As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved clouds—in my more lucid moments (ahem!), I have allowed them to freely shape-shift their way into forms and faces that I could never have imagined unassisted. Unlike many photographers, I love the rain, and even prefer overcast days to sunny ones.
So understandably, it was unusual for me to now look at clouds as adversaries. But here I was, at a stargazing camp, experiencing unusual cloud cover for this time of the year. Clouds and artificial light, as we know, are the stargazer’s worst enemies, especially in combination.
Vikram must cuss clouds all the time, I imagined, as he pointed the telescope at the sky. Clouds are the one variable that astronomers and stargazing organisers like him dread the most. To add insult to injury, clouds can also reflect ambient lights from distant human settlements, further affecting visibility.
All of this was currently happening at our campsite at the Tungarli Dam, near Lonavla. Though we had had some impressive views of Jupiter and its satellites through the telescope so far, our late-night plan to stay up and catch Saturn rising was doomed to obscurity. I would have to experience those dramatic rings another day.
These are things we learn to live with as stargazers, and in such situations, the moonrise never fails to compensate. Silhouetting trees and hills on its ascent up the horizon and gradually changing colour, the amber crescent moon was made even more eventful that night in telescopic detail. Saturn or no Saturn, It was still worth staying up for.
The following morning, Vikram and I got talking about more remote locations where we could go camping and find darker skies. It didn’t matter how far we had to go, as long as the destination was worthwhile. I also mentioned that I had been thinking of trekking up Vasota Fort, near Satara. It turned out that Vikram’s preferred ‘dark sky’ stargazing campsite was also near the Kaas Plateau, which was just a short drive and a scenic ferry ride from Vasota.
A plan was born, and we soon found ourselves in the company of other happy campers, in a car, on the highway to Satara, fully stocked with tents, rations, serious cameras, lenses, tripods, an intervalometer and a telescope.
Joining us was Abhi, the man behind Letscampout, who makes a living making spontaneous camping experiences like this possible. We couldn’t have had a better organiser for this trip. [Full disclosure: The author was hosted by Letscampout at their campsites in Maharashtra.]
There was plenty to look forward to: we were expecting to see the Orion Nebula and Pleiades cluster in brilliant detail, along with some open star clusters. Jupiter would be even brighter. Overall, the sky would be crisper, and the constellations more pronounced.
The earth itself promised to be no less dramatic—getting to the jungle fort would involve trekking through the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary. The Kaas Plateau, our campsite, also known as the ‘Plateau of Flowers,’ is a Unesco world heritage site on account of its biodiversity. Since we were hitting Kaas in the off season, there would be no tourists, hotels, halogens or neon lights to spoil the darkness.
We drove all night, and pitched our tents by the Koyna backwaters. Three hours of sleep on cosy inflatable mattresses, and we began the trek to Vasota at dawn. By noon, we managed to sort our permits and hire a ferry through the Koyna backwaters to Vasota, where we began a steep, three-hour hike up the fort.
What makes Vasota fort special isn’t the ruined structure, as much as the walk up the rampart, with panoramic views of Chiplun on the Konkan coast on one side, and the Koyna Sanctuary’s lofty laterite plateaus and dense forests on the other. Typical of Sahyadri hill forts in the range, what we had just climbed was also actually a plateau, enclosed by the 12th century fortress’s cleverly improvised walls and bastions. On our breezy ferry ride back, the Koyna backwaters mirrored a fiery and beautifully layered sunset; Venus floated close in a vibrantly liquid sky, inviting us to turn our gaze back to the heavens.
At our next campsite overlooking the massive Kaas Plateau, tents, tripods, cameras and telescope were whipped out under a clear black sky, ready to roll. The Milky Way was to rise at 4am.
There was only one problem: clouds soon began to gather, reflecting the streetlights from Satara town—some 25 km away—onto our horizon.
Our unusually vivid sunset was now beginning to make sense; it was these very clouds that had helped the sun set the sky on fire, making our evening ride back through the Koyna so memorable. These very clouds had remained a wildcard all along, and they were now sabotaging all our elaborate stargazing plans.
