel walls, but it is always better to have options.
6.Face the traffic. This was redundant as we would be anyway facing the traffic, however just in case
7.In rains, avoid standing right below the OHE and especially so if you have an umbrella.
8.Walk on the tracks inside the tunnel and whenever possible stay out of it.
9.Last and the most helpful advice. We do it everyday. It is safe if you focus your mind. Nothing to be bothered about. Stay sharp and focused. Do not left your mind drift and you will be fine.
This five minute chit chat with the gang men really boosted our confidence. We freshened up a bit and started our hike towards Monkey hill. In spite of all assurances, as we looked at the first tunnel, our heart skipped a beat and we cautiously entered the dark side and then clouds started opening up a bit. While the tunnels did look scary and claustrophobic from with the train, walking inside one gave us a much clearer picture. There were clearances on either side for us to step down in case of an approaching train. There were interspersed refuge points to take refuge and were marked with a clear “R”. I am not sure about other tunnels, but at least in this section, it would be fair to say that these refuge points would be around 50 meters apart alternating on either side of the tunnels. We exited the first tunnel and halfway into the second one, we sensed a remote vibration and soft grumble very different to the eerie silence inside the tunnels and chirping birds and monkeys outside them. As we were right next to an “R” point and the fact that I needed to get my jacket off inside the tunnels, we stepped aside into the refuge point. The vibrations intensified and the soft grumble gave way to high pitched whines & screeches and burning smell of brake shoes rubbing against the steel wheels. After almost close to two minutes with headlights on 2 KYN WAG7 brakers with an inactive loco glided past us at a relaxed speed. I think the sound inside the tunnels gets amplified a million times as the brakers started applying the brakes to halt the 50+ BCNA rake at its first brake testing point. Just as I was about to click a pic, something stopped me from doing it. I did not want to attract any unwanted attention inside a tunnel. It took close to 4 minutes for the train to pass us and since the line was clear, we picked up pace and cleared the next couple of tunnels with little or no fuss.
We crossed Tunnel 39 UP and came face to face with Tunnel 40 UP. Tunnel 40 UP is close to 900 meters long and the spot which we came looking for specifically is right after this tunnel. The excitement of being so close is palpable, but you still need to cross that long tunnel carefully and with no incident. We quench our thirst from those innumerable small waterfalls and in the process my partner managed to get his brand new flashlight dropped and it is now glistening brightly and casting its led glow all around the water below a small pit as a stream of water was gushing past. We contemplated getting down into the stream, which must be about 5 feet deep and retrieving the flashlight, but slippery moss laden surface and better sense prevailed as we decide to let it go. We had 2 more as spares anyway. We did not intend to wait and test the 30 minute water resistance theory as well and moved on. Tunnel 40 is on a curve and heeding the gang men’s advice we stuck on to the outer curve and kept a continuous watch of refuge points. The curve ended and we could see the end of the tunnel and the next tunnel in line. Now that we have a clear view of any incoming train, we dropped our guard ever so slightly and picked up our pace. In spite of our brisk space, the bright light at the end of the tunnel did not seem to increase in its circumference and after a grueling ten minutes, the heavens and the tunnel opened up right in front of us and presented us with the most amazing scene.
IT WAS UNREAL. Passing through this viaduct and viewing this from inside the train in peak monsoon is an experience in itself. That little 5 second glimpse gets etched onto your memory like it did in mine. Take the train away from the equation. Take the rhythmic clickety clank sounds out. Take the wind noise out. Take that scream of the tea vendor out. Take your fellow passengers out. In short take everything out and imagine yourself in such a pristine location. Well, reality is indescribable. Imagination has taken a back seat.
Yes I find myself in the middle of a viaduct with a lovely waterfall on my left, the town of Khopoli down right, a long tunnel to my front and another long one at my back, a deep valley below and a gentle drizzle above. Cool breeze and the refreshing sound of water. All my senses are now awake and at its peak. All the weariness and grogginess due to lack of sleep just evaporated instantly. This sight is worth everything we risked for and will be etched for eternity. As if it was not enough, the lush greenery all around was a delight to a tired pair of eyes. Time came almost to a standstill as we waited for some traffic on the viaduct between the two tunnels. Two hours flew past us in a the blink of an eye. It is time to savor this before I continue any further.