Saturday, October 12, 2013

Heaven in Sahyadri mountains - Harishchandragad

Ever since I started trekking, I had heard about few treks which are not only famous but people swear by it. These places in mighty Sahyadris are trekkers paradise and I just want to visit all of them. One name which rings the bell first is none other than "HARISHCHANDRAGAD". Its one place where trekkers would just want to go in all seasons again and again.I came across one person who has done this trek 60 times and still longs to be there. Whoa !!!!! Today when I sit down to write this blog, the entire place, entire experience is all fresh and in front of my eyes and would be there for long days to come ...... One liner to describe my entire trek "Life mein ek baar -- Life mein baar baar"

About Harishchandragad : Its a hill fort in Ahmednagar region and has played important role in guarding and controlling surrounding region. Its one of the few places in Maharashtra where remnants of Microlithic man have been found. Origin is said to be in 6th century during the Kalachuri dynasty and the caves have been built in 11th century. Great sage "CHANGDEV" used to meditate here in 14th century and cave is still present where he did his meditation. The constructions on the fort point to existence of diverse cultures. The fort houses some fascinating spots like Saptatirtha Pushkarni, Kedareshwar cave, Harishchandreshwar temple, most famous spot "Konkan Kada or Konkan cliff" which attracts people to come here again and again. Taramati peak the 2nd highest point offers Sunset view like none other place and amazing view of nearby peaks and valleys.

My visit : I had heard about Harishchandragad from time I started trekking and was longing to grab an opportunity to visit the moment I get it. So when I got update that TMI was organising the event in 22nd and 23rd June 2013, I jumped to register it and my desperation was such that I confirmed with different leaders in TMI that I was firmly a part of that trek. Lol .....  None of my old trek mates were part of this trek so I was alone but I knew I would be meeting and making lot of new friends. It was decided to leave from Dadar east on Friday night and trek would start on Saturday morning from base village of Khireshwar, stay overnight in cave at the top and back on Sunday afternoon. The plan seemed pretty exciting. Only worry about the trek was its uphill climb of 4.5hours one way and I was convincing myself till I left my house that Yes I could do it, Yes I could do it.

Reached Dadar at 11pm and found that it was group of 48 trekkers, few of whom where newbies and a large group. We boarded the bus and were on our way to most exciting trek I had ever done, The group was full of energy and started playing Antakshari, moment we left Dadar, I wanted to get some sleep before we start our trek so was off to sleep in no time. We reached Malshej Ghat by 3.30am and we just couldn't see anything but fog everywhere. Our driver had hard time driving due to low visibility but hats off to him we reached Khireshwar village by 4.30am. A small hamlet I would say with 15-20 homes scattered with rice fields near each of them. We slept in the bus till 6am. It was amazing to find oneself in such pristine surroundings, lush green mountains, tiny hamlets, drizzling rains and mountain peaks covered with fog. Oh !!!! What a sight it was ......Our leader had arranged for tea and packed breakfast. Hot chai in rains is always welcome and to top it up with such surroundings really adds the spice in it.

With group ready we started the march pass at 8.15am to explore and enjoy what Harishchandragad mountains had to offer. Initial route passes through some dense forest, It was well marked route winding up but due to rains it was muddy with path stewn with rocks. To reach our destination we need to first reach Tolar Khind, as we marched ahead we could hear the sound of waterfall and whistling birds. These sounds backed with fresh dose of oxygen really energies you. Our first main stop was a waterfall on the way, water was clean and really cold but getting drenched in it was really what we wanted to enjoy. In no time everyone was standing under cold falling water. It was much needed break. We had covered a distance in approx one hour. View of waterfall on mountains facing us and rice fields of Khireshwar village was truly amazing. More dense forest as we moved ahead.

After walk of almost two hours we reached Tolar khind from where one straight road goes to another village and one road leading up was our way to the top.

From here as we moved up we came across rock patch which has carved steps in the rocks but over the years have got worn out, in rains this is one risky patch where one needs to take care while climbing and coming down, good samaritarians have built railing which really helps in climbing up and it makes the climb quite safe. Everyone climbed the patch successfully with help from experienced trekkers Nishant, Nilesh and others.

