"Tree" trek at Monkey Hill

by Apurva Bahadur


Photos from this trip can be seen here: Monkey Hill Trek

There are times when simple thoughts turn into obsession that only turn stronger with time.

During the IRFCA Pune chapter's two trips to Monkey Hill area in 13th Dec 2003 and 14th Feb 2004, we could not help but be beckoned by the majestic ridge visible in these pics on top of the tunnels.

Monkey Hill Trek 2
Monkey Hill Trek 3

The hill just begged to be climbed. While the views at Monkey Hill itself are so grand, we wondered how it would be at the top.

Then we discovered a pic of the same hill from the 1920s or 30s in an older book on the Indian Railways: /gallery/Trips/ReversingStn/mhc_bw

It was commented by a viewer of the pic on the IRFCA site that the bush at the top of the ridge visible in the black and white pic was now a full sized tree in the colour pic.

We needed to go and see how this tree looked. Getting to the tree became the focus of the entire trek.

It was apparent that the view from the black and white pic and those from Dec 2003 was not very different - i.e. not much change had taken place except for the bush having been grown into a tree.

This was a direct comparison to the area around the Reversing Station which is just around 1 km upstream of this place. At the Reversing station, we found difficult to even try and guess the similarity between hills from the 1920s and those of today. The hills around the Reversing Station appear severely weathered and eroded either by nature, or by the corrosive exhaust fumes of the thousands of vehicles that cross that area round the clock, or have they shaken loose just by the vibration of the passing vehicles?

The real reason is probably that much of the hills at the Reversing Station have been blasted by the makers of the Mumbai - Pune Expressway. Entire sides of the hills have been done away with. The portion of the hill that actually carried the water tank and the yard visible in the older pictures of the reversing station is not there today. /gallery/Trips/ReversingStn/reverse

Back to Monkey Hill area: Our hill is a huge tableland at the top. This is known as the Bheran plateau as per a map that Ashish has. The two older lines to Thakurwadi run by the north eastern face while the newer third single line diverts at Monkey Hill towards Nagnath run by south western face. The hill also carries the two catch sidings controlled by the Monkey Hill cabin. The catch sidings are some 550 meters in length.

Many thanks to all the nice people for joining and making such a wacky idea into an great outing that all of us would remember all our lives. In the initial days of the planning of this trip, I was beginning to think I would have to do this difficult challenge all alone. I was contemplating whether it is a better idea to give it up altogether - the weather is all wrong, it is blazing summer already, and the objectives of the trek/climb were not so well defined.

The Pune chapter really tried to adjust their busy schedules so as to be able to come for this outing.

We sort of joined the 1010 Up Sinhagad Express as per individual conveniences.

So while I was the first to board the train on my own at Pune Jn (0605 hrs departure), my friend Vivek Kulkarni (who got up late) boarded it from Shivaji Nagar, John Mani (after having worked till 0130 hrs the previous night), Ashish Kuvelkar and Devendranath Tannu (who are colleagues from CDAC - the janata who makes the Param super computer) joined at Khadki. Last to join was Dr. Shirish Yande (who was informed of the outing only at 1900 hrs the previous evening) who boarded the 1010 Up at Chichwad at 0630 hrs - *after* he had seen a just operated patient in a hospital nearby!

A private reason, that I can share with all my friends about the great hurry for this outing, is my pet fixation with my advancing age (and girth) - at 41, I need to do things NOW lest I am physically incapable of doing it later.

However my beliefs of an infirm future were shamed by Vivek who is 45 and had a mildparalytic stroke (runs in his family) some 10 years back - which has left him to walk with a limp and with slightly unclear speech (his naughty mind is totally clear!). The oldies brigade had still one more senior member, - Dr. Shirish Yande who is 12 years my senior - but the super fit man has never had any difficulty indulging in vigorous physical activity of any kind.

Contrary to the popular belief, trekking in summer is not such a bad thing. It is very beautiful and satisfying to be able to cover distances in a heat and dust of a hot day. Of course, one needs lots of water and one appreciates every scrap of shade and comfort on such treks. India is like this and the heat cannot be wished away.

While I did not really meet the Pune gang during the journey on the 1010 Up, we were in touch thanks to the mobile phone coverage that extends for most of the route due to the proximity to the expressway.

