A bicycle trip we had planned a couple of years ago, eventually got underway in March, 2022. Hoping against logic, we imagined temperate weather; the lingering grace of winter’s extended exit. Nature had other plans.
Heat waves are not often heard of in Mumbai.
There is always the relief gained through location on the sea coast. But then, these are times of unusual weather. On March 16, 2022, newspapers reported that the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had issued a heat wave warning for Mumbai.
In its report, the Times of India explained, “ heat wave warnings are issued when the temperature of any coastal station reaches 37 degrees and the departure from normal is between 4.5 to 6.4 degrees. When both these conditions are met for a costal station like the city and when it persists for two days at more than one station, then a heat wave is declared for that region. If departures exceed 6.5 degrees, then severe heat wave conditions are issued by the weather bureau.’’ The report then quoted the IMD: Due to the advection of warm and dry winds from North West India, heat wave to severe heat wave conditions are very likely over parts of Konkan-Goa, including Mumbai, over the next three days. Due to the prevailing clear skies and low humidity values, the temperatures are expected to rise and similar conditions are likely to prevail for next two to three days over the region.
“ Aha,’’ I thought with the satisfaction of having found the answer. My mind was dwelling on the afternoon of March 5. Early that morning, Prashant Venugopal and I had set out on a small, multi-day cycling trip from Navi Mumbai. We knew the timing was bad; ideally it should have been in December, January or February when the weather is relatively pleasant. But for much of January-February 2022, I wasn’t in Mumbai and given his work, Prashant has to schedule the required number of days, which takes time. Eventually, the trip was slotted to commence on March 5. The idea was older still. It took shape in 2019, not long after the two of us cycled from Mumbai to Goa (for more on that trip, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/12/29/on-a-bicycle-mumbai-goa/). By now periodically studying the map for interesting routes, we had noticed this giant circle possible around the Bhimashankar massif. With Malshej Ghat added, one could do it like a circle linking the coastal plains with the higher Deccan Plateau. Then a few things happened.
First, in the first quarter of 2020, India slipped into COVID-19 and lockdown. The following year too was spent in and out of COVID. Our trip went into hibernation. Second, we heard that portions of the route had become part of a BRM. Brevets are a different world. As the casual touring sort, we would never cycle as fast or as consistently as those participating in brevets do. But news of the BRM reminded us to try the route, in our own way. Third, over 2020-2021, Prashant’s niece came to study at a university near Bhimashankar. We thought of our fifty plus-selves dropping by one day on cycles to say hello but the very same musings provoked the question: why don’t we do the full route? We took it up seriously in February 2022, dates were decided towards the end of the month and after a quick check of the chain, drive train and disc brakes of my bicycle by Inderjeet of Evolution Cycles, we left home at around 5.30 AM on March 5. We had this hope that although it was unmistakably summer, the weather would be tolerable.
Our goal was to proceed from Nerul to Panvel and onward to Chowk, Karjat, Mhasa, Vaishakhare, Malshej Ghat, Junnar, Narayangaon, Chakan, Lonavala, Khopoli and eventually back to Nerul via Panvel. We made no arrangements for stay in advance and given the Mhasa-Vaishakhare stretch could see us bivouacking, we provided for some extra layers in the panniers besides regular stuff like snacks, first aid kit and bike repair / maintenance equipment. We thought of taking a tarp or a tent ground sheet along but finally dispensed with that; neither of us wanted to work overtime on fashioning a perfect ride. Take it as it comes.
By noon of the first day, on the Karjat-Murbad road, it was amply clear that we had underestimated the heat. Among the great achievements of civilization has been diminishing tree cover and this road seemed an excellent example of that. The land to the side of the road and the smaller roads meandering off inland had sprinklings of shade. But the main road itself was starved of tree cover good enough for you to stand under and feel cooled. Those big trees of yore – they are deeply missed. The result was a slow and steady progression of cyclist into dehydration. It wasn’t so much the lack of water, which we had in sufficient quantity. In my case, it was the loss of water and salts and the glare all around caused by exposed road and limited shade. To make matters worse, I love tea and soft drinks. Both, recommended as unsuited (perhaps the right description is: deceptively satisfying) for hot days, I downed in handsome quantities. It was a bad choice. I felt full and hollow at once and lacking energy. After a particularly bare stretch of blazing hot road, roughly an hour before Mhasa, I unhesitatingly rode into the fragile, thatched shelter of a tiny shop selling lemonade. It was sweet relief and there I remained for quite some time, waiting for Prashant and recalling a similar moment of God sent-relief on a hike to Prabalgad several years ago.
