Mahabaleshwar Diaries # 1 – Escape to the land of mist and Strawberries.

Mahabaleshwar is an old getaway for anyone in Pune but we are never quite tired to repeat a quick dash to the hills. And this was meant to be ‘roughing your way’ trip so no cozy Groups or even a nice little taxi ride to the mountain. Instead I started a bit early to hit the Pune ST stand. I caught an early morning semi-luxury bus that was as symbolic it could get to travel just like the common man.

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Mahabaleshwar in the monsoons.

Thankfully the bus started within minutes of its scheduled departure and barring a brief stopover at Swargate we were on our way to beat the morning traffic in the city. It was a pleasant surprise as the private buses tend to take you on a little tour within the city picking up passengers some of whom even flag down a ride along the highway.

It was time for a nice little nap till things got exciting as we started to approach the hills. Suddenly we were almost into Wai – the charming little town always reminds me of Ijaazat starring Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha. Of course many films have been made in Wai and of course it is a popular stopover for the numerous boarding schools that dot the landscape. An online tourist page scan had shown that there are multiple places for you to visit in Wai as well though like most tourist I was destined to complete only the ‘Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani’ circuit this time round as well. The weather had become pleasant by now – so unlike the sultry climate in the city where the humidity is up as the monsoon approaches and yet the summer Sun is not quite done yet with you.

As the bus soldiered along the winding ghats it was amusing to notice the changing landscape. Wai and Panchgani in particular have become bustling towns with all the attendant problems of crowding and commercialization. The number of hotels and guest houses dotting our route was humongous and indicative of the strong demand for lodging by the swarm of tourists that descend during the weekends as well as the peak holiday seasons. Mapros and Malas have heavily advertised their presence in the Jam and preservative market. You just cannot miss them on the road.

Having reached the market, it was a quick visit to the small hotel near the ST stand. Post dumping the luggage and a quick freshener I stepped into the market to have a traditional vegetarian lunch – the Pithala-Bakhar combo didn’t disappoint and I was now ready to take the Mahabaleshwar tour using a package offered by the local state bus service.

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The work-horse ST bus coursing through the winding ghats

The Sun was shining bright and there didn’t seem much chance of a rain as we headed out to Old Mahabaleshwar. We passed by Venna Lake that didn’t have its usual crowd. Well with the summer still around the lake too was shrunk and not at its crowning glory. So only some desultory group of tourists were taking those nice little boat rides on the lake or taking turns to ride a horse down the marked circuit.

On the way we stopped at a typical Strawberry farm. We were visiting ‘off-season’ so an assorted variety of flowering plants greeted u s but the magical ‘Strawberry’ plant was nowhere to be found. Instead we were enticed into slurping a glass of Strawberry Cream that was popular with the junta flocking the place. The kids got excited when a guy climbed up our ST Bus roof and started to pull down bunches of ‘Jamuns’.(Indian Blackberries). While it seemed fun, the Jamuns were still raw and skinny so not really ready to be eaten yet.

Our bus driver was a young fella who seemed determined to shake us up from having an afternoon siesta. He drove the ghats like it were a F1 race and often the brushing trees grazed into our windows. Still it was enjoyable compared to the lumbering crawl we had to endure during phases that involved the winding ghats.

And there it was – the crowning piece of the day was to visit ‘Arthur’s seat’. The weather had mellowed now and a fine mist covered the air making the view from most points rather cloudy. The bus dropped us about half-a-kilometre from the final ascent and we trekked along crossing a sea of cars parked at the edges. Clearly it was a popular weekend for the tourists.

As the immediate stretch started I came across a lady vending Makkai (Corn-on-the-cob) grilled on a charcoal fire – it is simply a delight to have in such weather. I also noticed vendors selling Maggi made in a similar fashion – it is amazing to note that this option is so popular in hilly areas. Have come across the same in Lonavala and Rohtang Pass in ‘Kullu-Manali’’ circuit.

And so we moved along as I could notice guides addressing groups and explaining the significance of ‘Arthur’s Seat’ also notoriously known as ‘Suicide Point’. (The highrise point is named after Sir Arthur Mallet, who sat here and gazed at the Savitri River, where he lost his wife and children in a tragic ferry mishap.)  No matter how often you visit the spot, one is always amazed by the scenic view and the final edge from where many have launched themselves on a trip to neverland bring it the infamous nickname, ‘Suicide Point’.

Inevitably there was the crazed crowd available that wanted to capture exotic ‘selfies’ – it is such a sad trend that has caused misfortune and grief but the craze refuses  to die down. The final point on the itinerary was to watch the Sunset but the gloamy weather meant that we had to give it a miss. Still it was a satisfying day and finally our ST bus trundled the ghats to return to the Mahabaleshwar market.

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