Raj in the Jungle and Other Stories - More Konkan Viaducts, Rivers and a Waterfall.

by Apurva Bahadur


Why did we go?

We often hear a lame wish, usually by people who have no intention to participate, of going to places during the monsoons. The trouble is that a few naïve specimens take this seriously and actually act on the impulse.

In the long-accepted tradition of the Indian railfans, the tickets were first bought and the justifications sought later! Honestly, we had a solid reason to do this outing. Our earlier trip to Konkan was during the peak of monster summer and we needed to contrast the landscape in the monsoons, and what a contrast that was…

Compared to our earlier trip, this outing was for a longer duration (two full days), had more people (four cameras), with more comfort (taxis to take us around), the weather was kinder and we were mildly familiar with the area. The objective this time was the same as last time (as is every time!) - getting footloose and seeing the vistas of Konkan Railways.

Of the two iconic KR monuments, one cannot ‘capture’ the scenes inside the tunnels, which shifts the entire focus on the other remaining structure - the viaducts. Over two days, we could cover five major viaducts and see a lot of the landscape. It is very easy to fall in love with Konkan.

While booking the tickets, the reasoning for the date selection was that, we would visit Konkan slightly after the end of monsoons. This is when the pooled ground water would be plentiful and greenery would be everywhere, yet it would save us (and our expensive equipment) from an unwelcome wash. Was that to be?

I can visualize the (rain) god watching over us non-believers and arranging small unkind acts of power play from up there. A proof of the divine mischief was the rainy season that disappeared through the entire month of August to revive only days prior to our trip, and that too with an unusual vengeance. There is another god that exists, who is our own god of railfanning; this god gives us ideas, helps us take the right decisions and ensures our safety.

During this trip, I had a personal ambition of doing something grandiose but very possible â€" this did not materialize, hence will not be shared. I could take off on a tangent with a praiseworthy ‘possible only in India’ tirade but would desist. As a run up to this ambition, I put in extra effort in training â€" climbing hills with a heavy rucksack, walking long distances. As the years fly, I approach the half-life very soon and I am built generously, so extra efforts are needed for doing things that the slender and younger folks take for granted. As a special treat, just a few days before the trip, I bought a new pair of trekking shoes and what a mistake that was.

Months from that fateful decision, the shoes still do not fit my oddly shaped feet. As time approached, I flogged my extremities, forcing them to be friends with the new footwear. The nature hit back and I ended with a painful shoe bite that was hard to ignore and even harder to cure. In the end, the older pair were recalled from retirement for the Konkan duty, painful poking of sole by the ballast stones be damned.

Pune to Mumbai

On the evening of 29th August 2009, Lalam and I boarded the 2028 Intercity bound for Mumbai CST. The train had a dull but fast thrash out of Pune with heavy rains scrubbing the ambiance. At CST, we met up with Sachin for a lovely meal right outside the station. Picking up a night train is always a relaxing thing to do, especially if there is time to kill and we are with close friends whose minds are singing the same tune.

Our ride to Chiplun, the 0111 Konkan Kanya, departed from the eastern most place in CSTM, the new platform # 18. To reach our S5 coach, we meandered our way past the frantic crowds on the adjacent platform, lining up for the 1093 Mahanagari Express to Varanasi.

The unique attributes of this platform contributed to the even more to the relaxed state of mind. We were cooled by the light spikes of rain, saw the illuminated outlines of docked ships and experienced the charm of the very desolate east side of such a major railway station. The immense comfort in this scene was that we were next to a proper Indian Railways train, one that lacked crowds.

This platform 18, specially made for berthing 24 coach trains, is almost unique in having a nearly full-length entry from the eastern side. A deserted internal road runs parallel to the platform, followed by a lawn (!)- yes, a lawn with proper green grass, leading to steps for reaching to the train. This lovely atmosphere contrasts sharply to the rest of grimy, tense CSTM. Sudden fresh gust of sea breeze made this a rare occasion when I have actually liked being in Mumbai.

The last member of our quartet, Vivek “Old Man†Pillai joined us in our coach with several minutes tens of minute to spare. As if to complete the relaxed atmosphere, I walked alone in the misty rain to the distant end of the 0111 rake to have a look at our locomotive, which was KJM’s WDP4 # 20042.