Our mountaineering club having acquired new tents, Abhijit Burman (Bong), Franco Linhares and I had decided to camp overnight on the hill’s apex, so that we could test the gear and also take in the unhindered sight of city lights in the distance. All that was good, except somewhere in the walk-in with tent, stove, fuel and provisions to cook food, Bong remembered that he had forgotten to take a matchbox. None of us smoked and that meant, there were no matches on Franco and I, as well. Suddenly we realized the value of a matchbox; the small thing separated us from a nice dinner and sleeping on an empty stomach. And we liked to eat. The evening was quickly fading to night, when we hurriedly retraced our steps to the nearby village. We worried that we may have to knock on people’s doors, be a nuisance. And what if they didn’t have matchboxes to spare? Luckily, ahead of the village, a lone old man appeared smoking a beedi. “ Maamaaa…,’’ Bong shouted in relief and happiness. He brought himself to a halt before the old man, bowed low and offered a heartfelt namaste. Never before in the history of the matchbox was a non-smoker so happy to see a person with smoke escaping his lips. The old man looked on amused. Bong narrated the blunder we had committed. The old man listened. He saved us, he let us have his matchbox. At the small roadside shack, I had three lemonades one after the other. Prashant had his share. Never before in the history of lemonade were two cyclists this happy to see a lemonade vendor. Thirst quenched and salts restored, we thanked the vendor and picked our way to Mhasa.
At Mhasa’s Guruprasad restaurant, we evaluated our options. Enquiries along the way had shown that rest houses were limited on the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road. “ Go to Murbad’’ – that was everyone’s suggestion. On the other hand, we had thought of days one and two of the trip as its main attraction and within that, the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road was important. Cycling to Murbad and then returning to Mhasa next morning to be on that road, didn’t appeal. The waiter who served us lunch at the hotel indicated that his manager may know more and so Prashant took up the task of speaking to the manager to find out about places of stay. He recommended an ashram in Dehri village and connected us to the caretaker there. It was a restricted property and securing permission for stay was difficult. But eventually, Prashant got a yes. The journey from Mhasa to Dehri was more or less a repeat of the conditions experienced on the Karjat-Murbad road. It was hot, dry and not generous in shade. By evening we were in Dehri and the ashram, located right at the base of Gorakhgad; Machindra pinnacle to the side. Under the greener circumstances of monsoon or winter this would be a pretty place. Unfortunately, we were visitors in March. In summer, vegetation in the Sahyadri dries up and the hills acquire a dusty, light brown shade interspersed with the black of ancient volcanic rock.
Gorakhgad holds a special place in my life. It was one of the first Sahyadri forts I hiked to, back in 1997-1998. After my first hike in Sikkim, I had looked out for company to go hiking around Mumbai and my first friend in this regard was a young, very tall Sikh gentleman. We made an odd pair; as tall as Satinder was, I was short. Gorakhgad was the second or third fort I visited with him. Those days, Dehri had been just a bus stop with a couple of shops. Having arrived in the late evening bus from Kalyan (or was it Murbad?), we slept in the veranda of one of the shops and hiked up Gorakhgad early next morning. However, it was in the years that followed, spent hiking and climbing with Girivihar (Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club) that I realized the full scale and wealth of the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road. From Gorakhgad to Jeevdhan, Naneghat and Bhairavgad a massive wall of hills signified the abrupt drop of the Deccan plateau to the coastal plains. The last time I was here was to hike up Dhakoba and onward to Durga Killa (you can read about it here: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/08/05/the-short-cut/). Simply put, Mhasa-Vaishakhare is a special road; one of the less celebrated gems although of late (especially following the early waves of COVID-19), there have been reports of many visitors going in, naturally triggering concerns alongside. Our stay at the ashram was comfortable. The caretaker’s family made us a tasty dinner. Our gratitude to them. As we took leave of the family to return to our room, a car load of trekkers who had taken a wrong turn, arrived on the premises asking if the path to Gorakhgad ran through the property.
Early next morning, we pushed off for Vaishakhare and Malshej Ghat. The road was very good and distances marked directly on the tarmac indicated that it may have played host to road races. We cruised along, first in darkness and then, savoring a fantastic sunrise. A few kilometers before Vaishakhare, a man we met suggested that we take a short cut. We did so and ended up off-roading for a while. The path connected us to the road leading to Malshej Ghat. At the hotel we stopped for morning tea, a bus passenger traveling from Ahmednagar to Kalyan and halted there for breakfast, took much interest in our cycles and the small trip we were doing. He gave us an overview of the road to Junnar beyond Malshej. Tea had, we pushed off. Our next stop was another hour or more later – a cart and a van parked by the road to Malshej; the former offering tea and vada-paav, the latter functioning as a store selling packaged snacks. Both were managed by a local villager and his son. We had tea and vada-paav and enjoyable conversation with the father-son duo. Then, up the ghat road, we continued.