John and I got together (although we were sitting in the same coach) only after the 1010 Up departed Lonavala to stand at the door on the left hand side and observe the section we walked in Feb (Monkey Hill - Lonavala).

The train stopped briefly at Khandala for the mandatory brake testing halt and upon restarting, immediately plunged into the tunnel 26 using the mid line.

While still in the tunnel, we overtook a crawling BCN/BCNA freighter hauled by three MUed WCG 2s in the middle of the tunnel 26. We spotted the flashing LED tail lamp of the rake in the darkness of the tunnel ahead (although it was lit in patches by the Sodium vapour lamps at this time - it was dark during our walk on the 14th Feb 2004) and raced in front of the freight train. The lumbering freighter, being on the left most line, blocked our view of the Reversing Station and the valley afront.

Soon the 1010 Up arrived at Monkey Hill and slowed to a stop for the second brake testing halt. All of us got off from different coaches and grouped. It was past 0800 hrs by now. The 1010 Up departed after completing the brake test by the middle line.

Just then the triple headed freighter arrived on the up line, braking much before the starter signal. After the mandatory halt, the freighter started very cautiously and headed towards Nagnath on the third line.

The Pune bound Indrayani express thundered by at around 60 Kmph. The vigorous arrival of a climbing train at these speeds followed by the multiple screaming bankers at the rear is a sensory experience that any visitor at MHC would cherish.

We started walking towards the catch sidings looking at the engineering details of the points etc. While we were to start climbing the catch siding, the 2124 Deccan Queen arrived and soon departed on the middle line towards Thakurwadi. A pair of banker arrived at MHC almost parallel to the DQ but were diverted via the 3rd line much later after the departure of the 2124.

The twin lined catch siding extend to some 1/3rd of the hill's height. The track in the catch siding is in a badly maintained state, so if a train is to really enter the siding, it would surely derail first. The first few meters of the catch siding area is electrified, which is to probably to allow an electric loco to assist in recovery of a train that was unfortunate enough to enter the catch siding.

About a hundred meters into the catch siding, the traction cables from the MHC traction substation (that is located on the Nagnath side but feeds the two older lines ) are carried to the two older tracks. While the live cables are carried in an OHE like structure over the catch sidings, the earth return is carried on the ground level - the insulation over the earth cable has given away revealing the armouring - this gives the appearance of a thick wire rope lying under the catch siding rails.

During the initial phases of the catch siding, the inner part of the rail has soft mud contained by concrete side walls. The flange of a wheel on the catch siding would rut inside this mud and slow down. Much of the catch siding is rested on cast iron inverted dome shaped chairs - most of them bear the markings of the GIPR and have dates such as 1911, 1913, 1921 etc. There are small shrubs growing on the catch siding, some with colourful leaves, some with berries. GIPR history fiend Rajya Aklekar would go ape in this place. Just in case you are contemplating, the souvenirs from this track are too heavy to be carried away.

Where, the catch siding ends, the difficult part of climb begins. The problem is not so much of steep gradient as much as finding a path through the bushes and loose gravely side of the hill. There is a patch of dense forest to be crossed.

Once past the treeline, we decided to take a breather and enjoy the view. By this time, the 2027 Shatabdi arrived at this point - this day it carried four extra non aircon coaches in the front of the regular rake. We thought these additional coaches were a part of time/load trial for the 2127/2128 Intercity express that was due to replace the Shatabdi after 15th March 2004.

Shirish had a whole afternoon's work lined for him at Pune and had to leave at this point. He walked back to the Monkey Hill yard and took the 1007 Deccan Express as this being one of the trains that stop at MHC in the down {climbing} direction towards Lonavala. From LNL, he took an EMU to Chichwad where he had parked his car.

By this time, the fatigue of climbing and the vertigo of having sheer cliffs on either side of the narrow path was getting me. I was wondering what I was doing here. There were places where I was afraid to stand up straight, lest I slip on the loose sand and gravel. I crossed many parts crawling on all fours and even inching backwards - lifting my body with the hands and sitting on then bums next. I had considerable weight on my shoulders with 5 1/2 liters of water, which was essential in such a hot weather.