[Update from May 2010â€" Lalam tells me that the lawn is gone and two new platforms have emerged in the space of the large, empty place.]

Mumbai to Chiplun

Amidst the measured departure of the train, I settled down in the middle berth, eyes transfixed to the glowing ember of firefly so close to my face, wishing my wife were with me, seeing this beautiful insect flashing its undecipherable message. This poor brown spot was probably snatched from lush Konkan as it gamboled into the waiting rake. Hopefully, the 0111 would lead it right back home. Fireflies, house sparrows and others delicate lives do not survive for long in the badlands of Mumbai…

Rocking and accelerating gently into the night, I was lost to the world even before the train crossed Byculla. This is evidence of ageing, not being able to stay awake beyond a threshold.

Could have slept well, save the minor disturbance of the diligent TTE wanting to see the ticket at what seemed like the middle of the night. The other commotion was the large hoard of passengers with general tickets who must travel and thus board the sleeper coaches. I could see the busy TTE collaring and corralling these hapless travelers towards the end of the coach, trying to extracting fines out of them.

These rituals are overworked and repetitive â€" the stern TTE, the timid, over attentive passengers, the moralistic lecture, the outrageous quantity of fine, the pleading negotiation for a lenient amount â€" every train, every journey, every place in India - the scene repeats endlessly. If this was such a common event, then why so much drama?

Asurde viaduct

Got up around 0330 hrs in anticipation of the early arrival at Chiplun and found all the toilets occupied â€" surely not toilet users but excess passengers! Never mind! The train slowed, slewed in a loop and pulled into Chiplun, almost on time. Along with us, a large number of people ended their journey here. Even with the passengers dissipated, the 0111 did not start, patiently waiting for headlamps on the horizon to pull in â€" this was a northbound Ro-Ro.

The Ro-Ro arrived and stopped, the 0111 crawled out of the platform. We toasted the completion of our first journey over numerous cups of commendably good machine made coffee. In the background, the Ro-Ro made a rather violent departure towards Kolad. With the dormant and fettered trucks gone, the station fell silent, enveloped by the gentle backdrop of chirping night inspects and croaking frogs. We had to time to bide until the arrival of the pre-arranged taxi at 0600 hrs.

Horizon lightened to the accompaniment of random sheets of rain, we were on the NH17 in a sometimes misfiring, often stumbling, gas powered Maruti van that would be our steed for the day’s travels.

Lalam and his serious fetish with the satellite maps determined the itinerary. The first stop was Asurde viaduct, with its impressive shadow- Aerial View

This trip, we got familiar with the ‘Kakan Raliway Big Pull.’ In the future, we will surely visit the ‘Hanuman Caloth Stoar’ at Nirmal Wadi on the NH 17 â€" study the map!

The light condition were poor and it was drizzling when we arrived â€" the viaduct was grand but was nowhere the size of the others we had seen during earlier trips. Not many places in India could boast of such a grand structure, but with our hindsight we could say, that we had seen better and that too only a few kilometers away.

As with several KR locations, the railway line is at a high point of the coastal topography and reaching a vantage point higher than the track is not easily possible. We had to be satisfied in most cases by shooting from the ground, looking up to the viaduct â€" not the best of the camera positioning.

At the dripping end of the latest downpour, we took position below the Asurde viaduct for a photoshoot. Lalam, draped in a waterproof poncho, sat on the luggage carrier of the Maruti van while we floated around waiting for some action. The first train at the location was the Dadar bound KR 4 passenger from Ratnagiri. Next was the southbound RoRo rake, headed with a Kalyan WDM2. After a long, fallow wait, we decided to move further south and hope for more success. We were soon on the NH 17 towards our next stop, the Gad River viaduct.

Gad River viaduct

Rather go through the rough Khershet village road we knew from our last trip, we approached the viaduct from Aravali Road station platform. While we ambled on the long, single platform, a southbound train rolled in with Kalyan’s WDG3A # 14812, stopped and departed towards Sangameshwar Road. This was probably the 0965 Bandra â€" Madgaon Ganpati special. Such trains glaringly highlight the need for an effective triangle at Vasai Road for the tracks towards Kopar. Aerial View â€" spot the Aravali Road station at the bottom of the map and the Gad River bridge on the top.

