I was awake even before the alarm could go off at 3 AM. I almost jumped out of bed before I remembered the time and decided to take it slowly, least I make any noise.
I had already laid out my things the previous night. All that remained for me to do was fill up my hydration pack, arrange things in my backpack and get my trekking gear on. All this, right after a steaming cup of coffee, a little something to satiate my stomach and a brief reading of anything handy. This is the routine three things that I simply cannot start my day without, no matter what the time of day I get up. Even a torn sheet salvaged from a laundered shirt will also do, I simply have to read.
My friends indicated they were on their way to the meeting point via my home. I was just wearing my shoes and then at the last minute decided to switch to sandals instead. Gear on, food in place, backpack on my back and my heart was singing already. I wish I could go on adventures every single day.
4 AM: I hear a car outside and guess it must be my friends. I managed the whole putting-locks-in-place process at record speed and knowing my home to be secure, I met them on the road. By 4:05 AM we were at the meeting spot on Sihagad road. The bus would be there soon and the other participants started trickling in. I helped identify some so that we knew who was already there. By 4:45 AM the last of the late latifs had arrived and we were on our way.
I might have done over 40 treks by now, yet the thrill of embarking on a new one never escapes me. As the bus made its way to Satara, my anticipation increased. This is also the time when I think of and curse myself about things I had forgotten to take. This time it was the hand sanitizer that I had left behind. Shoot! There is eternal consolation in the fact that other participants may have some to share. Food, good shoes and water are some things that I never leave home without though. So I would have had something to bargain with, if it came to that.
A quick 20 min halt at the Satara ST stand was arranged so that we could have breakfast. This was a well thought move to save us time. Nothing can be lovelier on a trek morning than a bowl full of kande pohe and chai followed by satyanarayan style ravyacha sheera. I stuffed myself well and still had my eye on the remaining bowls. A good rule while trekking is to eat when you can, you never know when you will eat next. And I may not follow any other rules, but this is sacrosanct.
By 7:30 AM were doing good time on the Bamnoli route. At one point, the road forks. The road on the right leads you to the Kaas Plateau. It is easily identified by the beginnings of a barbed fencing and a small office issuing permissions. The fencing extends quite some distance inside the plateau, and is in place to prevent damage to the surrounding meadows.
It was almost 8:30 AM, all participants from both buses were ready to set off, and we started down the fenced path. It is about 20 feet wide and was comfortable for us to walk side by side, chatting all the time. The rain was upon us almost at once. This initial patch is where all the famed flowers of the plateau are to be found. As you go deeper into the region, grassland and shrubs takeover.
If there was one highlight of this trek, I’d say it was the fog. Dense, constant, it was with us almost till the time we reached the end point. The fog made it difficult for us to get any views of the valley or the flowers or of each other. Visibility was reduced to 15 feet. Another reason we did not see the flowers was too much rain—that had caused them to wilt. Too much precipitation does that to flowers as fragile as those that grow in Kaas.
The weather, though, was delightful to begin with. Mild rain, no sun, great cloud cover, our feet carried us swiftly over the rolling hillocks. The path alternated between rising gently and dropping down slightly. Enough to keep us interested in what we were putting our feet on. We did not encounter much wild life save a few lizards. I was surprised by the absence of crabs altogether. For the wet place that it is, I was sure Kaas would have some. Maybe they all went away in search of flowers. The other big absence was that of birds and their calls. I think the dense fog was the culprit. Some excitement was provided by a small worm who took a fancy to Pooja and tried to stick to her ankle. When flicked, it landed on her sock and quickly tried to make itself at home. A surer flick with a knife point sent it to its doom in a water puddle. It was good that Pooja remained calm through the entire drama.
The rain was heavy and relentless now. Whup Whup!! A sudden noise startled us in the gloom. A high tower loomed above us to our right and huge arms rotated in pace with the wind. Windmills!! I never expected to see any there. It was eerie, we could not see them due to the fog and all of a sudden we were besides them. They really are huge monsters, these windmills. The last time I saw one was in Scandinavia, a traditional windmill house. These windmills at Kaas are spread almost over the entire area and I could hear about 10 of them. On a clear day we could see more perhaps.
It was now almost noon and we had been walking continuously except for a break to regroup. Vikas had been claiming that there is a chai point up ahead and in all that desolation indeed there it was. He was most relieved to see it than any of us since he was under threat that he would have to make tea for us all if the hut turned out to be imaginary. This was going to be our longest break before lunch. The tea point guy was clearly overwhelmed with all of us descending on his little hut for Chai. It was both an aural and a tasty experience. The steel glasses we were served tea in held a secret. A ghungroo, (one of many small metallic bells) hidden away in the false bottom of that glass, rolled around as we tilted the cup to drink in! What an enterprising idea. I am sure to remember this particular tea break all my life.
The monotony began to settle in an hour past our break. No valley views, no flowers, no change in terrain. Just an occasional jeep passing us by, not even a village to take in. Even the worms or ticks seemed to have forgotten to stick fast to any of us. Occasionally we saw shrouded figures of the cowherds up the hills or down on the slopes with their charges. The boredom made us take a wrong fork at one turn and we walked almost a KM into the Kaldeo (I hope I got that right) village. It was there that we had our first glimpses of the huge Koyna valley. Before we could venture any further on the wrong track, we had someone call us back to set us on the right one.
Towards the last 5 KM, there was a slight ascent. It did our feet a world of good to have another set of muscles working. Many in the group were by now affected by foot soreness, blisters, wet cloths rubbing against skin and general lack of motivation. But nonetheless, we trudged on in anticipation of a much deserved meal. And at long last we were rewarded by the sight of the whitewashed temple which would be our end point. It was some distance away yet, but the sight itself did wonders for everyone’s morale. We picked up our feet and therefore our pace.
A big group of us has made it ahead and the more experienced members we leading the rear with some others who were tired. The gym group reached the temple and we decided to have our lunch as we waited for the rest. The grand finale was the come just yet. Finally within an hour everyone was at the temple and yummy food was passed around. I counted at least 15 different types of snacks that I sampled that day. One big advantage of treks – being treated to homemade delights from others and at village homes. Lunch done, we decided to head up to the point where the buses would pick us up. Our gym group, enthusiastic as ever, started ahead and bang bum bump- some nicely laid out stone steps became my downfall. I slipped and bumped my way to the bottom. A sore bum is a big damage to ones pride, I think and I had to hitch a ride in a rickety old van.
The van itself was another story. It had landed there right from the times of the great Shivaji Maharaj. It moved neither forward not backward, only made strange choking noises that clearly told us that it was counting its last breaths. The owner who-was-clearly-not-the-driver, offered it for our service. So it fell upon poor Abhijeet to navigate the unwilling beast up to the bus and he was very gallant about it. The van owner, all this while sat in the back giving much unnecessary advice. The only one thing we listened to was to keep the van in the first gear all through the ride. Else it just refused to move.
40 min after reaching the bus, we had changed and felt refreshed. My bum was now less of a pain. We anticipated the journey back to Pune would take us about 3 hours. We halted for tea and vada pav at the Mahabaleshwar turn, and then took a long time to navigate the toll booths on the expressway.
And when we entered Pune finally, everyone was ready to hit the sack.