As monsoon arrives, the brown hills of Maharashtra don their green mantle. It is the time to go on road trips into the countryside. While travelling long distance may not be possible now, you may pay a quick visit to misty Matheran (90km by road from Mumbai and 129km from Pune). Or plan for an elaborate tour later on. After all this hill station, virtually the size of a pocket kerchief, has 38 recorded viewpoints alone besides lakes and waterfalls (which come to life during the monsoon). But do remember, Matheran is India’s only hill station where all kinds of motor vehicles are banned. The vehicles have to be parked at a place called Dasturi Naka for a fee.
Like most other hill stations of India, Matheran was also discovered by the British. District collector of Thane, Hugh Poyntz Malet, brought it to notice in May 1850. The then Governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, is credited with the development of the hill station.
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Travelling to Matheran is as interesting as the hill station itself. As you leave the town of Karjat behind, the hills start coming closer. The black top road wraps itself around the verdant Sahyadri hills, curving sharply at the hair-pin bends. The ranges dovetail into each other, backing into the horizon; their peaks hidden among the rain-bearing clouds. If you are travelling well into the monsoon, you will find many hilly springs coursing down the green slopes. Sometimes, the road travels parallel to the narrow train track, occasionally crossing it. More than a century old, the Matheran Light Railway was built by father and son duo Adamjee Peerbhoy and Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy between 1901 and 1907 at their own expense and expertise. However, the train service is not operated at the height of monsoon.
Unless you are fond of picking up conversations with the local people – for which the centrally located marketplace is ideal – you can go on walks. Follow the many red laterite paths that crisscross the surrounding forest. Ask at the marketplace for directions to some of the remote viewpoints. Or, take a walk to the scenic Charlotte Lake, which supplies water to the town. If you want, you may also hire a pony for a ride around the scenic attractions. However, settle on the price before starting.
The monsoon rains awaken many of the sleeping waterfalls. Fed by the rains, they gush down the hill side like melted silver. You can even catch a reverse waterfall, as the wind forces the downward stream to fly upwards.
If the rains are less and you are energetic enough, you may trek from Ambewadi village to the One-Tree Hill top. It is said that Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had ascended this hilly route on horseback. Hence the trail is also known as Shivaji’s Steps (Shivaji’s Ladder). However, a brisk walk from Belvedere Point in Matheran can also take you to the One-Tree Hill.
And while in Matheran, do not forget to sample the chikkis sold here.
Matheran is also a favourite haunt of naturalists. Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and a few other groups sometimes organise nature camps here as the monsoon is a good time to study various kinds of frogs, snakes and geckos.
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A word of caution: The rains can turn the muddy paths, the moss laden viewpoints or the areas around the waterfall slippery. Some of the viewpoints end in sharp drops. So do be careful while walking around during the monsoon or taking selfies. People have fallen to their deaths. Also, be careful of the monkeys. They are always looking for food and are good at snatching bags, etc., from people’s hands.
How to go: Matheran is 90km by road from Mumbai and 120km from Pune. However, Matheran is closed to vehicular traffic. Only the toy train from Neral can take you directly inside the town. Irrespective of your starting point, if you are travelling by road, the car has to be left behind at a place called Dasturi Naka (about 80km from Mumbai), from where you can walk up (around two km) or take a pony or a hand-pulled cart to reach Matheran. By rail, you have to travel to Neral railway station. From here, you can either take the toy train or hire/share a vehicle till Dasturi Naka (about 8km away). Toy trains do not operate during peak monsoon (pandemic restrictions halted the operations of the toy train too but there are talks of opening it soon; however, do check for the latest info).
Where to stay: The market is the heart of Matheran and most hotels are within easy walking distance. But if you want to stay away from the touristy hub, seek the few hotels and resorts tucked away among the wooded hills. But remember, the further you go, the more you have to walk. About three km away from the heart of Matheran is the luxurious Dune Barr House, run by the Dune Wellness Group. Its most striking feature is the 170-year-old revamped British mansion and the quaint restaurant called Verandah in the Forest. The Byke Heritage Resort, another luxurious address, is said to be housed in the property built in 1854. They also have a sister property The Byke Brightland.