As we left the platform, we were treated to a Konkan special show of their exuberant monsoon. Count it, 1- 2- 3 â€" while you go from no rain to a raging torrent without any time to react. First, do you put on the raincoat or do you cover the camera? Even with the best speed and protection, a substantial drenching is inevitable â€" one only hopes that the God of Railfanning is also watching over our extensive and expensive electronics …

At the Gad river viaduct, we split into two teams. Younger lot of Sachin and ‘old man’ Vivek decided to position into the high ground on the west of the bridge on the south bank, while the real old men of the group, Lalam and I decided to go on the north bank of the river and descend amongst the paddy fields on the east. Aerial View â€" locate the grassland with Sachin and Vivek SW of the bridge while Lalam and I were at the NE end, following the bend in the river.

To reach our destination, we had to slither down slippery mud laced paths and ford shallow but fast running streams whose water was surprisingly warm to our feet. Below the viaduct, Lalam and I headed for different parts of the area to get the best of coverage for the photographs. The overcast and the cyclic drizzle made this a difficult day for taking clear pictures.

Not knowing where Lalam was, I waded through chest deep grass, stomping the soggy, hidden grounds deliberately to warn the native creepy-crawlies of my imminent heavy arrival. I soon reached the upper reaches of the slope and located a cove of mossy stones that presented good views of the viaduct and more importantly, where I can see my feet to be clear of anything venomous. In reality, nothing bit me, not even a mosquito, while I chose to ignore the havoc caused by the shoes that did not cooperate.

The monsoon had swelled the river’s flow into muddy turbulence, spoiling the mirror grade sheen that we had seen during our earlier visit in May 2009.

However, we got shots of the viaduct in the midst of the greenest paddy fields, speckled with yellow and red flowers and fringed by the frothy water of a swiftly flowing river, rushing to meet the sea. Heaven, if you are not in a hurry.

Over the next 2 hours we watched the passage of southbound 2450 Goa Sampark Kranti Express with Ratlam WDM2 # 16790, northbound BCN with dual Erode WDG3As # 13273 and 13296, ending the session with the southbound 2051 Jan Shatabdi with Erode WDM3D # 11101. In each case, we were warned with the dull, urgent rumbling, only seconds before the train shot past the grand bridge â€" most of the dozy passengers would not even realizing the beauty of the structure that takes them to the other side.

We knew from the timetable that a traffic lull was looming ahead. Here we ended this episode at Gad River bridge and decided to moved further south. The area offered a frugal touch and go mobile signal that served as the vital link for the two teams on either side of the viaduct. Soon, all of us got together and walked back to Aravali Road station.

Just as we arrived back on the platform, the 0921 Ahmedabad â€" Madgaon Ganpati special hauled by Lucknow’s WDM3D # 11129! The rake had several coaches with six digit numbers like 892380. WR has some an odd numbering policy, though none of us knew the exact explanation.

We sought a moment’s well-earned rest on the benches under the covered shelter on the platform. As is the rule of weather here, in the next few seconds, we waited out the latest edition of a heavy downpour, to the accompaniment of our regular end of the session banter.

Shastri River Bridge

Back on the NH17 and we moved to the next destination â€" but only after a good lunch break â€" at a glorified dhabha by the side of the highway before Sangameshwar. We had soft and succulent Konkani chicken curry in coconut gravy, hot, oiled and folded chapatti, boiled large grained rice, soothing solkadi and ice cream â€" great food. The dilemma at these stops is how to charge up our devices from the limited plug points â€" fear not, IRFCA is well prepared. Our bag always contains a roll-up extension cord with multiple sockets â€" the multiplication effect of two of these devices (from two railfan’s bags…) and everyone’s camera cells and mobiles get a refreshing drink simultaneously.

Post lunch, we moved to the Shastri River bridge using the road that followed the deep and meandering water until the sharp corner at Khadewadi bus stop â€" find the bus stop in the NE corner of the bridge in the following URL. Aerial View

We met local people minding cattle. Once the conversation got going, we were swayed with their easy, honest demeanor and an outstanding sense of hospitality. Simple village folks, we thought, but no, they were from Mumbai, where they lived and worked for the three decades in an engineering industry. It was great to see them switch off the bad city garb and revert to their original uncomplicated veneer in these pristine environments.

