by Mohan Bhuyan
Photos from this trip can be seen here: Satpura Trip Photos
Also see Bharat Vohra's reprot here: Satpura NG Explorer
Midnight at Nagpur Jn's scruffy narrow gauge section, Bharat and I waited nervously for our train 1 NHJ (Nagpur-Howbagh-Jabalpur) to make an appearance from SECR's Motibagh Yard. The NG platforms of Nagpur are a poor introduction to the delights that await anybody who takes it into his or her head to explore the Satpura NG network. It's plainly obvious that the station belongs to CR & big brother broad gauge and that SECR's NG spur is an embarrassing but unavoidable add-on, much like an outhouse to a bungalow.
There was a large crowd of labourers, farmers and students waiting for 1NHJ and eyeing them, we reminded ourselves once again of the fate that befell IRFCian Vikas Singh who left Nagpur on 1NNJ that morning sans the timetabled First Class compartment. Though the section controller's office had assured us that our train would have a FC, one never knows with these things. And we knew that we would be poor competition for that motley crew on the platform in the inevitable scramble for seats that would occur when the rake did arrive. Hence our anxiety.
When the train arrived, we walked down half its length (total 10 coaches, all quickly occupied) till we came to the FC compartment in a 2S/FC composite and boarded after exchanging relieved High Fives. First Class on narrow gauge is really superb, akin to the FC of old on the wider gauges. At night, each compartment can accommodate 5 people, 3 on what can best be described as sofas (2 lengthwise, 1 at the rear) and two more people on bunks above the lengthwise sofas. Though narrow, the sofas were plush and quite wonderful to sit on. All the lights were on and oddly, so were all the fans. And we soon discovered that the switches for these had been bypassed. The toilet was the biggest I have ever seen on IR, gauge notwithstanding, and it ran across the entire width of the coach. There was another person already in the compartment who later identified himself as the Guard who would take charge of the early morning Chhindwara-Nagpur passenger.
As we settled down, a TTE appeared who looked surprised to see us in first class. He asked me whether we were "staff" and I retorted (rather too cockily) whether it was necessary to be "staff" to travel by FC on his train. I showed him our ticket and he went away only to reappear 5 minutes later with the reservation chart to verify our names and check them off. Reservations are rare on this train and our TTE had to hastily obtain a printout because of us! Needless to say, ours were the only names on his chart.
We left Nagpur a few minutes after the scheduled departure time and headed slowly towards Motibagh and Itwari Jn. As is proper for honest railfans, we flitted from door to door and one sofa to the next trying to spot the BG lines, the workshops & the sheds, and Bharat set up his tripod for good measure. The Guard watched our antics and listened to our talk interestedly but said not a word.
Before too long we were at Itwari Jn where a late running 2NNM from Mandla Fort was waiting for us to go by. Bharat (who is the most avid and painstaking documenter of all things IR) surveyed the yard and made notes while I wondered whether it would be appropriate to offer the Guard a drink because I sure felt like having one. As we left Itwari, Bharat spoke to him apologising in case we were disturbing him. He said that it was evident from our talk that we were railway enthusiasts and that our company was a pleasure!
He then unscrewed the bulb from the light just above his bunk leaving it to rest on its wire mesh, lay down and in the habit acquired by those who work at odd hours, was asleep instantly. Taking his cue, we unscrewed all the remaining bulbs save one (replaced them in the morning) and poured out a drink each and raised several toasts (including a couple to Vikas Singh, who we imagined was having a helluva uncomfortable run to Jabalpur).
Meanwhile, we were rocketing along at a furious 55 kph, the fastest we had ever been on NG, and the clickety-clack of the wheels reminded us of why we loved the smaller gauges. A fullish moon gave us a clear view outside and we saw that we were accompanied by not one, but two electrified BG tracks on either side of us. These were headed to the thermal power plants at Koradih and Khaprikheda, whose lights we could see hovering over the horizon as if the Starship Enterprise had descended to Earth. It didn't make much sense to have two independent tracks to power plants that were basically next to each other, but I guess the powers that be know better. Still we were hoping that we would catch up with a lumbering coal rake and overtake it, but alas it was not to be.