The mountain wall from day one now curved towards Malshej Ghat. The dyke-like Bhairavgad was an impressive sight to behold. Meanwhile we could see ranges coming into view on the opposite side of the road as well. Occasionally a motorcycle rider or the occupants of a passing car would give us a thumbs up for encouragement as we sweated it up Malshej Ghat (on the Internet, the average elevation of Malshej Ghat is given as 700 metres, around 2300 feet). We took periodic breaks, particularly at view-points with parking space created by the side of the road. Having learnt the importance of self-care from the previous day, we were also quite liberal with halts for hydration, especially lemonade. Around noon, we reached the entry to the final stretch; there was a lemonade stall, a fort-like structure and a patch of road with a fleet of cranes and many workers engaged in (what seemed like) strengthening the rock wall of the hill through which the road had been cut. Besides that, the workers removed lose rocks. We paused here for lemonade and some down time spent watching people and traffic. Early afternoon, we reached the side road leading to the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation’s (MTDC) resort at Malshej Ghat. But given Dehri had made us fans of the local cooking, instead of heading to the resort straight away, we dove into Hotel Malshej, a dhaba (small eatery) right at that corner. It was operated by Balu and his wife. They didn’t let us down. It was another encounter with tasty food; fresh, simple and beautifully made. We told Balu that we will be back for dinner.
Post lunch, we proceeded to the MTDC resort but ended up quite disappointed with their tariff, which despite it being off season, was high. The tariff showed no sign of being flexible. And they didn’t appear to require questioning the inflexibility because there were people driving in on their cars and SUVs, willing to spend that much for a room. What are two cyclists then? – I guess. We asked ourselves if the basic paradigm of a bicycle trip is to spend high for creature comforts or focus resources on the cycling. The answer was definitely the latter. So, we consulted Balu and he fixed us up at Hotel Nisarg a little distance away. It was a rather bleak lodge but liveable and with an evening stroll to a nearby meadow possible and dinner set up at Balu’s eatery, the hours went by quickly. Interestingly, the lodge’s biggest customer appeared to be the firm doing the work on the rock wall at Malshej Ghat. The officers of the company stayed there. There was a small temple near the lodge. Harishchandragad could be seen in the distance. There was however one emergent problem – the flow of traffic on the road was now steady and the number of vehicles, more. On top of it, the road here was in a bad state. It didn’t augur well for next day’s start.
Hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists – they typically like an early morning start. The reason is simple. Unlike people traveling in the climate controlled comfort of automobiles, these activities involve physical strain. You therefore try to get at least some portion of the day’s work done before the heat sets in. It had been the same with us. We always aimed to commence cycling by 6 AM or earlier. Usually, it is a nice experience. That terrible irritant of Indian roads – traffic, is less and in places away from cities, you have a world at peace for bonus. Early next morning however, the cycling was a challenge. The road was gravely, the tarmac dipped sharply at the road’s edges and there were potholes. But the real nuisance was the traffic and the ocean of lights one saw in front. Probably because this is a hill section, trucks, cars, pick-ups, SUVs and vans plying on the road tend to have multiple lights. Their logic would be – the more the number of lights, the more the visibility. Oncoming vehicles therefore hark of a film shooting scene. There’s so much light; all one needs is a movie star dancing on the road. What they forget is, lighting technology has changed over the years. The average car or SUV of today has headlights significantly more powerful than what they used to be years ago. Adding more lights is overkill. For cyclist on the road, oncoming traffic awash in a battery of such lights is blinding. For an hour at least, I struggled to see properly. Dawn’s sunshine brought relief. Slowly the road condition too improved. We soon got past Pargaon and on to the hill road leading to Junnar. This road was a bit steep in parts but it was in excellent condition. There was very little traffic at that hour and hence, the road was quite enjoyable. It was peaceful.