We now were on the plateau where there are small huts to take rest, also best part about this trek is that local villagers sell tea, lime water and biscuits which is blessings for trekkers. View from here is mind boggling. One can see clouds engulfing the mountains and in few seconds one will get a clear view. I can actually spend hours watching and enjoying the beauty of nature which one would surely not get sitting at home wiling away holidays or weekly off from work. As everyone wanted some rest, we decided to take much needed break. Enjoying the serene surroundings, taking pictures and hogging onto snacks each one of us was carrying.

As some of our group members Shaaaiilesh, Pooja, Malvika, Khusboo and total of 8 members had already reached much earlier than entire group, they decided to move ahead after some rest. Here was twist in the journey.There are total of 7 hills that one has to climb up or walk before one can reach main caves and Harichandreshwar temple. The first group took the longer route and left early while Nilesh our leader with rest of the group decided to take smaller router bypassing Balle killa. As we moved ahead we came across wild turmeric flower, Cobra lily - flower which resembles hood of Cobra and also has stem which is like a tongue of Cobra !!!

It was now just a walk on the plateaus but rains and fog were playing hide and seek. Our group moved ahead taking short breaks when needed. We also came across small plants growing in a bunch and with another bunch at equidistant from other creating a amazing design. Artistic work by nature !!!!

We were slowly inching towards our destination, we could see the flag on the caves amidst fog but it was still far away. Again we came across some dense forest with climb down in muddy path with karvy like shrubs growing on both sides. Path was quite muddy and slippery and narrow as well. Here our group had first casualty, Naela one of our members slipped and twisted her legs, she was in pain and tears, her ankle was swollen and had turned black. While Nishant and one of our group member helped her overcome the pain while I ran for our leader Nilesh who was carrying first aid kit. Luckily she was up on her toes with help from Nilesh. Other group members in meanwhile had found waterfall and stream on the way and were thoroughly enjoying every moment. It was now turning dark with rains gaining strength and fog engulfing entire area. We decided to reach for the caves. As we reached the caves, surrounding area was completely in fog and it was dense with zero visibility. Two of our group leaders and experienced trekkers had started their journey much earlier from the base village so as to occupy cave for us and were waiting for us.We had successfully reached our destination at height of 4200 feet in approx time of 4hours.

As we occupied the main cave, It had two chambers and main cave, with enough space outside with adjoining smaller caves. There were other small caves in vicinity which was occupied by other groups or would be by evening. These caves were turned into mini hotels with local villagers making available simple food, tea and breakfast. Getting meal like roti, sabji, rice at such height was so heartening. As we settled in the cave, we realised the twist in our journey, Our group lead by Shaailesh, Pooja, Khusboo and other members had not yet reached !!!!!! They had left earlier than rest of the group  and were possibly lost.Our leaders decided to wait for some more time before launching the "MAN - HUNT" .... We ate our lunch that we were carrying while we were still awaiting others. Naela our casualty member has recovered well, luckily no serious issue and was ready to join the group for exploring the area now.

It was now time to visit Konkan kada, (Konkan cliff) which has fascinated all trekkers for years. Its shape of Cobra hood and at a distance of around 2kms almost straight walk from the caves. On the way we came across more waterfall, one which was just next door to our cave. As we reached the cliff, area was covered with fog completely but still sheer sight of it made the group shout in joy. As we gathered around the railing constructed before the cliff ends, clicking pictures, something short of miracle happened, the clouds began to clear and it gave stunning view of the valley below, waterfalls from the nearby cliff. It lasted for not more than 5 minutes but that time was more than enough for everyone to experience the view of a life time. The wind here is so strong that throwing leaves or small shrubs would not go down but would be thrown back at you. They also say that at times coin thrown down would be thrown back at you due to sheer power of the winds but we were not that lucky.

In mean while our lost group members were back, giving us insight about how they got lost and how they explored the place, reaching dead end,coming across dead Cobra and so on, Shaailesh was culprit they said who took them to adventure trip,  New book coming out "How to get lost in Harishchandragad" by Shaailesh ..... LOL, just kidding

After spending more than one hour at Konkan kada, we decided to move back to our caves before it could get dark, not wanting to loose any more of group members and spend entire night searching for them. As we settled back in our caves, our torch was only source of light. Some members relaxed, some slept while others played game Mafia, cards. With our dinner ready, We hungrily hogged on to roti, sabji, rice and peetha prepared by locals. I still don't know if I liked the food because I was dead hungry or it was taste of rural meal, But it was surely the best one could get in such a location.I was off to sleep at 9pm while group enjoyed their time by playing in their group. It was around 4am when I woke up, all group members were still sleeping and it was raining outside and dense fog. I went off to sleep again and woke up around 6am, it was most amazing foggy morning I had ever seen. It was now chai time, prepared on burning wood, it was just one of best chai I ever had, followed by poha in breakfast.