1 NHJ is a fast passenger between Nagpur and Chhindwara and after Phipla there were no more stops till Saoner. As a result, somebody pulled the alarm chain. As soon as he heard the tell-tale two short and one long blasts of the horn our off-duty Guard was up and at the door in a flash, shining his torch into the bushes. Just as we were about to restart I spotted a man walking back the way we had come and about 20 m away from the train, and motioned to the Guard, who angrily asked the man why he had pulled the alarm chain. "What can I do? The train didn't stop at the station", was the reply. That was the end of that and we resumed our journey.
At a station called Patansaongi we stopped to wait for 2 NNJ from Jabalpur. Bharat set up his tripod on the platform (you have all seen the stunning result) and this attracted the attention of a bunch of student co-passengers, one of whom insisted on speaking to us in fluent English and impressed the hell out of us.
2 NNJ came to a halt between me and our train, but I wasn't worried because I knew it would leave before us. After a while I decided to get back to our compartment anyway by going through 2NNJ. I tried opening one of the doors but it was locked so I motioned to a man sitting inside to open up but he ignored me. Thinking he hadn't seen me, I came right next to window and requested him to open the door as I wanted to board the other train. But he looked at me and then looked away! So I decided to walk around the end of his train and left, but not before saying something rude (which got his attention alright!).
Back in my compartment and after 2NNJ left, our TTE walked up to my window and said that I needn't have walked around the other train and that I should have waited where I was. Thanking him for his concern, I said I understood the principles of interlocking, but had simply got tired of standing alone on that platform! Meanwhile, Bharat (who knows about these things) had gone to the fusebox near the coupler and disconnected the whirring fans thereby bringing the temperature inside our compartment up to comfortable levels.
Not long after Patansaongi, the last remaining BG track veered off to the east presumably heading for the coal mines of Saoner, and soon after we were at the eponymous town, where quite a few people got down making me wonder whether there were any through passengers to Jabalpur. Only traiblazing Vikas Singh has that kind of stamina, I thought.
A couple of GRP constables armed with vintage.303 rifles entered our compartment and sat down. Our little piece of paradise was getting much too crowded with "staff". Lighting my nth cigarette of the day and emboldened by the rum I asked them whether both of them needed to be in our compartment. I think they misheard because one of them replied by saying that they had to accompany all the night trains. But the real reason why they were with us soon became apparent because no sooner had we left Saoner, then they were on the top berths and fast asleep!
The fun part came a bit later when we had our second chain pulling incident. While the Guard (who need not have bothered) was up instantly, Bharat and I had to rouse the constables and set them off on their fruitless search for the culprits. Presently, the constable who had headed towards the rear of the train came back and said that he had found the people who had pulled the chain but had let them off because they had been issued tickets at Nagpur for a station where we hadn't halted!
We had decided to stay up for the Ghat section, which we hoped would be bathed in the same bright moonlight that had accompanied us thus far. But Bharat decided to take a nap and requested me to wake him up when the ghat section appeared. Soon I was the only one awake in our compartment and struggling against the soporific effect of the rum. When sleep became irresistible, I chucked the contents of my glass outside, pulled down the window, covered myself with my Angami Naga Shawl and didn't get up till Chhindwara!
Chhindwara at dawn. Bharat, documentarian extraordinaire, was already up and about exploring the yard and observing the shunting and other goings on. I awoke to find myself alone in the compartment, stuck my head out into the cold, gave the Chhindwara yard a bleary once over, muttered something inconsiderate about Kamal Nath (Union Minister and sitting MP) and crawled back underneath my shawl.
Bharat returned with some tea just as we were leaving and that roused me fully. The landscape outside was rolling tableland, we were after all on the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau. Most of the land had standing crops though a few fields were lying fallow and here and there I spotted a few meadows. I am pretty hopeless at crop recognition but I would hazard that the standing crops were wheat and some of the coarser grains like bajra. One particular crop with bright green stalks caught my attention because I hadn't seen anything like it before. Of course, I didn't recognise it, but it could have been spring wheat or maybe a legume. But the most striking piece of foliage was undoubtedly the Palas tree (called Palse by the locals), with its bright red flowers in full bloom - a Central Indian flame-of-the-forest, if you will. The Palas is ubiquitous throughout the region and they added a welcome touch of gaiety to a landscape that most would describe as drab.
1 NHJ had lost its "fast" status after Chhindwara, so we stopped everywhere including "PH's" or Passenger Halts that looked like they were manned by contractors. There are a few crossing stations as well, guarded by semaphores and having a single loop line and these were manned by railway personnel (can't outsource interlocking, can they?). The first of these was Jhilmili, where the sun was positioned just right for us to take photographs of the train, bathed in a golden glow that made the maroon look prettier than usual. Also at Jhilmili I noticed for the first time that the semaphores were operated by a wheel (similar to what one sees in the Guard's compartment) and not by the conventional levers.
