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Off track in the Sahyadris

Ever wondered what might happen if you were to stray away from the beaten path while on a trek or hike? C Gangadharan Menon walked into a whole new world after he decided to take a detour en route to Matheran, only to chance upon numerous sights and sounds in the valley of Neral

It was meant to be a drive to Matheran on a Sunday morning. Luckily for a few adventurous souls, getting off the beaten track en route to Matheran along a grass-covered railway track led to a surprise-laden tract and a green carpeted, rain-blessed valley.


The railway track is your best guide while you set out on this trail.
Pics/ C Gangadharan Menon


After parking the car at the foothills of the Sahyadris, we started our planned trek, just as the sun began to light up the hills in the background. The landscape was lush, and fully dressed in its green covers --thanks to a good monsoon across the Western Ghats. As we climbed up from Neral, it was easy to conclude that this was easily the best time to hike through the Sahyadris.


The green slopes of the Sahyadris make for pleasing views along the
trail


While trekking up these mountain slopes, a group of nature buffs joined us. They were familiar with the flora and fauna of the area and one of them suddenly squealed in sheer delight: "Look at that rare Ceropegia, it's a carnivorous plant!" He remarked that he was unable to spot this plant for over three months, and appeared truly excited on spotting this long-lost friend.


Flora

Our first pit stop along this stretch  was at a quaint village that came with an equally name -- Jumma Patti. At this point some of us decided to forego the Matheran trail and began walking along the railway track that lead us back to Neral. This 4-km walk was filled with sights and sounds that made the detour an enchanting one.


Fauna abound in this green lung of the Western Ghats

Track change
This decision meant that we had to forego the nuggets of information that the knowledgeable young naturalists kept throwing at us. Nevertheless, we were rewarded with quite a few gems as we explored unchartered terrain in the next few hours. The metre-gauge railway track was covered with grass as the mini train to Matheran was suspended during monsoons.

Waterfalls of all lengths could be spotted as we moved higher. The slopes swathed in several hues of green made for pleasing eye candy. Soon, we noticed flutters of butterflies that had created a bed of colour and activity. These sights became common as we moved ahead. September and October are the best months
to spot butterflies. Clear skies, crisp air and flower beds filled with all kinds of fauna added up to make for a perfect leisurely Sunday trail.

Detour to discovery
As we approached the outskirts of the village, we spotted a few boys who were flying their kites in the stiff October breeze. When we cocked up our ears to catch the distant cry of peafowl, one of the boys stated very matter-of-factly, "If you come by on any day between Monday and Friday, you can spot them dancing in that clearing over there." Now, if only we had the luxury of waiting until next day for this sight.

Ahead, we noticed the origin of a stream on a rock fa ade. This rivulet would eventually emerge from a tiny stream into a boisterous river as we followed its path along the river bed. The might of the Sahyadris with thickly wooden ridges and imposing formations made for fantastic sightings along the way. We had our fill of nature in its unadulterated form. A walk in the park.

About Neral
Situated in the Karjat tehsil of Raigad district, Neral rises 131 feet above sea level and is between 85-87 kms from Mumbai. Jumma Patti and Water Pipe are the two stations along the Matheran Light Railway. Neral is an important rail junction and is the starting point of the Matheran Light Railway that was built in 1907. It doesn't boast of high-end resorts or hotels but makes for a quiet, green retreat with tiny holiday homes, away from the bustle of Matheran. Apart from several bird species including egrets and the common bulbul, Hanuman Langurs and Bonneted Macaques can be spotted throughout this region all the way up to Matheran.

How to get there
By rail: Board any Karjat or Khopoli bound train on the Central Railway.
By road: Take the Sion Panvel Expressway cross Vashi, Kopri Village, Sukapur, Panvel East. Continue on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and to reach NH 4. Continue on this road for apprx 5 km and turn left on SH 38. Keep on this road via Bhivpuri to finally reach Neral. Once here, walk up to Jumma Patti village, which is 4 kms on the Neral-Matheran Road. Turn left at Jumma Patti and take the unused railway track, all the way down to Neral.

What to carry
* Comfortable walking shoes
* Sunblock
* Cap
* Shades
* Drinking water
* Light snacks

Best time: October to May

Avoid Littering en route; it's an eco-sensitive zone; dispose trash at the end of your trail.

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