Around 8am, we decided to visit main Harishchandreshwar temple complex which even though was just bang opposite our caves, we couldn't see it through the entire evening due to dense fog. Our first stop was a lake called Saptatirtha lined with small temples each containing idols of different gods and goddess but now these idols have been moved in main temple.They say the water once upon a time was potable but today its not. It was unique temple I had seen ever.

Moving ahead we entered Harichandreshwar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, If one looks at pictures of this temple on a sunny day it still looks magnificent on the plateau,standing tall since last couple of centuries.Its carvings are classic example of our ancient fine art which prevailed in earlier century. Its 16m high from the base. There are few caves close by, also one can still see the cave of Saint Changdev where he did his meditation.The river Mangal Ganga originates from one of the tanks close to the temple. The temple was built with interlocking system of rocks, same pattern is used in Kedarnath temple which still stands tall even after recent Himalayan Tsunami.

We also visited Kedareshwar cave, another main attraction, this cave houses a huge shivling surrounded by four pillars and cave is filled with extremely cold water throughout the year. Legend says that four pillars represented four yugs, all but one pillar is intact, other 3 pillars have fallen. One pillar standing tall today represents the "Kal yug", when this pillar falls, it would be end of the current era.

Sourced from internet

We didn't visit Taramati peak, the 2nd highest peak in Maharashtra, but again in rains it was not worth a  visit but with such an amazing experience, we all started our journey back down to the base village. Luckily it was not raining which really helped us in our descend. The rock patch seemed little more risky when climbing down but luckily all were able to do to come down safely. Again we couldn't resist the waterfall on the way  and in around 3hours were back at the base village of Khireshwar. Our lunch was ready in of villagers house and again it was most sumptuous meal I ever had. With such wonderful memories and experience, We drove back in our bus to our respective homes passing through Malshej ghat.We were back to Dadar by 8.30pm, each one bidding adios to other, taking home memories which would surely be treasured for years to come. Words really cannot describe this trek nor can pictures but the experience is all that counts. One liner which really fits this entire journey is "Life mein ek baar, Life mein baar baar"

I bow to mighty Sahyadri mountains for letting me explore and experience a paradise in its lap called HARISHCHANDRAGAD.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ratangad - Sonki flower special trek to jewel fort

Trekking season starts with first rains in Sahyadris mountain range, this year I had a "bucket list of to do treks", It included those spots in Sahyadris which are must do for all trekkers. These spots called Trekkers paradise just cannot be missed. One of them was "Ratangad".... The jewel fort in Sahyadris. It was on my do list for quite sometime and when TMI announced this trek, I just grabbed it with open arms. Another special thing about this trek was that It was organised at the time when Ratangad mountains are engulfed in very special yellow flower called "SONKI" in local language and biological name is "SENECIO GRAHAMII". Its during the later half of September with rains in departing mood and with sun shining bright after 3-4 months of rainy dull, it brings fresh lease of life on these lush green mountains. One of nature spectacle is SONKI flowers full blossom on the mountains creating a yellow carpet amidst lush greenery everywhere. So here I was backpacked and on my way to Ratangad.

Ratangad as the name suggest means 'JEWEL FORT". Its origin is around 2000 years old. It was one of the favorite fort of Emperor Shivaji. The location of the fort is such that it is surrounded by other important forts and due to strategic location of the fort it was called Ratangad. The base village is Ratanwadi overlooking Bhandardhara - one of the oldest catchment area. The famous Bhandardhara dam is just few kms away. One of other main attraction is the "Amruteshwar temple" at Ratanwadi which dates back to 'Hemadpant era which is roughly 8th century. Every trek to Ratangad starts by taking blessing at the 8th century temple.