Like predicted by hill climbers on the IRFCA, there was 10-15 feet vertical wall of stone that blocked our path at about 60 % of the climb. The path through the wall of stone was found by Devendranath (who is an experienced mountain climber) - a large thanks is due to him for leading the path to the top. Although the stone wall was near vertical, there were footholds that allowed easy climbing. One more rest and photography session followed.

From this elevation we could see the Monkey Hill yard like an airplane pilot sees the runway on which he has to land. By now the grand Duke's Nose was visible on the horizon while the light haze slowly lifted. On the Nagnath side, we could see the town of Khopoli on the floor of the valley. In a rare single view, we could see the NH 4 in one view from Rajmachi point (where the steep descent begins) till the Khopoli end (where the NH 4 ghat ends). We could also see the pipes that lead water from the Walvan dam near Lonavala to the Tata owned hydro electric generation station in front of us at Khopoli. During our descent we could see the station at Khopoli and an EMU departing from there!

The horns of the locos would reverberate off the valley wall after a few seconds.

There was some delay in the Mumbai bound train movement - Pragati and Sahyadri arrived at MHC almost an hour late.

The last part of the climb involved simple but sustained climbing to reach the plateau. The entire hill with steep rugged sides was visible now. Once on the top, we found long shallow ditches which were apparently dug to trap and percolate the flow of rain water, which would otherwise run off the steep side of the hill, carry muck with it and cause mischief on the rail line below.

The path of the tree was quite easy now. The tree is not all that big as we thought it would be, so is not all that old. The 'bush' visible in the black and white pic is actually a stone mound that marks the boundary between Pune and Raigad districts (info from Ashish's map). The stone mound apparently served as a shield from the strong wind and allowed a tree to prosper in the shelter. The other vegetation on top the hill consisted of medium height trees like Silk Cotton, Babool and Neem with lots of hardy grass on the ground. There was lot of cow droppings on the ground, indicating that the cattle arrived here regularly via an easier route.

We took photographs, including one of your truly hugging the tree. The Tiger valley carries the thin silvery thread of the Ulhas river which grows in size by it arrives at Kalyan and becomes a creek by the time it meets the sea near Vaitarna. The opposite side of the valley contain high mountains which carries the 18 Km long popular trekking route to the village of Rajmachi. Further down we could see the twin forts of Rajmachi and Srivardhan. We could see lots of raptors and other birds soaring on the updraft created by steep valley and the hot day. We were at quite a height for most of the birds were located below our position.

We now waited for the highlight of the day - the passage of the diesel hauled 6529 Udyan Express past this point. When the train arrived, the walls of the valley came alive with the glorious sounds of the WDM 2 working all out to climb the grade. The train was banked by three WCG 2s. We could see the 6529 cross the Monkey Hill yard and enter the tunnel 24C. Although we could not see the train any more, we tracked the sound all the way till the rake crossed Khandala many minutes later.

One more special train we had to wait for is 7032 Hyderabad Express - our buddy and fellow IRFCA member Shashank 'Shanky' Nanda had informed me that he would be on the particular train. We would try and do the time honoured railfan ritual of waving at each other - Note that it is important for one or both the parties to be in a train! Shanky SMSed me while his train was leaving Lonavala. We informed him that he should get off at MHC halt on the right of the train and try and spot us. I was in touch with him on the mobile as soon as his train halted at MHC. Ashish was looking for him with the powerful binoculars he carries. We asked Shanky to look for the tree above the tunnels and we fired a camera flash to mark our location - however I doubt if Shanky was looking at the right place when the flash went off. The distance was too great for a clear sighting with naked eyes.

His train started and went past our position - Ashish could see him waving from the door.

High time we started wearing IRFCA T shirts, thus warning innocent bystanders of our warped sanity - What would Shanky's neighbours in his coach must be thinking to find him frantically waving at the hills? And what would they be thinking when he explained that he was waving at his friends who were sitting on top of the hot and barren hills at this moment?

As the sun climbed higher and the temperatures rose, we reluctantly bid farewell to the paradise and prepared to return. Like mentioned earlier, the climb was to be easier than the descent -the loose gravely path meant that much of it was done sitting and sliding - it is safer that way.

During the descent on the near vertical rock face, I was required to take an extra stretch to reach the next foothold when my pant's seam gave away - one RIP and there was no zipper left! The descent was too critical for me to bother at this point, Later on, I discovered that I had thought of everything but the very essential safety pins!

