February 24, 2014

Kalavantin - A Night Hike to Remember

'To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort. That is the reward the mountains give to effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love the mountains and go back to them again and again. The mountains reserve their choice gifts for those who stand upon their summits" - Sir Francis Younghusband.

     As year 2013 was coming to an end, I was yearning to end it on a high. I was mulling over an idea to climb Lingana with my friends of Wild Trek Adventure (WTA) Group. Lingana is supposed to be one of the most strenuous climbs in Sahydari mountain range and you need to have technical expertise to climb the same as approach to its summit was destroyed in the past. Unfortunately, my wish was nipped in the bud as my wife vehemently opposed the idea of scaling Lingana calling it as insane and urged me to look for simpler option.I tried to convince her citing WTA's technical expertise and safety precautions to make this climb successful but to no avail.  Humorously, I even tried alluring her with the amount of insurance that I had for my life in case I wouldn't return alive but still it bore no fruits.I was disheartened but understood the concern of my wife and decided to look for other options and zeroed on hike to Kalavantin pinnacle near Panvel which also involves rock climbing but is many times undemanding, safer as compared to that of Lingana.

      I joined TrekDi group for this hike and we started off around 10.15 p.m. from Pune.We had a group of 8-9 trekkers with 2 trek leaders - Vikas and Shubham. TrekDi had arranged a comfortable 17 seaters for such a small group. Apparently, this trek did not get much of a response but fortunately organizers did not cancel the trek and went ahead with the small available group.

      Hiking with strangers has its own advantages; you get to meet a lot of new people from the varied backgrounds, you forge a lot of new friendships, you meet lot of inspiring people who fill your life with so much of positivity.

     Our target was to reach Thakurwadi village, starting point of our hike, around 1.30 a.m.. Journey to reach this village was eventful. As we were on the way to Thakurwadi, it was post-midnight and we came across a village bustling with a lot of activity and where many cars were parked. Food stalls were open serving tea and food. I was surprised to see so much of a rush at such an unearthly hour and surveyed in the other direction to notice that there was night cricket tournament being played. It felt wonderful and brought back some nostalgic moments of my childhood where we used to play such night cricket tournaments in our village. After asking the direction to Thakurwadi to one of the stall owners, we carried on further.

     After driving for 10 minutes on a straight road, we came across a diversion but our driver drove straight ahead instead of taking a turn at diversion. Soon, we reached to the dead end of the village only to realize that we had lost our way. As there was nobody awake in the village, only practical option was to return back to the diversion and hope that the other road would lead us to our destination. Fortunately, it turned out to be the correct route and we saw the board indicating the direction to Thakurvadi village. We soon reached to the village only to realize that we again had come in the wrong direction. We were supposed to reach to a big banyan tree which was the starting point for the trek but there was not any banyan tree in the near sight and the route was going farther from the Kalavantin peak.

    It was already close to 1.30 a.m. and villagers were sleeping like a log. We experimented with GPS but it deserted us at the wrong time because of some network issues. We desperately needed to get hold of somebody who could guide us. Fortunately serendipity came our way in the form of a man sleeping in the temple. We tried to arouse the man from the sleep indirectly by making some noise and chiming the bell in the temple but the man didn't move an inch. As we were in dilemma whether to wake up this man forcefully, he finally seemed to have opened his eyes. Ceasing this golden opportunity, we politely asked him way to the banyan tree - starting point for hike to Kalavantin. He gave details regarding the correct route and even offered to accompany us till the banyan tree. He said that he would sleep in other village and it would not be a problem if he accompanied us. What an amazing fellow!

      We happily took this man along and soon reached to the banyan tree. After expressing gratitude to this god sent man, we began our hike in the direction of Prabalmachi, the base village of the fort. There is no road connectivity to this base village and you have to hike for 2 hours to reach to it. You can imagine the plight of the villagers who still haven't been provided with the basic amenities in the 21st century where India is believed to be shining. Fortunately, our government seems to have woken up from the slumber and seems to have started some kind of work to make this village connected by road. Hopefully, in few years’ time, the road to this village will be a reality making the life of these villagers much easier.   