We saw a well-dressed young woman, seemingly on her way to college, walking barefoot with her slippers in her hand. It was an odd sight. Prashant asked why she was walking so. She replied that her slippers were fancy ones unsuited for walking on the hill road. Maybe closer to her destination, she would slip them back on. The road climbed up to a lovely, small pass with a temple by its side. We parked our bicycles at the pass to hydrate and take in the view. It was an impressive landscape; a chain of hills and the lake created by the Pimpalgaon Joga Dam. As we stood there, we saw a cyclist on a light road bike, come up from the Junnar side. It was Santosh, jeweller and cyclist from Othur, out on his regular training ride. It was a study in contrast – he on an utterly light road bike free of load and us (an MTB and a hybrid) sporting panniers and hauling load. We exchanged notes and a brief conversation later, Santosh rode off elegantly as road bikers typically do; he essayed a smooth turn at the corner and disappeared down the road in the direction of Pargaon. We crossed the pass towards Junnar and were treated to a long, smooth descent. It was fun; that stint going downhill felt like a magic carpet-ride.
After breakfast at Junnar, we attended to a major problem, on since day two of the ride. My shoes, veteran of several rides, were enduring a divorce; the upper had come off the soles completely. The first one separated so before the trip and I had it repaired in Navi Mumbai. The second one followed suit at Malshej. We located a cobbler just outside the Junnar bus depot. He stitched the whole thing up. Bless you sir. We set off for Narayangaon. In retrospect, all the attractions of this trip ended at Junnar. From Junnar onward, the route we had chosen was on a crowded main road or highway and therefore very reminiscent of India’s daily rat race-existence. We could sense in the environment, the distant presence of Pune, Maharashtra’s second biggest city and among India’s major industrial hubs. As traffic from all over merges and proceeds to such hubs, the local flavour recedes and an industrial blandness takes over. The return to urban life was viscerally felt in the lunch of day three – the thali we ordered at a dhaba along the highway had nothing authentic or regional. It tasted of everywhere. Several hours of cycling on characterless roads later, we reached Chakan.
By now the return to civilization was full blown. Its most visible ambassador was traffic moving nonchalantly towards you on the wrong side of the road. It seemed an institutionalized, normal practice. And it was dangerous, making for deadly roads. We turned into the road leading to Talegaon from Chakan and some ways off, decided to halt at the fairly upmarket Matrix Inn. While we discussed the tariff, we told the manager of the hotel that we were cyclists out on a multi-day trip and spending high wasn’t exactly what we wished for. He heard us out and offered a good deal; he also let us take our cycles to the floor we stayed on. It was an excellent stay. Next morning, the hotel even prepared an earlier than usual complimentary breakfast for us. There was sandwich, boiled egg, fruit and tea. Our thanks to the manager and his staff.
The early morning ride through Chakan was a gaze into the dim underbelly of GDP. The factories here contribute to the GDP that is bandied about as data for discussion in the financial circles of Mumbai and the government circles of Delhi. However, there is something bleak about how GDP is made; about Chakan’s early morning heavy traffic, the sight of buses transporting workers to various factories, people waiting at bus stops, the queues before factory gates and people walking along the road, mile upon mile, proceeding on foot to their places of work. And the sun isn’t up, yet. There was an Orwellian tinge to the picture; a sense of self succumbed to industrial order and redemption through money. It isn’t an uplifting sight and you cannot blame anyone for the lack of buoyancy in the frame. It is just us, our numbers and our predicament of life traded for means of survival. Spoken of as data and statistics and minus the human angle, GDP is sexy.
We wound our way to Talegaon, tucked into the traffic flow headed to Mumbai on the old Mumbai-Pune highway, watched paragliding over a cup of tea at Kamshet, breezed through Lonavala, descended to the coastal plains via Bhor Ghat and sat down for a ritual snack at Khopoli. The whole passage was as industrial as the morning mood of Chakan. A few hours later, Mumbai hit us in full force at Panvel. By afternoon on the fourth day (March 8), we were back in Nerul. In terms of daily mileage (approximate and measured on Google), Prashant estimates it was 95 kilometres covered on day one, 55 on day two, 90 on day three and close to 130 on day four. The cycles – a Trek 4500D MTB and a GT Traffic hybrid – held up well. The only instance of gear malfunctioning was a headlight (one of two used on the given cycle) that failed on day two. We tried repairing it in our lodge room at Malshej but to no success.
The IMD’s warning, the Mumbai municipal corporation’s (BMC) advisory on heat wave and the related news reports not only put those hours on the Karjat-Murbad road and the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road in perspective, it also helped explain another aspect of the heat, which we had felt. Although the cycling beyond Malshej had been less enjoyable due to traffic and regular highways, the heat hadn’t been as punishing as it was in the phase before Malshej Ghat and the phase following Bhor Ghat on the return. That was unusual for summer – a comparatively tolerable Deccan and an unsettlingly warm coastal plain.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)