After Jhilmili we crossed the first major river of the region - the Pench. Not very wide or deep, as is the norm with peninsular rivers, but the bridge is long enough for even the most bored passenger to notice. We now entered a region where the track twisted and curved a lot, sometimes ascending at other times descending. Not a ghat section by any means, just the permanent way coping with the rolling nature of the land and the contours of a few low ridges.
A word about the Permanent Way - I have never seen a healthier looking narrow gauge track. In fact all the sections of the Satpura network we traversed have very good tracks, even the branch to Mandla Fort. The ballast is clean and the sleepers are made of steel, not wood. The quality of track signage is simply the best I have seen anywhere in India. There is not a single unmanned level crossing no matter how godforsaken, without clear warning signs for road users. All caution warners have the upcoming speed limit clearly marked on them. From time to time we came across strikingly modern signage warning of low visibility zones for trolleys or falling boulders. We didn't see a single signboard that was rusted over, colour faded or warped. The only signs a tad out of synch are the milestones. Not because they weren't easily visible, but because they had strange numbers on them - KM 1162, KM 1200, etc. So we were constantly being reminded that we were a 1000+ km from the hq station of the old SER and the still older BNR, i.e. Howrah. Of no use to passengers really, unless one's destination was Calcutta!
Though the track was superb we weren't touching the same speeds reached on the previous night. I was wondering about this until Bharat clarified that our ZDM 4 A had been replaced by a slower ZDM 3 at Chhindwara. Still 40-45 kph was a good deal more than what one can expect on any other NG line, including the famed Dabhoi network. Besides we seemed to be running ahead of schedule.
At all the stations and halts up to Seoni, the headquarters for the eponymous district we were traversing, there were a large number of passengers waiting to get in. Seeing our miraculously empty compartment, a few would rush to our door only to be informed by one of us that this was first class. Every time this happened I cringed inwardly, because it felt rather like one was a Burra Saheb of old reminding the natives of their proper station in life. But there was no option, the TTE's had been active throughout and were quite strict. Besides we weren't unhappy that we had the entire compartment to ourselves!
As we rocked along, I pored over the names on the timetable - Wainganga, Seoni, Kannhiwara. Names that instantly evoked memories of the Jungle Book, a favourite childhood read. So I waited expectantly for the line to wend its way through a forest or two, but in vain. Just before Seoni we crossed the Wainganga river and I was pretty disappointed to see what looked little bigger than a stream, and wondered how that had caught Kipling's imagination. And then scruffy looking Seoni Town appeared and I had to remind myself that more than a hundred years had elapsed since Kipling's time.
We halted at Seoni (the most crowded NG platform I had ever seen) for a while because we had to wait for 2 NHJ from Jabalpur. Bharat and I had breakfast (several cups of tea and some barely palatable sandwiches from Nagpur's overrated Comesum) and stopped a dozen poor people from mistakenly boarding our precious FC.
Bharat's dentist is of the opinion that there's no point brushing one's teeth first thing in the morning, so after we left Seoni, into the bathroom he went. I was sitting at the door and noticed that the scenery had changed dramatically and we were traversing a ghat section. So I yelled out to him, and he reappeared with brush in mouth & foam around the lips, took a peek outside, banged his head with a fist a few times in a gesture of despair, emitted some guttural sounds like Primeval Man, lunged for his camera, shot off a few pictures and went back in again! At the same time I was exclaiming loudly and performing some tricky manouevers in order to get good pictures.This scene was repeated a couple of times and I was glad that there weren't any other passengers with us for we must have looked like absolute lunatics.
And then, when he had gone back in for the third time, I got my Kipling moment. Well, something like that.
A doe (a deer, a female deer) had probably been foraging trackside and was startled by the train suddenly appearing around a bend. She leapt across the track inches in front of the loco, bounded down the slope for 30 m or so and stopped to see whether the train was still chasing her. It was an exciting event for a city dweller like me, and a real pity that Bharat missed it. After that I started paying more attention to the hills on the other side, hoping for more sightings.