As you know, the Shastri river site is a tall bridge set between two serious tunnels â€" the 1.29 km long Bhirkond on the north and 2.63 km long Parchuri on the south. The area traverses a river valley type landscape â€" some of the track from Sangameshwar Road station at north is propped up on numerous leggy one-coach sized ‘viaducts’ (for the want of a better word) that tower next to the twisty road.

This is how KR has created a railway line where it was difficult to lay even an all weather road. This is an amazing section to spend some time in, a result of spirited determination and indomitable human will â€" and an element of concentrating on only meeting the immediate task without looking at the larger picture. That is how Konkan Railways was built.

At the location, we again split up into teams to get different views of the same action. Lalam with Sachin headed for the hills to get panorama of the skinny bridge, the flooded Shastri River, the deep and foreboding Parchuri tunnel, all tied together with the vista of a rolling train. Vivek and I crossed the bridge reaching the southern bank of the river to document action from that end. As we arrived past the bridge, the Mumbai bound 0104 Mandovi Express shot out of the Parchuri tunnel with WDP4 # 20046 in charge.

The atmosphere was serene â€" saturated green cover, heavy grass loaded with the dew of the earlier rain, patchwork of sunbeams and light shows, interplay of clouds and mist, aimless wind coaxing the leaves in random direction, distant mosques (there are several) with continuous recitals, put-putting outrigger boats transporting passengers, goats and cycles between hamlets of Kurdundha and Phungus, hovering fishing birds over islets… As if to complement our relaxed mental state, a couple of local pie dogs lay down next to us in the slushy mud, after barking their head off first.

While we waited, a southbound BCN hauled by a pair of Kalyan WDM2s # 17590 and 17517 arrived from the Bhirkond tunnel end and thundered into the gaping Parchuri tunnel. This was followed by the Ernakulam bound 2616 Mangala Express, hauled by ERS’ WDM3A # 18532. Next train was the northbound 6312 Kouchuveli â€" Bikaner express with ERS’ WDM3A # 16295. Somewhere in the middle of this session, Sachin exchanged places Vivek to be on this end.

Next movement was the Madgaon bound 0103 Mandovi hauled by WDP4 # 20054. Last train for this sitting was the Mumbai bound 2052 Jan Shatabdi hauled by the Erode WDM3D # 11240 â€" this was the monsoon timing operated by two JS rakes and two different locomotives, during normally timings, the same rake and power works the journeys from Mumbai to Madgaon and back.

A bus journey

At the end of the session at Shastri, the taxi driver dropped us off at Sangameshwar ST stand for our onward bus journey to Ratnagiri, where had planned to stay for the night for local area railfanning, the next day. Though buses between Sangameshwar and Ratnagiri are frequent, our red box arrived after a long delay and was consequently packed â€" standing room only. Tired as we were, there was little choice but to hang on the straps of the bus for the next hour or so, getting thrown about in the curvy roads, getting seats only as we neared the Hatkhamba phata.

As we exited the Ratnagiri bus stand, we were greeted by one of the Konkan downpours. And no, the only rick in sight would not take 4 passengers. We had no choice but to wait for the next rick to arrive and cart us to the hotel nearby. The last 100 meters to the hotel was blocked by a slow Ganpati procession. Our rickshaw wallah abruptly terminated the journey and asked us to walk the rest â€" in the middle of another model downpour! I have been ejected out a rickshaw, short of destination, more times in Ratnagiri than at any other place in my entire life â€" and I have visited this city only thrice!

An evening in Ratnagiri

The tone of the people at Hotel Prabha got me back to the Pune of my very early life. The nasal, slightly sarcastic and demanding tone, the unrelenting, debasing stance that was fairly common during those days before the ‘outsiders’ diluted the classic demeanor of Pune. This was not a coincidence, as some people in Pune originated from these very areas of Konkan.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, soaking wet from the walk around the packed procession, the manager was chiding Lalam. Having arrived in the earlier rickshaw, Lalam was being dressed down off for not confirming our arrival at Ratnagiri earlier in the day. The manager went to say that as of now, he could not give assurance that the two rooms we needed would be available for us.