MyTrek : Ratangad was on my do list for quite sometime and when TMI group organised it, I just didn't wanna miss it. Another advantage of this trek in this season was the Sonki flower bloom on the mountains which again was not to be missed.Our meeting point was Dadar station at 11.45pm on friday night. This was going to be a Saturday event.Our journey started with last Kasara train at 12.30am  from Dadar. People were going home after laborious day and we were off to our trek. As office goers slowly started to get down on their respective station, the train compartment was getting filled with trekkers joining the trek. By the time we reached Kalyan, half of the train compartment was filled with TMI group. Some discussions and gossips were in the air but while some like me decided to catch some sleep. I was off to sleep in no time swaying on neighbours shoulders in sleep and barely managing to hold myself from falling on trekker couple sitting opposite to me. It was journey of around 2hrs. We reached Kasara by 2.30am. Apart from some poor souls on the station platform, we were the only bunch of all charged up people for the trek on the station. Our leader Manoj had organised Trax and tum-tum, in all 3 of them to accommodate 32 of them.

Our tum-tum ride was going to be 3hrs !!!! I cozened at the back seat of tum-tum thinking this would be little comfy for catching up some more sleep. Our first halt was immediately at highway dhaba for midnight tea. Tea / coffee in middle of night is always welcome and specially when you are away from home and that too on a  highway. After a refreshing hot cuppa we were off to Ratanwadi which was our base village for our trek to Ratangad. This Ratanwadi is approx 16kms further from Bhandardhara on same route. I think I was under some deadly spell of sleep as moment I sat in our tum-tum, I was off to sleep again. But this was going to be for short time as moment we cut from main highway towards Bhandardhara road, we were in for bone breaking, horrible bumpy ride on the road. It was just nightmarish.......We were falling on each other and barely managing to sit on our seats. It was worst ride and road was never ending. We heaved a sigh of relief after more then 2hrs ride on such road when we reached Ratanwadi at 6.30am. It was surely a worst road trip ever in my life. And before we has started our trek, I was already thinking about our ride back in the evening on same road. Oh hell !!!!

Moving away from thought of bumpy ride back, We all settled at small veranda of Hotel Pravara where our leader had arranged for breakfast and tea before moving to the fort. Ratanwadi can also be reached by boat as its on banks of river Pravara on which famous Bhandardhara dam is built. Wish we had taken boat ride !! !! The view of the paddy field and calm waters of the river with lush green mountains was enough to energize us. The famous Amruteshwar temple was also just a stone throw away.

The temple was going to be starting point of the trek so it could wait but first it was time for breakfast of hot poha and another round of hot cuppa tea. Poha always tastes good when you are away from home, I still need to figure out the reason for it !!!! With our sumptuous breakfast over, We were off to see the famous Amruteshwar temple which dates back to "HEMADPANT ERA" - roughly around 8th century. It goes without saying that it had some eye popping architecture. Amazingly beautiful carvings dots the walls of the temple. Truly blessed and proud of our heritage.

After taking blessings at the temple, we marched to our destination - Jewel fort of Ratangad. It had started to drizzle which would be a boon while climbing up but also could be dampener once we reach the top as there would be no view. But with high spirit we moved on and crossed our first stream of gushing water. The feel of cold and fresh water from the high hills was tempting us take a plunge in water but our leader informed us that we would get that opportunity on our return journey. Moving on we were all mesmerized with little yellow Sonki's everywhere we could see. A lush green carpet on the mountains and Sonki's adding color yellow on top of it. It was just beautiful. It goes without saying that our photo session had already started the moment we started our trek.

As this season was end of monsoon, there were numerous streams that we had to criss cross, at some point the water force was strong and rocks slippery. One slip could give a nasty bump. Though there were minor hiccups but there were no casualty. On return journey we realized that this numerous stream that we were criss crossing was just one stream formed by waterfall from the mountain. Swapnil our co-leader informed that on their previous visits the flow of the stream was so strong that they had to form a human chain and use ropes to cross these streams but we were lucky to have crossed without such efforts.

After ascending for around one hr we reached first plateau. The view of the river and paddy fields below was breathtaking. This patch was such that we were standing on small hill plateau surrounded by deep valleys. It was amazing to be surrounded by lush green mountains. sound of waterfall and cold breeze with drizzling rains. It was an ideal spot to sit and spend hours doing nothing, away from world, lost in dreams !!