     As we commenced our hike, Kalavantin Pinnacle and massive Prabalgad were glowing in the resplendent moonlight and it was sight to behold. It was moment to take the first photograph and I took out the camera and pressed "click" button only to realize to my dismay that I had forgotten the memory card at home. Though I made sure to fully charge both the camera batteries, I forgot to check whether memory card was inside the camera. I felt wretched to come to term with the fact that I had to do this trek without clicking any photo. As luck would have it, my trek-mate Rishi Kasne, who also takes keen interest in photography was carrying extra memory card and he offered it to me. With the borrowed memory card, my mood sharply turned  from somber to ecstatic. By the way, I still have to meet Rishi and copy the photos that I took in his memory card.

    It was a wonderful night with the full moon. Moonlight hikes are absolutely fun. Hiking amidst the serene surrounding with soothing moonlight guiding your way, at a time when your part of the world is dreaming, is absolutely a divine experience.  I was expecting a chilly night and was wearing a full sweater but as soon as we started our hike, we were drenched in the sweat and most of us, removed our sweaters. We took occasional breaks and reached to the plateau of Prabalmachi around 3.30 a.m.. There was already a group of campers camping just outside the village; some sleeping, some chatting. I struck up a conversation with them; the group had come from Mumbai and one Puneite from that group felt happy to see group belonging to his city and immediately waved and shouted to inform us him being Puneite.

     On entering the village, we were greeted by the cacophonous barking of lots and lots of dogs. Their noise was frightening to the core and we were feeling like thieves surreptitiously sneaking into the village but we just moved on ignoring these dogs. We were searching for the shelter to spend remaining few hours of the night. We didn’t want to sleep in the area open to sky to avoid our mats and sleeping bags getting drenched on account of the due. Soon, we spotted a small house with the shade in front and we decided to lie down under the shade.

      Few of my trek mates were already hungry because of climb and chose to munch from the packed lunch; I just tucked myself inside the cozy sleeping bag and tried to get as much rest as possible. It was almost 3.45 a.m. and we hardly had time for 2-3 hours of nap. All the dogs in the village were active throughout the night barking unnecessarily and it was irritating to the hilt. As if it was not enough, roosters started crowing vociferously around 4.15 a.m., almost two hours before the dawn. It is amazing how internal clocks of these roosters make them crow few hours before the dawn.

      Few of the trek mates had not prepared well for the chilly night and hadn’t brought anything to pull over. It was becoming very freezing and they just could not lie down and got up to see whether they could light some fire to get some warmth. I sympathized with them; actually I was also shivering inside the sleeping bag as I was not wearing sweater and socks and somehow cold already had penetrated inside the sleeping bag. Cursing the sleeping bag manufacturer, I got up again, wore the sweater, monkey cap, socks and again tucked back into the sleeping bag. At last tiring body felt warm with this extra cushion of clothing and stopped paying heed to external noises and went into the trance. I had a sound sleep of 1-2 hours before I was awakened by a sound of “tea is ready”. Apparently, our trek leaders had already woken up and finished with preparing the tea and started cooking the Maggi. I was not willing to get up but the thought of hot tea and the prospect of amazing early morning hike washed away all the lethargy, tiredness and I gradually came out of the sleeping bag to join my other trek-mates who already were warming themselves near the fire.

     After breakfast, we set off for the climb after confirming the direction from the villagers. Once you start your trail correctly from the village, it will automatically take you to the col between Kalavantin and Prabalgad. Ascent till the col is steep and it will take around 20-25 minutes to get there. The route passes through the small rocks and boulders and you need to be careful to avoid any slip. It is dreadful to twist your ankle on this way with careless hiking as real magic awaits you further which you just don’t want to miss because of the twisted ankle.

     Once you reach to the col, you get nice views of Matheran plateau  which is hidden from you as you are climbing. You can easily distinguish Matheran plateau from other mountains because of towers erected on it. The whole view of the giant mountains on all the sides is just breathtaking and you feel rewarded for all the toil and efforts that you have taken to witness such a grand vista.

     I had listened to and read a lot of interesting stories about the steps of Kalavantin fort and as we were about to start the actual climbing, I was thrilled at the prospect of climbing these much talked about steps. At the very start of the climb, you need to climb a small, slanting rock patch with proper grooves. This can unsettle few especially in the rainy season when the rocks get slippery. In the winter, it is not such a big deal and you can easily do it. You have a zigzag route to follow and you soon reach to the steps carved in the rock. Sometimes, whenever steps change the direction, they become too narrow to your comfort as there is a steep fall on the other side. You need to keep your weight on the right side; proper shoes and careful steps can make this ascent easy. You can have testing time if you do the same hike in monsoon when there is a moss and steps are slippery. I even noticed some bolts on these steps which I assume are used to tie ropes in the monsoon so as to ensure safety. As you climb the steps to reach the summit, massiveness of Prabalgad on the other side just make you spellbound. Overall, all of us did quite well and negotiated these steps without any hiccups. I would say that with proper precautions, this climb is straightforward in winter.