At this point, he turned around and found the perfect scapegoat to emphasize his point â€" me. Pointing at me, he questioned Lalam of how he could turn away ‘this’ wet guest, while irresponsible people like himself do not care to confirm their hotel bookings? Lalam clinched the needless argument by stating that the second booking was for me - we got both the rooms!

I wanted to remind the hotel manager that while, as an original from Konkan, could put on his airs, he was dealing with hardened specimens from Pune. The whole sequence of interaction was oddly heartwarming and did lots to link with the memories of the lovely Pune of my childhood. Mental connections take the most unpredictable paths! The younger team members, Sachin and Vivek got the room overlooking the street and the noisy procession…

A cleansing bath and a change later, it was dinnertime. We had been dipping through several streams through the day, our shoes had turned sodden and shapeless. It was revolting to use the same wet footwear, not forgetting the king sized shoe bite on my ankles. Lalam and I decided to visit the dining area (ground floor) in sleeping gear and with bare feet, drawing a few amused, corner of the eye stares â€" nobody knew us, and we couldn’t be bothered.

This restaurant had a remarkable, large sized model of fishing vessel adorning their walls; we had seen such impressive models before, somewhere… After a staple meal of prawn masala, Surmai fry with roti, we approached to the basin for a wash. The tap wouldn’t open! This was getting to be too much of a coincidence â€" the spout had left-hand threads, a few twists in the wrong directions and the water was flowing.

It dawned on us that this was the very same restaurant in which we had a memorable meal during our earlier trip to Panval viaduct. That evening, we arrived late into Ratnagiri from Panvel by the 2619 Matsyagandha Express. After checking into a nearby hotel, the only place open at this late hour, 2230 I think, for a good meal was this.

Back then, we had a great time with the fried fish and prawn malai curry. After dinner, we were confounded with the same questions â€" where does one get such a lovely model of a trawler and how does one wash one’s hands! You know where to go â€" Hotel Prabha.

Finding Ranpat

Next morning, we started early and were barreling down the highway in a hired Sumo, even before the sun was up. Our destination was the spectacular Ranpat waterfall that lies between Ukshi and Bhoke stations on right side, when traveling towards south.

Many of us have seen this waterfall for all too brief moment when door plating in anticipation of experiencing the longest tunnel, the 6.6 km Karbude. Usually the overpowering hiss of the water is what you hear from the train before spotting the cascade. By the time you assimilate the grandeur, the sight is gone.

We had only vague landmarks to guide us â€" the wikimapia.com threw up a few names that we should aim for. As expected, our destinations are not the sort of places that tourists, pilgrims or the ‘normal’ people visit, hence are more difficult to find.

We turned off the NH17 at Nivli phata towards Ganapatipule, next we tried to find a north facing turn that would lead us to Ranpat. The only people on the road at this time were the migrant labour on their way to construction sites â€" some of them were completely unfamiliar to the area, some of them did not speak a language common with us!

Even the local residents, who spoke Marathi, did not know where the waterfall was. It is believed that a significant population of Paris has never visited the Eifel Tower…

By a scientifically established hit and miss process, we eventually arrived at the Ranpat village. The satellite map shows this to be close to the falls, the plan view does not show the differences in the altitude! We left the vehicle at the last possible spot where four wheels could reach and then walked the last half kilometer down the steep side of the mountain. There was no need to seek guidance â€" the giant roar from the majestic waterfall told us where to go. Aerial View

The path hugs the mountain’s tall sides and crosses the railway line at the mouth of the Lajul tunnel. At one time, the path, laid to ease the railway construction, could take motor vehicles all the way to the lowest point in the landscape. Today, the course has degenerated only for pedestrians â€" the other big user of this is the stream of cattle that feed in the rich flora of the area.

At the cascade

A spectacular sight of eye-popping variety awaited us at the bottom of the valley. Anyone facing Ranpat waterfall for the first time, may forget to speak for few seconds â€" sometimes even more. While not the size of Dudhsagar, Ranpat was larger than we had imagined it to be. Unlike Dudhsagar, which is a standard reference of waterfall next a railway line, where the track crosses at about 50 % of the falls height, the track at Ranpat runs at the bottom of the falls.