Oh !!! While writing this blog, It all came fresh again in front of my eyes. Coming back on the trek, we after spending some time, were back on our march to the fort. The path from here passes through dense forest. Its gradual climb on rock path.

Everyone was walking at their own pace with group having 13 first time trekkers on their maiden trek so Swapnil was back lead while Manoj was in front lead. Everyone was having fun while climbing with occasional stop for a photo shoot or to catch breath. Shraddha was our camera lady, clicking pictures of everyone. But too many halts by anyone would face wrath from Swapnil who would ask all to keep moving, chala chala chala !!!!!

Harishchandragad bifurcation landmark

One our way we came to a junction where straight road in the dense forest would lead to Harishchandragad, Its entire one day trek from here and route was part of Ratangad - Harishchandragad range trek, It would be an experience to do this range trek sometimes, But today our destination was only jewel fort so we took the route going up to the fort.

Its seems the monkey's of Ratangad have a name of being notorious & aggressive, occasionally taking away bags of trekkers in search of food. Manoj had warned us to keep everything in our backpack once the ladder starts just before the caves. After a climb of around 2.30hrs, we came across our first ladder, Our cameras and anything in our hand was promptly put in bags due to fear of those dreaded gangs. There are total of three ladders that one has to climb to reach first entrance of Ratangad - the Ganesh Darwaja. These ladders though being firmly bolted to the rocks, could be unnerving as these ladders have got rusted and at times shakes to the extent of giving any first timer on the treks a thrilling but unnerving experience !!!!

There is an arch door which welcomes you after third ladder which is Ganesh Darwaja, Some carvings on the door catch our eyes, one of the carvings looked like one of mermaid !!! Some of carvings looked like mythological characters while some where of Gods and goddess.

Taking right from the gate, there were proper railings and path which lead to the main cave. It was here that we saw one monkey coming towards us and after having heard the stories of gang of monkey's, our heart pounded at the sight of the monkey but it just walked past us. There were no sign of others may be because it was misty and it had been raining on and off.

The cave is big enough to accommodate 20-25 people and also there is also a small temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh. Just outside the cave there is sufficient space where one sit and relax. We all settled there. In one corner was small stall set up by a local selling tea, poha and even Maggie !!!! In no time the local stall had orders for 20 odd Maggie's and equal nos for chai.

We had our snacks along with chai & Maggie, Only regret was that there was no view from the cave as entire surrounding was covered by fog. After relaxing at the cave for more than one hr, we decided to explore other side of the Ganesh darwaja, It was still covered with fog but nevertheless we wanted to explore as much as we could.

Other side was like a garden full of Sonki bloom, It was quite exquisite sight. We found one arc shaped water tank which was full up to the brim. Nearby was remnants of watch tower. There was lot more to explore like chor darwaja, tyrmbak darwaja and natural hole created by wind in the mountain called "Nedhe". Nedhe is one not to be missed attraction of this jewel fort. It can accommodate 6-7 people and its literally the high point of the trek but due to zero visibility and no sign of fog getting cleared, We decided to skip these attractions. Manoj also informed that it would quite risky to attempt to go there due to fog and rains would have made the path slippery. There is always a next time.....

We now decided to move back to base village. Descending from the ladders was more than asked for quite few of them in the group but all managed to get down safely albeit with some thrilling experience. While descending one of the our group trekker was a casualty but it was just a sprain but not a serious one. I was also a casualty with slip on the slippery path but no casualty luckily. At the plateau, some realised that Alka one of group member who had hard time while ascending was missing and no one had seen her. Swapnil and some others had already planned to go back searching for her while Manoj decided to check at base first. And here she was with one bunch of group members, lavishly enjoying the stream water, she had descended much earlier than the group and was seen enjoying in the stream water at the base !!!! LoL

Back at the village, we had some amazing different varieties of rotis and classic lunch at our hotel and then moved back after yet again a real bumpy and hellish road ride to Kasara and back home. It was yet another amazing trek I successfully completed and thoroughly enjoyed it in the lap of Sahyadris.

(Pics have been sourced from well known photographers of TMI - Yashwanth, Ambrish, Shraddha, Paresh and others)