This short ghat section (steepest 1:80) had low hills to the north of the track that gave way to rolling grasslands on the other side of the track. The hills had some tree cover, not tropical forest thick, but enough to provide cover for small herds of deer, jackals, monkeys and the like. A hundred years ago the entire region must have been one massive forest. Now only Kanha National Park, about 100 km to the SE and on the Banjar River, has any extensive jungle and has usurped old Rudyard's name as a result. That doe was the only wild animal we'd see during the entire trip.
The ghat section ended at Bhoma, where we halted briefly. Flatter croplands succeeded the hills, which seem to have receded northwards but were still visible. At Palari someone who liked he was "staff" joined us and stayed until Nainpur. He must have been curious about us and our constant toing and froing between doors but did not comment nor query us.
Not long afterwards we came up to the longest bridge on the section and I was relieved to see that this was the main channel of the Wainganga River, one that had quite a lot of water and thus looked like the river that Kipling had written so vividly about. The branch before Seoni must have been a distributary because travelling west to east, we couldn't have crossed the Wainganga twice.
We had made very good time from Chhindwara, and the lack of any crossings (but one at Seoni) ensured that we would reach Nainpur Jn ahead of schedule. And so it was: the line from Jabalpur appeared to our left, together we swept around a curve and entered bustling Nainpur Jn a full ten minutes early, something that usually doesn't happen on the narrow gauge. Nainpur, with its 4 platforms (some times all are occupied) and substantial yard has to be the biggest & busiest NG station I have ever seen. As we drew in, I saw a big sign outside the TTE's office stating "Dormitory Can Be Booked Here", and I was happy that the niggling doubts we had had about accommodation at Nainpur would soon be a thing of the past.
The smart young lady TTE who booked us into the dorm said that there was a demand for it every single day and when we saw the unmade beds, we believed her. But the dorm was ok, quite basic but then we weren't expecting to find an Oberoi at Nainpur. Since we would be the only occupants on that day, it suited us just fine.
Later, as we explored the yard and the lovely railway colony with British era bungalows(AEN's who read this, do wangle a transfer there!), I added Nainpur to my shortlist of favourite stations in India. A substantial meal at the well-run Non Veg Refreshment Room supplemented that decision. Moreover, everyone was friendly. The contractor's brother, an elderly gent, came to sit with us while we ate, and after some time broke into a ghazal. Bharat managed to give him his undivided attention without a flicker of emotion crossing his face, while I had to hide my face behind my timetable and stifle a giggling fit!
After lunch we set out to catch the bus to Mandla, the district headquarters and the only town of some size in the area. On the way to the bus station, we passed a colony of double storied colonial houses built of stone. Most of them were residences of Guards and I thought that Nainpur did have some comforts for railwaymen, perhaps to compensate for the dullness of living in a two-bit town.
The bus ride to Mandla was an education as to why even a narrow gauge railway network can become popular (and shouldn't be left to rot). The road looked like it had been imported from the moon (though I was secretly pleased that terrible roads are not the sole preserve of the Northeast) and the bus driver obviously didn't worry about maintaining his springs and shock absorbers. Moreover, he used his klaxon at every opportunity and many many times when he didn't need to. Sometimes we passed oncoming vehicles on the wrong side, and soon Bharat and I were having little bets whenever we saw something approach. We had missed 1BNM to Mandla, but had we caught it we would have paid half the bus fare and taken half an hour less to get there!
For the most part the railway line to Mandla was within sight of the road and we must have crossed it at least a dozen times. It has a one train only system, so we were able to spot the returning 2 BNM to Balaghat near Chiraidongri, which is the gateway to Kanha National Park.
We had read on Rinbad or somewhere that the area is a desert. Pointing at the crops and the trees and all the signs of human habitation I inquired of Bharat whether it looked like a desert to him. We then agreed that whoever likened that area to a desert must have come from the Amazonian rain forests!
Mandla Fort station would have been at Mandla but for the lovely Narmada. So the line ends on the western bank at a place called Mehrajpur. Since we were on a bus, we crossed the Narmada on a bridge slightly downstream of Mandla proper and were deposited much the worse for wear at the bus station in the middle of the Bazaar. Without further ado, we hired a rickshaw and headed towards the remains of Mandla Fort, which we guessed would be on the banks of the river.