Recent rain had added an extra frothy bonus to the flow. The fronds of mesmerizing water ropes cascaded over the high lip of the cataract. The freefall liquid churned and disappeared in a flurry of violent torrent â€" some of the flow did not reach the earth, dissipating instead into the atmosphere as dense but barely contained mist. Against this backdrop is the railway line â€" facing the falls, immediately of the left is the northern portal of the 943 meter long Lajul tunnel, some distance away is the other tunnel, the south end of the 866 meter long Ranpat tunnel.

The water from Ranpat falls goes under a viaduct of 55 meters length. The flow runs further downhill in a rocky stream â€" only cattle have the guts to cross the fast moving water, ordinary mortals use the railway track. In the water were remains of a bridge, a temporary structure that allowed the two banks to meet for vehicular use, during the construction phase of KR. Today, it is gone, washed out by the sheer force of water gushing down this small but ferociously fast river.

And the trains

While approaching the falls, an unknown passenger train with CR liveried day coaches and a WDG3A at head went by towards Ratnagiri. This may be some of specials run to clear the rush during the ‘season’ â€" although we could not see much crowd in most of the specials. As mentioned, during such times, several overnight trains run with day coaches.

Diligent guards man every critical location on the KR and this was no exception. Our guard had done duty through the night and was waiting for his reliever. He had to stand alert when a train goes by and report the safe passage to Bhoke control via a control phone. To see dedication in action, the KR is your destination.

Next southbound train was the late running 0111 Konkan Kanya with its customary WDP4. I was some distance away but have the locomotive in clear focus in a pic but the serial number is obscured in the fading paint!

We split up and rooted at different destinations. My elective was at the south bank of the gorge, next to the rapid waters â€" looking up to the viaduct and the falls beyond. There I stood, sat and lolled for several hours â€" in rain and in patches of rare sunshine with only transient grazing cattle with their friendly herders as company. I could see my buddies scurrying about on the viaduct â€" setting up for the next shoot.

Next was a northbound train with Ernakulam’s WDM3A #14075, probably the 2615 Mangala Express. Soon a southbound train with sleeper coaches arrived with Kalyan’s WDMx #18560 â€" we were clueless to its identity. After a really long wait and in the midst of a sky darkening overcast, the Mumbai bound 2202 Garib Rath arrived with Ernakulam’s WDMx #16293.

Next was the time for the king WDP3A # 15503 hauling the Trivandrum bound 2432 Rajdhani. Half an hour later, this was followed by a southbound BCN hauled by two turquoise WDG3As from Pune â€" #13052 and #13149. The last planned sighting of the session was the 2051 Jan Shatabdi with Erode’s WDM3D #11171.

This is one place where I missed the mobile coverage. I am still not sure if Sachin understood my vigorous pantomimed message from hundreds of meters - that to reach my location, he has to take the not the first but the second, obscured left turn on the jungle path. Indian railfans need to seriously think of investment in several walkie talkies in partnership, such that each of us have to buy only one from a pair. Of course, it would increasing focus on our visibility even more â€" not necessarily a good thing in the today’s tense environs.

Until now, I had not seen the fall from up close and decided to climb from the riverbed and spend some time at the railways line. We all spent some time on the small flat area between the falls and the railway line. It was getting past 1300 hrs and we were ravenously hungry. The packs of chikki and dates worked wonders â€" this should be in your sack whenever on a railfanning session. This brought up the last sighting of the day at this location â€" a northbound BCN hauled by Kalyan’s WDG3A# 13561. We wound up the session, bid goodbye to this lovely location and started the hard climbd up the side of the mountain to reach the parked Sumo.

To Ratnagiri and lunch

Past the waterfall we were on the road again to Ratnagiri. Instead of going all the way back to NH17, we took the much shorter route on a new link road that skirted the edge of low hills around the city. This was so beautiful - gentle slopes, golden grasslands, twists and turns, mysterious climbs followed by revealing descents, heartbreakingly lovely homes â€" low profiled, often made of blocks of coarsely hewed red laterite.

From one spot in the valley, we saw stabled passenger rakes at the Ratnagiri station - seeing a train so unexpectedly enthralled us to no end and filled us with a familiar joy. Ratnagiri is an extraordinarily beautiful place with plenty of hidden surprises very close to the city.

