The road journey from the city to the Rajmachi Fort a popular destination for trekkers is not for everyone, but has its share of rewards
Sunrise lay at the mouth of the Khandala tunnel. The twin peaks of Rajmachi rose in the distance, bathed in gold.
At Lonavala, we exited the expressway and turned left. From that moment and for the next 16 kilometres, there was no semblance of road. It was like driving in a mountain rally, where you need to rely on every driving skill that you have honed over the years.
Rajmachi is a small village nestled in the rugged mountains of the Sahyadris
With every kilometre, things only got worse. There was not a single soul in sight to ask for directions or to provide reassurance that we wouldn't land into a lunar crater after the next blind turn. Like true explorers, we decided to venture into the unknown with the belief that luck would favour the brave, as it usually does.
To take our mind off the arduous journey, we would glance at the twin peaks. With each winding turn of the road, the angles too changed dramatically. It was just like viewing a sculpture from different sides. The sight of the twin peaks framed by the river of rocks was one of the spectacular sights that stayed with us.
As we stopped by to capture these breathtaking views, several other beauties tried to vie for our attention: Shama, the bird that attracts its beloved with a plaintive melody, male and female Paradise Flycatchers, Blue-fronted Robins, Wood Shrikes and Bee-eaters. Butterflies including the Yellow Orange Tips, Gaudy Barons, Sailors and Chocolate Pansies flitted about.
The Blue-fronted Robin
Our first glimpse of Shreevardhan Fort was that of Kokan Kada, or the site of capital punishment, where men were tied in sacks and rolled off cliffs.
Nice to meet you Two kilometers before Udhewadi village, we saw the first signs of human life: A group of tired trekkers who had scaled the mountain all the way from Thakurwadi village nestling in the valley of the majestic Bhor Ghat.
The rocky path we were on abruptly ended at the village. We parked the car near the house of Baban Sawant, which also trebles as restaurant and guesthouse. From there we began the steep climb up to the twin forts of Manranjan and Shreevardhan.
It's when you reach the top that you realise the strategic importance of the forts. They overlooked the most important trade route of yesteryears: The one that connected the wealthy ports of Konkan with the Maratha hinterland. Shivaji, the master of mountain warfare, had it all covered, many centuries ago.
The Flame of the Forest
Below us, a train leaving the Khandala tunnel looked like a tiny caterpillar emerging from the cocoon of the mountain. When we returned to Baban's place just before the sun set on the Shirota Lake, every forgotten muscle in the body drew our attention to their existence.
The dinner Baban's wife prepared included a very important ingredient: Love. We wasted no time polishing off the rustic fare that included Bhakris made of rice, jhunka (a semi-solid paste made of chickpea flour) and a lasoon thecha, or a paste of garlic, red chilies and salt that could best be described as dynamite. The water tasted as sweet as the water from Himalayan rivers.
Later that night, we snuggled into our sleeping bags, which we laid on the floor of the restaurant itself. We crashed almost immediately, oblivious to tomorrow.
But tomorrow there was, and we had the chirping of birds to remind us of it. Believing that the early worm gets the bird, we wormed our way out of the sleeping bags, hoping to get some bird pictures, up-close and personal!
On the drive back to the maddening crowds of Lonavla, we wondered how it was that dense jungles and forts atop treacherous mountains remain so clean.
The answer probably has something to do with tough journeys and how only a few are willing to go on them as pilgrimage to nature's temples.
How to get there Get on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, and then take the Khandala exit. Continue towards Pune. Turn left, three kilometres before you reach Lonavala. Prepare yourself for a 16-km bumpy ride. Where to stay If you want to rough it out for an overnight stay, choose any of the homestay options. One option is Baban Sawant. Call 9881215091. If you want to enjoy your creature comforts, stay at Lonavala. Head to Rajmachi at day-break, and then return to Lonavala in the evening. 3 Options for a smooth ride: 1. Ensure that your four-wheeler has good ground clearance. 2. Hire a jeep from Lonavla. 3. Ditch your car, and trek the rest of the stretch instead. Incidentally, Rajmachi is a trekker's paradise.