    You need to negotiate a small rock patch (Grade: Easy) to reach to the summit. Some people climb it without any ropes but it is advisable to take safety precautions if you have non-climbers in the group. As most of the trek-mates were novices in the field of rock climbing, our trek leader, Vikas ascended ahead; tied the rope to a big rock and suspended it down where other trek-leader Shubham tied the ropes along the waist of the trekkers and soon, one by one everyone reached to the summit. Only 2-3 steps in the rock patch were tricky; otherwise it was an easy climb.

     Once on the top, we just reveled in the beauty around. The whole forts of Matheran range – Haji Malang, Chanderi, Navra-navri, Peb were looking breathtaking. The whole Matheran plateau was also clearly visible with the towers on it clearly making it distinguished from other mountains. Also, on the other side, Karanala was looking very inviting with its thumb like peak and Manikgad was standing prettily with its hat like plateau. We just luxuriated in the sights of these majestic mountains.

     As we were spending few sublime moments on summit, coterie of hikers joined us comprising of three kids aged 7, 8 and 10. These innocent looking kids were trained rock climbers and two of them already had climbed Lingana summit once under the supervision of adults. I was dumbstruck to hear this incredible piece of information.

     There was nothing much to explore on the summit. Though Kalavantin was built as a fort, it was mainly used as a watch tower in the past. Therefore, after getting rejuvenated by the cool and fresh breeze striking our faces, immersing ourselves in the picturesque views, capturing adjoining stunning mountain ranges in the lenses of camera, it was time to descend - to transport ourselves back to the practical world.

     Everybody climbed down using the rope one after another. Descending was easier because of all the safety precautions. Vikas, our trek leader descended only after ensuring everyone came down safely from the rock patch. We soon started coming down towards the col. One of our trek mates had very slippery shoes and he had to climb down slowly, sitting with the support of both of his hands. As we were coming down, other group had arrived at the col and they waited for us to descend. Shortly, we reached back to the col and other group started their climb.

Once everyone from our group reached to COL, we started our way back to the base. Shortly, we arrived at the house where we had left all our rucksacks. We put our feet up for a while and ate a packed lunch. After thanking the villagers for their help, we set off for our further descent to Thakurwadi village around 12 in the afternoon. Sun had started to beat and along the way, we took one to two breaks in the shadow of the trees to get some respite from the heat.

     Reaching to the base was relatively uneventful barring one incident where one of our trek-mates, an orthopedic doctor twisted his ankle while descending. I offered him the muscle-sprain spray that is always part of my rucksack to relieve him from the pain. Orthopedic doctor being offered help from an IT professional for an ankle sprain, what an irony!

     We finally reached to our parking spot around 1 p.m.. When we reached down, we were approached by couple of mini-bus drivers who were hungry and did not get any food in the near vicinity. We offered them whatever was remaining with us and they happily accepted and expressed gratitude towards us. We refreshed ourselves, changed the clothes and started our journey back to Pune. We halted at Malavali to have tea and cold drinks and reached back safely to Pune around 5 p.m.

     On the whole, my initiation to the world of technical rock climbing, stunning panoramic views of mountain ranges from the top and chilly night spent in the outdoors made this hike one of the treasured ones.

     So, what are you waiting for? If you have strong legs to climb and are willing to come out of your comfort zone, hike to Kalavantin in the Panvel region will fill you with absolute joy.

Tips for the hikers:

>> Hike to Kalavantin can be combined with that of Prabalgad. It requires 2 days though.

>> Reaching Kalavantin summit requires basic rock climbing. If you are a non-climber, it is advisable to go with experts who provide safety equipment for climbing.

>> Prabalgad has many misleading paths. So take help of guide or join a group who have done this trek earlier.

Happy hiking!

Appeal: No litter; no plastic; no wrappers; keep the Mother Nature clean!
- Prashant Kothawade