At the end of this road, a very steep and curvy descent later, we arrived suddenly in the populated part of Ratnagiri. We here hot and we were hungry and Sachin had a little note with the address of the place that were heading to. This was one the best meals I have ever had anywhere.

Go to Hotel Amantran, near Mal Naka in Ratnagiri. The lunch consisted of crispy fish fry, curried fish, chapatti, rice and tangy solkadi of course â€" nothing exotic, just the exquisite way that it was made and the incredible freshness of the ingredients… Visitors to Ratnagiri â€" do not miss the unbelievably good food at this place.

South of Ratnagiri

Post lunch, our following agenda was to do the Panval viaduct â€" as expected, most of the locals had only a vague idea about the precise location, the correct road to take, or whether such a viaduct even exists. One of the surprises of Ratnagiri city is the way it ends very suddenly. One moment you drive through a government housing colony and a dull but functional industrial estate. Without a graduated transition of landscape, the very next step is to rapidly descend a serious ghat overlooking a scenic, wide river.

At the bottom of the incline are two rough roads diverting into the hills. The last time we used one of these roads, in pre-dawn darkness, we ended up at the smaller but still very impressive Pomendi viaduct. This time too, we made a similar error of judgment and ended up at the same place â€" the Pomendi viaduct â€" not perfectly but nearly so - read on.

As we climbed the rough road, the Sumo driver declared at one point that the surface was too coarse even for a tough vehicle like this. Sachin then went ahead on foot for the remainder of the slope and returned with the news that we were on the wrong road and were heading for Pomendi. We asked the Sumo guy to go back to the base and take the other fork in the road.

We faced a combination of narrow road, uneven cobbled surface and the need to reverse to a substantially wider point of surface where the vehicle could turn around. Even at a slow, measured speed but in the reverse direction, a chain of unfortunate events occurred and the left wheels of the Sumo went into the gutter. Miraculously, the tilted body cleared a strong stone vertical on the side by scant millimeters. In a few slow rolling seconds of shifting frame, we were reduced from fully wheeled mobile warriors to weak bipeds.

Life goes on

We had a train to catch! Better Pomendi than staring in static frustration at the snagged Sumo. We walked - ran up the slope in debilitating humidity and soon stood under the spindly legs of the Pomendi viaduct, waiting for the 2977 Ernakulam â€" Ajmer Maru Sagar Express to arrive from the south(ern) end. The ambiguity and apparent confusion in the last sentence is a result of west â€" east orientation of the southbound tracks at this point. Aerial View

Almost by the time we caught our breaths, the 2977 arrived slowly over the viaduct, hauled by the BGKT WDM3A # 17918. Many thanks to the friendly loco pilot who made our day by vigorously waving back at us. The mood after the passage of the train over was one of unease of not reaching the Panval viaduct, despite being so close. Yet, we were composed with a sense of resigned tranquility.

Saturated with sweat, we walked back to our snared steed, forced the doors open against the gravity to retrieve our belongings. The driver was long gone in search of better mobile coverage to call for help. We had no way to tell him of our plans as we left for the road in hope of finding an alternative motor back to Ratnagiri.

The walk amongst petite village houses and luxuriant paddy fields was necessary, a remedy to cap the anticlimax. This was a closure â€" an endgame to our current adventure. This was the time to squint at the waning sun, to imbibe the slant light beams, to feel the difference of stark direct heat and patches cooled by shade and moisture. This was the venue for the last pics of the day â€" of furry caterpillars walking up the grass stalks.

Outside on the highway, we practiced our expert skills in rude ribaldry â€" not alone but amongst the appreciative audience of locals, some of whom were waiting for the bus, while the others were biding time with no particular intentions or aims. A final bus ride deposited us back to Ratnagiri. A snack, a bath and then checkout, we were out of Hotel Prabha.

Evening to kill

As we were leaving, the Sumo driver arrived â€" we were still to pay him his dues. The recovered vehicle did not have any evidence of the trauma of the afternoon â€" not even a scratch. As favour, he dropped us at the Hotel Forgot near the bus stand for the final meal of the day. Obviously that is not the name of the place, but that is the best that my middle age memory could come up with.

