TAKING TO THE HILLS IN A "TOY" TRAIN
"Aaay, col' drrrinks, fofcorn, chiffsss..." A vendor grins at me through the window bars of our "toy" train as it pants resolutely over a winding narrow-gauge track. Snack tray slung over his neck, he is swinging adroitly from one carriage to the next along the foot-boards.
My son Glenn and daughter Susan are with me as we chug our way to Matheran, a tranquil hill station which lies about 90 kilometres out of Mumbai. For the past week we have been in the grip of the city with its crowds, humidity and unrelenting clamour. Matheran, India's smallest, but no less charming, hill station with its sylvan glades and rustic trails will be a welcome change.
Founded in the mid 1800s, Matheran, which translates loosely as "large forest on top" has no paved streets or cars, and therefore no traffic intersections or gasoline fumes. The only motor road from Mumbai halts at a parking lot on the outskirts of the town; from there one travels either by hand-pulled rickshaws, on horse-back, or on foot.
The entire journey from Mumbai by train takes about five hours, and having switched from the main Mumbai-Pune railway line to the Matheran Hill Railway at Neral, we are now in a tiny carriage sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a young couple and their two children. The boy who appears to be about ten, peppers his father with questions, while his younger sister croons a little tune to herself as she gazes out of the window.
At this initial stage of our ascent, the terrain is bare rock, interspersed with scrub and weary, stunted trees, their leaves ashen with dust. We pass a signboard alongside the track which gasps "Ah What A Sharp Curve" and the train then dives briefly into "One Kiss" tunnel.
The vendor has moved on and another face peers through the window. It belongs to Mike, a blonde-bearded American. He too is hitching a ride on the foot board, clinging limpet-like to the window bars. If our compartment wasn't so cramped he could have joined us-but he shrugs: "Aw…no prob! Train's moving slower than a Sunday sermon anyways."
The miniature train sighs to a halt at a small station, Jummapatti, half way up the hillside, and passengers get out to stretch their legs. The platform swarms with hawkers selling trinkets, bottled drinks, tea, coffee and snacks. A wrinkled old woman whines at the window, and I drop a few coins into her palms. Her smile is toothless and ingratiating.
The family unpacks a picnic hamper of potato bhajias and chutney. The father turns to us, "Please," he says, "try some home made Indian snacks." My Canadian-raised teenagers exchange glances, wary about accepting hospitality from strangers. They have no way of knowing that in India it is customary to invite fellow travellers to share refreshments. It would, in fact, be churlish to refuse. I help myself to a bhajia. "Thank you," I say. "It looks delicious." The mother beams. "You too, come, come!" She says to Glenn and Susan. "You will enjoy!"
Not to be outdone in generosity, Susan digs out a packet of Canadian maple pecan brittle from her backpack and offers it to the family. The little boy delightedly crunches a piece and, the ice broken, his sister scrambles over to show us a sketch she has made of the train
On the final stage of its ascent, the train snakes along a narrow shelf hewn into the hillside. Mike, no longer nonchalant about riding the foot board, squeezes his eyes shut. "Sheeit!" he says feelingly, "nobody told me about this!" Gripping the window bars, his knuckles like bleached pebbles, he is suspended over a sheer fifteen-hundred foot drop of unforgiving rock face. The plains below are a quilt of green paddy fields stitched by thin, meandering streams which glint silver in the strong sunlight.
The train takes a turn, and ahead of us, about a hundred feet up, I catch a glimpse of the wooded plateau that is Matheran-looking for all the world like a head of broccoli sprouting on a stem of fissured rock. On the cramped, cliff-hugging side of the train, the vendors continue to bawl their wares. At the previous station they have prudently switched sides.
Mike's suffering is short-lived. We level out, travelling through a glade of spreading trees. The soil is now rust coloured and pathways leading to spectacular look out points meander through the forest. Soft breezes set the trees whispering, and the air feels cool and fresh. As groups of holiday-makers pause to wave and shout greetings, the train, in a burst of confidence, puts on a terrific show of speed. We steam into Matheran station with aplomb.
Photos: by Margaret Deefholts
IF YOU GO:
More information: http://www.matheran.net.in/ and http://goindia.about.com/od/rail/p/matheran-train.htm
Train schedules http://www.go4mumbai.com/Neral_Matheran_Rail.php (be sure to check for updates in timings)
Hotel ratings on Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Hotels-g503701-Matheran_Maharashtra-Hotels.html
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