The Gond rulers who had built the fort had located it rather strategically at the confluence of the Narmada and Banjar Rivers. Though little remains of the fort, the area is a nice place to just sit & relax and fiddle with one's camera. People who need to cross over to the villages & temples on the other side of the Narmada (including Mehrajpur) don't go all the way to the inconveniently located bridge but simply pay the numerous boatmen a rupee or two. So when we had had our fill of the Mandla side of the river we took a boat to Mehrajpur and sat there for a while, drinking in the scenery as the sun crept lower and lower behind us.
It's a longish walk from the banks of the Narmada to Mandla Fort station, but pleasant enough. As we approached the station we passed by a dilapidated goods shed that seemed to have been taken over by several families of Banjaras (gypsies). The large vacant area around the shed spoke of several uprooted lines and therefore substantial goods activity in times past. A fact confirmed by a tea stall owner at the station, who had had to turn to selling tea when the goods trains stopped coming a decade or so ago and ended his lucrative (for him) career as a loader of forest and agricultural products.
What was true of Mandla was true of the rest of the system. Long lines of abandoned narrow gauge freightcars & wagons at places like Itwari and Nainpur was witness to the fact that freight traffic had long since ceased. Now the only things that could be described as "goods" were the occasional parcels. At Nainpur, as soon as a train came in, a porter would open the doors of the SLR and take a peek in to see if there was anything to be unloaded. Usually they were empty.
3 NNM from Nagpur (that would return to Nainpur as 2NM, the last train of the day) was unusually late and it was a long wait for us at decrepit Mandla Fort station. Nevertheless, we were determined not to take a bus back and it seemed that a lot of people shared the same feeling because soon the station became very crowded. But we were quite ready to join in the scramble for seats - anything was better than that horrid bus!
The night enveloped us and suddenly it became quite cold. A large family of peasants had lit a fire and managed to cook a meal while we were waiting. We edged closer to the fire and took little nips from my hip flask. When 3 NNM made an appearance about one and a half hours late, there was the usual rush for seats at the near end of the train. Bharat and I simply walked to the far end and found good seats quite easily. In fact, our coach remained uncrowded all the way to Nainpur. The loco, a ZDM 4A, was reversed without delay and as soon as everyone was on board we were off for what turned out to be our fastest ever ride on narrow gauge!
The Driver must have had an unmissable appointment at Nainpur because we sprinted along at 60 kph, and at times it felt like we were going even faster! Few halts and the absence of facing points must have helped. The only impediments to our headlong gallop were the dozen or so unmanned level crossings on the Mandla-Nainpur road. The procedure for these is simple but time consuming: train comes to a halt just before the LC, a Gateman riding in the Under Guard's cabin dismounts, shuts the single pole barrier on both sides and waves the train through, train stops again after the last vehicle has crossed the LC while the barriers are released and the Gateman sprints back to reboard.
After the first two LC's the Gateman was told to dispense with the closing of the barriers. If any motor vehicles were approaching the LC, he would wave them on their way before calling the train on. At other times, when no vehicle was in sight, we would barely pause for a few seconds before moving on. Probably because of the recent disaster at Ramtek, all the motorists stopped when they saw our train approaching and must have been surprised to be allowed to go first.
In this manner, we reached Nainpur in a little under an hour and thirty minutes. Though it was well after 10 pm, we weren't surprised to find the station buzzing with activity, receiving and dispatching train after train. In fact we couldn't keep up with Nainpur, and fell asleep around midnight after another super meal at the non-veg restaurant. Nainpur on the other hand, was active all night long.
Early morning at Nainpur Jn. Bharat and I wait next to the loco of 1NJ licking our chops in anticipation, watching the Assistant and a couple of diesel mechanics giving the ZDM 3 a once over,. We have been allowed to ride the loco till Jabalpur and I am glad that she has her long hood forward. I had observed earlier that extra people on board would only be getting in the way of the crew if the short hood was leading, and I was relieved that my wishes had been met, even if the view was going to be less than ideal.
As we waited, I thought I should pump myself up with nicotine, not knowing when another opportunity would come, and lit up. Seeing this one of the mechanics came up and told me to put it out at once as a "commercial saheb" from div hq in Nagpur was on the rampage, arresting violators at will up and down the station. Putting out the cigarette instantly, I was nonetheless impressed - here was another example that those who manned the Satpura NG network took their jobs very seriously. Their system was as good and in many ways better than any of the busy broad gauge trunk routes in the country.
When we boarded three things caught my attention immediately. Firstly the view forward was far worse than I had envisioned - the windshields were more for show than for easy visibility. Secondly, with the long hood leading, there was no way that the Assistant could sit on his assigned seat, unless he went on strike. Thirdly, the reverser cum throttle was a wheel attached vertically to the control table, akin to an old style fire pump!