Actually I remember nothing about the food in this otherwise classy hotel, except for the rather large bill. Still, it was excellent food by Pune standards â€" a relaxed, ambling meal. This was a perfect way to kill time before meeting our train home - the 0106 Madgaonâ€" Dadar Holiday Special due 2100 hrs at Ratnagiri.

Even after the stretched meal, we had time on our side and a desire to avoid the extravagant rickshaw tariff of Rs. 80 for the 12 kilometers from Ratnagiri city to the railway station â€" we opted for a city bus instead. After a long wait by the side of the road, the bus finally arrived â€" not much of an agony as the railfans are used to waiting.

The bus took a long, circuitous route through distant housing colonies that dot the gentle slopes on the outskirts of Ratnagiri â€" a lovely ride. We soon stood under the neon station sign, screaming its name (in two languages!) to the blurred distances in the damp, humid night.

The return journey

Our train arrived, an hour from its schedule, to meet a crowd of passengers waiting for the overnight journey to Mumbai. We settled into our middle, top, side lower and side upper berths to end the day. The train plodded through the darkness, restricted by the 75 kmph speed restriction of the monsoon season.

By the time light broke, we were still at Roha. Clearly, no act of god would put Lalam and me into our reserved seats of the 1021 Indrayani Express due from CSTM at 0540 hrs. We took the logical option of quitting early at Panvel and traveling to Pune by bus, while Sachin and Vivek continued on the 0106 to Dadar.

A brisk walk out of Panvel station and we were at the bus stand we know so well. Almost within minutes, a Pune bound bus arrived, the only hitch was that this was bound for Shivajinagar via Chichwad, while we would have preferred one that reached Swargate via Chandani Chowk which was ‘our’ part of town. By the latter route, Lalam would have walked home and I would touch base after a short rickshaw ride. Still any move out of Panvel is a better option than waiting, so we boarded this bus and sat to doze off on the rear most seats â€" one behind another.

We woke up with a lurch at the Urse food mall â€" just 30 kilometers from Pune. As we drank coffee, a Swargate bound bus was getting ready to leave with aggressive honking and small, measured movements to goad recalcitrant passengers into its interiors. We did some fast, imperfect thinking â€" could we jump ships and arrive where we wanted to go? Yes, the conductor was willing to take us, although this was not a legitimate boarding point, provided we would pay fare from the previous stop. We ran into our earlier bus, collected our luggage and boarded this new bus, fawning at our achievement of getting home faster.

Nearing home, we mentally gathered ourselves. Did I say ‘mentally’? The equation slowly swam into focus â€" I had forgotten a bag on the previous bus! I had an instinctive body count of 3 bags â€" during the bus journey, I had the camera bag on my shoulders, so the dopy mind counted a tally of three, totally forgetting the one on the luggage rack. Such things happen to the best, and I am not even in the fray!

Age has its advantages - no panic, just lots of irritation. Soon the stop arrived, Lalam got off while I reached home after 20 minutes. Would the earlier bus have reached Shivajinagar via Chinchwad? A fast scooter ride later, I was at the bus stand waiting for a Kurla â€" Chichwad â€" Shivajinagar bus. Will I recognize the bus? I had only scant memories â€" a rushed arousal from deep sleep and an equally rushed dash to the men’s conveniences are not exactly the most conducive environment a good learning experience of remembering public transport numbers.

As the green and white bus turned into the stand, the conductor and I locked eyes for an instant recognition â€" and I got my bag back! He did not realize the forgotten bag, only the pair of missing passengers. Bollywood has irrevocably corrupted an apt idiom about events ending well. Never again can I use the words without sounding like an alleged fan of a half-wit with wide-open eyes. I have better things to be a fan of â€" like the great Indian Railways.


Over the several outings, we have come to trust the warm amity, the instinctive bonding and the weathered camaraderie spawned by sharing such beautiful events together. We are a different breed of enthusiasts - we are the lowest rung that can be â€" we are people who walk the tracks for pleasure â€" we are an ever-evolving blob in the ocean where tens of thousands of trains and the people who run them welcome us. We are open, more open than we ever were, to the new experience on rails and to explore the frontier that our great country offers.

At this moment, there is no other thing I want to do than to go back to Konkan!

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