The stones were getting hot to sit on and slide down - John's pant bottoms wore through and he had two holes! He could cover the damage by extending his T shirt. I had no choice but to use a critically placed cap on my crotch when in public (later at Lonavala).

By the time we arrived back on the level ground, the full heat of the day was apparent, the MHC yard was shimmering with heat - gangmen were working on track maintenance on the 3rd line.

A coupled WCG 2 arrived on the 3rd line from Lonavala end with a single BFR load. It got a line clear and started towards Nagnath, only to be held back by a Khalasi with a red flag who was repeating the signal of the gangmen working ahead. Even after many tens of minutes, it was apparent that the 3rd line was not going to be ready to allow the WCG 2s to go over it - hence the two locos and the BFR reversed beyond the MHC starter. After this, the train was allowed to leave via the middle line.

By this time, Vivek was feeling too tired to complete the last leg of the trek, which was yet another visit to the Reversing Station to take some more pics and solve the queries based on our earlier visit on the 14th Feb 2004.

So we waited for the next train to come along at MHC to take Vivek to Karjat - fortunately this was the Pune - Karjat shuttle. Vivek returned to Pune by the complement of this train i.e. Karjat - Pune shuttle.

After Vivek's departure, we resumed our trek and climbed the grade to the Reversing Station along the Mumbai alignment. A merciful cloud cover cut off the harsh sun and dropped the searing day temperature slightly. We discovered some parts of the reversing station we had not noticed before. This looked like masonry work holding a heavy looking rock face - we wondered what use this would be? No way is a masonry structure going to support a rock - a rock that has to bear heavy loads - like a railway track and a train on top of that!

We reached the top of the reversing station and crossed the non toll road. Then we descended to the bottom of the Reversing Station on the other (Khandala) side. During this descent we discovered some derelict vertical walls within the arches of the structure creating separate chambers - these could be the crew quarters.

NH 4 users (before the expressway) would remember the marble plaque that was installed in the arch of the reversing station. We needed to take pics of the marble plaque. We were under the impression that this plaque has something to do with the history of the reversing station, however the text on this plaque commemorates the opening of the ghat road in the 1830s - nothing to do with the railways or the Reversing Station. This plaque is now found on an independent plinth outside the arches. As it was laid in the 1830s, it must have been somewhere else as there was no reversing station in those days - so this is the third time that the plaque has been shifted. The careless janata who did the work of installing the plaque for the third time a few years back set the border such that it now covers some of the critical text like the year of commencement of the ghat road construction.

We now walked along the edge of the toll expressway towards the road tunnels with vehicles whizzing past us. One of two road tunnels used to be the railway line leading the trains from the reversing station to near the pond outside the Khandala station. The ancient stone embankment that must strengthened the portals of the older tunnel is still around. However the portal (and the interior) of the old tunnel has been enlarged to carry one track of the expressway. An identical portal located parallel to the old tunnel carries the new tunnel with the other track of the expressway. This tunnel lacks the stonework, so is easy to distinguish from the older tunnel, although the modern portals for both tunnels are identical ot look at.

We started to climb the non-toll road towards the Rajmachi point. We took a few pics at approximately the location of this pic: /gallery/Trips/ReversingStn/reverse

There is almost no comparison now - however like mentioned earlier, the changes are largely manmade - the rubble on the hillock on the right of the signal cabin (in the center) is still around.

At the right angle bend on the non toll we could peek at the valley and see the Monkey Hill yard right ahead. This was a unique view as an average road user never stops at this sharp turn and in such a steep gradient.

As we reached the top of the Rajmachi point, we were just in time to catch a ST bus that took us very economically to Lonavala station.

By this time, we all were very tired and hot. We had missed the 1500 hrs EMU to Pune, so had to wait for a while to take the next service which was at 1545 hrs.

The total distance walked during this trip was around 8 Kms. Not counting the expenditure like photographic film (and lots of Lonavala Chikki!), the minimum amount spent per head for this trip was Rs. 51 (Pune - Karjat by Mail/Express) + Rs. 2 (Rajmachi point - Lonavala bus stand) + Rs. 14 (Lonavala - Pune by EMU).

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