Realising from trekkers’ blogs that interest in Prabalgad Fort was building online, he created a little website to publicise the bunkhouse his family have set up to earn a few extra rupees -a great example of a low-impact, grass-roots tourism initiative. With Nilesh acting as a translator on the mobile from the other side of the country, his brother-in-law, Kisan, showed us to a neatly painted little room decorated with pictures of Hindu gods and Bollywood stars. After a cooling bucket bath (the village lacks running water and only has an intermittent electricity supply), we settled down to a thali of wonderfully fragrant, spicy aubergines and rice infused with aromas of fresh curry leaves and wood smoke.
Pilot bagged the room. I bedded down on my camping mat in the yard outside, under the starriest of skies, and fell asleep listening to a cacophony of frogs and cicadas. They were still chirruping madly at 5am the following morning when I was awoken by Kisan carrying a tray of tea and kande pohe -a traditional Maharashtran breakfast made of beaten rice, freshly grated coconut, lime juice, green chillies and coriander leaf. Thus fortified, we stumbled through the inky darkness with Kisan leading the way, headtorch beams periodically illuminating the eyes of sleepy water buffalo as the path cut uphill through the forest.
By the time we’d climbed clear of the trees and reached the summit ridge of the mountain, the first rays of daylight were illuminating the plains below, shrouded in river mist and smoke. A trio of red-headed merlins soared from the crags below us, where the tip of the Kalavantin Pinnacle glowed orange in the foreground, framed by a backdrop of table-topped peaks. It took another hour of scrambling through boulders and undergrowth to reach the foot of the steps scraped from the sides of the pillar in medieval times. A troupe of black-faced langur monkeys eyed our progress suspiciously from the cliff above, sending up occasional whoops of alarm that echoed through the surrounding rocks. The climb turned out to be every bit as vertigo-inducing as it looked, but was rewarded with another stupendous view.
Gazing at the hulks of newly built tower blocks looming out of the smog on the horizon, I was struck by what a different kind of India we’d spent the past 12 hours in – a far cry from the fumes, dust and clamour most other travellers were waking up to. There wasn’t a speck of litter anywhere to be seen and the fresh morning air was filled with birdsong and the scent of forest herbs. The next mountain on our itinerary was more remote still. Like Prabalgad, Bhimashankar doesn’t feature in any guidebooks, despite being the site of one of the country’s holiest Shiva shrines. A tarred road winds to it from the east. But the traditional approach is on foot, via a trail that twists through magnificent jungle and cliffs.
The huge escarpments buttressing Bhimashankar looked all the more intimidating in the gathering dusk. We’d been late setting off, and by the time we reached the machi halfway up we were walking in total darkness. Hundreds of tiny flecks of light sparkled on the forest floor. I thought they were fragments of mica, but they turned out to be spiders’ eyes reflecting the light of our torch beams. Fat rain drops were falling when we finally arrived at the machi village – harbingers of one of the most violent, ear-splitting electrical storms I’ve ever witnessed. Spectacular flashes of fork lightning soon lit up the cliff. Then the rain started in earnest, cascading in torrents off the terracotta roof tiles. We certainly would not be making it to the hotel that we’d booked for the night outside Bhimashankar.
Luckily, the local lad we’d employed to guide us, Ganesh, had family in the village. Unfazed by the sudden appearance of two foreigners in the middle of a raging tempest, our hosts rustled up a fabulous meal made entirely from produce grown in their own plot. Afterwards, the grandfather proudly showed us the rice mill recently donated to the village by the government. How on earth did they get that heavy kit up here?” wondered Pilot. “It must weigh a few tonnes.” The question was answered the following morning after we’d thanked our hosts and followed Ganesh up the old pilgrims’ trail. Travelling downhill in the opposite direction were two young men carrying a spare part for the mill on a long bamboo pole. It had been driven to the top of the mountain on the road, like everything else the machi villagers needed that they couldn’t make themselves, and was now being carried down to the village.