“It’s not going to happen tonight,” Vikram conceded, packing up his telescope, and our backpacks in the car, preparing to head to bed. There are some things that we just can’t control or predict.
On the bright side (excuse the pun), at least we had made it this far, and done an amazing trek, which we would probably never have ventured into had it not been for our near-spontaneous stargazing plan. And then, here we were, under the open sky, camping at a charmingly private spot overlooking the legendary Kaas Plateau. As travellers, it would have been really silly of us to complain.
We made the most of the night, enjoying fresh food, nippy air and engaging conversation by the campfire. However, our adrenaline had plummeted since there wasn’t any urgent need to stay up, and our sleep deprivation now began to catch up with us. Opiated by food and fatigue, one by one everyone went to bed, until I was the last man standing.
I too was initially sleepy like everyone else, but for some reason, now that I was alone, I was wide awake. There was something inexplicably inviting about the night. Mounting my camera on a tripod, just in case, and taking some time-exposures of the sky, my eyes tried to discern some basic constellations through the silky, diffused clouds.
My mind soon began to waft away from exposure calculations into routine random thoughts, moved to people and events in my life; and eventually the way I felt about things in general, until my mind was more still. I was happy to have this calm moment alone to myself, in a place like this, to introspect.
Returning consciously to the task at hand, I now began looking at Orion and his faithful dog, on one end, and Scorpio on the other. Behind our tents, a faint cloudy glow was rising over the horizon. And there it was, happening right before me—the clouds had cleared, unveiling the core of the Milky Way in all its luminous glory. I hadn’t even noticed when it had begun, but the timing was perfect.
I got to take one shot before my dying battery gave up, and it turned out okay. In the cosmic scheme of things, the photograph now seemed less significant. I was one speck of a person on a miniscule planet in a solar system on the edge one of our galaxy’s giant spiral arms, looking right into its core, feeling small, and yet so connected; feeling lucky to find this moment in life’s amazing web of circumstance.
Getting there: The entry point into the three hour trek to Vasota is at the Jetty at Bamnoli, a sleepy village on the Koyna backwaters, some 12 km from Kaas and 25 km from Satara. Trekking permits are obtained here. Hiring an entire ferry across the dam to Vasota costs approximately Rs 3,500 for the entire day. Kaas is accessible directly by road from Satara. The closest airport is Pune (112km), while the nearest station is at Satara.
Best season: January to June for Vasota (October to December is leech season). Flowering season at the Kaas Plateau is between September and October, while stargazing is best done between October and May. These beautiful places are biodiversity hotspots, so step lightly, and clean up behind you.
Where to stay: Kaas is a protected wildlife reserve, so you’ll either have to camp or spend the night in a sleeping bag in the Mahadeo Temple, after informing the locals. Other options include tourist accommodation in Satara and the hill stations of Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani and Tapola. Letscampout (+91-9819813493,www.letscampout.com) conducts camping, trekking and stargazing tours around Kaas and Vasota (stargazing at Kaas for Rs 3,500 per person plus taxes; treks to Vasota for Rs 2,500 per person plus taxes for a group of ten; basic stargazing camps at Lonavala for Rs 2,000 per person plus taxes. Costs include camping, permits, guides, meals, and dry toilets.
Maharashtra’s Satara district is located in the Deccan Traps region of the Sahyadri range, and separated from Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast by a sub-range with distinctive laterite plateaus like Vasota.
Vasota Fort (3,842 ft.) is a 12th-century hill fort overlooking both the Konkan coast and the Sahyadri range. It is located inside the core area of the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary and the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve. It was a military outpost, and even served as a prison, before it was finally bombarded to ruins by the British in 1818.
Kaas was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2012 for its unique flowering plant species. Around 850 of these explode into a riot of colour post-monsoon, changing hue nearly every week. What is lesser known, though, is that Kaas becomes an ideal stargazing site after the flowering season, once all the tourists are gone.s