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Message #26: Matheran

(Message sent Sun, 10 Dec 2006 02:39:58 -0700)

I've spent the last few days in a wonderful place called Matheran, a couple of hundred kms east of Mumbai. The guidebook calls it a "hill station," but that doesn't really convey the right impression. It's not a station in the NZ sense, as I don't think any kind of farming goes on there. And hill isn't quite right either. The landscape is, I suspect, ancient and heavily eroded, leaving behind a series of mesas with deep gouges between them. The largest of these mesas has a precipitous cliff wrapped most of the way around it. The cliff abruptly gentles to an apron that descends down to the plain. The plateau at the top of the mesa is heavily forested, and the whole place has a "lost world" feel to it. The town of Matheran perches on the clifftop, amid the trees.

The soil and rocks of the mesa are predominately reddish in colour, and so the roads are all made of roughly cut red rock or, more commonly, hard-packed red clay.

But the thing that makes the place special is that they've banned cars! The only forms of transport allowed anywhere on the plateau are walking, horse riding, and hand-drawn rickshaws and carts. It seems that you're not even allowed to have any form of horse-drawn cart, and so all supplies for the town have to be hauled up from the carpark by men with handcarts. I've seen them transport great stacks of bricks this way - seven or eight men to a cart, shouting and chanting to fire themselves up to push the huge loads up the hill.

The main road in the town feels a bit like the Wild West - a dusty road with horses riding up and down it, and small shops to either side called things like, "General Stores." Plus there are lots of Indians around.

You have to enjoy walking to enjoy Matheran, partly because it's the main way of getting around, but mostly because that's basically all there is to do.

All the way around the edge of the ... I keep wanting to say "island" because that's what it feels like ... station are a series of lookout points - Echo Point, Monkey Point, and so on. The view from these Points - down to the plain or out to nearby mesas - would be world-class if not for (broken-record warning) the ever-present haze. But the Points redeem themselves because in many cases you can look back at the mesa itself, giving you great views of the mighty cliff.

Even the most remote Point is only a matter of 90 minutes walk from town, and in my time there I managed to visit nearly all of them. Spending your time ambling from Point to Point is just wonderful, as you spend 90% of your time in the forest on the lovely red roads, the canopy closed above you, with only monkeys for company. Every now-and-then you reach a Point and the view opens up before you. You have a rest, soak up the view for a while, and then plunge back into the forest. Great stuff.

I'd like to see the place during the monsoon, as you can clearly see dozens of dry waterfall courses striping the cliff. With the taps on it must look spectacular indeed.

Frequently while wandering through the forest you encounter the odd sight of a gateway. These usually take the form of two pillars, sometimes with a lintel connecting them, sometimes with a rusty iron gate between them, most often just on their own. These gateways are never set in walls, they are just plonked in the forest. Just beyond each of these gateways is a huge mansion, most of them derelict and tumble-down, a few brightly painted and obviously still in use. I suspect that in colonial times Matheran was a place for the well-to-do of Bombay to escape the summer heat, and that these mansions are actually baches, Raj-style.

I stumbled across my favourite of these gateways while visiting one of the more remote and less-visited Points. The Point itself consisted of a low forested knoll, the view being afforded by a pathway circumnavigating the knoll some way below the top. One of these gateways was set at the base of the knoll, on the side away from the view. It consisted of two square masonry posts connected by a wrought-iron archway. The gateway framed a set of steps leading up the knoll. I wanted to know what the steps led to, as there was certainly not enough room for one of the mansions up there, but the steps were too overgrown to climb.

On the other side of the knoll however there was a second set of steps that led up through a series of man-made terraces to the top of the knoll. And set there was a fountain! It consisted of a hexagonal pool with a carved central column depicting two water nymphs. The fountain is dry now, and I've no idea how it ever worked as it is set on the highest point for miles around with no obvious source of water. I suspect that in its heyday the knoll was clear of trees, and that the idle rich would sit around the fountain, its waters keeping them cool, and take in the view. I talked to a couple of locals; they all knew of the fountain, but none could tell me the who, the when, or the why of it.

Here are the co-ordinates of the swimming pool at the hotel I stayed at, perched on the cliff on the eastern edge of the mesa: 18 59.018 N 073 16.222 E.

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