1 NJ had come to Nainpur as the late running 1 BN from Balaghat so we were a little late in starting, but we weren't complaining! Though it was quite cold and the sky looked to be overcast, we were prepared to brave everything and enjoy the ride of our lives through some very scenic parts of Madhya Pradesh.
But as we made our way out of Nainpur and parted company with the Nagpur line, I saw that the first part of the route was going to be just like the last part of our inward journey from Chhindwara. So I paid more attention to how our Driver was advancing or regressing the "wheel" and the other instruments and gauges on the control desk. Remarkably the speedometer didn't have a needle but instead a circular row of LEDs that would light up one after the other as the speed was increased. Since this was a ZDM 3, we ran at a maximum of 45 kph, so the LEDs never lit up beyond two thirds of the dial!
After Pindrai, the first "major" halt, because of its semaphores and crossing loop, we were told to expect a dramatic change in the landscape. But first a word on the geography of the region...
I have been using the name "Satpura" throughout this narrative, because that is the generic name of the range of mostly low hills that extends almost uninterrupted from Bharuch in Gujarat to the Chhota Nagpur region of Jharkhand. The Satpura acts as a kind of continental divide determining which rivers flow northwards to the Gangetic basin and which rivers flow southwards. Only the Narmada, legendarily capricious, takes an unexpected route and carves its own path due west to the Arabian Sea between the Satpuras and the Vindhyas.
Actually, different parts of the Satpura have different names. For example the hills surrounding Betul, Amla & Chhindwara and extending as far north as Panchmarhi are technically the Mahadeo Hills. And in a SW to NE arc, from the environs of Balaghat & Mandla to Anuppur and Surguja, we have the Maikal Range. The line from Nainpur to Jabalpur takes advantage of a narrow gap between the Mahadeo & the Maikal and thrusts northwards. Its not that this gap is flat and devoid of hills, just that the hills on the way are lower on the average and the gradients far gentler than in the main ranges.
So after Pindrai, we encountered the first of what would be 3 ghat sections through which the line advances northwards to Jabalpur. Nothing spectacular like the Bhore or the Thal, just a steady ascent from one contour to the next and a few cuttings with high rock faces on both sides of the track, when a particular hill proved too intransigent for the engineers who built the line. Having said that, none of these hills were very high or imposing and when we passed the highest point on the railway, I was amused to see that we were only 500 odd metres above sea level.
The best part about these ghat sections are that they are covered with trees (mostly the broad leafed Sagun) and human habitations are few and far between. From time to time, we would find ourselves on top of a ridge - a few hundred feet above a narrow valley with a stream running through it. Sometimes these valleys would be draped in trees and at other times we could spot meadows that were just crying out for visitors with picnic hampers. The crew said that it was common to find animals on the track including big cats like the leopard, but we weren't to be so fortunate on that run.
At Ghansour we came up on the premier train of that system, the Jabalpur-Balaghat Satpura Express. Since we were running late it had been obviously waiting a long time and the crew were standing outside their loco impatiently. No doubt it must have reached Nainpur a little late because of us, but would have made up on the run to Balaghat. The Satpura Exp takes just 4 hours and a bit to reach Nainpur and a little under 7 hours to get to Balaghat. Every other train takes about 5 hours and 8 hours to cover the same distances. Next time I would take the Satpura Express, I swore. A narrow gauge limited stops express would be an entirely new experience!
While we waited at Ghansour, I witnessed a little scene that displayed the extraordinary esteem that ordinary folk who depend on the line have for railwaymen. A tribal woman bearing a wicker basket of fresh guavas on her head walked by. Our Driver hailed her and asked if her guavas were ripe. With nary a word she positioned herself at the foot of the cab's door so that the Driver could lean out and pick up a couple. Then without asking for money, and indeed without another word, she moved gracefully away. We were offered the guavas of course, but somehow felt we didn't deserve them, and declined.
Another shorter but even more picturesque ghat section preceded our arrival at Shikara where we came upon a near empty 2 BJ waiting for us to get in. The reason there was hardly a soul on board is that Shikara is a meal stop for all trains and everyone was busy breakfasting at a couple of dhabas about 50 m away from the station! Our passengers made a rush for it and presently we joined them, along with the crew. The fare on offer was the usual fried stuff, one item being so tasty that I shamelessly devoured 3 pieces, only to be embarrassed later because we weren't allowed to pay for what we had consumed. As we left Shikara I leaned out and looked back at the pretty station - it was totally trashed. It seems two trains stopping at the same time for breakfast was more than what it could cope with!
As we approached the next station Sukrimangela, I suddenly realised that we hadn't picked up a token from Shikara. Discreetly I cast my eyes into ever nook and cranny of the cab - no token. As we entered the loop and slowed down to stop, the tension became unbearable and I meekly asked the Driver if he had already chucked the token out. Grinning, he said that he was carrying a paper token because the block instrument at Sukrimangela wasn't working. I was relieved but couldn't help noticing the enormous gulf in the powers of concentration between a professional and that of a mere fan!
Next we passed through another pretty section, with a small river called the Teymur running parallel and below us, as if teasing us to cross it. On the other side of the track the last of the low hills of the Maikal kept us company. After a couple of kilometres of this, we entered a sharp leftward curve and without further ado, crossed the Teymur by means of a 5 span bridge.
All this while we had scarcely seen signs of human activity, except at the stations and the passenger halts. The first hint of civilisation came with the appearance of NH 7, arguably the longest highway in India running from Cape Comorin to Varanasi. But even a national highway has to defer to the narrow gauge, and presently we came up to a gate signal at "off", a closed level crossing and a long line of cars and trucks with their drivers staring at us rather unamusedly. "They should be grateful that the road looks nothing like the one to Mandla", I remember thinking.
That the Satpura Railway is a passenger friendly system was borne out by the sight of new passenger halts being built in this area. Besides NH 7, we hadn't seen any roads all the way through. So the railway must be a lifeline for isolated villages & hamlets, which is why there were as many as 14 halts in the 111 km between Nainpur & Jabalpur.
Bharat and I wanted to be prepared for the crossing of the Narmada and we were told that it would come between Charghatpipariya and tongue twisting Janmtaraparaswara, which I couldn't pronounce much to the crew's amusement. Actually we need not have been so anxious because the bridge was visible from a long distance and we approached it in a great sweeping curve from the east.
Surprisingly, the Narmada at this point has a few rapids and shoals, and is therefore wider & less serene than at Mandla although equally beautiful. Downstream it cuts through the famed Marble Rocks gorge and plunges down the Dhuandhar Falls but at this point has high bluffs on both sides making it a good site for a bridge. The bridge itself must be the longest on any narrow gauge line and would need to be replaced if the line is ever converted. That's not going to happen any time soon because later we found a discarded newspaper at the Jabalpur Retiring Rooms which said that yet again there had been no applications for the tender to build a new bridge!
At Guwarighat, which is an auspicious bathing ghat on the Narmada we were made to wait for a while for the Nagpur bound 2 NNJ. Ordinarily this crossing would have taken place at Howbagh, but we were late. While Bharat got down to take photographs, I remained on board and tried out various driving positions on the uncomforatble and non ergonomic ZDM 3. Our Driver said that he preferred to stand and drive. For good reason - the only way one can sit and drive is to perch on the tiny seat at an angle, with one's back at 45 degrees to the window and facing the Assistant's position.As to how long one can maintain this position is anybody's guess!
2NNJ arrived in some haste, took the facing point with unusual aplomb and came to a halt on the loop line. After some good natured bantering over the radio we left on our separate ways and before long 1NJ was at Howbagh, the narrow gauge base at the Jabalpur end of the line. Whenever he sees a yard with facilities (in this case a carriage depot and a stabling line for ZDM's) Bharat is off in a flash with his notebook and camera. I remained on board, sadly contemplating the end of a great journey.
We found out later that Jabalpur is a pleasant enough town with its neatly laid out cantonment and civil lines, with period buildings in both. But there was no hint of this on an approach that wound its way through some very grimy suburbs. After nearly running over a pig and hopefully scaring the living daylights out of a girl who zipped across an unmanned LC on a scooter, we joined the BG lines from Itarsi and saw Jabalpur station up ahead.
Unsurprisingly, the narrow gauge section was in a disreputable part of the station and nobody came out of the signal box to collect our token. Naturally, the crew didn't waste any time in turning the loco around and hurrying back to the rather more welcoming Howbagh. As for Bharat and I, we staggered onto the platform and sat down on the first available bench for nearly half an hour. 6 hours and more on your feet can be a killer!